Sunday, 29 April 2012

Why Engineers are Never Tanned

From Japan we sailed light ship, (without cargo) across the North Pacific 4,500 miles, following a Great Circle route for three weeks, past the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the Aleutian Islands and down the west coast of Canada where we loaded a cargo of lumber for Australia calling at wonderfully named places on Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia.
What contrast there was between these tiny logging communities and the hustle and bustle and the bright lights of the Japanese ports on  the other side of the North Pacific.  This was my first visit to North America and I was captivated by these sociable, resilient Canadians who were more than capable of holding their own when it came to a few drinks in the local saloon.  It was piercingly cold, noticeably more than Japan.  Snow and ice lay thick on the ground and the deck of our ship was a hazardous place to be when negotiating the way to one’s quarters after a skinful of Carling Black Label in the taverns of Tahsis, Chemainus and Port Alberni.  Remarkably, none of our number jumped ship in Canada, perhaps even these guys thought the idea of a long winter in this isolated place not such an exciting prospect.
After leaving Canada, we settled in for the long haul back across the Pacific to Sydney.  Nearly eight thousand miles of watch-keeping – four hours on, eight hours off; four hours on eight hours off, every day, every week for five weeks. 
A typical day would begin for me at midnight when I would start my first four hour watch.  Two hundred and forty minutes of watching gauges, feeling bearings to make sure they don’t overheat, cleaning oil separators, working on fuel injectors and writing up the engine room log.  Every hour I would walk down around the back of the main engine, into the comparative silence of the shaft tunnel following the two foot diameter shaft, slowly and relentlessly rotating at two revolutions every second along through the long passageway through the innards of the ship a hundred metres to the solidly built water-tight gland at the stern.  Here the shaft continued through the half inch steel hull to turn the giant four bladed ten foot diameter propeller driving and churning through the briny to push us forward at a steady 12 or 13 knots. 
I would stop at each bearing block along the way, checking that the oil level in the housing was at the right level and that the white metal bearings were not in danger of overheating. Sometimes, particularly when the sea was rough and it was important to hold on to something as I made my way down the passage, I would pause for a moment or two, and remember where I was: alone at the bottom of ten thousand tonnes of steel, nothing between my feet and the cold deep ocean below but three or four feet of empty coffer dam made from a few fractions of an inch of steel plate, and the nearest landfall probably a thousand miles away, and I would think, “thank God, it’s 1966 and not 1942 and there are no submarines out there looking for us!
Once my reverie was disturbed when I heard a distant alarm.  I hurried back along the checker-plated passageway, bouncing off hand rails and bulkheads as the ship pitched and rolled, back through the water-tight door connecting the shaft tunnel to the main engine room, to see a steady stream of hot black heavy fuel oil shooting out from a ruptured pipe leading to the fuel injectors.  There was Gordon, wrench in hand, standing on a hand rail reaching over his head to the breached pipe, trying hard to undo a union connection.  Catching sight of me he called out, “don’t just fecken stand there staring you useless ba’ heed, awa’ an’ get a valve wrench, so I can turn the fecken thing aff!
I should add, that communications between us, were generally much more civil.
At 4 am, the second engineer and his assistant would take over the watch and Gordon and I would change out of our work clothes, shower and sometimes meet for a quick beer with the second mate who would have just finished his watch up on the bridge.  This didn’t happen too often on Baron Jedburgh because as I mentioned earlier, there were rigorous alcohol restrictions and it was not often that we had beer or spirits to share.   I would get to bed about 5 am.  If I wanted breakfast I had to be back up by 8.30.  Sometimes I would sleep until 11.30 but this was rare as there was usually other maintenance work to be done and the second engineer expected us all to do a couple of hours' overtime between our watches.
After an early lunch, the afternoon watch would start at noon and the same activities as took place in the morning watch would be repeated over the next four hours.  Afterwards, I would change and sit on deck for maybe an hour hoping to get some air before dinner at 5.30. Engineers see little daylight when at sea.  If you spot a merchant seaman with a bronzed sun tan, it’s unlikely he is one of the engine room crowd.
It was important to be in bed and asleep by 8 o’clock if I could because at 15 minutes to midnight, the knock would come on the door, and I would hear the familiar, “Come on wakey, wakey me old sunshine!”, and the cycle would start again. 
Of course, one of the things about all ships’ engine rooms, even today is that they are hot and noisy.  Unlike today’s health and safety conscious working conditions, we almost never wore ear protection, and the consequence of standing next to a high revving gear box for hours at a time only came home to roost many years later in the form of  industrial deafness (although my wife still thinks the word “industrial” can be easily interchanged with “convenient”).
I mentioned earlier the second mate.  Another interesting character, he was an archetypal grumpy old Scottish mariner in the twilight of his career.  He had been twice shipwrecked during the second war, and was undeniably the hardest man I ever had the misfortune of trying to wake.  He was on the same watch as I was, but frequently slept through his wake-up call. It was not unusual for the third mate to call down from the bridge saying his relief was late, and would I mind giving him another shake.  Why they couldn’t send one of the seaman or one of the cadets down, I never understood – they obviously didn’t like the job any more than I did.  So up I would go to his cabin entering it to find him lying fully clothed on his back, making a noise like a bull farting, smelly feet hanging over the end of the bunk, refusing all attempts to wake him.  It was only persistent vigorous shaking, and shouting in his ear which eventually got him to stir, and then I would dive out of the way as this great claw of a hand would come around to swat me away as if I was a fly.  I used to dread this job.
After discharging the timber in Sydney and Melbourne, where I had the pleasure of experiencing the six o’clock swill where patrons stood six deep at the bar, fuelling up before the pub closed at six, we were off again for a load of North Queensland sugar.  This time to Townsville where we took on cargo for the UK.  From Townsville, it was Singapore to refuel and then across the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea for the passage through the Suez Canal.
Seamen always get excited when the ship is on its way home.  They have a word for this condition.  It’s called “the Channels”.  Originally meant to refer to how a sailor feels as his ship approaches and sails into the English Channel, it starts long before this, usually as soon as the crew become aware that the next destination will be the last one before paying off for and going home.  By the time we were in the Red Sea, talk of “the Channels” was commonplace.
There were few “Company” men on board apart from the skipper and one or two of the senior officers.  Most of the crew had signed on through the “Pool”.  Their leave having run out from their previous engagement, they simply turned up at the Pool and were allocated their next ship.  At the time, there was wide employment and many sailors, knowing the reputation of Baron boats would turn down the job, opting for something better.  As a result some of our crew but certainly not all, were sailors with less than perfect performance records, or were perhaps less discerning than others.  Obviously this wasn’t the case with everyone on board, and to this day, I still regard Dave Davies as someone who epitomised the good humoured, long-suffering British seaman whose company I enjoyed so much during my years at sea.
The food on the ship was awful.  It was described to me as strict “BOT” which meant no frills and not a penny spent over that needed to meet the Board of Trade regulations.  Something as simple as eggs for breakfast were considered a luxury and most definitely not provided as an everyday item on the menu.  Dinner was often nothing more than ham and chips and if we had beef stew on Monday, you could be sure we’d have beef soup on Tuesday and beef consomm√© on Wednesday.
As we got closer to Greenock, our final destination at the mouth of the Clyde, the Chief Engineer called me into his cabin for one of the few exchanges of words that took place between us in the six months that I had been on the ship.  He told me that he was happy with my performance and asked me if I would like to take some leave in the UK and then return to the ship as a junior watch keeping engineer.  I didn’t think about the job offer for long (about a micro-second).  I told him that I planned to take some leave and then explore other opportunities with some of the other shipping lines.  What I really meant was that wild horses would not have got me back on another Hungry Hogarth ship.
 And so it was that sometime in June of 1966, while the Rolling Stones were belting out Paint it Black and Lennon and McCartney were singing about paperback writing, I paid off Baron Jedburgh in Greenock and walked down the gangway on a misty Scottish morning to start the next stage of my adventure.  The British shipping industry was in the throes of an industrial dispute, the result of which was a major seaman’s strike which was to affect the whole industry and last many weeks.
I had decided the first place I wanted to visit was London, so I caught the overnight train from Glasgow to London Euston.  I travelled with big Dave and Paddy, both of whom were also headed that way and we all had sleeper accommodation.  There was something very special about being able to sit in the bar of the Dining Car, drink as many cans as I wanted of Watneys Red Barrel or Double Diamond and roll back to my bunk in the Sleeping Car without anyone shaking my arm in the middle of the night and talking about my Daddy’s yacht (which by the way, was a 10 foot clinker-built rowing boat, which I went out in once with my Dad in Smith’s Creek and spent the day getting badly sunburned and catching nothing at all).
I spent a few days in London, gawping for the first time in my life at all those great icons I had read and heard so much about – Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Nelson’s Column – and spent several hours riding around on the Underground feeling like a city boy. 
I was flush with funds, having been paid off the ship with six months’ pay, so I probably had about 300 pounds in my pocket.  With all this money, I lashed out, hired a car and headed up the M1 to Nottingham where my Auntie Doreen and Uncle Gordon lived.  I cannot remember a warmer welcome anywhere than that which I received from the moment I arrived at their home in Calverton.  Gordon had previously been a trolleybus conductor with Nottingham City Transport and when the last of the trolleys went off the streets of Nottingham in 1965, he found work as the caretaker of a school in the mining village of Calverton just outside the city.  The job came with a little bungalow within the school grounds and they lived there very happily for many years.   
Doreen was my mother’s sister.  I had two cousins, Geoffrey who was nine months younger than me and Roger, a couple of years younger than Geoff.   Geoffrey had recently left home, having started university in Leicester, so there was a spare room in the bungalow, and Doreen and Gordon could not have made me more welcome.  She was like a second mother to me and to this day I remember her with love and affection.  She was (and is) a beautiful person.  She worked at the hospital, near Nottingham Castle and I would frequently pick her up from work, drive to Calverton and the three of us would share a wonderful meal of egg and chips before Gordon and I would wander up to the Wagon and Horses for a couple of pints.  What a wonderful home from home it was (their bungalow in Calverton – not the Wagon and Horses).  They had a little three-wheeled Reliant and it broke me up, driving around in this tiddler of a car.  Gordon driving, pipe in mouth, me in the passenger seat and Doreen in the back telling us funny little stories about what had happened at work that day.  They didn’t feel comfortable having me call them Auntie Doreen and Uncle Gordon, so I used to call them AD and UG.  We had some great times.
I probably stayed with them about a month, before heading up to Liverpool looking for my next job.  But that will be another story – there is much to tell about the Amazon River, and that wonderful part of the world, the Caribbean.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Merchant Seaman - Lest We Forget

