Having been advised by my Mother’s Uncle, Harry Day, that he could earn good money as a laundryman at sea, my Father embarked on the biggest adventure of his life. In May 1950 he signed up to sail with the Orient line, now known as P&O.
His maiden voyage was from Tilbury to Australia, via Suez, a long held ambition/obsession of Alfie’s finally fulfilled. His first ship was the Otranto, some 12,000 tons, carrying 1,500 passengers with a crew of 450. His apprenticeship at the Heybridge laundry finally paid off and he was given the post of chief laundryman, with a 12 person staff.
Dad described it as “entering another world, a world where everything seemed a luxury after the austere years during the war”. He recalls leaving Tilbury and standing aft to watch the coastline leaving the Channel and as dusk fell he realised he was alone, as he had never been parted from my Ma or sisters before. He had a moment of doubt, and thought “I want to get off!”.
However he need not have worried, he was so busy working in the laundry he didn’t have time to get lonely or seasick, and the wonderful ports of call and beautiful weather made the parting well worth it.
This “other world” Pa remarked, was a world on its own, with class distinction, and “Tin Gods” like the chief stewards. Alcoholism was common place and Alfie had a linen keeper who shared his cabin. This affable fellow couldn’t get out of bed without a stiff drink at 5 a.m.
The Captain was God and the daily bridge courts presided over by him. The most common charges were fighting and failing to turn up for duty, but by and large his fellow crewmen were a loyal lot. Some of the stewards were from Goa in south west India. Dad liked these people a lot, and thought they were well mannered and kind. It was from them he aquired his life long love of curry.
Although Alfie had encountered Gay men in the auxiliary fire service in the war he’d never seen what he called Queens”, Gay men dressed in drag. Some of them he said looked gorgeous and Pa was sure the famous drag artist Danny la Rue got his act from them! The Gays and Queens put on concerts for the crew, and the Captain would always attend as the shows were very entertaining and funny. Pa said the Queens would fight each other over a man just like a woman would tho’ were prone to depression especially if they lost their “husband”. A chap Dad knew who was a barkeeper jumped overboard, because he developed varicose veins and feared his “husband” would no longer love him.
Sadly the poor fellow’s body was never found…..
As he’s already said, Alfie loved the ladies, and in his marvellous white uniform he said women were “hypnotically attracted” to him. And although he visited brothels in both Spain and Italy he claimed he never cavorted with a “lady of the night” as the queues for VD jabs following such visits by the crew were enough to warn him off! He only “romanced” with the ladies onboard!
Before he succumbed to Dementia I once asked my Pa how many women he thought he’d slept with, “Around two thousand, I think” he replied. When I accused him of exaggeration he said “If you don’t believe me, whyd’ya f**king ask me then?”.
Travelling the world(Pa reckoned he’d “traversed the globe” at least half a dozen times)was an incredible education for him, and he could righteously claim to have “seen that, done that, been there” many times over.
Alfie said he’d walked among the cave and ground dwellers in Aden, and the length and breadth of the Casbah in Casablanca, both rather dangerous to strangers back then, but Pa never got any hassle, he reckoned it was because he was so dark skinned and tanned he looked like an Arab!
He explored Broadway in New York, drank at the Jack Dempsey bar and read the news in lights on Times square, walked the Bronx and the Bowery and was shocked at the poverty he saw in what he called “Mighty America”.
He trekked into the jungles of Fiji and met the natives and saw their mud huts and primitive way of life.
He rode the cable cars in both Capetown and Barcelona, saw the crater at Vesuvius, explored Athens and visited the remains of the ancient Colossus in Rhodes.
Pa loved Hawaii. He told me that when he first went there there was a huge Coca-Cola sign in the harbour. He liked to surf on a body board and loved the native Hawaiians, but his biggest thrill was visiting Australia, which he did many times. He loved the climate, the Aussie attitude to life, the marvellous geography and the beer!
Virtually til the day he died Dad talked daily about Australia, and a classic line of his to anybody who would listen was “don’t know why you don’t get on a cruise ship and get your arse to Australia!” There were a number of times when Alfie trotted out that line and caused me much mirth. We were travelling to Scotland and were going through security at the airport when an over zealous security guard stopped us. He x rayed Dad’s walking stick and made us remove our shoes to swab them. All the time, much to my great amusement Dad kept saying “Don’t know why you’re working here, you want to get a job on a cruise ship, get your arse to Australia, have you ever been to Australia? Best country in the world! Don’t you like ships? I bet you’ve never been on one! You want to get your arse to Australia, you’d love it there, get on a cruise ship, Australia, bloody lovely” etc etc til eventually the guard said “thank you gents, you can go” “off you go sir” “thankyou” but I gave Pa a little bit more time to get acquainted with his new friend…..tee hee!
Another time Alfie and I met Will in the pub. After a while a couple that Will knew came in and got a beer and joined us. Of course Dad’s first words to them were “You want to get on a cruise ship, get your arse to Australia!” to which they replied “We’ve just come from Australia Alf”. I can still see the look on Pa’s face, he sort of went red, pursed his lips……but nothing would come out! He was speechless, probably one of the few times ever!!!
Well all things must come to an end, and sadly for Dad his adventures on the high seas ended when I came along in September 1957.
He told me when he received the news of my arrival he and his crew celebrated with a crate of Champagne.
And although my birth marked the end of his seafaring capers, there were still more adventures ahead……