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My worst night in the Navy


Mummy pulls some strings
John Julius Norwich Writer
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I was sent to HMS Cleopatra, which was a light cruiser, at present in dry dock in Portsmouth, and we were going to remain in dry dock, I gathered, for another two or three months. And then, very exciting, we were going to join the entire Home Fleet for a cruise to the West Indies. Well, this was really thrilling to me, you know. I'd never been to the West Indies or, indeed, anywhere tropical at this time, and I was terribly excited and looking forward to it more than I can possibly say. And the days and the weeks seemed to pass very, very slowly as we gradually... I think we were leaving at the end of September, something like that. And then, in the middle of August, one of my jobs was to receive all the daily mail that came in for all the sailors and, indeed, all the mail that came in for the ship's office. And while I was sorting through it, there were always transfers of people, suddenly I opened up an envelope and there was my own name, transferred from HMS Cleopatra to HMS Vanguard for Royal Cruise, which was the following year. The King and Queen were going to Australia. And my heart absolutely sank. I got my... you know, my heart was set on the West Indies. I was looking forward to it, I'd been reading up about it. To have to stay in England and go off to a huge battleship, Vanguard, where, I mean, there'd be an enormous amount of red tape and flannel and God knows what, and then, even worse, when the Royal Cruise started. And I knew, from the moment I opened that envelope, I knew it was my mother had been at work. My mother couldn't resist pulling any strings that seemed available. And she'd heard about the Royal Cruise, oh, John Julius must go on that, you know, not realising that, I mean, as a snotty-nosed member of the Lower Deck I wouldn't clap eyes on any member of the Royal Family, you know. 'Oh, he'll be dancing with Princess Margaret on the fo'c'sle'. No, no, that was the sort of thing my mother thought, but it just wasn't so. And I knew she'd done it. I knew she'd rung up the First Order of the Admiralty or someone and pulled strings and I was furious with her, because she hadn't asked me first. She never did when she pulled strings. And anyway, I went absolutely straight to the Captain, and on a ship the Captain is God. I mean, if you're Lower Deck and you asked to see the Captain privately, that's really quite something and you are pretty frightened. But this was a delightful Captain, and he was, in fact, a relation of my godfather, Maurice Baring, and I said, 'Look, this has come and I know it's my mother pulling strings and I really don't want to do it. I love this ship. I've been on this ship now for two months. I'm greatly looking forward to the thing. Please can you get me off this thing? Can you cancel it?' And he laughed and said, 'Leave it with me', and of course it was cancelled. But that was a very bad moment and very typical of my mum. And anyway, so we sailed off to the West Indies.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

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: HMS Cleopatra

Duration: 3 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018