The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking Part 1
 
I hated England at the time. Or more precisely I hated school. It was 1974. The previous year, I had been attending a primary school with 4 classrooms. It was an intimate and wonderful environment. There were just 6 teachers. It was one big happy family. We were all very content. We loved our school, we loved our teachers. Then the following year, secondary school, all that intimacy when out of the window. It was hell. Nasty brutish kids, miserable teachers, a forlorn and often violent place. Dreary corridors, vandalized classrooms! At week 4 I was thrown in an icy canal in full winter regalia with fishing rod in hand by three yobs from this very school. Yeah it was about 3 stops removed from borstel.

So when my Father decided to take us out of a rain soaked and depressing Lancashire, and fly us half way around the world as new immigrants to the blue skies of South Africa, I was giddy with relief and excitement.

As our flight to South Africa took off from the rain splashed runway of Heathrow airport on the morning of January 15th 1975, lifting up through the floor of grey clouds, I remember clearly, slumping back in my seat and visualizing those miserable kids probing the cold, dreary dark winter morning. An army of anemic, sallow children marching through the damp grey streets towards that God awful school, and I recall with fondness the wave of absolute joy that swept through me! Knowing that with every second of flight I was putting another mile distance between myself and that hell hole. Heading to Africa! Goodness I thought, it does not get much better than this!!!!

Little did I know however that this ‘escape’ to sunnier climes was going to set in motion a chain of events and a thought process that I think is at the root of my ‘confusion’ today. (to be continued).

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking Part 2.

Sonskyn en Chevrolet (Sunshine and Chevrolet)

It was ironic that the first student I met at my new school, Bordeux Primary, a school which had a blue uniform, blue wall panels and was set below a deep blue African sky, was an Englishman. ‘Welcome to SA’’ Roger Fairbairn said with a grin, giving me a firm handshake, a slap on the back, and gestured to sit next to him. (Roger seems to have gone AWOL on FB so I can't tag him).

I was immediately impressed by the genuine welcoming I felt from Roger, teacher and classmates. Non of that scowling nastiness I had felt on the first day of secondary school in England. Like a breath of fresh air. Sweet African air. Everyone had their ties done up. Hair trimmed. The teacher spoke. Kids listened. It didn’t feel authoritarian or oppressive. There was just a genuine respect from student to teacher and back again. Everyone was so well mannered. Yes I thought, this feels right! And it did feel right all way up until the Soweto riots broke a year later….and then I realized that something was not right!!!

Sucked into everyday life however, within the safe jurisdiction of white suburbia it was easy to ignore the bigger issues. Easy to just cozy up to notions of ‘Braaavleis, Ruby, Sonskyn en Chevrolet’. While I didn’t particularly rave about rugby I did like the BBQ’s and sunshine. While we couldn’t afford a Chevrolet we did have a dark green Peugeot 404 estate! A very African entity, French cars. Yes, the glorious weather, the lashings of meat cooked on open fires besides rather large private swimming pools.

There were holidays to the Highveld, Lowveld and of course Durbs (Durban). Ahhh Durbs. All those golden blonde girls suckering up to the golden blonde surfers boys. I’d be cowering somewhere up the beach, shading my pommy white skin and puny physique under a baggy long sleeve shirt from the harsh African sun. Gawping on in absolute envy, and cuddling up to my Sad Sac comic. Yeah life was all outdoors. Life was good. It would have been better if I could have turned my attention to dancing, smiling, buxom Zulu girls, but they were not allowed on my beach at the time.

Alas as the years rolled on I began to understand more clearly the mechanics of apartheid and it’s social implications. More than anything at the time, was the fact that all the hot African girls where playing elsewhere!!!! We weren’t allowed to fraternize. Damn it!!! So I did very often venture into the more risqué inner city, Hillbrow, and hang around the alternative clubs. Places like DV8. Where punks and Souxie lookalikes, rastafarians, lesbians, gays and blacks and whites would all get happily stoned together.....

While I never did have much political nounce or motivation to go join the freedom struggle, my biggest anti-establishment protest was to play the newly minted Peter Gabriel’s, Biko, on loud speakers dragged out of the front door of our house. I was becoming increasingly aware of the issues, angst, government institutionalized violence. The brutal ways of the police state. For even just scoring a joint from a cool Rasta-man you ran the risk of been picked up by an SAP (South African Police) patrol, taken out into the ‘veld’ for some ‘re-education’; namely a potato sack placed over your head, the crap beaten out of you.

Veld school, part of the Transvaal school curriculum was a sort of racist boy scouts meant to ‘prepare us’ for ‘border duty’. In other words, heading up north to protect the Fatherland and probably go shoot Africans. Yes, Veld school planted the first seeds of doubt in my mind about the wisdom of staying in South Africa. Many Afrikaaner attitudes at the time didn’t help much either, given their general disdain for Souties. Englishmen. Short for sout peels or for a better word, salty dicks. One foot in England, One foot in Africa and Jonny hanging in the sea in-between!!!

While not everyone possessed that new world cockiness, bravado, alpha male machismo attitude, it was still endemic. Heck if you weren’t A team ruby you were sort of nobody, certainly the gals thought so. I made the D team. A renegade crew of nicotine junkies, wannabe alcoholics, pot heads, shop lifters, bunkers, and non of us knew the game rules. We played with great zeal however, partly because non of us where getting laid enough! I realized ultimately I was a scrawny English kid in an Afrikaans education system, surrounded by white South Africans. Almost every weekend at every school party there would be a fight, over the usual “stop looking at my chick”!! I never got into fights because I hardly ever had a girlfriend. I was Mr D. From the D team. Lest I never forget .

