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The Toilers of the Thames

Short story By: Carl Halling
Memoir



Formerly known as "A Dandy in the Land of Blue Denim".


Submitted:Aug 10, 2007    Reads: 172    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Introduction

"A Dandy in the Land of Blue Denim", the second piece in a series of seventies-themed writings takes place in 1973 and 1974 in London and its suburbs, Bordeaux, capital of the Aquitaine region of south west France, Murcia's Costa Calida, and the city port of Hamburg, current capital of the German province of Schleswig-Holstein. It was published at the Blogster.com website on the 26th of March 2006, and then again in its definitive form at Faithwriters.com in August 2007.

Toilers of the Thames

1973 was the year of my first voyage as an O/D (Ordinary Deckhand) with the Royal Naval Reserve onboard the minesweeper HMS Thames, destined as I recall for Bordeaux in Gironde, south west France, late in the summer. I was just seventeen years old and my hair had lately been bleached a yellowy blond by the Spanish sun and was far too long for a professional seaman.
In the course of this trip I became great friends with O/D Colin T., a sweet-natured east London man of about 27. I heard from him only a few years ago by which time he'd become a Chief Petty Officer. I also became friendly with one of the most unlikely pair of cronies I ever came across in the RNR or anywhere else. One half was a rough, wild but ultimately warm-hearted working class loner of about 23 who was rumoured as I recall to be a permanent year-long resident of HMS Thames. The other was a far older man, possibly in his mid thirties, but just as much of a lad as the first, while being immeasurably more refined, and sporting a cut-glass accent and patrician manner. The younger rating, Jimmy, who was either an able or leading seaman, took me under his wing with a certain slightly intimidating affection, once telling me something to the effect that I'd be turned into a ruffy tuffy sailor yet, even though we both knew that I was a pretty worthless sailor. However, I amused the ship's crew with my lubberly eccentricities. There was an occasion below deck during some kind of conference when, after having been asked by an officer what I thought of minesweeping, I replied that it was a gas...another when the ship had been prepared for a major manoeuvre and everyone onboard had retreated to their respective allotted positions, when I was found wandering on deck as if in a dream, only to nonchalantly announce that I was taking a stroll. Incidents like these made me an object of affectionate mockery.

The crew spent its final night together in a night club in the port of Portsmouth (or Plymouth), in which a transvestite performer sang cabaret style songs in a falsetto voice and told bawdy jokes in a baritone one while being heckled by some of the sailors. At one point she turned her attention to me, at least I think it was me, because it was one of those rare occasions when I was wearing glasses, and in those days I never thought I could possibly be attractive in spectacles. She trilled something like: "Ooh...you look pretty, what's your name?", at which point I could have sworn some of the sailors bellowed back "Skin!", Skin being a nickname I had among some of them back then. Before too long, the bearded seaman seated next to me had collapsed onto the table in front of him with a thunderous crash. Only a short while previously, he'd performed the theme from Rossini's "William Tell" for the benefit of the entire club on his cheeks while I held the mike for him. I'm not certain whether he ever appeared as a musician in public again, but he was certainly a star that night.

A Dandy in the Land of Blue Denim

Back onshore, I returned to my growing passion for louche and shady music, art and culture. Once '73 had turned into '74 however, I became dissatisfied with what I now saw as the old hat tackiness of glam rock, and so turned my devotion instead to the more stylish glamour of previous eras, particularly the '20s and '30s, embracing a frenzied nostalgia which persisted throughout '74 and '75, and to a lesser extent thereafter. At some point in '74, I started using hair cream, combing my hair back 1920s style, and sometimes parting it in the middle; and building up a dandiacal new wardrobe. Throughout '74 and '75, some of the sartorial fruits of my new weltanschauung included a Gatsby style tab collared shirt often worn with black and white college-style striped tie, several cravats and neck scarves including a long white one, almost certainly silk, a navy blue Meakers blazer, a fair isle short-sleeved sweater, grey flannel trousers from Simpsons of Piccadilly, white trousers, white shoes, brown and white "correspondant" shoes, fawn raincoat etc. But sometimes, I dressed more casually, for example in tight V neck sweater worn without a shirt, set off by knotted silk scarf, worn at a jaunty angle.
These years were also marked by the birth on my part of a fascinated preoccupation with the continental Europe of recent times, and specifically its leading cities as beacons of revolutionary art, and of style, luxury and dissolution. And certain eras associated with these cities came to hold me increasingly spellbound throughout '74 and '75 and beyond, such as 1890s London, the so-called Yellow Nineties, Belle Epoque Paris, '20s New York and London, Berlin in the 1930s, and the artists associated with these epochs. There were those cutting edge rock artists who appeared to share my Europhilia, particularly Bryan Ferry, much of whose work with Roxy Music was haunted by the languid cafe and cabaret music of Europe's immediate past, and some of Roxy's followers affected the kind of nostalgic apparel favoured by Ferry himself, but they were rare creatures in mid-seventies London. I wore my bizarre anachronistic costumes in defiance of the ubiquity of long hair and hippie-style clothing, as well as a sneering persona which I tried on for size before forsaking it...at least for the time being.

