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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Writer's Life and Loves, 21 April 2005
This review is from: Life is a Four Letter Word: Breaking Out v. 2 (Paperback)
This, the second volume of the autobiography of the famous writer Monsarrat, starts in 1939 when he would have been about twenty. The book is gripping in what can be taken to be its first part, dealing with his Atlantic sea-duty as a naive sub-lieutenant (later, a less naive lieutenant and finally a rather jaded lieutenant-commander). The second part of the book features his life as British Government (Dominions Office) information officer in South Africa and is less riveting. The third part chronicles the author's life as famous novelist largely based in Canada and is (appropriately?) frankly boring. By 1970, though, Monsarrat was living in what is now North Cyprus. The 3-star vote is a composite: the first part is a 5-star effort. This split parallels his fiction, always best when at sea: The Cruel Sea; The Ship that Died of Shame.

Although at first a pacifist and in (later in charge of) a Central London paramedic centre, Monsarrat joins the R.N.V.R. and serves mainly on corvettes, little anti-submarine warships. This experience of course later came out in fiction as The Cruel Sea. The squalor and horror of it all is well drawn, as is the contrast with the boring squalor of WW2 Britain, not only short of almost everything which makes life worth living but also having to put up with "spivs" (Jewish black market traders) as well as people who set themselves up with or without official sanction as prim guardians of everyone else's adherence to the mass of imposed and incredibly complicated regulations. Monsarrat also notes the idle, unionized labour in the repair docks, getting ten times the pay of a naval rating. He marries, making him more aware of food rationing etc. He (naive again) idolizes Churchill and by 1941 supports the war. In this the author was one of the conditioned masses of the period. He rarely thinks "outside the box".

By war's end, Monsarrat has had brief command of a small frigate but is stuck in a desk job at the Admiralty. In 1947, he is offered a job at twice his naval pay in South Africa. In Britain, fuel for heating and cooking has run out and the Ministry of Food is promoting a recipe for squirrel pie. That decides the matter! Yet, despite his years of hazardous duty, he and his wife feel guilty for leaving.

He take the job. Thus starts a golden love affair with SA (and many of its women of most ages and types), not least its unlimited food and drink after postwar austerity and rationing, Britain having been bankrupted by the war. His infatuation with the country is tempered by the strict apartheid rules; Monsarrat always sees the human side. He is also unhappy at the lust for gold in Johannesburg and yet describes the country in breezy nautical style as "prime screwing country..."! His pay doubles and triples and he takes on (from zero) about eight staff. This is in itself a commentary on the priorities of postwar British Governments , that having done perfectly well without such an office all through the War, they pay out large amounts while the taxpayers at home are eating squirrel pie in unheated flats.

Monsarrat's wife leaves; while he becomes a famous author after publication of The Cruel Sea, later filmed starring Jack Hawkins. Suddenly he is receiving cheques worth several year's pay on a regular basis. Just as well: his information job was bedevilled by trying to placate not only his bosses in London but also two sides of a bitter argument. At any rate, Monsarrat leaves South Africa for USA and Canada. His opulent life in Canada is chronicled in great detail as are his problems with lawyers (alimony, tax). Someone at his publishers should have laid it on the line and told Monsarrat that this sort of stuff is just not an interesting read. At least a quarter, perhaps more, of this whole book could and should have been blue-pencilled, but it is worth reading for the first half.
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