Generally Speaking

New World

Many of us are finding the simplified life enforced by this strange, strange coronavirus lock-down to be providing us with an opportunity to do things like sorting out records of the past. I have been looking at an album of my own childhood photographs which is bringing back memories of what is probably the most dramatic dislocation of my entire life.

I had my eleventh birthday in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And in the middle of a change in my life so great that the new world I was about to enter would not seem to have the slightest connection with the one I was leaving behind.

Looking back some sixty five years later, I remember most vividly that feeling of disconnection, together with a pervading sense of unreality – a weird feeling that this tremendous thing wasn’t really happening.

But we were there, sure enough, travelling to America on RMS Queen Elizabeth with my father, who was taking up his posting from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell to become Atomic Energy Attache at the British Embassy in Washington. This, we now know, was at a particularly sensitive time, immediately after the Burgess & Maclean spy scandal at the same embassy, and extending through the Suez crisis, which clouded diplomatic relations between our two countries still further. It must have been a tough and important assignment indeed. But the details of that story died with my father, who was the perfect embodiment of probity and discretion and never talked to anyone, including us his family, about such things.

My story here is very different, it is about the experience of an ordinary English schoolboy in the early nineteen fifties being suddenly transported from the Old to the New world.

RMS Queen Elizabeth

So the family was together on the Queen Elizabeth, except for my elder brother Peter, who had been left at home as a boarder, an agonising decision for my parents, who did not want to disrupt his education at Abingdon. So we were my father, my mother, my younger brother Andrew, and myself.

I know we were half way across the Atlantic on that day because that was when we passed the Queen Mary on her way back to England. What’s more, we were told that she had no less a person than Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on board for that trip. So I used to boast that three Queens got together on my birthday.

Not a telephoto…

Everyone went up on deck when the moment came. Me with my birthday present – my plastic Kodak Brownie 127 camera – hanging on its thin cord around my neck. Not that there was any chance of actually seeing the Queen Mother, let alone photographing her.

My father (we called him Daddy), who knew about such things, explained that the two ships had to be a long way apart so that we there was no risk of collision, but I thought we could have been a lot closer and still been safe. It would have been nice to exchange a wave with the Queen Mother, like passengers on Hurtigruten ships when they pass each other going back and forth around the coast of Norway. Waving pillow cases and so on.

Certainly no chance of that.

So my two photographs came out disappointingly small when the film was developed in Washington. But they were still precious, and I mounted them carefully in my album. Little thinking that I would still have them all these years later; and of course completely unable to conceive of the idea that I would one day ‘scan’ them and reproduce them in an online ‘blog’. But here they are:

I can still feel the scratch of the sharp steel nib that I used to label the pictures with special white ink: ‘The Qeen Mary with the Queen Mother abourd passing us on my birthday’ is under the first of the pictures. ‘a slightly better shot of her’ is under the other. Let nobody think that accurate spelling and beautiful handwriting were any more universal than photographic expertise amongst English eleven-year-olds in the 1950s.

I used to love it on the deck of the huge liner. I remember the clean scrubbed, slightly disinfectant smell and the fresh bite of the salty air as I stepped out over the metal sill of the storm-proof doorway. It must have been cold because it was late November but I don’t remember that. My mother told us to wear our jerseys and do up our jackets, and I used to stand looking over the stern-facing rail for what seemed like hours, watching the ship’s wake streaming towards the horizon and feeling the slow pitch and roll, the muffled, sullen crash of waves from the bow, the rumble of the engines far below my feet, and always the gulls soaring effortlessly in the updraft of the ship.

Sometimes the gulls would collect together and swoop down suddenly over the side. Then I would go and lean over the rail and see where a slop bucket had been thrown out from a galley porthole far below. I can still hear that raucous squabbling sound as they circled and landed and scavenged in the little foaming pool of discarded food. And then the way the sound was gradually lost into the other sounds of the voyage until all that could be seen were the tiny specks of gulls diving, rising and wheeling over their feast – far, far, far behind in the endlessly unravelling road of our wake.

Me and Andrew at the ship’s stern

I knew all the statistics about the Queen Elizabeth. I knew RMS stood for ‘Royal Mail Steamer’ and that signified that she carried the Royal Mail to and from America – everything except the special airmail letters which went by the propeller-driven Super Constellation aircraft. The Queen Elizabeth was the flagship of the Cunard White Star Line. Just under one thousand feet long, her gross tonnage – the weight of water she displaced – was eighty three thousand six hundred and seventy three tons. Steam turbines drove her four gigantic propellers. Built in John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde she had been launched in 1938 and immediately converted into a troop ship. She had only come into passenger service after the war.

Although she was the biggest, she was never the fastest. This was a sore point with our cabin steward, who told us that she had never held the coveted ‘Blue Riband of the Atlantic’. The Queen Mary had held it for years with an average speed of 30 knots but the Queen Elizabeth had never managed more than 29 – equivalent to 34 miles an hour. Worse, in 1952, only two years earlier, the SS United States had captured the Blue Riband from the British with an incredible 34½ knots average for the 2,800 mile crossing (as the ships took different routes the average speed for the journey was the decisive measurement). I remember our steward scoffing that the United States had nearly shaken herself to pieces. We thought it sounded very foolish.

