Beryl, the real peril

Health and safety officers in Britain are alarmed at the number of children doing adults’ work – illegally.
They found a 12-year-old operating a mechanical digger laying drives in Birmingham, and a l3-year-old girl working as a hospital receptionist. – Report.

Beryl (13) knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was too old for Selwyn (12), but then, she told herself, Selwyn was way ahead of his years.
Did he not drive a 32-ton mechanical digger which could, with one scoop, lift out a fair-sized cottage?
Indeed, had he not done just that – accidentally?
The problem was, Beryl said to herself as she examined her acne in the little mirror at Thornton Hospital reception desk, Selwyn was doing a man’s job – yet her parents refused to admit it.
Ok, so it was their cottage he had totalled. But still, it was no reason for them to go on and on about it for two whole days.
The telephone rang and Beryl chanted: “Thornton Hospital! How may I help yoo-hoo?”
It was a very excited woman on the other end. Beryl puzzled, removed the phone from her ear and stared for a moment into the earpiece. Then she said “What? I mean pardon, madam? You say your waters have broken?
“I think you need a plumber. Try the Yellow Pages.”
Beryl put down the phone in time to see the dragon-like Mrs Monckton coming down from seeing her husband in ward 6. The old lady waddled up to the reception desk and announced “Ernie is much better today. He says he’s dying to come home.”
“It’s the anaesthetic,” said Beryl, “it can’t have worn off yet.”
Beryl removed the wooden tongue-depressor she used as a bookmark and tried to continue reading Nancy Drew and the Arab Prince. But her mind was in turmoil.
There was the disco tomorrow night, and what to wear, and Bob’s invitation to his school dance.
Bob, now in Std 9, was working part time driving locomotives. His kid brother, too young to even climb on to one of those monsters, had to be satisfied working a signal box on Saturday mornings.
It was nice earning money, Beryl told herself, as she thought of all her friends who were either studying or in labour.
The phone rang again: “ThorntonHospitalhowmayIhelpyoo-hoo?”
It was a woman asking how it was that her husband, who was being treated for asthma, died of heart disease? Beryl reassured her: “Please, madam, if the hospital was treating your husband for asthma he would have died of asthma.”
Beryl saw young Doctor Harding walking past, nonchalantly swinging his stethoscope. She sighed a little sigh. He once did 10 tonsillectomies in an hour. Everybody said that wasn’t bad for a 15-year-old.
Her thoughts slipped back to her boyfriend, Selwyn. Maybe she thought, he would look older if his mother let him wear longs. But his mother wouldn’t buy him any until he learned to do joined-up writing.
It was fair enough. Selwyn had a little dyslexia but it was hardly a handicap. There was just the one incident where Selwyn had ripped up the drive of number 31 Oak Avenue instead of number 13. But everybody makes mistakes.
And, anyway, it was nothing compared with what Bertie Grimes did at the airport. But then Bertie was only 11 and, as the chairman of the board of inquiry said, at Bertie’s age, he should never have been put in charge of air traffic control.

