He inhabits the shadows on our behalf, but as Dick Durham asks, has the night watchman also enjoyed a shady past?
Many traditional boatyards have a man on site during the hours of darkness so that those of us whose cherished craft are within their confines can sleep peacefully knowing that our outboards, inflatables or nav kit are not snapped up at the local boat jumble.
The most effective night watchmen are, in my experience, not in uniform, monitoring CCTV, and working shifts with colleagues; the sort of security you expect at corporate marinas. No, the best kind of night watchmen are of no fixed abode.
Their home is the boatyard itself; and we all know that an Englishman’s home is his castle; defended if not unto death at least until daylight. These men are loners, and have invariably lived in interesting times. Sometimes they come as customers who grow organically into the role as the ability to pay their berthing fees disappears with job loss, or marital breakdown. Sometimes they come as born-again pioneers, seeking new horizons. Sometimes they come as fugitives.
It was in the final category that Gordon Liebenberg turned up one day in 1994 at a boatyard in the marshlands of the greatest expanse of mud in Europe: the Thames Estuary. With his high-pitched voice, slight build, impeccable manners and, incongruously immaculate trainers, Gordon would approach and challenge strangers at the boatyard. Satisfied they were legit he would add a rhetorical: ‘I hope I haven’t offended you.’
He lived aboard an old wooden sloop, the Elsie May, until she fell apart and was broken up on the saltings, which was when the local authorities offered him a council house. Gordon threw his hands up in horror: ‘I have in my backyard the best view imaginable,’ he said, although he did not resist the electric scooter that the council insisted he needed. Clearly they had not witnessed his military march up the hill behind the boatyard for his daily visit to Costa.
Like most of us Gordon had a dream; his was to patch-up the derelict Swan, the barge-yacht built by Burgoine at Chiswick in 1897 and owned by Maurice Griffiths from 1923-24.
‘He could make all the voyages he wanted from the safety of his imagination’
I once gave Gordon some charts of the Thames Estuary for the cruises he planned in her. They were out-of-date, but I wagered Swan would never leave her berth at Lower Thames Marine, Leigh-on-Sea. She didn’t need to. Now he had something tangible to assist him, Gordon could make all the voyages he wanted from the safety of his imagination. He knew I’d written Griffiths’ biography and when Swan was taken to the International Boatbuilding Training College at Lowestoft, he would hector me over her future. ‘I don’t think they know she had internal lee-boards. Will you go up there and check, Dick,’ he would say staring eyeball to eyeball. ‘I hope I haven’t offended you?’
Gordon died recently and I went to his funeral thinking I’d have the chapel almost to myself. I was amazed when more than 60 mourners ensured it was standing room only. More surprises were to come at Gordon’s wake held in the creekside Smack Inn. Born in Barking, Essex, to an English mother and South African father, Gordon was brought up firstly in New Zealand and later on in Cape Town, where he became a lieutenant with the Bureau of State Security, aka BOSS, which planted ‘sleepers’ in black communities, arrested dissidents and even assassinated ‘enemies’ of the regime.
As the beer flowed all kinds of lurid and speculative yarns surrounded Gordon’s role with BOSS. The only certainty is that, according to his partner, Sue, as soon as Apartheid ended in 1994 and multi-racial elections were held, Gordon left South Africa never to return. I wish, now, I’d asked him about it, I’m sure I would have been offended.
Gordon Liebenberg 1949- 2016 RIP.