M “Mally” O’Kane

Review - December 1968

Service Record

From

To

Clan Buchanan

Purser/Catering Officer

8/1947


Clan MacTaggart

Purser/Catering Officer

1955


Clan MacIntosh

Purser/Catering Officer

1957

1958

Argyllshire

Purser/Catering Officer

2/1959

1961

Clan MacNab

Purser/Catering Officer

5/1961

9/1967

Clan Matheson

Purser/Catering Officer

1/1968

6/1968

Retired

10/1968


Died

19 September 1970

Aged 58

Clansman - December 1970

Memories of “Mally” by Donald Gardner (Asst Purser Catering Officer)

Following a short introduction course for Chief Stewards in Liverpool where I am billeted at Connaught House, Liverpool; but this time in the Officer’s quarters, I receive instructions to join the Clan Macnab at Ellesmere Port bound for Glasgow prior to sailing deep-sea to South Africa.  This is where I am to meet a wonderful character by the name of Malachi O’Kane.   Fondly known as Mally by all who come to know him, he is Clan Macnab’s Purser - and my future mentor - and has been her Purser since her maiden voyage some five years before.  With a dynamic Irish personality it is a joy and immense privilege to sail with him.  To Mally I owe so much.

This man is as Irish as you can get, in every respect.  He is a staunch and proud Orange-man from Magherafelt Northern Ireland and yet by some quirk of fate his own sister has entered holy orders and is in fact a Catholic Nun yet Mally sees no incongruity here.  His cabin is festooned with hats from every corner of the globe from Sombrero’s to Tibetan Monks head-ware and he is often referred to as Mally-the-Hatter.   

Idiosyncratic he certainly is, the bulkheads of our office are like those of his cabin, festooned but in place of hats these are covered with anecdotes and parables, collected over many years.   Wonderful little sayings that are constantly pointed out to me to match each and every daily occurrence.   He has a big heart and I worship and adore him; he is like a father figure to me; my mentor and I would do nothing to hurt or disappoint him.  He in return looks upon me as his personal prodigy and his pride in me knows no bounds.

Please indulge me whilst I digress a little. As I write this narrative some fifty-six years after the event. I glance above my writing desk here in my retirement apartment in Pattaya, Thailand, to rest my eyes upon a wall likewise festooned with parables and anecdotes also collected over many years; many of them facsimiles of those that graced the bulkhead of Mally’s office aboard the Clan Macnab way back in 1966.  This is a sign of the indelible impact that Mally made on my life all those years ago.

Throughout my time as his assistant we keep identical sets of books and records, I duplicating his originals.  I couldn’t have a better tutor.  Let me try to explain the almost foolproof system that the company has set up.  The office of Purser/Chief Steward demands that you secure services and stores whilst in foreign ports but in doing so the company naturally expects the finest quality at competitive costs.

Understandably there is always a plethora of vendors eager to secure your custom at each and every port; however the company having compiled lists containing three outlets for each commodity from which you the Purser may choose one.  Having made your choice of purchase for goods or services you are then required to submit a report on each and every occasion that will be placed with all the other ‘end of voyage reports’ for the company’s perusal.   Needless to say the vendor’s are most keen to retain their firm’s name on the short list of the British and Commonwealth Shipping Company, and will usually go to great lengths to placate the goodwill of the Purser.  Three consecutive complaints from any ship of the fleet will result in that particular supplier being struck off in favour of a replacement vendor. In some of the more well known ports a single chandler might be ones only choice but this in no way diminished the Purser’s authority.

It is not always such plain sailing, there are pitfalls that one can fall into if not properly prepared and this is where Mally is so masterful.  Now that I have been sailing with him for a few months he will exposed me to the dangers and pitfalls and even go so far as to let me not only take the bait but will delay my rescue until the very last moment.  But recue me he will.

One of his favourite ploys is to absent himself from the Purser’s Office on arrival at a given port, leaving me to undertake all the arrival procedures from receiving the Port Health Authority clearance, Customs and Excise and Immigration together with the victualling of the ship.  He first did this to me in Mombasa with absolutely no warning, suddenly appearing in his shore-side civilian clothes complete with deerstalker hat and pipe.  I nearly died.  He sat on the day-bed and refused blankly to utter a word other that to insist that I, as the Purser, had the floor; or the deck as on this occasion.

Mally’s name is synonymous with the Clan Macnab and as such he is know in almost every port that the Clan Line ever visits around the globe.  On many occasions, again without warning, he will retire to his cabin on arrival, instructing me to lie about his absence.  The one excuse I always absolutely refused to voice is that poor Mally has died on the voyage and that his body has been jettisoned overboard.  The other reasons for me to explain his absence are usually no less absurd.

All this subterfuge does however leave me a free hand to make some frightful mistakes.  Mally’s philosophy being that there is no better teacher than a bad mistake. For example I am overseeing the loading of stores in Hong Kong where the eggs are delivered in great oriental stone jars packed in straw.  I am at the gangplank checking everything that comes onboard and at the same time casting a pragmatic eye on the empty crates and jars that go ashore.  I am really not sure how they did it but having signed for everything as being present and correct I am amazed to later find a great empty egg-jar onboard and not a sign of an egg.  Mally had been watching from the deck above unbeknown to me had observed the switch with his usual nonchalance as a coolie sidetracked my attention for just a moment as two others swopped places. The full jar of eggs heading back down the gangplank while the empty jar went back onboard.  However I did not discover our loss until much later whilst were enjoying Gin Pahit sundowner, when Mally questioned whether I thought we had sufficient eggs for the next part of the voyage and perhaps I should check again before we sailed at noon on the morrow.  By this time I can recognise that twinkle in his eye and know for certain that I have boobed yet again.  We take on more eggs the following morning and I am left to stew for best part of a month trying to think of a way to cover my tracks.  There is always a complicated formula and I seem to recall that on this occasion Mally has secured a second invoice unbeknown to me that indicated that we had taken on extra vegetables of various types that successfully negated the extra egg invoice.

