Travel broadens the mind, but because of the
people we meet and incidents we experience - rather than exotic
locations themselves. Sharing memories of those encounters later is
another pleasure. Here we dip into a few such treasured, or troubled,
OUR past can seem as strange as foreign lands, so many of the following excerpts and anecdotes are from here, this country, as well as there - overseas. These days I've not even been on a motorway for several years, despite a varied, well-travelled life which here opens inauspiciously (item 1 downpage) in the fog of old Salford.
66. My Past Flashing By
65. A Nightmare in Hemingway's Bed
But, firstly, it is also entertaining, I now realise, to recount just how my journey to Bimini in the Bahamas came about (see also item 59 below - A Bud and a Jack Straight-Up!) as well as the characters, places and often equally offbeat events leading up to it.
At the time I'd rather been cursing Dave for having upped and left our house in Leeds Road, shared with a couple of other young men. It didn't help us to get through a blustery winter on the Irish Sea coast knowing that he was swanning around the world with his girlfriend, another former colleague Esther-Margaret Lancaster.
Also, Dave had left an untidy collection of empty Guinness bottles round his front bedroom's window ledge and I discovered much-needed items of our house crockery shoved under his bed and now sprouting mould. However, he was about to make up for such slovenliness. The aerogramme, as these flimsy now extinct forms were then known, had exotic, printed Chinese characters upon it as well as my English address. What was more, its contents were so exciting that the toast got burned and my entire day and future life changed.
As Chief Reporter of the South China Morning Post, the region's leading English-language newspaper, Dave had fixed me up with a reporting job that paid Fleet Street rates in the exciting crown colony where income tax was a mere 10 per cent. What was more, they had a spare room in their Wanchai flat in the heart of downtown bars and restaurants. The choice was, as they say nowadays, a non-brainer. I handed in my notice, booked a cheap one-way flight and also got most of that year's UK income tax back.
It was an extraordinary flat and we were the only westerners within the 11-storey 'mansion' block on the major Hennessy Road. However, one drawback was a Filipino band who played until 4am in a nightclub under our floor. Perhaps that was why Dave and E-M left shortly after I arrived.
Eventually David came home to Blighty (where he had a seafront house near Brighton) and started up then later sold the successful Overseas Jobs Express. But before that, while still in Hong Kong, he introduced me to an equally colourful chap called Bill McDonald; a tall, easy-going, good-looking American rather younger than myself but already a successful toy importer from the States.
'Mack' was an easy man to like and he insisted that should I ever visit New York again (I'd once spent six months travelling across the States by Greyhound bus) we must get together - at least for a game of squash and beers. While in Hong Kong I also met an American couple, Dick and Bonnie, at Cantonese evening classes. We gelled too.
So it was that a few years later, after I'd returned to Britain, I went for four weeks to New York staying at lawyer Dick's Greenwich Village apartment with a view to a sideways beach holiday in Florida.
Dick and Bonnie were remarkably offbeat for such a successful pair (she was a designer for Revlon). They would walk down different sides of busy New York streets, yelling across at each other but too stubborn to cross over, and knew most decent bars around the 'Village', as well as the most interesting restaurants.
They were very kind but both working hard, so I also looked up old pal Mack, who was still a bachelor - but only just.
"Great, we'll play squash at the New York Athletic Club," he promised over the phone, "but there's a party I should take you to before then. I think you'll know the hostess - and she's loaded. Oh, by the way," he added in a memorable line, "I'm not in toys now, I'm a movie producer."
Naturally, when we first met up - at the rather literary Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan - I offered Mack the draft of my novel, Year of the Gwailo. I would like to add that he and his partners in that trendy production company he showed me round snapped up all the rights, then made a hit film and brought me fame and fortune. But they didn't.
Instead we went to that party, which almost impressed me as much. The spacious apartment was in a superb block on the lower waterfront, near an indoor tennis complex. We had to operate an outer security door, ringing up to the hostess's home, then negotiate with a very thorough, uniformed commissionaire, before getting to ride up in the elevator.
I mustn't have impressed her quite as much as Mack and David since, within minutes of us being introduced and chatting, she told me to do what Mack was already demonstrating his ability at - and circulate. While doing this I made a few memorable discoveries.
The first was that everyone, within moments of meeting you, asked what you did - which tells you a lot about them too. More congenially, I then discovered the spare bathroom had a bath full of crushed ice, to accommodate countless cans of beer for those not wanting more of the cocktails and wines being handed round elsewhere.
Finally, I came upon another partygoer who looked almost as lost and on his own as myself. He was admiring the panoramic view by a picture window as I, too, sidled up to escape small talk. At least this fellow appeared ordinary enough. We got chatting a little then, inevitably, I asked the party question.
"Oh, I'm a racing driver," he told me, confidently adding his name. However, not being a Formula One fan, I'm afraid it meant nothing.
What an incredible, sophisticated world I now seemed to be part of ! Even I, the humble grammar school boy from Manchester suburbs, could now drop impressive names of exotic places and colourful people. Getting around a bit can open so many new avenues.
“Muggers? I'll just beat them with my squash racquet,” a confident Mack reassured me.
His attractive, live-in fiancée was absent but we 'boys' loafed together eating pizza she'd left and watching an American football game he tried to help me understand.
I felt on top of the world, with all things possible, and was further excited about my holiday prospects when Mack said, “If you're going to Florida, you should hop over to the Bahamas on little Chalk Airlines. Go to Bimini, I've been fishing there – it was a favourite spot of Hemingway's.”
It was good advice but I should have taken more care in my arrangements. Despite my travel experiences up to then, I still had a lot to be taught about life – and I'm still learning now.
To join me on my journey back then, follow the links and other items mentioned earlier.
64. Food for Thought
THE past they say is a different country. When I was very young I remember a rare meal out on holiday at a seaside cafe/restaurant with my older brother and parents. I was on best behaviour as we relished one of the cheaper set meals, probably cottage pie or fish and chips, served by uniformed staff. What a treat! Then I heard something very rare - to our ears anyway - for those poor post-war days of the 1950s, a customer complaining loudly. Not only was this lone diner eating steak (then unknown to me) but he was not satisfied. This public display inspired an embarrassed silence among others, while a waiter took the steak back to the kitchen. In a whisper, I mentioned this to my father in hushed amazement. "Must be a Yank," he replied.
The following is another steak experience, many years later, as recalled in a chapter from my muse, 'The Growing Older Book', hopefully with many later revisions.
63. Christmas Cheer
THIS is a chapter from Life of Bliss, a 'fictional memoir' published in 2012 (see Books page). Hero Alfie Bliss is loosely based upon the author and some other characters upon his friends. However, its storyline has enriched real events to shed a positive glow upon life and uplift the spirit. Here he and partner Becky have returned from a holiday in Hong Kong to find their cottage's terrace in Cocker Parade, Blackpool, has suffered a blaze and they are temporarily homeless as Christmas nears. We join them in a fictional pub in Rural Fylde, near Alfie's brother's farmhouse.
“So how’s that house of yours Alfie?” a newcomer settled in an opposite corner chanted across the room.
At lunch times I would sidestep shopping trips into the Lakes’ market towns to have a “business lunch” with Humphrey, followed (for me but not Buttocks) by a stroll round Steeple Water. It was on these walks I began to develop some plans for our future. After all, this holiday, in one form or another, was going to last the rest of our lives. By the time the ladies came back in our bus, as I’d taken to calling the MPV, it was time to shower, have an aperitif and then dine.
62. A Taste of Irish
61. Coach into the Past
IT seems we have reached the age of coach travel, here at Edmonds Towers in Great Marton. She Who Knows has her eyes set on the Shearings' summer/autumn schedules.
Our motorway system, especially in the school summer holidays when we inadvertantly booked, has failed. Like those struggling service station facilities along them, our M-lanes are simply too full for right thinking humans to use.
Fortunately, coach drivers have their alternatives - dipping down into a maze of business parks and country roads, all while keeping us amused, fed, watered and well shepherded like a valued herd.
We were full of admiration for them - and the way they handled all our luggage to magically appear again in our hotel rooms. However, we preferred the quieter drivers who didn't think they could have been entertainers.
Also, a good tip with motorway services is to walk straight through. Usually, there are a few kiosks run by local suppliers and a sitting area out the back. The food here is fresher and cheaper, while the air is clear of fumes and the atmosphere more restful - with crumbs much appreciated by an array of birdlife.
It's true that most coach passengers are elderly, a bit slow moving, rather deaf and consequently occasionally loud when chatting. But, on the merit side, they also doze off after a while, have some old fashioned courtesy and the gentle humour that comes from going through life's mill. Most are likeable characters with a fund of shared knowledge.
On excursions it's easy to avoid the crowd. Simply walk the other way; investigate the quieter end of the village, or beauty spot. There's usually plenty of time to turn and follow their footsteps, when most of the others have decided to sit in the driver's recommended cafe.
Often daily excursions are included in the overall price, but we only take a few of those available on most days of the holiday. Who wants to spend their vacation on a coach? Besides, one quaint village or harbour cove looks much like the next.
Also, it seems wrong that the coach firms should drive their passengers away from their chosen resort, which needs their spending to survive. Many also contrive to keep you in their hotel - with a few free drinks. By all means enjoy these, but also move out and on. The Cornish people are friendly characters, their ale and food delicious and you should try the ciders - like 'Rattler'.
The coach journeys have so far also allowed us to relive our past haunts as children. The charm of old resorts remains, at least in quiet corners.
Then there were the Cornish pasties which, when staying as a family back in the early 60s, we bought from vendors and ate nightly to supplement our landlady's meagre meals. I remember my father and the other men staying at her guesthouse eventually complaining to the old battle-axe. Portions did improve. We no longer got only one bacon rasher each with our breakfast, while the teatime Battenburg cake was no longer cut into four tiny squares to share.
How deep and wonderful is our past when we delve back into it, rather like revisiting the ocean and being charmed by its splendour all over again.
Also, as adults we appreciate the history and style of past ages.There are no less than three grand Victorian hotels in Newquay, all of which I could only stare at from a distance in wonder as a child.
The town-centre Victoria still has its fine interiors and a garden overlooking the beach. However, amongst the aspidistras there is a slightly worn down air. On the plus side though, there is a good health club and indoor pool; cheaper rooms than before and affordable drinks and afternoon teas. The dining room retains its opulence.
Out on the far headland is the impressive Atlantic hotel, which has been modernised with tremendous verve and deals out wow factor by every turn. This is still very much four star, if a little remote. A good stone's throw to its side is the Headlands (pictured), which we preferred for its more traditional style. Here a crab or smoked salmon sandwich set us back £9, but it was worth it to linger in the beautiful ballroom, lounges and gallery rooms overlooking the mighty Atlantic and Fistral Beach.
The walk to these further flung edifices quite tired out She Who Knows, who elected for a taxi 'home' to our promenade hotel in the freshening Atlantic winds. Built of sterner stuff and ever the explorer, I preferred to stroll back into town and stop once more at a restaurant bar overlooking Newquay's old harbour.
Looking down the rugged coastline I picked out a cave by Great Western Beach. As a youngster I had surfed daily nearby and my mother, I suddenly recalled, had been caught there - desperately 'short'. Dad and I had to stand watch in the mouth of the cave as she entered its shadowy interior to find solitude.
"We'll call it Dirty Kathy's Cave," my father had announced when she finally emerged again, with a mix of relief and embarrassment. So it was and, also, so I remembered those sun-struck, happy days.
No wonder the sea draws us back to it, like the ebb and flow of life itself, that churning of past, present and future which holds us all in its flow. It was worth the coach ride.
60. Return to Blighty
THE sun was bright and it was hot in London as I returned in the summer of 1984 from years overseas. But it seemed a different country.
I was staying with friend Dave Part in East Smithfield, overlooking St Catherine's Dock in the revamped East End. It was very busy, even after Hong Kong. Also our quaint, cheap old haunts from Wapping to Brick Lane had been taken over by the City's new lords, the Loadsamoney gang.
"Must be busy," observed the patient Dave, a former Leigh rugby league man from Bolton way, as we queued on a Friday evening for a Bangladeshi restaurant.
"Sorry, sir," apologised embarrassed young Bangladeshis who weren't just being polite to us customers. Most were also daytime students of Dave's inner city school where he taught and inspired a healthy interest in his tough code of rugby football.
When we got as far as the restaurant doorway we saw the cause of this delay. There was a large table of boozed up, young, city types braying in the centre of the restaurant.
"Bring us more drinks!" demanded their rude spokesman although, judging from the detritus about them, they had finished their banquet.
"Only drinks for diners, sir," a plucky waiter tried to explain, pointing out, "many are waiting."
"Then bring us all the same food again - if it'll get us drinks," shouted the spokesman to guffaws from his drunken colleagues.
It was an unpleasant contrast to the decorum that had previously ruled our famed financial institutions and capital. So, this was Thatcher's brave new Britain. I hoped not.
It was a relief, after rather warm London beer and traffic fumes, to heave my heavy suitcase (now with a broken handle) on to the crowded Tube and head for Euston Station and the North of England.
But, again, it seemed a different countryside passing me in a blur of years outside. The land was no longer green but bright yellow. I hadn't seen fields of rape before.
Also, my money bought me less now. Instead of the banknotes I remembered, there were now pound coins and ugly 50p pieces.
As usual, most people kept themselves to themselves on the train, just as the suspicious, stand-offish Londoners tended to behave.
Finally, at Manchester Piccadilly, I left my suitcase in a locker and ventured out into my home city - before planning to take a train further on to North Wales, where my parents were now retired.
It seemed less impressive after the skyscraper cities of the Far East but, on the other hand, they'd finally cleaned away soot from the Industrial Revolution and old, stone buildings gleamed in the sunshine - well, rain actually.
It was nearby, too, that I got my first friendly smiles and humorous asides of welcome in a traditional pub - with cool cask ales at a reasonable price, then a pie from a chatty barmaid.
Ah, how wonderful to be back in the North-West!
An hour or two further up the track, I stepped out into refreshing, ozone-filled air from the Irish Sea coast. What a joy after city life!
I was home again - to stay.
59. A Bud and a Jack Straight-Up!
58. 'A Taste for Travel' is chapter 34 in Roy's autobiography Only The Good News - all food for thought, especially if you're planning to go Down Under . . .
57. Ghosts of Christmas Past
THIS recollection is more a journey into the past rather than a travel story, writes Roy Edmonds. It is set in the south-west suburbs of Manchester, where I grew up happily but was youthfully eager to move on from. Ironically, I now think the British suburb one of the pleasantest places to live but, as an adolescent, had found it too ordinary and unexciting.
No day was more tedious to a youth on the cusp of early teens than a Sunday, especially one where we had to spend the afternoon visiting family relatives. In fact, back then in the early 1960s, the Hughes weren't yet related but still merely the parents of my older brother's girlfriend.
I'm not sure how we got on to ghosts. Perhaps he'd asked about my faith, after all it was a Sunday and around Christmas time. Anyhow, I told him my doubts were based on never having seen any.
"Oh, I've seen lots," he told me matter-of-factly, as we enjoyed the best part of afternoon tea - some cake. "Always could see them. In fact, until recently I did exorcisms for our local church. The vicar would ask me to help, if people had problems from hauntings."
The cake was almost forgotten in this amazing revelation - delivered so casually. Moments later he was asking his formidable wife for more tea and appeared disinclined to continue, or had forgotten the thread of our conversation.
I eagerly reminded him and asked to know more.
"What sort of exorcisms?" I pressed.
"Well, the last was very sad," he told me. "The vicar asked for help as a young couple had bought this house but were being terribly disturbed. It involved children. I saw them at once when I entered - all in a corner of the lounge they were. There were a few of them and still very unsettled, lost you see."
He helped himself to more tea, then settled back in the sofa we were sharing. Around us the others were talking about furnishings and then my brother Mike and girlfriend Jen's examinations.
"They were quite happy then," Mr. Hughes recalled, "once they understood their parents were waiting for them. Everything went quiet after that."
He sighed. "That was my last case - had to pack it in. I've just got the band to play in now."
Had he mysteriously lost those supernatural powers - or exorcised all the local ghosts, I inquired.
"No," he muttered with a glance at Mrs. Hughes, now dispensing more cake, "it was upsetting my wife. We even got a visitation here, at home," he told me quietly. "Knocking on the front door it was, in the early hours on the morning. Woke us up it did. But no one visible, to her - just the old door knocker swinging, though there was no wind. Not at all pleased, she wasn't, most distressed!"
Mr. Hughes glanced at me in a knowing, man-to-man sort of way that I appreciated, then repeated, "Had to pack it in after that, didn't I?" He looked regretful but resigned to his fate.
We sat in silence a moment, contemplating this lost sphere of unworldly influence, but then both perked up as his wife offered us more cake. We were back to earth once more.
56. Travels with Mother-in-Law
As Wynne was then in her 80s, we were to accompany her and She Who Knows set about making it a holiday of a lifetime for us all. However, none of us realised how long a stride into the past we were to take nor that, for the inhabitants of Kandy, we were to raise a living spectre of Lady Mountbatten - formerly Edwina Ashley, also from Blackpool of which Wynne was so proud.
Our holiday was at the five-star Sands Hotel by the beach at Sri Lanka's oldest resort in Negombo - just north of Colombo. This, thankfully, entailed minimal travel from the airport as the busy city roads were chaotic and the climate humid and hot.
The Sands was modern and spectacular, with torch-lit dinners on the beach to live but tasteful musical accompaniment. The staff - and people generally - were most gracious and friendly. There was a stunning 'infinity' swimming pool and rolling ocean waves beyond. Sadly, the tennis courts were being renovated after tsunami damage which had blighted the whole coast.
However, this turned out for us to be a boon - since it led us to the nearest other court locally. This was at Brown's Hotel, just down the beach, a refreshing colonial contrast to the smart Sands (and inspiration for the novel A Punt Into Eden - see Story/Chapter and Books pages).
Here the coach had to paint his court's lines each morning on the sandy, clay surface. We also learned of a still older institution, Negombo Tennis Club. This was built up against an ancient Portuguese fort - now a prison, and had been originated by the colonial British in the late 1800s. Members were kind enough to let us to play, which was more than the colonial English had allowed locals to do.
The courts here, too, were sandy clay; the nets were blue, former fishing nets, but the standard of play was good, and the welcome generous on its airy terraces. A retired colonel of police, no less, kept Wynne company with cool drinks as we played. We even had a driver standing by for when we'd finished, as taxis were cheap enough to hire for the day.
Both Wynne and She Who Knows also delighted in the local herbal beauty treatments, which must have worked since the doctor administering them mistook me for Wynne's late husband and, much to her pleasure, to being She Who Knows' father.
However, on further travels inland, we were to stir still more formidable ghosts - after first encountering at close range a charging herd of elephants.
My mother-in-law's pluck and adventurous style are impressive, as are her social skills - she was for years employed by shipping lines and hotels as a cruise or holiday hostess for paying guests. During those travelling years, seeing the world by ship or car, Wynne and husband Jack - a retired insurance manager and talented musician - landed posts together, as hostess and pianist, respectively.
After Jack died, in his late 80s, Wynne kept up a busy diary of engagements back home in Blackpool - with civic dinners, luncheon clubs, bridge sessions, theatre groups and charitable works. She always exhibited great stamina, humour and enjoyed life to the full.
"Don't worry, dears, I was only drinking white wine," Wynne would grandly tell her concerned daughters, after driving home from a prolonged gathering with other ladies of a certain age who lunched.
This latter driver, of the three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi, had the magnificent monica of King Edward. He wasn't called after the traditional English potato of that name, but in respect of our royal family. I had already noticed this local tradition, upon names in some of the colonial church gravestones - Princess Mary, for example, as a christian name for a daughter.
This was one of the quaint quirks of Sri Lankan society, which maintained an old-fashioned and polite charm even extending into newspaper reports. People in such articles didn't 'die', or even become 'deceased', but 'passed on' or 'became late' - a far gentler way to impart the sad news, although most of the newspapers were full of a test match at Columbo with India.
One day, Wynne and I had a memorable drive with Gupti inland, to her late husband's former workplace at Kandy (pictured above). She Who Knows remained at the hotel, a nervous passenger at the best of times, after being horrified by the chaos on many local roads.
It was early morning when we headed out in style into the glistening green interior, driven by the middle-aged Gopi in crisply ironed white shirt and as attentive and reliable as a major domo from the Raj.
Just over halfway from our Negombo resort to the old capital of Kandy, there was a memorable stop in the hills at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. Here we could watch baby elephants, saved
It was time to point the Hillman saloon firmly up towards Kandy, where we ate a mild curry at a hillside restaurant before dropping down to admire the former capital's grand man-made lake.
The lake was created in 1807 by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the last ruler of the kingdom. However, its placid majesty belies a harsh history out of step with these gentle inhabitants. Several local chiefs, who protested because their people objected to labouring on the project, were put to death at stakes in the lake bed. The island in the centre was used as Sri Wickrama Rajasinha's personal harem, to which he crossed on a barge.
The British later turned it into a military installation, adding a fortress parapet. The other most prominent construction is the impressive Temple of the Tooth, so called as it houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic - one of his teeth.
But now we were close to our own relic of the past and mission, the Royal Botanical Gardens where Wynne's late husband Jack served with Lord Mounbatten. Leaving Gupti resting in the Hillman under shade, I reverently accompanied a well-turned-out Wynne as, with rather fine walking stick, she entered the Gardens' great gates for a stroll back into a fabled past. What ghosts we were to stir there!
The botanical gardens were indeed majestic, evoking a Victorian past and calm that still refreshed in the cooler air of the hills.
"Those are the offices, where they worked," Wynne said, "and their barrack quarters." With elegant walking stick, she pointed towards the nissan huts where her late husband had worked and lived alongside Mountbatten's other intelligence staff in the closing stages of the last world war.
The gardens in front of the huts were still well maintained, in tribute to those who helped liberate the region and end that terrible conflict. Somehow, the past with its ghosts is as close and real in Sri Lanka as today's events - excepting, of course, cricket test matches that vie with religion for paramount importance.