Another year passes and it's Anzac Day 2013 and a time to share my personal affection for those who have been down to the sea in ships; and many who never returned to shore...
I’ve read about soldiers and sailors
Of infantry, airmen and tanks,
Of battleships, corvettes and cruisers,
Of Anzacs, Froggies and Yanks;
But there’s one other man to remember
Who was present at many affray,
He wears neither medals or ribbons
And derides any show of display.

I’m talking of AB’s and fireman,
Of stewards, greasers and cooks,
Who manned the great steamers in convoy,
(You won’t read about them in books).
No uniform gay were they dressed in,
Nor marched with colours unfurled,
They steamed out across the wide oceans,
And travelled all over the world.
Their history goes back through the ages,
A record of which to be proud.
And the bones of their forefathers moulder,
With nought but the deep for a shroud.
For armies have swept onto victory
For country, freedom and pride.

In Thousands they sailed from their homeland,
From Liverpool, Hull and the Clyde.
To London and Bristol and Cardiff,
They came back again on the tide.
An old four-point seven their safeguard –
What nice easy prey for the Huns
Who trailed them in bombers and U-boats
And sank them with “tin fish” and guns.

The epic of gallant “Otaki”,
That grim forlorn hope “Jervis Bay”,
Who fought to the last and were beaten,
But they joined the illustrious array,
Whoses skeletons lie ‘neath the waters
Whose deeds are remembered today,
And their glory will shine undiminished,
Long after our flesh turns to clay.

