Continuing the Passage to India
We continued to improve the organisation of "Convoy Cuttings". Everyone has been so keen and helpful. Our lino cuts have become more sophisticated, helped in part by a generous supply of scalpels from sick bay. Before long we became aware that we were over organised. We had enough art work for more editions than we should be able to print before the end of our journey.There was also more copy than we could hope to use.
The first limiting factor was the paper supply and we did our best to ration it to the last edition. The second was the sheer amount of work with the primitive printing equipment at our disposal. At last there was time for me to take my share of censoring letters as I describe in a letter home:-
"Spent another morning censoring letters. At first it seemed to be an unwarranted intrusion to be reading the private thoughts of men who were, by and large, unhappy and bored. However, that leaves one aware that there are no private thoughts in war. Everything is censored. Honestly, the illiteracy amazes me and as for my little idiosyncrasies of writing and spelling!!!
What an insight into human nature it affords one. It was a pleasure to see that the only thing worth looking forward to was our little paper. They also seem to think that the officers have wonderful quarters etc: I feel so very sorry for some of the chaps who sound so horribly homesick."
When men are confined by regulations and restricted space their only relief is to moan about their circumstances. It is less than a year and a half ago that we went across the Atlantic in holds designed for refrigerated meat transport from Argentina to U.K. and heaven knows, we complained enough. The troops quarters on this ship are paradise to that but the journey is four or five times as long and then it is getting hotter.
We were far better off than that, with stewards to look after our needs. Soon after boarding I asked one of them the way to the bath house and shortly afterwards was bowed in by the smiling "boy" to find a bath ready for me. One would think that his sole joy was to serve my every wish. They pad around all over the ship, silent as cats, graceful of movement. There is nothing obsequious or servile about them but what seems to be a genuine joy in serving.
At last there was time to look around. I had almost delegated myself out of a job. The library was running smoothly as was the paper. "My" little WAAF was running the "Convoy Cuttings" office with an efficiency that brooked no intrusion although we still discussed everything that was to be done each day. We were as discrete as possible during our daily duty but the rest of the 'staff' accepted that there was a 'special relationship' and treated it with respect. We sought one another out after the evening meal and strolled about the darkened ship's decks just chatting until most of the others had turned in. We had so much in common including a love of music and poetry.
Finally we would mount that final companionway to find our secret hideaway behind the funnel, constantly surprised that we were never disturbed. One thing that never failed to give her an almost childlike joy was the phosphorescence in the disturbed water in the bow wave or in the wake of the ship. Once I threw a jugful of water as far out as possible and could hardly believe the clapped hands and little squeak of pleasure that she gave when the splash briefly flared blueish green before the darkness covered it.
Entry into the Suez Canal brought a new tempo into the journey. Boats appeared with hopeful traders showing their wares which, in the main, consisted of leather and metal utensils. Prices were shouted up to the troops lining the rails followed ropes to haul up baskets with whatever was bought. It was a welcome relief from the boredom of the humdrum round of time to be filled. I bought nothing. There was already far too much kit to be carried around and there was ample food on board. The prospect of transporting souvenirs through however many years our tour of duty was to last held no appeal for me.
As we entered the canal proper land was so close as to be unreal. The life ashore was so unfamiliar and there was no time to assimilate the sense of alienation. First impressions die hard and however unfair the feelings that my first contact with Egypt invoked, they had little foundation and I have never set foot on it's soil! As the banks became less crowded with the bustle of the port, boys would run alongside exchanging shouts that were mostly unintelligible. The occasional words of English mostly concerned the availability and charms of their sisters. As the futility of their offers became ever more obvious they gave way to gestures that became ever more obscene with the troops egging them on with yells of encouragement. I went down to our little office and read the copy for the next edition, put it down and decided to read it again the next day.
Once we left the canal at the port of Suez and entered the Red Sea there was, for me, a tangible feeling of relief. At least we knew where we were going, it had to be India. A letter home gave more than hints and was untouched by the censor.
"There are many things that will be in my memory for ever. A range of mountains through the heat haze. A great escarpment of brown rock that seemed only to be there to hide the other side of the world. There was a terrific urge to get to the other side and the absence of any apparent way through only made the need stronger.
There seems always to be a Will o' the Whisp just beyond the horizon. Closer at hand we can watch purple centred jellyfish, large as soup plates floating, just floating. First thing in the morning we sometimes see sharks but the largest can be no more than eight feet long. The other day I watched a baby hammerhead shark basking on the surface, idly drifting back and forth; an exquisite creature of soft brown.
The nights are lovely too, too Arabian Nightish to describe. Brilliant stars against a purple-deep velvet sky shining so clearly over the warm smooth sea. Even by day the seas are calm. A glassy undulating surface reaching out into nightmare distance without horizon offering no relief. It gives as little joy as a drink of stale, lukewarm water."
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Edward Sparkes ©1999