Never Forget your Umbrella
Sex: the thing that takes up the least amount
of time and causes the most amount of trouble.
The forbidding exterior in 1930 of what was to become Gravesend Sea Training School.
The following is an extract from my Merchant Navy memoir, ALL ABOARD THE CALABOOSE. In January 1959 I arrived at Gravesend for a 6 week course on catering which saw me eventually entering the Merchant Navy as a steward on my 16th birthday April 1 1959. Back then few of us knew much about sex. Therefore it was down to the government's Crown Film Unit to tell us would-be mariners just how life threatening a bit of illicit nooky could be. DON'T READ THIS IF YOU'RE SQUEAMISH.
There were lots of different things we needed to know about before we sailed around the world. Those old Gravesend instructors came from that put-upon, wartime generation where caution and good manners were the order of the day. We were warned about personal hygiene, for example. If I had opted for an apprenticeship as a plumber or a bricklayer I doubt whether my boss would have been too bothered if I farted now and again or had cheesy armpits. It would have been the adept manipulation of the pipes, bricks or wiring which mattered. Nor would he have been concerned if I belched, sneezed or had less than pristine fingernails. The same lack of concerns, for all I know, probably extended to the lads on the deckhand’s course, but for us stewards, everything, from your teeth to your haircut to the shine on your shoes was of maximum importance. And we were constantly reminded about manners and etiquette. Step aside for the lady; open the door for her. Call her madam, call him sir. Smile; assume a posture which demonstrated dignified servility. Always hold a chair for a lady, be discrete and gentle when offering to light her cigarette. Smile graciously. Be clean, clean, clean, and once you’d become clean, get washed again. Not too much Brylcreem or Brilliantine. Teeth cleaned morning, noon and night. Never smell of cigarettes. Those of you already growing whiskers, no five’o’clock shadow, no facial hair. Beards and ’taches were for film stars, not stewards. And tattoos maketh not the sailor. In fact, there were so many aspects to our potential grooming we were only a few places removed from becoming cardiac surgeons. In addition, all this hygiene had to be carried over into our personal life beyond the dining saloon, Mr. Hawkins duly warned us of this one rainy afternoon after showing us how to make mint sauce and carve a leg of lamb.
“After dinner tonight, lads, I need you all to assemble in the recreation hall at 8 ’o’clock for a very important talk about some special ladies who you are bound to meet on your travels. And you’ll have a very interesting film show. So be there – and that’s an order.”
It was a memorable gathering that night in the hall. The chairs were arranged, cinema-style, in rows, a screen had been erected and Mr. Hawkins and a man we were led to believe was a ‘medical officer’ stood at the back of the hall supervising a large film projector on a table. Captain Adams went to the front of the hall and called us all to attention.
“Pay attention, gentlemen, because the film you are about to see is crucial for you all, and if you take on board its implications the memory of this will keep you aware of your duty and your health. You are young men about to embark upon a career which will take you to distant lands, and you will experience exotic cultures and different ways of life. As sailors, it is inevitable that you will strike up relationships with the opposite sex.”
The very mention of the word ‘sex’ resulted in a ripple of subdued guffawing across the hall. Adams looked impatient.
“This means girls, and women.” More guffawing.
“Yes, you may be sniggering now, but unless you pay attention in detail to what you are about to see, then you’ll be laughing on the other side of your faces in a few months’ time and your career could well be over.”
This was all a trifle mystifying. The lights were turned out and the legend in stark white on a black background flickered onto the screen:
Crown Film Unit
Central Office of Information
Ministry of Health
Central Council for Health Education
I can’t recall the actual title of the film, but it involved the words ‘Danger’ and ‘Venereal Disease’. As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, time and memory play tricks, so what follows is a hazy melange of the things I recall being included in this terrifying few hundred feet of celluloid.
During about 45 minutes we all went from cocky young testosterone-driven whippersnappers to sickened, paranoid wrecks. Images of poor servicemen’s mangy meat and two veg were juxtaposed with recreations of shady ‘foreign’ nightspots where immoral ‘floozies’ flashed their stocking tops as banknotes changed hands between them and various sailors and soldiers who disappeared up darkened stairways. There was maximum drinking and smoking involved and the occasional obligatory smoochy saxophone on the soundtrack. Eventually, these hapless young ‘men of the world’ were back in Blighty, visiting hospitals with pus running out of their willies - and suspicious scabs all over the place. The massed intake of breath from the gathering at each new level of horror almost created a window-crushing vacuum in the hall. There was one sad guy relating the treatment for clearing his urinary tract with the use of something casually referred to as ‘the umbrella’, a device probably designed by the Spanish Inquisition and patented by Torquemada. This would, apparently, in its umbrella-closed mode, be inserted into the end of the penis, thrust deep inside the urethra, and then the umbrella would be opened up and pulled out slowly to ‘scrape’ away any leprous accumulation, accompanied by maximum agony and much screaming. That’d bloody teach us to mess about with ‘loose’ women! The sledge-hammer morality oozing from the screen would have given Mary Whitehouse palpitations, had it not been for the frequent appearance of scabrous, crab-infested todgers. Then, by the time we’d got past the comparatively near-benign nature of gonorrhoea, we entered the mordant twilight zone of syphilis, complete with blindness, brain damage, wheelchairs and agonizing death. The whole thing was rounded up with a look at pubic lice, condoms, personal hygiene, how to wash behind the foreskin, etc., etc. As the whole grisly spectacle flickered to an end, the silence in the hall was complete. Captain Adams dismissed us and everyone filed out into the cold yard in abject silence.
