Tuesday 15 September 2009

Hello Sailor exhibition opens in Glasgow

Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave, opened in style in Glasgow.
Over 70 were at the launch party at the Tall Ship in Glasgow Harbour, on Friday 4 September 2009 - the biggest number to ever attend an opening night there. I got to cut a pink satin ribbon to declare the exhibition open, which was great fun (that's me, to the right of Lisa Gaston, education officer).
The staff had made a big effort. The hospitality staff had dressed specially in pink, and served rose wine and cranberry. One said 'I've been up and down all Dumbarton Road looking for pink serviettes too.' Never mind, it went off well.

Gay submariners

Up in Scotland last week I heard many story about (but none from, unfortunately) male submariners who formed sexual relationships in submarines. The classic phrase, apparently, is '140 men went down and 70 couples came back up.'

That was said with some homophobia - as in 'I wouldn't work on submarines because this happens.' But the point is that if men are submerged for three months at a time, then of course they are going to get together. And of course the captain is going to turn a blind eye. Indeed, some captains themselves had affairs.

Homosexuality at sea has had a hidden history. But even more hidden is the history of gay US submariners, particularly those working at Holy Loch on nuclear subs. From 1961 and 1992 Holy Loch was the home base of US Submarine Squadron 14, and used for refit and crew turnover. It would so useful if someone could retriev this 'other' history.

Incidentally, for all that subs were so slow to allow women crew, there was at least one in the early days: NASA astronout Dr Laurel Blair Salton Clark (1961-2003) worked at Holy Loch around 1989-92, dived with Navy divers and SEALs, and made many medical evacuations from US submarines. She was a Naval Submarine Medical Officer and Diving Medical Officer. See her wikipedia entry.

Friday 14 August 2009

Asian seamen

Today I've decided to expand this blog to include race, as there is so little information available about black and Asian seafarers, and because I am so interested in how socially excluded groups get on in that exceptional space, the ship at sea.

I've just been scrolling through a Commonwealth War Grave Commission CD that lists Merchant Navy seafarers who died in WW2. There are hundreds, if not a few thousand, of 'Lascars'. It took me hours to get just through the section for those surnamed Abdul. Asian jobs included Tindall, Topas, Seacunny, Serang, Bhandary, Paniwallah, and Cassab.

If you search on-line bookstores like Amazon just using the search term 'Asian sailors' or 'Lascars' you may have found it hard to uncover any books on Asian seafarers on British ships. So I've just compiled an initial list (all other suggestions welcome), and posted a review of the most overlooked book: Sons of the Empire: Oral history from the Bangladshi seamen who serve on British ships during the 1939-45 War. Compiled and edited by Yousuf Choudury and published by the Sylheti Social History Group in Birmingham in 1995, it's now quite hard to find.

My review for Amazon said "This collection of interviews with 16 Bangladeshi seamen is so valuable, as very little information is available about the thousands of Asian men who worked on British ships. I've just been investigating the (unsung) numbers of them who died in WW2, and this book is great because it shows the human story behind the statistics. It's complete with photos of the men as they were in later life when settled in England. I particuarly liked seeing pictures of the white and Asian women they married, even though I'd have liked more text about such women."
Books on Black and Minority Ethnic Seamen include:
Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers: Life stories of pioneer Sylhetti settlers in Britain, (no editor listed), Tower Hamlets Arts Project, London, 1987.

Yousuf Choudury (compiler and editor) Sons of the Empire: Oral history from the Bangladeshi seamen who serve on British ships during the 1939-45 War. and published by the Sylheti Social History Group in Birmingham in 1995.

Neil Evans, ‘Regulating the Reserve Army: Arabs, Blacks and the Local State in Cardiff, 1919-45’ in Race and Labour in Twentieth Century Britain, edited by Ken Lunn, Frank Cass, 1985, pp.68-115.

Michael H Fisher, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857, Permanent Black, 2005.

Laura Tabili, ‘We ask for British Justice’: Workers and Racial Justice in Late Imperial Britain, Cornell University Press, 1994.

Laura Tabili, ‘ “A Maritime Race”: Masculinity and the Racial Division of Labor in British Merchant Ships 1900-1939,’ in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920, edited by Margaret S Creighton and Lisa Norling, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1996, pp 169-188

W Jeffrey Bolster, ‘ “Every Inch a Man”: Gender in the Lives of African American Seamen,’ in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920, edited by Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1996, pp 189-203.
W Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, Harvard University Press, 1997.

