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Part One: The Early Days “Girt By Sea” and “Pissed By Lunchtime”

April 24, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email
Fornote: This title was, long ago, suggested (for another purpose entirely) by a work colleague Neil Stenhouse (Ansett Airlines), during one of the many travel conferences, forums, meetings and business sessions that we used to indulge in during those heady Jetset/ATAC/Travelworld days.  But that is also another story.  
The title fits the purpose – so lets run with it!

This is another collection of short stories, anecdotes and incidents, this time from my travel days ……..some may well say it is in fact a collection of both “tall tales and true”…and that well may be; you (the reader) will just have to isolate fact from pure fiction.  As an alert some of the factual stories are so weird that separating them from fiction will not be easy.  Just do your best, and if in doubt, simply believe!
P&O Orient Lines
I started my working life, and my travel industry career, on Monday January 18th 1965 when I walked through the doors of the old P&O Building at 356 Collins Street Melbourne.  I was part of an intake of four trainee shipping clerks, the others were Rex Cathcart (who became a great mate of mine), Ross Bentley (who worked in the freight department) and Andrew McCutcheon (who failed to pass his probation period  and – in the end – became a Doctor.
I started in the Agency Sales Promotion Department, reporting to the legendary David “Ginger” Harris – although on Day One he was on leave – and I actually reported to George Franklin who later in his career established himself as Mr Swissair in Melbourne.  George is still a mate today and we are both members of “The Captains Cabin”.  My immediate superior was Neil Watters and the department secretary was Pam Reilly, that was the ASP team in January 1965.
ASP looked after travel agents – the few travel agents that P&O allowed to actually sell their products in those days.  You needed to be APAC (Australian Passenger Agency Committee) accredited to even be considered for P&O accreditation, and that was no guarantee of getting the gig.  From memory there were 75/80 accredited agents in suburban Melbourne entitled to “sell” P&O Line Voyages and Cruises and another 15/20 in “the bush”.  David Harris used to say (loudly and often) P&O does not need agents but the agents need P&O, he clearly believed that, and way back then it may well have been true.
My primary role was making sure that the travel agents had sufficient supplies of brochures, timetables, fares guides, cabin plans and promotional material.
I also spent one hour a day (1300-1400) manning the enquiry desk whilst the Commissioner Basil Rathbone who manned the desk all day, enjoyed lunch.  The enquiry desk was located on the ground floor in the “Booking Hall”, the hub of all P&O passenger activity.  Here I answered questions about arrival and departure times, mailing addresses and issued highly prized guest passes for ship inspections and ship departures.
The Booking Hall
The Booking Hall was the domain of one Fred Ferguson – (Fred Fred Ferguson, King of the booking hall – basically mate I think you’re late…) who was Booking Hall Supervisor, and who ruled his kingdom with an iron fist.  Ironically his son (Robert) is now my GP at the local McDonald Street Medical Centre; who said it’s a small world?  The Booking Hall is where passengers came to book their cabins on P&O Line Voyages to the UK, Europe and America and on the few cruises that were operated in those early days.
Sea travel was the principle method of travel to Europe for both young (off on their post school travelling experience) and the older who were off to visit with relatives or just to have their “trip of a lifetime.”  P&O was far and away the largest and best company servicing the sea going travelling public – on long haul sea travel.  There were competitors Sitmar, Lloyd Triestino, Chandris Line, Cogedar Line and Mattson Lines – but we at P&O never took them seriously, they simply were not in our class.
The Booking Hall was always lively, a place of serious business but also a place where the most outrageous gags and jokes were pulled on an almost daily basis.  It was also the home of more than a few characters who were “booking clerks’ and who worked behind the larger than life oak counter.  There was Graham Galbraith (he was number two), John McGree, John Pittendrigh, Dennis Wilkins, Tony Vanderkellen, Sue Hoad, Sue Minter, Marilyn Rice, Ian Kerr, Simon Lang and my mate Rex Cathcart – plus the cashier John Marshall.
Every day you could see, amongst the serious business of booking the passengers, limp falls (there were a couple of great practitioners at this art – and I hasten to add I was one), vanishing stair cases (John P would announce to his passenger at the counter that he would just “pop downstairs” then proceed to bend his knees and vanish behind the counter – leaving the bewildered passenger looking for the staircase/escalator behind the counter.  He would then crawl away on his knees and hide for 10/15 minutes before returning the by reversing the process) – what Fred thought of this (if he ever actually saw it) was never revealed.
There were “mock fights and arguments” between staff, Ian Kerr used to pull out a bottom drawer behind the counter and actually stand on that so that he towered above the prospective passenger like a giant and on one memorable day – when a passenger wanted to know what his cabin looked like – Dennis Wilkins grabbed a pair of scissors and meticulously cut the tiny shape of the cabin, from the cabin plan and ceremoniously presented it to the passenger.  It was quarter inch square of paper and the complete mystified client tucked it in his top pocket, said thank-you and left.
After lunch, when most of the male booking clerks had been suitably fuelled up during lunch , things got even more interesting.  Tony V had a bad habit on Thursday and Friday afternoons of falling asleep at his desk, it was when he started snoring that things got difficult.  Occasionally a couple of “team members” would forget to come back from lunch until post afternoon tea which not only caused a staff  shortage but gave Fred a major conniption.  Still bookings were made, passengers satisfied and the company made money.
Bill and Pete
The Booking Hall also housed the offices of the Passenger Manager L L M (Bill) Mowle and the Deputy Passenger Manager Peter (Scratchy) Kimber, their shared Secretary Betty (Bette) Ryan and the Passenger Administrator Bob Gardiner all who occupied space at the remote far end of the ground floor.  The other half of that end of the ground floor was home to the two Travel Advisers; Judy Teasdale and Anne Peterson who booked other travel arrangements for passengers such as air/train and coach tickets, and hotel rooms, as well as arranging passports and visas where needed.
Bill Mowle was an interesting guy, he was one of the early Presidents and a founder member of the SKAL Club of Melbourne (a role that many years later I followed him in), Chairman of the OBU and a real character of the Melbourne Travel Industry circles in which he moved – he was not a bad guy and whilst he and I did not interact very much I always found him fair and reasonable to deal with – even on one memorable occasion of Graeme Carrs’ “bucks party” – where he could have reacted quite differently but instead chose to support me which in the end was a great help.
Peter Kimber earned his nickname from a tendency to scratch (now how shall I phrase this) his testicles (from the outside I hasten to add) with monotonous regularity – especially when he was under perceived pressure…….
Next weeks instalment – Beer, pickled onions and rats in the cupboard….stay tuned for more exciting adventures……………….
Written by: Peter Watson

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