They landed the Anzacs at Suvia,
And stranded the old “River Clyde”,
Off Dunkirk they gathered the remnants,
(and still they weren’t satisfied),
They battled their way through to Malta,
And rescued the troops from Malay.
They brought the Eighth Army munitions,
And took all the prisoners away.

And others signed on in tankers,
And loaded crude oil and octane –
The lifeblood of warships and engines,
Of mechanised transport and plane
These men were engulfed in infernos
In ships that were sunk without trace.

They were classed as non-combatant services,
Civilians who fought without guns –
And many the time they’d have welcomed
A chance of a crack at the Huns.
But somehow in spite of this drawback.
The steamers still sailed and arrived,
And they fed fifty million people
And right to the end they survived.

And now the turmoil has ended
Our enemies vanquished and fled –
We’ll pray that living will foster
The spirit of those who are dead.
When the next generation takes over.
This country we now hold in dear,
Will be theirs – may they cherish it’s freedom,
And walk down the pathways of peace.

When the Master of Masters holds judgement
And the Devil’s dark angels have flown,
When the Clerk of the Heavenly Council
Decrees that the names shall be shown –
They will stand out in glittering letters,
Inscribed with the blood they have shed,
Names of ships and Merchant Seamen who manned them,
The oceans will give up the dead.
With acknowledgement to the Anonymous person who wrote this evocative piece.

