Editor's note: This is the second part of a three-part story. The first part of the story is available here, and the third part is available here Under preparation). Part 1 ended with the Sethis leaving Cochin (now Kochi) on a ship for Europe.
This is a story of a part of our journey through life. It is a journey of a couple, from student days through five decades of life together and work, and finally a retired life.
The sea voyage in a lower deck
We were among the hundreds of hopeful Indians, boarding the ship, in search of better life and future. Since we had paid the lowest fare, we were directed to the lower deck. The cabin allotted to us had ten other passengers-all young, and we knew a couple of them. Some of them were going to Germany and France, while the rest of us were bound for London.
Uma Sethi, right, with one of our shipmates, on the ship Lloyd Trevino. 1958.
My wife was the only female in the lower deck. Being all of almost the same age, we got along famously. All of us first time travelers, feeling seasick. The sea was pretty rough, and the food on the ship was disappointing. But we didn't mind. The prospect of getting to London kept us cheerful.
Uma Sethi, enjoying the upper deck. 1958
Aden was the first port of call. And we went around the town with other passengers. Every one wrote a postcard to their families (see Part 1 for the Sethis' postcard).
Time passed, with Fancy Dress competitions and other ship activities.
Port Suez to Port Said -The Scoundrels
It was at Port Suez that we all got down, hired a car, and went to see Cairo, the city. Local people recognizing us as Indians (it was a common sight on those days) would shout "Nehru, Nehru, and Nasser." We saw the whole city - quite beautiful. We then visited the Pyramids, typical tourists, but none among us had brought a camera. No photographs. We then reached Port Said, to catch the ship, where she had already docked and refuelled. Here an interesting episode happened.
As the ship was almost sailing out of the port, quite a few Dhows came along, selling shirts. Beautifully packed in cellophane covers. Dazzling white shirts. Priced very low. Since the boat was almost sailing, almost everyone on the ship rushed to buy these shirts. I bought three, thinking I was getting a good bargain. Once the ship moved out into the open sea, some of us opened the covering to look at the "Loot." Surprise, Surprise! The shirts had only half front and half collar, backed with hard card - it was half a shirt! The scoundrels! They took advantage of us with "Nehru Indian special price."
The End of the Sea Voyage - Beginning of the Train Journey
Our tickets covered the train journey through Italy, Switzerland, and France, and then the boat train from Calais to the Victoria Station London via Folk Stone (England). This journey turned out to quite an adventure, starting from Milan, Italy.
When we landed in Milan, we were told to catch a train for England from here or Rome. If wanted, we could travel around Italy on our own, and catch the train after sightseeing in Italy. So, Uma and I, an ignorant but happy adventurous couple, decided to roam around Italy. First of all, we learnt that porters everywhere were very expensive to hire. So, carry your own bags - and that we did, throughout this journey. We had two big bags (without the wheels, in those days). We carried one bag each.
It was beginning of October in 1958 when we reached Milan. We decided to walk around the main road and look around the shops and buildings. Two strange looking aliens walking with their bags. The lady, my wife, wearing a strange garment - a 6 yards Indian sari - stopped all the traffic. People stopping their cars, coming out, and gawking at her - shaking hands, giving very appreciative Italian looks. Gave us lifts in their cars - all Fiats. Pity was that we did not understand what they were saying; and neither did they. See the letter that Uma wrote to her parents.
Letter from Uma to her parents. October 1958
We from Milan went to Massina, which was a beautiful place, better than Naples. Then, we visited the great Pompeii in a horse-driven carriage.
We then reached Rome to catch our train. We stopped at one of the roadside cafes. Asked for a Coke. Not knowing the money exchange rate, we were shocked to pay 16,000 Lire for Coke which used to cost 4 annas (1 Rupee =16 annas) in India in those days. Of course, we had the Italian currency, Lire, with us, and we paid in those long, unwieldy notes.
We managed to reach the Rome Station, carrying our bags.
Wrong train, wrong carriage
Now the problem started. The Language. No one could answer our query as to which train to catch for France. After great difficulty, we were pointed out a train at the next platform to catch. That's what we thought. So we marched to and got into the train, which was quite crowded. Our Passports were checked by Italian officers, and we were allowed to travel.
