Abroad thoughts from Home
It was a bit of a transformation from bank clerk in Liverpool to mixing with the rich and famous on transatlantic liners and later with Ambassadors and government ministers. The following piece describes how it happens. I had moved first to London Airport in what was “Oceanic” (the other terminal was “Europa” and I did night duties there) and seeing celebrities like Groucho Marx, Judy Garland and Peter Sellers at our counters. The easiest customers to deal with were the aristocracy, who had been brought up to be nice to servants, like me. The worst were the “self made men” who thought they could make you realise how important there were by bullying.
I remember at the airport the extreme courtesy of the Earl of Shaftesbury and at sea the Earl of Carnarvon. I remember also the owner of Cherry Valley Ducklings (“Lots of scope for quackers” he said to me) who, on boarding the Queen Elizabeth, sent for his room steward on Sun Deck and said “I want my breakfast every morning at exactly 8am. I want 2 boiled eggs, boiled for exactly 4 minutes, plus crisp toast, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee. If I don’t have it right and on time I will have you fired”. What a twerp. Quite often we had cabins on Sun Deck which is how I heard the story.
Anyway, here goes another Reflection. Not from the Patio this time as it’s a bit chilly with rain in the offing. I do hope the lock down isn’t being too painful.
Until I boarded the Queen Mary in December 1964, for 2 cruises over Christmas and New Year to the Canary Islands, my only experience of regular sea travel was the Wallasey Ferry, the daily joy of travel between Wallasey and Liverpool across the River Mersey. I had been to Dublin on a really awful school trip when I was 15 and had crossed the channel twice for holidays in France, once there on a bicycle to Paris aged 16 and another by car and down to Cannes. However, the Ferry was a regular trip and involved, when the weather was good, the entire upper deck perambulating in a clockwork direction to offer the experience of walking across. As a Sea Cadet I had gone on a conducted tour of the “City of Oxford” and we had finished up in the dining room which, to a 16 year old, was amazing. Crisp white table cloths, sparkling glassware and an array of silver cutlery plus a proper menu. Looking at all the cutlery, a knowledgeable young sea cadet colleague whispered to me in a thick local accent:- “Me Dad has told me about this. You start at the outside and werk your way in!” We worked out also that “Indian Condiments” meant “Salt and Pepper”. This useful information proved invaluable when I sat at our regular table in the First Class Restaurant of “RMS Queen Mary” for the first time.
I had been in awe of the Head of the Department, Bobby Mayne, and grew to respect him. He was so pernickety, a Captain Mainwaring character, and ruled his group of young sailors with a rod of iron. We left the office at 5pm precisely and not a minute before; you watched the clock until the minute hand hit 5. If you made an error at sea he would be down on you like a ton of bricks but would defend you, fiercely, to his superiors. It made me not want to let him down and forfeit his trust. I tried to follow his example. For example, when I got a dressing down from the Assistant Manager at International Division in Manchester for a rather serious error, I accepted it and took to one side the actual perpetrator and said “Roderick Nigel, what the hell did you think you were doing?” That attitude paid off as the staff knew that they could rely on me.
In the department before I was trusted to board a ship, one of my tutors had been the legendary David Garmon Jones; three piece suit, sizeable stomach and a watch chain. David it was, who in the restaurant bar of the “Queen Elizabeth” had described to his 3 colleagues the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was on board, as “Nothing more than a trollop. Nothing more than a trollop!”” and turned to the man in the next seat at the bar saying “And don’t you agree, Sir?”. He replied “I’m afraid I’m not in a position to comment as I am her Private Secretary”.
On my first trip the “Officer in Charge” was Tony Cramp, Deputy Head of the Department. Tony was extremely handsome, so sophisticated and languid, so different from the fat new boy from Merseyside. I used to look at him in awe and observe the way he draped himself over a chair in the dining room, tried to copy him, failing miserably. It was pointed out to me that on board that I was not “Noel Rands” but “The Midland Bank man” if anything went wrong; a useful lesson for when I became the Midland Bank Group Representative In Tehran, Cairo and Bombay.
Another hurdle, apart from selecting from the enormous selection of food on the menu at lunch and dinner, was the wine list. At home I can’t remember my parents ever buying wine although Algerian wine called “Hirondelle” was not unknown to me. My colleagues pointed out that
“Mateus Rose” was 7/6d (35p) and, if we wanted to go upmarket, we could choose “Mouton Cadet” at 10 shillings (50 pence). I did learn about other wines including “Clover Joe” (Clos de Veugeot) and “Chateau Gruaud-Larose”, neither of which I can now afford. On one trip with Bobby, he ordered Haut Brion which was wonderful but now several £100 a bottle. He was a little surprised at the price even then.
The next challenge was the Captain’s Reception, clad in Black Tie for the 1st time in a suit I owned and not hired, and having to make conversation. I remember meeting Sir Robert Robinson, who had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1947, and he deserved a further medal for putting up with my inane and uneducated chatter. It was so different from the Wallasey Ferry where chatting to strangers was not looked upon favourably!