Monday, 23 April 2012

A Ship of My Own


In early December 1965 I completed five years of servitude as an apprentice fitter and turner at the local brewery.  I use the term servitude quite loosely here, since although there were times when I considered myself constrained under a form of feudal bondage, and the documentation that my father, as my legal guardian  signed with me five years earlier used such colourful expressions as "wilful disobedience of lawful commands of the employer, his managers, foremen and other servants having authority” and stressed the need to avoid being “slothful, negligent, dishonest or in any other way guilty of gross misbehaviour” under penalty of discharge of services; it was, even so, a great place for a young man to learn an engineering trade – and I look back very fondly on that period of my life.  
The work was hard, the study hours were long and played havoc on a young man’s social life, but the diversity of the work and the practical experience helped me in many ways over the years that followed.
I wasn’t always the favourite apprentice, particularly during my final year.  To be truthful, I was never the favourite in the eyes of one or two of the senior engineers.
I became involved in one or two union disputes that year, the result being that I was regarded by some as an impressionable young pinko who spent too much time listening to the workers for his own good.  In the early sixties with the war a fresh memory for anyone over 40, there was a solid cadre of fedora wearing, trade unionists whose role it was to take on the bosses on behalf of the working man.  These were the days of the real true believer and it was important to choose sides.  One either supported Bob Menzies and the Empire or listened attentively to shop stewards and organisers from the FED and the AEU with tales of John Curtin and Ben Chifley and the right of the working man to lay down his tools and walk off the job (usually straight to the pub) for higher pay and safer conditions.
Bill Stone was one of these men.  He was an engine driver and the local organiser for the Federated Engine Drivers' and Firemen's Association.   Bill was habitually well dressed in tailored short sleeved shirt, short trousers, tropical style long socks and was rarely seen without his grey felt narrow-brimmed hat.  Unlike most of the other engine drivers or firemen, I never saw Bill in a pair of overalls or a boiler-suit.  He was an articulate man who along with his co-workers maintained an engine room that was spotless and grease-free.  Ammonia compressors used for refrigeration; great horizontal piston machines with flywheels half as big again as any man;  chattering high speed vertical engines and a great English Electric diesel powered generator - all of them high gloss cream in colour such that with its green walls and polished red floors the whole area could have hosted a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Queensland Country Women's Association were it not for the noise of the engines and the occasional fugitive whiff of escaped ammonia.  
Bill epitomised the no-nonsense, plain-speaking labour supporter of the 1960s.  He was a loyal, hard-working man whose motivation in life was for nothing more than a university education for his children and a fair share of the fruits of his labours.  He went on to become the federal secretary of his organisation and was later awarded a well-deserved Order of Australia Medal for his services to trade unionism.  
There was a particular dispute toward the end of my final year which developed into a prolonged and at times bitter strike.  In accordance with the Terms of Indenture, the apprentices were not themselves permitted to stop work, but I was conspicuously sympathetic of my comrades and this did little for my standing with my employer.  The chief engineer, a red-faced Irish Australian, who was never my greatest fan, made it clear that it would be to our mutual benefit if I looked elsewhere for employment as soon as my five years was up.  
There was plenty of work for a qualified man in those days and it didn’t concern me at all that I might soon be unemployed.  Tradesmen earned a respectable income in those days – at least twenty pounds for a 40 hour week plus overtime and there was always plenty of overtime.
As things turned out, there was no need to fire me because shortly before my last day as an apprentice, a family friend who was an executive at the local port authority, asked my father if young Michael was interested in a career in the Merchant Navy.  There was a British ship in port short a couple of hands, and if I was interested there was a job as an engineers’ assistant, with the option of promotion to engineer should a position became available.  
This was the chance I had long been waiting for and within a few days of finishing my apprenticeship at the brewery, I left the company for ever and signed up as a crew member on the MV Baron Jedburgh as its most junior of junior assistants. My official position was donkey-greaser and my job was to assist the ship’s engineering officers as their offsider and general gopher.
The ship was registered in Scotland in the west coast port of Ardrossan.  She was just under 12,000 tons, built in South Shields in 1958.  She was one of a fleet of cargo tramp ships owned and operated by H. Hogarth of Glasgow, known to all in the merchant service (as I was to later discover) as  Hungry Hogarths.
The ship’s captain was a disagreeable and obese man, who smoked oval-shaped Passing Cloud cigarettes that looked as if he had been sitting on them. The whole time I was on the Baron Jedburgh he spoke to me twice; the day I joined and the day I left, and I believe the only words he uttered to me on both occasions were, “Sign here.”
I had a tiny cabin in the fo’c’sle where the crew were separated from the officers, and was taken under the wing of a big fellow donkeyman named Dave Davies, who may have had Welsh ancestry but was a Londoner through and through.  He was a generous, down to earth fellow, who used to wake me every morning with “Come on then, rise and shine, you’re not on your Daddy’s yacht now, y’know!” 
There were three donkey-greasers including Dave, all of whom were watch-keepers.  Dave shared the 4 to 8 with the second engineer. Yorky  had the 8 to 12 and Paddy the 12 to 4 which is always the third engineer’s watch.  I was a day worker – 7.30 to 5 o’clock with half an hour for lunch.
We shared the Greasers’ Mess, a little room just across from the galley where we would eat our meals and meet for smoko during the day.  This was where I learned to put condensed milk in my tea, because it's not easy to find fresh milk at sea and long-life milk was still at least five years away.  The additional advantage of condensed milk of course was that it obviated the need for putting sugar in your tea.  Fortunately, I am well and truly over this disgusting habit!
There were seven engineers on board – all of them Glaswegian.  In charge was the Chief Engineer, who didn’t keep a watch and who seemed to spend most of his time in his cabin.  I don’t think we exchanged more than a handful of words the whole time I was on the ship.  
The second engineer was a portly middle-aged fellow, who had been in the merchant service since the war.  Always shirtless when he was working, this genial man knew everything that I was ever going to need to know about marine engineering.  The third engineer was a sharp-tongued, sandy-headed former Clyde-side ship builder called Gordon, whose most frequent expression seemed to be “och awa' 'n' keek”.  When I became an engineer myself later in the voyage, I spent all my watch-keeping with Gordon on the 12 to 4 and I grew to like his company.  The fourth engineer was another tough-talking Glaswegian. Always the first to lead the singing after a few bevvies, he would start with “I’m no awa’ tae bide awa’” followed by a host of other ditties most of which were completely incomprehensible, but oddly enjoyable.
There were three junior engineers, one of whom unfortunately suffered from delirium tremens.  He frequently could be heard wailing at his demons in the confines of his quarters after a long night of excess. When he was sober, Eddie was a most capable and amusing engineer.  It's a shame he was rarely sober when off-duty.  It was Eddie who told me stories about the Amazon River and Booth Line which is another exciting part of my life and which I am looking forward to sharing through these pages.
The ship also had an electrical engineer – a mean-spirited, sharp little man, who never seemed to have a nice word for anyone, and who seemed for some reason to be very resentful of my position on the ship.
The ship was powered by a Doxford diesel engine.  I won’t bore anyone with the technical details.  It was big, slow moving and noisy in comparison to some engines I was to work with over the next few years, but  it was reliable and relatively easy to maintain.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself.  The ship had been in Cairns discharging fertiliser from Newcastle (the one in NSW) and was preparing to go back there for another consignment to bring north, this time with a cargo of bulk sugar for the Pyrmont refinery in Sydney.  
It was quite an event for me that late afternoon a few days before Christmas, as the hawsers were released and the vessel eased its way from the wharf, into Smith’s Creek, to Trinity Inlet and out into the Coral Sea.  I had little idea this was the last time I would refer to Cairns as home.  Of course, it would always be my home town – it still is, but it was no longer my home – and would never be again.
After 25 years of marriage, my parents had separated a few months earlier and my mother was living in another town with the new man in her life.  My dad, and my brother and sister were there to wave goodbye as well as my two best friends, Mal Cleland and Ian Fraser.  I would catch up with them a few weeks later in Sydney.
I enjoyed my first taste of ship board life and the trip south seems to have been uneventful.  I have been most fortunate that I have never suffered from sea sickness – obviously a blessing; but I came to know many skilled and experienced sailors over the years, who put up with it throughout their lives at sea.
I was a smoker in those days, and the opportunity of being able to purchase cheap duty-free fags for what was the equivalent of about ten cents a packet was a luxury.  The ship had already been away from its home port for several months and there had been several instances during this time of drunkenness and misbehaviour.  As a result the skipper had imposed a ration of two cans of beer per day for each man which were opened by the chief steward as he handed them out.   
The deck crew were an interesting lot.  Gnarled Highland fishermen speaking in a language that seemed so far from anything I had heard before that it might have been Russian; working alongside them, tattooed hard-faced lads from the Clyde-side streets of Govan and the Gorbals; and from south of the border, a sprinkling of Geordies saying, “ye knaa what ah mean, leik”.
 Another of the ABs, a Liverpudlian known only and obviously as Scouse arrived back on board in handcuffs about an hour before we sailed.  He had jumped ship on a previous voyage, and so to make sure he didn’t do it again, the immigration folk took him off to the local watch-house each time we entered an Australian port.  He would remain there until we departed and was always so cheerful and happy to be back on board with his shipmates that I could never help wondering why it was that he had absconded in the first place.  The bosun was a huge Yorkshireman with arms like a blacksmith. He had no patience with work-shy skivers and was not afraid to use the back of his hand against a recalcitrant slacker. Even the hard boys from the Gorbals kept out of his way.  The bosun and big Dave were good mates and had shipped out together before.
It took a good deal longer to load and unload a ship in 1965 than it does today.  The ship had loaded bulk sugar in Cairns, which was headed to Sydney and the CSR refinery at Pyrmont.  Large clamshell grab claws attached to the derricks were used to unload the vessel by picking up the bulk cargo and transferring it to trucks waiting alongside on the quay.  We were frequently in port for a week or more while this process of loading and unloading took place.  
I don’t remember whether we spent Christmas in Sydney or at sea.  If it was memorable, it clearly wasn’t to me.  The ship had been in Sydney for a few days, when Mal, Ian and another former school-mate, Neville arrived in town, having driven the two thousand kilometres from Cairns.  I was able to get some leave and would re-join the ship in Newcastle a few days later, where it was due to load more fertiliser for the return trip north.  
We shared a couple of motel rooms somewhere near the centre of the city and the four of us found ourselves in Kings Cross on New Year’s Eve with every intention of having the sort of New Year that would do any four 20-year-olds from the far north proud.
It was an eventful evening.  At some point during the night, in the small hours, two of our party seem to have misheard a police direction or more likely perhaps, found themselves between the police and some other miscreants.  Whatever happened, along with several exuberant rabble-rousers they were bundled into a paddy-wagon and carted away to the lock-up.  Not unusually, there was some alcohol-fuelled crowd trouble at the Cross that New Year. Well-lubricated revellers were everywhere.  A group of idiots near us were climbing on parked cars and some were trying to overturn them.  There was a lot of shouting and pushing and probably some fighting. Somehow Ian and Nev found themselves caught up in the action and before they knew it, they were on their way to the lock-up.  
Mal was a 20 year old article clerk with a small firm of Cairns solicitors and was full of the self-assurance and confidence which would in later years stand him in such good stead in his career.  That night, emboldened as he was by youth and alcohol, he said, "leave this to me" and strode off to Darlinghurst Police Station, where he presented himself to the desk sergeant saying, “I’m Mr Fraser and Mr Fry’s lawyer and I insist on seeing my clients.”  It had been a long night for the boys in blue at Darlo nick and the big copper on the desk wasn’t taking any crap from a snivelling youth like Mal. He responded with a quick, “Piss off young fellow, or you’ll finish up with them, OK?”  
Always a pragmatist, Mal immediately saw the logic of this argument, and letting discretion take over from his poorly timed sense of loyalty, he made himself scarce.  We turned up the next morning and Nev and Ian were let out with nothing more than a sore head and a warning not to come back.  
The next day, I returned to Baron Jedburgh by train and not long after we left again for North Queensland where we loaded a cargo of sugar for Japan.
So it was that sometime in that January of 1966, while Harold Holt was taking over from Bob Menzies as the Australian Prime Minister, I made my first trip as an adult to a foreign destination.  People do it all the time now, but in the summer of 1966, it was an accomplishment about which a Cairns boy could feel well pleased.
Our first port was Osaka, a contrast indeed from a hot northern Australian summer to a cold wintry Japan.
I made my first trip ashore with big Dave and like most sailors probably since the days of the Phoenicians, we headed for the nearest watering hole.  A few weeks earlier, I had moved my living quarters from the fo’c’sle to the ‘midships officers’ accommodation following a promotion to junior engineer after one of the other engineers had been hospitalised with appendicitis.  I was the most junior of Junior Engineers sharing the watch with big Gordon on the 12 to 4.  All the same, I continued to have a good friendship with big Dave, and it was with him and the other greasers that I spent a lot of time on my while on shore leave – certainly in Japan at least.  
What an eye-opener it was for a boy from a small country town in North Queensland to arrive in Japan in 1966.  Osaka was a bustling, busy city with bright lights, bars and lots of distractions for young lads.
We were in Osaka and later Kobe an hours’ sailing across the bay for at least two weeks. I loved the excitement and the culture of this busy industrialised area with its rich food and strange smells and customs.  It was here that I first experienced the pleasures of sushi and dumplings made with octopus.  
One of the issues with alcohol rationing on board ship is that when the ship is in port many of the crew make up for their enforced abstinence in the worst possible way.  This was a serious problem on Baron Jedburgh.  We sailed from Osaka to Kobe with many of our crew missing, having decided that the attraction of the bright lights and the bars were much more appealing than putting up with fat Archie and his Passing Clouds and his bullying bosun.
From Kobe we sailed to Yokohama, still missing many of our deck crew.  We later learned that the truants found their way to the shipping agent’s office not long after the ship left Kobe where they were all provided with rail warrants (at their expense) to our next port of call.  In this case they were all put on the Tokaido Shinkansen express train to Tokyo with just one stop, at the inland city of Kyoto.  Needless to say, they all disembarked at Kyoto, headed for the nearest bar, and subsequently missed the train’s departure for Tokyo – a unique case of desertion from a train. Although on reflection it probably wasn’t unique – I am sure it frequently happened whenever a gathering of seamen such as this lot, were left unescorted to find their way back to their vessel. 
I thought Japan was a wonderful place, and although I have been back many times since, I will never forget my first breath-taking experience of the Ginza in Tokyo – it was a long way from Kings Cross!