I realized I was a foreigner in a foreign land. I certainly didn’t hold any allegiance to the state!!! This was not really home at all! (but of course in amongst all this teenage angst I made the most amazing friends and you all know who you are)…..

So began my plans to duck out of ‘National Dis-service’. For a better word abscond. Go AWOL.

By 18 I had Union Jacks plastered all over my bedroom walls. Every time Mull of Kintyre played on the radio I would burst into tears. Paul’s bagpipe lullaby aroused in me a sort of dewy eyed sentiment for all things England. My favourite reading was the yearly Dalesman calendar. I considered packing up school altogether and eloping to England to join the police force. An insane idea of course, and one that fortunately my father nipped in the bud by stating “finish school lad and I’ll buy you a ticket to London”. So I knuckled down, scraped through school and by May 1983 I was on an SAA 747 SP, a shorter version aircraft with long range fuel tanks, designed specifically so that it could fly around the bulge of Africa over the Atlantic. A necessity given that South Africans were regarded as persona non grata across most of the continent. I was happy to be heading home!!! Home? Hmmmm really…home???

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking Part 3.

Welcome Home Honey.

As the SAA SP began finals towards Heathrow, the South Africa fella next to me, someone who had helped me while away the time with liberal doses of ‘why he was leaving SA’, quipped with a mischievous glint in his eye, “You gonna love England. Them English girls are so friendly”!

As the plane skidded across the rain swept tarmac towards the terminal building, I slumped back in my chair thinking ‘friendly English gals huh. It doesn’t get much better than this’!!! It was late May 1983.

First thing that struck me upon exiting the arrivals hall, was how musty England smelled. Just like Grandpa’s house. However been greeted by one of the sweetest human beings on earth, Heidi Simon, who wasn’t English at all but a very jovial Austrian, blew away the fustiness! Her zest for life and love of all things British made her the perfect companion to drive me through the little narrow streets back to her pre-war semi nestled in a quiet cul-de-sac in East Finchley. It was summer, the trees were in full bloom, the birds twittered happily in the canopy of green, there was the constant woosh of jests overhead, flaps fully extended, arcing down into Heathrow. As we sat on her little grass patch, in the shade of a lone apple tree, sipping cups of tea, with the smell of compost leaking from bags in her diddy garden shed, I thought to myself. ‘This is so quaint. So cozy. So English’ Heck I was in Londinium, one of the most celebrated and influential capitals in the world. I felt like anything was possible. I knew I was going to fall under it's spell.

It really did feel like home………for a while!

Later while slurping down pints of warm beer with John Close a good friend from Johannesburg, in a Finchley pub, with its hoppy odour, I felt my right of passage to call myself an Englishman was almost complete.

Before long I was doing what young Londoners do best. That is getting plastered very frequently on watery ale, living on a diet of cold quiche and hot steak n kidney pies. My favourite pub, the underground Punch & Judy in Covent garden, cave like, I saw it as a sort of carnal cavity, or delightful dungeon in which to pursue my fascination with jolly English lasses. My first taste of happiness was Danish not English. A week later, I was snuggling up to a French lady, then almost on queue, 7 days future in the arms of well…errr hum….a freckly faced Irish lass. Of course I soon became to understand that most people = girls in London were from somewhere else. Heck actually I didn’t care where they were from, I was having the time of my life and thinking, Britain really is Great!!

Eventually as my meagre savings vaporized under the total onslaught associated with guzzling a gazillion gallons of John Smiths, eating pies, dating friendly and engaging Euro babes, I knew I was going to have to get a job. John and I hatched an idea to go thumb about Europe later in the summer and so I decided best to inch closer to my ancestral roots, head for Bradford or rather Keighley, no Howarth, stay with my Grandad Dobson and seek out a café or pub position. You know serving cold quiche and warm beer.

On the 1st of June, I was sitting towards the rear of a National Express coach heading up the M1, listening to the Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ on a Sony Walkman that had a bad habit of chewing up my cassettes. I was heading back ‘home’! To Lancashire/Yorkshire, and while it had been only 8 years since leaving it seemed like half a life time ago. Foolishly I was convinced that by now most or if not all of the teachers from my little 4 classroom school had died of old age already. Funny how in youth, years seem to drag!

Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 4.

Wuthering Heights…and lows.

Keighley bus station was almost deserted. Discarded potato crisp packets caught in little vortexes of cold northern air spiraled up into the sky. It was supposed to be summer. But it was bloody freezing. My African blood hadn’t thickened enough yet to withstand Yorkshire summer temperatures. As I stood on the wet pavement, waiting for Grandad Dobson to arrive, I reflected on the fact that I had not seen him for a very long time. Granny Dobson had died a good decade earlier. William Forsythe Dobson, 80, had hinted in one of his infrequent letters back to his African dwelling Son, that that he was apprehensive about his grandson coming and staying with him. WF was a proud man, had lived in over 35 homes, many of which had become National Trust properties. He had travelled extensively, directed Gilbert & Sullivan opera, owned Jaguars and sailed boats. Reading between the lines it had occurred to my Dad, that his Dad was now scraping by and living a rather reclusive life in a small cottage in Bogworth. Yes Bogworth, just up the road from Howarth, a little village made famous by the Bronte Sisters and Wuthering Heights! WF probably embarrassed that his Grandson was going to see him living in such compromised conditions, had voiced unease about my arrival.

