Life's journey of an uninteresting man - By Milan Lorman

English version.    Slovak version.

Family background
Early Childhood
Boyhood in Lazy
Student years
Leaving the nest
Eastern front
Six Days Behind Enemy Lines
A Little Light Relief at the Front
A Close Brush With Disaster
The Story of the Lifesaving Grapes
Prisoner of War
My French and American experience / One year in Austria
Four years in England
To the end of the Earth

To the end of the Earth

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

After the decision was made to start a new life in Tasmania, a respectable wedding and a few preparations for the long journey had to quickly follow. I had no accumulated savings and here I was getting married, virtually at a moments notice. The timing was fortunate in an unexpected way. The wedding would be taking place only five weeks before the end of the British taxation year and at such occasion the Taxman returned to the lucky taxpayer the total amount of income tax deducted during that financial year. I used the money to buy a new suit and to pay some of the costs connected with the wedding. The civil wedding ceremony was performed at the Brixton Town Hall. This was followed by an informal, joyful gathering in the home of one of our Slovak friends and his Scottish-born wife. Guests attending numbered only about one dozen of Jeans and mine closest friends. No relatives from my side and only one of Jean's sisters were present.

Our host lived in the close proximity to the Westminster Houses of Parliament. The building was in fact a block of flats built to accommodate country MPs during the periods of parliamentary sittings. When it was completed, however, it did not satisfy the Honourable Gentlemen's expectations. It was eventually purchased by the Czechoslovak Refugee Relief Fund. This Fund consisted of the unspent balance of monies originally voted by the British Parliament for the purposes of the wartime London-based Czechoslovak Government-in Exile. When at war's end the then President E. Benes and his "Merry Men" returned to Prague, the balance of their Operating account could not be returned to the Treasury, so it was decided to rededicate it for the providing of social and financial aid to at least some of the Czech and Slovak refugees living in the UK.

My wages at the hospital were rather modest, so the first thing to do was to find some better paid work. I started working in a large bakery, or rather bread factory, not far from the Waterloo station. It was all night shift work and that meant extra pay, but all I was competent to do was packing and so I took every opportunity during work breaks to pick up a few pointers from actual "coalface" bakers. Then, after only a few weeks as a packer I dared to answer a newspaper advertisement for a relieving man in a small bakery for three weeks, while one of their bakers went on annual leave.

The interview was held in a small office and all that my prospective new boss asked was whether I had previous bakery experience. I replied with a "Yes" and got the job. I thought that I shall muddle through somehow and get lost in the crowd. When I arrived at the workplace terror seized me by the heart – night shift was about to start and other than myself there was only one other man in the place. The only way I could get lost was if the ground should by some miracle open up under my feet and swallow me. I wasn't that lucky, but still lucky enough to have found myself in the company of two of the nicest old men I have met in my long life.

The old baker, whom I have found already at the oven when I arrived, was a Belgian who landed in England as a prisoner of war during the first World War and decided to stay. He saw immediately that I was seriously out of my depth, but without any fuss, without losing time, started teaching me one little step at a time all the tasks a bakers apprentice has to learn. But while an apprentice has a few months, or at least weeks to master them, I only had a few hours. One thing which helped me was my good "eye" for guessing the correct size of each lump of dough as I cut it off, so that each loaf ended up being the correct weight.

Only about two or three hours into my painful "apprenticeship" the old owner of the bakery, the man who hired me earlier that afternoon came in to see "how things were going". He too only took about five seconds to evaluate my bakers' skills and said: "You told me that you have worked in a bakery before!" And I said: "Well, I did, - as a packer. You didn't ask any details and I really wanted the job". And then this fine gentleman made a phone call to his wife, told her that he will be home late, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and started making a baker out of me. Not one unpleasant word was spoken and when my three weeks were at an end and the second baker returned from his leave, my boss asked me to stay a further three weeks, while my Belgian "tutor" took his annual holiday.

