SOUTHAMPTON / LONDON

“Land, land! I can see England!” Denise said excitedly as she ran into the Soho cabin. We’d joined the boys for a drink before dinner, but Denise couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes, running back and forth between cabin and deck to peer excitedly into the darkening twilight .

George’s English wasn’t good enough to understand what was going on, so we explained through Tony that she was born in England but that her parents had taken her to Australia 5 years ago and she’d been homesick for England ever since. Tony translated for George, who smiled, nodded and said “aaahhhh, nay, endaxi.”

I felt very international because I then translated that for her: “Denise, George says “Aaaahh, yes, ok.” which made everyone laugh except Denise, who was already on her way outside again.

Chris and I followed her out. All we could see was a black blob in the distance vaguely silhouetted against the night sky, but there was no doubting it. Land’s End. George came out too. He took Denise’s hands in his and they laughed and danced around, jumping up and down like a couple of hyperactive children. I wished I’d had my camera. It was so sweet, because George must have seen the coast of England many times. I think he just wanted to make it more exciting for Denise.

George, Denise, Nick, Chris, Tony

The three of us then made our way to the Smoking Room and stayed up most of the night talking ourselves silly, re-living all the good times we’d had over the past 6 weeks, wondering how we’d cope living back in the real world again. They’ve both promised to come to Rotterdam to visit me soon. I’ll miss them the most, of course. We did everything and went everywhere together, we “girls who never sleep” as Captain Ikiadis had dubbed us.

They left the ship early next morning a to face queues for customs and passport stamps and work permits. Goodness knows when we’ll see each other again, but I hope it’s soon. I didn’t have too much time to feel sad though, because Sue, my friend from back home, arrived soon afterwards. She’d been in London for 3 months and took two days off work to collect me and provide my first sight of London, which would include an overnight stay at her flat in Chelsea. 

We wandered (and I stumbled with sea-legs) around Southampton for a while and checked on times for the boat train. There was one due at 8.30pm, so after lunch in town (burger and coffee with real milk, of course!) we returned to the ship and I gave her a guided tour, then took her to the dining room for dinner on the ship. There were very few passengers on board so waiters didn’t care where we sat or who they served. Then we boarded the train and arrived at Victoria station, London at 10pm.

 I thought I was finally in London. And I was! But from the platform at Victoria station we had to go down an escalator and take another train to Charing Cross, station, then we changed to another train for Chelsea station, and after an hour of travelling, we were STILL in the centre of London and I hadn’t even poked my head above ground yet!

I quickly learnt the first lesson in using the London underground: you must, must, MUST stay on the right side of the escalator, because the moment you put your heavy bag down beside you, even at 11pm, people will be alerted in their homes and restaurants and shops and they will come from all over London for the sole purpose of running up the left side and kicking your bag or falling over it and yelling at you for putting it there!

You must must MUST stay on the right side!

We arrived at Sue’s place at about 11.30pm. She shares a bed-sit in Chelsea, just off King’s Road, and after sitting up most of the previous night, I slept very soundly on two lounge-chairs pushed together, even though they did initially feel like they were swaying back and forth on the waves

We headed off at about 8 next morning and made our way into town, wherever that is. In London, it’s everywhere! You can walk along a quiet tree-lined street on a cold foggy morning (which we did) and enjoy total silence, but then you turn a corner (which we did) and instantly you’re in a bustling, noisy city.

Sue asked me what I wanted to see before I had to return to the ship because we didn’t have much time.

I didn’t hestiate. “Carnaby Street.”

She wasn’t even sure how to get there, so she looked it up in her A-Z and we took a train to Piccadilly Circus. Wow! It was huge! Streets going off in every direction, big neon signs, cars, red double-decker buses, black cabs, theatres, people and more people and even more people!

We eventually found Carnaby Street and what a surprise it was! I was expecting a big, wide, long street full of fashionable dress shops, but it wasn’t much bigger than a laneway with lots of little shops on both sides. Windows displayed all the latest mod fashions, and even at 10am there were crowds of people there.

I heard a man advertising a concert over a microphone and looked up to see people stepping out of the way because an open-backed truck was slowly making its way down the narrow street, and there were our old BeeGees seated on the back, waving to the crowd! People were cheering and waving back and I was almost bursting with pride to know they’d become so popular since leaving Australia!

Suddenly, Sue looked at her watch and gasped. It was 12.20. I had to catch the 12.45 train from Victoria station to be back on board by 3pm or I’d miss the boat, literally.

It was a mad dash but we made it with minutes to spare. I hardly had a chance to give Sue a quick hug and thank her for a wonderful two days before jumping on the train and waving goodbye as we chugged out of the station.

I decided that London was way too big and busy, and was as much as I’d loved my quick tour, I was secretly relieved to be leaving.

I knew I’d never be able to find my way around the place even if I was there for a hundred years!

Home again. But only for one more night!