The Yellow Six to the rescue

The Second World War, which 70 years ago was going well for the Allies, was a good time to be a Boy Scout because, apart from helping with The War Effort (which included collecting any kind of waste with which to hit the Germans) there was also such a shortage of manpower that it meant Scouts were often called upon when a lot of hands were needed.
One grey November afternoon I heard, over the radio, that the Warwickshire police were seeking volunteers to search nearby Sutton Park – mostly a marshland – for a missing woman.
We marched to the police station and, as most of us wore studs in our shoes, we made quite an imperialistic noise. As we swung into the police station everybody looked up including Chief Inspector Victor Rex Cogbill who had been seconded to co-ordinate the hunt. It was, of course, a Boy Scout’s duty to ‘serve God and the King’ and we instinctively recognised that the Inspector represented both.
But there was a distinct raising of the eyes when our village constable saw us. He towered above us, which was not difficult. He knew us collectively and individually and suggested to the Inspector that it would not be wise to have Boy Scouts wandering around the moors, especially as it was near dusk, and especially as the missing woman might have been murdered.
Murdered!
Now we were really keen. We all began tugging at the Inspector’s sleeve. He then nodded to the Constable who, with undisguised reluctance, allocated us a sector of the park which was particularly soggy.
We carried our patrol whistle which had a pea in it and we were told to blow it loudly if we saw or found anything.
We walked through strings of cold mist, down into the dale, singing patriotic songs in deep voices in the hope that if the murderer was around he would think the Eighth Army was bearing down. Although the sun was still two hours from setting the afternoon was gloomy and foreboding. Soon we were shivering and up to our ankles in black ooze.
Our voices trailed off and we lapsed into a silence. It was then we became aware of the distant baying of bloodhounds and our hair stood on end despite the weight of Brylcreem.
As it grew dark we closed up.
Each of us carried a scout staff, a long pole made from ash which Boy Scouts use for vaulting streams and building arch bridges similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. None of us had really mastered the art even of vaulting streams but we never gave up trying. As we advanced into the swamp I let Vincent Laidlaw go in front because, well, first it was good to give everybody a go at leading, and second, he had a bayonet lashed to his staff.
Darkness fell.
We were frequently sinking up to our knees in mud and were keeping so close together we kept standing on each other’s feet – except Arbuckle whose enormous feet enabled him to walk on the surface.
Somebody said ‘What if we run into the murderer?’ We closed up even tighter. It now became impossible to move in any direction. I decided to blow on the whistle but the pea kept popping out.
Late that night a huge spotlight that should have attracted enemy bombers from as far away as Schleswig Holstein began sweeping the marsh and it finally settled on us. There were dogs and voices and, in the white glare, some agitated mother-looking figures. A loudhailer said ‘Walk this way!’
We then learned that the missing women had been at a cinema. In those days you could sit there all day for a shilling.
The police had spent the evening looking for us.
There towered Constable Cope, his eyes raised up into his forehead so they gleamed like a pair of hard boiled eggs.
(Adapted from The Yellow Six – available via Amazon (kindle) and Smashwords.

The most beautiful site in Tuscany – in fact anywhere

(An extract from “Blazing Bicycle Saddles” – the story of how a bunch of retired daily newspaper editors from Africa decide to explore “Darkest Europe” and bring back to Africa stories of the funny natives there.)

I’m sure it was sheer fatigue that led to our confusion after landing in Rome and making our way to Tuscany. At the central railway station, considering we were all seasoned travellers, we had the devil’s own job finding the train to Florence where we were due to change for Certaldo, the starting point of our cycle ride across Italy. The Italian rail system does not make things easy for foreigners. In fact, we were often left with the impression that the Italians actively dislike visitors and would much rather would-be tourists stayed home and posted their money to them.

While I stayed with the luggage the other five set off in different directions on intelligence-gathering missions. One found the train to Florence was leaving from platform 1, two said it was from platform 4 and a fourth was told platform 9. As two concurred on platform 4 that is where we went. There we found an Italian family who assured us we were on the right platform and pointed to the indicator screen which read “Firenze” (It’s difficult to say why the Italians get the spelling so wrong.) It worried us, though that there were so few people yet the train was imminent. With only five minutes to go the family suddenly panicked and ran off into the distance shouting “Sette!” (Seven!) We hurtled along in their wake and were just in time to leap aboard the train. Thank goodness, I thought, that Peter who had just joined our team and at 58 was by far the youngest, had reduced the team’s average age (seventy one) to well below seventy, because we could never normally have run that fast with our luggage.

The train sped through countryside that was bathed in autumn sunshine and it seemed that every other hill wore a crown in the shape of a medieval citadel. As the express quietly hummed along and the blue-grey olive groves and lush vineyards slid past, some of us dozed off.