By the end of my second three weeks it was time to pack and prepare for the long sea voyage to "the end of the Earth" – Tasmania. Neither Jean or myself had a lot of gear to take along and so, carrying only two modest suitcases we have stepped aboard the P&O liner Otranto in the Tilbury docks one day in the first week of April '52. This was going to be our honeymoon cruise, although one little detail marred the situation somewhat. We didn't share a cabin. This was due to an unfortunate set of circumstances. My passage was booked before our wedding by Mr Lezak-Borin and the Refugee Relief Fund and even then the Otranto was going to sail some time after his departure and that of the rest of his team. When we wanted to book the passage for Jean the RRF could not arrange it in time for the Otranto. We both would have to wait for another ship, which would sail some six weeks later. That would cause a serious delay for the start of our saw-milling operation. But we were told that Jean could still be accommodated on the Otranto if she does not mind sharing a cabin with three other women on a lower deck and we can arrange the fare without waiting for the RRF. This is where Jean surprised both Mr Lezak-Borin and myself. She paid for her passage herself with her own savings and we left Old England forever.

Neither Jean or I have been to sea before, so that now everything about the ship, the lazy, relaxed lifestyle, the company of many varied and interesting people, fine food, range of amusements, amounted to a once in a lifetime exotic experience. Even the endless hours of watching the waves caused by our ship ploughing through the water, were frequently enlivened by Flying fish, or schools of porpoises.
Milan Lorman 1952
Milan Lorman 1952

The weather too was changing, getting warmer as we were edging ever further south. And perhaps the best part was the changing land scenery as the Otranto stopped over in a series of ports-of-call. We did not stop at Gibraltar, only sailed past it early one morning and the Rock looked indeed imposing. The tip of the African continent was just barely visible in the faint morning mist, but I still recall the excitement of the moment which, I imagine, every traveller feels when he sees for the first time with his own eyes that there is more to this world than Europe.

In Naples we got our first chance to set foot on firm ground since leaving England. What can I say… We saw Naples – and didn't die. The city is beautiful from a distance, but so are many others. The best I will say about it is that it is very "mediterranean". We weren't on a guided tour. We had a few hours all to ourselves and we ended up walking through different parts of the City and suburbs up the hillside facing towards Mount Vesuvius across the bay. When we returned to the ship we had on film not only the beautiful Bay and the unmistakable silhouette of the volcano, but also a cruelly overloaded little donkey struggling up a road incline and also a dozen scruffy urchins holding out two dozen outstretched hands.

Next port-of-call, but only for a brief stopover, was Port Said. Our ship dropped anchor some distance from the docking area and none of us passengers went ashore. Instead, in no time at all the Otranto was surrounded by a mass of little boats loaded with a variety of mainly souvenir goods all publicising the glories of a dead civilisation. Still, that's all they have… I can't think of anything more recent the Egyptians can boast about. Even the mighty Aswan Dam is widely considered to be a giant mistake.

The time of our passage through the Suez Canal coincided with unsettled times in the region. The state of Israel was barely four years old and the Arabs were reluctant to accept it as a permanent fact of life. In Egypt itself king Farouk was about to abdicate and be replaced by a president. The country was about to become a republic – by the grace of the Army. British troops, very much in evidence on the eastern bank, were still pretending to guard and protect the Canal. Within the following two years they would return to Mother England. We on board the Otranto were glad to get out of there as quickly as possible and after a dull and hot trip the length of the Red Sea we got another chance to stretch our landlubber legs in the port of Aden.

Aden itself, or perhaps it was only the port area, left a rather pleasant impression in my mind. Partly it was due to the shady trees and kept lawns, maybe the weather was unusually mild that day. No doubt we were also glad to leave the ship for a while after the hot trip through the Red Sea. But what, or rather "who" made Aden for us just that little bit more special was a young local man who somehow, quite unobtrusively and good naturedly became our companion and friendly amateur guide for a few hours. He spoke good English, was obviously quite intelligent, well mannered and most of all, he was obviously fascinated by Jeans good looks. He behaved like a perfect gentleman and our time together was destined to be very brief, so we both went along with it in good grace. I took a few photographs of him and Jean and asked him to write down his address. Later, from Australia we sent him prints of the photos and I am sure they pleased him very much.

Between Aden and Colombo the shipboard traveller sees his fill of endless ocean. Luckily, the weather was kind to us and we did not experience anything even resembling a storm. We can be thankful for that, because before our final landfall in Tasmania we did have one rough night, crossing the Bass Strait. That's when we have found out what the fuss is about sea sickness. But, we'll get to that later. By the grace of Him who controls the weather we were spared the storms, but we could not escape the heat. The air conditioning in the cabins was turned on only during the night, which meant that, especially the inner rows of cabins on the lower decks, without portholes, in one of which Jean was accommodated, were stiflingly hot all day.

