It is our wont in later life to reminisce about countries visited in one’s lifetime and, importantly, impressions (often only minor ones) that remain in the memory about those places. Dates to some people are of importance, but to the enumerate, like me, they are of little consequence.
We were talking about these quick impressions over a glass or two in the 2018 summer of heat. And sitting beneath our vine arbour in London, the foreign incidents recalled from such an English setting seemed even more remote than they were.
I start and end in the UK.
In Wales, just after the war ended, a family took me in when I had been posted there to be the air controller of a single Spitfire. From a generous supply, they placed every single lump of coal in the firebox of a grate that warmed the house and supplied heat for cooking. This coal, for them, in a mining district, was unlimited, whereas in the rest of country we were severely rationed for fuel. It seems a very minor incident, but such bounty gave a warmth of feeling that better times were to come and, in my case of a missed education, thirst to catch up on knowledge.
Scotland’s Aberdeen in peacetime I thought to be grey and forbidding. But it was the sick on the pavements in the mornings after early compulsory closing of pubs in the evening, that I remember most about it.
On a visit to Ireland at one time to see if we might live there, an evening in a pub where a rugby match between England and Wales was shown, a serious confrontation almost erupted when we cheered for England.
In France I once had to hide in a cupboard when my lady companion’s lover and protector came to visit unexpectedly. I had imagined that such incidents really only happened on the stage of Whitehall farces.
To the north, in Finland, visited as a supernumerary on a coaster to collect timber, I was introduced to a black sauna. The fire to heat large stones had no chimney, so the soot from smoke mingled with sweat, stung the eyes, and clogged the lungs. We dashed into the cold Baltic water at intervals and drank a lot of lemonade. Because I was a foreigner we wore items of clothing.
Sweden, on yet another coaster trip, meant mosquitoes (huge ones) and a youthful population who seemed to have nothing to do but look miserable. Our motley crew of non-Swedes were pointedly ignored.
Holland, where all the courses for a meal might come at one time on the same plate, is, for me, Amsterdam, where you can hardly turn without seeing a building that is not a delight. And I managed to find a wonderful wife from that country.
In St Petersburg, the closely-fitted bunk bed was too short for my frame. So I put the mattress on the floor for the night. As soon as I had done so, the floor lady rushed in to investigate (no locks). Being observant of architecture, I noticed that our hotel had a floor missing (an extra one when seen from the outside and missing one from the inside). This was the electronics floor, found by a fellow guest (a spy) at a dinner party, who managed to access such a floor in Russia and was never challenged – being thought to be part of the organisation.
As a child visiting Germany before the war, I was delighted to see so many fortifications and tanks around. My mother knew what was to come and saw it in quite a different light.
After distributing clothing and blankets on the Austria-Hungarian border to refugees fleeing Hungary, we stopped off in Alsace. Next to our bedroom was another smaller room with a hole in the wooden floor for defecation, etc. The smell was really atrocious. If that wasn’t bad enough, I looked above this hole toward the ceiling where there was another hole for those living above.
Staying with a family in Switzerland to learn French as a young schoolboy, I was summoned back to England as war with Germany was imminent. But before I made my way back, I was going down a wooden-slatted slide into a lake for a swim and had not realised that a bucket or two of water should have been sluiced down first to lubricate the wood. So I returned home with vertical welts on my behind instead of the usual horizontal ones delivered by my sadistic headmaster at school.
To me, Spain means swifts. In England I watch each morning in springtime to see the first swift arrive from Africa. When one comes, summer has arrived. Alas few are now to be seen over London at all, but in the 40 degree heat of Granada, in Spain, the sky was full of these mysterious birds that only touch ground to nest and reproduce.
In Sicily, where we had noticed in a nearby café several Mafia youths throwing their weight around, and who were obviously not going to pay for their food and drink, one of them fancied Margreet, broke away, and started to follow us. It was not a nice feeling, and a memorable one.
In Bulgaria, my son and I ordered beer. And as is our custom, we paid for it on its arrival. Our waiter went off duty. We ordered more and paid for that, but they claimed that we had not yet paid for the first order. Without knowledge of the lingo, and despite our protestations, we had to pay again to avoid trouble. We were glad to leave that surly lot.
Confirming that scent prices rely on marketing and exclusiveness, it was a delight to find, in Greece, copycat scent that was sold from bulk for next to nothing. And with returning samples to test at home, they were as close to the “originals” as we could discern.
