A Journey to the East by Michael Haran

It is 1965 and the new model of the RAF transport command Comet lifted into the air almost vertically leaving the suburbs and surrounding boroughs of the Home Counties far below .At thirty thousand feet the aircraft levelled out and the seat belts came off. We were headed east towards the Asian landmass situated beneath steaming tropical clouds. Somewhere beneath the cumulous was the English Channel. The plane was half full and as no one occupied my row I was free to let my mind go over whatever it felt like going over. I gazed downwards at the minute white waves of the English Channel .My earliest recollections of the sea occurred during the austere post war years 1947 -53 when rationing in England was still in effect, eggs, chocolate, meat and fish needing a stamp in the green ration book, a stamp inserted after every purchase. There were three of us, my mother and two brothers. Looked at in retrospect we were doing better than the average civilian kid of our parent’s social level. We lived on, the Isle of Wight, of holiday destination for millions of toiling factory workers.

My father, deceased many a year, was an Army marine navigator, in 1947 having re-enlisting in the British army after serving in the Grenadier Guards, joining what was called in those days the Royal Army Service Corps, (RASC) Water Transport (WT) as .they designated the marine craft branch. I still remember the initials of the various craft and what they looked like. There were the RCL's or Ramp Landing Craft, the Ammunition Dumping Craft, (ADC's). The former where in the thirty -forty foot range, the latter a hundred feet or more and able to traverse oceans, one actually sailing from the UK to Singapore, quite a feat when one considers these were flat bottomed craft. In Singapore there were three ADC.s usually moored in the roads between Black gang Mate and the island on we which lived, Paula Brauni.There were more seaworthy types of the fast motor boat class, (FMB) and the harbour launches plying between the islands and Singapore.

The larger vessels were crewed almost completely, as far as I knew, by British regular army men. The smaller craft had Malay or Chinese crews. These guys came in two types: the auxiliary British army who wore regular British issue tropical greens complete with boots and puttees, and the civilians recruited from Island locals who wore the white sailor type uniform and who wore running shoes or even no shoes at all guiding the tiller with their foot while banging on the empty highly polished brass empty shell casing with an equally highly polished brass stick., this done in order to signal the engineer a couple of feet away under a tarp shelter controlling the engine. The strictly disciplinarian British NCO'S never bothered these blokes as they were professionals drawn from the ranks of the local fishermen. Where wrath became a factor it fell upon the Malay or Chinese, or Indian come to that, army auxiliaries. These poor chaps came from Singapore where the only boats they had been on were the odd ferry or paddle boat. Should have seen RSM Paine explode when one of them hit the jetty too hard while coxing a harbour launch.

My father was posted to Malaya twice, once during the early fifties and once during the latter part of that decade ,where at the time the emergency was on (but somehow ignored in the paper work as if unimportant),the later period capped by a six month stint in Hong Kong. The first stage of the process of relocation overseas was for my father to go off alone to live in the Far East in the Sergeants Mess. The next stage was the arrival of our boxes, huge black painted wooden things, our family name stencilled in white. My mother every day would slowly place our least needed items in the boxes leaving out the bare essentials. It was a process to be repeated over the years accompanied by our cries of 'where is this and where is that ' regarding items nailed firmly into boxes divided into categories: not wanted on voyage; wanted on voyage.

I remember the boarding at Southampton and then gazing down the side of the ship at the tugboats far below. The day was pleasantly sunny with a slight breeze. There we were, the two of us wandering about the immediate companionway area intermingling with newly embarked troops. I seem to remember that compared to the soldiers I would meet in the future these were different, their gallant respect for women and children reminding me of my grandfather’s WWI generation. One of the soldiers, wondering no doubt about his supper, had asked me if I would go below and look at the clock. Down the flight of steps I went to gaze with no comprehension whatever at the clock face. My new found friend asked what time it was. I gave an idiotic response, he at first thinking I was joking then when he found out that I really could not tell time taught me how.

