Transcripts of audio interviews on the Hello Sailor! website
Going to sea
"Off the tape, before, you were talking to me about doing spiritual healing and sort of knowing that was right that you could do it, I wonder if it was a bit the same for you about recognising your homosexuality – this subtle sense of this is the way I need to do life, this is my particular way to do life?"
"Before I went to sea my sister said (I stayed with my sister after mum died, you know – I got a job on the railway, it was dreadful), she was saying all you’ve got to do now is get a girl friend and I felt no that’s not me, that’s not me for goodness sake, I don’t want a girl friend, don’t want to get married. I want to go and do what I want to do – see lovely good looking men and I thought right, so I did, I went to sea and there were some horrors and there were some good looking ones as well – I tell you (laughs)."
"If you hadn’t gone to sea what would have happened to you as a gay man?"
"I hate to think, I would have probably ended up as an old saddo living and working on a farm in the country or in a shop or something."
"And not expressing your sexuality."
"Exactly, I would have probably become withdrawn I wouldn’t want to go and mix with people because I knew what I was and they didn’t know what I was."
"And you couldn’t afford to tell them in a small town."
"No you can’t, no, no but now it’s a different story it’s entirely different now but then, for goodness sake, in the 30s, 40s oh no, we didn’t do things like that so you just kept your mouth shut as it were you know."
Back to 'The gateway to freedom'
Putting on a show
"Usually we tried to do a show, if we were cruising from the UK, like 2-weekly cruises, we tried to do a show every cruise, and it was about half way through the cruise or towards the end of the cruise because it gave you time to rehearse, and on a line voyage if you were going up to Australia for about 4 months or whatever you might have one once a month or something like that, it varied really, and the people who performed them did, it was a bit of a challenge I suppose and a chance to sort of entertain and show off and have a bit of fun.
On most ships the crew shows were done in the crew bar the Pig and Whistle and passengers were just not allowed down there, they used to come down, and people used to smuggle them down and sometimes they’d find their way down but officially they weren’t allowed. I think it was something different, you know drag you see it in pubs and things and it’s sort of more of a gay audience I think so to people who’d never seen this sort of thing before it was something different and something exciting and ultimately very amusing and entertaining.
A lot of people on the, you know ship’s company, apart from the actual performers in the show, got involved, usually the entertainers got involved, we’d you know get a band down to play and all sorts of other people, you know if you did a number that needed nurses uniforms you could go and ask the nurse ‘can we borrow some uniforms’ or whatever, or doctors uniforms, and they were very obliging, the linen keeper was very helpful, although he didn’t know it, because we borrowed his sheets and things (laughs) to make outfits out of, quite often dyed them and cut them up and sewed a few things to them but everybody generally helped you know, and we always invited the officers down and the Captain usually came and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Some people if it was their first encounter with gay people and men in dresses were shocked and quite horrified but I think they noticed that everybody else on the ship wasn’t bothered at all and were just sat back, had a good laugh and enjoying it, you know they’d come onboard and hate the whole thing or think it was awful to start off with and within a few weeks you’d have them joining in the show, wanting to join in and get dressed up and all sorts. The shows did consolidate gay identity and also, like some gay people might have lived in the darkest depth of Wales or somewhere and never had much of a gay life at all and when they came on the ships they suddenly found there was all these people, gay people, and you were allowed to be yourself and open about it, and then to get up on stage and entertain people and dress up and you know, look marvellous and be funny and amusing and dance and sing and everything and it was wonderful and it was a bit like doing what the heroes on the screen had done and it was really good for them and good for everybody you know.
The first time I ever did it I was shaking so much my knees were rattling under the, the dress was shaking and I never did get used to it to be honest but I, you know, still enjoy it, it got a bit better but the first show I ever was involved in on the Northern Star was ‘Thoroughly Modern Milly’ and I was chosen to play a part and we actually made the outfits out of crêpe paper, we bought some crêpe paper in the shop and sewed it all together and made, and it was wonderful and we got up and did you know (starts singing) ‘everything today is thoroughly modern’ and kicking the legs up and everything, but of course with the heat and the sweat the crêpe paper started to melt a little bit (laughs) and we had big red marks everywhere but it lasted to the end of the number I’m happy to say, so it didn’t fall to bits and embarrass us. Usually at the end of the show some people got dressed in ordinary clothes, some people had all the make-up and slap on went and put another frock on and went out and mingled and generally that’s what I used to do.
In later years it sort of died a bit of a death on a lot of ships because the work level was so high, like the QEII you worked so hard on there you really didn’t have time to do shows and things so they sort of you know petered out and they don’t happen at all now of course."