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Saving A Life

Tuesday, 3rd January 2012 is a day that I am going to remember for a long time.
I was still on leave from work after the Christmas break and that afternoon Pauline and I went out to do a few errands. It was the usual stuff that one does after Christmas– returning and changing unwanted or ill-fitting gifts, looking for the odd bargain and stocking up on any food that doesn’t look like ham or turkey.
On the way out to the car, we bumped into our next door neighbour, Ken. He is a lovely fellow. He and his equally engaging wife, June are living in the apartment next door to us while his son who owns the apartment, and who has recently returned to this town after a couple of years in Queensland, is living at Ken’s country home where there is more room for the children. Pauline and I chatted to Ken for about 20 minutes or so – talking about each other’s Christmas and saying we should all get together for a drink in a few days, when things were a little quieter.
Later that afternoon after returning from the shops, I went upstairs to do some work and to listen to the cricket.
About five minutes after I had sat down at my desk, the peace was shattered by the sound of someone screaming. This was immediately followed by an agitated knocking at our front door and a voice crying out for help. I ran down the stairs two at a time to find June standing at our door in a distressed state saying, “Come quickly, come quickly, he’s collapsed!”
I hurried outside and into Ken’s apartment. He was lying on his back in the hallway, completely motionless – his head resting on the bottom step. His eyes were wide open and he wasn’t breathing.
June had a phone in her hand; she had called the emergency operator, but was distressed and didn’t know what to do next. I took the phone from her and passed it to Pauline. For a millionth of a second the thought flashed through my head, “what do I do, what do I do?” but it was instantaneous and even as it was going through my head I was kneeling down alongside him, pinching his nose between my finger and thumb, breathing into his mouth and pumping his chest at the top of his sternum as hard as I could. For a moment nothing happened, there was no breath, and I realised that I had to get his head off the step and flat on the floor. I pulled him away from the step and started again. This time I was able to get breath into his lungs. Pauline was talking to the operator, and relaying the advice to give him 600 chest compressions.
Somewhere inside my head I remembered hearing or seeing an advertisement which involved Vinnie Jones doing CPR to the tune of the Bee Gees’ song Staying Alive and that’s what came to my mind as I kept pushing down on Ken's chest:
Ah, ha, ha, ha, staying alive; push, ha, push, ha, staying alive.
I kept pushing and pushing. It seemed like forever, it was exhausting. I was covered in perspiration. It was a hot day and the sweat was dripping off my forehead on to Ken. Every now and then I breathed into his mouth and each time I did it he gurgled back and once seemed to shake his head.
The clock seemed to stand still, and I felt like I had been doing it for a lifetime:
Push, ha, Push, ha, staying alive; come on Ken, come on Ken, Stay Alive!
Pauline was still talking to the operator; they told her that help was only minutes away. I could hear June’s voice in the background, saying through tears, “I thought he was joking, he does that sort of thing you know.”
I was sure I must have crushed his sternum at the very least by now. Finally, the emergency paramedics arrived. Although it seemed like forever, I doubt if they took more than 20 to 30 minutes from the time the first call was made.
They took over. After a few minutes one of them asked me if I was OK to carrying on with the heart massage so he could inject some adrenaline into Ken and set up a defibrillator. The other paramedic cleared Ken’s airway and inserted a tube connected to a manual respirator. We kept this up for several minutes only stopping while an electric jolt was administered followed by more adrenaline. After another ten minutes or so a second ambulance arrived and the four paramedics worked together to get him on to a stretcher and get a pulse going. The adrenaline worked and he had a pulse as they wheeled him out on the gurney.
The ambulance took him to hospital and we followed with June. While we were waiting one of the ambos told us that Ken had a pulse and was on a respirator, but they could not be sure that there wouldn’t be some brain damage.
I wish I could say there was a happy ending to this story, but sadly, Ken didn’t make it.
He was in an induced coma for six days and passed away in the early hours of the morning on 9thJanuary surrounded by his family from all around the country.
It was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life and the whole episode haunted me for several days.
I cannot think of anything which is at the same time more intimate and confronting than giving the so-called kiss of life, irrespective of the outcome.
The experience left me committed to do all I can to encourage everyone to learn something about administering first-aid (particularly CPR).
In a perfect world everyone would have some first-aid training. I did many years ago when I was a scout leader, and at the very least I was able to remember from this that it was critical to keep Ken's heart going until help arrived.
Please think about this – it’s not just you who needs to know what to do; it’s others around you – your family, your friends.
It’s no good if you are the only member of your family who has done a first-aid course if you are not the one present when something happens.  Worse still, if the casualty is you.
So please, do something about it - you may be saving your own life - or mine!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Why I'm Doing This