The first thing I had noticed when entering our cabin was the funny window. It was round and had four great brass screws with curved turning handles. The next thing I noticed was the bunks, upper and lower with long wooden retaining walls. Air vents softly blew air onto white sheets and brown blankets bearing the logo of the P and O line. A black Lascar dressed in a neat white uniform politely entered, informing my mother that he would be our steward. While he and my mother were conversing I began to unscrew one of the port whole retainers. The steward made dash towards me, pulling me down, and then explaining that the ocean was just five feet of so below and could ship aboard if the port hole was opened. This was the first of many lessons regarding the difference between land and sea. These Lascars were very knowledgeable fellows performing menial functions throughout the ship, no doubt fulfilling a contract made with Ceylon during the days of Sir Stamford Raffles'.

Up on deck again we went to watch the casting off of shore lines and the nudging about of the great white ship by the tugs. In the dock was the black painted Queen Elizabeth- her Blue Peter flying -smoke trailing from one of her stacks as she waited to cast off for New York. Great ropes six or so inches thick were taken off the ships great iron bollards to be lowered into the sea by thinner ropes retrieved by the dockyard workers. As the gap between ship and shore widened the band played a farewell, the crowds of wavers becoming smaller and smaller, soon to disappear completely.

Soon the land formed a faint green and grey smudge on the horizon giving one of my many last looks at England. The sea soon became rougher but nothing like I was told to expect as we entered the Bay of Biscay, an inundation of the French and Portuguese coast. I think that only once did I see the dreaded weather of the Bay, and that was on one of the return trips. Through the Pillars of Hercules we passed, actually now named the Straits of Gibraltar, and on to that promontory on the southern tip of Spain, (captured by the British during the War of the Spanish Succession) separating the orient from the occident. From the ships rail we were to view a sight that was to become very familiar, the steep rock of Gibraltar signalling entry into the Mediterranean. On shore for a few hours I was impressed by the neatness of the place, the straight rows of white washed stones around gardens, sign posts and pathways; the white seat covers on the army land rovers, the smart turn out of the soldiers wearing white web belts, even their puttee straps blanched white suggesting a tidy European presence. The next day we were in the ‘Med’, so beautifully warm and blue, its soft winds caressing the body, dissipating its sweat.

My first view of the orient was at Alexandria, a small flyblown town on the coast of Egypt just west of the entrance to Suez. It was founded by Alexander the Great as he moved east towards the Indian subcontinent via Persia. Passing this Trans-shipment point of Roman bound grain we arrived an hour or so later at Port Said. Hot and dusty docks dotted with black skinned white robed labourers and venders of fruit drinks mixed with chipped ice greeted us as we went ashore, the basic principle of the thing probably a continuation of the days of the East India Company. Then the descent to the motor launch chugging alongside where we would each gingerly step from the wooden platform on to the rocking boat, one of the Egyptians holding out an arm to assist as we stepped onto the deck and then disappearing beneath the roof shelter. There was laughter and conversation among the gathered families, some familiar with each other before boarding ship as many were married to husbands belonging to our unit. Eagerly we looked around at the sights from the small boat as closer and closer we came to North Africa.

Again an assisting arm as we disembarked from the launch onto the jetty, a process that was to be repeated until we reached Singapore. We took a look through the bazaar teeming with foreign looking objects never seen in England. Strange shaped vases, Xylophones embedded with ivory, flowing bolts of Egyptian cloth into which exotic patterns were sewn. Pop was available, stored in ice boxes and covered in broken ice which the vendor would replace periodically as the old stock melted in the burning sun. Then there was the 'gullee gullee man' at the outdoor café who would work magical wonders as he pulled rabbits out of our ears or placed solid objects on a table under a cloth to make them disappear as we sipped those small cokes or ice chips covered in some kind of fruit flavour.