Bernard C Nalty, The Long Passage to Korea: Black Sailors and the Integration of the U.S. Navy, Naval Historical Centre, 2003.

Martha S Putney, Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War (Contributions in Afro-American & African Studies), Greenwood Press, 1987

John Darrell Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam War Era, New York University Press, 2007.

Adolph W Newton and Winston Eldridge, Better Than Good: A Black Sailor's War, 1943-1945, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis. Naval Institute Press, 1999 (re WW2)

Monday 27 July 2009

Hello sailor moves to Glasgow this autumn

From Sat 5 Sept to Sun 29 Nov 2009, you can see my travelling exhibition: ‘Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave’, at the Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour, G3 8QQ.
0141 222 2513. http://www.thetallship.com

Women and sea shanties.

Women in seashanties are often cast as loving sweehearts who pull on their seabritches and sail away in a quest for their sailorboys. See M Jwycha's new article about them at ttp://open.salon.com/blog/mjwycha/2009/07/17/sea_shanties_cross-dressers_and_women_warriors

And there's lots of ambiguity about cabin boys in such songs, which may have been away to talk aceptably about gay sex with young men. (See pic left).
Women are never usually the robust singers of shanties, which were devised to assist manual labour such as heaving heavy sails up high masts. Shanties are not about what you might call 'feminine' subjects, more about ships, far-off ports, muses and whores.
But I'll be exploring how modern female landlubbers appropriate worksongs and images of the sea in a workshop at the Raise Your Banners festival, Bradford, on Sunday Nov 8. 'Taking the shanties off the sailorboys' will include discussions of such songs as Sisters Unlimited's 'Childbirth's no bed of roses.'

For info on the festival go to http://www.raiseyourbanners.org/

Sunday 26 July 2009

Women at sea in the Falklands War

Over recent years the stories of eight women who I’ve talked to about being at sea in the Falklands conflict have all been fairly different - predictably.

But this last month the narratives of three women who were on the QE2 (which acted as a troop carrier in summer 1982) made me see how very different a ship seems to each individual. War artist Linda Kitson and civilian nurses Jane Yelland and Di McLean told such different versions that I sometimes wondered if we were talking about the same ship.

The difference is not just in the way the stories are narrated, but the activities in which the women engaged (Kitson drawing rapidly [see her work, above left], Yelland and McLean dealing with crew injuries, then later wounded troops) and the way they saw their social situation and options. Yelland was on ‘her’ ship, McLean on ship for the first time, and Kitson – an experienced traveler - enmeshed in a floating world of young military officers.

Indeed, they barely knew about each other. Even today McLean has never seen Kitson’s drawings of what was going on on deck while she was nursing below. As for the laundresses’ experience, I fear it is lost to history.

Similarly, women on other ships (nurses and admin workers), such as the Uganda and Canberra, had very different experiences – the Uganda because it was a hospital ship and the Canberra because it was attacked.

I’m listening to these women for my forthcoming book on women and the sea in WW1 and WW2. But it seems like women’s experience of sailing to and from the Falklands also deserves a book. It was both the last of the traditional wars and the first war in which civilian women were so close to a combat site.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Sent ashore for keeping sexual score book

Sent ashore for keeping sexual score book.

It seems like the kind of behaviour that should have gone out with the dinosaurs. Certainly such offensive laddishness was supposed to have vanished in the 1970s but.... On July 5 it was confirmed that four male sailors from Royal Australian Navy Ship HMAS Success were sent back home to Oz from Singapore in May.

They had been having a competition to sleep with the most women on board. The men kept an account book recording the number of female crew they had had sex with. "The ledger" had dollar amounts written next to each woman's name Officers and lesbian women won a man an extra point.

The book was found after women aboard complained. Since then there's been much
lurid joking on the internet - and some creditable official assertions of women's rights. Women's Forum Australia spokesperson Melinda Tankard-Reist points out:"When you consider that women constitute 40 per cent of the Navy, they have a right to feel safe in their place of work and not to be treated as potential notches on a sailor's belt. Obviously things have gone backwards, I thought the defence forces had moved on from this sort of pack-animal behaviour.... I don't believe these men should be able to serve at sea anymore because they're not reliable, they can't be trusted, they don't respect women and these are not the kind of men that we need defending us."

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard (above, right) told Network Ten"We don't want to see anything that precludes women from having a good career in our armed forces if that is what they choose to do with their lives....we need our defence hierarchy to get on with the job of investigating these claims and taking appropriate action."

