“From Oceans to Embassies” a Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave – a colourful, cultural globetrotting journey (braving wars and typhoons along the way)
While on a Mediterranean cruise in 2017, I was delighted to read Gillian Angrave’s travelogues, “Venice – The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller.” In this series of personal guides, Gillian shares her love affair with Venice, the art, culture and heritage, with humour, enthusiasm, knowledge, passion and quirky anecdotes.
At the age of 10, Gillian began travel writing in youthful earnest when she won the Cadbury’s national competition for her essay, “Life on a Tropical Island” – a rich imagination more than personal experience!. She followed her childhood dream to travel the world for work and has now browsed through her diaries and photo albums to compile a captivating memoir of her globetrotting life in “From Oceans to Embassies.”
Part 1 is a fast paced introductory scamper through Gillian’s family life, school days, learning languages, playing sports and then an interest in driving and fast cars. With three A levels, including French and Spanish, as well as secretarial qualifications, in 1967 Gillian joined P & O – the Peninsula & Orient Steam Navigation Company – in the role of Junior Woman Assistant Purser.
In a brief history of the shipping line it’s interesting that until the 1970s, P&O passengers emigrated to Australia or visited family and friends overseas as the only mode of transport. After the launch of affordable jet travel, the ships changed their regular routes from crossings to cruise itineraries for leisure.
How she came to board the SS Canberra with little notice to pack and prepare in January 1968, is a marvellous anecdote, setting sail on a four month world voyage. We learn about her life on board from blue and white uniforms (fashionably designed by Hardy Amies) to the daily routine of the Pursers Department in charge of reception desk, food & drink supplies, immigration and finance by day, to cocktail parties and dinners at night.
Gillian was first given the job of “Berthing Queen,” allocating cabins and dealing with complaints from passengers including 1st Class guests requesting a more luxurious Suite. Not always easy.!
What is most revealing is the fact that there were few professional entertainers employed and so the pursers doubled up as song and dance men and women. Creating costumes and choreography, they performed such themed shows as Music Hall, Hawaiian nights and a night at the Moulin Rouge.
Life on the ocean wave is not complete without experiencing gale force weather – “We hit the eye of the storm,” she recalls, when they encounter a Typhoon in Japan.
Read all about her favourite ports from South Africa to Australia, and hopping around idyllic tropical islands from the South Pacific to the Caribbean. Staff were allowed to enjoy some shore excursions to see historic sites, shop for souvenirs and go on Safari. On a trip with four colleagues to the Natal Game Reserve, unfortunately their Dormobile van broke down. They had to get back to Durban before the SS Canberra departed as ships do not wait for passengers or crew. …
Gillian cruised the world on two P&O ships, SS Canberra and the SS Oriana over a seven year career, during which time her salary rose from £35.15s to £58.15s a month. At least alcohol on board was relatively cheap – 12 shillings for a bottle of gin. I expect a G&T was essential after a long day’s work.
An important aspect highlighted is that this was tne era before the Equality Act and WAPs were treated unfairly compared to the senior male pursers in charge. Women were offered no pension rights and had to leave at the age of 40. With no chance of a long term career or promotion, Gillian decided to disembark and seek another route to continue her itinerant life.
Next port of call was joining Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service on 5th July 1976 at the Foreign Office, London – the start of a high flying career, based at various British Embassies in Asia, South & Central America and Hungary. Gillian had to sign the Official Secrets Act which is a lifetime agreement so there are no Government revelations here!.
Enter the world of Ambassadors, Consuls and Embassies and its vital role covering assistance to British citizens and ex pats overseas, international promotion of trade, defence and culture. Her first posting was Manila, capital of the Philippines where administration work was balanced by formal lunches and receptions. At a Christmas Dinner with the Ambassador, she had to try the Filipino delicacy, bats’ wings!. There was also the chance to play golf on neatly mowed greens in glorious sunshine. Around the world, she continued to visit many golf courses – occasionally lurking with scary wildlife – finally awarded great succcess at the Blue Danube Club, near Budapest.
More adventures when working at the Embassy in Lima, Peru, giving the opportunity to visit the Amazon basin and the majestic heights of Machu Picchu.
Moving on after a few years to Guatemala during a time of political conflict and their claim over Belize, this was a dangerous mission with a seriously terrifying outcome.
There are fascinating insights into Embassy work, such as the Diplomatic Bag to transport official documents – it has its own passport, cannot be opened or x-rayed and personally carried by the Queen’s Messenger or Embassy staff.
Gillian was stationed for three years in Chile during the regime of President Pinochet, the country governed by martial law; then in April 1982 came the devastating news of the Falkland Conflict between Argentina and the UK. However, despite serious political concerns, social life seemed to be an entertaining whirl of official social events and Scottish country dancing – who knew that that there is a strong Scottish heritage in Chile?
More travel trips such as to the icy terrain of the San Rafael Glacier in the remote South Patagonian fjords.
Another posting was to Mexico City, where, when not at her desk, there was time to keep fit on the tennis court and golf course. The British Embassy, Mexico City is illustrated above on the front cover. And here there was a thrilling encounter with none other than James Bond, aka Timothy Dalton who was in town for the filming of “Licence to Kill.” Assisting the actors and crew, (trading tea and baked beans with 007), Gillian must have felt akin to being Miss Moneypenny or M in H.M. Secret – rather than the Diplomatic – Service!.
Working for the Diplomatic Service for nearly thirty years, certainly brought extraordinary opportunities to meet Royalty, Government Presidents, Ambassadors and film stars, and making very dear friends within the team of colleagues. But equally, there were worrying situations coping with mosquitos, malaria, snakes, alligators, typhoons, earthquakes, civil war and serious illness, far away from family and home.
“From Oceans to Embassies” is compiled with meticulous detail, vivid descriptions and vivacious enthusiasm; this is a page-turning narrative taking the reader along on a thrilling, rollercoaster ride to learn all about her exhilarating journeys by land and sea.
An enriching life indeed, which was predicted when Gillian was just three years old. Chapter 1 of this Memoir begins with a charming anecdote related years later by her mother. A Romany Gypsy had knocked on the door selling clothes pegs. Thankful for the threepenny bit, she offered to read her fortune: “You will have two daughters, one will be musical and one will go over the seas.”
Her younger sister grew up to enjoy a musical career as a flautist and and Gillian circumnavigated the globe for nearly 40 years, her destiny was written serendipitously in the stars.
“I count myself so lucky and privileged to have sailed the Seven Seas and been sent on postings with the Diplomatic Service to such exciting and interesting countries. Travel has been my constant companion and I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world. I intend to keep travelling for as long as I can” Gillian Angrave
“From Oceans to Embassies” A Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave
Purchase price: Hardback, £14.99 and Paperback, £11.99 (plus £3 p&p)
available from Amazon and Waterstones
Also direct from – https://www.gillangrave.co.uk
Also, highly recommended:
“Venice : The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller” by Gillian Angrave (3 volumes)
Purchase price – Paperback, £9.99 (plus £2.87 p&p) from Amazon and Waterstones.
After retirement from the Diplomatic Service in 2005, Gillian became, and still is, a Registrar of Marriages in West Sussex. She continues to love travelling, photography and writing books and memoirs. She also has many interests – bell-ringing, modern languages, gardening and golf.