The S.S. Saxonia – Cunard
It was 1957 – and I’m giving my age away! – another century – when I boarded an ocean liner as a boy of twelve, leaving England forever.
Why is that important? I guess, for me, because here I was, at twelve years old, on the cusp of a new era, and I didn’t even know it, and I guess nobody else did either. The changes that occurred right after these final years of the decade of the 50s, were pivotal.
Cunard continued to ply the waves of the Atlantic (and elsewhere, too, I imagine), up to 1971, as far as I know. Other carriers got out of the business. I named this article “The Last Voyage” because for me, that was a metaphor for the changing times; in hindsight, the end of an era.
Crossing the Atlantic in a steamship – little did I know at the time – would become an archaic form of travel. I did not become aware of the impact the voyage would have on how I viewed my past, until many years later – like now!
Like most people, I started looking back at my life at a certain age when we tend to become more nuanced, and perhaps have gained some perspective on those bygone days that didn’t seem all that important at the time.
I had grown up in London, England, where my parents had immigrated from Palestine, in 1946, when I was one year old. (That’s right, I’m 74!)
The UK in the postwar years was struggling, and we – just my parents and me – lived in one room until 1957, when we left the country. This may not make it any easier to picture, but the room was large. The Edwardian building had been partitioned off into rentals. It was five stories high and I think I believed it was haunted. It had a wide, curving staircase that
widened at the bottom to gently touch the tiled lobby, as if designed for the elite, so they could descend with poise, without missing a step. For all the world, it reminds me today of BBC productions like Upstairs-Downstairs and Downton Abbey, except that there were no servants here, no aristocrats, only somewhat poor people who couldn’t afford to pay more for their accommodation. As you can see from the photograph, these were fine buildings – nothing wrong with them, they’ll last forever – but back then, it was different, it had fallen into disrepair. We lived on the second floor (1st floor, in England), with a part of the balcony, as you might be able to see from the photograph.
Britain was a dark place in those days. Food rationing didn’t end until 1954, as I mentioned in my blog, The Edsel I Loved. My father, eking out a skimpy livelihood from photography, could only afford a very small, very rickety old car to get around in. There wasn’t that much lighting, and vehicles were not allowed to use their headlights at night, only their “side” lights (park lights, over here).
We lived through the fog and smog attacks, not aware at the time that thousands died, a fact that was never reported in order to avoid a panic, as I found out many years later.
I mention this because it helps to explain my enthusiasm for leaving all this behind, to move to a country I had only vaguely heard about, but which promised all kinds of mysterious and magical possibilities: Canada.
The Ship and the Voyage of a lifetime
Coming on board the Saxonia, at Southampton, was the most exciting thing I had done in my short life to that point, except for a trip to the Continent, when I was about eight.
This was going to be really different, and definitely very unusual. I sensed quite clearly that my life would never be the same again. I’d never seen the interior of an ocean-going liner before. I didn’t know they had movie theaters onboard, and all kinds of shops, restaurants and other amenities I’d never suspected could be on board a ship.
My excitement knew no bounds!
We weren’t one of the rich travelers, but did I care? My mother an I shared a below-deck cabin, with no portholes because we were below the waterline, with two other people.
I can’t remember the berth arrangement, but that part didn’t interest me; I was going to explore.
I was fascinated by what Fist Class was like, and while I was on deck, at a certain point I noticed a flagged sign, FIRST CLASS PASSENGERS ONLY. So naturally, I had to climb over the fence, I wanted to see what first class looked like. Was there something special about these people? They seemed endlessly exotic.
I didn’t get far. That particular day (it took several days to cross the Atlantic), it was stormy.
I had been looking forward to a real hurricane (kids don’t fear anything!) but nature hadn’t complied. Still, the storm was kind of okay, it rocked the boat a little and occasionally stuff would crash to the floor somewhere, usually the dining room or kitchen.
I only ventured so far, on that day, and peeked through a porthole and I think all I saw was a corridor. The prow of the ship was plowing into the turbulent sea, then rising again before smashing back down. I watched that for a while, and I was suitable impressed. If that was all, it was still okay!
Back in England, I had been brought up to watch American movies – natch! Who wasn’t? I had acquired a certain image of America. Whenever a black and white movie was screened, and the music was suspenseful,
I knew I’d be watching something sinister and probably lurid. I wasn’t sure I liked it. But I was fascinated by it. Little did I know at the time, but those cheap flicks in gray, the second features that played first in theaters – would one day be my salvation, in an unexpected way.