At its entrance, we helped a local couple who wanted a photograph of themselves taking - then posed for a few pictures of ourselves, the only westerners around.
Finally, we emerged from the Gardens' great gates heading towards where driver Gupti was stood, almost saluting and ready for our return journey.
"Did you enjoy your visit, madam?" a passing local asked politely, encouraged by Wynne's regal smile upon all.
"Oh, yes," she told him, always happy to chat, "it was wonderful - especially to see where my husband lived and worked during the war, with Lord Mountbatten, you know?"
The fellow stared, scarcely believing what he had, I alone realised, misheard.
"Lady Mountbatten?" he asked respectfully.
"Please, Lady, you wait!" implored the mistaken local, issuing urgent instructions to some companions who also now murmured in awe.
Someone was despatched to a nearby house from where an old chap with a walrus moustache was wheeled out in a bathchair to meet this VIP visitor.
The crowd around Wynne was growing steadily, charmed by her polite remarks about Kandy and the Gardens. Children were giggling excitedly, photographs being arranged and there was a carnival air.
The veteran with his magnificent moustache seemed transported with delight, barely able to take in Wynne's majesty as he bowed repeatedly.
Only I seemed to appreciate the chaotic misunderstanding that had now got so out of hand, or perhaps the wily Gupti also realised. There was a distinct grin about his features as he at last led Wynne from her admiring throng and into the back of the polished Hillman.
I slipped in beside her and, as we slowly pulled away, Wynne waved regally.
"What wonderful people," she sighed appreciatively, quite oblivious to the misunderstanding she'd unwittingly been at the centre of, "they're so friendly, aren't they?"
Darkness began to fall early as we cruised slowly back through increasing traffic in late afternoon, come early evening. Now happily exhausted, Wynne lay back her head, allowed her chin to drop and slept deeply.
Outside, as villagers passed by our car, now halted or only edging forward in a jam amid gathering darkness, people again began to stare at the elegantly dressed, elderly lady in her chauffeured, escorted car.
Some now looked quite alarmed by her pale face in the dim interior, where I sat rather on edge at the heavy traffic that would delay our journey home.
Then I realised why they appeared so concerned as, prostated by tiredness as she now was, my dear mother-in-law could have been easily mistaken again - but this time for, as the local papers would say, a lady who had passed by . . . and was now late.
55. Secret of Happinesses
WE ended our Vietnam journey at Ho Chi Minh City, writes Roy. It was the former colonial capital of French Cochinchina and still known as Saigon, if not as 'Paris of the Orient' anymore.
The climate was sub-tropical with once grand and airy buildings still striking for their colourful style but, by our arrival in 1996, crumbling with age, disrepair and war damage.
This was a lesson learned from my travelling companion Howard Sunderland, a tennis coach from Blackpool who had visited Saigon and Vietnam once before. In fact, Howard was to return a year or so later and stay for many years, marrying a girl he met while we were there and finally returning to England with their daughter. Tragically, he died of cancer soon afterwards. His advice on 'small steps' reflected much of his general approach and considerable charm.
"Don't panic or falter in your small forward steps," I added in that article, "and oncoming traffic weaves around you. In fact, it's not a bad lesson for life."
In Howard's own travel diary of the time, in the back of our battered Lonely Planet Guide Book, he records meeting up with his great former friend Heinz, a Swiss German who had a Vietnamese wife and was running a bar and restaurant in uptown Don Dat, near the Opera House.
'After a good look round town and a beer in the Rex (classic hotel with roof garden frequented by war correspondents), back home for a snooze,' Howard wrote. 'Then decided to check on Heinz in the Rolling Stone bar and, blow me, if he wasn't next door - pool cue in hand, like time stood still.'
Later, at Heinz's air-conditioned bar called Sapa, we had our first western meal in Vietnam - along with many complimentary drinks from a new, top-of-the-range beer dispenser our big, genial Swiss host proudly called 'my special fountain'.
A late supper was later enjoyed with Heinz and his mix of friends at Kim's, a popular meeting place for budget travellers.
I noted in my travel article, "Saigon has its ancient and modern relics but one unexpected sight was a reminder of home - illuminated signs on taxis for Fisherman's Friend lozenges, from Fleetwood."
Meanwhile, Howard was resting after our first epic day in the city when we were on the go for almost 24 hours. We both caught up on sleep but then he 'popped out' to a barber's before meeting his girlfriend.
I feared Howard had got lost or failed to take careful 'small steps', when he hadn't returned five hours later. But this was the time he had spent in the barber's, where they not only cut his hair but shaved him, cleaned his ears, gave him a manicure, free beers and, finally, a head massage.
'On our last full day,' Howard later recorded in his diary, 'Roy and I had a look around the Reunification Palace and discovered a seat with a view!'
This was a cryptic reference to the former Presidential Palace of the South Vietnamese Government, under American patronage during war years.
As at the former American Embassy, where helicopters famously picked up the last departing staff and regime supporters, the palace had eerie echoes of past events.
Off an exhibition hall, Howard and I had stumbled by chance upon a large private lavatory suite of presidential grandeur. It was not on the tour so, while inside, we were each undisturbed.
From the elevated viewpoint of our respective W.C.s, we looked down upon a presidential drive ending in high gates that were demolished by a tank of the triumphant Vietcong (and which was still there) - a scene that was to go around the world.
It was like a sudden, poignant glance into history.
However, a concluding sentiment in this much maligned but beautiful country comes best from the attractive wife of Heinz. She explained to us why people we had met were so cheerful, despite their daily struggles with recovery.
"Happiness," Ahn told us, "is not some flighty bird you must pursue and capture. We Vietnamese believe we are born with happiness - and it's one of life's important tasks to preserve it."
54. 'The House of Women'
VIETNAM journey; Log entry, Nov. 12: 'Arrive Nha Trang in reasonable shape after 14-hour trip. Bigger than remember it. Ate some Bao Zeo pancakes, a couple of beers and bed.'
The coastal Highway One appeared continually under repair from our air-conditioned coach. It was also possible to fly between main cities for around a million dong or £70, though Vietnamese Airlines appeared riskier than local drivers.
We'd found a reasonable hotel room not far from a rainy promenade then, weary from our road journey, had supper at a place he'd found that did pancakes.
I think they should be spelt banh xeo, but they were delicious and the only thing on the menu. The basic pancake house was run by three or four friendly ladies, who took a shine to us.
Their pancakes were a mix of boiled pork, prawns, spring onions and mint leaves spread generously on to fresh pancake then wrapped up, like a giant spring roll which you dipped into a sweet chilli sauce.
Two each made a terrific feast, served with chilled bottles of local beer - even worth putting up with the apparently endemic cockroaches.
I went for breakfast next day (our hotel only did a basic continental) and they were serving a pho, or soup, with noodles, various leaves, vegetables, flower petals and noodles. The sea air was fresh and sun shining. It was one of the tastiest and most restoring breakfasts I can remember.
But let's get back to Howard's log. I'd already told him of longing to take a dip in the ocean, saying, "I don't feel I've really arrived in a country until submerging myself in its sea."
Log entry, Nov. 13: 'Roy's big day down on the beach, which is terrific. Too hot to sunbathe, splashed around, had a great massage and burnt my feet in the process.'
Roy adds, from a travel article later: 'With November temperatures in the 80s, the sea at Nha Trang's perfect crescent beach was cool and clean. There are also islands a short boat ride away and excellent scuba diving. Inland, rivers meander among mangroves into dense jungle and thatch villages.
For our later entertainment, Howard notes: 'Truly awful meal in the evening (our first 'proper' tourist restaurant); which was rescued with a few beers with Bao Zeo girls at House of Women (as we'd nicknamed their place, where new women helpers emerged upon each visit). Leaving tonight for Sai Gon, on the night train. They (House of Women team) fixed us up in a hotel. See her (H's past Vietnamese girlfriend in Saigon) when we get there.'
Tui (a girl he'd met before) had changed quite a bit, put on a little weight, on the verge of marriage, I think.
Anyway her English hadn't improved a great deal, so the whole thing was a bit confusing.
Sharing the cabin with an O.K. Danish couple. It's pretty hot and insect ridden. Good test for the old Jungle Formula.'
Incidentally, Roy adds, we also took a trip outside of the resort town to view a giant Buddha statue. However, what made the greatest impression upon me while there was an inland view from the estuary bridge. Fishing boats were painted in dragon colours and headed down-river into thick jungle, as seen on those U.S. war films from Vietnam. That dark, threatening passage was just a cyclo's run from our beautiful beach, with pancakes on hand from the friendly House of Women. How quickly the world about you can change.
53. Steaming Ahead
BY our fifth day in Vietnam my fellow traveller, tennis coach and Blackpool pal Howard Sunderland, and I were halfway down its beautiful coast.
Howard and I travelled light in more sophisticated style, with cotton slacks and shirts rather than shorts and T-shirts (in which you roasted and were bitten), while carrying neatly packed holdalls with shoulder straps. Shorts also offended locals and large packs were cumbersome on crowded public transport.
Howard made a couple of entries in his log for the day: 'Minibus down to Hoi An via Da Nang. Da Nang looked pretty awful, glad I'm not stopping.' Then, later: 'Very tired and hot in Hoi An. Nice fishing village but too many gai-jans (western foreigners); splendid Chinese/Vietnamese hotel.'
A reminder of the 'American War' was a printed request in the hotel rules to, 'Please leave any firearms and explosives at reception'.
Strolling in the quiet of mid-afternoon, I was struck by the great age and craftsmanship of a wooden bridge across a river in the town's heart, with a quaint Chinese-style tea house sited in the river.
History appeared to have stood still in this now quiet but once prosperous port. Then we saw the crowds of locals heading in great excitement to its main road. They were welcoming the future; easier transport, more tourists and prosperity.
To mounting cheers from spectators, the first tarmacadam was being laid in the area - flattened by an old steam-roller.
We had beaten progress here by just a few hours.
At night we left silently on that new road, heading further south in a spacious coach, on a 14-hour journey to Nha Trang, Vietnam's main beach resort. How I longed to take the plunge and bathe there in that sparkling sea!
52. Kings of the Perfumed River
ON the fourth day of our Vietnam journey, I and tennis-coach friend Howard alighted from an overnight train at the ancient capital of Hue, near the Central Mountains, writes Roy.
Picturesque Hue was bathed in gentle sunshine. Its wide colonial avenues were tree-lined and restful after the clamorous streets of Hanoi; the locals relaxed and friendly.
With the help of our Lonely Planet Guide, we found the Le Loi - a rambling, French-colonial style hotel with gardens down to the riverside. An air-conditioned, ensuite twin room, in a shaded chalet away from the main thoroughfare, cost a mere £10, or fifteen US dollars or so.
We had already discovered, to our joy, that a good night out with food and drinks could be had for a couple of dollars or pounds sterling (or 30,000 dong). This beautiful country was, of course, still recovering from years of savage warfare, along with the extra burden of a continuing U.S trade and aid embargo.
Hotel rules at different places gave a glimpse of war-torn history, and of traditional values. One warned, "No weapons or explosives to be taken into hotel room," while another insisted, "Couples want to share room, must have a marriage certificate."
After showering, we had an omelet (always a reliable standby) for lunch, at the hotel's white-linen dining room bedecked with fresh flowers. I think the shy but friendly, young male receptionist had rather fallen for my younger companion's easy manner and good looks - as most of the native women also did. What's more, the receptionist was to help us through an embarrassing plumbing emergency the next morning. In the meantime, he organised for us what turned out to be a highlight of our tour - a boat ride, also the next morning, to visit temples of former kings along the Perfumed River; just £8 in total for six glorious hours, including a seafood banquet prepared by our boatman's wife.
We chatted to locals, eager to practise English, had a couple of locally brewed beers then dined at a cafe, where the 'menu' was scrawled in French on the walls. The easiest way to decide what best to eat seemed to be picking the most expensive on offer. Only too late, as we savoured medallions of sweet meat on a bed of pasta, did our school-boy French reveal what we'd ordered . . .
Howard's succinct log in our travel diary for that first day in Hue reads: "Hue: dined on dog, met a beautiful girl." His entry for our epic second day adds, "Boat trip down Perfume River, very peaceful and relaxing. Met the beauty again - really pretty."
Next morning we had to rise early for our boat ride and, as it turned out, to disaster . . .
Howard, I should explain, was one of those people who need 10 hours sleep and are still dozy in the morning. He was leaning heavily on the washbasin in our bathroom, recovering from his early rise, when it collapsed. Also, coincidentally, our full loo was refusing to flush. Water, foul as well as fresh, was everywhere.
"All clean up, never mind," assured our hotel receptionist. "We change room - please you go to boat."
So we did, not the packed tourist one we saw at a nearby jetty but one specially for us - with two armchairs, either side a cool pack of beers, under an awning where the boatman's wife was preparing our lunch of freshly fried tuna.
The distant tombs of emperors proved no less spectacular and charming, free from other tourists and, those a short way inland, reached on the pillion of motorbikes ridden by entrepreneurial teenagers.
We returned to our new garden room refreshed and restored; to see all our meagre travelling clothes neatly hung, and Howard's toilet bag dutifully unpacked about a fresh, clean sink.
We felt like kings as we prepared for our next journey south, to the ancient and picturesque fishing village of Hoi An - where another surprise awaited.
51. Slow Train South
OUR first experience of Vietnamese rail travel was going south down the long coastline, writes Roy. We were on an overnight sleeper from Hanoi to the old capital of Hue. The long, diesel-pulled train was painted in an institutional green and stood tall in the tracks; we had to clamber up aboard from the station platform.
As far as I recall we had the compartment pretty much to ourselves, though on later trips we shared. One quiet, well-to-do Vietnamese kept himself to himself; a German backpacking couple were jolly and particularly favoured and bitten by mosquitoes; a Swedish couple were a pain - with the pith helmet-wearing man objecting to Howard smoking his cigar - which helped keep mosquitoes at bay. Then there was a drunken steward who tried to join us on another occasion, fed up of his deckchair in the corridor. He finally left when we threatened to tell police at the next station of his harassment. The poor man apologised, red-eyed, next day.
The trains were ex-Soviet and solidly built, except that ceiling fans stopped working as soon as we pulled out of the station. This meant you were plagued by mosquitoes. On the top bunk they amassed on the ceiling just centimetres from your face. Howard would cover himself with Jungle Formula deterrent spray but missed the tip of his nose, which - much to my amusement - got bitten.
The journeys were slow, halting affairs. In the late 1990s Vietnam had only a single-track railway system. Whenever we met an army or more important official train, ours would be shunted off into a branch siding to stay idling for hot, humid hours (or so it seemed).
It was also the worst railway food I have tasted - usually stale, doughy bread with what looked like shredded cabbage and an uncertain paste, or tough meat, served in a cardboard box. Better, by far, to bring your own - along with a few drinks. The coffee, though, was acceptable - thanks to French colonisation.
A toilet and wash basin were kept serviceable for each carriage. To stretch my legs I explored further down the train. Second and third class were more packed with no fold-down bunks. Then, eventually, I entered bottom class. This was simply hollow carriages with low, wooden benches running lengthwise. No wonder it was called 'hard-seat' class. However, families were cooking meals there which looked far tastier than our ticket-bought snacks.
There would be paddyfields worked by peasants in coned hats, harnessing lumbering water buffaloes; lakes with long fishing canoes, their owners using trained herons to catch their fish; all this sheltered and enhanced by a stunning backdrop of green moutains.
Then we would be passing a tiny village, its schoolchildren all waving from in front of their timber classrooms and, finally, at a bend in the coastline, miles of unspoiled white beaches and palms, a dazzling South China Sea that I longed to plunge into and swim.
What a privilege, it felt, to be transported so comfortably (once the train was moving and our barred windows open for air) past such untrammelled landscape.
On village streets the food would have been delicious, too. It was just the soured ways of a Soviet-built and officially over-burdened, state-run railway that left a bad taste in the mouth.
Still, we had no real complaints. Later, we were to find the wars had left many roads unpassable, owing to bombing and shell damage. They ran beside endless military graveyards and minefields, dotted with rusting tanks and half-sunken artillary.
It was easy to share the excitement at one isolated country town, when its first tarmacadam was laid. The whole populace, including Howard and myself, turned out to cheer on a Victorian steam-roller.
Progress was at last coming to this beautiful land and its hard-done-to but deserving people.
50. Meeting 'Colonel Stool'
THERE was an excitement and clamour about the railway station in Hanoi, as at the start of all great journeys, writes Roy. This was also evident in the popular, open-air cafe close by, where we were drinking weak draught beer and checking our travel plans.
My companion, tennis coach Howard, and I were then interrupted by a tall, silver-haired westerner named Phil. He was also travelling south and begged a glance over our Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, since he'd lost his own.
"Your Annamites are beautiful and resilient people," he told us. He also agreed with a traveller's comment in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which I quote now below:
'Of the 30 or so countries I have been to, Vietnam is easily the most beautiful. I saw more shades of green than I knew existed. Rice fields manually tended from dawn to dusk were always in view, as were forest-covered mountains. I also frequently caught glimpses of pristine deserted beaches from the train window as we made our way along the coast . . . '
Phil, it turned out, had been an Army captain and, by chance, led British soldiers who liberated Saigon from the Japanese (who, in turn, had driven out the colonial French). He was telling us this in 1996 yet remembered vividly those bloody days in the 1940s, decades before Vietnam's notorious 'American War'.
"The worst mistake I made was releasing French Legionnaires," he recalled. "They were animals and went round killing, raping and pillaging. We couldn't cope on our own. In the end, I had to re-arm some of the Japs and they helped us police the city."
His best decision, Phil considered, was not reopening the town's brewery. As a result his troops remained sober. But the locals and their country had always impressed him so, now widowed and in his last years, he was retracing his footsteps and memories.
"And how are you young fellers doing?" the genial Phil finally asked, as we all made our way to Hanoi Station. "Are you keeping well?"
We were and also admired his spirit of adventure and robust health. Then he let us into a military secret.
"Always check your stools!" he advised. "First business of your day! I always told my men that, too. It shows up any problems early. That helped get us all through."
As Vietnam's railway was a single track down its long coast, we were to bump into Phil many times on our journey: to old capital Hue, through Nha Trang to today's Ho Chi Minh City.
Eventually, we even saw our rather eccentric and slightly befuddled friend, the old war hero, being lauded on Vietnamese television.
By then we had fondly promoted him in our thoughts, knowing he would greet us with the same cautious concern: "How are your stools?"
49. Temple of Learning - and a Bristling Menu
AT the end of the 1990s I was on a tour of Vietnam with friend Howard Sunderland, who had visited briefly there before and become enamoured - writes Roy.
Apart from stunning landscapes between mountain jungle and sandy beaches; the natives were attractive, friendly people - and it was cheap.
A good night out with food and drink could be had for a couple of pounds sterling (or 30,000 dong in local currency). The most readily accepted money was, ironically, U.S. dollars.
This was the old communist capital of the north, demonised and ruthlessly bombed by America in their terrible war from the 1960s.
Being on the ground gave you a different perspective. We had visited the mausoleum of leader 'Uncle' Ho Chi Minh, but hadn't known he read law in England.
Neither had I previously realised the Vietnamese had such a proud history and war record. When hated French colonialists ran from invading Japanese in the Second World War, locals bravely fought for their freedom with weapons dropped by grateful Western allies. After the Japanese were driven out, however, the Allies denied Vietnamese their independence and reconstituted French rule. This the locals overcame against massive odds - even after the Americans became involved.
With a long running U.S. trade embargo, the war-ravaged country was impoverished but bore us western visitors no grudges.
The depth of Vietnamese culture and history struck me most poignantly at Hanoi's Temple of Literature. This was an oasis of calm near picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. It was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucious. Vietnam's first university was established there six years later.
Although centuries earlier than Oxford or Cambridge, the Temple, with its entrance gate (and original inscription asking visitors to dismount) had courtyards with a similar air of learning and tranquillity.
The temple also held a lesson for me. In one of its pavilions, students were practising on antique string instruments. The girls wore traditional white robes, or ao dais, and were charming. They were also charmed in return, by Howard. He was, after all, several years younger than me; a couple of inches taller, and with the darkly handsome looks of an Italian father. I might not have existed - for all the attention heaped upon him. It was my first experience of that 'invisibility' an older person gets used to from the young.
As our last hours in Hanoi passed, it was time to take an overnight train down coast to the ancient capital of Hue, near the central mountains.
But first, at a small street restaurant, it was hard to reconcile the simple premises with a menu of exotic game. Were there really wild boar and venison out back? Grilled porcupine tickled the fancy, but doubts returned at cat pie. In the end we stuck to our staple street food of pho, or stewed meat (pork and chicken, hopefully), vegetables and noodles - delicious.
Our diary from that time, written in the back of a battered Lonely Planet guidebook, records us then obtaining train tickets - before enjoying draught beers in the Hanoi sunset, at a popular, open-air cafe near the railway station.
All unexceptional, the diary records, apart from a chance meeting with 'Colonel' Phil - soon to be known to us as Colonel Stool, a fellow traveller with remarkable stories . . . as well as healthy army advice.
We'll continue our journey soon.
48. Blue Moon in Hanoi
BY the late 1990s I'd given up working overseas and was settling down here on the Fylde coast, writes Roy Edmonds. However, I wanted to see Hong Kong before it reverted to Chinese rule and also had a rare chance to tour Vietnam with someone who knew it well.
My companion would be tennis coach and friend Howard Sunderland who, though in his 30s and a decade younger than me, had seen a good deal of that country before.
Howard would show me Vietnam; I would reveal Hong Kong to him.
We arrived with little ceremony at Hanoi, after a short flight from Hong Kong where we'd rested only briefly in Kai Tak airport - after flying from UK.
It appeared surrounded by paddy fields. On a mini-bus ride into town, we passed simple villages and I remember seeing a pretty, young local girl leading a huge water buffalo by the nose. On the Oriental calendar I am an ox or buffalo and, after years clumsily toiling and muddying my feet in the Far East, rather empathised with the lumbering beast.
Hanoi reflected its French heritage with wide boulevards and elegant, shuttered villas and pavement stores; but was crumbling with age, neglect and years of American bombing. The boulevards were a seething mass of cyclists, rickshaws, buses and scooters - all honking their horns. It was hot and chaotic.
