Alan Carr

Alan Carr

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Alan Carr – A Family at War

1. His First Ship (1936)
2. His Unfinished Voyage (1937)
3. Cadet Alan Carr (1938)
4. In Eastern Seas (1939)
5. The War and Alan Carr (1940)
6. War Cargo (1941)
7. Alan Carr in the Near East (1942)
8. Alan Carr in the Arctic (1943)
9. Secret Convoy (1944)
10. Alan Carr in Command (1945)
11. By Luck and By Pluck (1946)
12. Held in the Frozen North (1956)

Strictly speaking the first four stories on the above list ought not be included for Alan Carr cannot be classified as an adult series hero until the outbreak of the Second World War. In another way of thinking the real hero of all of these books is the British Merchant Navy as represented by the shipping firm of Whatmough and Duvant. Throughout his writing career Percy F. Westerman kept producing stories about boys who felt the “call of the sea” and who, having reached an appropriate age, set off for their first experience of life afloat as a cadet in this famous firm. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of Westerman’s maritime adventures belong to a vast sprawling family saga which spans the decades from the 1920s to the late 1950s. The humble and naïve cadet in one story might turn up thirty years later as the seemingly unapproachable and wise captain who welcomes aboard the next generation to begin the process anew.

Certain things always remain a constant – some are merely reassuring details of presentation – each ship belonging to Whatmough and Duvant bears the word “Golden” as part of its name. Thus we have the Golden Vanity, the Golden Gain, the Golden Gleaner, the Golden Crest, the Golden Hope, and a host of others too numerous to list. Like the famous H.M.S. Ark Royal certain new vessels are given the names of their illustrious predecessors and a reader meeting the Golden Vanity for the first time would need to check whether the characters were on board a sailing vessel or a steamer before deducing whether he was reading a story set in the 1920s or the late 1940s. The publishers, Blackie, compounded this feeling of timelessness by rarely affixing a publication date into their volumes and by selecting certain stories for republishing without keeping a logical and coherent pattern of development for the series characters. It is pleasing to report that the story of Alan Carr emerges from these random factors in a character’s life with a good deal of clarity and some rare conviction. For that we must thank the Second World War.

In “His First Ship” Alan starts his career aboard a small coasting vessel called the Mary Rumbold and very soon the reader can appreciate the sheer simplicity of a Percy F. Westerman storyline. The plot always consists of a voyage as the ship in question moves from point A to point B. The greenhorn of the opening chapters undergoes a few tests and ordeals and has gained a measure of experience and self-confidence by the time the author has written enough pages and is ready to “lay up at anchor” for a while. A natural conclusion to each book can be provided by the return from a voyage, a collision involving dry dock repairs, or even (as with the unfortunate Mary Rumbold) a sinking.

Incidents along the way can be provided by the weather, the coastal conditions, the nature of cargoes, the character of the officers and men, encounters with other ships and by a large store of personal reminiscences that draw upon the folklore of the seamen. In the very first “Alan Carr” book Westerman sets up two major characters who are to accompany him almost the length of the entire series. One is “Mush” Herring, the reprobate old seaman with the heart of gold, a predilection for getting “three sheets in the wind” and a talent for survival that defies all the odds. The other is Nevinson, the radio operator with the public school background akin to Alan’s own, resentful of his lack of opportunity to become a proper deck officer, but talented, friendly, resourceful and brave. Alan remains on excellent terms with both, often rescuing Mush from the excesses of his own folly, and being saved in turn from various dangerous situations by the old salt’s physical prowess and indomitable spirit. Socially they are shown as being from entirely different backgrounds but they are bound together by their service together in the mercantile marine. Together with a host of other minor characters they are a part of both a team and a family, living together as part of a small capsule of humanity, as a small representation of Britain plying the world for trade during the depression years of the 1930s.

As with Ginger in the “Biggles” stories, Alan Carr was just the right age to be “blooded” as an adult series hero when the onset of hostilities changed the world for the writers, the readers, and, of course, the fictional characters. With the attacks of the Luftwaffe on Britain the whole population of these islands was in danger. However, it is fair to say that Westerman, though drawing vivid pictures of what it is like to be under a bombing raid (see “Alan Carr in Command”), is more intent on showing the damage inflicted on the particular family of seamen that he had nurtured during so many years of writing. Alan, Mush and Nevinson must, of necessity, come through the ordeal but the fate of others they (and the readers) have known, liked and admired throughout the years of peacetime is meted out with more brutal honesty.

Captain Rendshall, the master of Alan’s first ship, is reduced by the fortunes of war to
“an elderly, tubby and somewhat bent man in well-worn civilian clothes”
and is by the time of the Salerno landings desperately grateful to be allowed to tuck into a square meal and ready to call his former ship’s boy “Sir”.
Alan is distressed by the reversal of their status and deeply upset when he learns that the former mate of the Mary Rumbold, Jim Morrison, had been lost after a U-Boat had torpedoed his ship. “Only bin married a couple of months.”
Earlier in the same book Alan discovers that Mr. Cresswell, the friendly but impressive front-man for Whatmough and Duvant who had introduced generations of cadets to the firm, had lost his life in a trivial accident caused by the need for a total blackout. Cresswell had appeared in far more Westerman adventures than just the Alan Carr stories and it seems as though the author was intent upon destroying a part of the world he had so carefully built up for his boy readers. This is total war with a vengeance. Once again, as with the John Cloche stories, normal family life is kept vague and shadowy. In the early tales we learn that Alan is one of seven children and yet there appears to be little news or even worry about how his siblings fare during the war against Hitler.

Alan may survive but he undergoes a series of life-threatening injuries that necessitate long periods in hospitals. Once again, perhaps even more so than John Cloche, Alan’s experiences in the Second World War are related to us so that the boy reader can understand both the world situation and how individuals can make their contribution to the war effort. Alan’s command, where he at last gets a chance to strike back at the enemy, comes to him at a very young age because he is prepared to volunteer to pilot a landing craft onto the beaches of hostile territory in Italy. As we have said he doesn’t come through unscathed and he doesn’t receive either fulsome congratulations or special medals for his resolution and courage. He is merely doing his bit. And so, in his own way, was Percy F. Westerman.

By the time of “By Luck and By Pluck” Alan Carr has resumed his career in the Merchant Navy.
“He was still in the early thirties. In the last five years he had seen war service enough to satisfy most men for the rest of their natural lives. He had held with distinction the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, R.N.R.. but as a result of the wounds received on active service, a medical board had debarred him form serving again in any craft flying the White Ensign.”

True his command is an old tramp called the S.S. Mancaster which would have been sent to the breaker’s yard under normal conditions but which is needed to assist with operations just after D-Day. So we should remember that whilst John Cloche is a prisoner on a train crossing Normandy Westerman’s Alan Carr is at the same time busily fulfilling his and the nation’s destiny in the English Channel some miles to the north. It is pleasing to report that Captain Carr, the boy of “His First Ship” has now become the “Old Man” with his own cadets to bring up in the family way of the British Merchant Navy once again.

The “Golden” days of Whatmough and Duvant may be behind him but he will survive the war and go on to serve in the S.S. Golden Branch in “Held in the Frozen North”, though, through some arcane mystery of Blackie’s publishing schedules, illogically he has become a fourth officer again.

1 comment:

  1. A really useful blog for Westerman enthusiasts. I have added a link from westermanyarns.
    Best wishes