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Hold The Line Please - Memoirs of a P&O Ships Telephonist

The Deck Officers claim the bridge is the nerve centre of the ship, the engineers will disagree of course, but the real nerve centre was really the telephone exchange. As a junior purser on Oriana I spent many an evening in the telephone exchange chatting to the tele-ops. What they did not know about running the ship was not work knowing.

Janice a wap I sailed with on Oriana recently sent me a book written by Freda Bassindale.

“Hold the Line Please” Memoirs of a P&O Ship’s Telephonist.

Freda was a little before my time, joining Iberia in Tilbury in 1968.

Freda points out that as a telephonist she was a leading hand and did not have deck privileges, however, the telephonist on Iberia had a table in the tourist class dining room and ate passenger food. Mingling with passengers was not allowed and mixing with officers was definitely not allowed. I remember the class structure on P&O and found it hard to swallow.

Fred being a Scot was befriended onboard by nursing sister Alison Ross a nursing sister and this opened the door for Freda to attend officer’s “Pour Outs” She also got around the dec privilege issue by volunteering for many of the entertainment evenings onboard.

Hospital Staff Pour Out - Iberia

Setting sail from Tilbury to Australia via Cape Town. Freda makes the most of her time in port frequently taking local buses to explore and sometimes volunteering to escort passenger tours. In Dakar, she even ventures to a local market to buy a parrot for the ship's boson.

Freda and Friend with Parrots in Dakar

Arrival in New Zealand at the Bay of Islands, Freda recalls a little of the history, where the treaty of Waitangi was when the Maori people were given the rights of British subjects.

Now that Iberia was Aussie cruising to the pacific islands, Fiji became a frequent port of call. I remember well from my time “Down Under” that Suva was a great place to visit, I will never forget the smell of copra as the ship docked. Suva was a free port and the ship's crew would buy HiFigear and cameras. In fact, l bought my first HiFi unit here as l did a Pentax camera and a huge zoom lens. As the ships sailed from Suva either the Police or Army band would be alongside marching and playing the ship away to the tune Isalei the Fijian song of farewell, always a very touching moment to be on deck as the ship left the key and headed back into the pacific ocean.

Freda Waiting for Elvis in Blue Hawaii

Freda visits Hawaii and the city of Honolulu. Like me, she was surprised by the size of the highway with its six lanes running through the city. She recalls having a hot dog on the beach. It is my first taste of a real American hamburger. I went ashore with Baby Doc and after attending the cinema showing the latest film starring Linda Lovelace we devoured a delicious hamburger from a street stall. I’m sure l remember the taste of that first hamburger rather than the antics of Linda Lovelace in the film.

On arrival in Hong Kong Freda is amazed by the tailors swarming the ship on arrival to get orders for made to measure suits. I remember well the suit l had made there and the full-length leather trench coat that lasted me for years. Freda remembers going ashore in the evening after her shift in the telephone exchange and eating delicious street food, whilst most of the passengers wanted to stay on board and enjoy the film in the theatre. What a waste.

On 21st July 1969 Man landed on the moon, I remember it well as it was my birthday at we watched the landing on a TV that had been rolled into our French lesson at school. Freda remembers it because it was being relayed over the ship's PA system as the ship was sailing past Stromboli as it was erupting.

In Sicily, Freda remembers having her bottom pinched and having passers-by to resort to newly learned bad language to tell the lad to piss off. In another incident, she went ashore in a mini shirt and was assaulted by an old lady trying to make her were her skirt longer and had to be rescued by passers-by. The worse was yet to Vesuviuscome on a train on a trip to Vesuvius in Naples when a teenage boy exposed himself to her on the train, she jumped off the train and hurried back to the ship rather shaken up, only to laugh at herself later as she thought of all the things she should have said to the boy.

Recalling a visit to Corfu in 1969, she remembers how quiet it was. Returning in 1990 she could not believe the transformation that had taken place.