During a lull in the spiral of crisp packets I saw a grey Triumph Toledo coming diagonally up the empty street. The car ran onto the curb, and stopped almost at my feet. Inside seen through a haze of cigarette smoke, sunk very low in his seat, so low that he could hardly see over the dash board, was a smiling WF. All my memories of him came flooding back. The red bryl-creamed hair, the nicotine stained fingers replete with smoldering fag, his crumpled suit and good leather shoes. And so began a summer love affair with one of the most delightful men you could ever wish to meet.

Bogworth was a windswept place. The cottage very messy. Fag ends fallen in almost every nook n cranny. I decided to knuckle down and give it a good spring clean. I think my industriousness around the house, warmed him to my presence and we bonded. Yes we bonded to the degree that I am convinced he is now my Guardian Angel. (will explain another time).

I got a job in a little tea shop in the cobbled main street of Howarth. WF would drive over most mornings for his Ham n Eggs. “Every Breath You Take’ hit number one, and I was taking in lungs full of fresh moorland air on long walks across the bracken. When not working or walking I was drinking copious amounts of Theakston’s Old Perculiar, Tetley Bitter, smoking packets of Golden Virginia rolling tobacco and chatting up the Japanese & American ladies who were visiting Howarth on Bronte Sisters pilgrimages. I was happy to play Heathcliff with them!

Alas by mid August it was time to return to London, meet John and set off to Europe. Leaving WF was one of the saddest days of my life. I had a hunch I might not see him again and I think he did too. I had mentioned that I would be heading to Vienna, and as I prepared to board my bus down to the train station, he said “give my love to Vienna, I’ve never been there and always wanted to go”. I will never forget his last wave goodbye. Stood in the front garden, replete with braces and a crisp white shirt and pleated trousers, I noticed he had put on his best clothes as part of the departure ceremony. As the bus pulled away, I looked back through a dirty window and he gave me one of those endearing WF smiles. I could see there were tears in his eyes. 6 months later, while I was living in Vienna, he died!

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking Part 5.

BUGpackers.

Alas John was not ready for travelling when I returned to London. He was having a whale of a time in Wimbledon. So I elected to set off for Europe on my own.

A bus, a boat and a train later I found myself at Paris’s Gare de l’ Est. Understanding I couldn’t afford to linger in Paris I decided to take the night train to Interlaken, Switzerland. I got sat next to three English lads, one of which, Chris was a keen photographer. He loved his Olympus OM 2N, and its shiny chrome body made my plastic Kodak Disk camera look positively cheap n nasty. I wasn’t bitten by the photo bug at this stage, but even in my photographic ignorance I was painfully aware of just how lousy my camera actually was. Bought at Dions discount store in Randburg along with a backpack before I set off for London, the spotty faced sales assistant had touted the ‘revolutionary disk technology’, with a sort of view-master-like spinning cartridge of tiny negatives. I found out 8000km away that it produced the grainiest, lousiest prints you ever did see!! I got so peeved off with this gimmick with a lens, that I smashed it to bits on a snow covered bench in the baroque gardens of Schonbrunn, Vienna, some months later.

I think it was Chris however, with his Olympus and envelopes of dazzling sharp prints that planted a seed in my subconscious which eventually led me to take up photography seriously 3 years later.

We pitched our tents on a sunny afternoon besides Lake Interlaken and the Jungfrau looked magnificent reflecting back in the mirror calm waters. Given it was summer I had not packed warm clothes and my cheap Argos tent and sleeping bag were no match for the alpine mists rolling in at night. By 2am I was shaking with advanced hypothermia. I remember standing under a hot shower in the campsite ablution block until the sun came up.

Onwards to Italy we didn’t get much sleep sightseeing Venice, Florence and Rome, for every damn pensionne we stayed was infested with bed bugs. It didn’t matter if we were in, on, or under the grubby mattresses, we scratched ourselves to bloody tatters.

Of all the Italian memories the one I’ll never forget was of an old man walking stooped over his cane. I glanced down at him from the bus taking us to the Colosseum and as we passed, I craned my head around to keep him in my line of sight. He looked frail, vulnerable, sad, lonely, depleted. While watching him recede into the jumble of Roman life, I thought; one day, when I’m finally staggering about on my walker, I’ll flashback to this moment, to this person, to this thought, the thought I had then about the thought I’m having now about the thought I’ll have to accept that my life has elapsed in a nanosecond. Understanding this I made a decision that day to make life one long adventure!!!!

After 3 days in Rome we parted ways, the lads wanting to soldier onto Naples, while I was doubling back to Vienna, covered from head to toe in elastoplasts…

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 6.

Eine Vetel Weiss Wein Bitte

When the ÖBB-Austrian Railways rolled past St Stephans Cathedral into Vienna Hauptbaanhof the sight of its spire brought back memories of a winter chill I had never quite experienced before. For eight years earlier in January 1975 on our way to South Africa, we had taken a rather convoluted route with an 8 hour stop-over in the Austrian capital. Just enough time to do some window shopping along the Stephansplatz in -15, all wrapped up in balaclavas and scarves, before a night flight to Nairobi, and a day flight to Johannesburg. It seemed like a very distant memory.

As church bells chimed I was greeted at the station exit by another long standing South African/Austrian friend, Christian Praher. Chris and I had spent our youth rocking to ACDC and getting way comatose on cheap brandy and wine. He also had the distinction of introducing me at 18, to the very first love of my life Ute Kranich, a German Farah Fawcett Majors lookalike who found my curly blonde locks and blue eyes fascinating for a short while until she dropped me for a dark hairy Portuguese guy called Jonny. No ill feelings of course. We’re still good friends :-)

Anyway back to Chris, who now married and staying with his in-laws, offered me accommodation with his endearing Mother Nora. It was mid September and there was already a nip in the air. On my walkman was the album by Genesis, simply called Genesis with songs such as Mama and Illegal Alien and I wasn’t unhappy when my Sony finally chewed up the tape. This was my favourite band in terminal decline.

