Sunday 28 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 4 - Gaucho & Sailor
December 1962 was the coldest on record and the only warm room in our Bromley house was the kitchen. I spent hours helping my mother with the Christmas pudding. She gave me three sixpenny pieces which I had to wrap in greaseproof paper and place into the mixture. Discovering the tiny silver bundle in your helping was exciting because the lucky finder could make a wish.
Even though I was 17, I still made sure I was her sous chef for another lucky dip – being allowed to lick the bowl with the last of the sugar, treacle and raisins. It seemed a good moment to tell her about my decision. ‘I’m going to Argentina, Mum.’
She slammed the oven door on the pudding. ‘I beg your pardon.’
‘A school friend says I can work on his father’s farm.’
‘How are you going to get to Argentina? On a magic carpet?’
‘On a ship.’
'If you think your father and I will help, think again.’
‘It won’t cost you or Dad a penny. I’ve saved money.’
That summer I’d worked as an orderly in the geriatric unit at Orpington Hospital. It involved a lot of bottom cleaning, but the bottoms belonged to some extraordinary old men. I remember one of them had been an infantryman in the First World War. He seemed very old, but couldn’t have been more than 70 in 1962. He’d had a stoke and required the complete works when taken to the toilet.
‘David, you are such a disappointment to your father and me. I don’t know what he’s going to say.’
My father closed the door of his study and pointed to the chair beside his desk. I was nervous because I knew this preceded a lecture. I was ready to march out of the room if he challenged my decision.
He spent ages lighting his pipe, observing me over the top of the bowl. ‘You’ll be a long way from home and South America is going to be very foreign to you.’
This was good. He had accepted the inevitable. ‘I hope you’ll be careful.’
‘Careful? About what?’
That got me thinking. A continent of dangerous girls, but what did he mean by ‘be careful’? Was he referring to contraception, or was it an instruction to avoid girls altogether? I waited for him to continue, but he refilled his pipe, struck match after match and tried to puff it alight. After what seemed like minutes, he removed it, still unlit, and looked at it as if it were a naughty child. He nodded towards the door.
This was hardly parental approval for my decision, but it was the first recognition on the part of my parents that I was now in charge of my life.
I booked myself on the 20,000-ton Royal Mail Lines’ Arlanza. My ticket arrived with information about the journey to Buenos Aires and a postcard photo of the ship approaching Rio de Janeiro. Painted ice-cream white, this was, for me, an ocean liner from the movies, churning a foamy wake on a blue sea.1 I imagined a palm court orchestra and women with cigarette holders, tripping over their pearl necklaces. Gentlemen in blue blazers. The captain’s table. Deck quoits by day, love affairs by night.
The Arlanza was one of Royal Mail Lines’ three ships on the London–Buenos Aires route. The other almost identical ships were the Amazon and Aragon. They were all passenger ships with refrigerated holds. On the outward journey, cork was loaded in Lisbon. On the return to London, the massive fridges were filled with beef for Vesteys who were ranchers, meat importers and owners of Dewhurst, a chain of butcher shops. Vesteys had their own shipping company, Blue Star Lines, but there was plenty of Pampas beef to transport.
We set sail in mid-January. My family piled into the Morris to see me off from King George V Dock which, along with the Victoria and Royal Albert, were the largest in London.
My sisters were allowed on board and taken to meet the Captain on the bridge. I think they were almost as excited as me and would have joined me if they could. I walked down the gangplank with them and, as they and my mother hugged me, my father stood on the quayside, looking anxiously at his watch. I went back on deck and blew kisses to them as my mother dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. This was a repeat of Waterloo station four long years earlier.
It took ages for the ship to manoeuvre into the river and by the time we had exited the lock gates, my waving family had long gone.
We moved down the Thames and out through its estuary, the islands of Sheppey and Thanet and the massive oil depot at Thurrock receding into the damp winter mist.
