The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
In THE FLYING NORSEMAN I told you about my final fling as a university lecturer, when I joined the British delegation to a conference in Manila without having the means to get there. The outward journey was with an airline blacklisted by most of the world’s airports for defaulting on landing fees, so that we had a ‘Flying Dutchman’ voyage looking for a place to put down as we ran low on fuel. Astonishingly I reached Manila only a little behind schedule.
My time in Manila, though remarkable, is not part of my present story. However, I will mention that I shared a hotel room with a young German who was convinced I believed he was a Nazi and spent the week excusing himself at length from Germany’s past. I also met a complete stranger in a Manila supermarket who invited me to dinner with her family. She lived in a vast housing estate in a distant suburb where all the houses were identical. ‘You should have given him directions’, her husband insisted, ‘he’ll never find us’. ‘He will’, she answered, ‘Edward is a social worker.’ This was of course a misunderstanding (although I was at a Social Welfare conference), but I found the house.
In the days of regulated air-fares the ‘bucket shop’ airlines played cat and mouse with the authorities, constantly changing their times and departure points for their flights and telling their passengers only at the last moment. The plan was that I should fly from Manila to the then British colony of Hong Kong and report to an office in the capital, Victoria, where I would receive tickets and instructions for my onward journey.
I had already booked a scheduled flight from Manila, which was fortunate for the aircraft was full with departing delegates. Almost at once we flew into a typhoon over the China Sea. The plane threw itself all over the sky and then settled into what felt like a steep dive. I was not only alarmed but my stomach seemed to have difficulty in keeping up with the aircraft. Covertly peeping around at the other passengers I realised that I was the only European. At that stage in my life, before I had Chinese relatives, I thought of Orientals as alien and inscrutable. They certainly looked inscrutable, sitting passively in the half-light (the lighting had been dimmed) with their seat belts dutifully buckled across their laps. You must not be the first to panic or be sick, I told myself. Let some of them crack first! None did and after a while I decided that if we had been in a steep dive we would have hit the China Sea some time ago. We were obviously flying nose down into the wind. With that comforting thought I went to sleep.
The typhoon had passed over when we landed but its effects were still being felt. The British colony consisted of Hong Kong island, where Victoria was sited, the adjacent peninsula of Kowloon and an extensive hinterland called The New Territories. At that date there was no connection between Kowloon and the island except by ferry. The airport was in Kowloon and the ferry had been suspended because of the storm. I had reached HK on schedule but half a mile of water still separated me from my first objective. I had a strange experience the next morning. An immense crowd was packed into the square by the ferry terminal. It looked impossible that it could be cleared that day, but they were all calm, inscrutable Orientals, so I squeezed in beside one of them. ‘How are you mister James?’ he asked. He was one of the conference delegates, probably the only person in Hong Kong who could have recognised me.
At last I reached the island and found the office I sought half way up a skyscraper. The dapper Chinese at the desk was full of apologies.
‘We are so sorry, Mister James. There is no airplane. We cannot fly. Your 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.’ (That was before the days of credit cards).
‘So sorry, but you paid your money in London. You must go there for a refund.’
‘Does anybody else run cheap flights from Hong Kong?’
‘Speak to [and he named an official in a well-known NGO]. He knows all about cheap flights.’
When I found the establishment I was shown straight to the Warden’s office. He was a bluff, friendly Englishman. ‘Certainly. 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’ was a legal term. I paid a modest amount for the fare from Hong Kong to Ostend 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.
I found a cheap hotel in Kowloon and then took a bus ride across the New Territories to see the Chinese frontier, twenty miles away. The border had been closed since 1949 and China was a mysterious, forbidden land. A high wire fence marked the border, patrolled by Ghurkha soldiers. I also went up Mount Victoria by cable car for the view. Most of the time I was with a young Pakistani business man who like me was awaiting a flight. Unfortunately I lost him in the crowd at Mount Victoria and was never able to say goodbye.
The scene at the airport check-in desk on Tuesday night was like something from a strange dream. Again I was in a Chinese crowd, but these were not impassive be-suited business men but poor people in family groups, from babies-in-arms to centenarians. They had brought all their worldly goods with them, even big iron cooking pots, and were weeping and pleading to check them in for the flight. The airline staff were unshakable, only 44 kg per family.
‘Put them over there’, ordered the clerk, pointing to a growing pyramid of abandoned possessions in the middle of the Departure Lounge. At the base of the pyramid other families wept and quarrelled, choosing which of their belongings to discard and which to try again at the check-in. I hope somebody has preserved one of theses emotion-drenched pyramids of used household goods as a monument to a moment in Hong Kong’s history, a moment of immense optimism and poignant despair.
And who was this fly-by-night airline (how appropriate that the take off was at midnight) that broke all the international price fixing agreements and ferried hundreds of obviously illegal immigrants into Britain? It was none other than a respected British airline, soon to be taken over by British Airways. Nor did it try to hide its identity. The stewardesses sashayed down the aisle in their smart company costumes pushing trollies of duty free perfume and spirits which everybody ignored, partly because they didn’t understand them and largely because they had spent their life savings on the air fare.
I was in the centre seat of a row of three. 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 use the tiny plastic cutlery. I think she was worried that all the 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. We had no 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, including one the size of a tabloid newspaper in Chinese characters. The story as I had been told in Hong Kong was that 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 wire fence at the border and RN ships patrolled the bay, already patrolled by sharks. He thus set up a game of citizenship by ordeal. Anybody who could climb over the wire, or under or through it, or who could cross the bay on a makeshift raft, who could hide out in the paddy fields of the New Territories dodging the Gurkha patrols, who could reach Kowloon, cross to the island and find the right desk at the Post Office, then they were British. I like to think that somebody was there to shake them by the hand at passing such a stern test of courage, ingenuity and determination (most successful migrants had made several previous attempts). So much better than asking them silly questions about Henry VIII and local government.
I asked my beautiful companion what she was going to do when she reached Gatwick. She showed me a scrap of paper torn from the margin of a magazine with a London telephone number scribbled on it. She would phone that number, she indicated, and they 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. It worried me but she was not a whit dismayed. I was humbled in the presence of such invincible optimism and embarrassed that my own journey was so frivolous.
It was an uncomfortable 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 last time the Pakistani military did not seize the plane. 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 new 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 unusual people. I wanted to tell them all about it. But I didn’t, and apart from the family I haven’t told anybody until I told you.
For the outward part of this journey see THE FLYING NORSEMAN For other memoirs see THE RED CAR, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY and CHANGING PLACES for a wartime childhood; THE NERVE GAS BOYS and THE WAR THAT NEVER WAS for the experiences of a Cold War warrior, PLUS CA CHANGE for my entry to the European Commission and WILD ALBANIA for an incident in the life of a technical assistance consultant in Eastern Europe.