Monday, 18 June 2012

…and so back to England - 1973


It was sometime around the middle of 1973 that I contacted my father, who had recently retired and was living alone in a small duplex just south of Cairns. I was soon to be leaving the Danish livestock vessel MV Dona Clausen after completing six months' voyage time. I had joined her in Singapore earlier in the year and, after a few trips carrying cattle and sheep from Australia and New Zealand to South America and the Middle East, and a promotion to first engineer, I was ready for some leave. Dona Clausen was a good ship and the Danes make pleasant shipmates once one becomes accustomed to their partiality for smoked fish, lard and akvavit.
I made many good friends. Among them was Holger, my predecessor as first engineer, a droll and self-deprecating fellow from whom I learned much about the Danish character.  My attempts at learning Danish were a continuing source of amusement to him.  Although not exactly a zealot when it came to hard work, he was a very good engineer who understood the idiosyncracies of our cranky and temperamental Götaverken engine better than anyone. He was also a chronic alcoholic. A condition of his employment required that he receive a daily dose of disulfiram (known as Antabuse).  The effect of the medication being that even the slightest alcohol consumption produces acute symptoms of nausea, headaches and illness. This was administered every morning by the chief engineer and as a result, Holger was never anything other than strictly sober, which is more than I could say for some of my other shipmates.
I would frequently read my Teach Yourself Danish book to him.  “Mit navn er Jens Hansen.
Jeg er en mand.  Der er mange mennesker i Danmark der hedder Hansen.” (My name is Jens Hansen. I am a man. There are many people in Denmark named Hansen). I would go on, in what resembled his native language in only the most remote fashion, to describe Jens and his kinfolk in detail and as I did, Holger would puff on his pipe, nod his head and say in his melodious Scandinavian English, “I like the Hansen family.”It was while I was serving on Danish ships that I discovered my love of frikadeller, a flat pan-fried dumpling of minced pork, or occasionally beef, served with boiled potatoes and cooked red cabbage (rødkål).  There are many recipes around - this is a good one. Delicious!
But I digress, and need to return to my story. It was in Sydney, just a few weeks before I was to go on leave that I phoned my father.  Dad had suffered a stroke a year or two earlier, and had recently retired at the age of 61 (just a youngster).  It had been some time since we had last been in touch with each other and I suggested to him that it might be nice for us to have a holiday somewhere.  He thought so too.  I had in mind a couple of weeks on the Gold Coast, or maybe somewhere in the South Pacific – Fiji perhaps.
“I would like to go to England,” he said. He had not been there since the family had
emigrated nearly 20 years earlier, and although his mother and his only sister had passed away, he had three nephews who he hadn’t seen since their childhood and he was long overdue a journey back to the Old Dart. “Right you are then,” I said.  And so it was that in July 1973 we were together on QF1 bound for London Heathrow.
Dad was planning to stay about six weeks after which I had arranged to catch up with Bob Pope. Bob and I had agreed to get together later in the year to do a bit of touring around Europe and maybe get some winter work in one of the alpine ski resorts. He and I had sailed together on Francis Drake some years earlier, and we had become good friends.  We had shared a house with three or four other guys in Artarmon for several months when I worked in Sydney in the early 1970s (more about that another day, perhaps).
Dad was born in London and although he grew up around Norwich and later moved to
Nottingham, he always considered London his home town and nothing gave him more pleasure than singing a few choruses of Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner. So we spent a week together in London where he enjoyed the opportunity to revisit a few landmarks.
His father had been a victim of the Great War.  After seeing service at the front, he was sadly killed when his rifle exploded in his face at Aldershot Rifle Range in 1915 when Dad was just a baby.  It wasn’t until many years later, when service records became more accessible through the internet that I learned that my grandfather and his two brothers, George and Ernest all saw action and of the three brothers only one would survive the war.  Dad knew little about his childhood.  He was born in Streatham in the south west not far from Kennington Oval.  He had an elder sister and the children spent most of their childhood living with aunts and uncles while my grandmother worked as a lady's maid (they called it being in service).
We wanted to look for my grandfather's grave, so based on Dad’s hunch we spent a day at
Lambeth Cemetery.  Lambeth Cemetery is a huge necropolis with about a quarter of a million graves and we walked around without success for two or three hours looking at headstones and monuments. Late that afternoon, we found our way to the records room, and a kindly warden let us spend more time looking through dusty archives.  Amazingly, and almost at random, shortly before the cemetery gates were to be locked for the day, we found the record we were after.  To this day I don’t know how, but I picked up a book of burial records, and there it was staring out at me from the page – Sapper Arthur John George Williamson, 3rd Field Company, Royal Engineers, who died aged 32 on 15 December 1915 – remembered with honour.   We located the grave shortly after that and my father and I stood for several minutes in front of the simple white headstone. 
