Magdapur. Party Time!

John Leary
28th February 2008, 11:39
Ship’s nostalgia is not just about remembering ships, good friends and foreign places but also about when it seemed possible to conquer the World and enjoy life no matter how limited the opportunities.

The swinging sixties is a term that was unfamiliar to me when I lived through them, possibly because it’s likely that the term was coined by a journalist or magazine article writer long after the sixties had passed by. However it was a time when the restrictions of the post war years were becoming distant memories and there was a sense of freshness, change and discovery in popular music, fashion and in social attitudes.

When I first went to sea I used to listen avidly and I must say enviously on occasions when other more senior Brocklebank officers from all departments, related stories of parties that had been held on board company ships. Most but not all of these were held when ships were on Home Trade voyages. I remember one anecdote which I cannot vouch to be true about a Brocklebank ship being berthed in Birkenhead which was boarded early in the morning by a Superintendent from Head Office. On his way aboard, had the great good fortune or misfortune depending on your point of view, to meet his daughter leaving the ship a little the worse for wear. The story as told to me did not reveal the nature of their conversation as they passed on the gangway or about any repercussions. It just seemed highly amusing when it was told as part of the regular exchange of tales in the ships bar in the evenings.

My first ship Mahseer did not offer much in the way of parties during my time on board even though I did Home Trade and Foreign Going voyages on her. The exception was the horse racing party, held in Aden which is the subject of another story and appears under the title of “The Sport of Kings”. On that occasion the participants were all male because that was the time before females were allowed to sail as crew on British naval vessels.

I remember on the Manaar that one party included members of the Billy Cotton Band. The great man himself and his famous lead singer Alan Breeze were not amongst the participants but I did have the opportunity to meet and talk to a gay trombonist. Gay in this sense is in the modern usage of the word unlike the meaning back in the sixties which meant to be happy and lighthearted which I suspect many of us were when the party ended. That meeting added to my enjoyment of listening to Billy Cotton’s “Wakey Wakey” programme on the radio particularly when they played “All the nice girls love a sailor”!

My most serious partying took place whilst I was on the Magdapur, coasting around the UK.

I cannot remember now how the arrangements came to be agreed but they operated with the precision of a Swiss watch and swung into action the moment the black box telephone with buttons “A” and “B” was put on board and connected to the local telephone exchange. For those readers who have never seen such a technological masterpiece it was rectangular in shape about 20 inches (51 cm) high, 12 inches (31 cm) wide and 10 inches (25.5 cm) deep. The Bakelite handset sat on a chromed cradle on top, connected to the box usually with an armoured black rubber covered cable.

There was a coin slot near to the top into which you placed the pennies, shilling or florins (pre decilmilisation) when the operator (remember them) told you the charge for the minimum 3 minute call duration. Button “A” was pressed to pay for the call if the charge was accepted and button “B” was pressed if the call failed and you wanted your money back. This refund process was not entirely foolproof.

Anyway I digress, because by mutual consent the third mate or fourth engineer was made the ship’s entertainment officer depending on who had the nicest telephone manner and as soon as they were free would use the telephone to make contact with the operators in the local telephone exchange. To contact the operator (universally female in those days) you would pick up the handset, dial zero and wait for the reply.

The operator’s salutation would often be “hello operator, can I help you, what number do you want”? The thought “you bet you can help us” was left unspoken and the response was generally along the lines of “hello my name is Bill, I’m the entertainments officer on board the SS Magdapur. We’ve just docked and were wondering if you and some of the other young ladies (note the emphasis on young) would like to come on board tonight*/tomorrow night*/Saturday night* (* chose the most appropriate) for a party. There will be about 10 of us so feel free to bring as many as you like. The ships Chef will be laying on food so there is no need to eat before you come on board”. The use of the term chef in place of cook was akin to the use of ground bait in fishing!

This approach was often successful. A further tactic either in place of or in addition to the above plan A, was plan B. This involved dialing 100 for Directory Enquiries and when the operator spoke, to ask for the number of the nurse’s home at the local hospital. Having obtained and then dialed the number, providing you could get passed the housekeeper or sister in charge then the conversation was broadly the same except that there would be greater emphasis on the food, as in those day and I guess even now nurses were poorly paid and always hungry.

On the Magdapur, at the time of this story, we were doubly blessed not only because all of the engineers and junior navigators were party animals but also because the Second Steward/Purser whose name sadly I do not now remember was what you would call the “Toy Boy” of a very elegant lady in her mid forties who was very well connected with people in the theatre. One party involved the leading dancers from a London Ballet company that was touring the provinces.

How the second purser did it I do not know but after arriving in Glasgow, he arranged for the cast of a review show that was on at the Theatre Royal to come aboard and spend some time with us. In the case of one of the female dancers, she stayed on board almost up to the time we cast off to depart. The parties were held quite late as we used to watch the evening show in the theatre and then meet the cast backstage in order to escort them back to the ship. I remember that amongst the artists was an Australian ventriloquist and comedian who was an entertainment in his own right although towards the end of our time in Glasgow he cried off claiming exhaustion.

The dancers were absolutely gorgeous and on occasions it was necessary to do a reality check to ensure we hadn’t died and gone to heaven. We had mixed feelings of regret when we left Glasgow but after all the parties we were feeling jaded and it was good to feel the sea moving under the keel and to get some salt air back into our lungs. Anyway there was always the next party to plan for!

I could go on. There was the earlier time again on the Magdapur when one of the Gellatly Hankey agents in Massawa smuggled some of the younger hostesses from the roof garden on board late at night. These were close, intimate friends of his and he was seeking to return some of the many favours they had shown him by giving them a tour of a British Cargo Liner. They seemed impressed but soon got bored when it became obvious that drinking and telling stories in the bar was our only interest.

Later, there was the time on Manaar when at a party one young lady who had just arrived on board but who clearly knew how to appreciate the better things in life asked for the Radio Officer. Someone pointed me out and said “he’s over there standing next to his wife”!

Dreams and memories, the former for the young and the latter for the middle aged. How short is the time in between! Tempus Fugit!

28th February 2008, 14:24
John very nicely written, had the same sort of "experience" on the P&O especially in OZ.

Jim S
28th February 2008, 15:49
On a coastal trip on good ship Magdapur in May 1967 at such a party at Dundee as described by John Leary I met a nurse. - We are approaching 39 years of marriage. Magdapur and her parties have a lot to answer for.