Life at an English public school began in the uniform shop, Barrett's, situated in the centre of town, across the road from the Boar's Head, one of nearly a hundred pubs servicing what was once the market garden town of Bishop's Stortford. The town was then rapidly turning into a dormitory town for workers commuting daily to London only an hour or so south on the train. My mother and I arrived at Barrett's one sunny morning in February 1961 and began the kit-up for my membership of "The College". I had recently finished what had seemed like a long grind to the top of primary school and so the prospect of starting all over again from the bottom was hard to digest. The college blazer had non-descript interwoven letters on the breast pocket in the style much favoured by Australian Rules football clubs, colour coded according to the 'house' you were allocated; in my case Alliott's, the lettering was yellowy gold. Across the counter in Barrett's I could see a rather smart crest affair on another blazer and told the fellow who was helping us that I'd prefer one of those. He smiled indulgently at me and said the crest had to be earned. I decided then I had to have that crest for my blazer. I later found out it was awarded for sporting achievement and was known as 'colours'. Under the crest would be a scroll with an acronym of the particular sport for which you had been awarded the colours. When I left school five years later I'd accumulated four of these scrolls on the blazer fulfilling that earliest ambition to be a big frog in another little pond, although this pond was a little bigger than the first. With a mountain of stuff, including sports kit, a boater, socks, collar studs (front and back - the shirt collars could be detached…I had a mark from the copper stud on my throat for about two years after leaving the school), tweed suit for winter, summer blazer, a sponge bag (with no sponge) all duly packed into a trunk, we set off up the hill to my home away from home for the next five years. The house was a pretty gloomy affair, built in the latter part of the nineteenth century, its uncovered wooden stairs worn down from the constant tramping of thousands of stamping feet over the years. The two common rooms also had uncovered wooden floors and could be divided by a double door (was it an archway?) Both rooms were heated in the winter by a coal fire in each. These coal fires could be treacherous if you weren't very careful. Naturally every one wanted to stand as close a possible for maximum heating and in the winter tweed suit, if you stood there until you could smell the singeing tweed, the burn was nasty when you moved and your leg encountered the overheated fabric. In the senior common room there was a small and rather ratty snooker/billiard table. These common rooms were used for hanging about in the day time and in the evenings for prep work. There was a wireless in the room which was tuned into a top of the pops show just before letter writing on Sunday afternoons. It was on this radio I heard of the assassination of President Kennedy, heard the Beatles for the first time, the Kinks, The Spencer Davis Group, Dusty Springfield, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Stones, PJ Proby and the rest of the cultural awakening going on in the world outside. No television of course. Not in the house. There was a television in one of the class rooms, but as far as I knew it was only used for educational purposes. I recall, vaguely, some French lessons. We were locked in, sealed into this tomb of education, most of the time totally oblivious to the world outside. This place had been going about its business for a long time so its institutional momentum was largely irresistible. Some boys tried to kick it. There were one or two in my house who, apparently desperate, ran away. I scratched my head at their folly - they always came back, brought by the parents who'd put them there in the first place. Maybe I'd have tried it if I'd been able to hitchhike or catch a bus home. But I was totally isolated in the place. Contained on the UK island and the tyranny of distance. Much like the early Anglo-Celt occupants of Terra Australis. The natives here though wore clothes and I could understand what they were saying. We were still living in the Congo when I first arrived at BSC. The school year was divided into three terms, so every holiday I would walk from the school to catch a train to Liverpool Street station in London and then bus out to Heathrow to catch a plane to Bruxelles. Usually I'd stay overnight at the Plaza Hotel where the old concierge was rumoured to be an ex-Nazi; but he was a lovely old bloke and always looked after me well. In Bruxelles I'd walk around its ancient cobbled streets, eat hot waffles from street stalls, sometimes oysters or hot chips served with mustard at one of the many footpath restaurants. And I'd usually see a film or two. When I eventually reached the mature age of sixteen and they'd let me in, I'd go for