We reached Certaldo late in the afternoon and stepped out of the station, sweaty and unshaven after 24 hours of travelling by air from Johannesburg and on trains. We surveyed the town’s steep Via San Giugno leading up to the base of the centuries-old fortified upper town – Certaldo Alto where our hotel was situated at the summit. Although there is a funicular it meant a 500 m walk to get to it so we hired two taxis for the ascent through the maze of narrow cobbled streets to the very summit itself.

After booking into the 400-year-old Hotel Vicario Osteria we were supposed to turn left out of the front door and walk down the street to our rooms in a more modern 300-year-old annex. But something made us turn right. Call it a sixth sense if you like but we did it in perfect unison with our instinctive finch-like flocking motion. In retrospect it was probably because there was no sign reading “caffé” if we’d turned left and we were seriously dehydrated. Around the corner we saw – and I will try not to be too sentimental about it – one of the most beautiful sights in Tuscany. Nay, in the whole of Europe at the time. We found ourselves in a thirteenth-century piazza and there, on an iron table in a shady corner, a shaft of sunshine was beaming down on an object of singular beauty – a large glass of golden beer. We flopped into chairs and ordered one each – our first Italian draft birra. It came in a litre-sized mug and a minute or two later we were staring into our empty glasses. Well, at least, I was.

Later, too tired to change the clothes we had worn overnight and having decided on an early night, we wandered down a steep and narrow alley to a delightful restaurant where we sat on a terrace with a panoramic view of Upper Tuscany. In the valley below were Roman walls and tiled roofs glowing in the setting sun. Far to the south, high on a hill was a citadel, toothier with medieval towers than any we’d seen up to now – San Gimignano, our destination the day after tomorrow.

Some of us ordered wild boar for dinner. Remembering how the Ancient Romans had tried to domesticate Africa’s guineafowl I ordered that. It was excellent. Everything was excellent and we joined in some banter with an English family at the next table.

It was a clear, warm evening and, as the sun slid below the hills the lights of distant villages competed with the stars. We raised our glasses to Italy and toasted a lot of other things besides. Even our wives again. Alan suggested we send them flowers on the morrow. The silence that followed was broken by Rex who said with his usual gravity, “Never do anything that might vaguely suggest to those at home that we might be feeling even a tiny bit guilty about being here without them.” We solemnly raised our glasses to our treasurer’s unquestionable wisdom.

We agreed that as we had the whole of the next day to spare we would get a train back to Florence and spend the day there.

 

A matter of class

Being a travel writer I fly around a lot – some of it by plane. I love taking off for an unusual destination. Even more, I love taking off from that unusual destination bound for home.

On one occasion I was flying first class to London – a rare treat but travel writers occasionally get upgraded – and I found myself sitting next to the head of the London Stock Exchange. (It wasn’t, of course, just his head on the seat. There was a considerable amount underneath.)

I shared with him my expert opinion on the world economy. He occasionally nodded and sometimes even seemed startled.

I had sworn that on this trip I would eat and drink in Spartan moderation and I had managed to stick rigidly to this resolution right up until I entered the plane and was offered champagne. Free champagne is difficult to resist. Then came dinner… well the meals are such that it would have been churlish to have sent back an unfinished one. The hors d’oeuvres was “Osietra caviar from the Caspian Sea”.

“I am rather partial to Osietra caviar,” I told my companion. “Much prefer it to Black Sea caviar.”

“Really?” he said.

I then had roast duck served with grilled mango.

My travelling companion had chosen a delicious looking fish dish. I peered closely at it and frowned. Then I looked again at the menu and saw he must have chosen the “Chef’s choice”. Now why didn’t I do that? I suggested we swop but he said he’d rather not.

I read out to him that the menu said the dish “was developed for the Culinary Olympics in Berlin”.

The Culinary Olympics! “Give me a knife and fork and get me to the Culinary Olympics and I’d do my country proud!” I said.

“Undoubtedly,” he said.