At about midnight, the train stopped, and new immigration officers came in to check passports. After examining our passports, they asked us to get out of the train. We finally understood. The penny dropped (we learnt this phrase while in London).
This train was not going to France via Switzerland, but was entering Germany. And we had no Visas for Germany. Our visas were for Italy, Switzerland, France and then to Britain. At midnight, we were thrown out of train.
Help from unexpected sources
Luckily, at the platform, one lady pointed us to a train, almost shunting out of the next platform. We literally ran to catch it. We threw our bags into the nearest compartment, but were unable to get in. So we were helped to enter (almost pushed in a moving train) the next compartment. As it turned out it was the right connecting train. But we were worried about our bags, being in a different place.
At the Switzerland border, when the local police came in to check the Passports, we were helped to move into the same compartment as our luggage. Luckily, the bags were safe. We did not realize that we were no longer in India!
The passengers were very helpful, giving us seats. We all talked by gestures, as we were still in a place where people did not speak English. They offered us their bread and wine to drink. All the passengers - French, Swiss, and Italians - were carrying yard long brown bread and a bottle of wine. After crossing into France, we felt much closer to London.
Surprisingly, we never felt panicky throughout this journey. And the wonderful feeling was that my wife, not used to all these problems, never said, "Oh, God! What have I got into with this man?" Since that day, and till today, decades after, I love her much more than ever.
We finally reached Calais, in France, and were directed to the Ferry Train that would take us to our dream town, London. Although there were quite a few Indians, but no one talked, because everyone was sick. The English Channel was very rough till we reached Folk Stone in England. Last stop before we reach our destination.
"Home" at last - Victoria Station, London
Once the train stopped at the Victoria Station, London, and the doors opened ... my god, there was a very welcome burst of crescendo of joyous shouts, mixture of different languages of Indian and Pakistani region. We heard mostly Punjabi mixed with English. The platform was crowded with expectant relatives. Friends and others. It was a sight to see: hand-shaking and embracing going on all over the platform. Slowly, but surely, they all started moving out of the station.
And, then, it was suddenly, all quiet.
We were the only two, last to come out of our compartment, left on the platform. No one had come to receive us. We did not know a soul in the whole of Britain.
Instead of getting panicky, we felt that we had come home. Language was no longer a barrier like through Italy and France. We could converse with people. Like in India. But the fact was that we had no notion or idea what to do thousands of miles away from home. It had become quite dark, when we started moving towards the exit, carrying our bags.
Near the exit, we asked one of the few people left there for help. He was a great moral booster. We followed his instructions.
Left our two bags with the Left-Luggage Department. And now we were to go to an underground Tube Station, catch the Tube, and go a place called Russell Square. Imagine our plight. Not really plight - possibly daredevil behaviour. We found our way down, for the first time in our lives, seeing and using the moving stairs (escalators). Using the wending machine to buy tickets-6d (penny) only. Catching the Piccadilly Line. We reached Russell Square station in hardly 15 minutes time.
Went up and came out near the High street. We were told this area has a number of Rooming Services, which welcome Asians and Africans. This area was considered to be quite liberal and left leaning. I found one tobacconist shop managed by an old lady. I bought some Senior Service cigarettes, and asked her help. The lady directed us to a building right opposite, and even rang up the Landlady running the rooming Service.
The Landlady, an elderly, plump, blond and fair skinned and cheerful looking woman, led us to the first floor and showed us a well-furnished room. Pretty reasonable size, with a big bathroom. The room had a heating system, which provided both the hot water and the heating. You had to put pennies in the meter for everything. Nothing was free or included in the rent, which was 2 pounds a week. With breakfast for two.
We liked the place and the lady. Paid the rent for a week, and went back to Victoria Station to get our bags. In one trip of the underground, and we were now travelling like seasoned commuters. Relieved that we had got a roof on our head in London. By the time we were coming back, heavy fog had come down, which made London look bleak, and suffocating.
