Saturday, 1 September 2018

In northern waters

Grey seas, icebergs, wrecks and whales. 

A voyage to the St Lawrence, 50 years ago

One of the odder things about aging is that one may enter a room, forget why, and suddenly recall what one was doing 50 years ago to the day instead. It happened to me this morning. I noticed that it was August 21 and a series of images came unbidden into my head; then I started playing one of those mental newsreels of a past time that are always incomplete. It flickered into life with the image of a train. I was in the dining car with my parents and sister. A flat stretch of late-summer countryside was flashing by, black-and-white cows in a field; a white-jacketed waiter emerged through a swing door with oval windows, a large silver tray at shoulder-height. I wondered why we had been in the dining-car; my parents were the sort who found sandwiches quite adequate. But perhaps it was all part of our ticket, for this was a boat train.


The Empress of Canada in her original livery (Canadian Pacific postcard)
The boat train was once a quite usual feature of international travel, speeding you from Euston or Waterloo and taking you, not to the main station for the port, but straight into the docks, where one climbed down and entered the terminal building or shed to surrender your baggage. This would be labelled as needed, to be taken to your cabin or stickered “Not Wanted on Voyage” and swung into the hold in nets that hung from cranes or derricks. In this shed, too, one would undergo passport formalities before striding up the gangway and into the doors let into the side of the vessel. On one’s return to Britain one went through the same process in reverse, assuming one got through customs in time.

On one occasion some years earlier, my mother had missed the boat train. Disembarking from the Holland America Line’s much-loved Nieuw Amsterdam at Southampton with a two-year-old (me) and my seven-year-old sister, she made the mistake of giving me an orange as we waited in the queue, enraging a customs officer who lectured her about the phytosanitary dangers of American oranges and proceeded to examine our luggage in minute detail. The boat train left without us.

“He was very small. A pipsqueak,” she remembered years later, thought for a moment and added, outraged: “He was Welsh”, as if this somehow explained the man’s behaviour. I remember someone – I believe it was John Treasure Jones, the last captain of the mighty Queen Mary (and himself Welsh) – telling a magazine interviewer how to avoid trouble at customs. Look for a chap with a loosely-knotted tie, he said; a tight, small knot indicates a small, tight mind. It is advice I have carried through life ever since.


But back to the late summer of 1968.

The train rolled into the docks at Liverpool and came to rest outside a cavernous shed. We entered it, and through the open doors at the other side I saw a huge wall of white steel, punctuated by row upon row of portholes. It seemed a leviathan.

The Queen Elizabeth at New York (date and photographer unknown)
In fact, at about 27,000 GRT, the Empress of Canada was dwarfed by the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which at over 81,000 GRT were for a long time the largest man-made moving objects on earth. I had sailed on the Queen Elizabeth, too. In what I believe to be my earliest memory, I am in the children’s playroom on board, pushing a toy car along the art-deco ventilation grilles at the edge of the room and annoying a little girl trying to play with one of the doll’s houses set against them. Then I look up to see my mother standing above me in a Dior-like New Look skirt. If I am correct, it was August 1958, and I was just 15 months old, so it does not seem possible – surely it must have been another ship, probably the Nieuw Amsterdam – but old black-and-white pictures of the Cunarder’s playroom seem to match my memory.

If the Empress of Canada could not compare to the Queens, it was still very large, and was one of the most modern liners on the North Atlantic run, launched on the Tyne in 1960. Designed for the Liverpool to Montreal route, she could carry about a thousand passengers. In the 1960s there was still demand for cabins. Atlantic flights had been offered since the 1940s, and were having an impact on shipping. Jets had offered a transatlantic service since October 1958, a British-built airliner beating the Americans by a matter of days. But jet travel was still for the very well-heeled; older planes often had to refuel at Gander, and the journey to New York could take 12 or 14 hours. And all air travel was still very expensive. All this would change with the arrival of wide-bodied jets in 1970. But for now, ships remained the best choice for many, for Australia as well as North America (many of the British emigrants who went to Australia as part of the assisted passage scheme in the 1960s made the six-week voyage by sea).

We walked up the gangway and into the entrance in the ship’s side. The first thing one noticed was the flooring; often in this ship, it was a light blue rubberised surface with raised buttons, from which water would drain, and on which one would not slip in rough seas. The first place one called was one’s cabin, where hopefully one’s luggage would arrive too. The cabins were small but not cramped and had their own bathrooms and toilets. I took the upper bunk above my sister. I was sleeping right by a porthole and could sit up in bed and look out at the sea.