En route through desert scrubland to an oasis in Morocco, where no visible roads led to a suddenly revealed small community based around a stream surrounded by crops, trees, and animals, we passed a tree inhabited by goats. To see these four-legged animals climbing around a tree was almost more surprising than coming across the verdant oasis in mid desert.
On the eastern side of North Africa, in Sudan, desert merged with town and goats with desert, there was something touching and elemental to see a family stop in the desert sand to pray.
It was while drawing women weeding beneath rubber trees in Malaya, and standing near to a Land Rover, that I heard shouts and screams. Coming straight toward me was a large snake. Just how I found myself on top of that vehicle I will never know, it happened so quickly. The snake passed by the wheels below and made off toward the jungle nearby.
In the south of Africa we stayed in a hotel in Cape Town that had once been a prison. Wisely or not, they had preserved that ancient punishing machine, the treadmill. What a sinister and frightful object it was – and adjustable for speed. It upsets me even to think about it.
As the only passenger on a ship from Singapore to Thailand, an ant run crossed from one side of my bunk to the other. When in bed, they crossed on top of the sheet.
I rented a room in a Bangkok brothel. It was cheap and entertaining, giving me much to draw. The downside of my room was to have an open drain at one end. This plumbing arrangement was used by the occupants of cubicles upstream. Perhaps that was the reason for the modest rent.
India is a place that seems to be either loved or loathed. It is a country full of extremes. For one leg of our journey through this land of beauty, and architecture that often needs a good scrubbing, we took an overnight “Luxury” bus voyage in Rajasthan. With passengers mostly made up of men, many slept on the floor and most, if not all, farted throughout the night. So much for luxury.
In Vietnam, when I was there, Vietnamese soldiers in the south were being trained by Americans to fight northern Vietnamese. This now seems absolutely crazy.
In Japan, where there was an appreciation of art throughout, I saw gardeners pruning a pine tree, clambering around its high branches with secateurs in hand, such was the general appreciation of nature among the people. A word or two of the language would have helped when venturing into a small section of a public bath, I found myself buried up to the neck in very hot volcanic sand. There was no escape. And my shouts for help may have seemed to them like noises of appreciation. I now know how lobsters feel when cooked.
In a South Pacific island I saw a spider catch a full-sized bird in its web. And when walking along a remote crushed coral track, a dark man appeared from the jungle next to me, dressed only in an animal’s tooth through the nose and a scarlet jungle flower in his hair.
A returning sad and diseased passenger on my South Pacific coaster to Australia, kept saying that back of beyond in the outback of Australia was “back of Bourke”. So, on landing in Brisbane, I hitchhiked to Bourke. It took several days. There were very few cars on that dirt road, but each would stop. Once, for a very short ride, I became the self-starter and reverse gear to one of them. Two workmen, knowing that I was interested in seeing a kangaroo, spied one and tried to shoot it for me to look at. It was rather like a Japanese fisherman who did the same with a bird, killing it with an oar. We have rather a different approach to wildlife.
I left Sydney, Australia, on a ship that called first at Aukland in New Zealand. I found during so brief a stay that all was so neat and tidy I wanted to see dirt, poverty and even some of the lawlessness of Australia to give it balance.
For another brief stop of the ship in Tahiti I bought a large and flat mother of pearl shell from Gaugin’s son who ran a small souvenir shop there. It is a remote connection with his father, and one that I treasure.
After Tahiti came the Panama Canal and at the end of it a rather sordid Panama City. There I saw a buxom lady, dressed not unlike Carmen Miranda, who was offering her body – with a free cigar.
Back in the USA, having completely written off a rather nice aeroplane there during the war, and in the process knocking two instruments out of the panel with my head, I asked the ambulance driver who was taking me to hospital what had happened. He didn’t know. My question had been a global one. Was I, perhaps, in London and been run over by a bus? And of course I had forgotten how wonderful it had been to have left wartime rationing behind in England and been able to eat unlimited (though not very good) food.
The 707 jet airliner had just been introduced on the New York to London route. Short of money I took the cheaper Bristol Britannia instead to the country of my birth and one where aeroplanes had always been part of my life.
It was from the muddy grass field of Croydon Aerodrome that Kingsford Smith was to fly my brother and me around London in the very early 1930s. But the tail skid of his aeroplane had broken and another pilot took us boys up in the open cockpit of a Klem Bat. With our caps on back to front we held on like grim death and were probably more frightened than observant. They were days when flying was still in its infancy, but fascinating.
It is extraordinary how often such minor incidents in life stimulate the memory of them and events that surround them.