Josna Rege

20. The Bay of Biscay and the Gully Gully Man

In 1950s, 1960s, Britain, Childhood, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel on March 14, 2010 at 11:02 pm

P & O Steamship Maloja (from ancestry.com)

My memories before the age of seven are a collection of dreamlike images rather than stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Between 1955 and 1958 I traveled three times between India and England with one or both of my parents, and in 1960, from India to Greece with both parents and my baby sister Sally.  All these passages were by ship, through Suez and the Mediterranean and across the Arabian Sea, a mode of travel in which the journey itself was a pleasure to be savored. As I return to these fragmentary dreamscapes in my mind’s eye, I catch glimpses of a much earlier era.

London to Bombay, P&O ocean liner, 1955: Bombay to London, 1956; London to Bombay, 1958. Travel time: twelve days.

A big, bare rock, presumably Gibraltar. Do I see monkeys, or is that another memory crowding in? A rough night passage through the Bay of Biscay, rolling and tilting on the empty wooden deck, passengers huddling below in their cabins. Someone vomiting over the rail. Everyone and everything green.

Loud roared the dreadful thunder, the rain in deluge showers/The ship was rent asunder by lightning’s vivid powers/The night was drear and dark, a poor denuded bark/

There she lay, till next day, in the Bay of Biscay-O.

Calm day dawns; fair weather and gracious living on deck. Bathers toss quoits back and forth in the pool. Passengers lounge in deck-chairs. Parents dress for dinner and evening entertainment, while the nursery organizes meals and activities for the children. My father still has a printed dinner menu from our first passage to India.

Navigating the narrow, high-banked Suez Canal. Calls at Port Said and Aden, where some passengers disembark, shop, and explore. The  bulging, jocular, slightly sinister Gully Gully Man boards the ship, producing baby chicks from everywhere on his person and yours.

A house is on fire, flames raging out of control against a backdrop of darkest night. I see my very first movie on board ship, but only this once-terrifying scene remains, now faded and harmless.

And a lasting memory of standing on deck looking out to the horizon, with nothing but ocean and sky as far as the eye can see.

Bombay to Naples, Lloyd Triestino Italian passenger ship, 1960: No separation of children from adults at mealtime for the child-loving Italians. Sally and I order spaghetti bolognese every night for dinner, and the chef comes out to gaze on us fondly, missing his own children back home. He is impressed by Baby Sally’s spaghetti-eating prowess and pronounces her an “Italiano bambino.”

Our father accidentally jams his fingers in the thick, steel door of our cabin. It is terribly painful and the only time I have seen him cry.

Two days in Naples, and two memories: the most delicious, doughy doughnuts, and a store with sawdust on the floor, swept up and replaced daily. Again, we children are made a fuss of by the Italians we meet.

Naples to Piraeus, Greece, on an American ship: a short trip of which my sole memory is my first encounter with grapefruit juice, served at breakfast in a little can.

The era of ocean liners for passenger travel was nearly over. Our next overseas journey, three years later, was to be by air, as they have all been ever since.

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  1. OK, now I’m genuinely envious. I’ve always wanted to take an ocean liner like that — not a cruise ship with feeding trough (although I’m sure I’d happily dig right in), but something Audrey Hepburn-ish, like this. It sounds wonderful.

    • It was; although, as I wrote, I was very young and came in or the end of this era. I wish we travel like this now—I hate flying—but it’s hard to find anything that isn’t a cruise to nowhere, the kind of cruise you describe as a floating “feeding trough.” Years ago Andrew and I had romantic ideas of working our passage on a commercial cargo ship, but if those possibilities existed once, I doubt if they do any more. Perhaps travel by ship will come into vogue again as oil becomes scarcer, as is starting to happen with train travel.

  2. When I was two in 1954 we went by ship to [D]jakarta from New York via London (shopping). My earliest memory, recycled over the years, was from a stop in Alexandria: on the little launch to shore, my Mother’s gold earring fell overboard; the boat boy dove after it but was too late. I think all the ships were Dutch, and apparently my sister Martha and I were Eve and Adam in a costume party somewhere in the Atlantic, but I don’t remember that, nor the Suez canal, just the big gold earring. By 1956 we were flying home from Indonesia by DC-7 across the Pacific, and we got to meet a baby elephant in the back of the plane on its way to America.

    • Now that you mention the boy diving in after your mother’s earring, Peter, I seem to remember boys diving; but perhaps they are boys I have read about in stories. I can imagine the ring spiralling down into the dark water, sinking into the silt of the ocean floor never to be retrieved.
      What a long ocean trip–United States to Indonesia via England! It must have taken weeks. The Pacific route must surely have been the shorter, and light years faster of course, by plane, even weighed down with the baby elephant. Poor thing–I wonder where it was bound?

  3. […] 20. The Bay of Biscay and the Gully Gully Man […]

  4. […] be good for anyone. If I travel by train [see TMA #43, From a Railway Carriage] or ship [TMA # 20, The Bay of Biscay and the Gully-Gully Man] I can watch the landscape and the weather changing, and find myself becoming slowly, gently […]

  5. Great memories and well told. My siblings and I experienced many similar voyages in th 50s and 60s on trips from HongKong to the UK and back home, often via a Australia

    • Thank you, Christopher. I wish I had been a little older, because I could have enjoyed some of the amazing amenities still more. Roundtrip from Hong Kong to the UK via Australia is a l-o-n-g journey. What fun! J

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