A professional studio photograph taken in the early 1960's when I was on Home leave after my first Foreign Going voyage on the SS Mahseer
I once read that if you can remember the 1960’s, you weren’t really there. I suspect that might have been the strap line thought up by a journalist or magazine article writer who coined the expression for an article long after the sixties had passed into memory.
For me, the events of the 1960’s remain vivid even after the passage of so many years. What made that decade so special was that it was a time when the restrictions and food rationing of the immediate post war years were becoming distant memories. For young people and teenagers in particular there was choice in terms of employment so as a result they had both money to spend and freedom of choice when it came to lifestyle and fashion.
Everywhere there was optimism about the future, accompanied by a hunger for change and a thirst for new experiences. Youth deference towards authority in schools, at work and at home was fading with teenagers being increasingly assertive. I felt at the beginning of the 1960s that there were endless opportunities ahead of me.
The start of the 1960’s saw the end of my apprenticeship and the start of the journey towards a new career at sea that commenced with my time as a student at two Marine radio training colleges, my service with the Shipping Company Thos and Jno Brocklebank as a Radio Officer on their Cargo Liners and in the later years, up to be beginning of the 1970’s, my commencement of a new life ashore as I sought to develop a career in telecommunications.
One aspect of my life all those years ago, that epitomises for me the spirit of the 1960’s relate to some of the parties that were held on-board the Brocklebank ships that I sailed on.
When I first went to sea I used to listen to the raconteurs in the ship’s bar when they regaled any one prepared to listen, with stories of parties that had been held on board company ships. Most but not all of these parties had been held when the ships in question were on Home Trade voyages (in British or Continental Ports).
I remember one anecdote which I cannot vouch to be true about a Brocklebank ship being berthed in Birkenhead which was boarded just after dawn by a Marine Superintendent from Head Office.
On his way aboard, he had the good fortune or misfortune depending on your point of view, of meeting his daughter leaving the ship a little the worse for wear. The story as told to me did not reveal the nature of their conversation as they passed on the gangway nor about any repercussions when they met up again at their home. It just seemed to me (at the time) to be a highly amusing story. No doubt like every good story it was embellished every time it was repeated. Later in my life when I was the father of teenagers, my perspective and amusement about the story changed considerably.
My first ship, the SS Mahseer did not offer much in the way of parties during my time on board even though I did Home Trade and Foreign going voyages on her. The parties and dances that I attended were held at the Seaman's Mission in Colombo Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) under the watchful but friendly eye of the Mission’s Chaplain the Reverent John Phillips. He took responsibility for inviting the young ladies from his local parish church to the dances and for organising the refreshments (non alcoholic). His intention I believe was to ensure that although far from home and in a strange country, we, young and single merchant navy officers could still enjoy female companionship in a civilised and friendly environment.
The exception on the Mahseer to the Seaman's Mission dances was the Horse racing party, held in Aden which is the subject of another story and appears under the title of “The Sport of Kings”. On that occasion the participants were all male because that was the time before females sailed on Naval vessels or as officers on Brocklebank Ships.
The most serious and almost continuous partying took place whilst I was serving on the SS Magdapur coasting around the UK. The arrangements that were put in place were well established and honed to perfection before I ever joined the company.
The leading lights in making the arrangements for the parties fell to the the third mate or fourth engineer who were elected without a vote as the ship’s entertainment officer. These honorary roles were bestowed on them because they were deemed to have the most cultivated voices and nicest telephone manner.
It was usual for the General Post Office (GPO), the forerunner to British Telecom to install a landline connected payphone on board ship for the benefit of all of the crew but more specifically for the British Officers.
By today's standards the technology of the installed telephones was positively archaic. For those readers who have never seen such a technological masterpiece it was rectangular in shape about 20 inches (51 cm) high, 12 inches (31 cm) wide and 10 inches (25.5 cm) deep. Its steel casing was painted black. The Bakelite handset with the microphone and earpiece sat on a chromed cradle on top, connected to the box usually with an armoured black rubber covered cable. It has a rotary dial and was normally mounted vertically on a wall or bulkhead. The coin slot was at the top of the unit and located just in front of the handset cradle. On the front face of the unit, below the coin slot were two protruding chromed buttons, mysteriously marked Button “A” and Button “B”.
You placed the pennies, shilling or florins (pre decimalisation) into the coin slot when instructed by the telephone operator who told you the charge for the minimum 3 minute call duration. Button “A” was pressed to pay for the call if you were connected successfully. The crashing noise made by the coins as they fell into the lockable cash box at the bottom of the unit reminded you it was too late to change your mind. Button “B” was pressed if the call failed because it was not answered and you wanted your money back. The money paid in was delivered to a recess at the bottom of the unit just above the lockable cash box. This refund process was not entirely foolproof because sometimes you only received a partial refund or you lost your money entirely.
The process followed by Magdapur’s entertainments officer, had all of the precision and organisation of an army exercise on Salisbury Plain. After docking and the installation of the payphone, as soon as either the third mate or the fourth engineer were free from their shipboard duties they would use the telephone to make contact with the operators at the local telephone exchange. To contact the operator (universally female in those days) you would pick up the handset, dial zero and wait for the reply.
