“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Monday, 28 January 2013

Ships that pass in the night.

It was 1964 and I was working for the coastal shipping company FT Everard when I was ordered to be on the next train to Great Yarmouth and join the barge Will Everard. A few hours later I climbed aboard and introduced myself to the skipper, a Thames waterman by the name of Jim Penn. We had an uneventful trip round the coast to the company yard in Greenhithe, Kent and I only spent a few days in Jim's company, but he was to leave a deep impression on me. As well as being a highly skilled boat handler Jim had led an adventurous life and was widely travelled. Still only in his thirties he had been a tug skipper in the Persian Gulf, lived and worked with goatherds in Spain and fished with the sardine fleet. Well read and equally at home propping up the bar of a Soho pub as behind the wheel of a tug in the Millwall Dock, Jim was a true working class bohemian. But more than this he was clearly a good man, an open minded man of the left. As I say, he left a deep impression and although we did not meet again I never forgot him.
Thirty five years later I was working on the upper Thames, towing a large pontoon into position in preparation for the annual Great River Race. I dropped alongside a passenger boat lying on the pier and got chatting to the skipper. It turned out that we had both worked the east coast trading barges and in the course of our conversation I asked if he had ever met a bloke called Jim Penn. He hesitated for a moment before replying,"I'm Jim Penn". After all those years there was no way that we would have recognised each other. Jim had continued his adventures, had become a respected marine artist and although retired was driving passenger boats on odd days just to keep his hand in. We didn't talk for long; the tide waits for no man and we both had to go about our business. We had a couple of lengthy phone conversations and talked about meeting up some time, but we never got round to it. A couple of years later I learnt that Jim had died. Truly ships that passed in the night.


Journeyman said...

Nice story Ray.

My parents retired to Greenhithe about 20 years ago. Then it was a run-down village with twilight memories of a thriving river community - now it's little more than an annex to the car park at sodding Blue Water shopping centre ...

Anonymous said...

My Dad, a Warerman and lighterman introduced me to Jimmy Penn Bach in the mid Eighties. He had a couple of his oil paintings

I at that time had a gallery in Pimlico, and he asked me to show/sell some of his oil paintings of Thames sailing barges.

We spent many an hour chatting.

I lost touch and was saddened to later learn from friends on the river of his passing

A true character

Neil said...

Jimmy was a great character. I think he will be remembered by anyone who spent a little time with him. What stories he told.
I was a picture framer at Morse Art in Lee High Road in the 80's and used to help Jimmy frame his paintings. Lovely paintings, very skilled and self-taught.
After we'd been friends for a long time, he came in with a small painting of small barge being rowed in the early morning light. Just 10"x6". I told him he wouldn't be taking that one out of the shop, it was for me! I still have it, a simple painting but so evocative.
Miss that man.

David Baker said...

I worked with Jim in Ras-Al- Khafji, a brilliant skipper, a wonderful man, a joy to be with. I learnt a lot from Jim, I have a painting of the Will Everard in full sail, a lovely reminder of a great guy. RIP Jim.
Dave Baker