Back on the ship again the entertainment continued as we watched naked native boys dive alongside the ship for coins thrown by the passengers to awake the next day in the Suez Canal, seemingly floating through desert until you looked directly downwards and saw the water below slowly lapping away from the sides of the ship to make small waves on the canals concrete walls. It was a wonderful feeling to eat lunch on a white table cloth with P and O embossed silverware watching the sand and dates palms slowly passing by under which were the odd camel or, camel and Arab, the camel looking at us disdainfully, the Arab hardly aware of our presence, his mind tuned into the endless desert. Soon the canal disappeared to be replaced by the Bitter Lakes, miles of stagnant water which held great amounts of salt, the shore now many miles distant highlighted by growths of marine vegetation and flocks of birds. Eventually the shore receded even farther as we entered the Red Sea, on our right the barren coast of Somalia on our left the equally barren Sinai desert which was soon to become part of Israeli territory. The entrance to the Indian Ocean introduced to me the sea in its turbulent state. Great waves as high as small hills topped with white caps roamed about, sometimes crashing into each other to both disappear, sometimes one would win the contest and carry on towards the horizon, itself a small jagged line of white caps. I would stare downwards for hours fascinated by the spectacle. What made it even more fun was the fact that most of the passengers were sea sick and so we had the second class deck to ourselves.

We played table tennis on the deck of a rolling ship, the ball going where we had last aimed it, the table moving with the ship. Another great deck sport in a gale was tobogganing using the deck chairs as thy moved easily on the spray swept decks. Where it became really hilarious was when wind caught in the canvas giving us extra speed. Looking through the deck facing windows of the second class lounge we would see but one or two dinners as most of the passengers were sea sick missing breakfast leaving their kippers, poached eggs, or kidneys on toast to us as they were only going to be throw away. So much waste onboard a ship. Immediately after the breakfast from the deck we would watch as the unconsumed breakfast bread rolls were thrown through the galley port hole, the swarms of seagulls waiting patiently for their breakfast each morning wheeling and crying as they devoured this feast handed to them hundreds of miles away from the nearest land. There were the Dolphins following the ship mile after mile, day after easily matching our fifteen to twenty knots. Flying fish even in a gale would sometimes appear out of the sea to skim across the flat places with their tiny wings. I even heard reports of one of them flying over the ship. Seagulls were constant companions making me wonder how they survived hundreds of miles out of sight of land. Not only did they survive, they seemed to enjoy themselves, wheeling and screeching around the ship.

Soon however this part of the trip ended with our arrival at Bombay, (Mumbai), a brief trip ashore to view this city still showing signs of colonization; nineteenth century buildings, the uniform forms of the soldiers, British pattern dated by a few decades. This city is situated on the west coast and subject to the full force of the sea as there is nothing between it and Egypt, this being the route of the ancients using their Skyler navigation tables in order to cross the Indian Ocean, sometimes in the teeth of the monsoon gales, more often however going out with the easterly winds and returning to Africa with the westerly’s. To this day the dhows used since ancient times our still built in India and Pakistan plying back and forth under sail between Africa and India.

There were many trishaws about intermingled with traffic which constantly sound their horns. Everywhere there were roadside stalls selling everything from sliced pineapples to japatees (pancakes) and curry to sati sticks (shish kebabs). As in Egypt there were the hustlers selling their produce to those happening to be passing by and of course the occasional con man. What was different to Egypt was the amount of beggars piteously holding out their tin cups, some hobbling using a stick for support or even scooting along on man-made wheeled contraptions. Even the trishaw drivers had a look of despair.

On board the ferry again approaching the huge white painted ship, the thick horizontal blue line indicating a troopship , different ways of life in place for eons, existing side by side like oil and water, never to really blend despite grandiose schemes to the contrary. A few hours later we pulled away and a day later the sighting of the palm fronds of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) The air was moister here and again a brief trip ashore. Less poverty and the same entrepreneurial spirit of the east contrasting with the (then) socialist bent of Britain. Anything can be bought and no questions asked regarding payment by cheque, even if the instrument backing it had its head office in Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, London, or even in Scotland come to that.