Passengers were divided between three classes, we were in the middle – Cabin – class. My father can’t have been the sort of top diplomat who would go First class, certainly not with his family, but it was still luxurious beyond anything I had previously experienced. But in those days I was a ridiculously faddy eater, and ate practically nothing but cold sliced ham from the amazing menu in the restaurant.

The Queen Elizabeth carried 662 Cabin Class passengers and I have a vague memory that the tickets cost about £60 for the five day passage, although whether or not that was a return fare I am not sure – probably not.

Apart from the church service on Sunday morning when we were allowed to go to the three-deck high, art deco temple of the first class lounge, we weren’t supposed to mix with the 823 first class passengers, nor with the 798 tourist class ones. Each class had its own cinema. (Although when Peter and I travelled back by ourselves two years later, we discovered companionways linking the classes so that we could pick and choose from the programmes in all three cinemas.)

We had to go up on deck to take photographs in daylight because my camera had a small lens, slow film and no flash. One of the pictures we took up there shows me and my father posing on either side of one of the ship’s life belts with one of her two enormous funnels in the background.

With my father

Notice our school uniforms – grey jackets and short trousers, grey shirts, ties neatly knotted, V-necked jerseys, socks pulled up to our knees, our hair and clothes all blowing in the wind. Apart from the polished walking shoes, which don’t show, and the cap, it is a picture of typical English primary schoolboys of the time. That is because we had no special clothes for the journey; our mother knew we were going to need to buy new clothes in America.

Andrew with our parents at the stern rail

Almost the worst thing I’d had to leave behind in England was the radio serial Journey Into Space. I left it poised agonisingly at a crucial juncture with Jet Morgan, Lemmy, Doc and Mitch just landed on the ‘Red Planet’ and getting the first intimations that there might be a thing outside the ship… I had made my friend Derek Pollard promise to write and tell me what happened. But he never did – and I still don’t know.

We had also left our house on the hill near Oxford, my father’s beloved Daimler, inherited from his father, the caravan (which we called ‘the Drum’ because of what happened when it rained), the hens, the ducks, Silky the cat, Mark the dog, all of whom had made their own little journeys to their own new homes. But the extraordinary thing for me about it all was the feeling of unreality. I was acutely conscious of that strange feeling, which I have had since but never anything like so strongly, that none of it was really happening.

But that feeling of unreality only grew stronger through the confusion of the first few days after our arrival in New York. It was there during the night time journey along crowded multi-lane roads in the huge car with chromium plated fins and strange, ticking indicator lights. The most tangible thing I remember was the wonderful plastic model aeroplane kit – again the first of its kind I had ever seen. It was in the window of the foyer shop in our first night hotel, and my father thrilled me by buying it for me.

I suppose someone at the embassy must have arranged our house for us. It was furnished and as far as I can remember we moved straight in. What I do remember is going to buy our American clothes. We went to a big shop, which they called a ‘store’, with our mother and Mrs Molly Shuttleworth, one of the other embassy wives who became one of her closest friends,, who showed us the kind of things we’d need for school in Washington.

Off to school in Washington

Those are the clothes we are wearing in another picture in my album, “Andrew and I off to school”. There we are, in full length jeans with their bottoms turned up to show their woolly tartan linings, sneakers, heavy winter jackets buttoned to the chin with bright stripes down their arms, gloves, and peaked caps with fur muffs pulled over our ears. It is almost impossible to believe that only a few days had elapsed since those photographs were taken of us on the Queen Elizabeth.

Here is another picture from my album, Andrew and me standing with our mother in front of our house in Northampton Street

3753 Northampton Street NW

That house is still there – you can find it on Google Street View:

Current Google Street view image

And here is my picture of the school we went to, three quarters of a mile’s walk away.

Lafayette Elementary School – 1955

and that is still there as well:

Lafayette School today on Google Street View

(For my second year I moved on to Alice Deal Junior High School – now called a ‘Middle’ school – which was a bus ride down Connecticut Avenue. )

So it was indeed a new world in which I found myself, but I never for one moment stopped feeling English. I was very unusual, if not unique, amongst fellow embassy children in never losing my English accent during my two years at school there. I was very proud of that. Nor did I once join my classmates in putting their hands on their hearts and pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes before the start of the school day. This they always understood and they seemed to respect me for showing my own brand of patriotism. And I had a lot to be proud of : Edmund Hilary had just ‘conquered’ Mount Everest with Sherpa Tensing, Roger Bannister had just broken the four minute mile, and the new medium of television had just enabled much of the world to witness the magnificent pageantry of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second.

My two years at school in Washington were indeed a happy and sunny time in my memory. There was another and almost equally total dislocation when I returned to the darkness of boarding school in England with Peter two years later. But a great deal of my shyness was gone, never to return, and my new tastes went far beyond cold sliced ham for breakfast.

My old briefcase after four Atlantic crossings. Tourist Class must have been on the Ivernia when all three of us made the final trip home together to school. Parents following soon afterwards

2 thoughts on “New World”

  1. What a brilliant post James! So full of detail and atmosphere and wonderful pictures. I was of course very small when your family moved to Washington (and “the Drum” relocated to Hankerton) and it was all a bit hazy for me. Your account and the pictures really fill in a gap in my childhood, being able to read about the experience from your point of view. Thank you!


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