We passed the mouth of the Medway and I looked back at Rochester where my father belonged to the sailing club. I could see the familiar sights of anchored naval reserve ships which he and I had sailed round in his Enterprise dinghy. I hoped I would be a better sailor than he’d been. I remembered the day he had steered our boat through the telephone and electric lines connecting the Arethusa, a Royal Navy training ship, to the shore. The Ministry of Defence had sent him a large bill.
Soaring birds followed us out into the North Sea. That month the water had frozen one mile from shore at Herne Bay and as far out as four miles at Dunkirk. Before I left, the BBC had expressed a fear that the Straits of Dover would freeze over. By now, it was too cold to come back on deck and check this out, but we got through.
After a brief stop in Cherbourg, we headed south into the grey mist of Biscay, the sea surprisingly calm for this time of year. I’d never been further from home than Brittany, so setting off to the other end of the world was both scary and exciting. I stood on the deck staring at the horizon, wondering if I’d made the right decision. The nervousness I felt was calmed by the ship’s engines which are the marine equivalent of a mother’s heartbeat to an embryonic child, a comforting throb.
The trip was to take three weeks via Vigo, Lisbon, Las Palmas, Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Montevideo. Off the coast of Spain, the weather brightened. By the time we reached Lisbon, the sun was out and the city was sparkling white. After loading cork, the next stop was the Canaries. Winter was over. At Las Palmas the officers and crew changed into their tropical whites.
The South Atlantic was calm the whole way and I spent a lot of my time at the stern, looking back at the wake and thinking of all I’d left behind. If I felt any sadness, that emotion soon disappeared when I considered the alternative: a new term at Canford.
Crossing the Equator, we had the Neptune party with the purser dressed up in a white sheet and carrying a trident. Traditionally, this involves a harsh initiation ceremony for those ‘crossing the line’ for the first time, but not for us. We were given certificates that allowed us two free drinks at the bar.
I’ve always liked Cuba Libre and associate this cocktail with my first sexual experience. An indirect one. I had a single cabin on the inside of the ship. It had no porthole and was claustrophobic, but I soon discovered that it had its uses.
A young couple who were in four-berth cabins started a shipboard romance. When they found out about my cabin, they asked if they could use it in the afternoons. I was paid with a rum and Coke in the bar each evening. The vicarious reward was that I went to bed each night savouring the woman’s Chanel No. 5, presumably the only thing she wore in my bunk.
Eight Cuba Libres later, the Arlanza arrived in Rio where I swam off Copacabana Beach. Looking up at Sugar Loaf with its enormous Christ, I couldn’t believe I had now arrived in South America.
I’d become friends with the only other young passenger, Joseph Moreno, a Jewish communist who could trace his family back to Spain and Morocco. He was returning home after completing an engineering degree at Manchester University. We would sit on the deck for hours talking politics, and he told me of his fears that the Argentine elections due that July might result in a military coup. Joseph was out by 13 years.
I told him I wanted to see Buenos Aires before heading for the Boyer’s estancia and Joseph invited me to spend a couple of nights at his parents’ home in Calle Tucumán. On the first evening there was a family gathering. His mother cooked fried fish with cilantro and parsley, rice-stuffed peppers, couscous, lentils and chickpeas, followed by date-filled pastries. After the meal, Joseph and I headed for the bars in Puerto Madero. He persuaded me to try fernet and Coke, a bitter, syrupy liquor mixed with herbs.
The next day I set off for the Boyers’. I had trouble finding my way to the bus station as I spoke no Spanish. It was pouring with rain. Clutching a disintegrating map of the city Joseph’s mother had given me, I decided to walk there. Many of Buenos Aires’s pavements were being replaced and I kept tripping into large muddy puddles. I missed the early evening bus and finally set off at midnight.
After the sprawling suburbs, we were on an empty highway heading towards Córdoba province with occasional stops in darkened, dusty towns that looked like film sets for Gunfight at the OK Corral. I expected to see Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster riding out of the gloom toward the night-stop cafés from which I bought choripán, a spicy sausage sandwich, and tepid coffees.
