- the first leg of our trip back to England from Australia began a couple of days before the end of 1962. It seems impossible to me that these experiences were almost sixty years ago and I can remember them as if they were yesterday - come to that, I can hardly remember yesterday these days. Well it's not quite that bad but readers of a certain age will know what I mean.
After a few days provisioning in Sydney we set sail again and although there was still quite a long time left before we would be back in the UK, being on the homeward leg of the journey put something of a damper on my mood.
You know how it is as you come towards the end of a holiday and your mind turns to things back home. Things you know have to be done or decisions made that you have avoided by the holiday, return to the surface and start nagging again. So then all you really want to do is get back as soon as possible and make a start. In my case the main issue was what I would do next. I had known all along that joining P&O was escapism pure and simple but what I had not yet faced up to was my next move.
The easy option would have been to stay for the next trip which was going to be the same again and I guess would have given me the chance to see a few different things and save a bit more money. However, I was by now starting to miss home quite a bit and was also finding the somewhat sleazy and boozy atmosphere of life below decks a bit wearing despite the sometimes hilarious aspects of it. Well typically, I decided not to decide, at least not until I had to.
Having made that decision and thinking through the homeward trip in more detail I then began to feel quite lifted again as I mentally listed our scheduled ports of call.
From Sydney we would be heading around the south coast of Australia calling at Melbourne and Adelaide before striking out across the Great Australian Bight, that vast bay between the continent’s central desert and the Southern Ocean with a reputation for weather every bit as fearsome as the Bay of Biscay in the North Atlantic. Our final landfall in Australasia would be Freemantle that is the port for the city of Perth in Western Australia in the same way that Long Beach is to Los Angeles.
From here our route would take us halfway across the Indian Ocean to Colombo in Ceylon as it then was – now Sri Lanka of course, and thence up the west coast of India to call at the great port of Bombay (now Mumbai).
It’s interesting how many of the countries or cities that were once part of the British Empire, (remember all the pink on the world atlas), having regained their independence have also changed their names. Something of a two-finger farewell to British control perhaps.
Next stop would be Aden, and north through the Red Sea to Port Said in Egypt before the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. A final stop at Marseilles and then back to Blighty and our terminal port of Tilbury.
Mulling this through I had to admit that even if the next few weeks were dead boring, which I knew they wouldn’t be, any young lad my age would have been over the moon to have had the experience. So, whatever was to come next, I really should be grateful and make the most of what was left. Then I needed to take a positive view about getting back to finding myself a decent career and showing my parents that it hadn’t been a complete waste of time and that I really could repay their investment in my education.
However, I didn’t have time to give things that much thought because just before we sailed, I was taken out of the saloon and appointed Assistant Bedroom Steward (known as ABR) to a bedroom steward on B deck. This was a definite promotion but the way the gradings worked, it meant that the promotion would not be confirmed if and until I signed on again for the next trip. However, it did mean a complete change in work type and pattern.
Each bedroom steward was responsible for a group of First Class cabins, probably six or eight, and it was my job to act as assistant to a steward called Terry by the passengers but known as Lulu below decks because he was also gay.
The bedroom steward’s role was to be available to attend to passengers’ every need and they usually worked a split work pattern in order to be on hand first thing in the morning should they require breakfast in their rooms as well as late in the evenings should the little darlings require a pre-dinner drink. In addition, they were responsible for cleanliness and sanitation of cabins; room service as and when required as well as assisting and advising passengers on all aspects of the journey and activities of the day.
Obviously, they could not fulfil this role without some assistance which is where the ABR’s came in. After breakfast we would spend most of the day up in the far more pleasant areas of the ship occupied by the passengers. Assisting the bedroom stewards usually meant in reality doing the things they didn’t have time for or didn’t like doing which in Terry’s case was the bathrooms.
Whilst a few passengers would take breakfast in their cabins, for the majority breakfast signalled the start of yet another day of fun and frolics. Also, it was at breakfast that announcement of the day’s activities would be made so most were up and away quite early. This was ideal for us because it meant that we could get in to service the cabins.
Terry and I developed a routine whereby we would do the beds together as it was easier that way, then, while he tidied and cleaned the room as necessary, I serviced the bathrooms. Not always the most savoury of activities, brushing out toilets and removing clumps of questionable hair from plug-holes, but it was strange how quickly I developed a commitment to the job and a pride in doing it well.