I thought Vienna was a bit pedestrian…................until I met Margit!!!

Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 7

Margit Und Mozart Kugel

Nora introduced us. Margit Mel was 24, I was 20. She had a silver Nissan Micra, and blimey, her own apartment. Margit laughed a lot, had beautiful hazel coloured eyes and puffed intermittently on Memphis Menthol slims. Not very soon after meeting she asked me out on a date. I was, to say the least, besotted.

Her apartment, a stone’s throw from the Praterstern was a subject of great fascination, simply because she was inviting me back there. What I do remember was her circling the block numerous times looking for a parking space. I thought this was such a European thing to be doing. Was it because in England everyone had a driveway? Certainly not true! More so in South Africa I guess, for there everyone had one, or at least off street parking. Well white folks at least!!!!

Once upstairs, and in the kitchen, out came the rye bread, smalz, salami, gherkins, and of course red wine. To the sound of Rock Me Amadeus, Margit proceeded to rock me, and the rocking and the wine and the intoxication continued unabated for many glorious weeks, until alas, my Euro rail pass was about to expire. Then on a chilly autumn evening we found ourselves waving a tearful goodbye to each other as I boarded my night train for London.

Alas I was rudely awoken by a rather abrupt halt. Salzburg station the sign read. I was aware of people alighting and disembarking. I rubbed my eyes and glanced at my watch. It was midnight. What happened next was probably the most spontaneous thing I have ever done in my life. As the train began to judder and start rolling, I leapt out of my chair, grabbed my rucksack and jumped clear of the train onto a deserted dimly lit platform. I had decided in the blink of an eye to go back to Vienna.

Margit seemed genuinely pleased to see me back at her front door. I had, thoughtfully stolen some daffodils from the gardens at the station entrance before taking the tram back to Nestroyplatz. She gave out a little squeal when I thrust the flowers at her. I had a rather sheepish grin on my face. Once welcomed inside, she suggested that I might as well stay at her place. Full time.

Life soon settled into a cozy rhythm. Margit would head off to work in her Micra, and I would busy myself around her comfortable little love nest, drinking dark Austrian coffee, eating cold wiener schnitzel and tuning into the local radio station. Bryan Adams was all the rave in Austria at the time. The days shortened and grew colder. The chilly nights gave us ample excuse to go drink gluwein in Grinzing, and of course feast on salty smalz, and sweet Mozart kugel. I got addicted to a brand of cigarette called Jonny Filters. The packet had mock denim jeans printed on it. Margit seemed to know where all the street side coin condom vending machines where, which I thought was such a grown up thing to well errr know! It reminded me succinctly that I was dating a ‘mature’ woman. She would pull up beside a Durexmachine in the Micra and I would be charged with the task of hopping out with a shilling coin. Quite often they were empty. I always had a good chuckle about that!

I love cities in winter. And Vienna was no exception. On the frozen lake Kaiserwasser I learned to skate, much to her amusement. I spent more time face down on the ice than actually skating.

I took long daylight walks to while away the time between the loving and eating and drinking and while Vienna city centre was pretty, the outer districts, called Wiener Gemeindebezirke had a more austere appearance. Certainly in those years. Large grey blocks of brick and concrete, 2-storey apartments that ran the length of grey cobbled streets with grey pavements. With the trams clattering about and people dressed in dark overcoats the place made me think of Stalin’s Russia or East Germany. But Schonbrunn under a canopy of snow was pure magic. So magical in fact that I decided to bury my Kodak Disk camera there. One piece at a time!

True to my nature, no matter how deeply Margit and I bonded my mind was drifting back to London. I began to think. Am I going to settle in Vienna? Could this be the end of the road? Or the beginning of a new one? To and fro the dilemma slopped about in my head. What was I going to do in Vienna? I had no inkling of a career. I was only 20 for goodnesssakes.

My revelation in Rome, that of deciding upon a LIFE LONG adventure, enforced my notion that marriage, kids, mortgages, a walk in cupboard of suits, an office job was out of the question. I had to be let loose. For my entire life!!

As they say, be careful what you wish for, it will probably come true! So here I write these daily posts in some ways to help me make peace with decisions made decades ago. Constructs that have conspired to bring me to a point in my life where I think, did I make the right decision? And prompt me to question why I still feel no closer to wanting to settle down than I did when I was 20.

Alas the tug of London won out and by early January 1984, I was on a Lauda air flight back to the big smog. Margit and I had agreed to meet there as soon as possible.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 8.

Life and Death in Bingley.

Once I got back to England I heard the news that WF had died. My parents flew over for his burial. Dad thought I was looking rather weary, and with a wink said, “Seems Margit has worn you out Son”!

Before WF was cremated they opened the casket and I had one last glimpse of the man I dearly loved. His shock of carrot red hair contrasted poignantly with his waxen pallor. I touched his forehead before the lid closed. I was overwhelmed with sadness watching his coffin disappear into the flames.

A few evenings later we all gathered at a popular Bingley pub with our UK cousins to celebrate my 21st and the life and death of WF Dobson. It was the 17th of January 1984. It felt strange to be sitting in an English pub with my Mum and Dad, a fire crackling in the corner, that hoppy smell again and snow falling gently outside. Homely in a Dickensian sort of way.

