Siân Evans Two Roads £25
During the 25 years between the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of the Second World War, thousands of women criss-crossed the Atlantic on the great ocean liners of the day.
In first class on board the Aquitania or the Queen Mary, there were glamorous actresses such as Tallulah Bankhead and Hedy Lamarr, and married socialites such as Thelma Furness and Wallis Simpson, both love interests of the dashing Prince of Wales.
In second class was a new generation of female business travellers, working as go-betweens for the department stores of New York and Chicago and the fashion houses of London and Paris.
In first class on board the Aquitania or the Queen Mary, there were glamorous actresses such as Tallulah Bankhead and Hedy Lamarr, and married socialites such as Thelma Furness
In third class, tucked away in the bowels of the ship, were hundreds of women with a one-way ticket fleeing poverty and racism in the hope of a better life in the New World.
One was Mary Macleod, a Scottish crofter’s daughter who went to New York in 1930 as a domestic servant, married a small-time property developer called Frank Trump and gave birth 16 years later to the 45th President of the United States.
In this riveting slice of social history, Siân Evans does a brilliant job of describing the unexpected textures of life at sea. She explains that many stylish women in first class never dreamed of going on deck for fear of frizzing their elegantly arranged hair.
The damp, salty air also gave expensive woollens a green tinge and made the most expensive mink coat smell like a wet dog. Instead, the ladies in first class preferred to think of the ship as a giant, luxurious hotel-cum-catwalk, as they drifted from a late breakfast in bed, to an appointment with the manicurist, to dinner at the captain’s table.
If unsettling thoughts about the Titanic occasionally intruded, they could reassure themselves that safety standards had vastly improved since 1912.
However, there was still plenty of scope for onboard drama. In the cheaper first-class cabins you might find a species known as the ‘sea vamp’. The sea vamp set out to get a bit too friendly with a married man.
Once she’d danced with him a few times, perhaps while his wife was being horribly seasick, she would suggest a drink in her room. At that point, the trap was sprung, a camera appeared, and the poor sap was ripe for a spot of blackmail.
The vamp’s male counterpart was the gigolo, a handsome young man who was looking for a lady with a fortune – whether that was a rich widow of 50 or an heiress of 21.
Some of Evans’s most original material, though, concerns the women who made their (respectable) livings on these ships. A life at sea as a stewardess offered wages and tips far better than could be had at home, and there was a certain glamour attached.
If you had a social conscience, you could become a welfare officer, chaperoning the terrified women and children in third class. By deep diving into the archives, Siân Evans has discovered a watery in-between world where the usual rules didn’t quite apply and a spirited woman could get further than she ever would on dry land.
Matt Forde Quercus £16.99
Whatever happened to the 13.5 million people who voted for Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997? What about the tens of thousands of volunteers and party apparatchiks – did they vanish into thin air?
Matt Forde’s gently amusing memoir is a reminder that no, they’re still kicking around – they’ve just been made politically homeless by Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit. They’re quite cross about it, too.
Forde is a stand-up comedian and one of the writers on the new Spitting Image. There are some laugh-out-loud lines, alongside a few centrist dad jokes, as Twitter might call them – most of which are unprintable here.
Matt Forde (above) is a stand-up comedian and one of the writers on the new Spitting Image. There are some laugh-out-loud lines, alongside a few centrist dad jokes
But he’s certainly perceptive. What strikes you early on, as he describes his solidly Labour upbringing in Nottingham, are the myriad signs that Blair and Brown were only just keeping a lid on the hard-Left of their party, which loathed them as much as it did the Tories and didn’t hide it.
He notices as a young volunteer that if you want to guess who the most aggressive person in the room is at a Labour meeting, ignore the young guy in the Fred Perry shirt, or the serious-looking, middle-aged woman.
‘It’s Beardy Old Guy every time. He’ll even smile at you on the way in. Then, once the meeting starts, BANG! He’s off.’
Of course, a Beardy Old Guy eventually became leader of the party, thanks to Ed Miliband – ‘the gateway drug’, as Forde describes him, ‘the cannabis to Corbyn’s crack cocaine’.
The problem with both, he says, is that they preferred sticking to their guns than to winning, ‘one of the most indulgent instincts in Labour politics’, as it lets down those who need the party most.
I was expecting a paean of praise to Sir Keir Starmer towards the end – someone who does not share that instinct, by all accounts. But Forde seems too despondent for that.
‘It’s not Starmer I worry about,’ he says, admitting that he is serious and reasonable. But ‘the party is still in a mess’. Bad news for Blairites, good news for Boris.