(Post by Paul Fitzpatrick, of London – February 2021)
1973 in Scotland – Radio Clyde starts broadcasting; Queen support Mott the Hoople at the Apollo in Glasgow; Billy Connolly Live is released.
There are certain things in life that you realise are entirely out of your hands.
Small things – like the weather
Big things – like your genetic gene pool
Monumental things – like were you one of the fortunate few who was going to get picked out of the hat to go on the annual school cruise.
It’s at this point in your life that you comprehend whether you are one of life’s ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ or at least that’s what it felt like at the time.
Were you a Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket to the chocolate factory, or a Costas Mitsotakis, the only person out of 240 in the village of Sodeto not to contribute towards a winning lottery ticket with a pay-out of $950 million?
As we assembled in the school hall and the names were read out, the tension was palpable and at the end of the session the Charlie’s could not contain their joy whilst the Costas’s did their best to put a brave face on things.
Particularly Jackie, my partner in crime on this blog, who missed out and has been in FOMO therapy now for 48 years!
The school cruise was an annual lottery reserved mainly for third years on the SS Uganda, a steamship built on the Clyde and launched in 1952 as a luxury 300 berth cruise liner, sailing mainly from the UK to East Africa.
The SS Uganda’s original purpose was reviewed in 1967 after aviation took over as the prime means of intercontinental travel and she was subsequently transformed into a 1250 berth, educational cruise ship, sailing primarily in Mediterranean or Scandinavian waters, presumably powered by testosterone.
After the initial excitement the details of the cruise were duly released, and we were scheduled to set sail in May from the Clyde and berth at La Rochelle, Casablanca, Malaga, Vigo and Oporto.
I seem to remember we boarded on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Greenock and the first thing that struck me was the size of the thing. I’d been on many a Clyde steamer as my Grandpa worked on the boats, but this was a different proposition, it was humungous.
As we settled into our berths, we were gathered together by the Captain who told us all how privileged we were, what a great adventure we were embarking on and reassured us that there would be a very smooth start to our journey.
Fast forward 12 hours and two thirds of the ship were hanging over the railings hurling-up for Scotland.
Suffice to say breakfast that morning was very quiet.
Life onboard was generally fun, despite the obvious tribalism with so many schools involved, and there were lots of activities to keep us occupied like the
prestigious tug of war competition which our school won, much to the delight of one of our teachers, but more on him later.
Our first stop was La Rochelle in France, there’s not much I can tell you about the place, but I do know that the takings in the little backstreet bars must have gone through the roof that day.
Everywhere you went you’d see peely-wally Scottish kids with rubber legs staggering along the cobbled paving, trying to work out why the rocket fuel they served as beer was scrambling their 14–15-year-old brains in a way that good old Harp, Skol or Tennent’s lager never did.
If I’m honest the cruise is all a bit of a blur which is remarkable considering some of the sights we visited. For instance, I’m reliably informed we visited the stunning Alhambra Palace in Andalusia, but I’m ashamed to say that I have no recollection of this whatsoever, which is ironic, as this is exactly the type of landmark that I will spend a fortune on, to go and visit now.
There were a few teachers from our school acting as chaperones including a PE teacher who went every year and if truth be told, was getting on a bit. If I had to do an identikit picture of him, you’d swear it was Jack from Still Game, he was an ex-military guy and very old school, the type you didn’t mess with.
There was one difficult moment when I thought for sure I’d feel his wrath.
Me and a couple of lads had been invited into the girl’s dorm one night to listen to music and partake of some of their contraband, and we got caught.
We were going to get hammered for entering the girl’s dorms anyway which was strictly prohibited, so we took the rap for the contraband (Rum – aptly!).
The teacher who caught us was unknown to us and pretty irate and I distinctly remember her using the phrase ‘foxes in a hen house’ which despite the obvious symbolism went straight over my 14-year-old head, she also said we’d be flown home from the next port as this was the most serious of rule-breaks and that our respective teachers were on their way to deal with us.
I remember thinking that this was all a bit OTT and that surely mutiny is a more serious ‘rule-break’ aboard a sea-going vessel? As opposed to listening to Rod Stewart (no not Sailing, that wasn’t released yet, thank god) and drinking Bacardi & Coke.
Knowing my guy was a strict disciplinarian, I feared the worst, but to my amazement he was very calm, told me to keep my head down and to be a wee bit smarter in future; before sauntering off, presumably to enjoy another wee dram and to crow further about his teams resounding tug of war victory, at the Captains Table.
He treated us like adults, and it was appreciated, it was also a bit of an eye-opener for me to realise that teachers weren’t one dimensional and had an off-duty persona as well, and it was all plain sailing for the rest of the trip.
As always, a lot of my memories are linked to music and I took a little tape recorder (the one where you had to hold down record and play to record the charts from the radio) with a couple of C60 mixtapes of my favourite songs.
I tried to recreate it from memory recently on Spotify; Bowie, Lou Reed Roxy Music were all on a loop back then and I had forgotten how many great songs were around that year, I’ve shared a playlist if you want to transport yourself back to the Spring of 1973.
I often look back on the cruise now and wonder if I made the most of the opportunity….
Did I fully appreciate the souks of Casablanca, the aforementioned Alhambra Palace built by the Moors over a thousand years ago and the baroque architecture in Oporto where great explorers set sail to discover new lands?
All these great cities and sights, did I really make the most of the opportunity and did I pay them the respect they deserved, or was I just on a jolly?
Of course, I don’t have to think about it too hard, I already know the answer.
Just like some of the Golden Ticket winners who got eliminated on the tour of the chocolate factory, some of us didn’t quite see the ‘big picture’ back then.