What followed that night, in retrospect, was as poignant as it was hilarious. With just an hour to go before we were all due in our bunks for lights out, the wash house was packed with lads, trousers around their ankles (me included) scrubbing away furiously at their heavily soap-sudded nether regions. Considering that about 85% of us had never got beyond the ‘giggle band’, our only erotic liaison being our right hand, then the power of the Government Information film service was fully proven. To go to sea after this fearfully memorable episode and not see the opposite sex in a totally threatening light would take some doing. How would we know the difference between a woman and a ‘lady’? What lurking horrors of the flesh might lie behind a come-on smile? Not that any of us had ever had a ‘come-on smile’, but it was worrying none the less. For months to come, even the sight of lingerie in a shop window would have us scratching. Considering all this today, it’s also worth noticing how male-orientated such advice was. Men were the victims, women were the threat? But if that was the case, where did the women get these bugs from in the first place? We knew for a fact now, after watching the show that the old idea of contracting syphilis from a toilet seat was a non-runner. There was another film made at the time by the COI entitled The People at Number 19 in which a woman (again) has to face up to the fact she’s caught the clap, and suffer a breadknife-brandishing husband. Hopefully we’ve moved on a little since then, thanks to penicillin.
As the weeks rolled on, the January intake of 1959, the amassed owners of the cleanest genitals in Gravesend began to look forward to their final days and ultimate discharge, ready to go home and put their names down for the big adventure - their first ship. We had various tests and exams, and my friend Owen and I got through with flying colours. On the final Friday before being sent home on the Monday, we were given a most peculiar lecture by our favourite catering taskmaster, Mr. Hawkins. For once we’d had a decent lunch that day - sausages, as I remember, with onion gravy. We’d had a boat drill on the pier which jutted out into the Thames, and afterwards we were led into the hall by Hawkins, who snapped us all to rapt attention with a puckish grin on his round visage.
“Well, girls, you lot will be on your way home in a couple of days to your mums and dads.”
We’d noticed before that Hawkins had a penchant for referring to us as ‘girls’, which some of us were not particularly happy about.
“Now, girls, to begin with, when you join your first ship you’ll have the lowliest rank on board - even lower than the ship’s rats or the cat - catering boy. You’ll have to be on your guard, watch, listen and learn - and that means making sure that your superiors are kept very happy by your charming young company. The purser, the cook, the second steward, the chief steward, all these gentlemen will want you to make them happy. So if the chief calls you into his cabin late one night because he’s feeling lonely, then if you want to get on in life, it’ll be up to you to provide him with a little happiness.”
Owen nudged me and we exchanged glances. What the bloody hell was he on about? Somewhat bravely, Owen put his hand up. Hawkins beamed in his direction.
“Ah - a question - an inquiring mind. Yes?”
“Sorry sir,” said Owen, “I’m a bit puzzled - how can we make a chief steward or a cook any more happy - I mean, if we do our job right, won’t that be enough?”
Hawkins chuckled and nodded sagely.
Years later, I think we all had a complete understanding of what was, back then, Mr. Hawkins’s baffling scenario. It would become startlingly clear in the first months at sea that our fresh-faced innocence and lithe youthfulness could fetch a high premium out on the briny - if you were so inclined.
And so the great day came. We cleaned those damned shiny dustbins for the last time, collected our suitcases, all said goodbye to one another - sadly, forever - and caught our trains home. Riding home on Tuesday March 24th 1959 on the bus from Hull’s Paragon Station I was in a state of buoyant elation. I’d done it. I had a whole week to myself, and my 16th birthday, the age at which I was eligible to sail, was but 7 days away on April 1st. I’d had two years at a nautical school and six weeks at a sea training school, I had a passing out certificate, a seaman’s discharge book, and I was ready to go.
 The Giggle Band, you ask? This is a reference to that area of flesh (in the days before tights) where a woman’s stocking tops ended and the knickers began. As the old hands would say, ‘get past there and you’re laughing’.
ALL ABOARD THE CALABOOSE (400 pages) IS ONLY AVAILABLE TO FAMILY, FRIENDS AND OLD SAILORS, BUT IF YOU'D LIKE A COPY, MAIL ME AT email@example.com and I'll give you the details.