Once the tears and laughter had abated, Mum and Dad set off on their way back to Africa, and I booked a coach to London. With 6 months to go before my own return to South Africa. I was skint and needed a job.

To prompt my search for employment I decided to blow what little money I had left watching Genesis play the NEC stadium Birmingham, David Bowie light up Milton Keynes, and Supertramp enthrall Earls Court Arena. Almost down and out in London, I had a brief encounter with the UK social security system, a rather depressing experience of standing in the dole queue waiting to collect my weekly Gyro. But before long however, I was happily filling out my UB40 form and ‘signing off’. That album held particular resonance because in the heyday of my pot smoking teens, it was the record I seemed to get goofed to the most. 1982 was the last time I had a joint, but even today when Tyler comes on the radio, I feel stoned!!!

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 9.

The Oxford & Cambridge Club.

During my first week into the job, Caspar Weinberger (US Defence Secretary 1981-1987) gave a talk in the main dining hall of this illustrious gentleman’s club on the Pall Mall almost next door to St James Palace.

I had got a position as wine waiter. Not knowing a damned thing about wine, I was making a prize prat of myself, repeatedly forgetting the fancy names of the wines and whether they were red or white by the time I had walked back to the cellar to place my order with Johnny.

Johnny was a diminutive Greek, the head wine waiter and in charge of the small cellar abutting the main kitchen. He was a fussy little man, fastidious to the point of been a complete pain in the ass. He insisted we pack the bottles into the cooler fridges in neat rows and woe betide us if we didn’t have each label facing perfectly forward. Even one degree of arc out and he would huff and puff and mumble and to make us feel rather stupid, insist we watch him straighten them, all while tut-tutting with more mumbling under his breath. He could hardly speak English so I guessed he was muttering to himself in Greek.

I say we because my partner in inefficiency was Jerry, a bearded Irish lad my age, who spoke with such a thick Dublin accent I couldn’t understand a word he was saying either. He chain-smoked Pall Malls and always left a fag smoldering in an ashtray overflowing with stubs just through the adjoining swinging kitchen doors while he dashed in and out of the cellar with orders. Conveniently placed out of sight of Johnny’s hawkish eyes, who disliked smokers.

For anyone who has read George Orwell’s classic, ‘Down and Out In London and Paris’, well I was living the real life version.

My observations of the gaping social and moral divide between the guests and the staff would be enough to fill a book. The gout ridden Oxford & Cambridge Alumni barristers, lawyers and aristocrats that came for lunch and dinner, where characters straight out of a Dickens novel. They sat toad like at tables in bulging waistcoats, with straggly strands of greasy hair scraped over bulbous and waxy craniums. They burped and farted, dribbled gravy down their fronts and ordered in their ‘posh’ accents! “Waiter bring me another glass of Fonseca (port) will you”.

We the servants were a skinny rag tag army of working class Irish, Welsh, Scots, and English. Oh and a Greek who thought he wasn’t working class at all.

Of course if any of the toads in the hall got snotty about the food, then head chef would send out a fresh plate, but not before he had deposited a glob of his own (snot) discreetly tucked into the grub. Andy, a scouse, serving lunchtime salads and cold meats at one end of the dining room, would regularly gouge out an eye from the fresh salmon and using a salad spoon, toss the beady thing across the tables. “Waiter, waiter, there’s an eye in my soup” was a refrain I heard on more than one occasion.

The staff digs were across town. 4 floors of tatty shared rooms in a Georgian-era terrace, one of many in a neat row along The Cromwell Road, Earls Court. The traffic clogged artery was right outside our window.

I shared my room with the club’s resident sparky (electrician) who chain smoked drum rollies and would awaken early to the sound of his alarm clock. In the winter months, with the room dark and cold, his arm would appear from under the thick blanket and with one hand roll and light a fag. He would smoke 3 under the blankets before coughing and wheezing his way out of bed and down the corridor to shower. Later in the year during the hot stuffy summer weekends we would throw open the large sash window to let our smoke out and traffic smog in. Everything in the room was covered in a layer of soot and when I blew my nose my hanky was greygreenblack.

Behind our den of depravity, over a high dark brick wall was a Georgian mansion. We had a great view of it through the sash windows from our 4th floor pissoir! It was rumoured a Queen lived there. Then one morning to my upmost delight, while pointing percy, I saw Mr Mercury standing on the lawn in his dressing gown, watering the flowers. I didn’t think it was appropriate to shout and holler down to a rock legend with it all hanging out, but then again knowing Freddie, he probably would have appreciated the sight. (Later in the year I would see him play live, at Sun City South Africa. Part of Queens much slated South African ‘rebel’ tour. Most artists would not step foot in South Africa, for all the obvious reasons).

Between nights of drinking cheap wine and muddled days serving expensive wine, life settled into a steady beat of drunken debauchery and hang-overs.

On my days off I would amble down to the smoky pubs that lined Earl Court rd opposite the underground station exit. A popular hang out for travelers, I would attempt to practice the rudimentary German I had picked up in Austria on unsuspecting German or Austrian backpackers. If they were female and showed an interest in my imperfect clumsy Deutch, I would be tempted to dig into the bedroom German that Margit had taught me. You know phrases like ‘Ich Liebe Dich’ which sounded to me after a few bottles of wine, like something much more risqué!