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Crane said the matter is being referred to the independent Australian Defence Force Investigative Service (ADFIS), which will decide on disciplinary or administrative action.

HMAS Success is not a warship but a replenishment oiler (a naval auxiliary ship with fuel tanks and dry cargo holds, which can replenish other ships while underway in the high seas)

Thursday 11 June 2009

‘Send ‘em home to their kitchens – or let them onto our submarines?’ US naval attitudes towards women at sea

Newly available on the Internet is Darlene Iskra’s fascinating 2004 paper comparing arguments about whether women should be on ships. She analyses the content of periodicals Navy Times and U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, looking at articles and letters about women’s assignment to non-combatant ships in 1978/1979, combatant ships in 1993/1994 and submarines in 1999/2000.

Iskra found that even though women have been serving successfully at sea for almost 25 years and demonstrated they ‘can perform military jobs previously thought impossible, the underlying assumptions continued to reflect socially constructed views of the warrior ideal as male, heterosexual, virile, aggressive and physically strong. Women were presented as outside of this ideal, reinforcing the status inequality of women in the military.’


Friday 1 May 2009

Hello Sailor exhibition keeps travelling

Hello Sailor! Gay life on the ocean wave, will return to Merseyside Maritime Museum from 16 May to 23 Aug 2009. The Times listed it as the number one exhibition, in Jan 2009.

After that the lively 12-panel exhibition - complete with a cabin set and audio visual exhibits - will tour to Glasgow. It is at The Tall Ship, the independent maritime museum in Glasgow, from 4 Sept to 29 Nov 2009 (see pic left). For access details go to http://www.glenlee.co.uk/newsite/

At its new Scottish temporary home, the exhibition is expected to have additional information about Glasgow's gay seafarers and the gay life enjoyed by sailors whose ships docked there. A number of the seafaring men interviewed for the book that preceded the exhibition were from Scotland. Indeed, one of the most beautiful gay seafarers of the twentieth century is Scottish. Amber, a P&O steward, looked like Judy Garland and Liz Taylor (see pic, right; Amber on the Andes).

Monday 30 March 2009

Women build ships

Fictional Rosie the Riveter and her real metal-working mates built iron ships in WW2 (see pic right). At least a quarter of 90,000 workers at the Kaiser shipyard in California were women, many African-American. Women also welded in British and German shipyards in the 1940s.
And today young female mechanical engineers say they are experiencing no barriers at Clydeside shipyards. That includes two apprentices building aircraft carriers at the Scotstoun Shipyard in Glasgow for BVT Surface Fleet. Elaine Hislop is shortlisted for Young Woman Apprentice of the Year and Laura Campbell is shortlisted for the Young Female Engineer of the Year award.
Elaine told the Daily Record ' If I'm out on a Friday night and I meet someone and tell them what I do, I always get a gasp. They can't understand I can be an apprentice and a girl, but there are more women coming into the industry now, and I can see things changing....Females are not as unusual a sight these days, and as a result, I don't get as many people staring at me.' http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/editors-choice/2009/03/31/women-workers-join-in-the-shipyard-boom-86908-21241992/
You can see videos of women shipbuilders talking about their careers now, for example: http://www.futureshipshape.com/people-like-you/case-studies/barbara-mcintyre.html
But in 250 years ago, in 1759, it was unthinkable that a woman should be a ship builder, doing highly skilled labour on wooden vessels. Yet at least one woman did - even though she had to dress as a man to do so. Her autobiography has just been reprinted, with an introduction by Margarette Lincoln (see pic above, left).
Mary Lacy, aka William Chandler (1740-1798) went to sea as a carpenter’s apprentice from 1759-62. Then she became a shipwright apprentice in 1763-70, which often entailed her working and lodging on ships.
In a review I write that this introduction points out 'that Lacy was unusual in three ways: a member of the armed forces; a time-served shipwright; and a speculative house builder.'
The book may not have much to say about how a woman viewed the construction of keels and cabins, and the wielding of drawing pens and hammers. But on the social side it's fascinating. It 'shows how a helpful young, seemingly-male, catering servant on a warship relates to all the petty officers’ wives, "sailors’ companions" and bumboat women who come aboard. "He" is laundered for, gossiped about/with, shopped with, petted and, of course, propositioned.'
In her personal life, Mary Lacy certainly dated women 'as a smokescreen'. She may have 'married' Elizabeth Slade, with whom she lived for 18 years and whose surname she appropriated
See Mary Lacy: The Female Shipwright, Caird Library Reprints, National Maritime Museum, London, 2008.
My review of it will appear in the International Journal of Maritime History, in late 2009.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Who's the privileged one? Working seawomen's pity for their passengers

You'd think that under-privileged women working on ships might envy the paying passengers their freedom to travel. When I started unearthing stewardesses in the 1980s this is what I expected. After all, these women had sailed 1919-1939, a time when women's mobility was extremely restricted.
But see my counter-intuitive findings in a book that's just out: Gendered Journeys, Mobile Emotions, eds Gayle Letherby & Gillian Reynolds, Ashgate, March 2009.

