My father, severely gassed in WW1, had to take up a post with the Colonial Service to be able live in a dry climate. He was sent to Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. My mother had returned in 1922 and I was born and lived for 6 years in South London. In 1928 my mother and I went out to Africa to join my father. It was an unforgettable and totally strange experience, what with the eccentric British Raj, meeting Africans in their own environment, and a foreign one to them, wild animals and scenery that is still marvelled at today.
The Journey Out In ’28, we, my mother and I, joined the Balmoral Castle. On board were the cricketing greats of the day, the English Test Team. At six brought up by women, the occasion was totally lost on me, so when .Jardine actually gave me a ball, I didn’t even know enough to get it autographed. Every day nets were erected on one part of the deck for practice. As the only child in First and Second Class, I was taken under the wing of a kindly deck hand. I suspect he was sorry for my solitary existence. The journey of several weeks was like prison. Phrases starting with ‘Don’t..’ took the place of conversation; I fed alone in the Second Class Dining Salon with the same pomp adults had, which only stressed the isolation. Much of the food, unsurprisingly, was new to me. The three classes were not allowed to mix, nor stray out of their territory, but I went everywhere as assistant to the Deck Hand – thank heaven. I can still see the rounded timber rail with its highly polished brass fittings, which allowed access from mid-ships – Second Class – into the other two classes and how empty the First and Second Class decks were compared with crowded steerage. I rose early, found the Deck hand, and helped set up the games paraphernalia for the day. The quoits were made of thick rope, smelled of tar and were as hard as stone when they rattled the knuckles. Apart from setting out the steamer chairs and the shuffle boards, that was my work done till evening when we put it all away again. The smell those ships, the older cross channel ferries, and the old navy ships had, has all gone long ago – it imparted a memory of a different and pleasurable sort, a mixture of hot engine oil and tarred rope. At night there was some form of amusement but I would have been asleep by then.
When we reached Madeira three things stood out for me. On each occasion, even before the ship had dropped anchor, there was a host of small boats laden with fruit and trifles made by the locals, which we could buy. There were also children who would dive off the boats for money thrown from the ship. At the time I thought it marvellous that they could catch the money before it disappeared from sight and it was many years before I discovered that the coins planed back and forth in the water and so descended slowly. Another take-on! The other vague impression I still retain is the wealth of colour of the Madeira I have been told we went on one of the famous dry sledge rides, but I don’t remember that,. Leaving Madeira, going South to the Equator, the whole ship came together for the Line Crossing Ceremony. You can imagine the welter of mixed emotions of a small boy who couldn’t swim, who was being taken on deck to watch a sailor dressed in a fierce beard, a paper crown, outlandish clothes and brandishing a trident, sitting on a throne set up above a tiny canvas swimming pot, about the size of a waste-skip, surrounded by his shouting henchmen lathering the faces of the passengers before they were chucked unceremoniously into the pot. I stood there, waiting my awful turn, petrified but went through it nonetheless. Later there were fancy dress parties. The categories for prizes were ‘Brought onboard’, ‘Bought onboard’, and ‘Made onboard’, mine was the latter. I was a Candelabra, swathed in some form of copper-coloured material, with a headdress of a copper-coloured candleholder with candle and a candleholder in each outstretched hand. I won second prize to a Red Indian. We went down to the shop somewhere in the bowels of the ship and I received my first camera, a leather-cased Box Brownie On the return journey on the Edinburgh Castle, I was dressed as what we Rhodesians thought of as mealy-corn, – maize to Europeans. I was strapped in a shaped, elliptical tube of green crepe paper, which rose above head level encasing most of me, but revealing bobbles of yellow paper corn on my chest. I believe it was very fetching, but as one can’t defend oneself with encased arms I entered the competition in tatters, having had a fight with, I believe, yet another Red Indian. Mother was not pleased. From Capetown we had a tedious journey for days, cooped up in a railway compartment.