I chose a 1994 Pinotage because of its “soft tannins” and wondered aloud whether business class gets harder tannins and “cattle class” gets tannins as tough as old boots.

Airlines have, since then, mostly done away with first class and now meld it with business class which is also luxurious. Often, after travelling business class, I have difficulty adjusting to the social level of my family and friends.

I rummaged in the complimentary toilet bag and worked out how “Ooncle Jum” (as I am called by my English relatives whom I intended visiting en passant) would distribute the largesse among his nieces and nephews. I’d be able to give one nephew the shoehorn; another the tiny toothbrush with the tiny one-squeeze toothpaste tube; another the comb; while my four lucky little nieces would get, respectively, the little bottle of toilet water, one earplug each and the toilet bag itself.

My sniffy little cousin Prudence would get the sick bag.

After dinner I felt like pulling back the heavy curtains that divided first class from business class and then the curtains that separate business class from tourist and, in the name of egalitarianism, tossing my first class chocolates among those at the far back. But, instead, I ate them while revealing to my Stock Exchange companion my plan for accelerating the world’s economic recovery.

I noticed he drank champagne with his dinner. I mentioned that I had been told to avoid drinking anything sparkling when flying because if the aircraft has to increase altitude the bubbles in one’s stomach expand and one could find oneself floating, like a dirigible, against the ceiling with no chance of descending until the plane resumed a lower altitude.

He looked at me for a long time.

As I say, I enjoy flying overseas but there’s nothing quite like it when, at the end of a sojourn, one gets to the airport well in time to relax before one’s departure and settles in the business lounge where drinks and snacks are free.

On the return journey I acquire yet another toilet bag but the last time I did the distribution bit at home, one of my daughters said: “Oh no, Daddy, not another shoehorn!”

Talk about spoilt! There are some kids who’ve never even seen a shoehorn.

[Extract from “Recalculating” (The funny side of travel)  available on Kindle and Smashwords].

The garden gnomes liberation front

A couple of years ago London’s Chelsea Flower Show reluctantly admitted garden gnomes for the first time in its 100 year history.

The English are funny about gnomes.

A few years ago somebody sneaked some into the show and unveiled them when nobody was looking. Shocked, show officials reeled about clutching their head bones – mainly I think because the gnomes were naked.

With or without clothes garden gnomes have come to be regarded by “top gardeners” (to quote a Chelsea horticulturalist) as the worst kind of garden kitsch.

Nevertheless, gnomes keep coming into the news.

A few years ago a house-owner in Tipton in the English Midlands was advised by the council that the two garden gnomes outside her front door were illegal. Each was no higher than a milk bottle. The council said “people might trip over them when running from a fire” – and I suppose, go arse over Tipton (if you’ll forgive me madam).

I would have supported the council but only because I believe keeping gnomes is cruel.

In Paris there’s a movement called the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. The GGLF kidnaps garden gnomes “to free them from domestic captivity” and returns them to their natural woodland habitat.

A few years ago 11 were found hanging from a tree – a mass suicide.

Some years ago I wrote about the GGLF and a woman telephoned to say her garden gnome had been stolen and that a week later she had received a postcard from the gnome saying he was at the seaside and having a wonderful holiday.

As I had, not long before, written about liberating gnomes, the woman (who sounded genuinely upset) blamed me for putting the idea into somebody’s head.

A week later she phoned again. She said that when she woke up her gnome had mysteriously reappeared. (Her gnome was ghome.) She said his face and hands had been varnished to a deep tan.

Gnomes do deserve sympathy.

Just listen to the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

“Rumps” is head gnome in a suburban garden. He has faced the same fence for 24 years.

He can see the front gate and one of his favourite distractions is the tumultuous arrival, once a week, of shouting, whistling angels in funny clothes. They come for the dustbins. Rumps has no doubt that they are angels and I’ll tell you why if only you’d be patient.

