The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
Tales from an Errant Airliner
University teaching may be an easy life but it is not well paid and I had promised my wife we would eventually be moving on. ‘However, there are three things I must do before I quit’, I told her.
‘One: be a Visiting Professor at an American university; two: publish an academic book; and three: be a delegate at an international conference.’
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘Why? Because these are the things that academics do.’
I hit the first two targets early on. A Fulbright Scholarship took me to America and I taught for two years at different universities and then came home and wrote a book about it (America Against Poverty, Routledge, 1970). The international conference came only just in time. I had already given in my notice at the university when I was asked by the British Council on Social Welfare to write the UK report for the International Conference on Social Welfare in Manila. This would earn me a place on the UK delegation.
My modest fee for writing the report was puny compared to the standard return air fare to Manila, so to find the cash became my final academic challenge. The university gave me a travel grant and I topped it up with a grant from the Cadbury Foundation (after all our family ate enough of their chocolates) but there was still no way I could get to Manila legally. I had to travel outside the law.
At that time there were no cheap air flights. Air fares were fixed by the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) and enforced in the UK by the Board of Trade. Consequently there was a black market in cheap air tickets from airports on the Continent, sold via so-called ‘bucket shops’. I found the address of a bucket shop in London and went in search of it.
The address was a secretarial agency called GirlPower. I went in and asked one of the GirlPowers about cheap fights and she took me up a flight of stairs to a small room inhabited by a smiling round faced Chinese with a suit much smarter than his office.
‘Yes, we have flights on the dates you need. We have a flight to Kuala Lumpur to take you to the Far East and we have a flight from Hong Kong to Europe on your return date.’ He quoted me a price which should leave me enough change in my travel budget for the standard fares for Kuala Lumpur to Manila and back to Hong Kong.
‘Where do I fly from?’
‘Oh, we don’t know yet. Our last flight left from Malta, but your Board of Trade has stopped that. A courier will come to your house with a ticket for a destination in Europe and you will go there and receive further instructions.’
It all seemed rather dodgy, but I had to give it a try. I paid my money and left.
No courier came but I did get a telephone call asking me to meet a man named Van Rengensburg at the West London Air Terminal who would give me a ticket to Amsterdam. When I met him I found he was an Englishman despite his name, one of about a dozen people who were travelling to Kuala Lumpur together, the remnant of a much larger group which had been whittled away as the flight was constantly postponed.
‘We are flying to Amsterdam’, explained Van Rengensburg. ‘and then on to Kristiansund, in Norway, where we will get further instructions’.
So we left for the Far East by way of Scandinavia. On reaching Kristiansund Van Rengensberg phoned London and was told to take us on to Stavanger, a beautiful low level flight over the Norwegian fiords.
At Stavanger there was still no flight awaiting us to Kuala Lumpur. Nobody told us what was happening and time dragged on and on in the hot, stuffy departure lounge, mocked by the same background music going round and round – I remember one apt lyric, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Any More.’
Eventually the aircraft arrived several hours late but this was not the end of the delay. The rumour was that the UK authorities had caught wind of a plot to bring two hundred Malaysians to Norway to infiltrate illegally into Britain and had sent a team to interview all the Malaysian passengers individually. They must have done this at length, for we were not allowed to board until well after midnight. I don’t know what became of the Malaysians, but they weren’t put back aboard the plane.
The plane belonged to a Norwegian domestic airline called Braathens S.A.F.E. (now part of SAS). It was a large jet for we few passengers and everything was extremely informal. The flight crew left the door to the flight deck open so that we could wander in and out to chat with them. Fruit and drinks were left on a trolley so that we could help ourselves. The stewardess surprised me by sitting on my lap to ask where I was going, and later did the same with the other men. For the moment, however, I was too tired to appreciate anything except for the chance to sleep. Gratefully I settled into my seat and slept soundly until awakened by the friendly stewardess.
‘Fasten your belt, Edward, we’re coming in to land.’
‘Where are we?’
‘I thought the pilot said we were calling at Athens.’
‘They wouldn’t let us land. The company owes them too much in unpaid landing fees. We’ve been flying on looking for somewhere else to land before our fuel runs out.’
It was still night, so I didn’t see much of Beirut apart from the duty free shops. The shopping area was vast but I was hoarding my money (this was in the days before credit cards) and bought only a postcard of a camel in the desert and sent it to the children with the message ‘Arrived safely Beirut. Love. Dad.’ I was blissfully unaware that Beirut airport was the epicentre of an international drama.. While we were wandering over Europe three other flights had been highjacked by Palestinian terrorists and ordered to Beirut. The ransom negotiations were in progress even as I browsed among the postcards. The family were far from reassured when the card arrived.
Still unaware of the highjacking we took off and flew eastwards searching for another hospitable airport. It was a clear day and we flew low over Turkey and Iran, a few thousand feet and a world away from the little mud brick villages on the edge of the desert. About midday we reached Karachi.
No sooner had we landed and taxied off the runway than a jeep-load of men in military uniform drove out to the plane, boarded it, arrested pilot and took him away. For hours the plane stood there in the scorching Karachi sun as the temperature inside the aircraft climbed.. The co-pilot begged the control tower to let us leave the aircraft, telling them we had women and children aboard. They allowed us to take turns, one at a time, standing on top of the stairs against the side of the plane. Did they expect us to make a dash for it.
At last the jeep returned with our pilot: the authorities had decided not to seize the plane to settle our debts. We took off and this time reached KL in one hop. I had no idea how to get from there to Manila. There were no direct flights, so it seemed good sense to head for Singapore. Five of us were continuing our journey (the others to Australia) so we travelled there together. The airline was Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, now divided into two greatly respected companies. At that time none of us had heard of it and our faith in unfamiliar airlines had begun to waver. As we taxied out they played us soft music, ‘Che Sera Sera’.
It was night once more when we reached Singapore and nothing was leaving until the morning. We settled on a bench together and a policeman in smartly creased khaki shorts strode over to tell us it was forbidden to sleep in the airport.
‘We are not asleep’, we pointed out.
‘Alright, but I’ll keep checking through the night that your still awake’, and he did.
The next morning I said goodbye to my companions, bought a ticket in cash and flew to Manila. The conference was already being convened when I reached the hotel and on looking through the accommodation list I saw that I had been booked into a small hotel the less fashionable side of the harbour, sharing a room with a young German delegate. But that is another story. As is the flight home, which was even more bizarre and unpredictable than the outward journey – see THE HOPEFUL TRAVELLERS on this blog.