We found a cheap and clean shared room, thanks to our Lonely Planet guidebook, and - despite both having indomitable snores - caught up with our sleep until early evening.
During the long and vicious Vietnam War over the 60s and 70s, we in the west were led to believe Hanoi, capital for the communist and ruthless Vietcong, was a centre of evil intent.
How amazing, then, to awake and see it in twilight, as birds nestled in the trees and a mist settled upon the tranquillity of Hoan Kiem Lake just across the boulevard from our inner-city hotel.
"Just take little steps and don't stop or falter," Howard had advised, stepping out into the mass of traffic that miraculously parted around us like the Red Sea before fleeing Israelites.
People smiled readily and children were apt to hold our hands; good noodle broths and stews, served with locally brewed beers, were available for around one U.S. dollar - between us.
There were no recriminations here, least of all from those who milled about the popular street-side book stalls with many western novels on sale (particularly Jeffrey Archer's).
People were impoverished but clean and polite. They made us welcome and were gently curious.
Then, as our longest day waned, an aged jazz combo led by an alto saxophone played a haunting rendition of Blue Moon. How enchanting, human and peaceful.
47. Caveman Instinct
WHEN I got tired of living in cities it was the Greek Islands that offered an antidote, writes novelist and restaurateur Ed Black (see our Books page).
There in the Aegean, days were full of sunshine on the beach, followed by sultry evenings in tavernas or rooftop dancing beside the sea. But was it all just a mirage?
A former P.R. man, I considered myself well-travelled, worldly and, as a young bachelor back in the 1980s, quite a swinger.
However, on Mykonos I saw an incident that took my breath away. Here, I was left thinking, was life at its most elemental and stunning. What was more, the event happened daily.
Now Mykonos was famously broad-minded and had two well-known nudist beaches: one hetero, called Paradise; the other gay, called Super Paradise.
But I'd stumbled upon an unspoiled beach elsewhere, with just one taverna. Here boats only docked if asked to, while few visitors knew the way to it walking from white-washed and winding Mykonos town.
It was nudist, all the regulars young, attractive and tanned, coming sometimes for weeks on end from different parts of the world.
You lay on the beach in your buff and tried not to stare; swam out naked in the silky sea; chatted or played backgammon, and only put on clothes if going in the taverna or departing for town.
I'd been gently chatting up a girl backpacking from New York, lay sunning ourselves on a rock out at sea, when I first witnessed the naked horseman.
You couldn't miss him. He galloped down on to the beach, stark naked, long hair flowing, riding bareback on a white stallion.
Any men who thought themselves smooth or stylish on the beach were hopelessly upstaged.
He trotted along the shore front then waded out to sea on the horse, washing it and himself in the deepening water, while still mounted.
Finally, he'd turn back to shore, canter gamely on to the sand, then look around. When he'd made his choice of the women watching him in awe - he would wave them to approach, or walk to where they lay and stretch out his hand.
It didn't appear to matter whether these girls were accompanied by a man or not, they never refused.
We would watch silently as the chosen one stood, took the rider's hand and was swung up - naked - to ride bareback behind him, clinging on as the horse broke into a gallop.
At the end of the short, crescent beach, the rider would ascend a small headland then rear up his horse - making his passenger cling still tighter - then gallop out of sight.
Follow that, I thought.
Later, in town, I learnt from locals the naked rider was a fallen priest from Rome. After being defrocked, the Italian had come to the island then settled in one of the many caves where islanders, too, had once lived.
He was said to be eccentric, perhaps even mad, but to the islanders he had the holy air of a reclusive prophet.
They left food and wine outside his cave and had even presented him with that fine horse he'd bonded with so closely.
They drew the line of hospitality at their daughters, however tourist girls looking for adventure were considered fair game.
Apparently, the cave dweller had a leaner time through winter when, one assumes, he even put on clothes.
But I shall never forget him or how, penniless and carefree, he had upstaged every other man.
After witnessing such abandonment, it no longer seemed just a crazy impulse to pack in my career and buy an island bar.
Since then, like the naked ex-priest on horseback, I've never looked back.
46. Jogging the Memory
IN Hong Kong, autumn only lowered temperatures a little but at last the humidity dropped from the high 80s. In was in the 1980s, too, that I recall being there, writes fellow website novelist Ed Black.
I was a free-rolling P.R. man growing fat on expense-account lunches and boozy consultations - then I had a heart scare.
All this led me to the Adventist Hospital, high above Victorian Harbour near The Peak, where - after remedial treatment - I joined a very special jogging group admitting all in good heart.
But, most of the time, I watched the girls running in front. They were gorgeous, chattering like songbirds - to make sure we didn't run too fast - and steadily lengthening our stamina . . .
I was losing six pounds in weight on every run; gaining beautiful friends, and revitalising myself - all while seeing the wider horizons of the city and life. (I also met Roy Edmonds, then writing his first novel after leaving the employment of the South China Morning Post. Roy kept fit by jogging with the group.)
In fact, after hearing many of the group would be running in the New York Marathon, my new enthusiasm took me all the way to that other dynamic island metropolis.
While trying to also work there in public relations, I learnt that Hong Kong's easy-going expatriate ways were not up to demanding Manhattan standards.
I turned instead to a different career, as a partner in a Greenwich Village taverna run by a Greek pal who also jogged. (This period also inspired my first novel, Harry's Hand - see Books page.)
That led me, in turn, to the Aegean island where I now live and post to you from periodically.
What really opened my eyes, though, was a defrocked Italian priest who rode naked on a horse each day to pick up girls on the beach in Mykonos . . .
But that, as they say, is another story.
45. Travel Terminus
BY my mid-30s, Roy Edmonds writes, I had worked several years in the Far East and Australia, while travelling a good deal in between. But I wanted a change, pause for thought, something more . . .
Fortunately, before leaving I had a month or so 'hanging about' - doing what I fancied in Hong Kong. During the days I sweated over my first novel - about a young journalist going east . . . familiar? In the evenings I drank and ate out like most expatriates, but also jogged - up and round The Peak, about 12 miles. The latter got me into shape (as well as befriending my collaborator on this website Ed Black).
When I finally arrived back in Britain I was fairly fit; had a comfortable wedge in the bank; the manuscript of a long, romantic novel, and an open mind about my future.
It was a friendly, quiet resort; pretty in summer below the Welsh mountains, and refreshingly quiet at night.
But what really persuaded me to stay was my father's diminishing health in his mid-70s.
He introduced me to some quaint, hill-village pubs and, even though suffering - as we later discovered - from cancer, was fit enough to join me on long, talkative walks.
When he died a few months after my return I was grateful we'd had that time together. However, mother was distraught; they'd been so close.
I had the means and opportunity to stay on longer and help. This I did, while also settling down to tidy up that rambling novel. It was to prove a long year of emotional recovery for her, and one of steady self-discovery for me.
This culminated, for me, one memorable and windswept autumn evening in a joyful walk home from a hillside pub in Meliden - after completing that revised novel, then learning I had a contract with an agent.
Also people wanted to offer me work, first in Manchester and then in Blackpool - where Mum later came to live and to, finally, meet my wife-to-be.
I hadn't realised it when arriving in Wales aged 35, but my reporting and travelling days were largely over.
In future I was to do mainly editing work on newspapers; keeping evenings and weekends clear for writing I really enjoyed, and sharing with someone else.
My literary life was beginning and, best story of all, I was at last making a home.
A GREAT benefit of travel and working overseas is friendship with different people from diverse places.
This also means you can visit them later - not exactly for a free holiday, but more for an enlarging experience and glimpse into others' worlds.
So it was with friends Dick and Bonnie, whom I'd met and got to know while working in Hong Kong. Once they were home again in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, I was invited over from Britain for that hallowed American tradition - a family Thanksgiving.
My friends had a swanky, low-rise apartment in a period 'brownstone' block, with canopied entrance where I was met by a uniformed commissionaire.
It turned out they weren't home from work yet but the commissionaire had been told to expect me. He was big, black and in his late 40s. He had a genial manner and became a friend. Amazingly, his name was Abraham Lincoln. (He inspired the character of that name in 'Harry's Hand', the novel by Ed Black - see this website's Books page.)
After Abe had escorted me up in the elevator, I paced restlessly about the two-bedroom, tastefully furnished apartment, glancing down from time to time to the dark, honking traffic jams four storeys below.
Then Bonnie's cheerful face appeared, obviously delighted to see me. However, she did surprise me a little by adding ice and dry ginger to the fine malt whisky I'd presented her with, then shook me a lot more by adding casually: "Oh, by the way, Dick's in Seoul."
Her husband rang us later from South Korea and chatted casually and at length about his work as an international shipping lawyer. Another tanker had gone down, and insurance claim made, hence his sudden departure across the world.
Bonnie was a discerning designer for Revlon packaging but took me on an intrepid tour of her favourite Village bars through a deluge suitable for 'Singing In The Rain'.
During the day I found myself unable to use her high-tech kitchen and enjoyed dining at a 'deli' nearby. The stores, like New York, had everything.
"If you do go out," Bonnie told me, "please put a tape on for the cat - they're from a therapist for stress."
Suddenly, I felt less like an extra in a Gene Kelly movie but more like one from a zany Woody Allen comedy.
His parents were charming and the setting suddenly reverted back to Hollywood glitz, with homely Thanksgiving traditions. However, their cocktail aperitifs were dynamite - with original martinis of half vermouth, half gin.
Later, at a table for 12, Dick's dad stood in Scottish 'trous' and carved the turkey. The alcohol had given me a healthy appetite.
"Could I have a little more turkey?" I inquired, after devouring my portion.
There was embarrassed silence, during which my request was ignored, then conversation continued as before. Eventually, our host stood again with sharpened carver.
"Now," he said, in time-honoured tradition, "would any one like more turkey?"
I felt suitably chastened but caught a wink from Bonnie who, fellow bohemian at heart, disliked the regime of treasured family customs.
My faux pas was soon overlooked. I was given Dick's "old room" and waved off upon departure like a long lost friend.
The film set moved again, as we neared the city by rail, from silver screen charm to razzmatazz Big Apple. Then it was home to England's once industrial North-West - and to Blackpool, not quite like anywhere else!
Yes, travel broadens the mind - but also keeps us in our place.
43. England Revisited
I WAS ready and excited to return home to England after several years away in the 1980s. But what a shock awaited me!
It was summer and as hot as a day in the Far East, though not as humid - or so I thought. But, once down in the London Underground system in early-morning rush hour, my suitcases weighed me down and I sweated heavily, too, even in light colonial clothes.
On the rail journey home to Manchester, it felt like I was travelling through a foreign country. The green fields were still there, but what were those bright yellow ones? I'd never seen harvests of rape seed before. Then there were the strange, thick new coins. When I had left to travel abroad British pounds had been notes.
These were the days of Maggie Thatcher's new thrusting Britannia - with 'loadsamoney' louts replacing champagne Charlies in the emerging City of London banking and investments houses.
After a stroll round traditional pubs in Wapping, alongside the fortress-like new headquarters of Rupert Murdoch's News International, we ended our evening having a curry in Brick Lane.
This was once an infamous East End market area, Dave explained, but now popular even with City high-fliers for its authentic curry houses.
"Hello, sir," a young Indian greeted us at the door of our chosen restaurant - and beamed in recognition.
"One of my former pupils," confided Dave, "in fact some of the kids waiting on are still my pupils - and should really be in bed by now."
It was so busy we had to queue and, as we edged nearer to the restaurant interior, I saw why. A large group of noisy, besuited, young city 'gents' were lingering over their table - ignoring people stood waiting.
They had clearly eaten, as the detritus of abandoned platefuls showed, but now wanted more drinks.
"You can only have alcohol with food, sir," explained a young waiter politely to a loudmouth who was demanding more wine all round. "Besides, there are customers waiting." He pointed us out.
"Well," the drunken spokesman of this City 'elite' responded indifferently, "bring all the food again then - we'll pay twice - but fetch us more wine and champers first."
There were guffaws from his drunken cohorts at this but, fortunately, the waiter stood his ground. The party, he insisted, had consumed their meal and drinks. Now it was time to leave and let others enjoy the same.
Thankfully, he won the day, and we at last got seated and served. However, that selfish behaviour showed a new face of Britain and left a nasty taste in my mouth.
Emerging from my train journey at Piccadilly Station, I found Manchester different to my recollection. All the Victorian soot over its impressive buildings had been cleaned off, showing the sandstone or granite beneath. However, it seemed odd now to see a city that had so few buildings above four storeys.
Only when I entered a familiar, old pub near the main fire station, did my spirits rise. A barmaid greeted me in friendly style, others leaning on the bar escaping the hot sun nodded and chatted pleasantly - and the cask beer, unlike in London, was served chilled and with a creamy 'head'
At last I was home, in the north!
42. Roman Ruin
MY stay in the Eternal City was brief but salutary. Being in western Europe felt almost like home after living years further east. But it was not home and I was tired of travel.
World weary as I was, my first visit was to my carrier, Japan Airlines, at the airport. However, this being Italy, the offices were all closed for late-afternoon siesta.
I got an airport bus then located a cheap hotel by the railway station in central Rome. A nearby restaurant provided dinner and I left sightseeing until the next day.
It was my only clear day now in the Eternal City, since my flight there from Cairo had been delayed by several hours and, of course, I had been unable to extend my stay through JAL at the airport.
Perhaps as well. As I emerged next morning, suitably awed, from St. Peter's, my pockets were picked by a gang of cheeky gypsy children in the square.
I felt as down as a slave in the Coliseum, destitute, persecuted and unloved. It didn't help, when trying to lift my spirits, by visiting the nearby Sistine Chapel.
"Is closed!" Exclaimed a guard, as I saw the tail-end of the last tourists being allowed through that day. Apparently it took so long to admire Michelangelo's inspired ceiling there now wasn't time left in the day.
With what funds remained back at my railway hotel, I ate a humble supper and drank deep of my rough Chianti.
Next day would see me at long last back in England, on the train home to the North-West, to friends and loving family.
It felt like a Papal blessing to be going home.
41. Exit from Egypt
I WAS eager to leave Cairo, an historic but inhospitable place. However, it was reluctant to let me go.
At its chaotic airport, my Japanese Air Lines flight to Rome had been delayed by sandstorms - for eight hours. What a start to my day!
I handed over my entry pass to a dozy security guard, then stood in a gated crowd with nowhere to sit or go. Finally, I spotted a JAL office, where help and advice might be forthcoming.
It was only yards away so, foolishly, I left my heaviest case and again passed the now slumbering guard.
The airline office was open but its manager absent. Staff advised me to bring all my luggage and wait.
By now that sleepy armed guard had awoken again - and refused to let me re-enter the secure area. I pointed to my bag but he angrily refuted that I could have passed him while he slept at his post. Probably, under Egyptian military rule and security tensions, he'd have been shot.
So now I had no flight or luggage . . . and the noisy airport was getting still hotter. Little wonder I'd had enough of lone travel.
It was the mid-1980s and I was returning to Britain after working in the Far East and Australia, flying back as slowly as possible with lots of stopovers. A multi-stop, round-the-world ticket had been a thrilling idea at the start, but my heart was no longer in this adventure.
Back at the JAL office, cheerful, young manager Saeed had arrived - looking very smart and efficient. As my ticket had been a one-off economy negotiation back in Hong Kong, it seemed I had to catch the delayed flight. All other passengers had been re-routed.
"No problem!" he announced, "You can use my hotel room till your flight comes."
I mentioned my luggage difficulty and he sighed impatiently at such nonsense.
Seconds later Saeed was berating the shamed guard and then himself picking up my suitcase. We then hopped in his Mercedes and crossed the airport site to a modern hotel, where he left me in his luxury suite with two double beds.
Saeed promised to phone later, when I should get up, allowing plenty of time to order food on his account and then shower and change - what service, what relief!
Within minutes of him departing I was dozing off in his spare bed.
And Saeed was as good as his word. He phoned, I showered, ate a snack and met him outside.
Finally, he escorted me to a deserted departure lounge from where, after a short delay, we two boarded an otherwise empty airport bus to cross the tarmac.
"That's your flight, just landed," Saeed said, pointing out the awaiting JAL airliner. Passengers' faces peered curiously as we left the bus.
"They'll be wondering who you are," he added with a grin, "the only passenger boarding here."
Sure enough, all faces turned towards me as Saeed shook hands in farewell and I was greeted by a Japanese stewardess.
I felt like a film star or, at the least, an important dignitary - but that feeling soon went into reverse.
The diminutive Japanese stewardess insisted on giving me a personal pre-flight demonstration, even strapping me meticulously into my seat.
She went on so long about precautions and aids, pointing out my sick bag, exits and advice displayed in my inflight magazine and which buttons to press for help, that it became embarrassing.
I feared that my aura of celebrity was slipping, sensing a change in the other passengers' impressions of this singular new arrival in their midst.
Most, I felt sure, would now perceive me as a dangerous simpleton being ejected from the country and requiring careful personal supervision.
This was confirmed later when I ambled along the aisle to use the toilets. Everyone avoided eye contact and edged warily away.
Still, I was now heading for western Europe and my final stop-over before London. Rome beckoned with all its famous wonders. However, a wave of nervous nausea also invaded me - the single traveller.
Unlike others readying to disembark and be reunited with friends or families, I had no accommodation or onward transport arranged; I spoke no Italian, had none of its currency.
We would be landing towards the end of afternoon, probably in rush-hour, and I was ill-prepared.
Belatedly, as we descended, I began looking up phrases and recommendations in a guide book. Oh, how vulnerable I felt, this lonely, world-weary traveller!
Yet even I did not suspect the worst of what awaited me: a sub-machine gun prodded into my stomach.
40. Ahkmed and the Aussie Amazons
ALIGHT from the Blue Train at Luxor station and you are greeted by a baying crowd akin to that which Gordon faced at Khartoum. Here, though, they want not your blood so much as your money.
I maintained a stiff upper lip, light shoulder bag in hand, and stood to one side of the melee as offers flew at me of transport, cheap rooms, food and female relatives - or even young male ones.
"Sir, who do you wait for?" asked the last and most determined of the train greeters after the others finally slinked away as passengers were satisfactorily processed.
However, I rudely ignored him - at last spotting the nearby cafe my Cairo pal had told me to visit. This was where owner Ahkmed, his cultivated acquaintance, would help me with accommodation while visiting the Valley of Kings and others tourist sites.
It looked clean inside and encouragingly efficient. But there was a problem.
"Ahkmed not here, maybe later," said a waiter.
Back in the wide dirt street (this was the 1980s) the sole remaining train greeter watched and waited with cunning tenacity.
"Sir, may I help you?"
"It's all right," I told him, irritated, "I'm waiting for a friend of a friend - called Ahkmed."
The gnarled Arab opened his hands as though to admit all wonders.
"But I am Ahkmed." He smiled. "Who is your friend?"
I told him my teacher acquaintance's name.
"I know him well, very intelligent, educated," said Ahkmed. "How fares he, is he well?"
"Fine - but he said you owned the cafe."
"Yes," Ahkmed confirmed and waved to a couple of the cooks looking out at us. "But the rooms are full there - I have others close by. Please," he added, offering to take my bag, "you follow, sir."
So I found myself in a small dormitory in a humble dwelling down a side-street. There were several beds and no security apart from its locked door. Ahkmed could see I wasn't impressed.
"Maybe you take whole room - special price for friend of friend."
It didn't sound that special but I accepted, rested up, then took a ferry across the Nile towards the Valley of Kings.
There again, crowds of hawkers awaited. I was offered taxi rides at inflated prices or battered bikes unsuitable for a long journey into the desert. Boys offered fake Pharaonic artifacts - or their sisters.
"Best to share a cab, mate," said a strapping blonde backpacker. The tough Aussie Amazon was with an equally bruising brunette from Brisbane. They both shouldered huge backpacks.
I eventually squeezed into a wreck of a taxi with them and their packs, letting the impressive twosome beat down its skinny driver to an embarrassingly low price.
As we journeyed towards those once hallowed burial grounds, the 'girls' ordered regular stops for photo opportunities. Finally, we visited the tourist-tired tombs before returning to our down-trodden, still unpaid driver. Upon our safe return no tip would have been forthcoming - without my conscience. I felt sorry for my fellow man.
Taxi drivers had been greedy and bad-tempered in Cairo, tormented by hours of gridlock. In Luxor they were desperate. My next outing was to Karnak and its huge temple complex - in a horse-drawn cart with a boy driver.
The lad negotiated as ruthlessly as he drove his poor nag. I had taken the usual course of offering a tenth of what he demanded, but made the mistake of paying him at Karnak for that leg of the journey. He'd gone by the time I returned to our meeting place, no doubt for a better fee.
Still, as I walked back through villages in twilight, I was offered mint tea by families sat in gardens and saw a gentler side of local life.
Oddly no one bothered with the smaller temple at Luxor, right beside the Nile. Upon my late arrival back, I wandered its moonlit ruins alone and was enchanted.
On my last day Ahkmed strolled down with me to the Cairo-bound Blue Train. As he haggled with new arrivals, I noticed a smart-suited man organising staff in the nearby cafe.
"You wouldn't be Ahkmed, by any chance?" I asked the urbane cafe boss.
He was, had been expecting me earlier in the week, and had fairly priced air-conditioned rooms.
"Then who is that impostor?" I pointed at my host of the last few nights, still negotiating in the street.
But, with a cheery wave, my 'Ahkmed' was off - leading away more bewildered clients.
Good luck to him. It was, as they say, God's will.
39. Nubian Night
AT Cairo's main railway station I was to board the overnight Blue Train for the Valley of Kings but, instead, was horrified by what greeted me.
Desperate commuters were climbing through open windows into a train that appeared to have been burned out or come from a wrecker's yard.
Then, thankfully, the long Blue Train shunted on to our platform, with uniformed stewards at coach doors checking tickets.
What's more, I had a double sleeping cabin to myself - until the last minute. Then the conductor showed in a young, very black Nubian who spoke no English.
He looked in his late 20s, a few years younger than me, dressed in loose, local robes and carrying battered luggage.
