As a children’s non-fiction author, I’m usually commissioned to write a specific book. A couple of years ago, I decided to embark on writing adult non-fiction, but I struggled to find my subject. All I could do was read voraciously, as always, and keep my mind and eyes open to stories from any source. In the end, inspiration came from ‘The Short and the Long Of It’, an art installation by Uriel Orlow. His multimedia exhibition introduced me to the 14 merchant ships and their seafarers that were stranded in the Great Bitter Lake when President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Suez Canal during the Six-Day War in June 1967. Those ships remained in the Great Bitter Lake, trapped between the Israeli army on one side and the Egyptian forces on the other, until the canal reopened eight years later in 1975.
An independent community developed in the Suez Canal in the middle of a war zone – the Great Bitter Lake Association (the GBLA). The seafarers shared their supplies and resources according to need and organised a variety of social and sports activities. Although the ships came from both sides of the Iron Curtain, everyone cooperated together in a mini ‘United Nations’ – seafarers from the Eastern bloc along with sailors from Western countries. At the height of the Cold War, this was a truly extraordinary situation.
After my initial discovery of the topic came a burst of enthusiastic research, followed by doubt. I work full-time and have a variety of other unpaid commitments. The task of undertaking original research and producing a book in my spare time with no budget appeared enormous. Every now and again I made some contacts, spoke to a former seafarer or found a relevant source. But this sporadic approach was never going to succeed.
It wasn’t until I spoke to another writer about the problem last summer that I found a solution, and it came in the form of just five words: ‘Write a little every day’, advised my friend Yvonne Smith. And that did the trick. From then on, I sleepily made a pot of tea at 6.30 every morning, switched on my computer and settled down to one to two hours of work on my project. Gradually, the book took shape.
Even though I was convinced it was a great story, and there were no other books like it on the market, I hadn’t allowed enough time to find a publisher. I decided to take the plunge and self-publish. It’s been a steep learning curve. I’ve worked in publishing for many years as a writer, editor and project manager, but I’ve never had sole responsibility for a book from original idea through to printed title. I engaged professional colleagues to edit and design the book, prepare the photos and proofread the text. I sent sections of text to former seafarers to check that I’d interpreted their accounts correctly. But the buck stopped with me, not with a publishing company, which made me feel exposed, uncertain and under-confident about the whole project.
The doubts haven’t gone away. I’ve brought together many sources in a novel way and there may be factual inaccuracies; some people may dispute my interpretations. It’s a work in progress, an important story that deserves to be well known – but I know it’s not the full story. I accept the limitations. I may develop the project further in the future, and others may pick up where I have left off and add to the body of research, bringing new insights. I’m happy to have contributed to a broader understanding of this unique episode, a slice of micro-history that indicates the potential of human beings left to their own devices to create cooperative communities in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Stranded in the Six-Day War will be launched on 1 June at the 50th anniversary reunion of the seafarers trapped in the Suez Canal at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool.
To order copies of the book, please contact me: www.cathsenker.co.uk