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Authors: Griff Rhys Jones

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Luckily
every man-hole, every fence, every fire hydrant and every unenumerated lamp
post’ in Epping was marked in voyeuristic detail on huge maps in an office near
the library. I needed my own version of this Big Brother document to take on
the road, before I biked out into the streets in that cold Essex January, so I
grappled with a
bath of viscous liquid and rollers which clanked and
whirred and produced sinister-looking blueprints in a
suspicious purple
colour. Nobody would have thought of trying to copy their arse on the roller
and acid machine in the Epping surveyor’s office.

Gap
years provide an education. I learned that the wearying fiddliness of
pre-photocopier seventies office infrastructure was ripe for Japanese
intervention (and indeed that was to come). I also learned that there were some
mind-numbingly boring work-environments that I never wanted to share again. I
was quite keen, though, and still innocent enough to be surprised that nobody
wants you to be keen in dull work places. But I was just visiting. That month I
walked every street and cul-de-sac, every close, avenue, crescent, lane and
terrace of my home town. Then I left for the Mediterranean to take up another
temporary job.

This
looked a more cushy number. In the autumn of the previous year I had been interviewed
by a charming codger in a
grey suit in my first open-plan office. In
early March, after working in a petrol station, trying to Christmas-wrap lamp
stands in a
design shop in the high street, taking babysitting jobs
(where I thumbed through my mother’s younger friends’ sex manuals secreted on
the upper shelves of their cherry-wood G-Plan units) and sorting the Epping
illumination, of course, I flew out to Malta to join a school educational
cruise ship as a
school office assistant.

It was
a significant departure for me. As a family, we didn’t ‘do’ abroad. I had been
with the school to Denmark, where we learned to row and had an accident with
the hanging light. I had been on a trip to Wuppertal to stay with Doris, the
former au pair, to ‘improve’ my German. But the Rhys Joneses had never gone to
the beaches of the south. We had certainly never taken package holidays, but
neither had we ever jumped in the car and taken the ferry to wander off through
France and eat pâté. Never. It seems an extraordinary admission now I am
thinking, ‘Well, we must have gone. There must have been some foreign
adventure. We were a
perfectly ordinary middle-class family. Didn’t we
ever get as far as Calais? No. Not by ferry anyway. Until my father decided to
captain his own boat across the Channel we ignored Europe completely. But then
I don’t suppose this was particularly rare. Miller, who had ginger hair and a
languid manner, was considered slightly exotic at school because he went to
France every summer. We were aware that
he did because we thought it
gave him an unfair advantage in French lessons. Rhys Jones never went anywhere
because his father had that
boat.
It
was the holiday of
choice. We never had any choice. We just went on holiday on the boat.

I wrote
home, excitedly detailing the circumstance of the flight, the food served on
the aeroplane and the fact that
I had met some of my colleagues on the
way. I was delivered to sandstone Valletta, the capital of Malta, and thence to
a
white boat,
towering above a
wharf in the docks. (‘This
is not a
boat.
It
is a
ship!’) It was the SS
Uganda.

We were
four ‘school office assistants’, two of whom I liked immensely and one of whom
was called Adrian. We were effectively junior pursers, charged with mundane
jobs like making meal announcements and handing out torches, setting up lecture
equipment and printing the daily news, but we didn’t wear a uniform and were
considered to be under the authority of the headmaster as opposed to the
captain. We were also paid four pounds a
week, which we spent on bonded
whisky at
eight pence a
shot. The ship was a
floating
embodiment of 1950s values.

It was
divided into two classes. At one end (the smaller and the back) there were
dormitories, classrooms and dining halls, painted a battleship grey, floored
with limo, smelling of hot diesel and patrolled by sergeants at
arms.
Here they shoved about six hundred schoolchildren. Up the other end (the larger
and the bow) there were individual cabins, lounges, a library, a
decent
restaurant and a
ballroom, where an Indian band played jazz standards
every evening. Here a
small number of fee-paying passengers stretched
themselves out. They were joined in this paradise of inlaid wood and starched
napery by the teachers.