We were destined to spend the night and next 14 hours or so together in our cabin's close confinement.
I tried to converse a little over an evening meal we were served in the cabin while seated side by side. This only resulted in polite smiles, shakes of the head and mutual embarrassment.
By mid-evening, with nothing but darkness outside, the steward made up our couchette beds on opposite high bunks. It looked like being an early but long, tedious night.
It's remarkable how alcohol can break down cultural and language barriers. By the time we turned in around midnight we were having a rare old time; showing each other family photographs, communicating through gestures and caricatures.
He learned that I was on holiday and sightseeing after working in the Far East; I gleaned, miraculously, that he was returning home from engineering work in the desert to, sadly, attend a sister's funeral.
We slept like dead men; then awoke to find ourselves convivial but, once more, unable to communicate much. Instead, we watched the Nile Delta slip by outside as we enjoyed a hot breakfast.
Days later, when I stumbled across a quaint Nubian village near the Valley of Kings, I felt quite at home and took a photograph of a small, cute child mounted on an ass.
She immediately demanded money and, when I demurred, spat with venom in my direction.
Time had moved on. Wariness of strangers had returned.
Still, forever afterwards, I had my Nubian night to fondly remember.
38. Faded Pharaoh
IN the mid-80s I was in Cairo on a slow journey home from the Far East. My accommodation was at a fellow Englishman's flat in the prosperous enclave of Zamalek. I think it was around there that he introduced me to a small, hard-to-find, colonial bar called the American Club - but it was rather quiet and stuffy.
The only other place I found to have a cold beer was the Nile Hilton. I had crossed the bridge from Zamalek and was trying to get over my disappointment at how rundown Cairo city-centre was.
The dusty pavements and roads seemed in a state of continual mis-repair, usually by miserable-looking conscripted servicemen in ill-fitting army uniforms.
Prominent places, like the Hilton, had sandbags outside - but not in case of flooding from the Nile. They were machine gun posts against, presumably, popular uprisings, Islamic terrorism or Israeli invasion.
By sheer chance, on my first day's rambling, a familiar face emerged from the Hilton and called to me. It was an engineer I'd played at squash with in Hong Kong. He, too, was having a break from that high-rise sauna.
We had a locally bottled beer that was acceptable but for its exorbitant price in the Hilton bar. Then he took me by shared taxi to the Great Pyramid at nearby Giza.
"Viewing is cooler and more dramatic in the early morning," he advised, "but then it's also full of tourist coaches, hawkers and touts."
There was only one tout there when we arrived in baking mid-afternoon. He followed us on a mangy camel he urged us to ride upon but, exhausted by his long day in heat, gave up easily - after half-an-hour or so.
It was odd for we two, on our chance encounter, to be wandering otherwise alone through the rubble beside the Sphinx in this oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
"Really early in the morning," my mate told me, "some foolish tourists climb up the pyramids, to see the impact of sunrise. But then they need guides to help them get down, which is much harder than climbing. Or they fall - there's a few killed every year."
The Great Pyramid stood in splendid, silent mystery beside its two slightly smaller neighbours under a cloudless sky.
Finally, we paid to enter a small entrance then, sweating and growing increasingly ill-at-ease beneath the huge, monumental weight of stone above us, crept along an increasingly claustrophobic corridor that rose steadily to a central King's burial chamber. It was empty.
We re-emerged into blinding sunlight 20 minutes later, relieved and sweating. I'm glad we weren't stuck behind queues of other visitors, as usually happens. There are annual casualties inside, too.
My next foray into Pharaonic history was more leisurely - at the Museum of Antiquities back in the city. This rather squat, colonial building was fairly packed with detritus from the depths of ancient civilisation. But there was also dazzling gold, from the vaunted Tutankhamun exhibition - back from its long world tour.
"My kids at school come to class with Pharaonic findings all the time," the teacher who was putting me up had said, "dig in any Cairo garden and you'll find antiquities."
It was all rather overwhelming but I was disappointed to find the "Mummy Room" locked.
An official notice on its closed door explained this was to keep the priceless relics intact and to respect those who had been mummified, then so thoughtlessly exposed to the elements and infidel eyes by we colonials.
Fair enough, I thought, mollified and impressed by such local dignity and pride.
"Psst!" muttered a nearby museum guide, who then rubbed his fingers and thumb together in that worldwide gesture of those 'on the make'. He added, "Want to look inside?"
I coughed up what he thought a reasonable entrance fee and was quickly ushered and locked inside .
There beside me lay the great king, Ramesses II, Ancient Egypt's most powerful Pharaoh. Or, at least, there lay his frail bones. (See also Number 5 on our Poem page.)
Still, you could clearly make out the 'living god's' features: a cruel hook nose and stern, unyielding brow with, incredibly, strands of red hair. Had it been dyed in the mummifying process, or had Egypt's ruler been so fair?
"Psst!" Hissed the guard once more, furtively reappearing around the door.
It was time once more to re-enter the Twentieth Century.
37. Valley of Kings - and Knaves
WHEN I arrived in Cairo to holiday with friends-of-friends, the raffish Egyptian beside me in the plane offered to share a taxi into town. He was rather oily but well dressed with a winning smile, so I agreed.
"I'll first just pop into duty-free," he told me. I bought a bottle of Scotch for the family who would be putting me up, then left him looking at kitchen appliances. While waiting, I changed a large sum in travellers' cheques into impressively large and ostentatious Egyptian pounds.
He then confided his purchases were for wife and girlfriends, as such goods were rarely found in Cairo stores and prices outrageously inflated.
'Well,' I told myself, to get over this exchange gaffe, 'at least I won't be locked up for dabbling on the black market.'
Outside the airport an armed policeman saluted my new friend and addressed him as 'colonel'. He was a chief of police. Guards helped the colonel load his girlfriends' presents into the boot of our shared taxi.
As we drove into Cairo the colonel began a stream of calls on his mobile phone. I could tell from his tone which were to his office, then wife and girlfriends, though not in that order.
Outside we passed what looked like a demolition site. Vultures circled above mud huts and crumbling, block-like dwellings that reminded me of drawings of ancient Bethlehem I'd done in Scripture classes at school. Smoke curled up from open fires amid the rubble. I saw wandering goats and donkeys, then a few scavenging people - wearing robes that also looked Biblical.
"The old city," explained the colonel, before launching into another call.
I noticed the meter on our taxi's dashboard wasn't working. The colonel negotiated a fare before we parted on the city outskirts: me heading into a salubrious suburb; he loading his purchases into a battered, waiting police car.
I gave the colonel what seemed a tiny amount of cash and the driver took me on to my destination without further word. That was the only taxi ride I was to take that didn't end in argument, recriminations and near violence over the settling of my fare.
The friends-of-friends I was staying with were wealthy and expecting me, but looked unsure about a seasoned traveller lately from the fleshpots of the Far East exploiting their home and tainting their children.
"We've decided," said my well-to-do hostess after our first - and last - dinner together, "you'd be better in the city centre - staying with a bachelor friend who teaches our children. He's happy to accommodate you, glad of the company."
The next day, back-pack repacked, I was driven into Cairo by her dutiful husband - then deposited with a reclusive, young academic who clearly didn't welcome my intrusion.
However, he was politely complying and, most important, his spacious flat was in Zamalek - a prosperous island on the Nile, at the heart of the great capital.
What a disappointment that old harlot of a city turned out to be.
36. Shot In Siam (part two)
AFTER work in the Far East I was resting in 'Paradise' during a slow journey back to life in UK.
In fact, it was the Paradise bar and rooms in Phuket - but that was close enough after a six-day working week on the South China Morning Post in high-rise Hong Kong.
I just wanted peace and quiet but, unusually for an average sort of young bloke from Manchester way, stunning girls kept pursuing me.
Her name was Zim and she worked at the beachside bar, where she kept flirting whenever her boss wasn't looking.
Being English, I attempted to maintain my dignity and distance, but was wavering weakly.
Ultimately and predictably, I was spending more money on my beach holiday than intended. However, the arrival in the bay of a U.S. Fleet ship, bringing scores of sailors, diverted Zim and ended our friendship.
Since my money was running low, I returned to Bangkok not by internal flight but by a rural bus trip that became a nightmare.
They'd seen me off in style from Paradise, so on the crowded, early-morning bus I was hungover. A Thai comedy show, at full blast on the driver's radio, did nothing to aid my recovery as hours of travel ground on.
Few if any passengers spoke English, so I stared stupidly at amazing passing landmarks - such as giant statues of cockerels in the jungle - and ate unfamiliar meals alone at regular refreshment stops.
Just as the 14-hour journey was nearing the outskirts of Bangkok, there were ominous mutterings among passengers.
"Much rain," explained a young Thai to me, "capital flood - maybe we no arrive."
This was a fresh cause for stress, as I had a flight to Egypt scheduled in the early hours.
Outside, pedestrians in the city suburbs were walking by up to their waists in water, their clothes sensibly piled upon their heads. Other vehicles were mostly grounded.
We drove on, agonisingly slowly, through evening and then suddenly halted.
Disaster? Well, no, everyone was clapping and laughing again.
"Is terminus!" Explained my Thai informant.
Hardly believing my luck, I stumbled out with backpack and, again miraculously, managed to commandeer the only taxi on a bit of dry land.
Soon I was celebrating with my pal from the Bangkok Post. We were dining with beers in an open-air, backstreet restaurant. I was eating conservatively, a cheese omelet with chips, bearing in mind my early-morning flight.
Then the punch-up started, between passing members of a young gang and other Thai yobs playing pool in the same restaurant. They began by exchanging insults, then some of the passers-by burst in to trade punches and kicks.
"What should we do?" I asked my colleague, as a pair of grappling young men rolled over the end of our table.
"Stay absolutely still," he advised coolly then, as an explosion rang out, he paled and added: "My God, that was a shot!"
One of the gang outside had drawn a gun and fired into the restaurant, thankfully to little effect. The fight still raged about other tables.
Finally, the owner/chef emerged with kitchen cleaver in hand and bravely drove off the ruffians. He apologised and tidied our table.
"Careful," cautioned my pal, "there may be broken glass in our food."
But my appetite had bit the bullet.
35. Shot In Siam
AFTER working in the Far East and Australia in the 1980s, I headed back to Britain - to spend more time with ageing parents and finish a first novel, writes Roy Edmonds.
However, I still wanted to see more of the world and arranged a slow, diverse route back from Hong Kong - booking stop-overs in Thailand, India, Egypt and Italy with Japan Airlines.
JAL fell out with India before my flight from Hong Kong, so I had even longer in Thailand than originally planned. Naturally, I knew of temptations there to virile, single young men.
This website's close collaborator, fellow traveller and soul-mate, Ed Black, has also written on the shocking diversions of Thai capital Bangkok, in his rip-roaring, colonial novel Romp & Circumstance.
Incidentally, for more about these novels or to order one, turn to our Books page.
From Thailand the next destination on my cheap man's round-the-world ticket would be Cairo, where I was to stay with the young family of an Australian friend. Certainly, I did not want any embarrassing health or personal problems to compromise me or them once there.
In short, my intention in Thailand was to relax on a beach and behave myself.
It all started well enough.
I landed at Bangkok and got a taxi to meet a former journalistic colleague, now on the Post newspaper. My large suitcase was stored safely at his flat then, travelling light, I took an internal flight to the island of Phuket. He even gave me the names of American friends there, who might put me up.
They had a beach bar, called Paradise, from where - on that first day - I watched a perfect sunset.
To be continued.
34. Outback and Up Front
IT sounds wonderful when well-travelled people talk of exotic places and amazing experiences. Truth is, there is little point in travelling to no purpose.
When young you hope to find romance, as well as adventure, and perhaps even success. However, love is more likely to be awaiting you back home - where success can also be steadily worked towards.
But the young don't wish to hear such things, writes Roy Edmonds.
After working in Hong Kong, where I'd been encouraged to travel by friends already there, I later followed them on to more newspaper employment in Australia.
I also tried to travel around the vast country. At Perth, when staying with old friends and working briefly on the Daily News, I was reminded how isolated the beautiful coastal city was when a weary immigrant complained to me:
"The nearest place with any life is Singapore!"
To complete my sense of travel and adventure, I looked for the furthest point on the world map from home back in Manchester.
It was a dot at the top of northern Queensland, a town just inland amid swampland up the Endeavour River, and named after another curious Englishman - Cooktown.
After flying in a six-seater bush plane (the weekly bus had gone a day or two before), I landed at a clearing in the Outback jungle and got a lift in a pick-up truck.
At 10 in the morning I swung open its fly-screen double doors and stood in the entrance of a shadowy saloon, letting my eyes adjust like a Wild West gunslinger new to town.
Beneath slowly turning ceiling fans, half a dozen men stared at me silently from the bar. Most were bearded, with unbuttoned shirts and bare feet on the foot rail.
Outside, the only movement in the sun-baked street was from an odd stutting bird. Forlorn Aboriginal men crouched or lay in shadows, awaiting the next benefit payment to get drugged and drunk.
"We've got plenty of rooms," the bar woman told me, "they're all vacant."
Upstairs, off a wooden verandah, I took an airy bedroom for one. There was no key for its door.
"Who'd steal anything here?" she asked. "There's nowhere to hide!"
As the men downstairs proved mute and unfriendly, my only company was the woman's pet sausage dog - that joined me on the terrace until, bored at studying distant mangrove swamps and reading a Gideon Bible, I turned in for an afternoon siesta.
At the end of the day, farmers drove in from miles around off their vast landholdings. They all carried pump-action rifles to shoot kangaroos blocking the road (and troubling their stock). They also drank from "stubbie" beer bottles on the way - to stay cool.
"That was a four-stubbie drive!" One said to another as he drew up outside the bar, kicking empty bottles into the street from the cab of his pick-up.
Their guns were left in neat rows by the swing doors, as the men played pool, listened to old Elvis numbers on the jukebox and ate meat pies.
These latter were of minced steak in a searingly hot gravy. You bit into the pie then quickly sucked in its contents to avoid staining your shirt (if, indeed, you were bothering to wear one).
For further diversion, Aboriginal women waited outside. You could keep your beer in hand while entertaining them against the hotel side-wall. The whole sordid business took them only a few minutes.
After one pie and a few cold, lonely drinks, I turned in for the night, missing home and family and friends.
Why had I travelled so far anyway? There was nothing for me there.
It all awaited me back home . . .
The long, eventful journey - from Down Under, and East to West - will be relived here in the New Year.
33. Hanging Out at King's Cross
ED BLACK writes . . . My senior website collaborator Roy usually provides these memoirs but, since he is currently reminiscing on this page about Australia, I wanted to add my own shameful contribution.
Frankly, the place bored me. It had sunshine but none of the charm of my adopted home of Greece.
Aussie men had no style and their Sheilas lacked guile. Also, they didn't like outsiders.
Particularly brutal, was Sydney's red light area of King's Cross. I had strayed into this shabby district while looking for an offbeat restaurant during a public relations trip back in the mid-1980s.
"You want to party?" Demanded a strapping six-foot dominatrix emerging from a shadowy doorway wearing a black, leather basque and holding a whip.
To avoid them I made the mistake of entering a neon lit club doorway. Besides, I was now desperate for a pee, following too many ice-cold 'beers'. I'd been in the 24-hour Journalists' Club, with nothing more interesting than beers, pies and one-armed bandits.
The nightclub I had entered was called the Pink Pussycat. At the top of a steep flight of stairs was a seedy bar with a stage for strippers. But, at least, there was a spacious gents' toilets.
Unfortunately, at every urinal a comatose punter was slumped with head against the wall, while others must have dozed off or were otherwise engaged in the row of locked cubicles.
After an agonising wait nothing had moved, so what could I do?
To my lasting shame I sought relief in one of the inviting handbasins. (I did run the tap). It was either that or wetting myself.
Just then the larger of two unpleasant bouncers who manned the downstairs entrance came into the conveniences.
"What're you doin'?" He bellowed, shoving aside a drunk to relieve himself and glaring at me.
I apologised, explaining my predicament but my words, and particularly their accent, only further incensed the brute.
"Out!" He cried, grabbing me by the collar and frogmarching me through the club as I hastily buttoned up my trousers.
We then halted at the top of those precipitate stairs.
"This dirty Pom," he shouted down to his mean looking hoppo, "has just p****d in the washbasin!"
Then he shoved me as hard as possible down the stairs, rabbit punching the back of my neck and trying to trip me up. I hung on to a banister and descended covering my face as best I could.
To fall, as he no doubt wished, would result in a kicking. But he did bloody my nose with an undercut through my shuffling guard.
Before they could set about me further I barged through the double doors and out into the street.
Passing revellers parted about me as, head bowed, I still tried to protect myself.
"Don't bleed on our pavement!" My persecutor yelled nastily, but remained in his doorway.
"You all right, mate?" Someone asked.
I looked up to see a huge, bearded Hell's Angel astride his motorbike.
"Had better nights!" I muttered, nose bunged up with blood.
This amused the giant hellraiser and his pals.
"Don't worry, cobber," he told me, "them cowards won't step foot outside. They know what they'd get if they dared."
I nodded in thanks but that only worsened my bleeding.
"Don't just sit there, girl," he ordered his pillion passenger, "clean up the man!"
The biker-girl politely passed me tissues and dabbed clean my face.
"Want a lift, mate?" My burly new friend called.
However, I'd had enough excitement for one night and declined.
"Call him a taxi, girl!" Shouted my tattooed saviour.
When that welcome cab came, the gang helped me inside.
"It's not for you, this place, mate," were the Hell's Angel's final words.
I was grateful and he was right.
32. Veggies With Your Chuckie
ON my first shift for the Sydney Daily Telegraph as a sub-editor I arrived early on the train from my shared flat in Wolstoncroft.
I passed the winos outside Central Station and entered the enormous News International building owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
It was the 1980s and I was supplementing my humble income as a part-time reporter for Australian Associated Press. There I worked mainly day shifts. At the Telegraph I was to work occasional evenings.
Rupert, 'the Dirty Digger', and his top cronies were in London trying to introduce computerisation into Fleet Street.
There were no computers in the newsroom and, at a quarter to six, only two people at the large subs' table: the boss, or chief sub, busily drawing up pages and writing headlines; and a sub who was the union rep. - reading leisurely and drinking coffee.
"You're early!" They both commented, with contrasting reactions.
The boss had a spare story quickly in hand for me to sub-edit (that is, to check spelling and grammar, polish 'intro', cut in length to fit a shape on the page, then write a headline for that also fitted - and all with instructions, on type and style, to compositors downstairs).
The subbing colleague come union man had other ideas - and his prevailed.
"Go and get something in the canteen," he instructed firmly, adding, "no rush mate, come back in half-an-hour."
Our beleaguered 'boss' reluctantly confirmed this was his wish too.
The jovial canteen staff were homely 'mums' offering up wholesome fayre. Of course, they had marked Aussie 'twangs' and, like most Australians, shortened words in casual style and added a rising tone at the end of sentences, which made every statement sound like a question.
Chicken was the special that day and I'd only had a sandwich back at the flat. I was due to work from six pm up until around midnight, when the paper was all 'put to bed'. So I duly tucked in.
"Do you want veggies with your chuckie?" They asked, spooning up a generous helping of roast chicken, then roast potatoes and a mix of vegetables. It was cheap too!
At half-past six I returned to find the oval subs' table busy and now attended by several others.
"Only one job at a time," said the union man sternly, when the boss tried to hurry me along with a second news story to edit. It was always a slow-learning curve as every newspaper had its own methods and style.
"Don't let the bastard bully you," my union colleague told me, with a warning glare at the hapless management man struggling to meet deadlines.
At about 8.40 he spoke out again: "Well, mates, it's almost nine - time for our break." He looked over at the boss who kept his head bowed over headlines, making no squeak of objection. "You'll be coming, cobber!" He told me.
At the pub on the corner the pace of drinking and round-buying was frantic. Like all Aussies, they had their chilled lager-style beer in 'half-pint' or even smaller measures - to keep it cool.
"Must be my round," I said, wanting to make a good impression.
"No rush, mate," said the union man, winking at the barmaid.
"When are we due back?" I asked, seeing by my watch it was already 9.30.
He stared at me as though I was a madman.
"When they close," he said, "about 11."
31. The Old Coathanger
Once settled in the early 1980s with friends of friends in Sydney, I worked a few reporting shifts a week for Australian Associated Press. This was the national and international Press agency with headquarters in Pitt Street.
The news editor in their large, open-plan office at first gave me routine jobs like checking on petty crime tip-offs or ringing around neighbourhood police stations to ask if anything newsworthy had occurred.
"Bit of a ding-dong down at Bularrato," some rural copper would cheerfully inform me.
"And where exactly is that?" I'd inquire, then ask how one spelt Bula-what-oh.
"Strewth mate!" They'd cry at the other end of the line. "Where you been hiding yourself?"
Mind you, being a relative stranger and separated by a common lingo was just as bad back in Britain where, when working reporting shifts on the Daily Mail in Manchester, I had to do a similar round of calls to Scottish or Geordie police, fire and ambulance stations.
Sometimes it was so hard to understand the local vernacular I just had to quietly forget the information and hope we hadn't missed a major story.
I didn't really enjoy the office work in Sydney as, for one thing, in news agencies
What's more, the boss seemed to rate me.
"Half the bastards in here are just waiting for other jobs," he complained to me, not realising I was also looking for better paid work, "they're careless. You may be a Pommy but you're reliable."
Then one day I arrived mid-morning from our shared flat in suburban Wolstoncroft.
"Sorry, I'm so late," I said, "but the bridge was closed."
"Strewth, Pommy!" Muttered the news editor. "'Course it's closed, you drongo, it's the Old Coathanger's 50th Anniversary."
The Coathanger was how Sydney citizens sentimentally referred to their impressive bridge. Also, 50 years was big history in a nation as young as Australia. Many offices and schools had closed so people could walk over the structure and celebrate this important occasion.
"What's more," he told me, calming down now, "I want you to cover it. Go out and have a look yourself, then phone in with a colour piece for radio - that will go out live at mid-day. Then come back and write up your story."