In times to come, we would realize that London in late 1950s and early 1960s was still like what Dickens depicted in his Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and other stories. High noon, and suddenly the thick fog descend down, engulfing London, and turning it into a dark dingy place. We learnt, at our cost, later on how to cope with it.
We reached back at our room at Russell Square, and settled down. It was late in the evening. After a long journey, both of us were very sweaty. We decided to have a hot bath. It took about 6 pence to heat enough water for both of us. After a change of clothes-it had become cold, being October - we went down to go out for food. The landlady stopped us before we left. She looked shocked and showed surprise that we Indians had a bath in this weather, and at this time. We quietly pointed out to her that we paid for the hot water, and we would be taking bath every day. (I believe Henry VIII used to bathe only once a year!
In the next few days, we just roamed around the city - on foot, by the famous London double-decker bus, and of course, the Tube. To familiarize ourselves with the place, markets. Shops, people and the ever-popular-conversation starter-the English weather. During this familiarization period, I found two important and daily useful tips: the importance of the penny, and the utility of the tobacconist shops.
The importance of the penny coin, and the need to keep large numbers handy, struck us the moment we put our foot down in London. You needed this coin to open the door to the public loo. You required pennies to get milk, fags, etc., from the vending machines. Penny to start your heating system in your room. You needed pennies to telephone. Pennies to buy train and bus tickets. Even buying fruit and vegetables -one needed pennies, as they did not cost more than a few pennies.
See the letter below Uma wrote to India, few days after coming to London. (Incidentally, these letters form the large part of our memory. My wife's parents in Delhi had preserved all the letters we wrote to them from London. They handed us back the entire bundle when we came back to India.)
Letter from Uma to her parents from London. October 1958.
See the prices of the items mentioned in the letter.
- Apples 5 pence a pound.
- Oranges 4 pence a pound.
- Milk 5 to 8 pence a pound.
- Heinz Baked Beans tin (Big) 8 pence.
- From our Tube Station Swiss Cottage to Piccadilly 6 pence
- Bus ride to Camden Town market 3 pence.
- A big bunch of bananas, auctioned at Camden Market, Two Bobs (shillings)
The only difficulty was that the penny was too big and heavy, those days. But it had great value. Only a few pennies could get you a very substantial meal. This was London October 1958!
The second useful tip was the tobacconist shops. Being a smoker myself, I luckily came across a Tobacconist Shop, where I bought my packet of Senior Service fags. And then I started talking to the old lady managing the shop. I found that these tobacconist shops were mostly managed by senior citizens. They were a great small enterprise, which provided a helpful Public Service.
Besides selling tobacco products, they also worked as Post Offices - selling stamps, air letters, etc. Plus they worked as Employment and Property Bureaus. A very useful service for people looking for jobs, rooms, or homes. These shops hung a large black board outside the shop, on which people pasted their ads - typed or even hand-written. These advertisements were posted by individuals, after paying for it to the tobacconist.
Some example of the ads outside these shops.
- Rooms available for Asians
- Au-pair girls wanted
- An Indian looking for any kind of job.
- Baby sitter needed by English couple
- Young Indian Couple looking for an apartment in Swiss Cottage
- Old TV Set for sale, working
- Old working sewing machine wanted.
- Jobs for men available at Mc Fisheries
- Asian men wanted for Pool checking.
Almost every tobacconist had these kinds of boards that carried local advertisements. So, we started looking for a place by ringing up numbers from these advertisements. After a couple of awkward situations, we found a place to move in a small flat near Swiss Cottage.
The awkward situation was when my wife and I went to see the place after confirming the meeting with the Landlady. When we reached the place, the lady - tall in slacks and a cigarette in her mouth - opened the door. After just introducing ourselves, we waited for her response. After few minutes of dead silence, she frankly said. "You spoke such good English, I thought you were British. Sorry, I do not keep Asians." And she banged the door.
We went back to the same Tobacconist shop to tell her our experience. She said "Sorry, Love, there are some bitc..." And she gave us another number, and asked to ring the same from her shop. (Of course, we had to use our pennies for the telephone.)
The gentleman, on the other side, turned up to be a Pakistani, and welcomed Indians. Without looking at the place, we agreed to take it right away. Basement flat, long room, kitchen, and bathroom. Furnished. Short distance from the Swiss Cottage, and Camden town underground Tube stations. Rent 2 Pounds a week!