Ever since then I’ve taken enormous satisfaction in cleaning things (my wife would say – “Once you actually get around to doing it.”), and I applied the same level of care to the bathroom in the small B&B we used to run.
During the afternoons whilst the bedroom stewards were off duty, we assistants were supposed to be available on the section to respond to calls for cabin service. It was on one such day I received a call from the galley to collect a tray of pastries that had been ordered by one of the passengers on my section. Once I’d collected the cake tray, I had to put it together with a pot of tea that we prepared in a little kitchenette on the section and deliver it to the cabin.
There was no reply to my knock on the door and as was normal practice after knocking again it was usual to slowly and tactfully enter the cabin. On this occasion as I entered I heard some movement in the bathroom and thinking I could put the tray down quickly and get out, I went to do so.
But, just as I turned to leave, the bathroom door opened and in strode this guy; stark naked, somewhat red-faced and a bit breathless and displaying the most enormous erection that I had ever seen. Actually, I’d never seen anyone else’s erection apart from the participants in the Hong Kong film show but I must say this guy would have run any of them a close second.
“Oh my God.” he says, “Caught me in all my glory. Sorry about that.” And calm as you like he marches straight ahead and picks up a cake, slumps down naked in a chair and starts eating it.
I had no idea where to look or what to say so stammering my apologies I made a bee line for the door and a quick exit. Mulling it over later I had to smile as I wondered what Lulu would have made of the situation. Probably would have thought it was his lucky day.
Actually, the gay crew members usually made excellent cabin stewards because of how they related to both the male and female passengers. They were even asked for advice by the ladies on what to wear or how this or that dress suited them which utilised their ‘feminine’ side whilst at the same time gently flirting with the husbands.
It was so funny to watch and quite remarkable how relaxed the passengers were with these openly gay guys whilst back home and away from the cruise they would probably have reacted quite differently as homosexuality was still illegal and pretty much ‘unmentionable’ in the UK.
For all my adolescent bravado I was still very naïve and sexually inexperienced when I went to sea.
Although the hostesses in the many bars we visited were almost irresistibly tempting, and in many ways would have been the ideal route for a youngster to ‘learn the ropes’ so to speak; unlike many of my colleagues I never did take the plunge.
I guess it was a combination of all the Catholic ‘sins of the flesh’ teaching (and Oh how I wanted to touch some flesh) and some straightforward fear of going home with a ‘dose’ that kept me on the straight and narrow. In any event I came home with my virginity intact which in retrospect was probably a missed opportunity.
If I knew little about straight sex my knowledge of matters ‘gay’ was a big zero so when someone said to me before I left, “Remember, if the Chief Steward drops the soap in the shower, you just kick it about.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about and it was the same with references to ‘golden rivets’ and the like. However, once on board and living in the often sexually charged environment below decks I quickly cottoned on.
I thought I was used to most of the antics of my gay crew mates. Coming out of the shower in the washroom one day I was faced with Bunny who was standing in front of the mirror, having spread shaving foam all over his chest and privates and was now fastidiously engaged in shaving off all his chest hair and most from down below as well.
“Oh hello darling.” he says in pure Larry Grayson style. “Girl’s got do what a girl’s gotta do.” Thinking this was just another gay quirk that I was unfamiliar with I said “No problem Bunny. Don’t mind me.” And off I went. End of story? Well not exactly.
A few days after leaving Sydney was New Year’s Eve so in addition to a very special evening for the passengers there was later on one hell of a party in the crew’s bar. On this rare occasion there were even three or four real girls present in the shape of some girls from the Purser’s office and even a few of the deck officers had deigned to honour us with their presence.
Not that there was any real resentment but it was clear that some of our ’queens’ viewed the female Pursers as competition so when it came to the dancing our ‘girls’ were really pulling out the stops and strutting their stuff like it was going out of fashion.
Bunny however managed the greatest coup because at one point someone got hold of a microphone and announced “Ladies and gentlemen will you please welcome, direct from Paris, France, Mademoiselle Mimi.”
At which point Bunny came prancing in decked out in a stunning vivid red and gold Parisian Follies costume, blonde wig and full stage make-up.