It was
an ingenious scam. The teachers worked hard all year. It was their task to
persuade reluctant parents that their children deserved to enjoy the privileges
that
other children would be enjoying as soon as they had persuaded
their equally reluctant parents to take part. As a
reward for press-ganging
the kids, the company gave them a
luxury cruise. The teachers had to
take the occasional lesson. They would be responsible (sometimes) for showing
their charges a
pyramid or two. For the most part, however, the pupils
attended lectures given by the intelligent, plump ship’s headmaster, ate
fattening food and went to the disco under our tutelage.

My
first letter home, out of an envelope with a red Britannia crest on the back,
was to my mother. I was confined to an empty ship, picked on at work and not
really homesick at all. The ship’s officers had glowered at
us when we
tried to visit their bar. The Maltese security guard had ordered us back to
quarters. And she would be relieved to know I had not managed to spend any
money yet. I assume my letters to my future girlfriend correspondents were a
little racier. (But only they can tell me. Perhaps they have them somewhere
in their own shoebox.)

Our
work station and the hub of shipboard existence was the school office, a
metal
turret at the meeting point of various corridors on the lower decks. In the
morning, we opened for business by rattling up shutters on three sides and
facing out to meet inquiries. It was run by Michael —tall, languid and
practised in queenly disdain, particularly, so it seemed, for us.

‘You
can sit over there and keep out of the way,’ he started. We had a few things to
get straight. This wasn’t ‘school’ at all. Not our school, not the pupils’
school and not the head-master’s school. It was ‘shipboard’ and on shipboard
sailors like him (he was a junior purser) were in charge. He was equally
dismissive of orders from above (‘Oh Lord, what are they trying to do now?’),
keen to put us in our places and determinedly lazy.

Before
we left, waiting in the empty ship for our complement of pupils, Michael was
expected to provide some sort of an inventory of equipment. Lounging back in
the only chair in the office, he summoned two of us over ‘What have we got in
that cupboard over there?’ he asked.

It was
filled with boxes of Monopoly and Scrabble.

‘There
are supposed to be fifteen, aren’t there? Give them here.’ He started idly
picking through the contents as if intending to count the houses, silver top
hats and hotels but quickly grew bored. He scooped all the games up into a
cardboard box and handed it to us. ‘Go and throw that over the side,’ he said.
Then he picked up his clipboard and pen. ‘Fifteen replacements needed, I think.’

Michael’s
deputy Nigel was short and ginger. Both of them bad the comic assurance of the
minimally experienced. They busied themselves with organizing visas and stamps
for passports and trying to pass their duties on to us, while I prepared my
own inventory of their shortcomings in my letters home. ‘He hit the roof last
week because I played a record at reveille that he didn’t like.’ (Hm. King
Crimson not so popular then?)

‘He has
produced a rota whereby one person is on duty all the time and then complains
because we are not all present when he wants us,’ I huffed peevishly.

Four
weeks later, things improved. ‘The School Office Purser has finally bought us a
drink.’ (And at eight pence a shot too.) I must have played ‘Bye, Bye Miss
American Pie’ at reveille.

On the
morning of our first day the four of us hovered in the margins, newly oppressed
by petty rituals. The pursers ignored us. They were leafing through the
passenger manifest. ‘They’re all from Canada,’ Michael snorted and threw it to
one side.

Given a
break, we clumped up to the open-air decks. The crew were at their perpetual
task of chipping rust and painting. We leaned over a rail and watched the
passenger coaches arrive. Way below us they drove in a great curve around the
dock, as if in long shot, and stopped next to the companionway. We stopped
singing Beach Boys hits and leaned forward as six hundred Canadian schoolgirls
aged fifteen to eighteen were ordered off the buses and marshalled aboard.
Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. There were only five hundred teenage girls
and about a hundred boys, but I don’t think we noticed the boys particularly.