A few months ago someone said to me, “is there anything you haven’t done?”  I still don't know if this was a flattering remark, or the words of someone sick and tired of hearing my tedious tales of exploits on the Amazon River, or Antarctica, or my years working at the Brewery, and so on.  I think it was probably the latter, and it's true that I have been known on occasions to ruminate about my salad days.  They called it swinging the lantern when I was at sea and I'm a wonderful example of  the older I get, the better I was.
Sooner or later my mind is going to slow down, some will say the process has already started, and my recall won’t be what it once was.  So before these tales disappear forever, I have begun to write a few things about my life.  
The amazing thing about writing about one's past is that as the words start to form on the screen in front of me, a state of anamnesis sets in and those obscure memories crystallise and de-pixilate to a point where I again become that 25 or that 20 year old person and the memories and the images become as clear as though they were happening now.  It truly is a most invigorating and stimulating exercise.
If Albert Facey had not got there first about thirty years ago with his well-loved story of the same name, a fitting title might have been A Fortunate Life, because when I think about some less fortunate than I, that’s surely what it has been.  Now I'm stuck with the title Ten Pound Poms.  That was going to be the name of just one of the chapters, but that's what happens when you put the name in the wrong box, but I'm beginning to like it now so it's staying.
Nevertheless, I really have had a fortunate life.  My father used to say, it’s always better to be born lucky than to be born rich which is just as well because we certainly were not born rich.  I didn’t have to fight in any wars like my grandparents did, and like my father would have done if the Government of his day had not kept him working in an essential service.  I managed to avoid the war in Vietnam War, unlike some of my contemporaries many of whom were changed forever – those that survived at all. 
I grew up in a country town where the weather was always great and even the rain was warm.  I learned to swim in a local creek and rode my bike on dirt roads to little swimming holes with names like Freshwater Creek and Crystal Cascades.  I survived my youth certain of my own immortality,  behaving like a galah on a motor-cycle or riding in cars with equally rash friends.  We were lucky to survive while others not as fortunate lost limbs, or their senses and sometimes worse.  After adolescence, I was able to spend most of my working life in full employment generally doing the type of work I enjoyed.  Then the day came, when I met a fine woman who soon after became my bride and I became an us person instead of a me person.  That pretty lady is still with me today, 36 years later and she still gives me more support and encouragement than I could ever possibly deserve.
In 1973 I went for six weeks holiday to England with my father – his first visit back to the land of his birth since he had emigrated to Australia nearly 20 years earlier.  The six  weeks turned into nine years and it wasn’t until 1982 that I returned to Australia with a wife and two wonderful children.
I don’t know how many are going to read this self-indulgent ramble and where it's going to go.  I have no intention of starting at the beginning and finishing at the end.  If I want to write about something that happening last week instead of last century I will.  I know that I have a virtual container-load of anecdotes and epigrams (just ask my family or the people I have worked with over the years) and I'm determined to get them all out there, so stand by.
I am hoping that one day my grandchildren and their children (should we be blessed with such gifts) might wonder (as I do about my own ancestors), what sort of a life we had and with whom it was shared.  I hope that this will provide at least some of the answers.
So here we go and if I may steal a frequent line from Baron Bragg of Wigton, I hope you enjoy the programme.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The First Job - Cairns 1960