After ten hours we arrived in Rosario in the centre of the Pampas, the town where Che Guevara had been born. Norman and his father, Bernard, met me at the bus station and drove me to their home in the family’s 1942 Ford V8.
Four hundred and fifty kilometres north-west of Buenos Aires, the ranch was set in the middle of a copse of white cedars, Osage oranges, figs, native walnuts and ash trees. At the end of a dirt-track avenue lined with eucalyptus, we arrived at their house. Its garden had lawns and shrubs and was full of roses, wall flowers, petunias and begonia creepers. At a distance from the house was the dormitory for the farm workers, cattle dips, corrals and a 14-metre-tall wind pump that drew brackish water from 20 metres down.
This estancia was an oasis in the middle of the Pampas grasslands. The lush island of vegetation and woodland encircling the farm house and its outbuildings giving way to the plains. In the distance you could see the next island, the next oasis.
On the first morning, Norman woke me at 5.30am. At six the cook rang the ‘bell’, a steel bar and a bit of railway iron. I was introduced to the foreman, Juan Gómez, and the other eleven peons: six cattlemen, three tractor men, a blacksmith and the cook.
The men were gathered around a half-side of barbequed beef, slicing large cuts off with their facones, a knife they kept tucked into the back of their rastras, wide belts decorated with silver coins. I was handed a knife and joined in. I was conscious that they were all looking at me as I copied them. There were no plates, and you had to cut into an upended slab of meat to slice away each mouthful. I was frightened that I was going to cut my nose as I leaned forward to feed myself.
Norman gave me a piece of galleta, unleavened bread, and the cook came over and offered me a dried gourd with a metal straw. Inside was mate cocido, a tea made from the yerba plant. ‘Bienvenido,’ the cook said and the others nodded their welcome.
Norman took me to the paddock and called Hilacha over. Hilacha means ‘frayed thread’ or ‘rags’, but this six-year-old mare was anything but. She was a small pony with beautiful black-and-white markings. She was very gentle and lowered her head for the bridle. I was shown how to saddle up. The saddle was made of leather, a ridge at the front and rear, and covered with a thick sheepskin to make the ride comfortable.
The men rode with the reins held in the left or right hand, leaving the other arm free for work. To turn the horse, both reins were pulled across to the new direction, unlike the individual left- and right-hand pull in England. There was no raising and lowering of your bottom from hard leather. You kept it firmly on the sheepskin. The cowboy system of riding, common across the Americas, was designed for those who had to work. The English system, by contrast, is ceremonial and deliberately uncomfortable: hard, unyielding and fixed. A bit like public schools.
The horsemen still dressed like the gauchos of a hundred years earlier. They wore loose-fitting trousers, known as bombachas, belted with a sash and carried a rebenque, a two- foot-long leather whip with a metal handle. Some had lassos. Each of them had, of course, their knife.
I was given denim trousers, a brown cotton shirt and felt hat. Norman’s father supplied me with leather riding boots.
And Norman turned out to be right. I learned to ride in a day. Left foot into the stirrup and up and over into the saddle. ‘Follow me,’ Norman said. ‘Grip your knees into the side of the saddle and give her a little kick.’
I didn’t need to do anything to Hilacha. She followed the other horses as they went from walk, to trot and then into a canter. I stayed on and was even galloping by the end of the day.
A day’s work involved riding long distances. We’d move cattle to new pastures, young steers had to be brought back to the corrals to be de-horned, marked and castrated and all of them, from time to time, vaccinated and dipped. Others had to be prepared for market.
It was tough work, but I enjoyed every minute, except when herding took us close to the 380 hectares of mosquito-infested marshy lakes. We had to use our hats, themselves covered with insects, to beat them away from our faces and eyes. There was hardly any point as we’d arrive back at the estancia, scratching at the bites.
On Sundays, we started with an enormous English breakfast made by the family’s maid, Dominga Arias, a Ranquel Indian. She also cooked us Sunday roasts with Yorkshire pudding, which she called ‘ocho puree’.