Rumps can also see the ridiculous little fishpond where dwells another garden gnome, Cyprinus, with his pointy red hat long faded to pink, holding a fishing rod with no line attached. His mind has long gone.

(Gnomes – their name is from a Greek word meaning intelligence – generally communicate using an extrasensory method.)

Rumps frequently ponders human heartlessness. He’s heard all about the human cruelty to metal birds which people buy at the roadside only to condemn them to a lifetime standing rigidly in one spot.

But metal birds at least have an ally – rust! Rust soon puts them out of their misery.

But ceramic gnomes go on forever.

A few doors down the road a gnome has stood “frozen” for 10 years in a bed of agapanthus whose pointed leaves tickle his noise and about which he can do nothing.

There is a rather gloomy gnome whose mismatched head comes from a different body – he came from a broken gnome.

Fortunately garden gnomes have their faith. Rumps often has to remind the more despondent gnomes that when they are irreparably broken – mercifully smashed by small children, or sent flying by a clumsy dog, or hit by a lawnmower – the pieces are placed in a large bin behind the house from where they are taken to the gate. Their remains are then carried off by the shouting, whistling angels in funny clothes who empty the bins into the Big Truck  that takes them off to paradise.

 

How flying was invented in Africa

[Extract from Recalculating, my latest eBook dealing with the funny side of travel.]

 I enjoy history and if you think it lacks humour then you haven’t heard of “feel-good history”.  I was taught it all my schooldays in England during World War 2. I learnt about “Rule Britannia” and the Empire and how the British bought lots of Africa and Asia, freehold, for vast sums of beads and little bags of salt and tobacco.

Feel-good history continues to this day

African-American Baseline Essays, published by the Portland Public Schools Board of Education, has as its objective the task of making African-Americans feel better about their past.  But some historians might consider that the authors of a certain essay went a little too far in asserting that Africans – genuine black ones – invented the aeroplane. They aver that the Ancient Egyptians were indeed black and they developed flying machines.

The essay claims a 14cm model glider was, at some stage, unearthed somewhere in Egypt and quotes an obscure authority who said: “The Egyptians used their early planes for travel, expeditions and recreation.”

Frankly I cannot see why there should be a controversy.

It is common knowledge in the circles in which I move – mostly very tight circles – that the Ancient Egyptians had aeroplanes and flew them all over the place. These planes were at first called pharaoh-planes in honour of an 18th dynasty Pharaoh who financed the research and development. After the Pharaohs died out the “ph” was dropped and the machines were simply called araohplanes (later spelt aeroplanes).

A site, believed to be an ancient pharaohdrome, has been unearthed very near where Cairo’s airport is today (loc cit.).

The first Ancient Egyptian aircraft was developed at Luxor by none other than Damocles Caliph III and was named the DC3 in his honour. It was known as a heavier-than-air machine on account of it being made of the same type of stone as the Pyramid of Khufu. Few Egyptologists are prepared to admit that the pyramids were designed not as tombs but for launching the first pharaohplanes. Slaves would drag the machines to the top, pour honey down the sides of the pyramids and tip the aircraft down the slope. The first planes, being, as I say, heavier than air, naturally nosedived into the sand.

Undeterred, Thutmose IV ordered a lighter and more porous sandstone to be imported from Thebes and this led to the first reported flight by Menhubotep II (none other) in 1286 BC at Kittihorus (Ibid., op cit. sit op.).

Many who witnessed its one and only flight – which was not terribly successful, the plane having crashed at the First Cataract – cried out: “A swan! A swan!” From this incident, Aswan, just below the Cataract, acquired its name.

Not surprisingly, Eurocentric history books do not record that Nefertiti began her career as an air hostess with Ancient Egyptian Airlines (Annals of Ramses II 1174 BC, tablet 34). The general manager was none other than the up-and-coming Tutankhamen. It is also not widely known that another great Egyptian queen – Cleopatra herself – began her adult life as an air hostess (el al). Cleopatra eventually founded her own fairly successful airline – Cleopatra’s Air Operations (C-Air-O) – the name later being adopted by the Egyptian capital.

Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, after defeating the Egyptians by verily smiting them with large catapulted rocks, took over the airline but unwisely began a price war with the Bedouin caravans whose camels were, in fact, much faster than even the later Bronze Age planes, weight still being a bit of a problem.

The last Ancient Egyptian airliner to fly – although the word “fly” is somewhat inappropriate here – had none other than the Roman, Pontius Pilot, at the controls. It crashed at A-syut in the Lower Nile valley and, according to legend, A-syut derived its name from Pontius Pilot’s last words before hitting the ground.

How I summited Everest

Expeditions to climb Everest this year are oversubscribed. – report.

Damn! For $40 000 I could have joined an expedition and had my own Sherpa.

Not that I hadn’t already climbed Everest. I seem to remember doing it in ’94. Or was it ’96?

It was that year when simply everybody was climbing it.

I remember reaching the summit. Oh, the noise! And the people!

I hadn’t really planned to climb. I was actually on my way back from our local hardware with a collapsible aluminium ladder to fix my gutters and just got swept along by the crowd.
Afterwards I found it difficult to understand why people climb Everest – apart from the fact that it’s there. There’s absolutely nothing to do when one is up there except freeze or fall off.

Once into the snowline I found the crowd had thinned so I plodded on following a line of people.

Accommodation was a problem. The base camp looked like a pop concert was taking place – Woodstock or something. So I pressed on to Camp 1. Same thing, except there was more nosebleed at that level and much more panting and you couldn’t see who was addressing you because their breath created a cumulus nimbus cloud totally obscuring them.

I pitched my tent next to a nice couple from Durban – Ernest and Molly Pemberton with their dog, Popsy. They said they’d never climbed Everest before, but they’d done Mount aux Sources from the Witsieshoek car park.
At Base Camp, they’d bumped into their neighbours who’d already summited with a bunch of noisy Japanese schoolchildren.

“They complained about the queues,” said Molly. “So I told them – if you can’t stand queues you shouldn’t be on Everest!”
During the night, a 120km/h wind brought the temperature down to minus 42 degrees. “Nippy, hey?” I quipped trying to raise people’s spirits. Ernest Pemberton laughed so hard that the cold contracted his teeth fillings which shrank and fell out.
Obviously he had to turn back because the queue at the dentist’s tent was half-way round the glacier. Molly said she’d press on with the dog.
Many climbers suffered frostbite and next day I saw several discarded fingers.
That’s one of the problems on Everest: the route up the South Col is littered with fingers and noses dating back to 1924 as well as discarded oxygen bottles and Kitkat wrappers.

You’d think people would pick up after themselves. Mind you, if your fingers fall off how can you?
Near the summit, the crowd thinned even more but, of course, the space available begins to narrow till eventually it comes to a point. That’s another problem with Everest: one constantly has to say “Excuse me”.

And then as I neared the summit the Indian bloody Army team came clomping down, followed by some Frenchmen who can be very pushy – rather like the Russian climbers who are rowdy with it.
There were Swiss, Czechs, Irish, Britons… There was a Chinese railway engineer using a theodolite. There was even a Zulu from Mtubatuba.

I got to the summit thanks to a Sherpa who said I could hang on to his belt with six Japanese ladies.
You should have seen the crowd!

I shouted “Sawubona!”  to the guy from Mtubatuba and asked him,  “Likuphi ithoyilethe?” (Where’s the toilet?)

He shrugged and said, “I’m a stranger here myself.”

He asked me to take his picture so I asked him to step back a bit.

Silly of me.

At the summit, seized by an inspiration, I uncollapsed my collapsible aluminium step ladder and sat on top of it. The throng fell silent. Many turned green with envy because they were standing at 8848 metres, but no man on this earth has climbed higher than me.