Magazine article The Spectator

Two Iron Ladies in the Andes

Magazine article The Spectator

Two Iron Ladies in the Andes

Article excerpt

The Ship, the Lady and the Lake by Meriel Larken Bene Factum, £20, pp. 257, ISBN 9781903071427 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:

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 mulecompatible 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. …

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