I left the office rather stunned. Not only did I know little about the Coathanger (except what I'd gleaned from AAP's cuttings library that morning), I was an Englishman having to give an impassioned voice-over to the city's big day of nostalgia.
Sure enough, the bridge that was usually busy with traffic and trains was now a mass of holidaying crowds taking family pictures in the sunshine. Flotillas of yachts sailed by beneath in the glittering harbour.
Then I heard the sirens.
As a reporter I've always been lucky - being in the right place at the right time - though it's not always lucky for some other poor person.
A quick word with attending police and ambulance teams established that a pensioner had suffered a heart attack while walking high above the bridge. It was being cleared temporarily for emergency vehicles.
It was my high noon and I was able to phone in a live commentary on the brick-like office mobile as the human drama unfolded above me, amid a huge public day of celebrations.
For me it was a triumph. I'm also glad to say that the man at the centre of it all survived.
30. Planting a Pom
WHEN I arrived to start a new life in Australia, the "Lucky Country", it was hammering down with rain.
"Not much of a welcome!" I observed to an immigration officer at Sydney Airport, already disconcerted by being sprayed with insecticide upon landing.
"Usual in September," the laconic officer told me.
Months later, when I inquired about extending my visa and quoting its reference to 'special circumstances', another immigration man told me:
"No, Roy, it's not just a matter of breaking a leg . . . far more serious, you'd probably have to marry a Sheila."
As the airport bus followed halting traffic through the city, I read on a car's rear screen:
"Grow your own dope - plant a Pom!"
I was duly installed in the spare bedroom of friends of friends from England. They were a young, friendly couple named Macmillan, who had the most spectacular rows.
We lived in the otherwise quiet, leafy and convenient suburb of Wolstoncroft. It had a couple of decent pubs, shops and a typically great chip shop with wide range of fish offered baked, grilled, shallow or deep fried - and a dining room where your could bring your own booze (from an off-licence next door).
Australia in the mid-1980s was trade union conscious and news organisations keen to employ British-trained journalists. A couple of phone calls brought me shift work reporting for Australian Associated Press and also sub-editing on Sydney's Daily Telegraph.
It was easy work after the more pressured conditions of Hong Kong.
Wolstoncroft Station was like a carefully tended Surrey railway platform in the 1950s, with flowerbeds, sitting rooms and staff in neat uniforms (very English except for shorts worn with long socks).
The short journey into the city took us over Sydney's Harbour Bridge. Two-storey carriages conveying office commuters had incongruous warning notices that exclaimed: "Be careful with that surf board!"
In between my different day and evening shifts, the Macmillans drove me to beaches like Bondi (by then a bit rough in all respects) and Coogee (a favourite), for surf followed by turf - large steaks at pub barbecues.
What a life!
This Pom was flourishing.
29. 'Passion' and Paradise
THE East Coast of Malaysia turned out to be a very different place to the easy going west with its holiday hotspots like Penang and colonial history of tea and rubber planting. The east side was Muslim and, even back in the dynamic 1980s, I was immediately aware of its constraints.
I was well turned out for a lone, young traveller with just a holdall of spare clothes. Instead of the backpacker look despised by Asians, I wore long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and suitable hat, as well as being showered and shaved.
Tiring of all this, I made my way northwards on shambling local buses to the enticingly named Beach of the Long Night of Passionate Love. It was, indeed, a spectacular beach, but deserted. After swimming in rough surf I spent a sleepless night at a mosquito-infested rest house where they had no alcohol. The only other guests were a young, German backpacking couple with little English.
From there I went southwards down the coast and eventually found a bit of life in the convivial resort of Kuantan. It was very beautiful but still rather staid for a worldly, young traveller.
It was shortly after that my ageing guidebook led me into a curious situation. Despite my taxi driver's odd reluctance, I drove out to stay at a rather grand place in its own grounds. True, it looked a bit rundown as we ventured down its long, palm-lined drive in early afternoon. It was rather quiet and deserted, too.
The driver left me alone sharpishly. Finally, a sleepy-eyed reception clerk booked me in for one night - though seeming surprised I wanted to stay even that long. Later I found out why.
Upon going into the lounge bar at evening after a sleep in the rather battered bed, I found an Indian proprietor ringing bells and shouting the equivalent of "Time up!" to male patrons behind curtained alcoves and closed doors. It was what he quaintly called a "short-term hotel" where customers booked in only by the hour - not entire nights - and female company was provided.
Still, his sons were at Oxbridge and he was keen to chat to a passing Englishman, while advising me as I eyed his flirtatious staff: "Not for British gentleman, like you sir!"
A chance reunion with the German backpackers led to all three of us paying fishermen to sail to a tiny island with vacant huts and only giant turtles as inhabitants. In this "unspoiled paradise" we slept on rush mats on wooden floors sheltering from a relentless sun. Our fishermen hosts would bring us food but no alcohol.
Three days in "paradise" was enough, though we did witness a turtle laying eggs one night - only for fishermen to steal them as the plodding creature went back into the ocean.
It was time for me to pad back into my natural element, too. Singapore and civilisation beckoned, with hopes of a new job and life in Australia.
28. Malaysia By Bus
AFTER my work in Hong Kong in the early 80s, I was heading to a new life in Australia - but in no hurry to get there. Leaving my main suitcase with a former Hong Kong colleague now working in Singapore, I took the bus to Malaysia.
How quickly we were across the Straits and in historic Malacca which, sadly, left me unimpressed. My main memory is of its crowded bus station, where I at last found shade and sustenance in an upstairs cafeteria.
"You join us please!" Encouraged local students enjoying cold beers and keen to practise English on a lone, young westerner.
I finished my curry but had misgivings about pints of chilled lager - with a long bus trip in prospect up the western coast.
"All coaches have conveniences on board," they assured me, so I joined them for two or three drinks and an impassioned history lesson (to me) on the colonial English. They were obviously happy to be independent but held few grudges.
Being the biggest vehicle on the road, our driver and sidekick simply drove down the middle of the highway, blasting the horn. A few miles into our riotous journey I needed to check out that on board convenience.
Carefully, I climbed over the woman slumbering beside me with live chickens in a bamboo basket on her lap, then made my way up the packed, swaying, single-decker 'coach-bus'.
There it was, a convenient toilet as promised, right at the back. Unfortunately, its metal door was rusted firmly into the frame and would not budge.
Seeing my plight, two natives stood and ushered me to stand clear as, together, they kicked in the door. They then picked up the door, now off its hinges, and invited me inside before lifting and holding the heavy metal portal upright again to save me further embarrassment.
When I was finished, the pair dropped their burden and grinned. No one else seemed to have noticed or cared.
Ah, how refreshing all this was after stand-offish Hong Kong then clinically efficient Singapore!
Port Dickson was charming but my locally recommended beachside hotel too expensive for a touring budget. I moved on and took a ferry to beautiful Penang. Here my old guidebook led me to simple lodgings used by backpackers, from where I explored picturesque coves and colonial mountain retreats.
But it was all too touristy for a seasoned traveller.
After savouring the island breezes, I shared one of the long-distance taxis (an excellent communal practice) and followed the old colonial trail in order to "summer" in the cool hills of the mainland.
The Cameron Highlands was stunning, like an old-fashioned Surrey village but surrounded by mountain jungle. I stayed in its cheap but clean rest house; strolled in rose gardens and park playground, then went to the local cinema - where everyone moved loose chairs around to join friends, eat and chat noisily throughout the evening.
Alone, however, these relaxing delights soon waned and I set my sights on the more exotic but remote East Coast. There, just across the mountains, was an intriguing landmark whose name struck an instant chord . . .
The Beach of the Long Night of Passionate Love.
27. Down In Bugis Street
IN SINGAPORE I was in transit between working in Hong Kong and going to live in Australia. During my short stay in the early 1980s, it soon became apparent that there were two city states: the Singapore Lee Kwan Yew's reformist government wanted the world to see and, just below that modern, skyscraper surface, an older, shameful colony that still lingered on - unloved by the powers-that-be and uncharted on tourist brochures.
Take the dazzling, state-of-the-art airport as example. Its air-conditioned and luxurious welcome mirrored the famed hospitality of Singapore Airlines, along with the almost sanitary safeness of the modern city. However, it was built on a mosquito-infested swampland that earlier housed the horrific Japanese concentration camp of Changi.
I had an overpriced Singapore Sling in its long bar then went in search of lodgings I could afford, before beginning my mission of finding the officially non-existent but still infamous Bugis Street.
A humble Chinese establishment called the Tin Tin Hotel in the nearby old town matched my pocket. The bathroom was shared and showering still carried out on wooden slats by pouring a 'Shanghai jar' of cold water over one's head. But there were two beds in my clean, airy room overlooking the teeming, colourful streets and a parakeet in the shuttered windows opposite me.
An old fashioned notice on my bedroom door read: 'Guests are politely requested to maintain their self-respect'.
That was a warning I would have done well to observe.
An evening out on the town started at Raffles' palm court and degenerated to a rundown colonial style bar I stumbled upon near a regeneration site. Here at last I found some genial company, an ageing expat who joined me in a couple of Tiger beers.
"Oh, yes," he confirmed, "Bugis Street still exists and is quite near here, just hop in a tut-tut and ask for it."
Some while later I found myself watching a colourful parade of nightlife outside a bar in Bugis Street. A couple of the infamous "lady-boys" even came to sit beside me and chat until, realising I wasn't interested in what they were offering, they cheerfully departed.
It was then I noticed a rather lost looking girl of mixed Asian heritage who reminded me in my tired state of a young Shirley Bassey. She had a quality about her but looked down on her luck.
To cheer her up, I offered to buy her a drink which she - rather apprehensively - accepted.
Minutes later a man - minder, boyfriend or relative - appeared, berated her then even slapped her across the face, causing her to cry and spill that drink.
Naturally, I intervened and drove off the bounder. But my damsel in distress did not appear pleased.
"Now where can I go?" She demanded. "I have no money and nowhere to sleep!"
I offered to give her some cash, then discovered my jacket pocket had been emptied - those "lady-boys".
However, I could change a traveller's cheque and, as it became clear I was going to help her, the girl began to relax and cheer up.
We crept into the Tin Tin Hotel past a slumbering Chinese night watchman. Any romantic impulses I had disappeared as she went into a convulsion of consumptive coughing, poor thing.
Next morning I awoke with a thick head and a thin enthusiasm for my guest, who had kept me awake most of the night - by snores and rasping breath.
I made a discreet gesture of offering her some cash as a farewell gift, that was readily accepted. However, she also reminded me of that lunch I'd promised.
Meanwhile, reception pointed out that my bill would be doubled as there were now two in the room - the old watchman hadn't been sleeping after all.
At the upmarket Raffles (pictured above), my guest ate ravenously through lunchtime tiffin with an appetite that drew astonishment from neighbouring tables, along with that cough. No doubt her inappropriate evening dress also attracted attention.
"If you return, sir," a turbaned head-waiter muttered with a knowing look as we finally left, "please do not bring your-er guest."
It was time to move on.
26. Preserving the Wah
"SO, you will be all right," Jonathan asked anxiously as he prepared to leave me at his home, "and preserve the wah?"
By this he meant the peace of his neighbours in this highly traditional and old district of Tokyo, where I was his guest during a brief holiday from my work in Hong Kong.
Jonathan, a post graduate student of Japanese, was going off in early morning to teach English to adult pupils before they went to work. An impeccably educated Cambridge product, he obviously did not trust his older guest to behave.
In fact, I had no intention of going anywhere until he returned, content to rest up in his quiet, comfortable room with its tiny kitchen, tatami matting and oregano display. But I understood his concern.
"Certainly!" I promised.
I finished dressing then put on the kettle for green tea and slid open a paper-screen window. Outside the quaint, pedestrian-only lane was deserted; its fruit trees were in blossom and all looked ancient and serene. Incredible that the dynamic city was just a stone's throw away.
Then I saw it.
Smoke was issuing from the upstairs, side window of another wooden house across the pathway. What was more, I had read that the greatest danger in these timber and paper-house neighbourhoods was fire.
I should raise the alarm immediately.
But was it smoke? Could the 'smoke' be steam, from some bathroom shower or other appliance?
If I shouted "fire" and ran amok, it would spread terror and panic.
'Above all, preserve the wah', Jonathan had instructed so earnestly. Mutual respect and placid, tactful behaviour was at the very heart of Japanese beliefs.
For some minutes, I criss-crossed the rented room, first checking on my boiling kettle, then on the steam/smoke - definitely getting thicker - from our opposite neighbour's upstairs window. Silently, I prayed for a passerby who might take action instead of me.
Then, just as I had calming green tea to hand, the front door opposite burst open.
Smoke plumed out of the downstairs living quarters across the lane and an elderly gent in pyjamas staggered in distress into the street.
I saw flames behind him amid the dark smoke. My God, his pyjamas were also smouldering with them.
Stupidly, I stood frozen for a moment, as the old chap hopped about and flailed at his burning pyjama top. Then other people rushed from their homes and, just in front of me, Jon's landlady ran to safety carrying prized personal possessions.
Grabbing my passport and wallet, I quickly followed and was, once again, bowing in turn to the widow.
Then we were just as quickly ushered back into our houses by spacemen.
Except they weren't spacemen but Japanese firemen in flame-proof outfits and protective perspex visors under stylish steel helmets.
They rolled down water pipes from their pump, which could not get down the narrow pathway, then clambered up the little house's facade as waves of water played on the flames.
A small ambulance managed to negotiate the narrow lane and its occupants fussed about the old fire victim.
To my shame, I saw them treating burns across his back. The old boy just sat, staring ahead inscrutably.
Humbly, I finished my green tea, acutely aware I could have prevented those injuries and much of this damage and disaster by acting decisively earlier.
Best say nowt, I decided.
Then Jonathan was back in the room, rather wild-eyed and concerned after following all the activity almost to his rented home.
"Thank goodness," he sighed, "I feared you'd set this place alight."
"No," I told him, "don't worry. I preserved the wah."
25. Honourable Hospitality - And A Piggy-Back Home
"I'LL leave you at my local bar," said Jonathan, whom I was staying with in an old neighbourhood of Shinjuku, Tokyo.
He was off to give an English class to evening students.
Like the house where he rented a room, the tiny bar was in a small, timbered building with traditional sliding doors and paper windows. Obviously crime wasn't high around here.
Jon introduced me in Japanese to the kimono-wearing barmaid who bowed deeply. Then he further explained to her and her two elderly patrons, sat on stools at opposite ends of the bar, that I spoke no Japanese.
"I'll see you in a couple of hours," Jon told me, "we'll settle the bill and tip later. They know me here and where I live - I'm the only foreign resident - so behave!"
Well really! What cheek from my young host. After Jon had left I smiled and nodded at the others, then sipped my beer slowly with due deliberation.
Eventually, when at last about to order another bottle, a small, unsolicited jug of warmed sake appeared.
Seeing my frown, the lady behind the bar indicated one of the elderly men. As I glanced over he stood slightly and bowed.
I poured and raised the tiny porcelain cup to him in thanks . . . and so began a memorable evening we shall return to later.
Throughout my short stay in Japan, the hospitality and friendliness of its people to a passing stranger amazed me.
While killing time in a railway station buffet, I was sent over a beer from another elderly businessman - who bowed and waved to me, then sat down again to his meal.
When Jon and I were eating at a traditional restaurant, with its menu chalked on walls in Japanese, extra side dishes began to arrive.
"They're from other diners, dishes they want us to try," Jonathan explained.
We would taste these then look round appreciatively. Across the room someone would stand and bow and we would wave our thanks then bow in turn.
"Hope you like it," Jon added after one treat, "you've just eaten raw horse."
It slipped down well, in fact, with the right marinade.
Two girls at another table in a pizza place even asked us, via a waiter, to join them for coffee at their table. Of course, I was a lot younger then . . .
But back to that little traditional bar in Shinjuku on my second evening in Tokyo.
Warm sake, I discovered, goes straight to the head and quickly lowers social barriers.
The old chap who had bought it had one in front of himself. He indicated these should be downed in one. I obliged him with much bowing and thanks.
Minutes later a second jug was in front of me - this time from the other old chap. More bowing and drinking followed.
It seemed rude not to order a round myself. This time the old gentlemen shifted stools to join me.
Soon we three discovered - in an endless round of sake - we could converse perfectly well, by gesture, sign language and mime.
What a grand time we had until, quite suddenly, one of the old gentlemen keeled backwards off his stool.
Fortunately, he wasn't hurt but proved incapable of standing.
Here the kindly, middle-aged lady of the bar intervened.
Helping the chap partly upright again, she ducked under him and wrapped his arms about her shoulders. Then, half-bent as if still bowing, she shuffled out and round the corner - giving her comatose customer a piggyback home .
Minutes later she was back, grinning broadly at me and the remaining old chap - now propped up happily with arms around each others shoulders.
"I don't believe this!" Someone said from a long way away.
It was Jonathan, standing in the doorway and stunned by the transition in our demeanour.
That night I slept like a dead man in my futon on tatami mats in Jon's room, awaking as in a dream next morning.
"Did last night really happen?" I asked him, appalled. "I can never show my face in there again."
"Don't worry," Jon grinned. "They loved it! You'll be welcomed with open arms."
24. Orderly Vices
JAPAN is such a carefully structured society that even perversity and vices are catered for in orderly fashion. In fact, the only human trait they seem shocked by is disorderliness.
Used to the pushing and shoving that replaces queues in Hong Kong, on my first trip by rail in Tokyo I began to barge my way on to the train before onboard passengers had alighted. All present were stunned by my uncouth behaviour, even in rush hour. Passengers on the platform ushered me back and indicated that those on board should first be allowed to get off.
I was also corrected and embarrassed at a highway junction when, seeing no traffic in sight, I began to cross the road. An urgent murmur from other pedestrians still back on the pavement halted my progress. Had I dropped my wallet perhaps? No, they were horrified by my jaywalking. I was beckoned back to the kerbside then my attention directed toward the traffic lights still showing green. When they finally turned red the crowd happily urged me forward again.
Yet, behind their polite exterior, there can lurk a darkness as gross - and as regimented - as sumo.
When travelling on crowded commuter trains about Tokyo, I was shocked by the reading matter of middle-aged businessmen sat alongside me. They had prurient paperbacks bought from vending machines on the platform, showing explicit strip cartoons of women being bound, assaulted and worse - blood and gore abounded. Not a flicker of embarrassment or concern there, even with schoolchildren sat amongst us.
Similarly, I switched on the television one Sunday evening and was stunned by what Japanese stations were showing at a time when, at home, Songs of Praise would be broadcast. A naked woman was hanging upside down from a cross-beam she was roped to, then being lashed between her legs by another scantily clad female in thigh-length boots wielding a bull whip.
In busy city-centre streets there was always much bowing to colleagues and business associates, each trying to bow lower than the other or as their relative status demanded. Even saying 'thank you' in Japanese is complex, there are so many levels of gratitude, respect and humility.
Yet on Friday evenings in Tokyo you would routinely see young and not-so-young businessmen staggering drunk after end-of-week drinking parties straight from the office. They vomited in trains and urinated in the street with barely a glance from fellow passengers or passers-by.
"Getting drunk is the only way they can open up to bosses, or criticise company policy - even positively," explained my host Jonathan Inman, a law and languages student who also ran English classes.
"It would be unthinkable normally to oppose views of your seniors. But, if they're drunk and later apologise, 'face' is saved all round. Getting drunk with colleagues after a hard week is acceptable."
What was more, when being wined and dined you were expected to get drunk - as I later found out.
Similarly, it was impolite not to leave food on your plate. A cleared one suggested your host had not adequately provided.
Better to at least appear overfed and drunk as you stagger from their low table, then bestow and show satisfaction . . . with a gratifying belch.
23. Baring All In Japan
IN the early 1980s, while working in Hong Kong, I was invited to visit Tokyo. My host was Jonathan, whom I knew from the Fylde and who was then a post-graduate studying Japanese.
He was later to marry a local then become a highly successful lawyer jetting between London and Tokyo. However, back then he had a simple rented room of a traditional Japanese home in the old district of Shinjuku.
"I use the sento - or public baths," Jonathan explained.
Fortified by a green tea or two, I followed him down the narrow pathway between the huddle of houses and blossom trees. Outside a larger building was a collection of shoes.
We left our own on the doorstep and entered the bath-house. There were no changing closets.
"Just select a locker and undress where you stand," Jon instructed.
As I did so, female attendants gathered at a nearby counter. One even came sweeping about my feet.
"Don't be embarrassed!" Jon advised cheerfully. "We're the only westerners who use this place so, naturally, they're intrigued."
Apparently, all the changing room staff were female and they watched with unwavering interest as, now naked, we carefully soaped ourselves down at washbasins and then soaked away remaining suds.
Thus cleaned, I eagerly followed Jon from the prying attendant eyes and we approached a large pool of steaming water. Several local men were reclining, water up to their necks, relaxing in different parts of the bath. A bamboo barrier across the pool's centre separated us from the women's bathing half, though we could hear their chatter.
"It gets hotter the deeper in you go," Jon warned.
I edged into the nearest water, which felt scalding hot. No wonder the men proudly braving its deeper waters were the colour of lobsters!
Eventually, I did move in deeper until - after 15 minutes or so and with every nerve in my hot body now tingling - I finally retreated.
My emergence was greeted by another excited gathering of attendants at the counter.
To avoid them, I foolishly followed Jon as he jumped into a small, sunken bath located outside - an ice-cold plunge pool.
I decided against the marble bench where a man was being thoroughly beaten with birch twigs by the only male attendant seen so far.
For me it was back, now shivering, into the changing rooms - amid chastening giggles from delighted staff.
I might only have been in this strange land a short time - but they had already seen more of me than most!
22. Wine, Women and . . . Gong!
WE have read, in the last two entries, how young expatriates - mostly male in my day - court romance. Then, of course, there's the drinking - or 'wining and dining'.
In hot, humid climes with a different language and culture, expats gather in clubs or mock-ups of places reminding them of 'home', such as British-style pubs.
The difference in a place like Hong Kong is that these may not shut until the late 'early hours'. Sadly, drunkenness is common.
