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E&L Life | 20th January 2020

A Sailor went to sea, sea, sea


For E&L Life Editor Gilly Fraser, an unexpected joint project turned out to be one of the highlights of 2019

The phone call came out of the blue. ‘You’d better sit down. I’ve got something to ask you.’

The caller was my big brother Ian and that in itself was a bit of a surprise since he and I have never been the best communicators. We used to leave all that sort of thing to Mum – she was the hub of our family, absolutely brilliant at keeping in touch with the various aunts and uncles and cousins no matter how far-flung, and making sure we all had at least a vague notion of what everyone else was doing. Since we lost her, just before Christmas three years ago, all that has gone to pot.

‘Go on,’ I said, just a little bit warily. ‘I’m listening.’ ‘I’ve decided to write a book. Will you help?’

When I got my breath back, I said I’d be delighted. And so began what turned out to be one of the best bits of 2019 for me – by a long shot. To be honest I did have a few doubts at first – not about the story because I knew it would be great. Ian has led a fascinating and colourful life. And not about the storyteller either – I’ve watched him captivate audiences often enough to know he can spin a cracking yarn.

No, my concerns lay entirely in my own involvement in the mechanics of the whole thing. I knew it was inevitable that I would interfere, tinker, tamper with what he’d written. It’s what I do. Would he accept that from his wee sister or would there be ructions – would we have to call on biggest brother Norman to reprise his oft-played role as referee between us?

The project duly began. It was already February and Ian had set his heart on getting the book not only written, but published by July. A pretty massive ask. Added to which, he doesn’t have much truck with computers, so every day for several weeks thereafter, a big white envelope would land on my doormat containing several handwritten pages. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Postie made of it. I would type them up, changing, twiddling and tweaking as I went. The initial wariness on my part soon went out the window because within the first few pages I was hooked and thoroughly enjoying myself.

This was a book with heart and soul and merriment. You’ve heard of misery memoirs? This was a joy journal, all about the 24 years Ian spent at sea as Entertainments Officer and then Cruise Director with P&O. It was a job that took him all over the world and he loved practically every second of it. That came through loud and clear in every only-just-legible page. He even decided to name it ‘Lucky, Lucky Me, I would have done it for free.’

As well as tweaking I also got to do a bit of research – a brief mention of a person or place would frequently intrigue me enough to do some digging. So for example in one chapter Ian told the tale of a certain rather distinguished elderly lady who was none too chuffed with his first attempts at being Quizmaster in one of the onboard entertainments and thought the questions he had set weren’t up to scratch. He casually mentioned en passant that she was apparently an author. Out of curiousity I googled her name. She was indeed an author – known rather better by her nom de plume of Jean Plaidy, prolific writer of historical fiction whose books had sold by the million, many of them to me.

As a teenager I positively hoovered up her stories, especially the ones about Henry VIII and Charles II and all the unfortunate women who strayed into their path. They were just about the only books allowed to mingle with the horsey titles which otherwise monopolised my bookshelves. To discover this doyenne had taken my big brother to task amused me no end.

I really like that ability to tell a story against himself. He’s truthful and self-deprecating and doesn’t always come out of every escapade smelling of roses. By his own admission he even sailed quite close to the wind (pun quite intentional) a time or two but fortunately the same Lady Luck who smiled in his direction and got him the job in the first place never deserted him altogether even though there were a couple of times when it seemed she might have.

He never became blasé about his shipboard career either – probably because he had worked a hard apprenticeship learning his entertainment craft in some of the toughest working men’s clubs in Scotland before he was fortunate enough to land the P&O gig. He never forgot those thankless nights when he was regarded as little more than an interlude between spells of bingo. He was also part of a tour of the Highlands and Islands starring Calum Kennedy, one of Scotland’s best beloved singers. A BBC crew went with them intending to film a documentary. Little did they know it would become a very funny comedy instead, as mishap followed mishap and most of the entertainers – except Ian – bailed out along the way. The film has become something of a legend.

I learned a lot about my big brother in the course of working on his book and the lovely thing is that it has definitely brought us much closer together. We’ve even done a couple of talks together – well, he did the talking and I interrupted every now and again, but our audiences enjoyed our double act. Our Mum would be astonished. Delighted but definitely astonished.

Quotes: You’ve heard of misery memoirs? This was a joy journal, all about the 24 years Ian spent at sea as Entertainments Officer and then Cruise Director with P&O. I really like that ability to tell a story against himself. He’s truthful and self-deprecating and doesn’t always come out of every escapade smelling of roses.

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