My first sight of the SS Benalbanach was in Antwerp. As I approached the wharf in a taxi, she was sitting high in the water, a thin line of dark smoke rising straight up into the clear blue sky from her funnel. The Benalbanach looked as if she could have been lifted from Somerset Maugham’s ode to the Far East, ‘On a Chinese Screen’. Even though she had been built several years after the end of the Second World War, she had the old-fashioned clumpy look of a pre-war Eastern liner: straight funnel, accommodation castle with covered walkways that ran all the way around, high straight masts, wooden hatch covers with canvas tops, four derricks to each hatch. The superstructures were painted mostly white, the hull was grey, the funnel yellow, the decks, derricks and posts a sort of brown-orange. My stomach jumped as I walked up the gangway. I felt I was walking into a chapter of a book by Conrad, Somerset Maugham or Jack London.

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