The date was Monday 5th December 1960.  I was fifteen years old and it was my first day as a working man.  A few weeks earlier I had been a schoolboy in my last year at Cairns High School, Junior Class 4A1.  I had not been a very attentive student during my last school year, always finding it easier to be distracted by anything which took me away from lessons and study.  Remarkably, of the eight subjects taken during my two years of secondary school, I managed somehow to get passing grades in all of them in the final Junior Examination and even scrambled a couple of A’s, and a B.  The A’s were for the two Maths subjects we did and for that I was grateful to the wonderful Jock Menzies, who had bullied us all into working harder for him than we might have done for some of the less "engaging" teachers.  He certainly terrified me for two years.
So there I was on that Monday morning, in my shiny new Yakka Size 3 navy-blue overalls, the legs of which had been taken up the night before by my Mum, fully equipped for the mile or so ride on my Malvern Star down Draper Street (trouser legs tucked into socks, handlebars pointing up, not down) on my way to starting life as an apprentice fitter and turner at Northern Australian Breweries.  It was the first day of a five-year apprenticeship as a fitter and turner and I had absolutely no idea what it was that I would be fitting and turning or what a fitter and turner even was. 
The brewery was somewhat of an institution in Cairns.  It was owned by Carlton & United of Melbourne and was the home of Cairns Draught Beer, famous from Mt Isa to Coen and all points between.  It was one of two or three places in Cairns where a young man could start a trade.  If you weren’t working at one of the sugar mills at Gordonvale or Hambledon, you were at the brewery, the local railway workshops or the boilermakers and shipbuilders down at Smiths Creek, NQEA.
Every year the brewery took on a number of new apprentices and 1960 was a good year for employment.  There were six new starters that year, four mechanical apprentices, an electrical one and a carpenter.  The other fitter apprentices included the quiet and serious Ron (who I never heard say a bad word about anyone), tall blond Hughie (there is a sad story to tell about Hugh, but that comes much later) and big gregarious Brooksie.  Ron and Hugh were from my year at school; Brooksie was also from the same school but a couple of years ahead of us.
The Brewery was a major employer with a large maintenance and a construction workforce.  As well as a beer racking facility which supplied all the local and regional pubs with 18-gallon kegs of Cairns Draught, there was a bottling plant, an engine room and boiler house, a full-scale workshop and a drawing office.  I was assigned to the bottling plant where I found myself working with an amusing and friendly fellow called Bobby Ward.
I spent my first day at work learning what was needed to keep a bottling plant running.  The plant had been in operation for about ten years or so and according to a little article I recently came across had a capacity of 500 dozen bottles an hour.  The main point of focus in the plant was the bottle washing machine.  A large noisy monster, with a wide conveyor and two operators on upturned crates feeding dirty bottles into the machine at one end with the clean bottles coming out the other end and then on to the beer filler and bottle-top putter-onner, otherwise known as the crowner.  
Every so often one of the cleaning brushes would get caught on something inside a bottle.  The spindle would bend, there would be a grinding scream of broken glass and the machine would be stopped.  This was a signal for the maintenance fitter (which soon became me) to crawl into a small space inside the machine and replace the damaged brush – making sure not to rip open a hand or a finger on a jagged edge somewhere.  This was made more interesting and challenging by the steady stream of hot water which drained from the upturned bottles above your head, down the back of the neck, soaking your clothes and making you squirm as you worked to get things quickly going again because naturally production must not be delayed - a far cry from messing about with pipettes and burettes in the school physics lab or writing boyish comments on my copy of As You Like It.
I was a proud young man, that first day when I got home from work, new overalls covered in oil and grease, grubby fingernails and my hands raw and tingling from the trisodium phosphate powder used to scrub away the grime and seemingly about two layers of skin.  I’m sure my mum had a good meal waiting for me when I got home – maybe shepherd’s pie followed by apple crumble.
The brewery was a great environment to start out as a working man, and I was to find there was no better place to learn a trade.  Gordon Williams was the workshop superintendent, a delightful, no-nonsense down to earth man who cared about each of the apprentices as if they were his own sons – and knew like any good father-figure when we needed praise, and when we needed a kick up the arse.
The first few weeks of working life are full of rich experiences.  I had no idea for example, that grown men could curse so much.  My brother and I were obviously sheltered from this at home because my only experience of coarse language was at school, where we boys (never the girls) all accepted foul language as part of our culture – it was big time to swear!  The worse I ever heard my father say was, “Blind Old Riley!” to which my mother would say, “John, I wish you wouldn’t use that expression.”
It was not until many years later that I learned that when he was at work as workshop superintendent at Cairns City Council, Dad was as good as anyone when it came to ripe language.  Apparently a favourite characteristic of his, when confronted by a stripped timing gear from an overworked engine or some similar mechanical problem was to push is hat back, scratch his head and say, “Well fuck me up a gum tree!
Cairns in 1960, only fifteen years since the end of the war, was far different from the multi-cultural tourist conurbation it is today. As yet, there were no parking meters or traffic lights - although such challenges to our simple lifestyle were not far away.  The brewery was full of rich characters whose personalities still resonate with me many years later and I am relishing the chance to write more about them in another post.

Ten Pound Poms

On an icy morning in January 1955 my parents began an adventure which determined the direction of the lives of all our family and of those generations which followed.  
Our family of five – my Mum and my Dad, thirteen year old sister Jean, five year old brother Phillip and me.
We were “Ten Pound Poms” on our way to Australia on the P&O Liner, “Strathaird,” and I was a wide-eyed nine year old with few memories of being further from home than the Barton bus depot at the end of the road in Beeston, the town in Nottinghamshire where I was born.
Having sold the family house a few weeks earlier we had started the year living for a while in rented accommodation in Mapperley before embarking from Tilbury on that day in January.
The whole trip took about five weeks and started with the roughest of initiations as the ship ploughed its way through Biscay towards the relative sanctuary of the Mediterranean Sea where we called briefly at Malta, but were not permitted ashore.  I remember a few days later the vessel gliding like a true "ship of the desert" through the Suez and before that the bumboats alongside our ship at Port Said, clinging to us like burrs as they went about their business of selling their souvenirs and collectables.  Brown skinned men in baggy trousers wearing white taqiyah skullcaps, their boats looking as though they had come to us via Aladdin's storeroom, rocking from side to side while with ropes and baskets they passed up their wares and our passengers passed down their money. My mum bought a couple of wooden plates inlaid with shells. She told me years later that one of the first things the local vicar said, when he came to introduce himself as we settled to our new life in the far north of Australia, was what nice collection plates they would make.  
There's not a lot that a nine year old would remember of such a trip - but the memories of a long exciting sea voyage left an overwhelming impression, and were a major contributor to my decision to make a career myself as a seafarer a little over ten years later - but as they say, that's another story.
The Strathaird was then already over 20 years old having been around since 1932. With a length of 200 metres and a 24 metre beam, she weighed over 22,500 tons and cruised at 20 knots. She carried a crew of 480 and over 1,200 single class passengers. Like most of her kind she was a troop carrier during the war and along with her sisters, Stratheden, Strathmore and Strathnaver, these wonderful ships delivered a hundred thousand or more fresh faced new immigrants to Australia during the fifties and the early sixties. She was retired from service in 1961 and sold to a Hong Kong breakers yard where I like to think she was recycled into something more dignified than razor blades or paper clips.
Our first opportunity to step on to foreign soil was at the port of Aden, now part of Yemen, but at that time a colony of the British Empire at the eastern approaches to the Red Sea. After that it was on to Colombo in Sri Lanka. It was called Ceylon in 1955; a place of overwhelming smells and the colours and intensity of the sub-continent at its most intoxicating. There were beggars on every street, in every doorway, and by every road. Vendors thrust their treasures in our faces and followed us as we were hustled along the busy thoroughfares. The throng of humanity after the relative calm of shipboard life was overpowering.
Yet for a nine year old post-war schoolboy, the most exciting thing I remember to this day was the thrill of being in Aden and Ceylon and being able to buy postage stamps from those countries to add to my collection. Vendors were everywhere and I pestered the daylights out of my parents to let me spend some money.
After Ceylon the ship made the long trip across the Indian Ocean to Fremantle. We went through some frightening monsoon weather and one night a passenger fell overboard. The ship spent several hours circling around but he was never found - a dreadful way to go.

