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October 2018



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All the Nice Girls

When I was at school a tattered ensign hung in the hall, where we could see it every morning in assembly. It had been presented by the captain of the minesweeper HMS Coverley, one of four ships adopted by the school in the far off (to us) days of the war. I’d forgotten all about it until I read All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell, which tracks the consequences for a Lancashire school of just such an adoption.

The book opens like a school story. ‘Miss Maitland, the tall, straightbacked headmistress, mounted the rostrum, announced the opening hymn. She surveyed her school with quiet satisfaction, knowing each girl by name and watchful for any fidgeting.’ She then tells the excited girls that the school is going to adopt a ship . The visit of Captain Josh Percival and two of his young officers to the school sets off a chain of events which will affect for ever the lives of the headmistress, two of the girls and another cast of characters, living in 2003.

I enjoyed the school scenes in the book; hardly surprising, since Joan Bakewell was drawing on her own experience for them. For the rest, she has depended on research and I wish publishers would learn that a lot of period detail, indeed, instruction, does not make for period feel. People writing at the time would not have bothered to mention that the polish used was Mansion or the sauce HP. Editors don’t really deserve the fulsome thanks they get from the author when they let through irritating slips. As I remember the film In Which We Serve, the Bernard Miles character doesn’t die. Margaret Tarrant did not draw the Flower Fairies. Annoyances like this distract the reader from the narrative thread.

The idea for the plot is a good one and the construction is neat. For me, though, it's The Cruel Sea meets South Riding and doesn't quite come off.


We wrote letters to a ship in the Gulf when I was at boarding-school, but nobody ever replied to mine. The sailors must have preferred missives from sexy sixth-formers to ones with cartoon animals in.

The Cruel Sea! I read it in a sitting then started at the beginning again.
What poor taste on their part!

But have you read South Riding? :-)
Joan Bakewell lists The Cruel Sea in her bibliography.
I hadn't even heard of it, to my shame.


Completely agree, I thought this book fell very flat. She's a highly competent journalist and that doesn't mean that she can write!
Hear, hear but three cheers for her campaign for oldies.