Of Taxes, Tobacco and “Them There Norwegian Ships”

I was approved by Canadian Immigration to emigrate to Canada in late 1968. But I had to find a way to get to there. I also had a large tax bill to pay. Britain’s tax authority had discovered that I had not paid tax on weekend income working at the BBC TV studios. A very unpleasant, bullying tax officer threatened me with the warning that if I left England without paying the tax I owed, I would be discovered by the Canadian government and sent back to England. I thought that unlikely but I was not of a criminal mind and did not want any trouble. So I had to earn more money to pay the bullies their rightful tithes.

I left my low-paying job as a trainee Systems Analyst at Cerebos Foods in the fall of 1968 and found a job at the tobacco warehouse of British American Tobacco near Harrow. That was an afternoon/evening job that took some creative story-telling to win. I had to affect a rough Cockney accent and few less charms than I normally displayed. Because I had a Grammar School education, the manager considered me over-educated for working as warehouse man. I persuaded him, in my worst accent, that all good managers should spend time on the shop floor for the experience and since I would one day be a good manager, he should invest a little hope in me and give me the job. There was no need for the rest of the staff to know I was better educated than them.

I got the job which paid me much more than my white collar job but required me to rub shoulders with very aggressive men. I learned a lot about union ways. I also learned that some people were actually much better educated than me but were unable to get jobs in the UK. I enjoyed working with one gentle man from India who was an MD.

We were paid by the number of tobacco and cigar boxes we could load onto the delivery trucks, and I was never quite quick enough or rough enough to jostle my mates and snatch the big order sheets from the hands of Percy, our toupee-adorned, timid supervisor. But I did OK, since Percy liked me and always kept a few juicy orders for me on one side. I got to enjoy zooming around the warehouse floor driving a pallet forklift truck.

The beauty of the job was that it allowed me time to prowl the City of London during mornings looking for information and leads on how to work my way to Canada. I was rebuffed at every shipping office I went to. I was sometimes snootily told that nobody worked their passages anymore because the Marine Unions forbade it. That was discouraging news.

But one day, while leaving the Cunard shipping offices, a gruff and grizzled doorman pulled me to one side. Doormen at posh offices were often retired military men, dressed in authoritative uniforms, and had commanding presences. They were called Commissonaires. This man quietly and kindly told me not to listen to the office staff who had rebuffed me. Instead I should go to the docks and find “.. one of them there Norwegian or Swedish ships. They take working passengers. Go see the Master..” he said.

And that is what I did a few weeks later….

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 50 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his decades of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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