Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: Captain Peg-Leg's War

When I picked up Peg-Leg at a local second hand book stall I was worried it would be another "Treasure Trove of the Southern Seas". After all both were from the inter-war period, in the last days of British Empire when the worst form of jingoistic prejudices were on display.

And it ruined Treasure Trove which, as reviewed here, was found to be ridden with blatant, transparent, race and class prejudice. Peg-Leg might be free of such flaws - but would that make it any good?

The book tells the story of Captain Peg-Leg of the British Merchant Marine and his attempts to bring much needed food and supplies to the desperate people of Savonia. This imaginary country is suffering a civil war in which out side powers are attempting to over turn the elected government - a thinly disguised Spain of the late 1930s. His adventures are hampered by various gangsters and ruthless foreign agents while supported by a cast of youngish men.

It was written by James Lennox Kerr under the pseudo name Peter Dawlish and a nice biography of him can be found here. He came from a working class background, a butcher's boy who ran away to sea aged 15 pretending to be 18. His voyages were interrupted by times ashore, where he lived as a tramp (in Australia) and hobo (in the US).

And there are passages of rough and tumble that reflect this more gritty background. The fights are particularly well written - so realistic that it seems likely the author was drawing on personal experience. The scenes in London's old docklands (as in the picture above) seem similarly based on reality, even if spun a bit for excitement. There is a mix of classes and no inevitability of one being better than the other, unlike alas Treasure Trove.

The bio by Dr Bigger referenced earlier describes him as between Arthur Ransome and Malcolm Saville, and concludes that it is a shame that his works are now forgotten.

I'm not so sure, as there are aspects of the book that wouldn't work on a modern audience. It is not the plot, as the story of a boat bringing much needed supplies to deprived and suffering civilians is as relevant today as it was in the time Peg-Leg was written. You could easily re-write the story to be in 2009 onboard the ship the "Spirit of Humanity" as it attempted to break the blockade of Gaza, and whose capture could be called an act of piracy (see the video here).

But the characters in the book just don't work. There is the upper class son of a judge who goes into action singing chorus tunes out loud. Peg-Leg is so irascible and plain rude that its hard to see that anyone would ship with him. And none of them have any back-story or what any creative writing course would recognise as depth.

So not a bad book, but then again not an undiscovered treasure. While I hope there were those that were cheered by its simple tale in the dark days of the war, it is not one I will be giving to my nephews and nieces.

There was one character however did spark some recognition. There was the engineer, who was a Scot, and had lines like: "They engines were made on the Clyde or they couldna hae stood what they did".

Now who does that remind you of?


Carol Anne said...

Ah, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott, of the USS Enterprise.

tillerman said...

Perhaps Gene Roddenberry read Captain Peg-Leg's War?

JP said...

LC Scott was indeed who I thought of but could there more to it than just a common stereotype?

Not enough of a trekkie to be able to answer that one.

Carol Anne said...

Roddenberry based Star Trek primarily on the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester. I am not familiar enough with Hornblower to know whether he might have had a Scottish ship's officer upon whom Scotty might be modeled.

Tillerman said...

A bit of research on the Interwebs found this on Wikipedia at

Doohan was cast as the Enterprise engineer for the second Star Trek pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (1966) on the recommendation of that episode's director, James Goldstone, who had worked with him before.[4] The character almost didn't make it to the show after series creator Gene Roddenberry sent Doohan a letter informing him, "We don't think we need an engineer in the series"; only the intervention of Doohan's agent meant that the character could remain.[4] He tried a variety of accents for the part, and decided to use a Scottish accent on the basis that he thought Scottish people make the best engineers.[5]

So it sounds as if Doohan, not Roddenberry, was the originator of the "Scottish engineer" idea. Perhaps he read Peg-Leg?

JP said...

Interesting about history of Scotty - thanks for the research. There is a history of good engineers coming from Scotland which I think Peg-Leg taps into.

Hornblower is a great read which can recommend, but can't remember any Scottish officer, only good old loyal Mr Bush.

Pat said...

The Scottish engineer as a type came to the fore with the Industrial Revolution, which was only in its earliest beginnings during the Napoleonic era. Scotland became a pre-eminent cradle for industrialization and engineering. Many ships were launched on the Clyde, leading eventually to the great Cunard Queens (Mary and Elizabeth). (The Titanic came from Ulster.)

Guy Gilpatric's Glencannon books created a portrait of a hard-drinking, hard-luck Scottish engineer that may have inspired later writers.