Wednesday 25 July 2012

The Spy who became a stewardess: Granville

I was delighted to catch a BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour interview with Clare Mulley, who's just written The Spy Who Loved: The secrets and lives of Christine Granville, Britain's first female special agent of WWII (Macmillan).

Granville, also called Krystyna Skarbek, was said to have been Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Bond's wonder woman Vesper Lynd. Christine Granville worked for SOE in WW2. But afterwards - ah afterwards, what does a redundant spy do? In this case, she works at sea, where the footloose people were.

Clare Mulley found that life on the New Zealand Shipping Company's brand new Antipodes-bound liner, Ruahine didn't suit this 43-year-old aristocrat. The crew were hostile and thought this female and foreigner was lying about her war experience.

Worst of all, a fellow steward who fell for her and supported her against the attacks ended up as her stalker and killer. She tried to give him the slip and worked on other ships such as the New Australia.

But Dennis Muldowney fatally stabbed her in the lobby of a down-market Kensington hotel in 1952. After he was sentenced to death, at the Old Bailey, he declared‘To kill is the final possession.’

I've given some thought to Clare's biography, in the light of all the interviews I've done with stewardesses of that period. Christine's story fits.

The hostility is plausible because ships then could be dog-eat-dog situations where seawomen (usually 1-3% of the entire crew) had to fight not to be put upon or sexually mis-used, in the very over-sexualised situation that a ship is. And female colleagues could be very rivalrous. Some seafarers were proof that travel does NOT broaden the mind.

Many of Christine's shipmates would have been through hard wars just six years earlier, torpedoed and lost everything they possessed. So they might have thought her story implausibly glamorous and therefore implicitly insulting - they knew they'd been though hell.

And an obsessive, co-dependent character like Muldowney might well have been at sea because it was a place that attracted people who felt themselves to be misfits. Ships' companies were very acceptant of square pegs, because people absolutely have to find a way to get on with everyone else in such a tight space.

So here's a new take on women's merchant seafaring in the post-war years. Christine Granville has got to be the most famous stewardess on any ship. And she's a tragic victim of possibly the only merchant seaman to be executed for killing a seawoman.

See Clare interviewed in the very London cafe that Christine and Polish forces used,

Sunday 22 July 2012

Fighting Naval discrimination

It's just been announced that a woman naval officer has been given an out-of-court settlement for the suffered sexual discrimination in the Royal Navy.

Although this blog happily reports women who DO make it to captain ships, etc, Jacqueline Cartner's long battle shows not only that she personally was passed over for promotion. So too were other women.

Michael Powell writes about her in 'Wren in sex equality fight settles case against MoD settlement,in the Portsmouth Evening News, published on Saturday 21 July 2012.

'After two years of legal battles, Jacqueline Cartner, 42, who served at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, has accepted a confidential payout and signed a gagging order preventing her from discussing her case.

'The MoD’s move has killed off the threat of a legal precedent being set which may have led to dozens more lawsuits costing taxpayers millions of pounds.

'Since 2010, two separate judges ruled Ms Cartner was passed over for promotion in 2008 on the grounds that, as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, she had elected not to serve at sea when the rules were changed to allow women on warships in 1993.

'Fearing a potential wave of litigation from other ex-wrens, the MoD spent £126,000 fighting the rulings. Last December, a High Court judge sent the case back to square one by ordering a fresh employment tribunal this autumn. But now the case has been dropped.

'A navy spokeswoman told The News: "We are pleased that this long-running case has now been concluded by mutual agreement. The terms are confidential between the parties."...

'Ms Cartner, who was made an MBE by the Queen in 2001, was unable to comment because of the confidentiality order she signed.The Navy said it will now review the case to see if ‘appropriate lessons’ can be learned.

'Former navy Wren and employment law expert Sue Ball, who is a director at Verisona solicitors in Portsmouth, said: "This looks like a good result for the MoD, although it must have stuck in their throat to pay out money.

‘"Litigation is always a risky and uncertain process and if the MoD had gone back to the tribunal again and it went against them then it would have had set a case law precedent that could have caused them a problem.

‘"If I was acting for someone else in the same position as Jacquie, I’d be annoyed because I would’ve lost the opportunity to have case law to support our arguments."’

Friday 13 July 2012

Edda Mussoloni nursed on a hopsital ship

I'm just finishing writing a chapter about British women nursing on hospital ships in wartime, and I couldn't resist creating a panel about this Fascist celebrity nurse being bombed on the hospital ship Po in 1941.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s favourite daughter Edda Ciano nursed on hospital ships (navi ospedale) from November 1940 to 1943. She hadn’t finished the two-year Italian Red Cross training but her famous father persuaded them to take her. A 30-year-old mother she left her children behind (in Turin.

On Helen Dashwood's blog ( I found more information about Edda on her hospital ship (Helen has just written an ebook The Driving Ambition of Edda Mussolini.)