But more spectacular tales of expat drunkenness abounded. Many surrounded a colourful New Zealander who was for a time my assistant editor. He had once been a smoker but contracted throat cancer, so - being a forceful character - afterwards crushed others' packets of fags whenever he could grab them.
At the bar of Radio Television Hong Kong, our celebrated Kiwi had a drunken argument with another boozy heavyweight which got out of hand. The terrified Chinese barman closed the shutters, though it was only mid-afternoon.
My Kiwi colleague was so incensed a green bile shot from the hole in his throat where his voice box had once been. This so sickened the other adversary that he, in turn, threw up over the New Zealander - a shocking mess, indeed, but one that became legend.
On a more salubrious level, eating out in Hong Kong during the 80s was glorious.
My favourite restaurants ranged from French, for fillet steaks, to a backstreet Shanghainese for winter noodles, cabbage in cheese sauce and bean curd with chilli. Other places included one offering Malaysian, Singapore and Indian dishes; a Russian restaurant (for Borsch soup), and an Australian one, for pies.
The choice was dazzling and prices so reasonable that most locals also ate out most of the time.
Even on outlying islands there were exceptional seafood treats and, on Lamma, a pigeon restaurant that also served a wonderful dish of minced quail and cashew nuts served in lettuce hearts. Then there was Macau, a Portuguese-Chinese fusion!
At a large, popular Pekingese restaurant in Wanchai, I strode confidently upstairs and was seated, alone, at one of the large tables accommodating up to 12 diners. The menus were also big but I found dishes that met my expectations.
An old waiter approached uncertainly and, as my Cantonese was not up to the mark, I pointed to the menu items desired: sweetcorn soup, grilled prawns and then chicken. The price seemed higher than usual but within my bracket.
Unfortunately, I had failed to notice the establishment was a banqueting restaurant. It only served dishes for a dozen diners, each arriving to the striking of a gong.
First a veritable vat of soup came, closely followed by a silver platter overflowing with large prawns, then another bearing what must have been at least three disjointed, roast chickens. With a final flourish, the waiters added a giant bowl of steaming rice that would have fed an extended family.
I was the only non-Chinese in the crowded restaurant and everyone stared openly at me, curious at my predicament and behaviour.
What could I do?
Pouring my beer, I tucked into bowls of soup, stacks of prawns and Henry VIII-size chicken portions as though this was exactly the meal wanted.
At last, an hour or so later, I had made some impact on the tableful of food. Rising with what dignity I could summon, I paid with relief then staggered slowly downstairs.
At home I lay upon my bed groaning - with only my confidence and pride deflated.
21. Opposites Attract
THERE seem to me many ironies in life. Highs are followed rapidly by lows, for example, and - more philosophically - we're never happier than when we forget ourselves. Yet another irony applies to romance: opposites attract.
The very strangeness of the opposite sex in a foreign land adds to their allure.
Slightly built, darker Oriental men are fascinated by large Western blondes. Similarly, large Western men are soon enamoured by delicate Oriental ladies.
At a well-seasoned Canadian reporter's party I spent some time chatting beside his attractive Chinese girlfriend, whom he appeared to be ignoring owing to host's responsibilities. Her perfume was quite dizzying in the humid atmosphere, even where we sat on the balcony admiring the night lights across Victoria Harbour.
But what went even more to my head was the delightful way she giggled at all my little jokes, or found my comments so interesting. She had the charm of an older, gentler world of politeness forgotten by so many of us in the West.
Later I was shocked to see her discreetly entering a bedroom with said host, then to learn from others she was a professional hostess of his long acquaintance. It was I, in the end, who was proved naive. Later, I couldn't get her out of my mind, or that scent she'd worn and her laughter . . .
On a day off, shortly afterwards, I was strolling through Victoria Park on a sunny afternoon. A smartly dressed, local girl passed me and our paths converged for a while. How demurely but provocatively she walked; how shy and slight, yet beguiling and feminine . . .
You see, readers, all those apparent contrasts again!
I had succumbed to the yellow fever and for years it never left me.
My first awkward dates with Chinese girls were gentle, polite affairs but also mesmerising revelations.
Mix-ups in language and culture could lead to bizarre misunderstandings. One girl, whom I had been out with but once, arranged to meet me next time outside the local family planning clinic. The place was just a landmark to her, while to me it was ominously suggestive - a warning, in fact.
A girl who would be embarrassed by you holding her hand in public might, once in relatively private surroundings such as a lift (or elevator in U.S.), embrace passionately with the pent-up power of a volcano.
I would take girls to swanky hotel restaurants, only to discover they struggled using a knife and fork.
They would disapprove of me drinking more than one or two beers or glasses of wine, yet slurp their tea and noodles.
Girls were appalled by my sweating yet oblivious to my shock at their dark tufts of underarm hair. They ticked me off at any abruptness to others but, discreetly, spat in the street.
Every year schoolgirls would throw themselves off tower blocks, because their exam results dropped below family expectations. Imagine their reaction if jilted or 'compromised'.
What's more racial pride is high too.
"You have wonderful, large eyes," I told one girl, adding curiously since becoming more aware of Hong Kong's ethnic mix, "do you have some Filipino blood?"
Her smile disappeared, she stiffened her back, then declared: "I am pure Chinese!"
You live and learn, even we self-effacing British embarrassed by our own empire.
Many locals did not agree with 'mixed' marriages and warned of clashing cultures. But, with suitable tolerance and understanding, the results of such social adventures were usually charming and refreshing - even in the most stressful or painful situations.
My Chinese dentist had three local nurses who fussed about me solicitously as I came under the drill. So attentive and gentle were they that visiting the surgery became an erotic experience. I left grinning, until getting his bill.
In fact, looking back at it all now still makes me smile.
As those worldly French would say . . .
Vive la difference!
20. Getting to the Heart of Bar Girls
WHEN a young man arrives in the Far East there is an air of romance. An adventurer also wants to learn the many ways of the world . . .
But in Asia, even in dynamic Hong Kong, local girls live in a very different world - and even era.
Arriving in that high-rise British colony in the 1980s I discovered the girls were living in the 1950s, or even earlier.
They were demure, coquettish and, in matters of romance, rather wonderfully old fashioned. I admired them all the more for that and felt privileged and enchanted whenever on a 'date', however innocent.
But I was already 30 and, like most of my young expatriate colleagues, soon found myself also exploring the red light districts - when they were not invaded by the American Pacific Fleet for 'rest and recreation'.
For example, as I lived near Hong Kong Island's main R & R district of Wanchai, I did what under-age drinkers might first do and experimented further from home.
Across the harbour in Kowloon one late afternoon, I sneaked nervously into a naughty looking, back-street establishment beneath a neon-lit, painted mouth. It was called the Red Lips Bar.
The barmaid who greeted me, called Annie, was friendly and put me at ease as she poured a slightly over-priced but cool San Miguel beer. However, disappointingly, she looked old enough to be my mother.
There were discreet booths where similarly 'mature' ladies were playing cards or mahjong with middle-aged Chinese businessmen, while a classic-style jukebox played Elvis and other old hits. It was a time-warp.
Later I learned its nostalgia was the curious charm of this old-fashioned 'girlie' bar. It had changed little since the Vietnam War two decades before. Also most of its 'ladies' had adopted the western name of Annie and could be differentiated between only by nicknames upon their diverse attributes. Hence, there was Big Annie, Little Annie, Old Annie and, though I had - typically - failed to meet her, Young Annie.
All except that last Annie had been at the bar for decades and knew just how to listen, console and entertain as an experienced barmaid should.
Many customers were obviously regulars: coming to see their usual 'girl'; leaving their personal bottle of spirits behind the bar for next time, with its level marked.
In its rather homely, eccentric way the bar was wonderful but, of course, not what I was looking for.
Next I explored closer to 'home', along the bustling and notorious Lockhart Road in Wanchai. Here the girls behind the bars' velvet entrance curtains were young and many 'topless' - wearing a clinging, silk cheongsam specially undercut to reveal often surgically enhanced busts.
They were stunning, as well as very adept at parting a green young man from his cash. Beer prices here were more inflated and the girls' own 'cocktails' (usually non-alcoholic) an outrageous rip-off. But you were buying the girl's valuable time, so every 20 minutes or so she would smile, lean closer and whisper:
The topless girls covered their vital assets with a silk shawl, unless a steady flow of drinks prompted otherwise. There was no touching, only teasing encouragement and delightful company for a lonely, young bachelor. Of course, if your pockets were deeper, further negotiations and arrangements could be made. But most young visitors were relatively broke and already drunk before braving their entrance.The final bar bill usually came as a sobering surprise.
Inevitably, personal esteem and reputation at the bank took a plunge each time a spidery signature crossed a cheque to such as the Panda Bar or Pink Pussycat.
Still, young fools always returned and would be welcomed each time by the same girl. They never stole each others' admirers. Some fortunate girls even charmed their escape from the seedy underworld of the bars.
A friend from England, called Barbara, visited Hong Kong and asked, after we'd eaten nearby, to see the infamous girlie bars.
I tried to put her off, warning they were unsavoury, but she was intrigued and determined.
As we approached one, its doorman waved in recognition and announced: "Good evening, Mister Loy!"
"Oh!" Barbara exclaimed with winning smile, "Does Roy visit often?"
She was rewarded with the reply:
"Mister Loy comes here all the time!
I thought this an exaggeration but we were joined, once at the bar, by a girl familiar to me. She looked uncertain at first of my friend but soon chatted to her in obvious enjoyment. Even the bill was reasonable, for once.
Slightly bemused, as we left I observed: "You two got on well."
"Yes, thanks, we did," said Barbara. "I thought she was really a very nice girl. What a shame."
Usually, the bargirls and hostesses were tough survivors from harsh backgrounds. Most were on drugs, supplied cheaply by triads, to keep going through long, often boring hours.
One popular girl adopted a western name from the film and novel which inspired my first interest in the Far East, The World of Suzy Wong.
Our Suzy was a sexy and ruthless vamp as she tempted and dallied with her paying prey. But her most natural and beautiful smile, of pure joy, emerged one night when told she could leave early.
Suzy changed into jeans and sweater then hurried by us gleefully, explaining:
"Now, I go home and see my baby!"
It was a rare glimpse into her heart.
Years later I returned to the same bar and asked if Suzy was still there.
"She a grandmother now!" laughed the current girls. "Now Suzy serve behind supermarket counter."
Thankfully, her little boy must have grown up after all.
19. Can't Buy Me Love
JUST as I had found my feet as a reporter in Hong Kong and was enjoying covering the McLennon Inquiry which was nearing its dramatic end (see 15 below), they asked me to help run the South China Morning Post newsdesk.
This was not to my liking, though flattering. It meant missing out on extra earnings from freelancing and, besides, I liked being independent and out of the office. Now I was desk-bound and organising others, which I hated and was not good at.
The news editor and our immediate boss at that time was a young woman whose drive and application we all admired but rather shrank from. Most expats were there to have a good time, make money and move on. We more experienced hacks stood up for ourselves and dodged her sillier ideas but the politer, more submissive local reporters were driven hard by her.
In Hong Kong only the elderly tend to be religious. Most locals are more concerned with working hard and investing wisely (or gambling). Money counts, but the nearest activity to a religion for most of them is eating. They love dining out and preferably in a crowd.
So it was at our 7th floor canteen, despite the food falling short of most local standards. The Chinese reporters would all try to eat together and woe betide anyone who interrupted them.
Our news editor was oblivious to these sensibilities, while I had to interrupt their meal only once when a huge squatter settlement had caught fire near the border with China.
She once also dispatched two Chinese messenger 'boys' to look for a cheque accidentally binned, expecting them to sift through Hong Kong's main garbage site. The wily pair stopped trying to make her see sense when that determined glint came into her eyes. Instead they simply took the office petty cash she offered them for a long distance taxi and had a meal up the nearby road - returning with a weary air to report drawing a blank at the tip they never visited.
Another occasion a Chinese reporter diligently phoned in from Kai Tak Airport to say he and his family had just arrived after a delayed flight back from holiday, apologising that he had missed his evening shift.
"Don't worry," said the steely female boss, "there's an interview you can do now nearby - just leave your luggage and go to the following address."
After that, of course, no one would phone in with an apology but just continue straight home.
So it was that, on the occasion I interrupted the reporters' evening dinner, one of their more senior members took me aside.
"We like you," he said, "you're a sensible man. Unfortunately our news editor isn't - but," he added with a wink, "we think you can relax her and give her what she obviously needs."
He grinned but I was rather slow on the uptake.
"That's right!" said one of the prim looking girls who now had a twinkle in her eye. "You have no girlfriend; she has no boyfriend. So, you take her out. We have collection for you!"
With that, the older reporter pulled out a fistful of notes and flourished them, adding: "You're the man for the job!"
But they could never have offered me enough.
Their assistant news editor hurriedly made his excuses and disappeared downstairs.
18. New Adventures
HONG KONG was a great place for new beginnings - though there were pitfalls. When I first took up a desk there I observed how many different races and types were employed in the newsroom of the South China Morning Post. Also I noted a warning letter left under the desktop glass by the last occupant, a South African reporter named Dickenberg.
It was a cutting from the SCM Post's letters-to-the-editor page from a visiting professor of anthropology. His letter related to an article Dickenberg had written about a small group of adventurers who had taken a canoe trip down the Orinoco river through the Amazon Jungle.
All was well until that letter from the professor - written in response to the article and in somewhat tongue-in-cheek terms.
"Dear Sir," the Prof wrote, "My speciality is the Amazon Delta so imagine my surprise and delight upon this brief visit to Hong Kong in discovering an entirely new source of information about it . . . "
He went on in similarly amusing but cutting style: "I had thought the greatest risk to human life there was now industrial pollution, so was amazed to read reports of naked natives attacking visitors with poisoned darts, then of dense jungle concealing headhunters."
Our rather unfortunate but highly inventive and entertaining reporter got the sack, which left a place open to Yours Truly.
Other opportunities came my way readily too. Dynamic Hong Kong regularly threw up interesting and unusual challenges. I was offered the editorship of its equivalent to TV Times, despite knowing little about the local stations and sounding, as one executive interviewer observed, like a tipsy Eddie Waring (the BBC's wacky, north country-accented rugby league commentator). I became an occasional correspondent for Reuters, a monthly columnist for a Mormon newspaper in Salt Lake City and, latterly, got my dream job as free-ranging reporter and columnist of the SCM Post group.
The experience took me on to freelancing in the region and, lastly, to reporting and editing in Australia.
You heard of many other remarkable job offers too. My favourite example was a journalistic colleague overheard playing jazz piano in a hotel bar in Hong Kong by visiting Japanese Airlines executives. They offered him the editorship of their inflight magazine with all perks in Tokyo, as long as he also played piano in the JAL social club there on Saturday evenings.
Only in the Far East could such bizarre offers materialise . . .
I tip my old reporter's hat to Mr Dickenberg. Although we never met, his sudden departure provided years of excitement and adventure.
17. A Hot Christmas Curry
IN the 1980s, before Rupert Murdoch bought it, the South China Morning Post was said to be the wealthiest newspaper in the world. It was also rather stuffy and colonial but, at least, directors gave staff one hell of a bash to mark the end of year.
The 1980/81 party was a classic - thanks to one man who caused a sensation.
As it was in Hong Kong and most of the staff Cantonese, this celebration always came at Chinese New Year rather than Christmas - but we expatriate British staff treated the "do" as our festive time too.
It started around 7pm with mahjong fuelled by lots of brandy, a cocktail reception, then a sit-down, several-course banquet with lashings of wine. After a few speeches about how well the Post was doing, a full orchestra swung into action with suitable dance music. But everyone behaved themselves as the bosses were watching and indiscretions would be remembered with loss of 'face' to follow.
Then the orchestra leader asked if anyone had a request or would like to perform, karaoke style. A new journalist in the office Mike Currie, a strapping 'Geordie' from the north-east of England, leaped up on stage to have a word.
Mike had only joined the office a few weeks previously. He was a bit of a lad with the ladies and keen bodybuilder, despite sharing the customary expat drinking style. However, he was cheerful and popular.
Chinese staff were always well behaved, particularly the demure female ones. There was general surprise at such a newcomer behaving so brazenly. But something far more surprising was to come.
Mike hadn't just got a request. He wanted to entertain - and did he ever!
After some consultations, the orchestra swung into 'Can't Get No Satisfaction' from the Rolling Stones and Mike, microphone confidently in hand, strutted the stage and beat out the number with impressive gusto.
The assembly, numbering a couple of hundred people, were at first stunned, then the Chinese ladies squealed in glee at such an exhibition and everyone crowded forward to watch the Mick Jagger-like gyrations.
The exuberant performance was nothing short of sensational. Finally, high on his success, Mike jumped from the stage, landed on his knees and slid across the dance floor to end, triumphant, in front of open-mouthed but delighted Chinese secretaries.
Drinks flowed again, the orchestra picked up speed and everyone was dancing, except our directors who quietly left - put in the shade by this startling new star's performance.
It was hot stuff from the Geordie and talk of the office for months.
"Must have had a beer or two too many," Mike modestly commented later - but he had given us a spicy Currie all there would remember.
16. The Beach of Passionate Love
I EXPLORED most of the South East Asia region while working in Hong Kong. Few areas were as full of contrasts as Malaysia. From the relatively touristy west coast above sophisticated Singapore, the east side of the peninsula beyond mountainous terrain was profoundly different. As a bachelor touring alone I was drawn to its furthest reaches, simply by the name of a long bay - The Beach of the Long Night of Passionate Love. How could a young, red-blooded fellow have resisted?
Two local men came to my rescue. They politely ushered me aside then kicked in the door. Afterwards, they held it up discreetly until I had finished, before dropping it noisily once more.
Penang was beautiful but commercial, while the Cameron Highlands were like a Surrey village high in jungle hills. Kuala Lumpur was sweaty and noisy and my colonial hotel, the Coliseum, had stunningly dressed transvestites gathered on its terrace in the evenings.
So it was I travelled the tortuous route to The Beach of Passionate Love across the peninsula near Kota Bharu. The battered buses I took often broke down and villagers along the Muslim coast regarded me with suspicion. When I finally reached the spectacular beach it was deserted. I took a lonely swim then had a depressing night in a nearby rest house or hostel where alcohol was frowned upon but mosquitoes abounded.
It was there a young German couple persuaded me to join them, further down the coast, for a few days on an uninhabited island. Fishermen sailed us there and rented us a rudimentary hut. We slept on thin mats on a hard floor, with water from a well and no toilet facilities. They wouldn't bring us any beer from the mainland as it was against their religion. It was a sobering time. The only high spot came when a giant turtle waddled ashore and laid its eggs.
Finally, further down the coast, I sought out a remote country hotel recommended in my out-of-date guide book. The taxi driver seemed reluctant and I observed after he had dropped me at the end of its long drive that the place was rundown. But there was someone in its scruffy reception. The chap looked as stunned as my driver when I booked a room for a few nights.
After a nap in a battered bed, I went along to the bar. The chatty Indian owner told me about a son studying at Cambridge, while busily switching on and off lights and ringing bells in nearby rooms.
It turned out the place was a short-time brothel.
The girls, who looked rough but were friendly, stared curiously at me and, as the evening wore on, I had to admit to being tempted.
But my new friend, the colonial minded Indian owner, wouldn't hear of it.
"Not for you, young sir," he insisted respectfully, "most unsuitable!"
So ended my passionate tour.
15. Incredible Inquiry
SOON after arriving to work as a reporter in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post news desk took me off general news and assigned me to continue coverage of the McLennan Inquiry.
This had already started an international sensation. It followed the death by several gunshot wounds of a Scottish expatriate police inspector called John McLennan (pictured). Despite the number of his wounds, the young bachelor was found dead in his locked apartment and - as all the shots came from his pistol - he was officially classed as a suicide.
Hence the uproar for an inquiry into the shooting and international interest when the colonial government finally agreed to one.
I was to cover the inquiry for almost a year and, though it proved a godsend to me, evidence and cross-examination rarely fell short of both sensation and farce.
When I joined the inquiry Press team proceedings were in the Government Secretariat, a colonial block in Lower Albert Road, Central. After passing through reception with its uniformed commissionaires, one went along a first-floor corridor lined with prints of Chinnery and Borget paintings. Closed doors had lights outside, some glowing red to indicate meetings were in progress.
The inquiry was in the main conference room and packed with the world's Press and other interested parties. It was presided over by Mr Justice Yang, a High Court judge. The commission of inquiry was headed by a British Q.C. called John Beveridge, who had a legal team of two local counsel. The McLennan family were also represented by a British barrister and there were barristers for the Hong Kong Police and a number of the other parties who feared their reputation might be tarnished or they might face prosecution as a result of the investigations.
I arrived to see the first of a number of male prostitutes being interviewed at length over their dealings with the ill-fated inspector, or anyone else of interest for that matter. He was called Lulu and was interviewed in English that was then translated into Cantonese, then his answers relayed again by court officials into English. It was a ponderous procedure but he still looked terrified and managed to deliver a number of shocks, not least to my colleague and friend big Dave Hadfield from Bolton.
When one of the barristers asked Lulu if he had dealings with other foreigners who were present in the proceedings, the witness said he had.
In a tense atmosphere, he was asked to point out the culprit and, with a wild look round the chamber, settled on strapping northerner Dave, probably the biggest man there and famously heterosexual.
My taking over had nothing to do with that, however Dave was afronted and the man's testimony found hopelessly unreliable.
Later the long-running inquiry moved to the nearby Legislative Council chamber and the Press and public interest greatly diminished until there was just a handful of local hacks regularly attending.
"How do all these other foreign newspapers, television and radio stations manage to carry reports?" asked one of the legal wizards, mystified.
The answer, of course, was that we were all furiously freelancing for them as well as filing our own reports. I even had calls in the middle of the night, from BBC's Radio Glasgow asking for a live commentary then and there. It was an enriching experience.
Best of all was when the commission went into private legal discussion, usually around lunch time. We hacks agreed not to tell our offices but quietly debunked to the beach, filing our many reports later from a corner of the bar.