The next day we were in the Straits of Malacca moving down through the landmasses of Sumatra on the right and Malaya on the left passing the beautiful Island of Penang festooned with jungle interspersed with coastal villages. Further down we passed great fences of bamboo set far out to sea a solitary hut situated on their seawards end as they guided in schools of fish to be caught up in nets. A strange sight for us boys straight out of England, over the years to became a familiar sight.

Finally Singapore hove into sight, the first indication the ships awaiting their turn to either dock (not much chance unless you were a passenger liner or your owners had a lot of pull) or to anchor out in the roads. We of course docked in Keppel Harbour, Singapore to the north, various islands to the south. Looking up from the dock was my father come to greet us. He looked different from the time I had seen him in England. His uniform was green rather than khaki, and of a lighter material. His stripes were smaller and white. On his shoulder were strange badges, two palm trees and a lion, sweat streaked the front of his uniform and under the arm pits, a fact of which he seemed unconcerned, as if this was the normal state of affairs.

I was to see the harbour for the next two and a half years from the balcony of row house in which we lived. The most prominent feature was the great white mast on a hill across the water from us towering above a sort of control tower. On the mast would fly various flags giving instructions to the ships regarding conditions in the harbour etc. At night we would look over this balcony at the open air cinema below us watching for nothing as John Wayne caught the bad guys or Audi Murphey one World War Two single handily. The island on which we lived besides supporting water Transport Company also had a factory which we for want of any known name called the tin works. Are only inkling of its existence was a long wall at the back of the row houses and the shrill noon time whistle. There was also the waste product slag which paved the lane leading from the road to the hill on which we were situated. The slag was hard and sharp and unsuitable for road material as it would cut the tires of any vehicle.

We spent our time going to school on Singapore Island at seven until it was too hot in the day, twelve o’clock, returning by ferry and fifteen hundred weight army truck. A diner and then the mandatory after nap for all including my father. Afternoons were spent either swimming at the beaches on the other side of the island. One was a regular public beach and the other 'pager', a fenced of beach strictly speaking the property of the commanding officer who occupied the house on the hill directly above; however it was commonly agreed that when not it use it was open to NCO's and their families.

As the afternoon waned we would make our way home making side trips into the jungle to explore the Japanese’s fortifications now crumbling in the tropical vegetation, green slime and dripping water making for an odious experience as it attracted mosquitos. The public beach trail had two Japanese pill boxes still intact. We would look through the slit out on to the harbour and imagine we were a Japanese machine gun crew.

If swimming was not possible because of the low tide it was a matter of finding other entertainment or just staying home for a few weeks until there was a reasonably high tide. Sometimes we hacked through the nearby jungle. Sometimes we would descend into a great pit abutting the wall of the tin works in search of what, I don’t know. Once however in a small gulley in the pit I found a biscuit tin. Inside were multicolored currency bills showing the head of the Japanese emperor or a sword bearing Samurai. I excitedly took my trove home only to be told as it was 'banana money', military money issued to the Japanese forces. Some enterprising soul during the occupation had hidden this thinking that when he got back to Japan he would be rich. Often I wondered who the guy was and what happened to him that was so drastic that he left his treasure trove behind without telling a soul.