I was 11, and old enough to wander around the ship alone; in fact I had just been given my first watch especially for the voyage, so that I would know when to turn up for meals. On this first day I went on deck and looked over the side at the docks. I was in a crush of other passengers, many waving goodbye to friends and relatives on the docks far below; some held coloured paper streamers that ran over the side, with the other end held by those below. As the ship pulled away the streamers would break or fall. In those days many passengers on a ship to Canada would have been emigrants, and I suppose the streamer represented the ties that were being broken in a rather poignant way. In fact I remember that everyone was in quite a cheerful mood, despite the greyness of the English summer sky. One passenger may not have been so happy – the owner of a large steamer trunk (yes, we had them) that was bobbing up and down between the ship and the water. A pair of stevedores tried half-heartedly to retrieve it with grappling hooks. “I say, I hear the poor chap’s PhD thesis is inside,” said someone. There was general chortling. And then the hawsers were unwound and we began, ever so slowly, to inch away from England.


At Greenock (date and photographer unknown)
In the morning all had changed. The ship had steamed up the Irish Sea in the night and had entered the Clyde estuary, and was standing off Greenock, waiting for the tender that would bring the last mail and passengers for Canada. We went on deck. It was a quite brilliant, still summer’s morning, the mountains to the north standing out green against the wonderful cloudless sky; the water was flat calm and the ship lay on a mirror in a room of deep blue. I have travelled widely in the half-century since, but I do not think I have seen many scenes to rival that strange and beautiful morning.

We did not stay long. In due course the tender nosed out to meet us, a small motorboat with a dozen or so passengers and some mailsacks. I suppose the sheer white walls of the ship must have reared hundreds of feet above them. They came up a ladder and the tender went about its business; we pulled away. I wonder what became of passengers who had booked their passage from Greenock to find that the weather had been too bad for them to transfer to the ship in this way – as must surely sometimes have happened.

As we left the Clyde behind, the weather dulled. The coast of Ulster was a low grey-green smudge in the distance. We settled into the ship that would be our home for the next week.

Shipboard life acquires a rhythm. Dinner was taken in a large airy dining-room below, at a shared table, served by a waiter in evening clothes, a very small red-headed man from the Shetland Islands; he was quiet but friendly and every night he handed us a new elaborate menu, great white creations of heavy card, with embossed letters and each night a different picture of a sailing ship’s stern on the front. The menus delighted me and the Shetland waiter, noticing that I liked them, kindly brought me a large white envelope marked “A Souvenir of a White Empress”, with a sample of each menu used on the voyage. I had it for many years and believe it may still be among my papers somewhere.

A 1950 poster by Roger Couillard
Between meals there was not that much to do. One could shop at the duty-free. One could play deck games, weather permitting. One could visit the cinema (we did, once; the film was the latest hit, The Cincinatti Kid. It bored us and we walked out). There were lounges and, of course, bars. My parents made little use of these and did not mingle much with the other passengers; my father, though not unfriendly, was not a clubbable man and was rather self-contained. In those days English people were more reserved than they are now and were cautious with strangers until they could place them, or identify a common relative or acquaintance. I made one friend on board, but apart from that I can remember few friendships being forged. We did meet a young woman who was travelling with two unfeasibly slender borzoi dogs. I had a plastic box-brownie camera (I have it still) and she posed for a picture with the dogs, which sat on a bench beside her; her legs were crossed and her skirt quite short and her leather raincoat unbuttoned, and in the picture there is an elegant expanse of thigh.

And of course one looked at the sea.

If one stood at the stern one could see the wake of the ship, a huge white maelstrom, fading at its edges to green and then grey. Seabirds wheeled and screamed above it. The volume of water displaced must have been enormous as the 27,000-ton ship ploughed through the water at 23 knots. One wonders what the wake of the Queen Elizabeth was like; three times the size, and rather faster – she made well over 30 knots, about 33 MPH.

When one tired of looking at the wake, there was the vast seascape around us. As anyone who lives by the sea can tell you, it has many moods. There was none of the glassy tranquility that we had seen at Greenock. Further out the fresh wind whipped up whitecaps. As it was summer, we followed the Great Circle route some way to the north; it grew cold, and the sky was a dirty light grey and the sea gunmetal with crests of white. One day an announcement on the PA told us that we were near what was thought to be the last position of the Titanic (it had yet to be found). Late that afternoon we saw icebergs in the distance.

At that time, no British person could cross that stretch of ocean without remembering that it was also a graveyard. The U-boat battles of the second war had reached their climax in 1943, just 25 years earlier; plenty of people on board would have remembered them, and perhaps some of the crew had sailed through them – in fact I am sure they had, for the ship was crewed in Liverpool. My father was quiet and mildly irritable throughout the voyage and I know he disliked the sea. I did not understand why, but now I realize that he must have spent weeks on a troopship to what was then the Gold Coast in 1941, a tense voyage; the vessel would have swung much of the way out towards Brazil to avoid U-boats. Many were sunk off West Africa, including a previous Empress of Canada; she was torpedoed by an Italian submarine, but by a twist of fate the ship was carrying Italian prisoners, nearly 200 of whom died.