I was, of course, the “No 4” (there were 4 of us on the Queens, 3 on the Mauretania and 2 on the Caronia) and so I had no choice on whether to do the Tourist Class bank out and Cabin back or vice versa; the No 3 would decide. On that first trip we were fortunate with the weather; I was not the best of sailors. My next trip was on the Elizabeth, the return trip to New York, followed by a return trip on the Mary. It was so rough! I travelled to New York in Tourist and the office on the Mary can go through an arc of 120 feet when it pitched. (On Sunday mornings we were invited occasionally to the Commodore’s cabin for post religious service drinks. I have seen the bows of the Queen Elizabeth dip below the water!) I had to stop serving from time to time, throw up in the waste bin, and continued counting out US Dollars (Traditionally, 3 x 20, 2 x 10, 2 x 5, 10 x 1) to male passengers, invariably smoking green cigars and completely ignoring my problems. We stopped for lunch at 12noon and my colleague remarked “I went down to see how Noel was getting on, but he looked so awful he made me feel ill so I left him!” Alongside our office on the Mary was the Baggage Master’s office staffed by the wonderful Monty. On the way back on one trip:- “What is that madam, you bought some ‘am in New York! You can’t take ‘am into the UK, madam. It’s not allowed. You give it to me and I’ll get rid of it for you! No, madam, my pleasure” and then to me in a whispered aside “My wife loves a bit of ‘am!” (“am = ham!)
On board we had staff quarters which we used when we boarded and again in New York. However, after we sailed it was over to the Pursers office to see what 1stClass Cabins were available. They were wonderful and I suppose the main reason I have never done a trip on one of the new Liners was knowing I could never afford to travel in the same style of luxury once available to me. We did have the run of the ships and we liked the Caribbean Room in Cabin on the Elizabeth. One trip, I tried to look more sophisticated by not wearing my glasses and, trying to find my colleagues in the Tourist Class Lounge, I saw dimly a group in DJ’s, joined them, and realised I was sitting with the band. They were quite welcoming.
One thing you realised was the warmth in which you were held by all the officers and crew. We were regarded as completely honest (The junior pursers did not believe that we did not take a cut on the rate for ourselves when we were handing out different currencies on cruises. When at the Sunday Morning Church Service they announced a collection for “Seamen’s charities on both side of the Atlantic” I was never sure if a cut was taken from that as well!) It was hammered into us when we started that you treated everyone from the Commodore down to the junior waiter with the same respect; and we did. We would give a cabin party (The No 4’s cabin!) for the pursers, shop girls, Engineers and Radio officers; a lunch time beer for the Bridge Officers (which could involve a game of spoof) and we were invited to the Radio Officers for darts.
There were our own parties on the way out for 1st Class Passengers (Going through Seyds or Dunn and Bradstreet, having got the passenger list from the Pursers office, to find any Midland Bank customers). On a New York Crossing, tact was required and an understanding Bridge Officer to allow us to nip down the Gangway at Cherbourg (Forbidden to passengers) to get some Duty Free (“OK, Noel, if you bring me a bottle of brandy” which usually was Prince Hubert de Polignac). On Board were could draw an allocation but it was never enough to slake the guests thirsts at our cabin parties. Looking back, the allowance we had on board was miserly and the bank did well out of us via our own money. For Cabin and Tourist lunch time parties we could claim “10 shillings” a head, which helped.
One lesson I learned. I had asked “Mrs Goldberg, would you like another Gin and Tonic?” She glared at me and said “Mr. Rands! I never have another Gin and Tonic” Then she smiled and said “But I would like a Gin and Tonic”. One regular at our crew parties was “Big Norah” who ran the shop on Promenade Deck on the Queen Elizabeth, was having an affair with the masseur in the Turkish Baths, and who had a cut glass accent. She would start with a G and T and then another and then…………….. by which time her accent had shifted to Cockney. However, meeting her the following day it was “Noel! Thank you so much for a really lovely party” and the cut glass accent was back!
Tact was required. On the Mauretania I was asked by a passenger (it was a Mediterranean cruise from Southampton) ”Eh lad, what time does boaat get in to Villy-frank-ee”. I replied politely that the Mauretania was due into Villefranche at 10.30am the next day. He turned to his wife and said “Lad (sighhhhhhhh – those were the days!) says we get into Villy-frank-ee at aff past ten”. On a trip on the Elizabeth, sailing from Piraeus to Alexandria, an American passenger was surprised which I declined to change some Greek notes back to US Dollars. I had to explain that they were not bank notes but the entrance tickets to the Acropolis!
I spent 4 years in Atlantic Department (ending with the first voyage, a shake down cruise, on the QE2) and it was my version of going to a university. I was taught how to behave in public, how to treat the Crew and the passengers with courtesy and how to live with 3 colleagues, seldom the same, for trips lasting from 2 to 10 weeks, starting as the No 4 and finishing for 2 years as the Manager – Officer in Charge. I made lasting friendships which continue to this day. It served as a learning process for being a Group Representative in a foreign country; how to converse with Ambassadors and government ministers, how to get respect from your local staff and how to take an interest in your surroundings. (Plus pay better attention to the Arabic. For years I was certain the response was “Sabah El Foul” and not “Fol” May your days be full of Jasmine, not baked beans! Well, I thought it was a local thing!)
One final thing. The Queens used to dock at Pier 92 in New York which was at the end of 52nd street, at the end of which was a bar. The Smoking Room Chief Steward on the Queen Elizabeth told me that 90% of the crew, who might have been on board for 20 years, never saw more of New York than that bar. I like to think that my horizons became a little broader!