Swinging Sixties travel

I was there.

It is estimated that in the late 60’s and early 70’s, around two million Australian baby boomers boarded a ship or jumped on an aeroplane and headed off to Europe.

At least one person out of every seven who lived in this country at that time found innovative ways to bare their upper arm and proudly reveal their status symbol vaccination scar.

If you were born after 1980, you might think that’s not such a big deal. Today, more than half our population of 25 million owns a passport, and jetting off to distant shores is what most people do when they need a break.

Believe me, in the 1960’s, it WAS a big deal.

If Peter Allen had written “I Still Call Australia Home” three decades earlier, it would have been “I Still Call England Home.”

 Our parents and grandparents and those before them were proud British subjects who called England home, even though few had ever been there and most never would.

Heck, most Australians had never even been outside their own state!

Those who could afford to visit ‘home’ needed to be intrepid travellers indeed. The first Qantas flight from Australia to the UK in 1935 took 12 days and included 43 stopovers.

Shortly after the end of World War 2, modern aircraft cut the journey to a mere four days with just six stopovers, only two of those requiring overnight stays.

This hippity-hop to England became known appropriately as the Kangaroo Route.

Propeller-driven and noisy, these state-of-the-art (for their time) aeroplanes had non-pressurized cabins which prevented them flying high enough to avoid inclement weather. Delays were frequent, turbulence common, and air sickness bags absolutely essential.

Of course, if you really wanted to ‘visit home’, there was always sea travel, but ships in the late 40’s and the 50’s had little in common with modern day passenger liners. Most were troop ships hastily converted to carry the first wave of migrants to Australia from war-torn Europe.

The trip between continents was long and arduous. Passenger comforts were not a priority. Food was plain and often inadequate. Triple-tiered bunks were built into every available space — including the hold — and bathrooms were communal. There was certainly no entertainment to keep passengers amused.

Faced with the choice of clinging to a paper bag for 4 days or turning green for 6 weeks, most opted for the less painful Kangaroo Route.

Then, everything changed. To understand why, we need to go back to the end of world war 2.

At that time, Australia’s population was a mere 7 million, which was a pitifully small number for such a large and isolated country. Not only did this create a critical labour shortage for emerging industries, but the threat of Japanese invasion during the war had revealed our vulnerability. We desperately needed more manpower to defend ourselves in the event of another war.

The Aussie government formulated a plan. Invite migrants from war-torn Europe and the UK to settle here, give them a choice between air or ship travel and provide them with temporary (albeit basic) accommodation on arrival. As long as they stayed for a minimum of 2 years. it would only cost them ten pounds, or the European equivalent of that amount.

Between 1945 and 1982, over 4 million people took advantage of this opportunity to start a new life.

Flushed with this scheme’s initial success, our first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, reminded Australians that we must “populate or perish.” Families were encouraged to produce more children and Aussies performed their patriotic duty more enthusiastically than any other country, resulting in a baby boom of massive proportions. The arrival of these ‘baby boomers’ over the next two decades (1945 to 1965) increased the population by around five million.

By the early to mid 1960’s, Australia’s economy was booming. For the first time, people had money to spend.

Shipping lines began to realize that filling their ships with paying passengers for the return journey to Europe would make the migrant trade even more profitable, so they began improving on-board facilities, turning dormitories into comfortable cabins with private facilities, adding air conditioning, cinemas, swimming pools and more attractive menus.

They also offered competitive return fares, and the airlines quickly followed their example.

The shipping lines were also astute enough to recognize that their most lucrative market would be found within the 18 to 25 age group.

How right they were! The first wave of Aussie boomers were now wage-earning adults with money burning holes in their pockets.

These were the generation born to parents who had struggled through the great depression and at least one world war, if not two. They had not dared to step out of line, but it was a line their children chose to reject.

It is estimated that between 1965 and 1977, around forty percent of baby boomers born or raised in Australia set off to see the world. They absorbed whatever Europe had to offer, then returned to share that knowledge with all who cared to listen.

As a result, Australia was dragged — kicking and screaming — from an isolated colony of Mother England into a vibrant and thriving cosmopolitan nation.

The baby boomer exodus flared for one brief and shining decade, then flickered out. It had served its purpose. Flights to Europe had become faster, more comfortable and less expensive. Future generations would think nothing of travelling to Rome, London or Paris for a three week vacation.

By 1977, it was mostly all over.

There will never be another time like it.

I was there.

My intention for this blog is to include brief extracts from my book, YESTERDAY : A Baby Boomer’s Rite of Passage, in the hope that it might stimulate others’ memories of those halycon days. If you’d like to contribute some of your own recollections, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Your memories will be as exciting to me and other readers as I’m hoping mine will be to you.

Note: If you travelled on a Chandris line ship (Australis, Britanis, Ellenis, Patris) you may also consider joining the Chandris facebook page, with over 3,000 happy and nostalgic ex passengers and crew.