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Maritime non-fiction / Memoir

Maritime memoirist has a keen eye for a ship picture

A Day at the Docks and Port of London 1 & 2, by Geoffrey Watson

Image on landing page: Geoff Watson on his motorbike at the start of his career at the Port of London. Taken from A Day In The Docks

book_a_day_in_the_docks_web_white_frame.jpgWe often feature quite highbrow maritime histories on these pages, but just as welcome are 'grass-roots' memoirs where maritime workers share their own experiences of the shipping industry – and that’s what Geoff Watson has done in these three enjoyable books about the Port of London.

A Day In The Docks is a lively account of Watson’s years working at Tower Wharf in Northfleet, Kent – across the Thames from Tilbury Docks. Watson started in 1969 at the age of 16 and stayed until the dock closed in 1989 (it has since reopened and is now run by Seacon Terminals).

Although working on the administrative side, Watson had close contact with cargoes, captains and crews, and welcomed opportunities to go onboard the visiting vessels. He also appreciated being part of a tight-knit team of dock workers, in which bonds were formed through heavy drinking and ribald banter.

Among the anecdotes about high-jinks of the time, Watson is observant of the hard lives lived by many of the visiting seafarers, noting: 'I witnessed a lot of ships in extremely poor condition, but the worst was the Christos. The crew had to shower in a unit that was more than ankle deep in water. There was no connection from the wash basins – when you turned on the tap, the water went straight down onto your feet. I felt sorry for the mostly West African crew. Even what little stores they had were kept in a most unhygienic way.'

book_port_of_london_part_1_web_white frame.jpgA nice feature of A Day at the Docks is that it also serves as a picture history of the vessels Watson encountered at work, with colour pictures of ships on almost every page and some information on when they were built and how they were crewed. It is interesting to remember that shipping was one of the few industries where citizens of the East and West could meet during the Cold War, and Watson speaks warmly of the vodka-fuelled hospitality he received onboard Soviet Bloc ships.

The author’s passion for ship-spotting and readiness with a camera are also in evidence in two other books he has recently published: Port of London Over the Last 50 Years (Part 1 and Part 2). The names of these books are perhaps slightly misleading, because these are collections of ships of the past rather than a history of the docks themselves. And all the better for it!

Going beyond Tower Wharf and observing the full breadth of the Port of London, Watson has recorded hundreds of vessels as they made their way up and down the Thames, providing a picture and potted history of each one and ensuring they are clearly listed in an index.

book_port_of_london_part_2_web_white_frame.jpgPart 1 is devoted to 'Cruise ships and special visitors' – including Townsend Thoresen’s 1979-built Pride of Free Enterprise, pictured on a promotional visit to the Port of London in 1980. Part 2 covers merchant vessels, which are sometimes depicted in different guises as Watson captured their return to the Thames over many years. The Winchester Castle, for example, is also shown as Winchester Universal and Lady Madonna.

Sometimes the text in these three self-published books can be a little rough around the edges, and careful proof-reading would benefit future editions of A Day At The Docks in particular. But the full-colour ship pictures are very well presented on high-quality paper, and the author should be commended on the quality of his ship history research and engaging writing style. Very much worth buying as a bundle of three to spark memories both distant and recent.

A Day In The Docks
By Geoffrey Watson
Self-published (available in the Nautilus Bookshop)
ISBN 979 85552 03038

Port Of London Over The Last 50 Years Part 1
By Geoffrey Watson
Self-published (available in the Nautilus Bookshop)
ISBN 979 86986 38018

Port Of London Over The Last 50 Years Part 2
By Geoffrey Watson
Self-published (available in the Nautilus Bookshop)
ISBN 979 85532 21652

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