the sexy films. There were plenty of those on show. The next day I'd take a bus out to the airport and get on another plane for the nine hour flight to the heat and glare of equatorial Africa. Bruxelles airport was an ordinary kind of place, full of the usual sights and smells of international airports, perfumes from the duty free shops ghosting out a cone of sweetening odours cutting the mildly caustic disinfectants in the transit lounge where sometimes I would spend hours wandering about waiting for departure time, watching the big silver planes coming and going, offloading people and things, loading up again. Once I was standing in front of the huge glass windows looking into the cockpit of a DC8 as it taxied into its station and I recognised my dad at the controls. That was a lovely surprise in such a busy world full of unknown faces. I was able to see him briefly before my own flight was called to board. Climbing the stairs to the first class cabin the Belgian sleet seemed less uncomfortable knowing that in a few hours I'd be again soaking up the heat of the Congolese sun. First class was the usual thing; it didn't cost anything, travel was free for pilots and their families. We still had access to the luxury of haute cuisine, 30,000 feet haute cuisine. Chateaubriand steaks, creamed Belgian spinach, wines, liqueurs, cognacs; those flights were most enjoyable. Usually I would have three seats to myself so I'd be able to stretch out and, with the distant droning roar of the engines resonating through my whole body I'd sleep till the hostess woke me with a freshly squeezed orange juice about an hour before landing. Arriving home in Leopoldville, I was on holidays. Although I was apparently at home it always felt like I was a visitor, in transit to a more serious destination. When back at school, I counted the days to the end of term. Gradually over the years I learned to recognise home as being wherever I was. Initially at boarding school, the family home, then in other people's places, a rented house, the back of a truck, it all turned out to be the same. Home. You carry your heart with you wherever you go. This is no doubt a feature of the nomadic mind, thousands of years in the making and only relatively recently overgrown with the thin veneer of quarter-acre block home ownership. Eventually I was to acquire home ownership but within a handful of years I'd had to sell it with little sense of any real difference between owning and renting. You always have to pay someone for the privilege of a house to live in... either a bank or a landlord; paying a landlord at least has the personal touch, missing in the relationship a borrower has with a bank. Leopoldville airport was a raw concrete affair probably deriving its style, like many of the new buildings in the city from the Bauhaus movement. Dense humidity encouraged the growth of a hundred varieties of creeping mould draping the buildings in a fecund disguise. Raw. Some walls washed with a thin coating of some yellowish colour optimistically reflected the sun's stern glare, the place sweating an aura of 'frontier'. The chaos in the arrivals terminal echoed the frontier tone of the buildings - loud, colourful, and full of Congolese filling the hot, damp air with the pungent and slightly intimate aroma of sweat and bustle. The place was a sensation. Many sensations. Of course I was well used to the natural and usually invigorating smells of large groups of people not sold on the supposed social advantages of suppressive anti-perspirants from my time in Indonesia. But the African smells were of a different order. Perhaps more pressing. More demanding. But like many of the sensations assaulting the sensibilities of a small European they were simply part of the landscape and added to the general delight I took from their sharp contrasts with Hertfordshire's antiseptic niceness. On one occasion however the sharp contrast proved excessive and disturbed my adolescent sensibility. I had two mates in town, both older than me by a couple of years; all three of us went to English boarding schools so our holidays coincided. One was a West Australian and the other a white South African. They'd decided to go into the red light district of the city and took me with them. I was probably no more than fifteen at the time. We were in a Fiat 600D, a little two- door car. I sat in the back with the two bigger boys in the front. When we got to the brothel, both went in. I had no inclination to join them so I stayed with the car. Guard duty. After a while I saw a woman come out of the house and walk towards the car; she opened the door, pushed the front passenger seat forward and climbed in the back with me. She was wearing traditional Congolese clothes - a printed sarong with a halter top, low at the front with a breathing mass of shiny black cleavage which she pushed in my face as she wrapped her arm around my neck. She was wearing some kind of perfumed powder which hit me hard but immediately behind that