On this occasion he has fed me to the lions once again by leaving me in the hands of a particularly notorious chandler in Calcutta who came onboard all smiles and pleasantries but was indifferent to hear that Mally had  been forced through ill-health to disembark at Bombay a week earlier – I should have spotted the signs - but Mally had given me no indication that I should be on my mettle so I was just a little overwhelmed with this chandler’s generosity, placing a car and driver at my disposal whilst in Calcutta as well as leaving a nice bulging brown envelope tucked in behind the office clock which disgorged a fistful of rupees.  Again Mally smiles and informs me that this is general practice here in India.  To show my appreciation I placed a large order for ship’s provision in addition to sending half of the ship’s soiled linen ashore to a laundry of this man’s choosing.  

We are in port for a few days and are not expecting the stores or the laundry back onboard until the morning of our scheduled departure.  I am almost in blind panic as our sailing time approaches but still there is no sign of stores or laundry.  Mally it is indifferent to my concerns, reminding me that I am in charge and as such must take full responsibility.  Eventually after many desperate telephone calls and with barely an hour to spare the provisions and laundry arrive on the lighter – we are as usual at anchor in the River Hooghly.  The laundry is almost dirtier than when it went ashore and short by many items and the ships stores are of such poor quality as to be almost inedible.  The chandler himself is there, demanding I sign for his services and becomes very belligerent when I protest at the appalling condition of everything he has delivered on board.  I am threatened with exposure to my company and the Captain for readily accepting his bribes and I suddenly feel very frightened and vulnerable.  That is until Mally makes another miraculous recovery and re-appears in fine health.  He has obviously been prepared for all of this, and the chandler’s threats to me are nothing compared to what Mally, the Shipping Company and the Indian police have in store for this individual if he doesn’t immediately make amends.  This whole episode almost gets out of hand, as indeed the ship’s departure is delayed and in consequence we miss the all-important tide.  The agents and the Captain of course became involved but Mally is unrepentant and not a note of censure came to me.  It seems that everybody apart from the villain of the piece backed Mally to the hilt.  I felt that I had seriously let Mally down and desperately tried to apologise.  All I got in response was his gentle Irish brogue ‘what’s your problem My Boy?  You’ve learned something haven’t you?’  The incident was never mentioned again.

One of Mally’s good habits that I intend adopt and will hold me in good stead is to keep a little notebook for each and every port we visit.  “Mally’s” collection of many years would fill a sea chest.  Most official visitors to the ship are first directed to ours, the Purser’s Office for us to asses their credentials and to protect the Captain or Chief Engineer from unwanted intrusion.   Either or both may have been busy with the ship’s arrival and docking; the Captain on the Bridge and the Chief casting a watchful eye at the Engine-room flat.  Had either been so occupied during the night hours they might well need to retire for some rest, in which case it will be up to us – the pursers department -  to entertain these visitors and perhaps arrange an appointment for a later time.

In “Mally’s little book” is noted all the pertinent information appertaining to that port. The names of people we come into contact with professionally and a brief description of their personal appearance and idiosyncrasies.  For example the visiting port health official might be a Dr. Jones or Dr. Ahmed Habibdulla, whatever.  A brief identifying description of the man, a little note as to his amenability and any other pertinent observations being noted.  In casual conversation over a glass of wine one might elicit that he has a wife in poor health and a teenage daughter of whom he is exceeding proud, the daughter’s name being Mary.

Senior customs officers, chandlers anyone and everyone go into this little book.  It is truly surprising how many of these people will make a re-appearance on your next visit or maybe the one after, sometimes as much as eighteen months hence and how very useful it is to consult that little note-book just prior to berthing at the port.  ‘Hello Ahmed, how nice it is to see you again after such a long time and how is our young Mary getting on, did she eventually get that hospital promotion?  And the wife? I do hope her health is improved after our last visit’; would raise your status in your visitor’s eyes immediately.

In receiving officials onboard including those whose business is with our department, once the official business is completed it is incumbent upon us to entertain such visitors usually with a generous glass or two of whisky or gin and tonic and to engage in small talk to ease and prevent unnecessary tensions; to grease the cogs, so to speak.  That is all part of the job.  It matters not if your visiting guest arrives a nine o’clock in the morning the expected liquid hospitality is an established and essential custom and there are few of these visitors who would not be deeply offended if you failed to entertain them thus.  To refuse to take a drink with them would be equally frowned upon.

Mally, you will not be surprised to learn has the answer to this prickly problem.

As you may know all exported Gordon’s Gin is in clear bottles with yellow labels.  Only english domestic supplies that have had the Custom and Excise duty paid is sold in the traditional green bottle for the home market.  

Mally always has two of the said green bottles in his drink cupboard – for all to see – one is filled with water and the other remains unopened with its seal unbroken and intact.  He steadfastly swears that he only drinks home-market Gordon’s Gin which he has paid full duty on, claiming it has a sweeter taste.  

His visitors are welcome to drink as much of his gin as they wish but only from the duty-free clear bottles.  Mally matches them drink for drink but whilst they, the visitors get slowly inebriated Mally remains plain cold sober on undiluted water and tonic, with of course the obligatory ice and a slice. Mally likes his gin and can drink with the best but never before the sun had passed over the yardarm and at this hour he has no objections to drinking and would surreptitiously have the water in his unsealed green bottle replaced with duty-free gin.

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