But at the time, I only remember the cold fear of anticipation I would feel as the credits rolled by. This world was filled with weird characters,
in big suits and hats, carrying guns for some reason. It was also populated by a string of various chorus line kickers, some with fat thighs. Bad guys galore. Everyone wanted something and they were willing to sanction any depravity, including murder.
I had no idea what the reality of North America was like. I didn’t know much about Canada, except that it was next door to the United States and might prove to be somewhat similar, although I wasn’t sure. What awaited me, I had to idea.
A New Land & The Horizon Was Unlimited
Well, as we neared the American continent, eventually the mouth of the mighty St Lawrence River came into view, and soon the right and left banks began to come together, narrowing the channel. Eventually, I had my first glimpse of the land I was going to occupy. There was the province of Quebec – I knew that much – and I have never been as impressed by land as I was on that occasion.
Now, imagine me, coming from a very dark and lonely place (as England was at the time), to this frontier of seemingly endless land in every direction, the Quaker farms with their Dutch barns, and picturesque houses that invited a sense of optimism, beyond my imagination. What I saw was the promise of a future. The endless horizon, which could barely ever be seen in England even on a good day, was awe-inspiring. And the air! I breathed in the fragrant air of Canada, and I was happy!
As we continued to sail up the St Lawrence River, Quebec City lay in front of us, and we arrived after dark (it was November). I had gone up on deck to witness this.
A woman who babysat me through the years was a seamstress and she had sewn together a jacket of some kind of rough material, lined with wool. I realized people were sort of staring at me, and then I also realized that was because I looked like a Greek sheep herder!
My nanny was a wonderful woman, whose love got me through a lot of tight spots, but her idea of what I’d need to wear in Canada was, to say the least, a little cockamamie!
That night, the massive pile of stone of the Hotel Le Chateau Frontenac appeared, emerging from the dark like some gothic cathedral on steroids.
An American car, its headlights probing the darkness, drove slowly down the ramp toward the dock. I stood mesmerized. It was a ’54 Ford – that much I knew from having studied pictures in magazines. A thrill shot through my spine! This was it! I was in North America! The air was smooth, cool, and the night was brilliant with stars! This was Canada!
We docked the following morning. If I thought QC was something, I was in for an even greater shock.
After being hustled through immigration and customs (it took until nightfall!), friends of my parents drove us to their home.
Along the way, I became almost apoplectic with joy at the flashing fluorescent signs, the hectic traffic like I’d seen in the movies, the wide streets that were straight and went on forever!
And the best part, here I was, a young stranger from a darkened land, where driving with headlights in the city was illegal, sitting in back of a Ford I’d only seen in pictures. I didn’t know which way to look.
A siren behind us, and an emergency vehicle passed us at speed. I sat up. In England, they used bells! Thrill doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.
This was America, about as close as I could get, and as we pulled into the driveway of our friends’ house, I felt like an alien from another planet. I had imagined what it would be like, but I hadn’t been prepared for such a visceral experience.
It was cozy and outlandish inside: people were gathered in the kitchen watching television. Wow! We didn’t even have a TV set. But more than that, there was something disarmingly casual about the setting. This lack of formality contrasted greatly with the “be on your best manners” attitude back in the old country. This was where I was going to stay from now on. I knew that now.
A Night At The Hotel
We weren’t staying with our friends, but in a hotel. I’d never been in anything taller than five stories. The hotel room I stayed in was possibly fifteen stories high, at a time when the only skyscrapers to be found were in North America.
When I looked down, I already knew what I’d see, but I just kept staring, because it was exactly as I’d seen it in the movies: slick, fat cars, with headlights on, cruising the streets below, in a lazy but purposeful manner, like trolling ships sounding the depths.
I have already said that I was mesmerized. Looking for another adjective, I found “transfixed.” I had trouble getting to sleep, because I heard machine gun fire during the night.
Had I imagined it? Probably not. Years later I learned that Montreal at the time was the leader in bank robberies, in all of North America. Now, if that isn’t something to excited about, I don’t know what is!
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel (when it was still Palestine, a British protectorate. I was 1 year old when we moved to England, where I grew up. At age 12, we left for Canada and I’ve lived here ever since.