So in Love

I'd begun sitting the first of the GCE "O", or Ordinary Level exams I'd failed to take while at Pangbourne in '72 or '73, and continued with them in '74, taking Spanish over the course of a few days in June in central London, and while doing so, became deeply infatuated with a Dutch girl sitting the same exam and with whom I'd established a friendly relationship. I desperately wanted to get close to her and yet despite the bravado I was able to manifest back then in certain situations, found myself hopelessly inhibited in her presence, and so allowed her to walk casually away from me once we'd completed our final paper. Sick with amorousness, I spent several days thereafter haunting the streets of central London in the forlorn hope of encountering her. One time I could have sworn I saw her staring indifferently at me from an underground train, possibly at Gloucester Road, South Kensington or Notting Hill Gate, as the doors closed, but as usual I was powerless to act, and so finally abandoned my absurd quixotic quest.

Later on in the summer I found myself once more in Santiago de La Ribera, a little village on what is known as the Mar Menor or little sea, being a large coastal lake of warm saltwater off Murcia's Costa Calida in southeastern Spain, and the summer of '74 was one of the most blissfully happy summers I spent in La Ribera. Every afternoon, we used to congregate on the jetty facing our apartment on the Mar Menor which was largely deserted it being the time of the siesta, that's myself and my brother Dane, and Spanish friends both male and female, to listen to music and talk and laugh and flirt.
To some youthful Spanish eyes I was an impossibly exotic figure in the mid 1970s, full as I was of stories and songs from what was then as it is now the most culturally vital city in Europe, while the young of Spain were still so endearingly sheltered in those years leading up to the death of Franco. All this was to change with Franco's passing, at which point the nation set about sophisticating itself to the extent that on my last vacation in La Ribera in the summer of '84, it was I who was in awe of the local youth rather than the other way around, so intimidatingly cool had many of them become, dancing their strange jerky dance to the latest dancehall hits from Britain.

An Innocent in St. Pauli

I returned to London in late summer '74 with a deep brown tan and hair bleached gold by the sun, and hanging long over my ears and forehead. While on my way one Tuesday evening to HMS President, moored then as today on the Embankment near Temple station, I created a bit of a stir at Waterloo mainline, which wasn't the bright tourist-friendly station it is today but a far rougher place with its own barber and pub, attracting not a few souls down on their luck for one reason or another. For a start, I was accosted by a genial Scotsman in late middle age, a former seaman as I recall him telling me, when he wasn't going on about how good looking I was. He was harmless enough though, a sweet old guy in fact who behaved impeccably and was as far as I could tell just being friendly, so I was more than happy to chat with him for a while. I even went so far as to agree to a meeting with him the same time the following week, which of course I had no intention of keeping. I loved meeting people, and charming people, but I was very much a will-o-the-wisp.

Within a few days, HMS Thames was on its way to Hamburg, second largest city of Germany and its principle port. Once we'd arrived, one of the NCOs, a Chief Petty Officer I think advised me not to wander alone in the city. I duly fell in with a group of about three or four, and on our first night ashore we set off on a voyage into parts of the city such as St Pauli, long given over to the pleasures of seafaring men, with streets, bars, night clubs as I recall characterised by an open licentiousness that stunned me at the time.
A day or so later, there was a coach trip to the suburbs. We ended up in a park where I had my picture taken on a bridge by a reporter for the Surrey Comet. At some point, a group of giggling schoolgirls breathlessly asked me to be part of a few of their photographs. On the way back to the ship, one of the sailors felt moved to remark that the teenage Hamburg girls had made a big fuss of me or something of that sort, while another retorted that this was due to my blond and blue eyed and so presumably Teutonic appearance...or something similar. They made have had a point, but the girls' simple, unaffected joy of life stood in stark contrast to the desperate pleasure-seeking that lay only a few miles away, and was all the more beautiful for that very reason.




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