A series of fires on board led to a Bell Boy being arrested and taken off the ship, a little earlier he had been commanded by Captain for his prompt action in reporting a fire. Of course, you could not sail on voyages without losing the odd passenger and having to have burials at sea. It is worse when a crew member dies and has to be committed to the deep. And the suicide of a young crew member jumping affected her badly.

Being in the telephone exchange means that you are normally privy to ship's happenings before most. On one occasion the Ships surgeon called, asking her to locate the carpenter and report to the medical centre with a brace and bits. A seaman had suffered a head injury and the surgeon had to release the pressure on his brain. The ship was turned around to land the sailor ashore in Durban, where medics waited on the quayside to transfer him to hospital, the man later made a complete recovery and the surgeon Mike Cowen was hailed a hero by passengers and crew.

Acapulco was nothing more than a small town in the late 1960s. Freda recalls going water skiing, which I remember doing myself a few years later. The instructor would ski alongside you and lift you out of the water into an upright position and you were off.

Acapulco 1960's

Acapulco Today

After this trip, Freda returns home top Scotland to find a job, but following problems with rheumatism her doctor advised “Get back to sea lassie. The heat will do you” so exactly two years after leaving the sea she is once again back on the ocean waves, this time aboard “Orsova”.

By this time one-day turn arounds in Southampton had begun and turnaround days became hectic for the telephonist and indeed all the crew members.

Telephonists did not have the same deck privileges as offices but they were allowed some leeway and could use outside passenger decks if discreet. In the evening Freda got around this by taking part in passenger entertainment and recalls how tight-fisted the passengers could sometime be, she recalls one Wildwest Casino night when her table only took 91p in tourist and £1.91 the following night in First class,.

Freda performs

"Burlington Bertie"

during Old Time Music Hall

Officer crew discrimination sometimes took place ashore. On one occasion in Hong Kong, she was ashore with some officers and the following morning the deputy purser called her into his office to tell her that the Purser was sending her home for mixing with officers. She responded by asking how many officers were being sent home for mixing with the crew. That was the end of the matter.

On another occasion, she went ashore in Japan with some of her mates for a genuine lady's sauna, after punishment in the hands of Japanese masseurs they could not get a taxi to stop and return them to the ship. They later discovered that the sauna was in the red light district and it was an offence for taxi drivers to pick up prostitutes on the street

Ovsova’s Christmas cruise in 1972 was a disaster. After 212 crew members were dismissed for refusing to be tested for a virus on the ship, a temporary crew was taken on board from The Pool, according to Freda the roughest lot she had seen, most of whom had never been to sea and had no intention of staying who were dirty and constantly drunk. Although the number of passengers had been reduced from 1100 to 600 because of the crewing level, the service onboard was atrocious. Some passengers formed a committee to complain to P&O and eventually all passengers were compensated for a disastrous cruise.

Freda recounts of having the police called at a local restaurant in Acapulco when her friends refused to pay the bill after they had been ripped off by the proprietor. On another occasion in Bugis street in Singapore, she when ashore with some male friends who were getting a lot of attention from the LadyBoys, of course, these boys did not like the Freda and the other girls being

Bugis Street - Singapore

there and made life uncomfortable by nipping, kicking and punching then the guys were not looking. Freda recalls returning to the ship covered in bruises.

Like Freda, I also recall visiting the Acropolis, Athens in the early 1970s and being free to roam all over the broken ruins, so different from the present day where like Stonehenge you are fenced off from ruins only to be viewed from a distance.

For those of a certain era reading Freda’s book is a trip down memory lane where reading along you will remember some of the places she visits and I am sure will have similar incidents.

Life at sea now is very different and travelling is generally so much more sophisticated than it was back in the day.

Direct From Bassman Books.


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I have read both of Peter Langton's books, both of which I enjoyed, in particular "Not Wanted on Voyage" as that covered my time at sea on "Orsova" and was very accurate. I hope this book has been better proof read than this review though!

Salty Seadog
Salty Seadog

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