Another weekend excursion might be across to Bayswater and the infamous SAAFER. Kiwi, Oz de-bauch fest, the walkabout club! Usually upon entering one would be greeted by the sight of a couple of fully comatose buxom lasses, Kiwi’s or otherwise, pogo-ing up and down on wet tables to Men at Work’s, ‘Down Under’! Clad in nothing more than beer soaked knickers, it was almost guaranteed that before the song was over they would be down under the tables having slipped off ass first or worse, face first, onto a floor 3 inches deep in a mixture of liquor and vomit!

Of course all bad good things had to come to an end and on the 1st June 1984 I was on the return leg of my SAA 12-month open ticket to Johannesburg. After a year on the road I had decided it was time to head ‘home’ and enroll for a graphic design course at the Johannesburg College of Art, starting January 1985.

Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 10

Ghostbusters

Back in Joburg broke as usual with 6 months to kill before college I needed a job. Eventually I found one at a video shop owned by a fella called Johnny (there seems to have been an awful lot of Johnnies in my life) who had pale blue watery eyes and one of those jowly dopey basset hound sort of faces. He set me on at his Fairlands store. What I should have done had I been smart was watch every single film in his shop and beat Quentin Taratino at his own game. Yeah become Quentin before Quentin did. Instead I spent most of my time standing out the front smoking and winking at the passing girls. The only film I can remember watching was Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Feeling a bit doomed myself, I thought, ‘Christ some folks have to do this lousy job for a living’! I felt sorry for Johnny, he always looked suicidal and I could well understand why. The highlight of his week was going down to the video depot central to scratch around for boxes of B grade movies, and get all excited about a new release. He tried to instill in me the idea of watching as many of his ‘flicks’ as he called them, so I could parrot the plot to bored couples and snotty nosed kids. I decided it was time to bunk out of videoworld and get a position as cashier in a liquor store. Much more up my street! Staff discounts on booze meant I could get tanked up on cheap fizz before going out carousing around town.

Alas college began in earnest late January 1985.

3 months later the ANC bombed our building and blew out all the windows on the 5th floor. We been up on the 19th, all of us, the entire class, dived under our tables thinking the house was coming down.

This was the year that Madonna released like a virgin, and Phil Collins seemed to be on every radio station talking about yet another tawdry hit. I was muddling through at Graphic design. I began to realize that my talents where no match for some of the stars of the show. Heide-Marie Von Der Au was one of them. Goodness every thing she drafted was bloody brilliant. I also concluded that graphic design was going to become a glorified desk job and I didn’t want one of those. My mind continually drifted back to the streets of London and the friendly Euro-babes, and I thought, hmm I think I’ve had enough of this…..

So I concocted a diversionary tactic by over emphasizing to my father how expensive things were going to get in year 2. “You know Dad, next year you’re going to have to buy me a camera and a spray gun and lots paints and an easel and expensive letra-sets and and….” and I could see he was buying it. It didn’t take much to push him into agreeing that I would be better going back to England to apply for a student grant. Of course I didn’t tell him that I knew I would be obliged to work for three years independently in the UK before I could even apply for grant!!!

So in November 1985, I was waving goodbye yet again to my family and boarding a Lux Air flight with a mate from Cornwall, Paul Pearce, outbound to Luxembourg. After a snowy overnight stop we were back in drizzly London.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 11.

Le Croissant Shop.

Once through the snowy festivities of Christmas, I found a job in January ‘86 at the Croissant Shop. One of a chain of fast food confectionary kiosks spread across all 6 British Rail stations. Namely Waterloo, Paddington, Euston, Kings Cross, St Pancras and Charing Cross. I started at the Waterloo branch. I remember my first day clearly. It was announced on a huge LED screen at one end of the great echoing cavernous atrium that Phil Lynot of Thin Lizzy had died of a drug overdose. I saw the news flashing across the screen from behind a glass counter while serving chocolate croissants, dressed in my obligatory uniform of straw boater and apron.

There was nothing really French about the croissant shops at all. They were owned by a wealthy Israeli and staffed by mostly backpackers from everywhere but France. Although yes there was one French lass. I got to know her. Maxine!

The operations and babes resources manager was a fair skinned Pakistani called Zia, who reminded me in retrospect of Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Borat. He had the same silly grin and ridiculous moustache. I called him the babes resources manager because while his official title was human resources Zia seemed to share a penchant for pretty girls, and hired only……pretty girls. With an average staff ratio of 3 lasses to every 1 lad in any of the 6 kiosks (let’s face it how many blokes are prepared to don an apron and silly straw boater) it gave me ample chance to flirt.

The dough mix was frozen into rock hard blobs of whatever they were made of, at a factory in Stoke Newington, and delivered by Bangladeshi vans drivers to our 24/7 babe & chocolate bureaus. Once offloaded, myself and my team of nubiles would place the rock clods into these strange half oven/microwave contraptions to defrost them into soft blobs of yellow dough. At that point we would crank up the dial and sort of fry them crispy brown.

Talk about money for old rope. Every rush hour we would shift boxes of the stuff, literally selling like hot cakes at a pound or more making Mr Sachs a mint. Meanwhile my take home pay was a miserable £65 per week. Just enough to pay my rent. I lived on a diet of soggy cheese croissants and lager.

Out the back of Waterloo station, the great train robber Buster Edwards used to sell flowers. The same year, Phil Collins released the film Buster. Phil as Buster. Not long after it's release, the real Buster hung himself.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 12

69 Priory Road. (Nope its not what you are thinking).

The large house owned by the Nussbaums was set back off Priory road slightly, in amongst a few large oak trees. The next cross street was the famed Abbey road. No need to explain, save to say the zebra crossing was still there, minus John, Paul, George and Ringo.

