North-west by north: A journal of a voyage (Virago/Beacon travelers)

by Dora Birtles

Paperback, 1987




Beacon Press (1987), Edition: 1st, 432 pages


(1 rating; 3)

User reviews

LibraryThing member LizzieD
In April of 1932, Dora Birtles, with two old women friends, one husband and a professional sailor, set out to sail up the east coast of Australia from Newcastle and then across the sea and up to Singapore in a 34 foot Swedish cutter called Skaga. The voyage attracted much local attention since it
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was the first time women had attempted such a trek. The first half of the book details the coast-hugging part of the adventure. Although there was a lot to see, a great part of the narrative involves the relationships among the five sailors. (Joan and husband Henery were antipathetic toward Dora/Dona; Ruth tried to side with Joan, but Henery couldn't stand her; Henery and Sven, the professional, were often in conflict; Sven was in love or close to it with Dona who had a husband at home and wanted only to be respected by Joan.) I came to care very little. I also did not care for her blatant racism, certainly the product of her time. I found her harder to forgive because she fancied herself rather liberal in discussing the sad living conditions of the black population on government-run Great Palm Island, and yet her attitude toward "gins" and "picaninnies" kept me on edge. The latter half deals with their sailing adventures, including being becalmed and nearly starved, and ports of call from New Guinea on to Singapore. This was the more interesting section.
Birtles was dedicated to her chosen craft of writing, which made me read her more critically than I might have otherwise. A random quotation of description gives the flavor of her prose; "...They are the cores of old volcanoes and they remain, rounded down by time but still malevolent in outline, like satiric old ladies with shawls about their humped shoulders, hinting of forgotten fierce ardours and bearing a mute testimony of the geological antiquity of the Australian continent." Well and good; not necessarily my taste but a good enough thing of its kind. So how could such a wordsmith produce poetry like this?

Rice Tafel

We had eaten heavily,/it was our first rice tafel./We had drunk appropriately,/it had been a farewell luncheon,/and pulling up the anchor at sunset/- for we had to get under weigh -/was an uncomfortable job,/and in the clear Banda air we were all a little tipsy.

Her friends didn't care for her poetry either, to her great despair. I will not comment on the attempt at stream of consciousness to depict the one time she got drunk on the trip. And having said all of this, some fascination remains in a real adventure to exotic places in a past that feels more than 70 years away.
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Original publication date



080707019X / 9780807070192
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