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Taking to the sea in Troopship Otranto
Brian Aldiss Writer
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And so we come to the Troopship Otranto. Otranto was moored up in the docks of Glasgow. Those of us who were trained in Norwich went by train up to the ship, and it was moored up, securely. We went up the gangplank and immediately I saw one of the guys was seasick – the ship hadn't moved! The power of psychology was demonstrated there and then. Anyhow, we were then allocated various bunks, and as it happened, I was allocated a bunk on H deck. Now, H deck was on the keel! The ship was crowded with people.

So, off we went and actually, one was quite excited you know, and of course it was marvellous to do this extraordinary voyage. And so we got through the Mediterranean and that was okay, and we moored up for a time at, what I suppose would be outside Suez. And signs of exoticism… signs of exoticism were pretty negligible. What you could see there was a huge sign that said, 'For your throat's sake, smoke Craven A'. Terrible!

So, eventually we were slotted through into the Suez Canal, okay. And yes, the Suez Canal actually proved rather boring, but still, there we are. It was the Suez Canal and one was seeing it, for what one thought was probably the one and only time of one's life. Oh, but I've missed out one good bit of terror which is when we were in the Mediterranean, we... the ship stopped. The engines failed. Everything stopped. It was nothing to do with the Germans it was just the ship itself. And so… and then, down on the keel at H deck, all the lights went out! And everyone stood tense. Can you imagine what that was like? If the ship was going to sink, we had to get to the deck above, which was full of people and the deck above that was full of people – we were never going to get out, we were going to drown. Wholesale. And you could actually feel the tension rising. I can... yes, you could feel the tension rising. And then I heard myself calling out in a large, unconcerned voice, 'Anyone want to buy a watch?' And immediately everyone roared with laughter, and the tension dispersed. Anyone want to buy a watch? Yes. Dear, dear.

Brian Aldiss (1925-2017) was an English writer and anthologies editor, best known for his science fiction novels and short stories. He was educated at Framlingham College, Suffolk, and West Buckland School, Devon, and served in the Royal Signals between 1943-1947. After leaving the army, Aldiss worked as a bookseller in Oxford, an experience which provided the setting for his first book, 'The Brightfount Diaries' (1955). His first science fiction novel, 'Non-Stop', was published in 1958 while he was working as literary editor of the 'Oxford Mail'. His many prize-winning science fiction titles include 'Hothouse' (1962), which won the Hugo Award, 'The Saliva Tree' (1966), which was awarded the Nebula, and 'Helliconia Spring' (1982), which won both the British Science Fiction Association Award and the John W Campbell Memorial Award. Several of his books have been adapted for the cinema. His story, 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long', was adapted and released as the film 'AI' in 2001. His book 'Jocasta' (2005), is a reworking of Sophocles' classic Theban plays, 'Oedipus Rex' and 'Antigone'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Mediterranean, Suez Canal

Duration: 4 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014

Date story went live: 17 August 2015