Back to 'Backstage in staff quarters'
A Lisbon liaison
"Dominic and I met in 1974 and I was on a ship called The Northern Star and he was on a ship called the Oriana and both ships were in Lisbon over night and he came onboard The Northern Star with a crowd off, a crowd of deckhands off his ship for drinks, because often at sea you did that sort of thing, you went onto another ship and have a drink and see what it was like and see if there was anybody there you knew."
" That evening we went out, had a few drinks, had dinner, I went back aboard The Northern Star for a drink because his ship was sailing before mine, unfortunately I woke up in the middle of the night and the ship was at sea."
"So I actually stowed him away and of course he woke up and went rushing up looking for the gangway, well it had gone."
"Then I was thrown in the brig, the ship’s prison for 3 days, I didn’t spend 3 days in the prison because the brig was quite a mess and I decided to clean it up and paint it, the master at arms was so impressed that I’d cleaned it up and painted it they sort of looked after me. When I returned to The Oriana 3 days later, because I was missing for 3 days they sort of fined me 3 days pay."
"We’d talked about things and I decided I wanted to sail with him so I put my notice in and left my ship, he left his ship and we got a ship together and the rest is history. During my time in the Merchant Navy I was a steward in the catering department and the catering department was made up of, you know, a great amount of gay men, it was a job that men would choose and they were good at it and the companies were usually happy with it too, but Dominic was an able bodied seaman, a deckhand, and it’s a very physical job and not a job you found many gay people doing, and of course when I found Dominic it was quite a surprise."
"The deck department was always seemed to be the more manly side of things, I was always openly gay, I never sort of said I was gay but I never hid anything, nobody ever bothered me about it, I don’t know why, maybe I looked harder than what I was and somebody thought because I’m so open with it he must be mad enough to really knock somebody out if they did say something, I think I got away with it for years and years and years and was respected by people for just being myself and being open with it."
"We’d been together for 33 years and last year, 2005, we read about the Civil Partnership, didn’t think a lot about it at the time but then as it got nearer the time and there was more about it in the press we discussed it and we thought it would be a good idea for legal reasons, for financial reasons, for security reasons, and it would protect both of us, so we decided to go ahead and we talked about it and I got a bit over enthusiastic and wanted to sort of get it done as soon as possible and I pushed for the first day, the 21st of December, and Dominic agreed and so that’s what we did."
Back to 'Gay port cities'
"Polari is, it’s a mixture of, it’s like a gay language but it’s a mixture of all sorts of things like Italian, gypsy, Jewish, and sort of London all mixed together and gay people sort of adopted it for themselves like a secret language so they could talk to each other in front of straight people so they wouldn’t know what was being said about them or about the situation, you know because you could say ‘oh vada the bona eek on the omi’ and it meant have a look at the nice face on that chap over there, and he wouldn’t know what on earth you were talking about or you might get a wallop, that’s how it started and when I went to sea I knew very little about it and I was, you know intrigued and couldn’t wait to learn it all, and I learnt very quickly and I used it all the time, and I still do actually (laughs) much to the amusement of some of my family and friends, but even they seem to learn it eventually because they ask you ‘what was that you’ve just said’ and they pick it up and they enjoy it for some reason, I don’t know why, people seem to enjoy Polari immensely. The gay people used to talk, gay boys used to talk to each other in gay Polari so people wouldn’t know all they were saying, sometimes in front of the passengers you could just say ‘oh cod palone’, that lady passenger there is not very nice, but we used to say ‘what a cod palone’ and she wouldn’t know what you meant but the old co-worker would, you know. It took me, I don’t know, a few months I suppose to learn it but people do for some reason pick it up very quickly because a friend of ours who was a sea with us, she’s had two little girls, twins, and she uses Polari all the time and the babies are picking it up as well can you believe, her twin girls (laughs). About that time ‘Round the Horne’ came on the radio with Kenneth Williams and ‘my name’s Sandy and this is my friend Julian’ and they used the Polari all the time on the radio so an awful lot of people picked it up but, so it didn’t become important as a secret language any more but people still used it, I did, because people liked it and enjoyed it and even now, I’ve left the sea for 15 years, I still get to talk to people and we still talk in Polari, even straight people, I have a neighbour lives near me, he was at sea with me and he loved listening to all the Polari and he learnt it all and joined in and he would say at the table ‘oh look at the cod eek on that palone’, and even now if he sees me in the street he’ll say to me ‘oh hello Michael bona to vada your dolly old eek’ and then you know he has a good old laugh about it because sometimes your days at sea were so good in those days, and so much fun, and I think there’s a little bit of rose tinted memories as well, that when you use the Polari it brings back all those wonderful memories."
Back to 'The secret language of polari'