Between that breakfast and the ocho puree, Norman and I would drive out on hunting expeditions in an old Jeep. I can’t remember what we were going to shoot, but I do remember we never killed anything.
Sometimes the Boyers would take me to visit their neighbours. The nearest oasis was an estancia called Fortin Las Tunas. The family there were Afrikaners who’d emigrated to Argentina from the Witwatersrand. They’d decided to be cattle farmers in a country without any kaffirs. They were awful and I remember the farmer’s two daughters, Johanna and Lettie, looked like Cinderella’s ugly sisters.
Las Tunas had an interesting history, probably not lost on its new owners. It had been a staging post for travellers going to and from Chile, and a lookout encampment for raiding Ranquel Indians. At least that is how the Boers would have described its history.
One day a lorry arrived with the six-monthly delivery of Mendoza wine. The driver asked me if I’d like to go back to Mendoza with him. He said he’d be passing through Arias in a week and would drop me home. I didn’t want to abandon Hilacha and turned him down.
After he left, I realised I’d refused a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Andes and that the farm work was becoming a comfortable option to everything else the world had to offer. It was time to leave.
I told the Boyers I was going to try and get to the USA and that I’d go to Buenos Aires for a few days to check out the possibilities of a job on one of the shipping lines that sailed from Argentina to the US. I took the bus to the capital and stayed again with Joseph and his family.
The US shipping firm, Moore-McCormack, offered me a job in the purser’s office on their cruise ship, the SS Argentina. On the wall above the main desk I saw a photo of Tony Curtis and Vivien Leigh, standing on the deck of this ship. Two years before, in 1961, the two actors had travelled on this vessel en route to film Taras Bulba in Argentina.
Moore-McCormack said to come back the next day to complete the paperwork. The Argentina was sailing to New York in six days so I would have time to take the bus back to the estancia and say my goodbyes.
When I returned to their offices on the Plaza Mayor, they informed me that the US consular office wouldn’t allow me to enter the USA or work on a ship. They had been given no reason as to why my visa had been refused and apologised.
I had no choice but to try and work my return back to London so I went to the Royal Mail Lines’ office. Did they have a job? They did, and on the same ship I’d arrived on. One of the two laundry boys had jumped ship in the Canaries. I was warned that it would be tough work as the laundry was almost as hot as the engine room. It was in the stern which, along with the bow, is the worst place to be in bad weather.
The Arlanza had just docked and it was going to take seven days to load with its new cargo of chilled beef. I was to report to the office the day before departure and someone would take me to its berth at Dock Sud.
I took the overnight bus back to Rosario to spend my last few days with the Boyers. I was sad to leave them and my fellow workers. I had been warmly welcomed there and Norman’s parents had treated me like a second son.
I didn’t have a camera in Argentina and have no photos of my own from my time there, but I can see them all vividly in my mind. Norman’s father was a small man who never lost his temper, or expressed the many worries that must have come with running such a large ranch.
Isobel was like my own mother, always concerned for me: ‘I’m sure your mother would want you to have a haircut,’ she’d say and Norman and I would be piled into the back of the Ford for the obligatory trip to the barber in Arias.
The cowboys were also like friends to me, even though I hardly spoke any Spanish. The estancia was a happy place to work and I knew that if I didn’t go, I would stay.
When I arrived back in Buenos Aires, Royal Mail Lines told me they’d been unable to get me an exit visa for working on ships. If I was prepared to be smuggled on board and hidden in the hold until we reached international waters, I could still join the ship’s crew. An officer escorted me through the quayside gates and told the guard I was collecting some documents for the Buenos Aires office.
I had to sit in the dark between two of those enormous refrigerated containers. At dawn the next day I was brought up on deck. The first thing I saw were the masts of the German battlecruiser the Graff Spee, sticking out of the mud in the middle of the Rio de la Plata. I had seen Anthony Quinn in Michael Powell’s The Battle of the River Plate at school, but hadn’t realised that the German warship had been scuttled in such shallow waters.