It was
strictly forbidden to ‘fraternize’ with the pupils, although over the next two
weeks we spent a huge amount of time with the pupils. It was our job to spend
time with the pupils. The pupils thronged around us. We gave the pupils visas
and advice and smiles. In the evenings, we were expected to organize a disco
for the pupils. But there was nobody for these pupils to disco with, except
some of the junior officers (unfashionably short-haired and just a little
straight), those hundred or so Canadian boys (well, never mind them) and us. We
quite badly wanted to fraternize with the pupils. There were, it seemed, rather
a remarkable number of pupils who wanted to fraternize with us. They weren’t
our ruddy pupils. Some of these pupils were older than we were. And we weren’t
teachers either. We were like prefects, weren’t we?

Alas,
there was absolutely nowhere on the ship where it was possible to ‘fraternize’
in private. We looked. It was reputed that a previous school office assistant
had decided to use the ironing room to get to know a pupil better. It had two
open doorways and an ironing board. Unsurprisingly, he had been caught in the
act. Apparently there had been a bit of a fuss.

I
dutifully informed my mother that the passengers were ‘either very fat or very
beautiful’, that I was making ‘an awful lot of friends’ and that my bar bill
was
£1.45
for the week.

But day
by day the sensation increased that we were taking part in a not very
convincing late-sixties sex comedy. It was a new experience, having come from a
boy’s school, to walk down corridors and be greeted with winks and endearments
by either the fat or the beautiful. The dashing Leslie Phillips had been
pursued around the decks by his female passengers, but it couldn’t happen in
real life, could it? When it did, it became acutely difficult to remain
responsive to six or seven admirers at a time.

The
ship sailed off to Greece, passing down through the Aeolian Islands and into
the Corinth canal. And it was spring too.

The
Uganda
carried a full complement of old-fashioned Empire certainties. The crew,
for example, were Goan. Dinner and lunch were ‘three-course blow-outs’,
enlivened by kofta curries and tarka dahls. We ate well away from the steerage
pupils, at tables of gleaming silverware, with teachers and officers and
passengers. ‘Do the crew all eat at this dinner?’ I asked one of the third
lieutenants.

He
scowled at me. (It was central to officer-training to be able to scowl
authoritatively) ‘The
crew,’
he said pointedly, ‘make their chicken
stews in their own quarters.’

One of
the ‘matrons’ recruited exclusively from ex-captains of hockey teams leaned
across. ‘The crew is black, darling. Never call the officers crew.’

‘You
should try to eat one of their chicken curries if you can,’ said the deputy headmistress
between mouthfuls. ‘It’s a real treat.’

The ‘crew’
were paid four pounds a week, same as us. But unlike us, they had been
recruited as entire villages in Goa and would serve four-year stints. Their ‘quarters’
were squeezed into the stern of the boat.

‘Most
modern ships have black crew,’ I was told.

One of
the other junior officers giggled. ‘If white crew don’t like your orders, you
can disappear over the side in the middle of the night.’

But
this knowledge didn’t seem to make the officers much warmer to the black Goans.
‘The problem is that these natives have to be doubled up. We have twice as many
of the blighters on board as we ought to need.’

My
letters home, when not about my search for the perfect Afghan coat, are full of
righteous indignation. ‘My steward shouted at me,’ I wrote, ‘because everybody
shouts at him and that’s how he thinks English is spoken.’

Our
duties were not taxing, but two of us had to get up at five in the morning and
deliver the daily news. It was my second encounter with a seventies office
techno-nightmare in six months. Two or three typed pages of ‘the news in
sentences’ arrived from somewhere up in the radio room, each with several
backing strips and a flimsy They were attached, by means of punched holes in
the top of the paper, to matching holes on the Roneo machine and then had to be
smoothed on to a drum. Once in place, the backing pages were ripped off. The
machine was turned once with a massive handle to ensure that the ink was oozing
through the punched type face, and then we pressed a button. It was supposed to
clank out fifty copies.

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