Fortunately I was sharing a cabin on the promenade deck with a very nice young Australian who was returning home after completing his studies at an English university. Today, after having lived in Australia for longer than half a century I know how easy it is to make friends with Aussies, but at the time this young fellow was for Jean and myself an unexpected nice surprise. At the slightest hint he would announce that he wants to spend the next few hours in the ships library or some such place, just so the all important honeymoon traditions could be observed. Naturally I have also spent many hours in discussions with him and ended up learning more about Australia, its people and their ways, than I could have gathered from books.
Milan Lorman 1957
Milan Lorman 1957

Colombo could not offer anything that would relieve the tropical heat. Certainly, the better hotels provide a reasonably comfortable living environment for people staying in the place for a longer period. We were visiting the city for only a few hours and, like every traveller we wanted to see The Sights and take a few photographs. When we returned to the ship I felt that it would have been better to have bought a few postcards at the first kiosk in the port and return aboard. The main reason for that verdict is the unfortunate fact that while one is taking in the sights one cannot avoid breathing in the smells at the same time. And it is those unpleasant and unescapable odours, pervading especially the narrow side streets and narrow lanes, which are still alive in my memory half a century later.

You will have noticed by now that in every place we have visited I tried to see at least some of those parts of the picture, which the publicity machine of the tourist industry doesn't want to know. After leaving Colombo and the island of Ceylon behind, the rest of the journey was all "downhill". The closer the ship was approaching the Australian continent, the faster the days seemed to be passing and when the Otranto tied up in the Port of Fremantle I wasn't at all sorry to have at least the longest part of the sea journey behind me. I am, after all, a native of a landlocked country and, while I can appreciate the magic and romance of "life on the ocean wave" in words and pictures, three weeks or more of the real thing is for me more than enough. In the port of Fremantle Jean and I have decided against a rushed trip by bus to take in the sights of the city. Instead we just climbed a grassy hillock topped by the Cenotaph and there laid down on an unbelievable, mattress-like lawn and went to sleep for the first time in weeks on a bed that didn't move.

It is because we gave Fremantle a miss, that I took my first look at a European settlement in Australia at Largs Bay near Port of Adelaide. And my first impression was that "these people, it seems, don't intend to stay here very long". Apart from a small proportion of the houses that I saw, which were built using weatherboard, there was nothing in sight but fibro board, asbestos and plaster sheeting, corrugated iron roofs and chicken-wire fences. Some of the wartime temporary camps in Europe and especially in Britain had more of an air of permanency about them than this. Of course, later, as I walked through some of the inner city streets in Melbourne, the architecture was more imposing, but I dare say that even in Melbourne and elsewhere the family housing in the ‘50s was almost exclusively constructed in a style which I hereby name "Largs Bay Classic".

Our departure from England in early spring and now the arrival in Australia in mid-autumn meant that we have missed out on summer that year. Well, not really… it's just that our summer 1952 was compressed into approximately two weeks, the time it took our ship to cross the tropical latitudes. If our journey had been shifted in time just a couple of months either forward or back, the rapid change from European winter to Australian summer, or the reverse, would have been harder to take. As it was, our acclimatisation was not accompanied by any problems that I remember. The main thing that helped smooth our transition into Australian climate was the fact that our first home under the Southern Cross was in Tasmania.

After an all-important visit to the Melbourne offices of the English, Scottish and Australian Bank, where I picked up – in Australian currency – the £25 (25 pounds sterling), which the Czechoslovak Refugee Relief Fund in London deposited for us as a sort of "kick-start money", we boarded a Bass Strait ferry, a small steamer named "Taroona", for the last short sea-leg of our long journey to the end of the Earth, Tasmania.

It was only an overnight trip, but it left two indelible memories, which are still with us. The first is the fine evening meal we enjoyed while the ship was still sailing through Port Phillip Bay. We got a chance to see that food again briefly as it went overboard into the rough waters of the Bass Strait. The other is the awful feeling, which all mal-de-mer sufferers find impossible to describe satisfactorily. I can't even say that you have to experience it for yourself, because I don't hate anybody that much.

After leaving the "Taroona" - without a backward glance - in Devonport, the rest of the journey was by train to Hobart. Without losing any time sightseeing, we were picked up by a company car and taken to our new "home", Maydena, close to the source of the River Derwent. Hobart wasn't going anywhere, there would be plenty of chances to take a closer look at it.

Perhaps this is a good place to end this chapter of my story.
Milan Lorman
Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

© 2006 Milan Lorman