We thanked the Tobacconist, went to our Rooming Service, settled the bills, and thanked the lady for all the hot baths and cheerful stay. When coming out, she smiled and wished us luck, she told me "Look after her, Love" I shouted back, "I always will," more for the benefit of my wife.
We dragged ourselves with our bags, came to the station, and got the Tube to Swiss Cottage. Carrying big luggage in the train was no problem. Everybody did in London.
Our First Address: 203 Adelaide Road, London, NW3
We got down at our destination, and walked to the address and directions given to us: 203 Adelaide Road, London, NW3.
We reached the place after a ten-minute walk - quite close to Swiss Cottage. A 3-penny bus ride to Camden Town market!
We liked the area - quiet, wide roads, clean and very convenient for travel to all over London. And important point was that this whole area had liberal, left leanings, and was a stronghold of the Labour Party. There were quite few Asians living there.
The place was owned by a gentleman from Pakistan. Since it was late in the evening, and we were not familiar with the area, the landlord offered us the dinner, and introduced to the other members. We spent the night quite peacefully, though it had become cold.
Next morning, after getting lot of useful tips from the people living there, we went out and bought some utensils from Woolworth for cooking. We used a frying pan for making chappatis.
All our shopping was done at the busy market at Camden Town. People selling vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, pork, steak, etc., would bring their wares in own carts, stand in the street, and auction their wares. There were shouts like "Who will give me two bob for this big Rib?" "These cauliflowers going for only one bob, ah, go to that Indian lady." My wife's finger went up and we bought the lot.
Everything was good and so cheap. It was fun looking at the crowd and the sellers. One could buy everything in this market. Camden town, being a predominantly a black African area, you could get all exotic spices and other stuff here. We used to enjoy our weekly visit to this market.
We soon realized the basement place was too damp and cold (the walls were cleverly covered by the old newspapers to hide it). We asked to be moved to another room on the first floor, which we did. We could do our cooking, as well as wash our clothes. The room had a good heating system - all you needed was pennies.
In the meantime, I had joined the evening classes for Advertising course. I also got registered myself with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, London.
Long search for a job
After we had been in London for over a month, I started making rounds of advertising agencies, medium and small. But none of them, who agreed to meet me, found me suitable for a job. Money was getting very low, and the situation was becoming desperate. We had spent some of our cash reserves on buying essential woollen clothes for the winter, and household items.
I started looking for any job, in shops, stores, offices, like lot of Asians were doing. But I wasn't that lucky, for the time being. My wife was also unable to find a job.
The situation reminded me of the song, by Ray Charles, whose LP records I had bought, spending quite a good amount of sterling pounds. The song, using the lingo of that era, went like this (Ed. note: the song, called Busted, is available here).
I'm broke; I got no bread I went to my brother to ask for a loan...
Broke, No Bread
Well, the day came when we had no money left. We were broke and had no bread. Yet, both of us were not really worried, and took the situation very calmly. Except, my wife felt that I shouldn't have spent the money on buying Jazz LPs.
The solution was to sell something to get some Bread (money) for a little more time, hoping to get a job soon. I took my new portable Olivetti Typewriter, which I had bought in Italy, to a Pawnshop in Golders Green, which offered me 10 pounds. The owner was a very understanding chap, and asked me why I selling a new item. When I frankly told him my story, he directed me to a shop opposite to his - a big fish and seafood shop that was looking for some shop assistants. I thanked him, took 10 pounds (we could survive for two weeks, after paying rent), and went to the manager of that shop.
It was Mac Fisheries, a Lever enterprise, clean, big, a well-stocked outlet. The manger and his wife met me. They introduced me to the other staff: two ladies and two cockney men. They liked me and approved.
I got the job in Mac Fisheries at eleven pounds a week.
When I asked the nature of work I would do, I was told that it will be explained to you when you start tomorrow - Monday, start of the week at 5.30 in the morning! It was almost November (1958), and it had become very cold. And a thick fog used to come down without warning. No problem. I needed the job, any job, desperately to run the house, and attend my college. I thanked them, and shook hands with everyone and rushed back. Golders Green tube was on the same line, and only two stops ahead of my Swiss Cottage station.
