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,

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