My chapter, 'Caring for the Poor Souls: interwar seafaring women and their pity for passengers', begins 'Women voyaging across the world's oceans in a floating palace heading towards new lives in the New World during the Roaring Twenties sound rather admirable.... [but seawomen's accounts] show, surprisingly, that pity was one of the central emotions [they] felt ....I discuss the main reasons for the pity and how the pity was expressed, particularly through the word 'poor' (as in 'poor things', 'poor souls', and 'my poor passengers'.) I also look at how pity was acted upon.'

A story from Edith Sowerbutts (see pic) illustrates how pity could bring benefits, and lead a woman to act with agency. Edith was sailing as a conductress (a sort of travelling almoner for women without men) in the 1920s on Red Star's Zeeland, from Belgium to North America. 'I always made a point of being present of bath nights and at general delousing sessions. There was a tendency to hustle women along and Matron… was not one to stand up to any bullying.
'I was horrified once when I found the Third Class Steward, a Belgian who had been in the emigrant ships prior to 1914, propelling two girls a time into the bathroom. "Two to a bath" he shouted to Matron. "No," said I, "One at a time."
'That man was livid – never before or since have I seen a man go pea-green with anger. But my women had their individual privacy in the bathroom. The thought of two to a bath, one lot of salt seawater, was just too much for me, especially as seawater was in plentiful supply! '
I like the chapter being in this book about the emotional relationships peopel have with travel, along with chapters on airline crew, truckers, tarmac cowboys, cycling, Victorian women's fears on trains and mapping. Such a context demonstrates that seafarers should be seen as travellers - somethimg that often gets missed out.

You can get the book discounted if you buy via the website: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754670346

Saturday 28 February 2009

Was he gay? Posterity won't know.

During the last two weeks I've come across a lot of information about three gay men's deaths. And the manner of their memorialisation troubles me. All three have a sea connection. Two were seafarers. One was a well-known maritime historian and leading museum worker. They are part of queer seafaring history, and deserve to be on the record.

But in two cases, nowhere in the newspapes obituaries was there a reference to the person being gay, even though all his colleagues and friends knew he was homosexual. And I too feel I shouldn't out the people here in this public place, so I won't name names. This is how queer history gets lost - and it's sad. And I don't know what to do about it - because I do believe peoples' wishes to keep homosexuality a secret should be respected.

In the third case, Geoffrey's funeral excluded all his gay colleagues. The gay steward's sister announced that she wanted no queers at the event, even though the gay community had been his real family far more than his blood family had been. However, a caring ex-shipmate dealt with this loss by arranging that there should be a small ceremony aboard the QE2. It was Geoffrey's old ship, which happened to be in port at that time.
The picture shows crew and officers - who didn't know Geoffrey - respectfully taking part in this 'alternative funeral.' It's great that it happened, but what a tragedy that there couldn't be more integration between these gay men's lives and their post-death commemoration .

Sunday 22 February 2009

Flamboyant send-off for seafarer

Bon viveur Franco Fantini died on January 6 2009, aged 71. Born in Milan, Franco worked on a number of cruise ships in the heyday of campery, including on 'the world's queerest ship', the Andes. Retiring from the sea in 1973, he founded the Cabin Crew cafe, which later became the fabled La Margherita restaurant on Southampton's Town Quay.

On 15.1.2009 the much-loved restauranteur was seen off in style in a hearse drawn by white horses with pale pink plumes . His Italian imported walnut coffin was pulled by a white Victorian carriage and covered in a blanket of roses.

At St Edmund's Church, Southampton, the music was Italian grand opera, and Elton John's Candle in the Wind, which was played at Princess Diana's funeral. Shirley Bassey was an important icon for post-war show-loving gay seafarers and also dined at La Margherita. Her song, Hey Big Spender, boomed out as Franco's coffin was carried into the crematorium, and then I am what I am. Afterwards at the party many former stewards were happily reunited. Donations went to Marie Curie Cancer Care and the Terrence Higgins Trust.