first assault came a secondary wave of body odour, deep, dense and terrifying. I tried to hold my composure to keep her at bay and thankfully she realised I was way out of my depth and graciously withdrew, laughing brightly, her head thrown back, arranging her wrap and no doubt rehearsing the tale for her workmates inside. Many years later I was working in a show in Sydney with a bunch of black Americans and a couple of the girls were an absolute delight, one of whom was very kind to me and let me share the hotel room she was living in. When I came close to her, I recognised the body smell from that mildly traumatic encounter in the Congo, and it quite cooled an initial attraction I'd felt for this lovely girl… The South African boy was the most sexually precocious in our group and got me into some serious trouble on another occasion. He had a girl living next door who, he said, was very friendly and was prepared to share a little threesome; was I interested? This was a year or so earlier than my encounter in the back seat of the Fiat so I just went in with him, didn't even think about it. There was a slight concern, somewhere in the distance, that I was doing something wrong as we went into her bedroom, but the excitement, the adrenalin, buried my uncertain conscience. The details of what turned out to be a very brief adventure are lost because it seemed we no sooner had arrived than her father came barreling in. I tried to jump into the cupboard to escape but the jig was up. We were busted. The instigator had a serious whipping from his hard- line dad. My innocence, not of the deed, but of the planning, protected me from any corporal punishment, but the lecture was long and righteous and I felt appropriately contrite. In that same boy's backyard there was a very tall tree, the top of which had a particularly favourable branching arrangement for us to build a tree-house. Nearby a massive stand of bamboo afforded all the materials we needed besides the wire to hold the walls together. It was a very sophisticated affair with a floor of boards about five or six feet square, four walls and a roof. Access was through a hole in the floor and you had to climb up via a knotted rope. Nobody's dad was likely to come busting in up there. Mine was represented though - his Playboy magazine centrefolds papered all four walls and under the apparently expert lead of Trevor de Swanepoel we explored the ancient ritual of group masturbation. The guy had a massive member when it was fully engorged and you could see over time his busy right hand had shaped it into a considerable banana bend to the right. We shared our efforts and had a great laugh into the bargain. Nobody thought this was anything to do with homosexuality. This was simply what boys did finding out about their sexuality, test driving the equipment, comparative contemplations. Obviously you couldn't do that stuff with girls without invoking all manner of emotionally complicating side issues. We were just mucking about with the sensational feelings of orgasm and sharing the fun of it all. In the clubhouse. When I was confronted some years later with some serious attempts to recruit me into the reveling ranks of gay culture I already knew about the kind of detached pleasures available to queer sexuality and was able to decline, albeit on one occasion a little clumsily, the invitations. The colonial life was a tableau of privileged times. Most of my acquaintances were either from the world of airlines or the diplomatic crowd. The latter bunch lived in the choice real estate with large properties often overlooking the vast Congo River which at that point was many kilometres wide. In fact you could only just see the other side, the French Congo, its capital Brazzaville a slim strip of land on the horizon. The river's current, propelled by the constant rains in the equatorial jungles in the north east of the country, swirled fast along its way depositing spiralling tangles of water hyacinth carried from up-country and now infesting everywhere along the banks of this breathtaking waterway. In the river itself, sometimes a good way off shore, there were sand banks. Some of these were reasonably permanent and became sites for picnics and skiing for the leisure class. Large congregations of weekenders would gather with their boats, set up tarpaulins for shade, spread out the food and drink and idle away the day, baking in the glare of the African sun. Skiing here could be exciting. There was always mild concern about crocodiles, which of course lived in the river, but mostly we believed they stuck to the banks and didn't venture out into the furious current to these mid-stream islands. Besides we had big powerful motor boats and you were standing on a ski anyway zipping over the surface of brown rushing water. Sometimes though, when the urge to be a bit too flash became irresistible, you'd find yourself flying through the air and heading for water, suddenly not entirely convinced the crocs liked hanging