The Arlanza was now a very different ship to the one I had travelled out on. No more Cuba Libres or the smell of Chanel No. 5 as I drifted off to sleep. No more political discussions, only long, sweaty hours leaning over a steam press. I shared a cabin on the waterline with the other laundry boy, John Turner, a young man who farted a lot and was obsessed by his next sexual encounter.
After Montevideo we headed for Santos, the port town for São Paulo. The ship’s engines had been faulty since we left Uruguay and we were told we’d have to berth in Santos for a few days while the ship’s engineers fixed them. John and I headed for the waterside bars which doubled as brothels.
Santos was where I lost my virginity. The cantinas were full of whores of every shape and size. We sat at a table and a woman who looked about the same age as my mother came over to me and grabbed my scrotum. I don’t remember it being a sensual experience at all. But after a few drinks, which must have been laced with Mickey Finns, I staggered upstairs with a young prostitute in a tight, red dress. She left me in a small room and disappeared. There was an iron bed and a small cupboard. Its cracked plaster walls were painted faeces brown. The window was partially covered with a broken wooden blind which had once been white. A bare, bright ceiling light celebrated this cheerlessness. No red lights here, no concession to the room’s purpose.
After all the drinks I’d had, I was desperate for a piss. The corridor was dark and I couldn’t find the toilet so I opened the drawer of the bedroom cupboard and relieved myself there.
The woman returned and we had sex. I remember that she kept her dress on and that I, and no doubt she, wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. There was a lot of fumbling about in the light.
When I went downstairs to wait for my shipmate, the barman grabbed my arm and marched me back to the room. He opened the damp drawer. ‘Is that you, senhor?’ I acted dumb. He must have felt sorry for me because he let go of me and returned to the bar.
I was at the top of the stairs, ready to go down, when I heard John screaming from a nearby room. ‘Help, help!’
I opened the door to see a naked woman straddling him, holding a razor to his throat.
‘I don’t have enough money!’
I threw 30 real onto the bed. She made a dive for it. John pulled on his trousers and we ran back to the ship.
Safely on board, he thanked me for saving him with the money. ‘I owe you. Tell you what. I’ll pay for your next fuck.’
‘No thanks, John,’ I said. ‘That won’t be for a long time.’
I decided to stay with the crew who had no need for those bars – the gays. Chris was a waiter who was about 40. He was short, balding and permanently cheerful. When he smiled, his face was an ear-to-ear grin.
After I told him about my adventure in the whorehouse, he took pity on me. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘you made the wrong decision.’
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘It’s not too late, you know.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘You’re a handsome boy. You’d have no trouble finding yourself a partner.’ A pause. ‘Among us.’
I turned down his invitation to a party in his cabin. John had plucked up courage and returned to the brothels but, after another night of sitting alone on deck and listening to distant laughter and the bossa nova, I gave in to the next invitation. ‘I’ll come by for a drink tonight, but I am not—’
‘Don’t worry. We’ll leave you alone.’
His cabin was covered with photos of his boyfriends, all of them taken on beaches and all of them wearing budgie smugglers. ‘Pretty boys, aren’t they? All much more handsome than me. Aren’t I the lucky fellow?’
He was true to his word, that night and every other. Neither he, nor his two companions, the cooks, flirted or made advances. We drank and played poker and for the rest of the long journey, I was always welcome for a nightcap in his cabin.
He told me how he’d been married, had three children, but had had to drop the pretence and tell his wife, whom, he said, he still loved, that he was gay. She had kicked him out of their home. His children, now grown up, refused to see him. He went to sea.
With the engines at half-speed, our ship moved slowly across the Atlantic. There were storms and it was heavy going. After work, John and I would stagger out to the bow, clutching the crane davit. We attached ourselves to the bow rail with harnesses and whooped with excitement as the ship dipped beneath the waves and laughed as we rose again. Youth is fearless.
