• Brian Simmons

Off to Sea (1962 - aged 18)

It must have been so hard for my parents when I decided to throw up my studies and a secure job to go off to sea, especially as Dad had been so influential in getting me the job in the first place. So why wouldn’t they be shocked and disappointed? Well of course I can see it now. With the benefit of hindsight and the experience of navigating my own two kids through their ‘interesting’ teenage years, I can understand only too well.

I mean, here I was, the elder child on whom they had spent significant resources to provide a private education that I had signally failed to make the most of as evidenced by my three paltry ‘O’ levels. And now apparently, I wanted to chuck it all up completely.

Actually, disappointed is something of an understatement. Horrified would be a more accurate description of their response although I think Dad did get what was going on. Mum however, absolutely did not, and bearing in mind the priority she placed on education, apoplectic would be a better description of her reaction. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.

“How could you do it?”

“After all we’ve done for you.”

“What about your career?”

“What sort of future do you think you’ll have”? Etc. etc.

For my part however the decision was made and this was my way out. I was off to see the world and at someone else’s expense. What could be wrong with that? I could catch up later with my scientific career (or not, as it turned out) and if I’d been a bit older, I would have been in for a couple of years National Service and anyway isn’t it right for a young man to want to stand on his own feet – so my argument went. Needless to say, they didn’t see it that way.

However, and in retrospect quite surprisingly for one as young and immature as I was; I stuck to my guns and said I was going to do it anyway and sorry if they didn’t like it.

Within a few days I found my way to Leadenhall Street in the City of London and the offices of P&O, or to give its full title the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.

Although attracted by the idea I must have known even if subconsciously that this was not going to be my career for life. In my friend’s case it was. He had joined as deck crew and was planning to work his way through a cadetship and ultimately to a seaman’s ticket.

All I wanted though was to escape what I saw as the drudgery of work in the lab, or more particularly the evening classes, combined with the chance to see a bit of the world, so I asked what they could offer on the catering side of things. Yes, they wanted stewards, and if I passed a medical they could offer me a job. As it happened there was a doctor on the premises so to my surprise within an hour I’d been passed fit and taken on as a Utility Steward.

To anyone who recalls the post war years ‘utility’ as in ‘utility mark’ meant sound but basic and basic was the bit that applied to my new post, but more of that later. Effectively U.S. is the first rung on the ladder in the catering side of life at sea and can be a bit mucky as I was to discover.

“Go home.” they said “But don’t give your notice in until we find you a ship”

In the meantime, I had to get a union card which entailed a trip to London’s docklands

armed with a couple of passport size photos and where, after signing on the line I became a fully-fledged member of the Seaman’s Union.

Not knowing quite what to expect I went back to work when amazingly within about a week later I had a call to report to the SS Himalaya at Southampton in two weeks’ time.

At home the recriminations went on right up until the day of my departure when it all disappeared in floods of tears and hugs and fond goodbyes and promises to write as I climbed on board the train for Southampton docks where I was due to sign on with the SS Himalaya.

And so it began.

I met a couple of other guys on the train who by complete chance also happened to be heading for the same ship so we shared a cab from the station to the quay where the 700-foot, 28,000-ton liner was being provisioned for the cruise.

The journey of a lifetime as far as I was concerned, that was going to take me to all of the places I had only read about. I felt I’d burst with excitement and not a little trepidation.

Although certainly not large by today’s standards, Himalaya looked absolutely enormous to me. Towering above us like the cliffs of Dover, the white painted hull glistened in the morning sun and emitted a hum of activity that hinted at imminent departure.

Processions of lorries came and went as load after load of all manner of stores were fed up three or four conveyor belts and disappeared into the bowels of the ship. Next a large refrigerated lorry pulled up and half a dozen white clad porters emerged from another gangplank and began almost sprinting on and off the ship whilst carrying impossibly large sides of beef, lamb and pork. Meanwhile further along the quay a crane was busy swinging nets of cargo off the dock and into one of the large deck hatches.

The fellows I’d met on the train were also new recruits so we had each other for moral support as we dragged our cases up the steeply sloping gang plank marked “CREW” that disappeared into a hole in the side of the ship about 20 feet above the quayside.

High above our heads a level covered walkway festooned with bunting extended from the passenger terminal to A deck. That was the way the paying customers arrived. It seemed to emphasise that we were very literally “below stairs”.

Entering the ship through a hatch I later learnt was known as a ‘gun-port’ we found ourselves in front of a makeshift desk of old packing chests behind which were two smartly uniformed officers.

The Staff Captain, responsible for all ships personnel seemed a bit young for the job but smiled a welcome, shook our hands and introduced us to the Second Steward, responsible to the Chief Steward for all catering matters including staff.

The contrast could not have been greater.

“Names?” he demanded. No smile or handshake here.

“Books” he glowered, holding out his hand for our Seaman’s Books and passports.