At the Nussbaums I rented a pokey little bedsit on the very top floor, buried in the roof, and with only a small window cut through the tiles, I lived in a perpetual half light! The low, diagonally sloping roof meant cramped living and I develop a sort of lop sided gait during the 3 years plus I lived there. I became the Hunchback of Priory Road.

When not eating company fodder, I was ‘boiling’ fray & bentos steak and kidney pies on a single gas ring. Cans I bought in bulk, kind of like how you buy dog food, from Sainsbury’s on the Finchley road, a stones throw from Swiss Cottage. To call punching two holes in the lid and plopping the can into 3 inches of water-cooking, would have been an insult to the word. My kitchen-miniscule-ette comprised of a toaster, kettle, one battered aluminium pot, a knife, fork, plastic plate and a tin opener. Oh and two plastic wine glasses just in case I managed to hoodwink one of the croissant lovelies around to my place for a glass of plonk in a box!

The Nussbaums were an interesting pair. I guessed escapees from the Holocaust. Mr N was certainly an octogenarian, had a thick mop of ruffled silver hair and wore round horn rimmed glasses. He reminded me of Mr Geppetto of Pinnochio fame. Mrs N, a Golda Mier lookalike, had taught waxen skin and hair that resembled a weaver birds nest. It was obviously dyed. Sort of a rust deep red on top and a ribbon of shock grey at the roots. She wore scarlet lipstick smudged across her thin lips.

Living in the house on the ground floor, she expected her rent money, £30 a week, delivered promptly every Thursday. One particular week I was a day late, Friday the 13th to be exact, and when she peered around the half open door, I said, “Sorry I’m late but I’ve come to pay my dues”. She threw me a look that was to say the least, dirty! I suddenly realized that the way you write dues, and how it’s spoken was leading her to miss interpret my goodwill and think I was a condescending anti-semetic! For anyone witnessing my attempts to explain to her what I was actually meaning to say, it would have been like watching a Faulty Towers sketch.

Life in West Hampstead was cosy to say the least. The Jubilee line was a short amble up priory, and with a brisk walk one could be down at Camden Town. Most Friday nights if not working at Le Croissant boudoir I would be there with mates at the Carnavon Castle. A pub just up the road from Camden Lock and opposite the famed music dive, Dingwalls.

The Poorboys were the regular Carnavon gig, a great four peace rhythm and blues band. After getting thrown out of the Castle at midnight not because of bad behavior but because the pub was closing, we would stumble across Camden High street and stump up the entry for Dingwalls. The rewards for what seemed like an exorbitant fee could be many. Quite often a rock legend or two would make an impromptu appearance. One evening while a guy I met was boasting about bedding Annie Lennox, I watched Billy Cobham play with a much stripped down version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. On another occasion Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music fame walked on stage to play. I got a signed beer mat from non other than Mick Box of Uriah Heep while Asia base player John Wetton stood alongside with a pint of beer in hand. Jeremy Healey of Haysi Fantazee was a regular and I do recall seeing Mick Hucknall in the car park in trademark duffel coat and frizzy bon tucked under a flat cap. This was before he became Simply Awful.

Around 4am we would crawl the 2 miles back to Priory road come rain, sleet or snow, and spend most of the next day in bed, nursing a hangover from hell.

One floor down was a German girl I got to know. Ingrid. She was an architecture student. Sharing a common love for sketching, water colour painting, writing and taking walks on Hampstead Heath, we became very close friends. Around about this time I had finally decided to buy a decent camera and stumped up some hard earned chocolate-popsie-cake money on a Pentax ME Super. Bought at the Dixons camera store on the strand, with one roll of WH Smith cheap and nasty negative print film. The very first pics I took with it were of the free Nelson supporters gathered outside South Africa house in Trafalgar Square. Needless to say the photo were underexposed and kinda rubbish.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 13

The Birth of Photography.

For 2 weeks during the summer of ’86, Paul Pearce my flat mate at Priory Rd and I took a trip to Dubrovnik and Split. Needless to say when I got back and collected a few fat envelopes of prints from the WH Smith high-street photo kiosk I was mildly satisfied with the pics. Say 3 out 10 prints were spared the bin. Things were improving I thought, but the photo bug still didn’t bite. I was just like everyone else. You know, look at the prints once, and then bury them in a drawer somewhere to be left and forgotten. Life carried on at Le Croissant shop.

Then one day for a reason I still cannot remember, I decided to buy a roll of Fujichrome slide film. Guess I was just curious, and liked the idea of mailing the roll off for processing. It took me almost two months to finish the 36 frames, with the last 5 snapped when Ingrid and I took a stroll across Hampstead Heath one late autumn afternoon. By 4pm the sun was very low in the sky and as we crunched our way along a path of fallen leaves, the golden sunlight was splashing iridescent all over the grove of trees before us. Click, click, click, click, click.

A month later the processed film arrived back in a little green box. I had thoughtfully bought a small slide viewer. A palm sized pyramid shaped receptacle with an eye piece at one end and a frosted base at the other. I dropped a slide into the viewer through the little slot on one side. Lifting it up towards the skylight, I looked through the lens.

What happened next was the revelation! The hallelujah moment! That second in time when God, the Universe, Destiny, my calling aligned. I stared at the image for a long while. It was so crisp, the colours deep and saturated, the effect somehow was as if I was looking at a magnificent stained glass window. It was more than just an image of trees and sunlight. It was a jewel. A sparkling, shimmering artefact of light, space and time caught on a sliver of celluloid, the most gorgeous 2 dimensional representation of our 3 dimensional world I had ever seen. I was blown away. I was hypnotized. I was hooked!!!