As someone put on The Stripper music, he started out on the most amazing striptease routine that would have done credit to a real Moulin Rouge or Windmill girl. Bumping and grinding his way around the room he started shedding garments until he was down to nothing but a pair of high heels, tiny pants and a bra and everyone stood holding their breaths to see just how far he would go. As he shimmied his way from one onlooker to the next Bunny teased us by gradually reaching around to undo his bra before finally whisking it away to reveal a pair of water-filled balloons taped to his hairless chest at which point of course things immediately made sense.
Well, to be fair it would have taken a lot to follow that and as it was by then about four in the morning we all drifted off to our peaks to sleep the sleep of the drunk or so we thought. Wrong! I don’t know how long we’d been asleep when the sound of loud shouting and shrieking dragged us back to consciousness.
The noise was coming from one of the ‘Queen’ cabins almost opposite ours across the alley so we all dived out to see what was going on and I have to say the scene that greeted us was one of the most hilarious I have ever seen.
Apparently, they had gone to bed and inadvertently left a port hole open and as the weather worsened a wave had caught the ship high enough to deposit gallons of sea water through the porthole.
By the time we arrived the shrieking had subsided and the six occupants dressed in an interesting assortment of nightwear ranging from the briefest of pants to frilly short nighties were busy trying to bale water, wring out clothing and change bedding. Coloured lacy curtains around their bunks were hanging in sodden shreds while the pink bulbs cast a surreal tint over the whole scene.
The funniest thing of all however was the parrot. This lived in a cage that hung right in front of the porthole and I guess must have caught pretty well the full impact of the water.
Fortunately, it had survived but the poor bedraggled creature, clearly terrified, was flapping about in its cage squawking madly and looking like something from a Walt Disney cartoon in rather the same way that poor old Road Runner does when blown up or drowned for the umpteenth time.
In the event, the voyage back was indeed relatively uneventful and we had a fairly relaxed time of it. As the ship was not full, apart from not having to ‘run ourselves ragged’ we on the bedroom sections also had a particular bonus.
Strictly against the rules of course, the bedroom stewards and their assistants (me in this case), took up occupancy of some of the vacant cabins and I can tell you it was as they say, ‘just the job’.
My steward Terry moved into the most luxurious cabin on the section that even had its own balcony and magnificent sea view. Mine was almost as good lacking only the balcony and was certainly a million miles from the six berth tin box I should have been sleeping in down in the crew’s quarters.
I suppose in a sense this practice was more or less an open secret because it certainly wasn’t unnoticed by our mates that we were absent overnight but if any of the senior hands were aware nothing was said.
There was only one little challenge and that was ‘Captain’s Inspection’. These weekly visit by the Chief Steward, Staff Captain and sometimes the ship’s Captain himself were tours of inspection notionally covering the whole ship although clearly this was an impossibility and like so many similar charades, was more or less stage managed with target areas briefed in advance to make sure things went without a hitch.
However, it was part of the process for the inspecting officers to check passenger accommodation too and so the bedroom stewards had to be on hand to advise them which were free to be inspected and which were occupied. Fortunately, the system did not provide the inspection team with a passenger cabin list so whenever the team looked like checking out one of the cabins we were illicitly using the answer was always “Sorry Sir. That one’s occupied at the moment.”
There was another little flaw in the admin or accounting system that worked in our favour too which meant that there was no direct correlation in the galley between which meals were taken via room service or which were taken in the restaurant. It also appeared that being mainly interested in supplying restaurant food the galley had no records as to which cabins were occupied by which passenger.
As a result, if the bedroom stewards or their assistants decided that we fancied a steak sandwich or anything else for that matter we would simply collect it from the galley, then repair to our luxury suite to enjoy it in comfort and simply stick it on the bill of one of the unoccupied cabins. If this was ever picked up, I can only assume it was put down to a mistake and passed over.
Once Australia was behind us our next port of call was Colombo on the south-west coast of Sri Lanka. We were not there long but I did fortunately have the opportunity to get ashore and according to those that knew, nearby Mount Lavinia Beach was the place to head for.
Located about 10 kilometres south of Colombo it was easy to reach by the local bus shared with a motley collection of locals and their considerable luggage.
Live chickens squawked in crates and even a goat stood bleating and crapping in the aisle so it was just as well that the bus was deficient in the window and door department or the smell which was noticeable to say the least, would have been unbearable.