The operator’s salutation would be along the lines of “hello operator, what service do you want”? The response was generally “hello my name is Bill, I’m the entertainments officer on board the SS Magdapur. We’ve just docked at (give location) and were wondering if you and some of the other young ladies (note the emphasis on young) would like to come on board tonight*/tomorrow night*/Saturday night* (* chose the most appropriate) for a party. There will be about 10 of us so feel free to bring as many girls as you like. The ships Chef will be laying on food so there is no need to eat before you arrive”. The use of the term Chef was used in much the same way as a coarse fisherman might use ground bait to attract fish into the swim and was used as an embellishment to the invitation. Brocklebank’s Indian cooks who were employed in the Officer’s galley fully deserved that title as they consistently served up the most fantastic meals no matter what the conditions of the sea or the temperature in the galley was. Other tales of my experiences at sea attest to the fantastic meals that I regularly enjoyed on Brocklebank ships.
The approach described above, which I will call Plan A was often successful. A further tactic either in place of, or in addition to Plan A was Plan B. This involved dialling 100 for Directory Enquiries and when the operator spoke, the “entertainments officer” would ask for the number of the nurse’s home at the local hospital.
Having obtained and then dialled the number, providing you could get past the Housekeeper or Sister in charge of the nurses home then the conversation was broadly the same except that there would be greater emphasis on the food. In those days and I guess even now junior nurses were not well paid and were always hungry. On many occasions the Sister in-charge of the nurses home also attended the parties.
On the SS Magdapur, the ship was doubly blessed not only because all of the engineers and junior navigators were party animals but also because the Second Steward whose name sadly I do not now remember who was in his early 20’s was what you might call the “gentleman friend” of a very elegant lady in her mid forties who was very well connected with people in the theatre. One party we held on board involved the leading Russian dancers from a London Ballet company that was touring the provinces.
How the Second Steward did it I do not know but after arriving in Glasgow and probably by making a direct approach, he arranged for the cast of a review show that was being staged at one of the theatres in the City to come aboard and spend some time with us. In the case of one of the female dancers, she stayed with one of the engineers in his cabin almost up until the time we left Glasgow, only leaving the ship each day to participate in the theatre’s afternoon and evening performances.
The parties on board were held quite late as we used to watch the evening show at the theatre and then meet the cast backstage to escort them back to the ship in a convoy of taxis. The tight security arrangements now in place to prevent visitors coming on board a ship in Port did not then exist. All that was required was a friendly wave to the police officer at the dock gate as the taxi convoy passed through.
I remember that amongst the artists from the show was an Australian ventriloquist and comedian who was an entertainment in his own right although before the end of our time in Glasgow he cried off claiming exhaustion.
It was with mixed regret that we left Glasgow after ten days in Port, but given all the good times and parties it is hardly surprising that to a man we were feeling jaded. For me it was good to feel the sea moving under the ship’s keel once again, resume the routine of the Ship’s Radio watches and to get some salt air back into my lungs.
Some time later when I was on the SS Manaar a party was held on board when the ship was berthed in Avonmouth. The guests included members of the Billy Cotton Dance Band who were performing at a Bristol Theatre. The great man himself and his famous lead singer Alan Breeze were not amongst the guests. I do remember that the band musicians that came on board had prodigious thirsts. Amongst their number was a trombonist (who was gay in the modern sense of the word) and who regaled us with stories of the Band’s exploits. His anecdotes had us all laughing until the tears ran down our eyes. For ever afterwards, even after I had left the sea, whenever Billy Cotton’s “Wakey Wakey” programme was broadcast on the radio, I could not help laughing when they played and sang “All the nice girls love a sailor”!
There was another time also on Manaar when at a party held in a UK Port, one young lady who came on board and who clearly knew how to appreciate the better things in life asked for the Radio Officer. Someone pointed me out and said “he’s over there standing next to his wife”! It might have been the case that she was looking for a specific Radio Officer for reasons known only to herself. However my meeting with her was restricted to a smile and a friendly hello. It was at this party that my teenage junior decided to demonstrate his self-claimed ability to drink a large quantity of neat Gin and remain sober. To say that he failed is an understatement and his face and its colour the next day after he emerged from his cabin was testimony to that because a photograph taken at the time would have served as an illustration on the front cover of the Harry Potter book Deathly Hallows!
It is most probable that the young women who came so willingly on board did so for a wide variety of reasons. Curiosity, a sense of adventure, a desire to meet young men who appeared to have interesting jobs and were different to those of their acquaintance. All this within a completely different social setting to the one they might have been familiar with. They might also have been attracted by the thought of having some authentic Indian food.
We always attempted to maintain a smart appearance by wearing our uniforms together with clean white shirts. I did hear that a number of marriages resulted from ship board parties of a similar nature.
When the 1960’s moved into its later years, domestic responsibilities and the challenges of a new career took over my life. The opportunity to travel to foreign countries was not repeated until many years later when by both sea and air I was able to visit many different places around the World. This became possible only after my children grew up and flew the family nest to pursue their own independent lives.
For me, an invitation to a party no longer generates the same frisson of excitement that it once did. The parties held onboard ship, my life at sea as a Radio Officer and the many memorable people I met are all threads woven into a tapestry of wonderful memories.
Tempus Fugit! Dreams and nostalgia, the former for the young and the latter for the old. How short is the time interval between them.
copyright © John Leary