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Chapter 10. Harvey – A Concert at Sea and Landing In Western Australia

Anne finished her law degree and said goodbye to Oxford.  The three years were over and how quickly they had passed. How quickly they pass for all undergraduates! Then she started on the process of becoming a barrister, and this was when Harvey and Jake reached Australia.  

They left Singapore in an ageing cruise ship, “The Eastern Queen”, painted white but with rather worrying rust stains just above the waterline.  She was still battling against the seas when she should have been taking it easy in a quiet harbour somewhere, as a theme restaurant for tourists perhaps, nothing too strenuous, just put out to grass.  It took Harvey and Jake eight days to go from Singapore to the port of Freemantle.  They sailed between Sumatra and Java and past Christmas Island but these places were just sights in the sea.  Their journey and their commitment to the journey, to the places and people on the way, was behind them.  They could now rest, and the old ship would take them, all being well, to Australia.  They did not really know what to expect there.  Their effort and energy had gone into the journey mile by mile across Asia. Australia was just the logical end of this plan, the last stop on their long road. 

Jake hung his Afghan coat out of his cabin porthole and it flapped in the winds of the Indian Ocean for eight days. Once the ship had left the sight of land, the coat became the only thing of interest to look at, and people would lean over the rail to catch a glimpse of it fluttering out of the side of the ship as if waving a long goodbye to Asia.  In the morning, after breakfast, people would check to see if it was still there or if it had been blown away during the night. The passengers, tired of seeing nothing but sea on all sides, would discuss its future. Would it be torn into pieces by the constant buffeting of wind and spray and then shower the Indian Ocean with fluff like confetti? Or would it be blown away in one piece and float off to a sandy beach on some remote island?  The discussions reached a point where bets were taken on the outcome.  Such is life at sea when surrounded by an empty ocean.

The song goes,

“We joined the Navy to see the world.

And what did we see? We saw the sea.”

And this is right. The passengers on board ‘The Eastern Queen’ saw the sea.

 Jake had bought this coat in, naturally, Afghanistan, and from Afghanistan to Singapore it had smelled horribly.  It was not a sociable coat. It was not a coat to wear in company.  But it had a certain dogged quality of resistance about it, because in Freemantle, after eight days of ocean winds, it smelled as high as it had done in Kandahar.  In the market there the stallholder had assured Jake that the smell would wear off in a couple of days.  It was when they were several hundred miles further along the road that he and Harvey began to doubt him.   Jake left the coat, as a present, with an Australian customs officer in the docks at Freemantle, assuring him that the smell would very soon go away.  If you ever visit Freemantle and catch a whiff of a powerful smell coming from the docks, you will know what is to blame. 

On the last night of the voyage there was the ship’s concert. On the previous evenings the crew had provided a singer and a pianist and a middle-aged magician, but on the last evening the entertainment was the responsibility of the passengers, and thus thrown back on their own resources in the middle of the Indian Ocean they dug deep into their collective memory and came out with the old songs from their roots. There was music from Somerset and Yorkshire and Ireland.  One girl sang “The House of the Rising Sun” and at the end of the evening a Scottish piper marched into the room, impressive in his kilt, and the passengers and the crew all sang Auld Lang Syne.  This concert seemed the last of a tradition of many years.    It was December 1967 but things hadn’t changed at all. A hundred years before, many a boatload of settlers, on the same waters, must have spent similar nights with their baggage of melodies from home when home had been left far behind. Perhaps they had even sung some of the same songs as Harvey and Jake heard on their voyage. This happened when people took a ship to reach a new land which was to be their new home.  Perhaps they too sang Auld Lang Syne. Look at that painting ‘The Last of England’ by Ford Madox Brown. Look at the worried but resolute faces of the young man and his wife.  They had made their decision. England was behind them. They had set their course for Australia. Today people fly to reach Australia, but something has been lost.  A flight is not the same as an ocean voyage. Could you imagine the passengers on a plane singing the old songs of home before landing in Sydney?    

Harvey and Jake arrived in Freemantle, coat and all, just after Christmas, in the height of summer, with the little cash that remained, for the money had been rationed to cover the miles from London, like bottles of water on a desert crossing.  With the last of their money, then, they took a taxi from Freemantle into Perth.