However, the beach itself made the trip worthwhile. It was the stereotypical tropical beach with palm fringed golden sands lapped by a warm azure sea and at the time I was there it was still pretty much unspoilt. Strange the things that stick in the memory though – my main recollection of Mount Lavinia Beach is the ravens. They seemed to be everywhere. Large, black and incredibly unafraid, they strutted about on the beach and seemed to be mainly concerned with consuming the tiny crabs that were all over the place.
Checking up on-line as I wrote this, I was so disappointed to see how commercialised and touristic the place has become. Palms still lean out over the sandy beach and the blue water still laps but now it is against a backdrop of hotels and although the many market stalls I remember are still there it all looks so much more sanitized and presented for visitors than before.
Mount Lavinia Beach, Sri Lanka
Our next stop was the huge Indian port of Bombay. Unfortunately I didn’t get much shore leave here and at first I’m inclined to say it was just as well. First impressions were that it was a stinking, heaving, sweltering cauldron of humanity, vehicles and animals all competing for some sort of survival and that was just my view from the ship.
I need to be fair though because once I got away from the immediate port area the frenetic activity did calm down a bit but not a lot and wherever one went the whole place really did seem pretty squalid. But as I said, time was limited and I didn’t really have the time to give the place a chance. For all that, I was not sorry to leave the heat and the smell and get out on the water once again.
One interesting thing about Bombay though was that it was also in a sense a terminal port, at least for many of our Asian crew. I couldn’t work it out at first but after we sailed I became aware that there seemed to be quite a few new Goanese faces.
What had happened in fact was that around 40% of the Goanese crew had changed at Bombay, it being the major international seaport closest to their home area. There were a few that I’d thought I had got to know a little but not one of them had mentioned that they were leaving the ship.
Apart from feeling a little hurt I was also sorry as I realised I would never see them again or hear any more about their wives and kids. It was unusual for the two communities on board to mix very much and I felt that I’d had some small success there and now it had come to nothing. That’s life I guess.
Anyway; ‘Onwards and upwards’ as they say. Literally in this case as we were heading first west for the Gulf of Aden and then north into the Red Sea.
I bought a camera in Aden and was lucky. I remember going ashore with the intention of buying one but also knowing that there was a fair chance of being ripped off in one way or another.
In the event I bought Samoca Japanese 35mm camera. It was pretty much state of the art for its type at the time and, wonder of wonders it was still going strong, not just the next day but probably twenty years later and in its way contributed to a life-long interest in photography.
I thought Aden a bleak place being at that time a fairly squalid settlement against a looming mountain with a desert climate. Not in the least appealing visually but it does have the significant advantage of a particularly sheltered natural port that is actually the collapsed crater of a former volcano (hopefully extinct). Sadly today Aden is still pretty bleak today engulfed as it is in the Yemen war that looks set to go on forever as far as one can see.
The British first became involved there in 1839 when they landed a detachment of military in order to deal with what was described as “a nest of pirates” that was posing a threat to our trade routes to the east.
As sail was replaced by steam power Aden developed under British control into a major water and coal supply station and no doubt handsomely rewarded English entrepreneurial interference in another country to whom we brought our “civilising influence.” It does rather raise the question “Who were the pirates?”
Aden remained under British control until 1963 when a developing pan-Arab movement began to kick against their presence giving rise to what became known as The Aden Emergency. After some while trying to hang on to influence and power, British troops eventually withdrew in 1967 and the People’s Republic of South Yemen was born.
The maritime aspect of Aden was interesting because as well as being a major international port it also served as a kind of marshalling yard for ships heading for the Suez Canal. The Gulf of Aden and the narrow straits at the entrance to the Red Sea are one of the busiest sea routes in the world and give rise to something of a bottle neck.
Given the volume of shipping passing in both directions there is clearly a need for a fair amount of careful management not to mention the opportunity to provide pilots and other remunerative services for the countries involved.
A few days and almost twelve hundred miles later having cruised the length of the Red Sea we entered the Gulf of Suez and arrived at Port Suez. Here Himalaya was assembled with other ships into a convoy for transit through the canal. Now, rather like Panama, nothing really prepares you for Suez and it was a fascinating experience.