That was the life. And the outcome? It was agreed that poor McLennan had killed himself and, unlikely though it might seem, I was convinced.
14. R&R in HK
HONG Kong is a dynamic place to live and work. Even back in the 80s, when I was a journalist on the South China Morning Post, you needed to let off steam and find some peace of mind.
Rest and recreation for most expats revolved around exclusive clubs where you could be pampered with drinks, meals, swim and play sports such as tennis, cricket, rugby and bowls - all very British!
As a mere reporter I couldn't afford the joining fees. But there were many curious local bars to enjoy, extraordinarily diverse ethnic restaurants and, above all, the outlying islands to retreat to from our five-and-a-half-day week of long hours.
My delight was a day-off in mid-week, when I would take a cheap ferry ride out to either Lamma or Cheung Chau islands.
The ferry would sway gently along on a calm South China Sea, past deserted islets topped by old temples, to the bustling fishing harbours of the Outlying Islands an hour or less away.
These were like another world, with no traffic but banana fields and quiet beaches just a short walk from the waterfront.
After a swim I would sunbathe.
"Excuse me," asked a local girl at one beach, "what is that you put on skin to stay so white?"
She and her friends, huddled under parasols to avoid the sun, had been watching me ladle on sun tan oil - obviously with little result.
Then there were seafood restaurants close to the fishing fleets. In the early 80s for a few dollars you could enjoy crab or lobster chopped up in a tray of blackbean sauce, ready to eat with your fingers.
Alternatively, at Lamma, there was a hillside restaurant where friends and I would eat roast pigeon with lemon juice, accompanied by minced quail and cashew nuts in fresh lettuce hearts. Again, this was all eaten casually by hand then washed down with a cheap bottle or two of excellent Tsingtao beer from the mainland.
We felt like kings, ambling back along the pathways through smallholdings, then idling on the returning ferry to the bright lights of Hong Kong Island . . . refreshed for another bout of city work.
I hope such simple joys remain near the cosmopolitan metropolis, and try to recapture them in books composed here - amid the comparative quiet of Lancashire's Fylde coast. Happy days!
13. Victor, the Multi-Lingual Swearer
WHEN reporters at the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's premier English language newspaper, went out on an assignment it was sometimes necessary to phone in their story - rather than returning to the office and typing it up.
The SCM Post had a large newsroom but only one copy typist, an ageing Chinese-Portuguese called Victor Garcia. He was a character and no mistake!
"Yes," replied old Victor, sounding offended - then retorted: "Is there much more, it's very boring."
There were screeds more, as it was the Maclennan Inquiry into a police inspector's controversial 'suicide' from several gunshots.
Next day I checked the paper and my story was word perfect.
Victor, whose family originated from nearby Macau, had been a bus driver in Birmingham. His English was great and, according to Chinese reporters, his Cantonese most colourful. He had been well educated - his brother was a high court judge in Hong Kong - but was the black sheep of his family. I think he had also been in the navy and well-travelled, since he spoke many languages.
"I can swear fluently in them all!" was his proud boast.
Over the years his knowledge of court procedure and reporting restrictions had grown to match his illustrious older brother's.
Victor could take copy from a Chinese reporter dictating in Cantonese, type it in English and correct the reporter's legal mistakes as he went along.
"He's irreplaceable!" one executive commented. "We did retire him once but no one could replace him. You'd need a team of linguists and court copy takers."
Victor had all the vices. He lived on Cheung Chau, a busy outlying island, with the youngest of several wives he had outlived or been divorced by, along with many children and grandchildren.
Midweek he slept in a rented room somewhere near our office in Tong Chong Street, Quarry Bay.
He liked drinking with us on our street corner shop 'bar' (see Country Club, earlier); gleaning tips from our expert racing desk, admiring anything available in a skirt and, in quiet moments, fishing from our office dock on Victoria Harbour quayside.
I visited him once or twice at weekends, after catching a ferry out to Cheung Chau and enjoying a day on the beach. He would send his oldest offspring out for bottles of beer and we would have a fine old natter and laugh in his little house, tut-tutted over with much affection by his devoted but resilient wife.
Victor features prominently (along with his old office colleague Guy Searles - see also, below) in my thriller The Last Ghosts.
I only hope, should he hear me at a book reading from his celestial resting place, that he would not mutter querulously:
"This is very boring! How much more is there?"
12. Lost in Peking
THE climax of our early China tour in 1982 was its capital Beijing, or Peking as most of us called it back then. Our group, a mix of western businessmen, professionals and missionaries, stood on the edge of Tiananmen Square trying to take in its immense scale.
There was a freezing mist. Before us, across acres of central paving surrounding Mao's mausoleum, was the Great Hall of the People. Then, to north and south, the old city gates from which a giant image of Mao stared out over the crowds. Here also was the historic residence of past emperors, the Forbidden Palace.
As we took in this vast arena, locals crept curiously about us examining our leather shoes and tailored clothes. They all wore the drab green or blue Mao suits we were now used to.
But there was a difference in the capital. Shanghai had revealed no resentment against former colonialists, even in the park where a sign had once declared: No dogs or Chinese.
In Beijing there was a hardness in people's stares - particularly the stiff soldiers guarding Mao's remains as hundreds of partisans filed by.
We had admired the Great Wall which, back then, appeared to attract mainly rural peasants. They posed on a tethered and rather moth-eaten camel for photographs from a box camera.
It had been similarly quiet in the Forbidden Palace, where I had found myself alone in a small square. Only an elderly man in traditional robes had crossed, entering a side-door in one of the temples. He could have been a ghost from imperial history, such was the profound atmosphere of lost ages.
But I was tired of being shepherded about by our watchful minders, the New China Travel Agency guides.
Armed with a tatty street map found in our hotel, I sneaked out alone in mid-afternoon. It proved to be a bad mistake.
I walked briskly away from familiar landmarks and only too late realised the map was out of date, with many major roads changed and renamed.
What was worse, whenever I tried to stop and get my bearings or consult the map I was mobbed. I could not have attracted more attention if naked, while to pause or sit saw me quickly surrounded by a jostling crowd.
I paced on like a hunted animal, trying to look as though I knew where I was going but inwardly quelling a growing sense of panic.
No one spoke English; shops were basic stores with empty window displays and queues outside, there were no public telephones, no police, nor taxis or even hotels - just curious crowds and unfamiliar streets.
Furthermore, darkness was falling and this had brought even more people on to the pavements. Alarmingly, many now appeared aggressive towards me.
Young men, in particular, deliberately altered their course or performed a sideways jink as our paths converged - then brushed or banged against my shoulder.
There was nowhere to hide and no resting place. My mouth was dry with apprehension, my stomach churned with anxiety.
By early evening I felt weary but, finally, salvation came. More by good fortune than sense of direction, I saw in the near distance one of the Tiananmen Square "gates".
By the time I reached the far, northern end of this vast square it was dark. Our accommodation was in a government hostel for foriegn visitors, in sidestreets nearby, but I was thoroughly disorientated. The nearest landmark where I might get help was the famous Peace Hotel - but where was that exactly, and who could direct me there?
It must have been mid-evening by now. The square was curiously deserted and a freezing mist descended.
I went to a line of smart, remarkably tall sentries standing like statues outside a government building. They were all bristling with weapons.
"Excuse me, where is Peace Hotel? Do you speak English please?"
They stared at me with open contempt. I had the gut feeling these soldiers would happily have skewered me, then and there, with their polished bayonets.
Their silent, hate-filled reaction was more chilling even than the fog now swirling densely about us.
I retreated, feeling chastened and vulnerable, only to turn a corner and encounter a huddle of students. They had emerged from a college building that was closing and soon in darkness. One or two eagerly tried out their English on the passing foreigner.
"Good night!" "How are you today?" "What is your name?" They chanted.
"Are you American?" demanded another, hopefully.
I found the energy to answer their questions, welcoming some human warmth and interest, though their breath was overwhelming with garlic and their English limited.
"Yes, Peace Hotel!" One finally confirmed, then pointed to a high, nearby shadow. I could just make out a fading neon sign, along its roof.
As I thanked them and left, one student followed me a few steps, looked furtively about him and then slipped a sealed envelope into my hands.
"Please, you take!" He pleaded, then looked alarmed when I started to study its address. "No, no! You hide letter, please sir!"
I put the envelope inside my jacket and we went our opposite ways.
"You can get a taxi here, easily, dear chap," said the urbane, East European diplomat. He had an impressive moustache and was one of a small group of western drinkers, mainly businessmen, intrigued by my appearance in the Peace Hotel lobby.
I had explained my predicament to them and gladly accepted a drink and chair at their table.
"Taxis are only allowed to take foreigners from one special hotel for westerners to another," he added, "then they must wait there for a return booking from another guest. As it is late and dinner time now, they might prove reluctant to go out - but I'll help you."
He also explained that those people in the streets had not been aggressive.
"It's considered good luck to touch a foreigner," said the diplomat. "Now those bumping into you will be gambling like mad!"
And those threatening soldiers?
"Terrified in case seen by their superiors talking to you, breaking discipline - not that they would understand what you wanted anyway."
I didn't mention the student and his letter.
Back in our hotel I was chided by my official guide. Only when safely tucked up in bed, did I open the envelope.
It was addressed to: 'The President, White House, Washington, United States of America'.
Inside was a description of the student's education and poor family, in old-fashioned but passable English, then a plea for help in reaching the west.
I felt humbled and touched. How long had this wretched young man carried his dangerous letter in the hope of meeting a westerner?
When I finally got back to Hong Kong I passed it on to the American Consulate there, but with little hope for its author.
It reminded me, however, how fortunate I was and what a debt we owe to those who secured our freedom.
Also, I felt a glow of personal pride from that dark encounter. For, after all, it is a free press that helps preserve our rights and independence.
China hadn't just shown me its own culture and history; it reflected our own in a different light.
I was free - and truly thankful for it.
11. The Prime Minister's Bath
WHILE on one of the early group tours into China in the 1980s, we enjoyed a restful sidetrip to Hangchow and its beautiful West Lake.
It was a relief to escape the depressing, rundown aura of cities like Shanghai.
Here was the China some of us had glimpsed from the sky while flying to Hong Kong; that vast, diverse country so steeped in history and culture yet hidden until recently from the world.
We travelled this time on a steam train, seated in a buffet car of Victorian splendour. A high tea was served elegantly as we chuffed through lush paddyfields with a mountainous backdrop and occasional traditional villages. As the afternoon waned we saw peasants eagerly cycling home beneath gathering clouds.
However, there were armed sentries outside. Whether these were to keep us in, or the locals out, was unclear. But it was a cold September evening now that we were further north and a storm was threatening. I doubted anyone would be venturing abroad.
"Your suite," said the hotel worker who escorted me, "was often occupied by Mister Chou En-lai, former Prime Minister."
I had an hour or so before our evening banquet downstairs. There was a decanter of fortified wine, which I tried but didn't like. I suspected it had been there since Mao's righthand man previously stayed.
Period radiators gave only a faint hint of warmth and the spacious rooms were forbidding in their chill.
There was only one way to warm up! I ran hot water for what seemed an age into the big bath, quickly discarded my inadequate autumn clothes and sank in, but not gratefully.
It was tepid and the water now running cold.
Only my breath misted the mirrors in the vast bathroom. There was no steam.
Unhappily, I laid there with an image in my mind of the late Prime Minister with his handsome but austere features and striking, thick-black eyebrows. That great statesman was definitely frowning at me, casting a further Communist chill over this spoiled westerner usurping his old holiday quarters.
Despite a grand banquet later, I slept uneasily in Chou's giant bed and was happy to rise with the larks.
A sentry, who'd probably been up all night through the storm, eyed me cooly as, with another early riser from our group, I took a stroll before breakfast.
The West Lake spread before us under a strengthening sun. There was a mist floating across it like a scene from Swan Lake. But here there were delicate willows, temples on islets and other reminders we were in the Far East; an ancient Orient that transcended those overcrowded, blighted cities we had journeyed through.
"Excuse!" said a shy young man, emerging from a nearby copse. "You please take photo?"
He handed me an old-fashioned box camera then went back to a coy girlfriend, before posing in front of the famous view.
At least I'd been of some use here - though I doubt Chou approved.
Still, perhaps the old pragmatist would have been cheered by the outrageous prices state officials were charging us.
I returned to his rooms, warmed by sunshine and with a fresh lift in my stride.
10. Roll Out the Barrel . . . for breakfast!
ON one of the early group tours into China, at the beginning of the 1980s, the greyness of the post-Mao era was depressing.
Everyone wore 'Mao suits' and cities were equally drab and nondescript.
I had been expecting a taste of the old, wicked Far East when we arrived in Shanghai. The famous Bund area of this former "Paris of the Orient" was more like Fifties Manchester and, what was more, it was raining.
People looked depressed and poor, as most were. The mighty Yangtze was busy but as dreary and dirty as the Mersey or Ship Canal.
Our big hotels were drab, too; more Soviet than colonial, and staff sleepy and disinterested.
Only the breakfasts cheered our motley group of western visitors. Our communist hosts, unused to foreign tourists, didn't know what to give us. Evenings were taken up with elaborate, six-course Chinese banquets - but what did foreigners eat for breakfast? Not the doughy bread and rice porridge most locals opted for - they had to find something western and impress us.
Breakfasts arrived with some style, under silver salver covers, and were opened to our astonished eyes with pride and panache.
The first morning we were stunned by . . . sausage, mash and gravy (very nice too, if a little over facing).
Another memorable morning it was . . . chocolate cream cakes.
Yet another . . . steamed jam pudding with custard.
At night it seemed even more oppressive, with no street lighting, thick smog, chilled pedestrians and thousands of cyclists in gloomy shadows.
The city had a population in excess of 12 million and could only cope by putting schools and factories on shifts over 24 hours. No wonder everyone appeared ground down.
But there were lighter moments and these pointed to the vibrant city Shanghai has since become.
I stole out one evening to a 'nightclub' spotted in a corner of our vast hotel. There was a trad jazz band playing whose members must have had an average age of 70. The enthusiastic audience wheeled in their precious bikes and clapped and jived to keep warm. Their local, bottled beer was heart-warming too.
But the finale was our last evening's visit to an opera house. Our coach, the only vehicle with lights, crept carefully through unlit traffic junctions surrounded by ghostly cyclists and occasional dark lorries.
We were guided to a side entrance of the vast, Soviet-style hall and taken upstairs to emerge at the front of its dress circle. A row of best seats awaited us, amid a sea of curious faces.
The place was packed, with a full orchestra warming up below us.
What were we in for - triumphant military symphonies or, even worse, traditional Chinese opera?
To our amazement the conductor turned round, grinned directly at us then struck up with . . . Roll Out the Barrel, It's a Long Way to Tipperary and other wartime favourites.
That this offbeat start was specially to welcome us became clear, when everyone in the auditorium turned round, laughing and singing as best they could and encouraging us to do the same.
With sausage 'n' mash for breakfast and a rousing greeting like that, how could you not love them?
We'd been Shanghaied!
9. Alien Visitors
WHILE working at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, I took one of the state-run tourist trips into China. It was a memorable experience.
The China Travel Agency was not sophisticated then. The vast mainland had just begun to open up to tourism and trade with the West. But most people still lived in the shadow of Mao whose "Bamboo Curtain" kept China isolated from the world for decades.
Everything exported by China was under the brand name Double Happiness and noted for tacky style, cheapness and unreliability.
We took off with little warning; one American fellow tourist beside me was still loading his overhead luggage.
Immediately, the stout stewardesses started to wheel down large urns of boiling tea and hand out pink plastic planes as gifts.
The American passenger turned out to be a pilot himself and spent much of the short flight shaking his head in horror and disbelief.
"If you knew as much as I do about what is not being done safely here," he told me, "you, too, would be terrified."
We were a mixed international bunch. I was the only journalist but there were other professionals who, like the pilot, were curious about China, then businessmen and finally missionaries, some of whom spoke dialects of Chinese.
The Chinese were obviously still suspicious of visitors, since we had an unscheduled landing at an air force base where we were herded without explanation into a reception hall then carefully filmed from its balcony before being loaded once more on to our plane.
"Checking for CIA," whispered the American pilot.
We landed so heavily at what most of us still called Canton that the oxygen masks dropped down in front of our startled faces. (The pilot beside me was muttering a prayer.)
From the airport we were coached into the city, under the direction of the first of many official state guides. These were all personable and highly educated graduates who answered questions with a smile, and the guile of diplomats.
The first shock was that everyone still dressed in either blue or green denim 'Mao suits', with simple, rubber-soled shoes. There was also still national service and, even after discharge, civilians wore the same outfits as the People's Army soldiers and sailors. They just weren't armed.
However, there was a subtle hierarchy.
"Only officers have pockets in tunics," explained our guide.
We duly visited tourist sites but were ourselves a much bigger spectacle to the surrounding masses.
People stared at our tailored clothes, leather-stitched shoes, 'blond' hair and, no doubt to them, big noses, with open-mouthed amazement that would have been rude in the West.
One tourist who dallied too long in a park became surrounded by a curious crowd. Observers became braver, feeling his clothes, then his hair . . .
"Don't worry, whack!" cried a Scouse voice, "They're just nosey, never seen a foreigner before."
The tourist saw the speaker was a little Chinese man dressed like the rest. The fellow introduced himself and turned out to have been a merchant seaman who had picked up English in Liverpool.
As they chatted, the crowd grew but the tour guide was becoming worried and waved angrily from the coach, while the driver blasted his horn.
The tourist went back obediently, waving to his friend and a mass of ogling spectators now the size of a decent football match crowd.
"Next, we fly to Shanghai!" proclaimed our guide.
The pilot beside me slumped, then prayed once more.
8. Colonial Character
IT was American Guy Searles (see 7 below) who brought to my attention that personal, international calls could be made from the South China Morning Post on the editor's phone (when the editor wasn't present, of course).
Guy admitted to occasional bouts of nostalgia when, on lonely night shifts, he would call a takeaway in his native Seattle and inquire how their Southern chicken tasted.
"Finger-lickin' good, sir!" they always replied, which cheered him.
Such is colonial life. My expatriate homesickness was cured a little by regular calls home to Blighty when I was on night shifts in Hong Kong. I would chat to my parents in their Welsh retirement bungalow after they had just lunched. (In fact, in an obliging neighbour's bungalow since my parents still didn't have a phone back in the 1980s.)
I should also like to point out my personal calls were timed and paid for through the Morning Post switchboard, under the scrutiny of the editor's efficient English secretary.
My only free international calls at work came from Salt Lake City in the States. A Mormon newspaper used to call at their expense and pay me to dictate a fortnightly column on the oddities of life in the Far East. I never saw a copy of their paper but they paid me religiously and were the politest journalists I had ever dealt with.
It was in the editor's office (when, again, he wasn't present), that I noticed the different coloured lines of paint running across the floor to the building's exits.
"They are the fire escape routes," his secretary explained. "We all have our different colours and routes to follow, not that I'd survive on my mine."
Of the many jumbled lines, all heading in different directions, hers was green and led round the building, up and down various floors and, finally, to a distant fire escape.
Mine, as a valued columnist and senior reporter, was red and led off in a slightly more direct route, though still on to a different, higher floor.
The editor's escape line was black and went directly to the news room's fire stairs only seconds away.
"The poor amah doesn't even have a line," the secretary noted.
This lady was like the office maid. She dressed in a black uniform and white pinny, pushed around a tea trolley and kept our desks tidy with a feather duster.
However, she saved my skin on many a day. For colds (from the contrasting humidity and air-conditioning), she gave me jasmine tea; for hangovers, it was chrysanthemum tea. Yet not a word of English did she speak. It was all done by mimes and mutual understanding.
Like any real fire escape would, of course, have been.
We would have all simply run for the nearest exits.
7. Wanchai's Father Christmas - the old villain!
"I'M the city editor," said Guy Searles when I started work at the South China Morning Post.
He was an imposing sight. A big, overweight man in his Fifties, his ample body loosely enclosed in a faded blue safari suit. He wore an old-fashioned, green eyeshield once favoured by printers, had swept-back, thinning, grey hair and a short goatee beard. Guy had a waxy palour and his eyes were milky grey. He spoke with a lazy, west coast accent.
Yes, Guy was American, from Seattle. He had come over to cover the Vietnam war for one of those US-based news agencies that no longer exist, U.P.I. I think, then stayed in Hong Kong. He loved the ladies, liked most people in fact and had become, in a curious way, a local film star.
To Americans 'city editor' meant being in charge of the news reporters; to British journalists the term implied financial editor. So, there was confusion from the start. But that was typical of Guy, whom I became thankful to and fond of, and based a leading character upon in my book The Last Ghosts.
He was much happier wandering around the newsdesk watering his many potted geraniums; or using his popcorn machine and sharing out the "cookies", or telling rambling, ironic stories - than he was of doing any work.
Guy was not an organiser but, like many of the old boys languishing at the SCM Post in the 1980s, he was liked and respected by editor Robin Hucheon. Robin had an interesting past, being born in Shanghai of Australian stock, marrying a Chinese and writing books about modern art. But he was rather introverted with people and, I suspect now, liked having a few livelier, interesting characters about - who could also be sent out to represent him.
Guy was a good writer with an eye for a sentimental cause. Later I learned he had also been president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club when it owned an old mansion on The Peak. The place was hired and used as a hospital for the hit film Many Splendoured Thing, starring William Holden.
But Guy also got into the "movies" - mainly as a villain for Sir Run Run Shaw, who ran Hong Kong's own Cantonese 'Hollywood'.
"After the (Vietnam) war, the Shaw brothers wanted western actors for parts in their films," he explained once. "I kinda enjoyed it and still do some commercials - that's why I've got all these damn watch mechanisms in my desk drawers."
He showed me his newsdesk was indeed full of watches and their bits. Apparently he had once played an old, Swiss watchmaker in a local TV advert. Ever since, the less sophisticated SCM Post employees had left their broken watches for him to mend. They were left discreetly, when Guy wasn't at his desk. He even tried to mend them and became increasingly proficient - he liked tinkering, particularly with electronic gadgets. If successful, Guy left them out to be collected and often received another potted plant in anonymous thanks. When they could not be repaired nothing further was said or done - to save loss of 'face' all round.