During his last illness Franco was looked after by La Contessa, an ex-stewardess, also from Italy. She tells me her dream is to open a retirement home for gay seafarers where they can cross-dress, wear makeup and be themselves without fear of homophobia.

You can access the Southampton Echo obituary and funeral reports, including a video, on http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/. Look for Jan 6, Jan 9, and Jan 16.

Friday 20 February 2009

women pirates - interest endures via HerStoria

A new - and very attractively accessible - women's history magazine is now out: HerStoria. I hope it's going to succeed. Because the format is so popular it deserves to hit the bookstalls and not just be subscription-based. I'm in the launch issue, writing about women pirates. Although my book about female buccaneers came out 13 years ago and I thought they'd been done to death, there turns out to still be a surprising amount of interest. Many people have written to me from all over the world: wanting to know more; saying, for example, it's on their university book list for a crime, gender and society module.

In the article, The trouble with women pirates…, I reflect on image, reality and the process of writing ‘outsider’ history. It's often been fun - as the photo (right) shows: me playing with fake pirates at the Liverpool Tall Ships festival in 2007.
The article begins:

'What could be sassier, you might think, than a bold, sexy buccaneer? Slightly dykey, and into a light-hearted touch of woman-led bondage. Brandishing—but with a beautiful smile—a long whip to go with that lethal cutlass. And mmmmm, swashbuckling along the deck in those sea-washed, thigh-high leather boots. She could shiver any one’s timbers. Geena Davis as Morgan Adams in Cutthroat Island, (1995) is a scintillating example of the genre. Keira Knightly in The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2007) could also wield a sword with lethal prettiness.
'The (interesting) trouble is that such images of women pirates are a fantasy. Exploring such a fantasy not only requires—but also reveals—a broader knowledge of just why it is that the sea is popularly seen as a ruggedly masculine space in which real seawomen have only small, strictly prescribed, walk-on parts....'
Read on in the HerStoria issue 1, at http://www.herstoria.com/

Monday 9 February 2009

There's something about a sailor? Beefcake

Poor Admiral West. Key figure in the Government's 2000 decision to repeal the ban against homosexuality in the armed forces, the ex-head of the Navy probably didn't bank on becoming a pink pin-up.
But the sartorially-acclaimed, happily married Minister put himself on Facebook, just to make friends. He included a photo of himself in that irrestible white uniform that seems to cause so many frissons in female and male landlubbers.
And now he has been so inundated by suggestive messages from gay men that he has closed his account.
Under the heading 'Hello Sailor! Facebook flirts hit on Minister,' The Sunday Times (Sun 8 2009) has more details.
You can see a great photo of him in a pirate eyepatch, partying with the saucy-looking Kathy Lette, at

Monday 2 February 2009

Sweden's Gay Seafarers

You can get a virtual tour of Sweden's sister exhibition on gay seafarers, Safe Haven, by going to
http://www.sjohistoriska.se/sitecore/content/Sjohistoriska%20museet/InEnglish/Exhibitions/Tour.aspx see .

Or you can even go and see the real thing in two weeks time. The Maritime Museum & Aquarium in Gothenburg is showing Safe Haven from February 18 - August 23 2009. http://www.sjofartsmuseum.goteborg.se/

The exhibition is based on Arne Nilsson’s book 'Såna' på Amerikabåtarna ('Those Ones' on the American Boats), Normal förlag, 2006.

Friday 30 January 2009

Hello Sailor opens in Newcastle

The Hello Sailor exhibition opened in Tyne & Wear's Discovery Museum on Jan 27 . It looked great, because it had more space than has been available in other places, and because local material was added.
(see pictures below and right, courtesy of DD)

Ex-seafarer John Wodehouse and Paul Mann, as well as Greta La More (who worked in pubs used by seafarers) gave objects and stories. Museum workers Christine Hutchinson and Sarah Cotton included them in the exhibition: new panels, audio extracts, a uniform, a discharge book and souvenirs, such as John's precious Queen Mary glass goblet.

My favorite bit was after all the punters had gone home. The bunk in
the cabin set had been made up incorrectly. Blankets are customarily
folded and laid on top of the mattress, not tucked in, so that the occupant can make a quick escape if the ship starts sinking. John got into his old role and sorted out the bedding properly, as our photos by Mary Hesling show.