Tears filled his eyes as he realised, for the first time in his life that it was not just the Arthur part of his name that came from his father, it was also the John and the George, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we had come together to England to share this moment. Of course, now it is much easier to find a war grave. The excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website ensures that none of the nearly two million people who gave their lives in these terrible wars will ever be forgotten.
From London we took the train from St Pancras Station to Nottingham where we were welcomed
by my mother's sister, Doreen and my Uncle Gordon. As ever they were gracious and openhearted hosts and they continue to have a special place in my life.
My father had been in the motor industry all his working life and at one stage before he
emigrated, he had run his own business - a motor service garage on Castle Boulevard.  It obviously didn't make him wealthy otherwise we would have all been sharing some of it today.  He later worked for George Brough at Bulwell.  The Brough Superior was one of the great motor cycles, and I think Dad was very proud to have been the workshop foreman associated with this iconic name.
One of Dad's wartime friends with whom we spent some time during our stay had a lovely 1963
Rover which had been sitting in his garage for a couple of years.  He very graciously sold it to me for much less than it was probably worth and as a result, Dad and I were provided with a reliable (and elegant) set of wheels in which to do our touring.  It proved to a great asset over the next 12 months particularly when I took it to Europe later in the year.
It was a lovely old car, with beautiful woodwork inside and  leather upholstery throughout
and was the type of vehicle that made one want to use phrases like "tooling around" and "motoring".  It had a lovely AA Badge mounted on the radiator and I dearly wanted to see an AA Man riding towards me on his motorcycle and sidecar so I could give him the raised hand salute as he touched his cap to me as he rode past. Sadly that didn’t happen, but we had a wonderful time in it, particularly driving through the Scottish Highlands as far as the Isle of Skye. 
I have already mentioned that Dad had suffered a stroke a few years earlier, and for many months as he recovered he was unable to speak or write.  Part of his rehabilitation process included re-learning the alphabet and I well recall a time when he was briefly with me in Sydney, when he would read aloud from simple little children’s books like Noddy and Mr Men. Many years later this re-learning process was described to me as having English as a second language, when you don’t have a first one.
Thus it was that Dad would say, as we tooled our way through the byways of Britain, “Shall
we stop for a snick?” or “a sing-witch?”  He meant of course that we should stop for a snack or a sandwich.  If he couldn’t think of the word, he would either make one up, or stammer over it for a while and then say; “bugger” or something more colourful, and the right word would then come out.
One memorable day we met Dad’s nephews and their families. We all had a wonderful 
afternoon and as we were saying our goodbyes, my cousin Peter and his lovely wife Anne asked us to join them at their home the following week for Sunday lunch. Anne and Peter had two children and more significantly (for me anyway), Anne had a younger sister. Anne had spoken about us to Pauline during the week saying, “Oh Pauline, you must come and meet Pete’s relatives from Down Under, they are lovely.” (well she was only human.)
So it was that the following Sunday I met the young lady for the first time. 

 I later learned she had been out with her girlfriends the night before and had arrived home in the small hours of the morning. So it was a quiet and subdued Pauline that I met that Sunday, but she looked pretty good to me. (She still does nearly forty years later!)
We had a great lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and before we left Pauline agreed
that since there was much of Nottingham we had yet to see, she would find time the following weekend to help us explore it (by us, I naturally meant me). This was followed over the next week or two by a couple of dinner dates and a game of squash rackets which I greatly enjoyed, not particularly because of any great skill on either part, but because the sight of Pauline in shorts was on the whole, rather pleasant.
As life changing as I knew then, that these events were to be (oh yes, I knew I was going to marry her as soon as I met her), there was still the question of the European Odyssey. This was an event that Bob and I had planned for some time, and there was still some preparation required. There was, for example the question of becoming an expert skier - oddly considered a pre-requisite for gallivanting around ski resorts with an ice hammer or assisting well-heeled high altitude holiday makers on and off T-bars.
So it was that on a particular day in September, a few days after Dad had returned to Australia, I found myself, along with a bunch of other hopefuls at an artificial ski-slope at Esher near London.  And that my friends, is where I will leave today's story in the hope that you will come back again for more... 

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