Home Articles The Scots Lad Episode #1:The Scots Lad: In Tweed Jacket, hits Africa
Episode #1:The Scots Lad: In Tweed Jacket, hits Africa
Written by Gerry Hodes   
Thursday, 13 May 2010 18:37

It was the moonscape of London's Shadwell and Cable Street, through which desolation I had to walk twice a day to work at the London Dock HM Customs Office, where I was a newly appointed Assistant Preventive Officer, that helped persuade me to apply for the secondments to Zambia Customs which were on offer in late 1964.

Although twenty years after WW2's end, that part of East London was still bombed flat and, despite possessing quite a colourful imagination, it was hard to see just what could be done with it to make it resemble a habitat for humankind. I returned for the first time since in late 2009, by the way, and the endless monoliths of Yuppie flats, mean little townhouses and totemic anchor displays, infer that I wasn't alone in my puzzlement. There is still an absence of human life about and what there is, is first generation refugee. The Luftwaffe, in tandem with unimaginative property developers, have had the last laugh after all.

The thought of enduring a year or so rummaging smelly East European cargoes, before qualifying for a more heady location, such as the customs shed at Gatwick Airport, convinced me to become part of End of Empire. So, one or two Crown Agents interviews and (what felt like) several hundred injections later, plus a taxi trip with a driver who, on hearing that my destination was Zambia, advised me to learn Swahili, there I was, crammed in the back of a VC10 being sweatily transported to Lusaka via Entebbe.

My travelling companions were a motley crew of would-be and returning expats, the former full of nervous tension, but some excitement at the prospect of the African unknown: the latter seemingly anxious to add to our apprehension, with tales of terror and mayhem from the colonies and those of the London parking tickets they had collected with abandon, whilst on leave, but would never have to pay.

My concentration was consumed by seeking ways to assuage a raging thirst, since British United Airways apparently did not add to the aircraft's loading with a supply of drinking water and the toilet taps outpouring was non-potable. Not that I could really blame the mean-ness of airline accountants for my imminent death by dehydration. The real culprit was my mother, who had sent me to central Africa with a brand new, inches-thick, Harris Tweed Sports Jacket as a guaranteed defence against all known tropical diseases.

Being a virgin 19 (in my defence, this WAS 1965), I wore it obediently. Until they opened the doors at Entebbe Airport, that was. Even the Great UK Heatwave of 1962 had produced nothing like the temperature and humidity which assailed me as I trotted down the aircraft steps (then again, that year, we never travelled further than the Isle of Man). It was like being attacked by a flame thrower.

To my dryness now was added an unbearable itch, which resulted in the distinct impression that I was hurling vertically through crematoria ovens. What I now believe to be pity in the eyes of the African ground staff, I misinterpreted then as admiration for the stiff-upper-lip posture of this extravagantly and inappropriately garbed post-colonial person and I summoned up all my self-control to enter the transit hall, praying for some form of temperature relief.

Why I would imagine that a couple of ancient ceiling fans, desultorily swinging through the surly fug that was the ambient atmosphere and delivering nothing but a bit of slalom fun for a family of huge flies, would deliver me from the pain of my Brigadoon outfit, I can't explain, but the naive belief was there anyway.

Of course, my innocence may have been influenced by my near-conversion, from diffident Judaism to earnest Catholicism, that I had just undergone, the result of having just spent 8 hours pinned adjacent to the constant, out-loud praying of an Irish, trainee missionary girl, who was convinced that the VC10 was Purgatory and her next destination was the hot fires of Hell. Turns out, she wasn't too far adrift in her expectations, as she ended up in Darkest Copperbelt, nemesis for so many virgins.

Anyway, that's when I became a man for the first time. Not, unfortunately, by persuading the Dublin damsel that she may as well go the whole hog towards damnation and deflower both of us in the airport lavatory, but by taking the detestable item of thick, tailored torture and hurling it from the toilet window. Given the indestructibility that's built-in to these garments, I feel confident that, to this very day, it's probably being proudly worn by some airport transient who lived in the adjacent bushes.

As I left the transit cage, I felt a small blow had been struck for sartorial freedom and there was definitely an improved spring to my gait. Of course, I was never going to fit in properly to the uniform of the average Edinburgh Festival-goer again, but that's an infinitesimally small price to pay for independence. Especially for a Glaswegian. Ask Mel Gibson.

Okay, so this may not feature in the top annals of offspring disobedience tales, I grant you, but it was a start. And, dear reader, there was SO much more to come, over the next three years.

But first we had to land in Ndola and then Lusaka, so it was back on our knees for me and Mother Theresa Jr. and not in any sort of a nice way, I assure you.



Episode #2: The Scots Lad, sans tweed jacket, hits Lusaka