ERIC NEWBY – The Last Grain Race. Secker & Warburg, UK, hardcover, 1956. Reprinted several times, including Lonely Planet, softcover, 1999.

   There are authors you hear about and mean to try, but never get around to until some fortuitous turn at a local book store or the generosity of a friend puts them in your hands. Thanks to such a friend, I came across The Last Grain Race.  Eric Newby. In 1938, in the shadow of war, the eighteen year old Newby shipped as an apprentice seaman on one of the last cargo sailing ships still operating, and his account of circling the world on this floating anachronism makes a vivid testament to a forgotten way of life.

   Vivid perhaps, and certainly engaging, but not at all romantic. Newby’s description of the squalor, tedium, filth, hard work and bad food makes me understand better why sailors used to be recruited with press gangs, and his lively depiction of his crew-mates (mostly people you’d cross the street to avoid speaking to — even in the face of oncoming traffic) brings out the ugly, erratic nature of men who choose this kind of life.

   It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale, spiked by Newby’s light, lucid prose (his description of a storm at sea is one of the best I’ve ever read), and I rather think he’s an author I ‘ll return to.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #7, May 2000.