Checking us off against a long alphabetical list he eventually turned to a nervous looking boy standing behind him and said

“Peak 18 for these” and addressing us

“Sign-on is at half six in the morning in the galley. Don’t be late.”

The nervous boy who only looked about 14 motioned us to follow and set off briskly along an alleyway that sloped gradually upwards. After what seemed a very long way and a few corners he indicated a narrow door on the right bearing the figure 18.

“This is yours.” he said pushing the door open and standing back to let us pass.

“What does peak mean?” I asked as I squeezed past.

“Short for forepeak. Sharp end to you. You’ll soon get used to it” he grinned.

“I’m a bellboy – name’s Robin - basically a gofer but it’s fine. You’ve got the rest of the day free so you’d better make the most of it. Have a good look around, don’t get in the way and get drunk tonight but not too drunk ‘cos you’ve got an early start in the morning.”

Dave, one of my fellow rookies said, “Where’s the best place to go for a drink?

“Horse and Groom’s a good laugh and it’s only a short walk” said Robin and was gone.

We now had the chance to look around and get the measure of our new surroundings.

Well, to be honest it certainly wouldn’t have taken much measuring as the cabin was only about 12 feet square and contained not three but six beds. The three double bunks were only about 2 feet wide and with two passages effectively filled the width of the cabin while the remaining space was occupied by a small table, two chairs and a row of six steel lockers.

On the wall (sorry – bulkhead) alongside or behind each bunk was a small lockable cupboard.

The cabin was basically a steel box painted in a sort of dull buttermilk colour whilst the steel framed bunks were or rather had been a kind of grey-blue colour although mostly it was chipped to reveal the grey metal beneath.

Two circular ceiling lights with wire framed protective guards were somewhat reminiscent of a prison and smaller wall mounted versions provided reading lights for each bunk. The only natural light was provided by two brass-framed portholes set in the inch thick steel hull and was all there would be between us and the might of the ocean. Scary!!

However, we were undaunted, (if privately I at least was a little disappointed at the sparseness of it all), and set about settling in. Being the first arrivals and able to take our pick of the bunks and lockers that we deemed best, we staked our claims and got organised.

I chose the top bunk against the inside wall and unpacked my case, carefully putting my toiletries, writing materials and a few other personal items in the little wall cabinet.

The other two chaps did likewise. Dave, the older of the two was about 25 and an East-ender; a real Cockney, bright and breezy with a ready smile and a really sharp wit. I liked him immediately on the train and we’d found an easy rapport. Tim was younger. Just 20 but still older than my eighteen years, He was more reserved and I judged by his voice that he’d been well educated.

Both claimed the same reason as me for heading off to sea – a quest for an adventure and an opportunity to see a bit of the world at someone else’s expense. Once organised in our cabin, we set off for a wander around the ship and thence to the Horse and Groom to do as instructed.

Now what we didn’t know was that The Horse and Groom was the gay centre of the city although of course in those days the word was not gay but queer or camp. In our naïve innocence we were inside before we realised it and the sight was truly something to behold, as indeed our faces must have been.

The place was heaving with a shoulder to shoulder crush of customers many of whom seemed to be in full drag ranging from micro minis to gowns that would not have disgraced the foyer of a London theatre.

There were wonderful wigs, false eyelashes, pouting red lips and fishnet clad legs in 3-inch heels all bumping and grinding to a heavy rock-n-roll rhythm but above all the atmosphere was unbelievable. It seemed just so happy and blissfully uninhibited and incredibly the only real women in the place were the two behind the bar.

Everyone seemed to know each other yet we newcomers whose wide-eyed innocence must have stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb were simply absorbed, swallowed up until in what seemed like moments we felt we belonged. It really was the most incredible experience given that until then my only knowledge of what in those days we called ‘homos’ had been gleaned via smutty jokes and seemingly impossible graphics on toilet walls.

After an hour or so I suddenly remembered that Dad had asked me to phone home and tell them I’d arrived safely. Well, I had certainly arrived but quite how safe I was, I must admit I was beginning to wonder.

Dad answered the phone and after the first re-assuring words to confirm my arrival on board the ship, naturally, it all started to pour out.

“Dad, you should see all the queers.

“Shh! lad – your mother’s here.”

This was our ‘best’ uniform. Day to day gear as I was to discover shortly was much more basic. The cap was only ever intended to be worn for ‘boat drill’ so that in the event of an emergency and everyone having to report to muster stations, passengers would be able to identify crew who would ‘look after them and see them safely on board lifeboats.

(If they didn’t jump in themselves! I reckon that would be a tough call. I’d like to think I might have been heroic but who can tell).

So that was just the first few days. Next time I'll tell you a bout the first trip I did which was a Mediterranean cruise to Casablanca, Naples, Palamos and Gibraltar and including the account of a very special day I spent on the Isle of Capri.

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