"Guess what I was doing this morning," he challenged one day, when takingover from me for the evening newsdesk session.
I shook my head, hoping it was nothing embarrassing (Guy was remarkably frank about some of his offbeat experiences).
"Lying naked in a bath full of cold baked beans," Guy said with a little laugh. "I guess that was what the commercial was for - never did find out."
But, like any actor, he loved to dress up. Every Christmas Guy would don a Santa outfit then ride on his 50cc Honda from Wanchai, where he lived in the middle of the red light district, across town to industrial Quarry Bay and the SCM Post building.
"I wave to the kids and hand out what gifts I can," he explained.
In fact, Guy would help anyone out and was a soft touch for the girls in particular (while also getting a few favours in return, the old dog).
Most memorably, he took a group of us from the office to a late night showing of one of his old films at the Pearl Theatre in Causeway Bay.
He played a baddie from the opium smuggling days, with a glorious waxed moustache that he continually caressed while chasing village virgins.
When he was finally kung-fued to death at the end, the midnight audience of locals stamped their feet and cheered.
As the lights went up, Guy leaned forward towards a row of young girls in front of us.
"Hope you enjoyed that performance, ladies!" he drawled.
His timing was immaculate and their delighted screams a fitting finale.
6. Where Size is Everything
IN at least one aspect of private life in Hong Kong, size was everything.
I mean, of course, your accommodation.
After learning what work you did, where you lived was the next question anyone you met there asked - quickly followed by that vital clue to income, well being and status . . .
"How big is your flat?"
This was because in overcrowded Hong Kong, which has some of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, space is at a premium.
My first was a middling 700 square feet. But it was shared and in an unacceptable (though thrilling) area - Hennessy Road, Wanchai.
Back in 1980, when I arrived to work on the South China Morning Post, Wanchai was a notorious bars area and "rest & recreation" retreat for sailors, particularly America's Seventh Fleet.
I shared my flat there with old pal and colleague Dave Hadfield, then another colleague, Arthur from South Africa, who worked nights.
We were the only westerners in the ageing, 11-storey "mansion" block.
Neighbours were mostly Chinese, along with a Sikh whom I thought - despite his great stomach - must have been a professional hockey player. Each morning he would leave his flat carrying a hockey stick. This, I learned later, was his weapon for his job as a jewellery store security man. (The local banks had better-armed Sikhs - known for their bravery - who carried pump-action shotguns.)
As rents began to soar, I embarked on a strange period of "flat sitting". When colleagues went on holiday or assignments round the South East Asia region, I would move in to their flats and, paying a negotiated rent, remain until they returned. It meant their possessions were secure and I would water their house and balcony plants.
In between, I might stay at the "S & S" - the Soldiers and Sailors Home, a colonial hangover that was cheap, clean and basic but also still in lively Wanchai.
It was unsettling, all this moving, but it showed me different areas of Hong Kong and, most importantly, got me away from that Filipino band.
In latter years in Hong Kong I pulled another well worn trick - staying illicitly in government flats that civil service friends got for free, and allowed me a room at minimal rent.
These latter were luxurious by contrast but never had the charm or character of my earlier stays - in places that, during quiet, nostalgic moments, I marvel at still.
My first flat hop was round the corner and up some colourful market lanes to Wanchai Street. There I had the top, 23rd floor flat for a while - inherited from a Glaswegian sports writer.
Like the old, narrow skyscraper building's lift, the flat was tiny and seemed precarious. The lounge was just big enough for a two-seater sofa, TV and bookcase. Through sliding doors it gave on to the flat's best feature, its balcony. This ran round the building and doubled the accommodation size.
However, the illegally erected balcony was only of quarter-inch metal plate with fancy wrought ironwork. It looked stylish but bent under your weight.
I only built up courage to walk its full length and sit after several attempts.
Only one person could squeeze into the kitchen; a loo doubled as a washroom, with an overhead shower, and a double bed entirely filled the one bedroom. But did the place have atmosphere! Also, it was too high for the mosquitoes.
Insects were a part of life when I took over a house on an outlying island, Lamma. Geckos darted across walls and ceilings, chasing mosquitoes, cockroaches scuttled across floors in the dark and bullfrogs kept me awake croaking at night. But there was no traffic.
The pretty island was reached by an hour's ferry ride from Hong Kong Island. When arriving in the dark you carried a torch, checking the narrow paths up from the waterfront for snakes.
Hot noodles for breakfast on the ferry to work were a treat but, all too soon, they built a power station by the island's best beach and changed it forever.
I also took over more spacious flats, particularly one by Happy Valley race track. The traffic made it too busy for my taste, but I would marvel at the vast crowds drawn regularly to back horses.
Finally, I got my taste of how the other half lived. At the Albany I moved into one of the old, colonial government flats waiting to be levelled for new high-rise apartments.
We looked down upon Government House and Central district and the maid's quarters and my balcony were bigger than previous apartments I'd had.
It was like a taste of a different age, of spaciousness and opulence. I'd moved from the Wanchai of William Holden's film, The World of Suzy Wong, to his other earlier classic, A Many Splendoured Thing.
How dazzling and different was the Far East!
5. How I Got My Chinese Name
I LOVED the old South China Morning Post editorial office. It was on the fourth floor of our building, the top and seventh being a canteen with harbourside view, and others housing printers and various departments, along with the Asian Wall Street Journal. We were on an industrial wharf exposed to Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour.
Sandwiched in the middle, were several desks of general news reporters - studious Chinese graduates, ardent American travellers and fairly sloppy Brits. Of these the Brits were invariably the best reporters because of better training, natural cynicism and a certain affinity (or was it a love-hate relationship?) with the ruling British establishment.
We were watched over by the newsdesk, occupied by a morning or evening news editor or chief reporter with their Chinese assistant who kept tabs on the Cantonese press, radio and TV stations while keeping our assignments diary up to scratch.
To the side of the newsdesk was the oldies' hangout. These were former executives who knew everything about the Morning Post, the colony, China and much of the South East Asia region but were past their best for the daily grind of headlines. They were mostly Chinese or Indian and wrote occasional leader articles and gave out advice.
As I struggled with the many assignments that could pile up in a day, the phone calls and unpredictable early VDUs and computer system, I deeply envied these cosy veterans as they chatted, supped large mugs of tea and, sometimes with feet up, browsed through newspapers and magazines.
When I mentioned this to our news editor, then a young Aussie trying to give up the drink, he pointed me to the oldies' desk.
"I was told you might give me a Chinese translation of my name," I breezily told the three elderly residents that day. One was Jimmy Yip, a grand little feller with a misshapen foot and large-bowled pipe; T.S. (old Chinese were known respectfully by their initials unless they had adopted a western first name), a genial but rather unctuous China expert, and Rhummy, a jolly, rather stout chap who had once been chief sub-editor.
They got in an unexpected lather over this simple request but seemed enthusiastic enough - I often chewed the fat with them when there was a spare moment.
"We shall give it some thought," said Jimmy Yip, puffing on his pipe and looking amused by my impatience.
"But I could do with the new cards, you see," I insisted in my youthful rush.
"It'll take a day or two," concurred Rhummy.
"At least," muttered a cautious T.S.
This left me bemused and I became further astonished at their slow progress as, over the next few days, whenever I appeared in the office one of them would ask some further detail about me.
"What is your approach to the job? Are you a campaigner at heart?" inquired old Jimmy, adding astutely: "You're obviously not an establishment man."
"You seem a hearty, enthusiastic fella, like me," Rhummy observed, before asking: "Is it really the writing you enjoy most, as you're more careful than many over grammar and presentation - perhaps you'd make a sub."
"And when was your birthday, exactly?" demanded T.S. "What about your year of birth?
"Ah! You're an earth ox by sign and, therefore, very steady, strong."
Finally, I muttered to the newsdesk assistant, young Jimmy Cheung: "Is all this fuss they're making really necessary? At this rate I won't get my new cards for weeks - can't you make something up, it's only a translation?"
Jimmy looked shocked.
"But your Chinese name must reflect your personality as well," he explained, "it must tie in with your age and birthsign, encompass your job and your whole approach to life."
Well, I was stunned. No wonder those old fellows had been regarding me so closely and huddling together in deep discussions since my carefree request.
"It is an honour to receive and serious matter to consider," young Jimmy concluded, with wisdom beyond his years. "It should not be rushed."
Finally, the three Chinese characters which were deemed to match my English name, personality and purpose were agreed upon and written down.
When pronounced they sounded like: Loy Aye Mon. The design of them was very complicated but all the staff were suitably impressed. Each character conveyed several meanings which, when all put together, they all agreed summed me up well.
Youthful and strong, caring but cautious, a writer and campaigner but also a professional with balance . . .
Typically of those clever and diplomatic Chinese, it was all very flattering.
In due course my new cards were printed and handed out with pride wherever I went for the next few years.
In fact, more than three decades later, I have one beside me now as I write.
It makes me smile at my youthful nerve, demanding such a privilege with so little thought from those worldly veterans.
But, mostly, I am minded of their amused indulgence and kindness in taking on my precocious request.
They are gone now but I still feel humbly in their debt.
4. Country Club
WHEN starting work at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong I was introduced to the "country club".
This was not the exclusive recreational development across the harbour in the rural New Territories. It was, in fact, a corner sweet shop on dusty Tong Chong Street.
This short but busy thoroughfare off the congested Kings Road dissecting Hong Kong Island's urbanised north side, led into the Taikoo sugar wharf where the SCMP was based in 1980.
This was in industrial Quarry Bay which was aptly named as scores of lorries a day were pouring hardcore into the sea to reclaim more of Victoria Harbour for building upon.
That was why Tong Chong Street was so dusty. But its many residents and shoppers were used to putting up with noise and disruption.
I don't know what the country club's real name was, probably something like Uncle Ho's. The family who owned the little grocer's, sweets and pop store were originally from Vietnam and its patriarch was 'Uncle' who had a long goatee beard and looked like a frail Ho Chi Minh. His daughter and grandchildren were always about the shop, which also doubled as their living room complete with television and probably extra sleeping quarters to the rooms they occupied above.
On the pavement next to their large fridge, they put out a table each day and would bring fold-up stools for anyone who wanted to sit and have a drink. As well as milk and soft drinks, there was beer and Uncle had become adept at supplying a special cocktail for regulars from the Morning Post.
Vernon, a white-bearded Brahmin, and "Mhutto", who sported an impressive waxed moustache, had a century of reporting between them on papers like the Times of India. They spoke several languages and knew more about British history than I did. They were great fellows and a joy to drink with and talk to.
"Sit, sit!" the rather bossy Vernon would insist with an engaging grin whenever you were passing. He had come to HK to escape the Gandhi family whom he'd had a feud with. Vernon edited the letters page and opinion column in the Post, which was Hong Kong's paper of record rather like the Times used to be in England. The genial, gentlemanly Mhutto wrote leader articles and was equally worldly.
Uncle would solicitously move a portable fan nearer the sweating newcomer at their table, adjust the awning above it to keep off the intense sun, then pour 'cocktails'.
These were dispensed in chilled beer mugs kept in the fridge and consisted of a third of Guinness topped up with the excellent Tsingtao bottled beer from northern China (in a brewery founded by the colonial Germans).
Sometimes the party would grow and, to the amusement of passing locals, all but fill the pavement.
If hungry, we could order food through Uncle and a grandson would be dispatched up the road to a restaurant. Later a waiter would jog down with pans of noodles, rice, sauces and dumplings balanced on a bamboo pole over his shoulder.
Fuelled by stout and bitter, our office gossip and well-travelled reminisces soared above the din of the neighbouring steelworker's store and rumble of passing quarry lorries. At night we competed against the songs from hastily erected stalls selling pirate CDs of Cantonese singing stars, along with the acrid smell from a tofu or beancurd hawker's hot offerings.
I suppose it was the equivalent of office workers in London stopping off at the nearest pub for a pint or glass before their commute home, except in this very local and untouristy part of town there were no bars.
One leading local star from the Post even had his farewell party at the country club. Sadly, it was before my time but I saw the pictures with besuited revellers filling Tong Chong Street and champagne flowing.
Yes, somehow that grit from the hardcore lorries only added to the flavour of our Tsingtao stouts.
I raise a glass in memory to them all, now sadly departed from us and that colourful setting - along with the Morning Post itself.
3. Squashed Ego
I HAVE Sir Freddie Laker to thank for the style in which I departed Britain in 1980 with a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. His ticket price war with the major airlines meant I could afford a business class seat in Cathay Pacific's Marco Polo section.
The 747 soared skyward from Gatwick and I relaxed with the first of many free drinks on my 18-hour flight. I had just turned 30, was on the threshold of an adventure working abroad and was free as a bird.
Yes, I'm afraid, the drinks from those stunning Oriental stewardesses flowed - gin and tonics, wine with lunch, liqueurs afterwards. All I was short of was some company. The young German couple next to my window seat had fallen asleep.
At the time I was fit through playing squash and only a night or two before had watched an exhibition match at my local club, the Breck at Poulton-le-Fylde, near Blackpool. It had featured our club coach and a rising professional player whose name I now forget. But he was dark-haired with a moustache and impressive; we'll call him Jack Brown for convenience.
Anyway, just before we had taken off at Gatwick, several people had boarded carrying bundles of squash racquets and one, I felt sure, was Jack.
The Jack lookalike was sat with his wife, while his squash colleagues had nearby seats. They were apparently all players heading for a tournament. The more I studied the chatty Jack up ahead (and the more I drank), the more certain I became it was him. What a coincidence!
By the time we were flying over the Alps I needed the loo and was also dying for a chat. Climbing over the sleeping Germans, I made my way up the aisle and stopped beside Jack.
"Excuse me," I said, encouraged by his ready smile, "but aren't you Jack Brown?"
His grin, dashing with that thick, dark moustache, never faltered. However, there were some titters of laughter from his friends. I also noticed with concern that his wife was glowering at me.
"No," he said genially, "but I'm acquainted with him. How do you know Jack?"
"Well . . . " I rambled on about the exhibition match at our Lancashire club.
"I see," he said pleasantly when I finally finished, "and what's taking you out to Hong Kong?"
I rambled on about that as well until the call of nature pressed more firmly. I began to make my excuses and leave . . . but then paused, a fresh thought striking me.
"So, who are you?" I demanded.
"My name's Jonah Barrington," he replied matter-of-factly.
I stood stunned. The veteran world champion was still the biggest name in squash and a living legend in the annals of sport. I wished the riveted steel plates of the Boeing might part and let me slip silently to that Swiss snow below. What a faux pas!
Mrs Barrington was studying me with interest, rather enjoying my appalled reaction. Others nearby were turning round to smirk at my gaffe.
I began to burble apologies but the squash god halted me with a raised hand.
"Don't worry," said Jonah, "in fact I'm rather flattered - Jack must be 10 years younger than me."
It was time to contritely depart with the great man's blessing, if not his wife's. What a gentleman that star was!
In coming months, after obtaining a job and settling in, I was invited to play at a number of squash clubs by new colleagues and friends.
But it was always the same. After a game I'd be introduced to other members then a club chairman or other official would add chattily:
"You know, we had Jonah Barrington out here earlier this year, on an exhibition tour.
"Terribly nice fellow and very entertaining - he told a very funny story about some chap on his flight . . . "
2. Mister Odd Job
"I AM not having a boyfriend who is an ice-cream man!"
Babs, my first real girlfriend, was insistent. She did live in a very nice house and her mother was a teacher at a leading grammar school. But she was also only 18, three years my junior, wearing a preposterous miniskirt and was, on the sly, a bit of a tearaway.
"I thought it would be fun," I protested, rather lamely, "for the summer anyway. You could have a free 99!"
We were sat in my parents' trendy mini after an evening at a pub in Urmston, near Manchester, and it was 1970 - when everything seemed possible for the young.
After almost five years in the wrong job, as a trainee quantity surveyor, I was desperate to start something I really wanted to do. At 21, it seemed to me, I was a late starter in life - as with girls.
My odd job period covered the year or so I was studying 'A' Levels part-time at St John's College, Manchester. It was all with a view to reading English at university and then reporting for a "serious" newspaper. The courses left me plenty of time to earn money from a casual job.
After finally packing in surveying, an easy few weeks as a council gardener near Old Trafford had appealed. However, the day I started they had our team begin digging a new water-pipe trench across the park - backbreaking work!
Then I had my favourite job to date, as assistant barman in nearby Davyhulme Golf Club. I had wanted to be a greensman
My best memory was serving Manchester United superstars with drinks after their pre-match steak lunch. Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law were perfect gents as I poured them a favourite kickstart drink: sherry with raw egg yoke. Afterwards they would play nine holes and I would marvel at how bandy legged both strikers were.
CWS Transport depot, helping out wherever assistance was needed. The works, situated where the Trafford Centre retail park is today, made trucks for the Co-operative Society empire. I toiled at packing bits and pieces for other depots, assisting the boiler man, doing clerical work and then as sidekick to the personnel manager. He taught me to drink cocktails and had me ghost write his outspoken autobiography. There was also a lot of flirting with the office secretaries.
That book never was published but storylines in my own life reached predictable endings. Babs and I split up, as she found someone more mature and with a better job. After too many cocktails, I crashed the mini my parents could barely afford into a stone wall (they forgave me, as I could have died - like the mini). Finally, with a handful of previous dead-end jobs at 22, I had to make up my mind about a proper future.
I didn't qualify for an English course, but Manchester University offered me a place to study Economics. Similarly, I had applied half-heartedly to a textile magazine's journalist vacancy, attended a chatty interview and, to my surprise, been offered a job as editorial assistant in their smart, new offices.
Neither of these two alternative were what I really wanted, so I tossed a coin.
"Why did you take me on?" I asked the magazine's editor, when we were better acquainted. "I had no experience and knew nothing of textiles."
"Because in my experience," he said with a lopsided, easy-going grin, "the best journalists are those who have failed at everything else they've done."
Well, that was me.
Three enjoyable years later I started on my first newspaper, a brash tabloid weekly in Ilford near London's East End, and tried my hand at a Fleet Street News Agency on weekend duty (just once, as it was far too hard going).
A couple of years later, I had my briefest ever job on a newspaper as sub-editor on the Cambridge Evening News (two hours); then returned north and did Sunday shifts reporting for Manchester's Daily Mail, while working other days in a pub in North Wales.
When I wasn't offered a full-time job at the Mail, I toiled for a year subbing Welsh weekly newspapers from sleepy Shropshire, then spent three lively years reporting in blowsy Blackpool.
"What a chequered background!" commented the straight-talking boss who then interviewed me for a plum job (which I didn't get) on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester.
In fact, all those mixed up younger years, along with romantic attachments, real ale, coarse rugby and many colourful characters, are covered in an earlier memoir Last Resort (see Books page).
At 30, still single and long short of my dreams, more determined action was clearly required.
That was when, one cold and rainy morning in Blackpool, an air mail letter from an old friend arrived inviting me to Hong Kong. I let my breakfast burn as I read it but, for once, didn't waste any time.
I booked a one-way ticket to the Far East. This was the scene of my fantasies since boyhood, after seeing a film called The World of Suzy Wong then lovingly reading (three times) Richard Mason's bestseller.
Taking flight to the other side of the world seemed a real adventure . . .
And so it was to prove!
1. A Murky Beginning
THIS collection of anecdotes about local reporting from around the globe could open with a racy tale of Hong Kong's neon nightlife, or a glimpse into earthly paradise from a Bahamian backwater. But I think the right place to start is a smoggy evening in old Salford at the end of the 1960s. That was where my career, such as it was, began . . . with a highly embarrassing medical.
A couple of days earlier I had attended an interview for a Dundee newspaper group called D.C.Thomson. They were prepared to take on a trainee reporter with no experience for their Weekly News. Its rundown offices were in Salford, a former port and then a Cinderella sister city on the wrong side of Manchester. I'd been asked by a lugubrious editor to write an essay in his office on 'What I Did On My Holidays'. Then he had given me a spelling test and warned me the money was not good, should they take me on.
That was not the glamorous beginning I'd imagined. Still worse was the GP's surgery where I was to have a company medical. Through the coal-fired fog I could make out the surgery light in a corner block of terraced houses on what remained of a slum area. There was a queue of muffled, coughing figures waiting outside in the dark under a struggling gas streetlight.
As there was half an hour before my 'private' appointment, I got out the cold and lifted my spirits in the only other prominent building left on the semi-bulldozed site: a pub.
A couple of pints later I emerged to find the queue gone and went inside a cosy waiting room. Politely I sat awaiting my turn until, after quarter of an hour or so, I regretted not using the dodgy toilets back at the pub. My bladder was bursting but there seemed no sign of a loo and the lone receptionist appeared too formidable to ask. I was not the boldest 20-year-old.
"But you're private!" she said after checking my name, then forced an obsequious smile: "You can go straight in - next opportunity."
Seconds later I was being examined by a terse, middle-aged Scotsman who apparently did all D.C. Thomson's Salford check-ups. My heart and blood pressure appeared to pass muster, judging from his grunts and quick notes.
"Right," he said finally, "just pop behind the screen and give me a sample."
He gave me a stainless steel kidney bowl and I went behind the tall, folding screen in a corner of the room.
However, as the steaming tumult burst forth into the small receptacle, I noted with trepidation that there was no sink or other vessel for any overflow.
Fortunately, I just stopped in time.
Carefully I retraced my steps. The doctor was bowed over his leather-topped desk and notes once more.
Taking infinite care not to spill a drop, I silently but rather shamefully placed the brimming, steaming bowl before him.
The GP's reaction was instant. His head shot up with such surprise that his glasses dropped to the end of his nose; his mouth dropped open in astonishment.
"Well, if that's all," I muttered quietly and left his surgery to a stunned silence.
I never did take the job. Somehow the whole depressing tawdriness of the operation put me off. Later I learned that most newspapers were based in the rundown parts of towns and glamour played no part in their offices.
The only other medical required by a newspaper came much later, in Hong Kong. Doctor Woo's surgery was near industrial Tong Chong Street. But that's another story and the results of my examination much more worrying.