A few years ago I wrote about crossing the Atlantic, then and now – a piece I later included in my 2014 book The Nine Horizons. It included this passage:

A convoy in 1942 (US Navy picture)
Some journeys on this ocean always have ended badly. You are in your cabin; it was a five-day voyage before, but now it's three weeks as you limp along at the pace of the slowest ship, and you zigzag and dogleg, and destroyers and corvettes fuss around like smoky sheepdogs. It's early morning and you're still in your bunk when there is a soft thud and a jolt and the ship falters and seems to have come to a stop. There is an odd silence. The lights flicker but stay on. You can hear the footsteps of a steward clanging on the steel floor of the passage outside so you open the door. No, probably nothing to worry about, but perhaps you wouldn't mind going topside, sir, do you have warm clothing? – good, sir, if you can get it on quickly. On deck everything's quite calm, but the other ships have moved on ahead, leaving a black smoke stain on the horizon; and you're alone in the early morning between a still, solid grey sea and a gunmetal sky, and there's a cool breeze. It's very calm and it must be only your imagination that the ship is settling slowly to starboard. In fact everything is so calm that you cannot envisage the jagged hole below and the cold water streaming in across the hot boilers and the lascars and stokers screaming in agony from the superheated steam.

When I was young, many older people hated the sea.


On the fifth day it was still dull and cold. In the early afternoon I was standing on the deck when someone pointed in the distance. A school of whales was passing us a mile or so away, their bodies breaking the water, huge, but very small in the distance. I went up again at dusk, which came late (we were a long way north, and it was still summer). On the far horizon in front of the ship was a long, low shadow, and it was not a cloud. I wonder if it looked the same to Leif Ericson a thousand years ago, or to the first of the Breton and Iberian cod-fishermen not long afterwards. Or maybe to St Brendan, 500 years earlier. Many believe he made it. Should we be so sure he didn’t? The American explorer Robert Marx once claimed to have found amphorae from a Roman shipwreck in Guanabara Bay, off Rio de Janeiro. Who knows who first saw that shore from the sea?

That night, there wasn’t much to see. But the next morning we had passed Belle Isle and into the mouth of the St Lawrence.

The sheer size of this river is hard to comprehend. It drains the Great Lakes into the Atlantic and, if one counts the estuary, is not much less than 2,000 miles long. To make landfall at Belle Isle and then spend two days steaming to one’s destination is to comprehend its size and that of Canada itself. Of course, there was now other shipping. Before long that morning a bulk carrier of Manchester Lines slipped past on its way to the ocean, and as the ship ploughed on towards Quebec, the traffic became more frequent. We were some way out in mid-stream; as the day wore on, however, we started to see small white houses nestled in the wooded shoreline. Bit by bit we sailed back into the human world.

The Empress of Ireland (Bibliothèque et Archives Canada)
The St Lawrence had its own harsh history for Canadian Pacific. On the night of May 29 1914, near Rimouski in Quebec, just inside the river proper, the Norwegian collier Storstad hit the Empress of Ireland in fog. The Storstad remained afloat, despite a damaged bow. The 14,000 GRT Empress of Ireland did not, sinking in just 14 minutes with the loss of just over a thousand lives – a disaster quite comparable to that of the Titanic, yet hardly known; perhaps the outbreak of the Great War two months later overlaid it in memory. The rapid sinking was attributed to the use of longtitudinal watertight compartments, which allowed one side of the ship to fill very quickly with water while the other did not, causing it to capsize rapidly. Many of those who did escape the ship died in the water, which at that time of year was still very cold. The exact circumstances of the collision were disputed at the enquiry, and remain so now. (The Storstad was repaired and returned to service, but seized by Canadian Pacific after a civil suit. She was torpedoed southwest of Fastnet Rock three years later.) I did not know it then, but we must have passed the wreck site in the St Lawrence during the sixth day.

In the evening we tied up at Quebec City. It was not yet time to leave the ship, but we went ashore to stretch our legs, striding along the dock below the towering mass of the Château Frontenac, built by Canadian Pacific themselves in 1893. It was there that Churchill had met Mackenzie King and Roosevelt in 1943 to discuss strategy. On this evening in late August 25 years later, there was little activity on the dock – it seemed empty – and even the other passengers seemed to have stayed aboard. At length we returned to the ship. But we had stood on North American soil. Well, concrete.