The only Japanese I saw was a tourist of about middle age. It was at Connaught jetty where he was hastily boarding as he appeared to be in great danger- a crowd of middle aged to elderly Malays murmuring in low pitched ominous voices as they slowly surrounded him. Obviously the Japanese were not liked on this island and I wondered what they had done. Never ever heard of the British receiving similar treatment, in fact we had a good friend from the Malay community our own age and who had his own sampan, albeit only kid sized. Often we would meet at the pagar (enclosed beach), he coming in his boat, us walking over land. He would tie up at the fence, climb up to dive into the water, his face enraptured as in those days there was strict segregation of the races, especially in the C.O's pagar. If anyone saw us no one said a thing. In return for the breaking of the colour bar Atan would take us out in the strait aboard his boat. It was about eight or ten feet length and maybe eighteen inches beam. He would use a single paddle expertly dodging in and out of the tidal stream .One time we were approaching a red and white marker beacon. I could swear that we were going to drift right down on it but Atan with a nonchalant 'ti dapa' brushed our fears aside, the sampan clearing the great concrete structure by a yard or two.

During the latter part of the fifties the Malayan Emergency became less of an emergency, however Hong Kong seemed to now be a concern for the British government and so we were posted there. Now the bungalow living was replaced with a first floor apartment. The blinding heat was now moderated even though we had arrived in the summer time. Despite the lower temperature the routine was the same, early morning board the troop carrier and a half hours ride through the environs of Kowloon to arrive at Gun Club Hill and school. A day at school followed by the return trip. One thing that for a strange reason stuck in my mind was the way the Ghurkha drivers would tackle the winding hill leading up to our apartment tower. There was the one who would approach slowly and then put the vehicle into low gear to laboriously climb the hill taking for what seemed forever as we were hungry. Then there was the guy who would approach the bend at the beginning of the hill a twenty or so miles an hour going as far as he could up the hill and then expertly changing down to arrive at the top of the hill in a few minutes. These trucks had small side doors near the cab which we chose to use rather than the tailgate for some reason yelling the US parachute cry of Geronimo as we jumped out.

Hong Kong at the time had a subtle American influence. The workers on the surrounding high-rises under construction would throw their empty matchbox around the bamboo scaffolding which we would collect as at the time they had value among collectors. There were pictures of four misted sailing ships, US flags and a host of things one would come across in the US and nowhere else. Then there were the comic books. I seem to remember there were a lot of DC comic books of the Superman and Batman genre along with True detective and the Ghoul. So many where there that it is as if we were living in a pictorial US without being able to possess those streamlined Schwinn bikes, the hundreds of GI joe plastic soldiers available for a few cents per hundred, (I at the time didn’t realize the US dollar was worth more than the Hong Kong one), gas powered model planes and other such goodies available to those rich Yankee kids Even our games were modelled on the US template where we would collect bits of sawn off two by fours from the surrounding construction sites to make a tower imitating a USAAF B24 Liberator front turret from which we would shoot down imaginary Japanese Zero fighters.

However as this was 1959 there was a down side in the form of beggars constantly accosting one with piteous expressions upon their faces and cries of 'cum Shaw' As they begged for food. This was the time of Mao's great leap forward where the traditional mainland economy was transformed instantly into an industrial one by one who can only be described as a lunatic, creating a mass starvation forcing an exodus to Hong Kong. The picture of a man devouring a loaf of bread stays in my mind ,his wife and children following behind begging him to give them some ,he through a type of madness no doubt completely natural passed down through the ages refusing. I have often been criticised by people who were never there for not helping them out and giving them enough for something to eat. It wouldn’t have done any good as the sheer number would have put me in the same situation. Instead we had to assume the attitude of the Hong Kong Chinese; hardening our expression as we encountered beggars.

After two and a half years it was back to England. The culture shock was great. Consider: a few weeks earlier I shared a bright, airy, sunlit, classroom with other British kids somewhere in the Far East. We would share experiences. Some had been out there once, twice or even three times before, others had been to Cyprus, Kenya or whatever. There was a German kid. We accepted him with no qualms despite the fact that the war had only just ended, but , as his father was in the British army and had never served in the German military, treated him as a an equal .It galled me at the time that these fellow Englishmen could not accept me just because I had lived oversees. Soon however the hue died down, my foreign back ground fading to the status of a fishy story and then, as the months went by, generally understood that I lived all my life, if not in Yorkshire, somewhere in England.