Vestey got their meat and I got home. Home, but worried and fearful. My scrotum felt itchy and I went to the STD clinic at Westminster Hospital. After an embarrassing and intimate examination, I was given the all-clear.
Norman left for Australia soon after my return to London and, for many years, ran a sheep farm at Binalong, northwest of Canberra. Isobel Boyer died of heart failure in her mid- seventies and Bernard committed suicide. He shot himself in Norman’s bedroom. He had never recovered from his son’s decision to emigrate to Australia and the death of his wife.
After 40 years, Norman tracked me down and, today, I am again friends with him and his artist wife, Fling. They run a small farm in north Devon.
I have no idea what happened to Joseph Moreno, but I hope he survived the years of repression and did not become one of the many thousands of los Desaparecidos. The Disappeared.
I have often thought about returning to Argentina, but the Pampas where I worked is no longer there. Today, most of the beef farms have gone, replaced by thousands of square miles of GM soya crops. In 1970, soya accounted for 3,000 hectares, only 400 hectares more than the Boyer estancia. Today GM soya covers 20 million hectares, 14 of the 20 million under the direct ownership of Monsanto.
In the years from 1990–2010, agrochemical spraying increased eightfold in Argentina – from 9 million gallons in 1990 to 84 million gallons twenty years later. Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s sprays, is used eight to ten times more per acre than in the United States.
The result leaves people dangerously exposed to cancers. In a 2012 study, house-to-house surveys of 65,000 people in farming communities in the heart of Argentina’s soya bean business, found cancer rates two to four times higher than the national average, as well as higher rates of hypothyroidism and chronic respiratory illnesses.
Today, the countryside is an unhealthy corporate agro-factory, the old grasslands and crops replaced with miles and miles of soya. Massive silos stand where eucalyptus trees were once home to the burrowing owl and raptors. On the Pampas, the ostriches, iguanas, native weasels, deer and hares have all but disappeared. I can only return to the Pampas in my mind.
Thanks to Norman Boyer for the La Arlanza estancia photos
1 The Normandie, Queen Mary, Lusitania, Titanic, and for me, Arlanza. The mystique that surrounds these ships hides a reality; they can be uncomfortable; they can make you seasick and they can sink. Designed to look like expensive hotels to encourage rich passengers aboard, the crews weren’t fooled any more than the steerage passengers. A ship is a microcosm of society. The old liners represented Empire and class in a confined space and all the hypocrisy that goes with it. Behind the veneer of a white ship is the hideousness of empire and the intention to destroy and subvert. Beneath the sipping gin and tonics, the holds stacked with crates of bibles and guns.
2 These docks closed in 1980, and today the length of the George V Dock has been transformed into the single runway of City Airport. 3 ‘Argentina: The Country that Monsanto Poisoned’. http://overgrowthesystem.com/argentina-the-country-that-monsanto- poisoned-photo-essay/ American biotechnology has turned Argentina into the world’s third-largest soya bean producer, but the chemicals powering the boom aren’t confined to soya and cotton and corn fields. They routinely contaminate homes and classrooms and drinking water. A growing chorus of doctors and scientists is warning that their uncontrolled use could be responsible for the increasing number of health problems turning up in hospitals across the South American nation. In the heart of Argentina’s soya bean business, house-to-house surveys of 65,000 people in farming communities found cancer rates two to four times higher than the national average, as well as higher rates of hypothyroidism and chronic respiratory illnesses. Associated Press photographer Natacha Pisarenko spent months documenting the issue in farming communities across Argentina. Most provinces in Argentina forbid spraying pesticides and other agrochemicals next to homes and schools, with bans ranging in distance from 50 metres to as much as several kilometres from populated areas. The Associated Press found many cases of soya beans planted only a few feet from homes and schools, and of chemicals mixed and loaded onto tractors inside residential neighbourhoods. Yet Argentina doesn’t apply national standards for farm chemicals, leaving rule-making to the provinces and enforcement to the municipalities. The result is a hodgepodge of widely ignored regulations that leave people dangerously exposed.