The next morning I pulled back the curtains above my bunk and saw an odd view. We had come to a halt at Montreal and were tied up near Man and His World – what had been Expo 67, the very successful World’s Fair the previous year. It was over but one could still visit the site, now called Man and His World. I was looking at Habitat 67, the strange cuboid flat complex that had been part of the exhibition and was still lived in, and is to this day.

We were chivvied off the ship by our parents and a Montreal metro train with big rubber wheels took us to an American-style train that took us to Ottawa. We rode upstairs in the observation car. The train rattled slowly along, seemingly right through people’s backyards. We left the Empress of Canada and its great white walls behind us at Montreal. I never saw her again.


From the 1930s
A year later, my father’s work in Canada was done. This time he flew. The rest of us returned the way we had come, in almost the same week. But this time we sailed on a sister ship of about the same size – the Empress of England, also built on the Tyne. The weather was markedly worse and the ship, although only slightly older, was less modern in design. It pitched and rolled. I had been ill before we went aboard and for the first and, so far, last time in my life, I was seasick. After two days for which I had vomited uncontrollably, my mother summoned a nurse from the dispensary in the bowels of the ship. The nurse unsheathed a very large needle that looked as if it was used to tranquilize horses. “Turn over,” she barked, and thrust it into my rump; I could not see but I think she was holding it aloft with both hands, as if sacrificing a goat. It did make me better, but not well enough to go to dinner. Instead, while my mother and sister went to eat, a friendly Belfast steward brought me some rather nice sandwiches and stayed with me until they returned, telling me all about the Mini-Coopers that he rallied in the winter season. It was a cheerful act of kindness that I still remember after nearly half a century. I recall little else about that voyage, except that we tied up at Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock on a cold and drizzly afternoon, I think the first day of September. I looked over the rail at the rows of cars parked on bombsites near the dock, their windows streaked with rain, and felt a strange sense of being grounded, of being dragged home to England against my will. I would feel it later, as an adult, many times.

The Empress of England would not make people vomit for much longer. In two years she was off the route; in five she was scrapped. But the Empress of Canada would work on. Her own life as a transatlantic liner was nearly over; 18 months later the first of the wide-bodied jets entered service. A very few vessels staggered on for two or three years, but soon the QE2 was the only liner left on the route. The others found new lives as cruise liners. For the Canada, this was nothing new; although her sister-ships stayed on the Atlantic route the year round, she herself had always spent the winters cruising.

Twenty years later, as a volunteer in Sudan, I met a man who had been one of the crew in the ship’s heyday, and had been aboard when we made that crossing. He had fond memories of the cruise season. Every woman loves a sailor, he said, and recalled a Hollywood star who had liked to go ashore with them and have sex with them, one by one, against a palm tree. “Funny, she was always sort of unfriendly once you’d done her,” he mused, nursing a glass of the local firewater. He then identified her as someone who was, in the 1960s, a household name. She has long passed away, but I shall take that name to the grave.

The ship was sold in the early 1970s, becoming the first of the Carnival line’s cruise ships. As the years went by, the North Atlantic survivors were replaced by purpose-built cruise ships, vast, slow, soulless floating malls that meander slowly through the water, pausing now and then to unleash thousands of holidaymakers on some defenceless Caribbean island; were our Hollywood star still living, she would find it hard to find a palm tree to herself. But the Empress of Canada somehow survived into the new century, latterly on gambling cruises in the Gulf of Mexico.

Final fate: The Empress of Canada broken at Along, 2003
In 2003 she was finally sold for scrap and was run ashore at the great shipbreakers at Alang Beach, Gujurat – one of those places where men swarm across a huge ship in their hundreds and break it with axes and saws and the sweat of their brows. In a few months, there was nothing left of a great ship that had been home to thousands for days or even weeks at a time, on which some men and women would serve for years.

But that is the fate of the things we use, isn’t it? The year I sailed on the Empress of Canada, British Rail finally abandoned steam, and thousands of engines were left in long lines at a huge yard in Barry, South Glamorgan. One moment they were living, breathing monuments to human ingenuity. The next they were rotting hulks in the drizzle. And the same happened to typewriters, to record players, to valve wirelesses, to cathode-tube TVs and to the car that once picked you up from school; and one day it will happen to your phone and to your tablet and your microwave and the laptop on which I am typing this. Later, someone will look at one in a book or online or in a museum and wonder, yes, but what did it do? And few will know what it was to forge through a vast grey sea, peopled by ghosts of Vikings, Breton fishermen, men o’war and submarines, to see icebergs pass astern or whales in the distance, or see a low grey line on the horizon at dusk and wonder if it was a low cloud, or the New World.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing,  The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.