When first built in 1869, the canal was 102 miles long and 26 feet deep. I’m not sure what the dimensions were at the time I passed through but now, after multiple enlargements, the canal is 120 miles long, 79 feet deep and 673 feet wide. It consists of the northern access channel of 14 miles, the canal itself of 100 miles and the southern access channel of 5.6 miles.
The canal is single lane with passing places in the "Ballah By-Pass" and the Great Bitter Lake and it is a distinctly odd experience to be in either the main channel or the by-pass channel and look across the sand to see ships apparently sailing through the desert.
A significant increase in the canal’s capacity was achieved recently by enlargement of the by-pass areas and was dubbed The New Suez Canal. It was officially opened on 6th August 2015 and increased daily traffic from 49 to 97 ships per day.
One of the signalling stations along the canal from where the flow of
shipping was controlled
Quite unlike Panama, there are no locks and seawater flows freely through the canal. In general, the canal north of the Bitter Lakes flows north in winter and south in summer. (I haven’t quite worked that out yet) The current south of the lakes changes with the tide at Suez.
Looking north with populated and cultivated Egypt to the left
One striking feature I recall was the dramatic contrast between the Egyptian and the Arabian sides of the canal, especially towards the north where the more intensive cultivation and irrigation on the west bank created a vivid green landscape as far as the eye could see as compared to the arid desert in the east. With the benefit of satellite imagery and Google maps this difference can be clearly seen.
Some of the crew on our recreation deck watching our transit through Suez
Having transited the canal we entered the Mediterranean at Port Said, turned left (or west for those of you who prefer it that way) and headed diagonally towards the toe of Italy and the Straits of Messina where we were able to see Etna and Stromboli, Europe’s two most active volcanos smoking menacingly. No fireworks though unfortunately.
The following day we docked at our last port of the trip, the historic old port of Marseilles where sadly I was unable to go ashore due to some sort of stomach bug.
It definitely was not over indulgence so it was pretty bad luck to have travelled all those months and miles with never a problem in that direction only to be laid out for a couple of days right at the last minute so to speak. It was a shame because it was one of the places that had been on my list to have a look at. It still is. I must get there one day.
With Marseilles behind us within a few days were out through Gibraltar and home, not to Southampton this time but to Tilbury. In Essex on the north side of the Thames estuary it was at the time a major passenger terminal for cruise liners although that came to an end in the mid 1960’s.
Passing by the Rock of Gibraltar
By now I had made up my mind that I would not be going back on the next trip. It was quite hard, knowing that I was forcing myself to a decision point about what to do next but to be honest I’d had enough of life at sea and was missing my family and friends more than I cared to admit.
Another issue was the homosexual dimension to life below decks. True, the camp performances provided a lot of entertainment which was OK if I didn’t think too much about what they were all actually doing with each other.
The truth was I hated it with all the constant innuendo. Now I am far from being a prude and I like my sex straight and I suspect the thoughts and feelings I now describe would today be seen as positively homophobic.
However it was what a relatively immature Catholic eighteen year old felt in 1963, fully four years before the law came to the aid of the homosexual community and decriminalised their practices with certain exceptions.
What I found particularly hard to understand was how in the space of those last three months the two guys I had joined up with had turned.
Dave the rough-neck Cockney was still the macho one but was heavily involved in a relationship with one of the most outrageous ‘queens’ on the ship and quiet Tim was last seen at a below deck ‘homecoming’ party tottering about in high heels and a full length sequined evening dress with pouting red lips and an amazing set of fake emerald jewellery.
However I’d certainly enjoyed my time away if my spend was anything to go by, because when I went to collect my pay packet I finally signed off the ship with £3. It was just as well that Mum and Dad were there to meet me. Oh and of course I had a hundred pounds in the bank. Result!
SS.Himalaya was the last P&O ship to depart from Tilbury arriving in Sydney on 30th October 1974 after which she was sold for breaking in Taiwan.
A sad end to a lovely old lady (And a lot of old queens!)
Thanks for a lot of memories.
So dear readers that is the end of my seafaring tale but far from the end of my story. As you may remember these pages have been extracts form a my first memoir - Stepping Out from Ashtead and I guess I could say this time with P&O was the first serious step.
There are a couple more chapters to the book covering my rather brief time with the Met Police and concluding with me entry into the motor trade. They too contain quite a few laughs so if you'd like to keep following please look out for notices of the next blog post on Brianeye