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Things aren’t what they used to be

Kid's having fun
Kid's having fun

It was the final sentence of Gill’s 60th birthday article that nailed it for me. “We were given the world when it was varied, various and mostly welcoming.” The world has changed so much over the past fifty years. The world has become closer with jet travel and countries have lost much of their individual cultural heritage. Not the ancient buildings or mountains, but the 1001 idiosyncrasies that communities draw into their everyday lives from custom and practice and inherited wisdom. Sanitation might have improved but step off an aeroplane now after 12 hours and the only difference from where you started is jet-lag.

When I was three my Dad took a flotilla of four frigates to New Zealand. The rest of the family followed on the liner Rangitane.  I can just about remember being towed through the Panama canal locks, then somewhere in the Pacific we hit a tropical storm. All passengers told to stay in their cabins while the storm blew out.  I escaped and managed to get on deck before being chased below by one of the crew. Shortly afterwards we crossed the equator. The event was celebrated by the usual ceremonies and a fancy dress party for the children. I was fitted out as a Vietnamese peasant girl with a lamp shade on my head.  All they could manage, but I was still mortified.

Further on the crew went on strike. We hung around somewhere (Cook Islands maybe?) until Mum got fed up with waiting and we completed the journey in one of the Short Sunderland flying boats that had just come into service on the Coral Route. Memorable.

In England life was grim in the late 1940’s. Britain frittered away centuries of wealth creation in World War 1. Anything left went down the pan in WW2 so by 1945 England was virtually bankrupt. There wasn’t enough money to pay for food imports so rationing continued until 1954. Even bread, freely available during the conflict, was put on ration in 1946. In 1947 Britain suffered the worst winter for 60 years. Each family was allowed no more than two and a half tons of coal for a year’s supply.  Most houses were still heated by open coal fires, water was heated with coal-fired boilers, and cooking on coal-fired stoves. People were desperate for fuel. Petrol rationing continued until 1950.

Food rationing had been imposed in New Zealand during the war, but only to create surpluses that could be shipped back to England. By the time we arrived all rationing had ceased. For us new arrivals from cold, hungry Britain, New Zealand was a land of milk and honey. Three years of carefree life followed, for Mum and Dad as well as us kids.  We stayed while new crews were trained, but the war was already well and truly over.

After a brief return to England we moved to Malta where I spent the next 4 years while Dad was attached to Mountbatten’s staff.  We lived in an old house opposite the church in Balzan, then a village but now a suburb of Sliema. Saints’ days were celebrated by firing off a line of petards filled with black powder (See wikipedia: …” home-made fireworks—a popular and widespread albeit highly dangerous hobby in Malta. These petards are detonated by the dozen during feasts dedicated to local saints. Maltese petards are made by common people without formal education in chemistry, as an exercise in traditional handiwork. Consequently, safety is frequently neglected and fatal accidents are common.”   I used to sit on a window ledge half way up the stairs, fingers in my ears, fascinated by the jet of flame and black smoke as each one was ignited. One day a bunch of my local mates dared me to jump off into the street below.  I did. Broke an ankle and spent a week in the local naval hospital.

During the summer holidays we ran wild across the island, swimming with Mum and Dad and my older brother.

Any heating was ramshackle so we never used it. Water for a bath was drawn from a well in the courtyard with a a bucket on the end of a rope. Winters in Malta can get cold so Mum took the chill off with a pan or two of hot water. Mum cooked on an old range, supplemented as necessary by the top of an “Aladdin” stove that also gave out some heat into the living room.

We played on redundant WWII airfields. On one, the remains of a single-seater fighter slowly decayed, but we could still climb into the cockpit and waggle the rudder and elevators with the joystick, press the button on top to shoot down imaginary Messerschmitts. We swam in St Paul’s Bay, then an uninhabited stretch of coastline, not the wall to wall holiday encampment of today. Dad made kites for us, and we flew them off the cliffs along the rugged West coast.  So high they were almost out of sight. My favourite was decorated with a picture of Mickey Mouse. Dad was a good artist, but never had th opportunity to use his talent.

Back to England just before I turned 10 and then packed off to school.

In my teens I hitchhiked around Europe, or when I was in funds took the train.  24 hours down to Spain, with a sleepy change-over at the Pyrenees where the rail gauges changed. Long distance travel by train across Europe could be tedious, but it gave you time to forget about England and embrace the sounds and smells of a new country.

The roof of the local train station still unmended from bomb damage during the civil war. One pound bought 168 pesetas, and 8 pesetas were enough to buy a fat cigar to take to the bull-fight. In Brittany farmers were still ploughing the fields behind a single horse. President de Gaulle reformed the currency so each 100 ancien franc converted to one nouvel franc. Most people still quoted prices in the old currency. Confusing, and you had to learn and understand big numbers pretty quickly. In Italy the 10,000 lire note was the size of a small newspaper.

I spent my gap half-year working partly illicitly in the South of France, because at that time Britain was still outside the European Community. News was dominated by OAS and FNL atrocities, and rumours that de Gaulle had opened negotiations with Ben Bella, leader of the FNL, the underground movement for Algerian independence.

And you only had to show the cover of your British passport to be waved through any border control.

Years later I was working in Madrid the week Franco died.  The country held its breath, but then Juan Carlos returned to the throne and led the country away from dictatorship. Armed members of the Civil Guard invaded Parliament. Juan Carlos addressed the nation, and the coup failed to attract popular support. In Portugal, Communism and the Right struggled for supremacy. It was still a fragile time for democracy on the Iberian peninsula.

Europe still delighted with its variety and surprise. How sad that so much has been washed away by the tide of EU uniformity.


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