Last week, I was invited to speak at the Free University of Brighton about my book Stranded in the Six-Day War.
Drawing on first-hand accounts by Peter Flack and Graham McMorine, I described what it was like for the seafarers of the 14 merchant ships who were trapped in the Suez Canal as war broke out on 5 June 1967. I showed Peter’s extraordinary images of the explosions over the Egyptian airfields as the Israeli air force attacked.
The first few weeks stuck in the Suez Canal were stressful, since no one had any idea when – or if – they would be able to leave. After the seafarers were eventually able to depart, more than two months after being stranded, relief crews were recruited to maintain the ships. Life was very different for the new cohorts. The crews shared food, drink, skills and resources according to need, and a range of enterprising social and sporting activities were organised through the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA). A highlight was the Great Bitter Lake Olympics, held to coincide with the Mexico Olympics of 1968.
Stamp making became a popular activity, and I showed some intricate stamp images that have never been published. We were fortunate to have June Nelson and Gerard Dummett in the audience – Gerard is the nephew of Captain Bryan Hill, who undertook several stints in the Great Bitter Lake and wrote the highly regarded book Postage Stamps of the Great Bitter Lake Association (Picton Press, 1975). Gerard and June explained how the captains took part in the GBLA as equals alongside their fellow seafarers, yet maintained responsibility for their ships and the welfare of the crews.
I spoke of last year’s 50th anniversary reunion at the Merseyside Maritime Museum of seafarers who’d served in the Great Bitter Lake. It was an emotional gathering: many had never met again in the intervening decades. For some, it was an opportunity to discuss the traumatic events of June 1967 and lay ghosts to rest. To round off the presentation, we watched the clip from the BBC One Show of the reunion event. And we reflected on how the autonomous, creative community formed among people from many nations might have lessons for us today.
Thank you very much to all the students, guests and my friends, family and former colleagues who came along.