After reaching home Sunday evening, I got some cheerful news. My wife had, very courageously, found the offices of BBC, walked into the Indian Section, and met the Producer. The Producer, an Indian, handed her a script and asked her to read. The play went on the air, and she had got one of the parts. After the broadcast, she was paid three pounds! (BBC always paid in Guineas). And a promise of future assignments - which she got. But it was not a permanent arrangement. It, however, added to our kitty (bread).
My wife was very happy that I got the job, no matter what kind. In London, no job was ever considered menial as in India.
(I must mention here of a meeting we had later. My wife and I met a nice gentleman in our locality. He was well dressed; three piece suit, polished shoes, and gloves. He invited us to his house for tea and to meet his family. We went. Well-furnished house, good-looking Irish wife and two sons. We had a nice time and became good friends till we left London. He was a plumber!
My job at Mac Fisheries Begins at 5.30 am
The first day, when I reached there, the head lady, who stayed in a flat upstairs (part of the shop), welcomed me. A couple of other female employees were already there. I was told how to clean the display shelves in the shop. Then, how to display the product: "always lay the left over products from the day before, in front on the shelf (so they can be pushed first) and then the fresh goods."
I was shown and taught about all the different kinds of fish, and how to cut, clean, and lay on the shelf. As far as the seafood was concerned, my job was to pick up live lobsters, put them in the boiling water, and be ready to take them out when the customer came to purchase. (Imagine me doing this, coming from primarily a pure vegetarian family.)
Plus the job was to clean the washroom /toilet of the staff, and shop floor before closing.
I learnt pretty fast about all different kind of seafood. Smoked kippers, crabs, muscles, lobsters and fish. In spite of wearing a white coat and an apron, my clothes -in fact me too - used to smell of fish by the time it was time to go home. No one would sit beside me in the bus.
I enjoyed working in the place. I used to take my lunch - stuffed Prathas, Kippers, bacon sandwiches, et al. plus I used to read my Guardian newspaper regularly. The other workers, reading Daily Express, Mirror, etc., would say, "Oh, you read Guardian?" (Ed. note: The Guardian was considered a highbrow newspaper.)
They were very friendly and fun to work with. I used to like two middle aged, plump, blond ladies. Typical English, they had a great sense of humour and wit, and were full of laughter even when things went wrong. One of them would kiss me in the morning, and say, "How are you, my Love"? The same lady on every Saturday would ask me to lick her envelope in which she was posting the Football Pool Form. She believed that licking by a black-hair person brings luck. Unfortunately, she never won any big money. Nor I, all the years I was there.
The early morning talk in the shop, in those days were, when everyone was there, was often about TV shows. "Did you watch the Telly, last night"? "Oh, you should have seen the Coronation Street." "No, I watched Dr. Kildare."
Television was just catching on like a bush fire in England. There was nothing else to talk, but "Did you watch the telly." Later, in the early 1960s, telly was replaced by the increasing ownership of cars, and talk in the morning, "I took the kids to the beach this weekend. Took us only one hour to drive."
My wife I had neither a telly nor an automobile.
The shop head was good enough to let me go early three days a week, when I had to attend my classes. No one objected. Another great advantage of working here was that every staff member was given enough fish, kippers, and other left over stuff to take home. For all the three months I worked there, we had fish every night at home. I used to love smoked kippers, and fillet of haddock.
Saturday used to be a half day, and we used to look forward to it. One afternoon, my wife came in just before closing, as she wanted to do some shopping at the market at Camden Town. She was a welcome guest at the shop, as everyone knew her. I finished all the cleaning up work, washed myself, licked the envelope for my colleague, and left the shop. However, I still smelled of fish, and no one would sit next to us. We were happy to be left to ourselves.
Mind you, it was because of the fishy odour that they avoided us, not because we were Indians. Except once, we never faced the colour problem. May be because we lived in a more liberal area of London.
Go to Part 3 (under construction..
© Jatinder Sethi 2014
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