Apr 15, 2009


As I lay in bed late last night, slowly drifting off to sleep, I suddenly realised something had passed me by - the 20th anniversary of my paternal grandfather's death.

It came to me due to a convergence of thoughts. I had been reading up on the Hillsborough disaster, which was 20 years ago today. 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death due to over-crowding during an FA Cup semi-final. I had memories as a kid of watching people crammed against metal fences, or desperately trying to pull themselves out by hanging onto proferred hands from seating terraces above them. A terrible tragedy that still hurts deep in Liverpool to this day.

Earlier in the day, due to a John Birmingham Blunt Instrument column, I'd been thinking about my old backyard at Albany Creek. I'd suffered a nasty gash to the back of the head in that backyard when I'd accidentally pulled the trampoline down on my head (I have not gained any grace in the intervening years). Then I remembered why my Mum was so panicked when I presented my bleeding noggin to her - my Dad wasn't there. He was in Vanuatu for Grandad's funeral.

I can't remember the date for certain, but something about April 9th sounded right. This means the 20th anniversary of his death passed last week, and I didn't mark it. I felt sorry for this, so am resolved to write a little about Maceij Tadeusz Bochenski. I say a little, because when I think about it - I don't really know that much for certain about him. Except that he had the most interesting and wonderful life.

He was born in 1917. His family was Polish, and he was the latest in a long line of seamen. As I understand, his family came from a part of Poland nearer the border with the Ukraine. Of course, Poland had had somewhat permeable borders for a few hundred years. I understand my great-grandfather was some sort of ambassador to Russia, and I believe my Grandad was born in Vladivostok - a port city. He had two older sisters, Irina and Soska. My Grandad was only a few months old at the time the shot was fired from the cruiser Aurora, signalling the start of the October Revolution. But I believe the family remained in Russia until the mid-1920s, when Stalin's crushing Five Year Plans prompted them to take a train back to Poland.

I am not sure of the family's financial situation at this time - I understand my Grandad had a reasonably privileged education, as he was proficient in mathematics and spoke five languages (English, German and French, as well as Polish and Russian). But I know they had a certain amount of land somewhere, and possibly even a heraldic title equivalent to something like "Count". Now, titles and things like that were scrapped for good by the good ol' Pinko Bolshie Ruskis, but that doesn't stop me referring to myself as a "Countess" whenever I'd like to seem more mysterious and exotic than I really am. Pairing it with a Russian tweak of my name works best: "I am the Countess Natalya! Bring me smoked fish, and rubies!"

By the age of 17, my Grandad had joined the Polish Navy. On the wall of my apartment, I have a copy of a famed print of the dancer spy Josephine Baker. My Grandad actually saw her perform live in Paris. My grandmother said "All he could remember was Josephine and her bananas".

When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, my Grandad was an officer onboard one of the navy ships that immediately got the hell outta the Baltic and put themselves under British control. Between the Germans and the Russians, most of the Polish educated and elite who were left were rounded up and shot around this time - all part of ensuring no rebellion against the armed masses of Nazism on one side and Communism on the other. Poor Poland was to be carved up once more.

I don't know the extent of my Grandad's experiences in the war. I am determined now to learn more. I do know that he was onboard a ship torpedoed by Germans during the Battle of Narvik in 1940; I believe it must have been a British ship. He was in the freezing water for an hour before being plucked at; my Gran recounted the story of him swimming back into consciousness and attacking people for trying to take his lifejacket off him - which they were doing, but only to get him warm!

My Gran had served in the WRNS during the war, and they met while stationed in the same port (which I cannot recall right now) not long after it finished. Gran has said he used to call her every night at 7 o'clock. This would ensure she stayed on the phone talking to him, instead of racing out with her fellow WRNS to party away with submariners or whatever other depraved company a young girl of 20-odd might keep. My Gran - whose amply bosomy form has passed down to me - also once declared to me that "if your Grandad had been a leg man, we never would have married."

Whatever it was, they married in 1947 in Southhampton, and set off for a honeymoon in India, where they trekked through Kashmir and other crazy places. My Grandad refused to return to Poland (most likely due to the ongoing risk of death-by-Russians), and so they found themselves in Basra, Iraq, where Grandad worked piloting ships up the Shatt al-Arab. This was, of course, before Saddam Hussein and the B'ath Party, a time when being an expatriate Brit (or in this case, Pole) meant the world was your oyster. My father was born there in the hot August summer in 1951; he took three days to pilot his way out of the birth canal, and my Gran says Grandad promptly fainted when he saw my Dad's elongated freaky head.

By 1956, the family had shifted across the world to New Zealand, where my uncle Jan was born. Helena followed in 1963. By then, my Grandad had begun sailing trade ships up into Pacific, and in the early 60s they bought land for about 30 cents and a bottle of Pernod off the British/French condominium government of New Hebrides, and set up child-raising in the tropics. My Grandad's language skills were often called on, as ships from all manner of countries would stop by Port Vila to drop off powdered milk and other supplies. He and my Gran also set up one of the country's first tourism companies, which my Gran would run with an iron first while my Grandad slipped back away to sea.

My Dad followed in his footsteps, joining the merchant navy at 17 after high school in New Zealand. He married my Mum on the island of Espiritu Santo in 1979 - the same place I spent the first two years of my life. Gran and Grandad were still based in Vila, and I was too young to remember their visits. There are photos of me with Grandad though - mostly swimming. I sadly didn't inherit the love of boats from Grandad or my Dad - I get easily seasick. But I did get the love of water. Shallow, calm, warm water.

We still saw my grandparents every year when we moved to Australia, eventually settling in Brisbane. But by the mid-80s, he had developed Alzheimer's disease, and his memory was going. I remember him as a kind man with clear blue eyes.

I remember, on that April morning, my Mum telling my brother and I that "Grandad had passed away". I was eight years old, and didn't much have the cranial capacity to understand much more than "that's really sad". He was buried at sea, just outside the entry to Vila Harbour, which is one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.

Ten years later, my Gran went to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE from the Queen, for over 30 years of dedicated service to the Red Cross. We celebrated with a lunch onboard a boat moored on the Thames, and I remember how happy my Gran was - her only regret that my Grandad wasn't there with her. But I'm absolutely sure he would have been very proud.

Maciej Tadeusz Bochenski was a Pole, a sailor, a traveller, an explorer, an adventurer and a survivor. Above all, he was my Grandad, and I'm very grateful for the childhood moments I had with him. I would like to hope he'd be proud of me too.


  1. Wow fantastic post, a beautiful tribute.

  2. Quite a fellow, your grandfather. Someone needs to write a book about him. A great tribute to the man!

    Sounds like he served either on the 'Orzel' or the 'Blyskawica'. Those were the two major Polish Navy vessels that served in WWII.

    Dziekuje, Countess Natal'ya!

  3. Beautiful story nat.
    After my grandad died i asked a bit about him and found out that one night he was too sick to stand guard WWII, but the block who took his place was killed by a sniper. Crazy stuff, this was befor mum was born, i might not exist otherwise.

  4. Beautiful tribute, Natalie. Our Grandad's are pretty bloody special creatures, aren't they?

  5. Great post, your Grandad sounds like a facinating person.

  6. Thanks, guys! I really appreciate your kind comments.

    I'm very lucky in that I really believe my Grandad and my Gran are two of the most interesting people to have ever been born. And I know a TON of interesting people!