around the shoreline. This was the only place I'd ever heard my father utter the then absolutely verboten 'f' word. He was no great shakes as a skier, and even then was beginning to carry some excess weight - pilots were notorious ritualistic drinkers. He was trying to launch from the water with two skis. Anybody who's ever water skied knows that you've got to stand up through a big mass of water sitting in your lap before the skis will carry you along the surface. Even holding the ski tips together while the boat drags you through this initial phase is difficult for the novice. Unfortunately for my dad the ski rope must have been old because he'd almost get out of water and the rope would snap and he'd subside back into the river. On the third attempt, probably with a newer rope, and with a big crowd of encouraging onlookers, he was almost clear when the anticipation of it all got the better of him and he leaned too far forward and was dragged from the skis to fly unceremoniously through the air before crashing into the river. As he flew, still hanging on to the rope, all could hear his frustrated expletive rip into the nice clean air breathed by this ever-so-polite 1950s social set. To cap it off, when he scrambled out of the water back onto the sand bank, one of his testicles was hanging out the side of his swimmers. I remember my mother's mortification at this double embarrassment as she shuffled about trying to get him to tuck it in… Those of us with a bit more flair for the sport hardly ever even touched the water. You'd stand on one ski-less foot on the sand and wait for the boat to speed away. At the last possible moment you'd jump onto the water with the ski leg. No big drag of water to contend with. Coming in was even more fun because you'd judge the release of the tow-rope so you could glide in to the water's edge and run right up onto the sand. In the late afternoon storm clouds would sail in, gigantic cumulonimbus creations stretching thousands of feet into the air, signaling the time for return to shore. We were often caught in the downpour on the way back, saturated in moments by rain drops the size of golf balls. Well… big, anyway. My mother had another daughter while in the Congo, born in the back of our old Jaguar. I was home on holidays when she was due, and at the fateful moment, the hospital was apparently closed, my father banging on the door to let them in. Having no luck, he returned to the car where mum was stretched out and delivering. My little African sister. I was down at the pool, everybody's favourite place. It had a large water wheel you could run along on until the slippery duck-board surface forced you to fall in, a pool accessory certain to produce apoplexy in today's litigious world ; the place had tennis courts, a five metre diving tower, a two and a half metre spring board and the best pommes-frites in town. The diving tower was the focus for much of the time at this public pool. There were the usual quota of poseurs, strutting about in their bikinis - men wore them too in those days, when shorts, Belgian style, were really short, usually what little leg length there was would be rolled up even further. There was always a good number of people watching the divers, lying back under large umbrellas drinking beer, pimms or vermouth for the ladies. When I first went to the pool, the five metre tower was impossibly high and scary, but as I got used to it and became bolder, I was able to join in the standard trick which was to step outside the safety railing on the top tower and drop onto the springboard two and a half metres below. On landing in the right place even a small body would get a mighty bounce out the fibreglass board. But you had to straighten up and jump forwards from the board going into a dive or bomb or a one-and-a-half somersault. If you did well you could often get some applause. The best applause I received came after a spectacularly misjudged effort in which I totally lost my orientation in the air and landed, very painfully, on my back. One day I was up there with one of my mates. He launched well enough but forgot the critical straighten manoeuvre. He sailed straight alright, but straight into the side of the pool, landing with one leg in the water the other kind of tangled with the edge of the pool. Nasty moment. He wasn't injured badly, but I think around that time the pool management started being a bit fussy about our little trick. In 1960 the Belgians dropped the ball, or rather took their ball and went home. This was the era when prop planes were being replaced with jets in Europe and the Middle East. There were no jet options in the Congo so my dad had to act, otherwise he'd have been too old to convert. We moved to Beirut where he was able to get a job with freight transport airline, TMA, and do his conversion to Coronado's, a four-engined plane much like the Boeing 707. We'd lived in the Congo for nine years.
No Man’s Land
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