On the former Lloyd Triestino Navigation liner, newly converted into a hospital ship Edda (1910-1995) had her own separate cabin, separate from the fully trained nurses. It was probably it was more to meet the high-status needs of Il Duce’s distinguished relative than to segregate the amateurs from the professionals. In that case she would have shared a multi-berth inboard cabin.

It’s not clear how much this lover-loving socialite was on board. Her autobiography My Truth contains nothing on bedpans and mal de mer.

On Friday 14 March 1941, during the Greco-Italian War, Edda was reading a PG Wodehouse novel on the Po just offshore at Valona (the Albanian port now called Vlorë) when the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm torpedo bombers attacked.

The British held that Italy’s seven smaller hospital ships were 'fair targets' as they were actually used as carriers to pick up ditched air crews. But some of the eleven larger hospital ships, such as the Po, were sometimes attacked too. At least ten had been hit by May 1943.

The Po sank, in 16 fathoms of water. An unknown number of people died. Edda swam to the shore. Her autobiography records that once her father learned she was safe he told her husband ‘"Edda must immediately resume her duties so as to set a good example." That is what I intended to do, but I had to wait for a new nurse’s uniform. Galeazzo [Ciano, my husband] did not understand how my father could be so phlegmatic.’

Edda was not the only celebrity nurse at sea. Susanna Agnelli of the famous Fiat dynasty also nursed on hospital ships during WW2, when only 18. As all eleven of the large navi ospedale were attacked at some point she would have been in a disaster. Later Italy's first woman Foreign Minister Susanna Agnelli’s autobiography is, ironically, called Vestivamo alla marinara (We always wore sailor suits). Edda’s were surely haute couture.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Studying the lives of people in port cities

Port city lives. Conference at Blackburne House, Liverpool, June 29 -30 2012

Organised by Liverpool University’s Centre for Port and Maritime Histories, this highly innovative two-day interdisciplinary workshop marked the re-launch of the centre. Port studies might be expected to involve the giant skeletal cranes that dominate quayside skylines, terminal logistics, dock roads layouts complex as airport runways, and the invisible diverse contents of all those seemingly identical containers only differentiated by their matt reds and blues and their stencilled names such as Maersk.

But the organisers’ deliberate focus was on ‘lives’. Therefore the discussions were of those in the borderlands who deliver and unload the goods; those such as sex industry workers who profit from proximity to seafarers and the liminality of the waterfront world; and those who organise trafficking from their high panelled offices far from the seagulls' cries.

Indeed, we were appropriately in a space endowed by cotton broker and abolitionist, George Holt. His profits enabled many privileged Merseyside girls to learn within these stylish walls and go on to Girton and St Hilda's from the early twenties. Edwina Currie attended school assemblies in the very hall where we assembled for our much more earthly purpose.
Blackburne House, formerly Liverpool Institute High School for Girls

If the topic is ‘lives’ then the question has to be ‘how did people in very different positions work together? What was the impact of the port on their lives, and what was their impact on all the aspects of the port's life?' And the ports in question ranged from Liverpool itself to Nantes, Barcelona, Thessaloniki, Matamoros, Rotterdam and Salvador de Bahia, Hamburg and Cork as well as Portsmouth and Hull. It was an international gathering but also speakers were international in their focus. And indeed, as both the keynote speakers showed, the people in question were global citizens, be they elite British merchants easily connecting to New York or the slavery triangle, or black seafarers in Cardiff with a Pan-Africanist focus.

Strands at this Port City Lives conferences include marginal workers, commerce and trade networks, networking and organisation in the early 20th century, case studies of early modern cities, culture and representation, memory and ‘restructuring, redevelopment and renewal.'

Participants came from a range of perspectives and disciplines, principally maritime history, business history, cultural geography, and migration studies, folklore and linguistics. One eynote speaker, geographer Dr Dave Featherstone (University Of Glasgow) dealt with a topic for too long occluded in maritime historiographer: black seafarers. The surprise was not only the extent of black internationalist activity in early twentieth century Wales. On one occasion, we heard, rank-and-file white seafarers actually supported their black colleagues. They did so in the face of lack of cooperation by their union’s leadership, which at that time was highly reactionary.

Ports are places changed beyond measure by palletisation, containerisation, fast turnarounds that don't allow the visiting seafarer any time ashore, the competition of air travel, and above all industrial decline.Three indelible images remain for me after the conference: sad grey photos of Hull’s rotting wooden jetties; advertising-bright images of the sleek access roads in Thessaloniki’s drastically restructured ports; and the replica of a wife’s severed head in Tunisia, on an old house wall above a tangled garden.

As Sarah DeMott explained, living in a port had enabled a local wife to meet a foreign sailor (and commit adultery with him). Maritime life had provided the ship that helped them move away. But the white carved head, a replacement for the real and bloody original, was the husband’s assertion of conventional morality and gendered power. Wives risk death if they choose new lovers, perhaps especially foreign ones. It underlines Dave Featherstone's point: it is important to not simply see ships as heterotopic spaces but to understand how the shore and the sea interact. Mores and values extend their tentacles from land as well as to it. It is the overlap as well as the exceptionality of ships that make ports such compelling foci for study.