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13 March 2024updated 14 Mar 2024 2:17pm

Love’s true test is being cast adrift on a tiny raft in the Pacific

An amazing tale of survival reminds me how incredibly hard it is to find love out there in the world.

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve been reading a love story and thinking about love. Maurice and Maralyn: A Whale, a Shipwreck, a Love Story is a non-fiction book written by Sophie Elmhirst about a couple who attempt to flee Seventies suburbia by sailing off on their own boat to New Zealand. As much as it’s a love story, it’s an adventure story and an escape story, of a type which seemed very common during those years.

I grew up watching Seventies TV series such as The Good Life, where Tom Good abandons his career in the straight world to pursue a life of off-grid self-sufficiency; and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, where the lead character, played so brilliantly by Leonard Rossiter, is driven almost mad by the confines and conventions of suburbia, faking his own suicide by leaving a pile of clothes on a beach. This plot line was echoed in the actual news, which in 1974 was full of the story of the politician John Stonehouse, who left his pile of clothes on the shoreline of Miami Beach, when in fact he had fled to Australia.

So much escaping going on, and who could blame them. Maurice and Maralyn are early adopters, who start dreaming in 1966, when the smallness of life in Britain begins to weigh heavily on them. They’d married in 1963 – an ordinary couple in many ways, but completely extraordinary in others. He’s anti-social and self-critical; a- bit obsessive, a bit downhearted; stuck in a rut at his printing job. She’s itchy and excitable, desperate to live life to the full. Ten years his junior, she has her heart set on adventure.

They settle down in a bungalow just outside Derby and pretty soon it drives them mad. “Perhaps,” writes Elmhirst, “it was because Allestree was a place where a particular kind of quiet stiffened the air and lives unfolded behind securely locked front doors… perhaps it was because the liberating shift of the late Sixties was still a way off.” With a breathtaking kind of boldness they sell everything they own, buy a boat, fit it out to their exact specifications and in 1972 set off for New Zealand. And then, halfway there, they are struck by a whale, sending their boat to the bottom of the ocean. All they have left is a raft and a dinghy and a small stash of supplies.

“They’re doomed!” you think, and yes, that’s what Maurice thinks, right from the start. But Maralyn won’t allow that thought, and in the moment of disaster she becomes crystallised down to her essence. Where he sinks into despair, she settles into an almost manic practicality, and the balance between the two seems to keep them afloat – he is kept going by her optimism, she is kept going by his need for her.

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The quote on the cover, which made me buy the book, is this: “For what else is a marriage, really, if not being stuck on a small raft with someone and trying to survive?” I loved that idea, and it came into my mind again a few days later when I was watching an episode of First Dates.

The show always reminds me how incredibly hard it is to find love out there in the world. The matchmaking is skilful, based on the details the matchmakers are given. So, “I like blondes with tattoos and who also love dogs” will translate into you being set up with a peroxided, fully inked pug owner – and that’s where the trouble begins. What people want, it suggests, isn’t what they think they want.

Perhaps the programme-makers should be asking different questions. Not “Who do you generally fancy and what are your hobbies?”, but instead, “How would you react if your boat sank in the middle of the Pacific and you were stranded on a raft for several months with your partner? What would you want from that person?”

Because if all marriages can be boiled down to that scenario, then everything else is time-wasting. Fine if you just want a bit of fun and a night out. But no help at all if you are looking for love.

[See also: I’ve learned to love the Disaster House. But will it love me back?]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul