Adventures in Bookland: Mr Fitton’s Prize by Showell Styles


I remember it exactly. The first time the natural physical insouciance of youth was cracked. I was on the hovercraft crossing the Channel – back then, there was no tunnel, and the quickest way across was by the giant, car-eating hovercraft that roared over the strait – and, naturally, on boarding I had rushed to the front, where the seats looked out past the captain’s bridge to the approaching shore – and the choppy waves of the Channel. Setting off, I discovered something unexpected, although hardly unforseeable, about hovercrafts: since they hover, they follow the line of the waves, rather than ploughing through them. Oh, how I laughed with glee as the front of the hovercraft rose up towards the crest, opening up a prospect of sky and foam, then dropped, precipitously, into the trough beyond, changing on the instant from clear blue sky to roiling green water. The other passengers sought calmer berths further back, but we youngsters stayed at the front, revelling in this natural roller coaster. Or some of us did. After about twenty minutes, my exhilaration began to feel a trifle… forced. Something seemed to be forcing its way upon me. Unfortunately, it was my lunch.

I just about made it to the toilet in time.

I had not known before that I could get sea sick. Turns out, I’m about as bad a sailor as ever turned green over the big greeny blue. Further confirmation was supplied when learning to dive in Australia (did you know, they even have barbies on boats – not that I was eating anything).

So it must be the nautical equivalent of rubbernecking that produces my fascination with naval literature, in particular stories set in the heyday of the Senior Service during the Napoleonic Wars. Patrick O’Brian, CS Forester – you merely have to point me at a ship of the line and I’ve cast off hawsers and settled down to read.

But I’d never heard of Showell Styles and now I must give thanks to Faber Finds. It’s stated purpose is to restore to print great writing across every genre of fiction and non-fiction – and with Mr Fitton’s Prize it has succeeded. This is a masterclass in writing, its apparent effortlessness concealing a real mastery of the craft. Looking up the author, I find that he wrote over 150 books in a 50-year career, both fiction and non-fiction. In fact, I find that he was what I want to be. Plus, he has pretty well the coolest name ever. So, Mr Styles, may you sail home, and be my guide.

Showell Styles (1908-2005)
Showell Styles (1908-2005)



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