Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Under a starry sky

I read this in an article that was written out of the saga of The Ash Clouds.
"My girlfriend and I recently set out to circumnavigate the globe without the aid of any aircraft. Along the way, we took the Trans-Siberian Railway across the wilds of Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, and drove a car through the empty doomlands of the Australian outback. These journeys take less than half a day if you go by plane. Each lasts nearly a week when you stick to the ground. But taking to the air means simply boarding, enduring the flight and getting off at another airport. Going our way meant sharing bread and cheese with kindly Russians in a shared train cabin, and drinking beers with Australian jackaroos (we'd call them cowboys) at a lonely desert roadhouse. These are warm, vivid memories that will stay with us forever.

Think of the trans-Atlantic flights you may have taken. Do you remember anything about them? (Turbulence, bad in-flight movies and screaming children don't count.) Because flying is an empty, soulless way to traverse the planet, the best flights are in fact the ones you forget immediately after hitting the tarmac.

Now, imagine floating across the Atlantic on a ship. Do you think you might enjoy those days of transit — the joys of a starry night in the middle of the ocean, or a round of drinks with new friends as you look out across the stern railing at the glimmering water — and hold them in your memories well after your vessel made landfall?"
I was lucky to undertake a number of sea-borne journeys such as Seth refers to. In the Army of the early 1950s the majority of troops' movement was by troop-ship. These were, in the main, retired cruise liners that had had most of the luxury fitments stripped out and replaced by utilitarian equipment designed to carry the most bodies. Families and ranks above staff-sergeant travelled cabin class but the majority were on what were known as standees - wire bunks stacked four on top of each other. I generally ended up appointed as ship's police officer and was able to sleep in an almost proper bed - albeit in the cells at the bow of the ship. As we moved through the tropics, the standee dwellers moved to the open decks.

The admixture of young wives travelling to join husbands and female soldiers combined with warm nights and starry skies meant that one had to be careful when choosing an open deck space. Romances bloomed but it was mainly sex that made the world go by. There was then a heavy drinking culture and this was catered for through most of the time by numerous bars. With the easy adaptability of Tommy Atkins, life passed very pleasantly. I was a member of the ship's Gardening Club - there was not a leaf of greenery anywhere but our meetings debated replacement of trees damaged by wind-spray and urine, what sort of bedding plants that young blond WRAC sergeant might use and what our display would be at the Chelsea Flower Show. The style of these debates might be judged from the fact that the Chairman, a RN CPO, never even got off the ship at his destination in Singapore but was diagnosed as a chronic alcoholic and returned to UK for treatment. We had a lecture from the ship's cook who - for over an hour - told us how to make very fine potato chips. As a typical Scouser, he held his audience enthralled!

Courtesy of Mr Nasser, Anthony Eden and the blocked and closed Suez Canal I had an eight week cruise to Korea. We went the long way around Capetown with visits to Mauritius, Ceylon, Singapore and Hong Kong. Shore leave was given at all these stops whilst the ship was re-stocked with food, fuel and water. We were the first troop-ship into Capetown since the 39-45 war and arrived on Christmas Eve. I set up a uniformed Military Police patrol to work with the local police and about two hours later was leaving the ship to check how they were getting on. As I went down the main gangway, a police vehicle was drawing up to the stairway used by crew. They then carried two of my patrolmen onto the ship on stretchers. Paraletic drunk. The hospitality had been building up since 1945 I suppose!

We had had a special warning about apartheid but the main contingent on board was of a Liverpool-recruited regiment and it didn't seem to stick. Two of them engaged with two of the local black prostitutes in an alleyway but were disturbed by a SA police patrol. The girls ran off but one created a diversion by biting most of one nipple off her client. Later the same evening, four of the guys were found playing poker with three local black men in the middle of the roundabout at the dock entrance.

The criminality was mainly high jinks and boredom. As we approached Mauritius the fresh water ran out and arrangements were made for a big refill. This was not a great success; the island was in the middle of a drought and their own supplies were limited. Even more so after a couple of The Lads had rolled a large rock down a steep hillside and smashed the main pipe from a diminished reservoir to the pumping station. My best efforts failed to get them released and we had to leave them behind in the local lock-up.

I had about four long sea trips courtesy of HM the Queen and all had their high spots. Later in my life I was employed by a US Oil company and was entitled to first class air travel with access to the special lounges, free booze and big seats which was nice but I think my water-borne trips were better. Must have been, I met my wife on that long journey and it has stuck for over 50 years since I was King Neptune and she was my Queen at the Crossing the Line Ceremony.

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