Matthew Parris

Two iron ladies in the Andes

Two iron ladies in the Andes
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The Ship, the Lady and the Lake

Meriel Larken

Bene Factum, pp. 257, £

A long-exposure photograph of the night sky will show you something that you never see, however often you look at the stars: thousands of perfect curves, concentrically arranged around an invisible pinhead. Everything is wheeling slowly about a single point.

A good book or a great adventure, fictional or real, often does the same. There is a fulcrum: a still, quiet centre to the tale. For me, for instance, in Orwell’s Burmese Days, the moment when, walking alone in the forest, John Flory sees a green pigeon, is that centre.

On page 30 of Meriel Larken’s thrilling and moving real-life adventure, one that swishes us across continents, through jungles, up and down mountains, across the high, bleak, freezing plains of the Andean wastes and in and out of the offices of London shipbuilders and Peruvian admirals, you will find that fulcrum: a passage around which all these exotic changes of scene pivot:

We climbed back down to the main deck. I was feeling quite emotional. I knew at that moment that this ship had to be rescued and what an asset she could be. Compelling visions flooded into my mind … links with children’s homes in Puno, where young British volunteers could combine work on the Yavari. She would sail anew, making money out of tourism. There was no question — the old lady had to be saved from the breaker’s yard.

And so continued a saga that became the story of much of an indomitable yet hesitant English lady’s life. It was also the start of a new chapter in the rescue from death of Larken’s adopted steamship, the Yavari. This other English lady had been built in West Ham in 1862, carried in 2,766 mule-compatible pieces up the side of the Andes, and set afloat on the world’s highest lake, Titicaca, in 1870. She was the first iron craft that had ever been seen on the lake, 142 years ago, running on llama dung.

I encountered the little iron ship in all her restored glory when seeking somewhere to stay near the Peruvian lake port of Puno. An intercontinental exchange of text messages led us to the lakeside — and from a long jetty we were (to our astonishment) piped on board by her Captain Giselle. We were the first paying guests, it turned out, to enjoy the finest B & B in all Peru in the Yavari’s tiny, mahogany-lined cabins — a framed letter of encouragement from the Duke of Edinburgh (who contributes the foreword to this book) on the saloon wall.

For me this was a brief holiday fling with the iron lady. For Meriel Larken it became the romance of a lifetime. The reader may well wonder why this passionate, oddly reserved, upper-crust Englishwoman ended up (without meaning to) swapping career, family, relationships, and indeed everything for 210 tons of Victorian iron: why she committed herself to a quarter-century struggle to organise, fund and restore the sad, sinking yet hugely historic hulk she had found in a muddy corner of a naval dockyard and bought for scrap value.

The Ship, the Lady and the Lake is a gripping tale, a personal adventure and an inspiring story of what single-minded dedication can achieve; but, unusually for this kind of account, it’s a great deal more. It’s a lovely piece of writing, lively and imaginative in style, full of action, with an ever-roving eye, so that we move from English shipyards to peasant hovels in the Altiplano and free-range guinea pigs squeaking in the gloom. En route to Larken’s final discovery of the Yavari’s makers we get a potted history of English shipbuilding (did you know that in the 1860s there were some 3,000 shipbuilding businesses here?) and of the Peruvian-Chilean Pacific War.

We learn how to freeze-dry potatoes peasant-fashion, we see the inside of Lima prison, we finally realise what guano was all about, we read Victorian shipbuilding contracts in elegant copperplate, we understand the workings of a 1914 Swedish Bolinder 4-cylinder hot-bulb semi-diesel engine, and we enjoy wonderful photographs, ancient and modern, from the worlds Larken has researched and trodden. The book is beautifully produced.

And I must say the author sees the Andes with my eyes. As she walks exhausted and in sometimes awful discomfort up much of the 220-mile path from the Atacama to the Andes, I thrill to her delicate evocations of the beauties and strangenesses of extreme places:

It was dry, bare and empty of plant life. Occasionally a gecko or lizard would slither off the path in front of us, or a valiant passerine flit by, while overhead a raptor might glide into view. The sky was a fierce cobalt blue and the heat intense. Turning back, we would look down over the desert to the haze in the west, which disguised the Pacific shoreline.

But if you want an emotionally two-dimensional tale of one woman’s triumph over adversity, The Ship, the Lady and the Lake isn’t it; and for that, three cheers for the wonderful, awkward, redeeming, dismaying honesty forever tugging at Larken’s sleeve. She isn’t always sure it was worth it. She isn’t always convinced she did the right thing, or was the right person to do it. She isn’t wholly confident, even now as she hands over the reins to others, that the Yavari project is secure. And she knows very well that there are so many other things she could have done, and been, and enjoyed; but that instead, and by degrees, and for 25 years of her life, an old iron ship stole her heart.

This isn’t just a book about Andean adventuring, English shipbuilding and Peruvian bureaucracy; and though it’s often hilarious it isn’t mainly funny. It’s a book about obsession, and how fast and far a life can be consumed by a dream. In the end, though it contains many triumphs, this is a story in a minor key.

Written byMatthew Parris

Matthew Parris is a columnist for The Spectator and The Times.

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