The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘We are so sorry, Mister James. There is no airplane. We cannot fly. Your UK authorities have stopped our operation. I do not know if we will have another flight to Europe. You will get a full refund from our office in London.’
‘But how do I get to London if the flight is cancelled? Why not refund me now? I haven’t got enough money to get home.’
‘So sorry, but you paid your money in London. You must go there for a refund.’
The dapper little Chinese smiled sweetly at me across his desk, unmoved by my hysteria. I wanted to kick over his desk, just to wipe away his smirk. But then, what could I expect once I had decided to operate outside the law? Yet all that I had done had been to represent my country at an international conference.
The conference had been in Manila and the fare had been way beyond the travel grant that my British university was prepared to offer, had I paid the full standard price for an air ticket. The only option was a ‘bucket shop’ selling illegal cheap tickets. In the 1970’s the price of air tickets was strictly controlled by the International Air Traffic Authority (IATA). Naturally there was a Black Market, which the British government was trying to suppress. Through a friend I found a bucket shop in London and bought a cut-price ticket from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and another from Hong Kong to London. The connections to and from Manila were for me to arrange when I got to the Far East.
The journey out had been bizarre, with an airline which nobody welcomed because of the unpaid landing charges it had built up in all the world’s major airports. We roamed the map looking for somewhere to refuel and were eventually given refuge in Beruit. At Karachi the pilot was arrested but after a couple of hours on the tarmac he we returned to us and we flew on. I hoped the return flight would be less eventful.
After the conference I had flown into Hong Kong, confident that I had an onward flight booked to London. All I had to do was find the company’s office and follow the directions they would give me. And now this!
‘Does anybody else run cheap flights from Hong Kong?’ I begged.
‘Speak to the Warden of the YMCA. He knows all about cheap flights.’
I expected the YMCA to be a modest hostel, but what I found was a big hotel rearing up into the Kowloon skyline, with an immensely long reception desk. It did not look the place where one could walk in and ask to see the manager without an appointment. None the less I did just this and was shown straight to his office. He was a bluff, convivial Englishman.
‘Certainly, Ed. We have a non-scheduled flight leaving every Tuesday at midnight. Do you want to book?’
It sounded remarkably scheduled for a non-scheduled flight, but I took it that ”scheduled’ meant legal. I paid him a modest amount for the fare from Hong Kong to Ostend in Belgium and then rather more for the full ‘scheduled’ fare from Ostend to Gatwick. All that remained now was to pass the next three days in Hong Kong.
The scene at the Departure Hall on Tuesday night was like a strange dream. As everywhere in Hong Kong there was a milling crowd, but these were not be-suited businessmen but poor people in family groups, from babies-in-arms to centenarians. They had all their worldly goods with them, even large iron cooking pots, and were clearly intending a long stay in Europe. Valiantly they tried to check-in all this clutter but the check-in staff were implacable. They read off the weight on the scales and told them brusquely how much they had to discard.
They wept and pleaded and finally trudged away to a pyramid of discarded belongings in the middle of the Hall, There they squatted down to quarrel, cry and sort through what they could bring themselves to abandon, before returning to the check-in to try again. The pyramid grew steadily. I wondered what would happen to it when we were gone.
And who was this fly-by-night airline that broke all the international price fixing agreements and ferried hundreds of obviously illegal immigrants into Britain? None other than British Caledonian Airways, soon to become part of British Airways. It did not try to hide its identity. The stewardesses sashayed down the aisle in their tartan costumes pushing trollies of duty free perfume and liqueurs which everybody ignored, partly because they didn’t understand them and also because they had spent their life savings on the air fare.
Being in the centre seat of a row of three I had two close neighbours.. In the aisle seat was an old lady at least 100 years old. She had difficulty with the in-flight meal and I had to help her open the little plastic packets and to use the tiny plastic cutlery. I think she was worried that meals were going to be like this for the rest of her life.
In the window seat was an astonishingly beautiful girl who informed me she was nineteen. Not that we had any language in common, but being sat close together for more than half a day we found ways to communicate. She was from Shanghai and had entered Hong Kong illegally, where she had become naturalised British. She proudly showed me her documents, one of them the size of a tabloid newspaper in Chinese characters.
I had learned the story in Hong Kong. The Governor had decided to settle the problem of illegal immigrants by legalising those already in the colony and sealing the border tightly against new arrivals. Anybody presenting themselves at a particular desk at the main Post Office could claim naturalisation (but without right of abode in Britain) while a battalion of Gurkhas was sent to patrol the border fence and naval vessels patrolled the bay, already patrolled by sharks.
This was citizenship by ordeal. If you could climb over the wire, or under or through it, or could cross the bay on a makeshift raft, if you could hide out in the paddy fields of the New Territories dodging the Gurkha patrols, if you could reach Kowloon, cross to Hong Kong island and find the right desk at the Post Office, then you were British.
I like to think that somebody congratulated them at passing such a stern test of courage, ingenuity and determination (most successful migrants had made several previous attempts). So different to answering silly questions about Henry VIII and local government.
‘What are you going to do when you reached Gatwick’ I asked my beautiful companion. She showed me a carefully folded scrap of paper torn from the margin of a magazine with a London telephone number scribbled on it. She would phone that number and somebody would come and fetch her. It was a Chinese restaurant and she was going to live and work there.
She was going to be a live-in kitchen slave, or worse, with no legal rights. I looked at her face for signs of anxiety or apprehension but saw only happiness. She was not a whit dismayed. I was humbled by such invincible optimism and embarrassed that my own journey was so frivolous.
It was a dreadful flight. The toilets gave out somewhere over Vietnam; the aircraft was not designed to carry so many children for so long. Soon the passenger cabin stank of stale nappies.
We refuelled at Karachi and unlike the last time the Pakistani military did not seize the pilot. We stopped again at Ostend, where we changed our flight number so as to land at Gatwick as a pukka scheduled flight from Belgium with 200 Chinese aboard, as happened every Wednesday morning.
From Gatwick it was a short rail journey to my home in Croydon. I arrived at the station along with a crowd of commuters starting another day at the office. But I wasn’t starting another day at the office! I was back from an adventure which had taken me through eight countries and across two continents and in which I had met so many amazing people. I wanted to tell them all about it. But I didn’t.
I’m telling you now, fifty years later, because illegal immigrants are once again in the news, although they have never been absent for long. Fifty years ago the government was fighting this problem, which is partly why it was so keen to enforce the IATA price fixing arrangements for air fares. At the same time established airlines, whom the IATA rules were supposed to protect, were busy dodging these same rules and taking money from travellers with clearly illegal intentions. Prominent charities like the YMCA were happy to collude. Certainly in those days the ‘traffickers’ were not all shifty ‘others’ but included large parts of established society.
Things have changed now. Cheap air tickets are now legal, but our schizophrenic attitude to illegal immigrants persists. Do we hate them, fear them or admire them? Do we ban them or exploit them?