This new edition of Maid Matelot is a frank, lively and funny account of the life of a Wren stoker during the second world war, says Claudia Myatt
Maid Matelot – The adventures of a Wren stoker in World War Two
Golden Duck, £11.99
This gem of a book is the latest in the Golden Duck series of little-known life stories of wartime sailors, writes Claudia Myatt.
Born in 1925, Lady Frederica Rozelle Ridgway Pierrepont was the youngest and only surviving child of the 6th Earl Manvers.
Her choices were few and her life appeared to be mapped out – a series of coming out balls, social responsibilities and a suitable marriage.
But Rozelle knew from an early age that this was not the life she wanted.
The outbreak of the Second World War when she was 14 gave her the escape she craved, and at 17 she joined the WRNS, against her mother’s wishes but with the quiet support of her father.
Desperate to be out on the water and not stuck behind a desk, she became a becoming 65152 Wren Stoker Pierrepont, working on the fleet of small boats servicing the navy ships at anchor in Southampton water.
Her account, based on her teenage diaries, reflects the joy and purpose she finds in this hectic world, working in all weathers with recalcitrant engines and male banter.
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This new edition includes the photos she took of the friends she made then, ordinary seamen and Wrens, scarcely an officer among them.
It’s frank, lively and at times very funny, though there is a thread of poetry too:
‘Above us hung a dark velvet canopy illuminated by a crescent moon, a million stars and a pattern of criss-cross ladders of light, all the searchlights of Southampton probing the northern sky for a lone German raider. I stood in the bows, holding a boat hook in one hand like a crusader’s banner and an Aldis lamp on the other, which I shone on all the ships, buoys and jetties for Cynthia to see. As the powerful light danced amongst the forest of masts and derricks, I contemplated the unutterable beauty of that shining river flowing quietly beneath the starry heavens.’
In the final months of the war, Rozelle found herself at the heart of the D-Day preparations.
As the invading craft gathered, the small boat crews were busy 24 hours a day.
The end of the war left Rozelle and her Wren friends trying to find their way in a world which, though rapidly changing, had few opportunities for skilled and sea-loving women.
She continued to resist her social destiny as far as she could.
She took up sailing and eventually bought the folkboat Martha McGilda.
An appreciation by Richard Woodman and a list of her later books give more insight how this extraordinary life unfolded.
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