Shipboard life for the kids was wonderful. I'm sure it was for the adults as well, but I particularly liked sharing a dining table with other migrant kids and our steward, a Londoner who told us to call him Seb saying, “what you don’t want, don’t eat.” Heaven for us was no one telling us to eat our vegetables. We were even brought tea in bed at breakfast time.  Of course, we had to attend school lessons of a sort, but it was nothing like real school. We were taught songs about kookaburras in gum trees, and were shown pictures of kangaroos and told something about the history of this great country we were about to call our new home.

We disembarked in Sydney on a hot February day and soon after were on a long train journey north to Brisbane. Together with other Queensland bound settlers, we were accommodated at the Yungaba Immigration Centre, our home for the next few weeks. Yungaba was the first port of call for many thousands of the migrants who came to Queensland. Situated on the tip of the Kangaroo Point peninsula at a sweeping bend in the Brisbane River and with three-sided water views, it was a wonderful location for such an establishment. Although it was a government-run institution, there was a welcoming concern for the comfort and welfare of its residents; not just for compassionate reasons, but also because of the competition that existed between the states as they each attempted to attract migrants who could boost their labour force. I think my parents were quite happy to be placed there even after the relative luxury of shipboard life.

My father had a job organised before we left Britain, and shortly after arriving in Brisbane, Dad flew to North Queensland where he was to start work as a motor mechanic at a small garage in the town of Mossman. Dad’s first assignment was to find a home for us to live in and to get settled into his new job. The rest of us were to follow by train a week or two later.

I have since thought what a harrowing experience it was for my 38 year old mother; literally fresh off the boat, having left a fairly comfortable (if cold) life in England,  boarding a train with three children to travel 1,000 miles north to “God knows where”.
The air-conditioned Sunlander was still a few years in the future, as we headed north on a clattering old train into the North Queensland wet season. Even today, conventional rail travel in Queensland can be a slow experience with a frequent stops and starts as bogeys rattle along in narrow gauge 3 feet 6 inch tracks; although Queensland’s Tilt Train is one of the fastest trains in the world using a narrow gauge track. However, nothing was further away than the old rattler which took about a week to get us to Cairns. Stopping at sidings and stations for hours at a time, it was a slow, uncomfortable trip with Mum doing her best to look after and feed three kids. There were no sleeper cars - this was a journey where we were sitting up all the way. Each time the train arrived at a station, passengers and locals would make their way to the railway bar, or if there was no bar on the platform, to the local pub where they would buy and consume more and more booze for the long trip north.
At the Burdekin River which separates the towns of Home Hill on the south and Ayr on the north, the rail bridge was under several feet of water and the train was unable to cross. Together with the other passengers, we struggled from the train with our luggage, and lining up in the rain, waited to cross the mile-wide fast flowing river.  With the muddy water almost lapping the gunwales, we were ferried in tiny flat-bottom boats, not much bigger than fishing "tinnies", across to the other shore. Once there we were all squeezed into another even older train for the remaining 300 miles of the journey north.
When we eventually arrived in Cairns, Dad was waiting for us. We had another 50 miles to travel, north along the Cook Highway to our new home. We all piled into an old International truck stopping every few miles along the way to ford another flooded creek or causeway. After a journey which seemed as long and eventful, if much less comfortable than our earlier sea crossing, we eventually arrived in Mossman and our new home.
Mossman was a cane town – it still is. Its sugar mill was not far from the middle of town and the little cane trains with their cargo of freshly cut cane would travel down the centre of Mill Street through the town several times a day, holding up what little traffic there was. The town had five pubs and a little picture theatre in a corrugated iron building with deck chairs for seating where we were to see such wonderful films as
Magnificent Obsession and Dial M for Murder.
Our home was a tiny one storey fibro dwelling a long long way from Beeston.  To say that Mum was less than impressed with the attractions of this hot, wet little town would have been much more than an understatement.  For the next nine months there was a bag packed in the hallway which belonged to my mother - I'm sure she must have come close on many occasions to picking it up and just walking out.
We didn't have a car, something which would have disappointed my father who was always an enthusiastic motorist. We did however, have use of an old International D2 flat-bed truck with a floor-mounted foot starter and a split windscreen which was wound open on hot days (which was most days). Dad painted it red.

We didn't stay in Mossman for long – about a year before moving back down the Cook Highway to the big smoke – Cairns, where Dad got a job as workshop foreman at the Cairns City Council. Cairns was not the modern tourist town it is now – just a few streets, a muddy esplanade, no traffic lights, no parking meters and lots of places for youngsters to go swimming and exploring.  There were many adventures to follow, and many memorable years but none perhaps as remarkable for me as 1955.