My addiction to photography exploded, and I would be out most weekends snapping away. Heck I’d set off to places like Guildford for a weekend imagining I was on assignment for National Geographic. While checking into a small B&B for the night I would be pretending this was going on an expense account and yes I was here getting paid to wander about taking pics.

Then one day while wandering along the South Bank, just in front of the Royal Festival Hall I saw what appeared to be a PRO-fessional photographer. He had a bunch of lights and an assistant and a very fancy looking camera. I hung around. The photographer later hopped in a taxi and left his assistant to pack everything up.

I sauntered over and asked the gangly lad in a silly naive sort of way, “hey was that guy that just left a PRO-fessional phoootographer”???? !!!! The assistant nodded. ‘Yeah’ he said. “So you’re his assistant” I asked in a dopey voice, of course realizing what a dumb ass question that was. He nodded again. I persisted with my daft questions. “so how do you get a job with a PROOOfessional photographer”, and this time he stopped what he was doing and asked my name. “Dick” I said. “But you can call me Dickhead if you want”. He laughed.

We got chatting more and he explained to me that the place to go looking for assisting jobs was at AFAEP or the Association of Fashion, Advertising and Editorial Photographers a stupidly long winded acronym that relatively recently has been sensibly shortened to AOP, Association of Photographers. He told me they were in Old Street, London EC1 and had a ‘jobs’ book. “Go look in that” he said. Next day I was paging through the jobs listings, collecting names and addresses.

3 weeks later and still plodding around studios in between my croissant capers, and been told politely that the job had been taken, I was beginning to lose heart. Then one day I knocked on the door of a certain Tony Bowran Studio. The rest I might say is history! And the pastry era came to a glorious chocolatey plastered end.

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking Part 14

Below Bowran

Where Regent and Piccadilly streets meet Piccadilly Circus, behind the old Tower records store there is Vine Street and Man in the Moon Passage. Next to a small coffee shop a non-descript black door led me down a short clean stairwell painted a shiny Messerschmitt grey. At the foot of the steps I was greeted by yet another black door. I knocked.

The door opened and a tall good looking chap stood before me. I told him I was interested in the job been advertised for second assistant. There was a moments pause, while he studied my face. He ran his hand through his lanky sand coloured hair, and then said. “I’m Kelv, come on in”.

We sat down in chrome and black leather swivel chairs, and Kelvin Murray began to ask me about my experience. I had to be brutally honest and tell him I didn’t have any. “That’s OK” he said, “it’s a pretty straight forward job. Clean the studio, make cups of tea, run to the lab with film, answer the phone, oh and be nice to Tony”. Tony was ‘the professional’ photographer. After a few more questions he gave me a smile and said, “OK you got the job, come tomorrow morning at 8:00am”.

Tony was also tall, not quite quite Kelvin’s height, but he appeared broader. He had a pale luminous complexion. In fact they both did. I surmised they spent a lot of time down underground together well out of sight of sunlight in this basement studio.

While Kelvin was gregarious and animated and had a habit of slapping his hands together or on his knees and stuttering out the punchline while telling a joke, Tony by contrast was more reserved and appeared a little shy. But I realized as I spent more time at the Bowran studio, that while he was the boss and Kelvin the assistant, Tony’s awkwardness and shy demenour spoke of a more complex relationship. I sensed that in someway Tony felt a bit intimidated by Kelvin, who had an answer for everything, and was so damned competent at everything.

While Kelvin served Tony like a devoted minion and never ‘fucked up’ somehow Tony was never fully satisfied and wanted to test him to the absolute. This ‘testing’ would come in various forms. The most common would be after a long long day shooting, while I was winding down the equipment, and the film was already cooking at the lab, Tony, just about to leave the studio wearing his trademark cashmere trench coat, would turn to Kelv and ask, “so what did we expose that sheet of film at, you know sheet 124, the one where I moved the bottle an inch to the left?”. A question he expected a vague answer, but Kelvin meticulously prepared and on the ball, always had the answer, spot on!

Tony was a still life photographer. There was nothing still about the shoots however. Complex set ups that revolved around lots of elinchrom strobes, climpex stands, gobos, and usually when photographing something as simple as a beer can, the set from one side of the studio resembled some sort of bizarre science experiment. Behind his large 10x8 sinar camera sat the boss, while Kelvin would be kept on his toes interpreting and executing the little cues that Tony fed him. “Turn strobe 1B down a ¼, pull key light 4c back a bit, hey kill that highlight you see there Kelv, no not that one, that one” etc, etc. All the while I would be sort of standing around dumbfounded until I was given something constructive to do like cycle off to the lab with the film.

One morning while pedaling up Regent’s street, off to Joes Basement, a lab in Wardour street, Soho, I heard “hey Dobbo”. I looked back across the busy road and to my surprise there stood two pals from Hyde Park High in South Africa. Mark Werner and Guy Jenkin. Such a pleasant surprise. But with Tony and Kelv waiting for results I had to say a hurried goodbye and dash off into the melee of London traffic.

After about 8 months of fumbling about in the studio, I began to realize that still life work was not for me. I was all thumbs and feet and no matter how hard I tried not to, I always seemed to manage to kick a light stand or knock over a gobo or two. Usually just as we were about to shoot I would go put my foot in it by tripping over a power cable and pulling the entire set down. Tony would look at me with mouth agape while Kelvin tried to justify why he had hired me. “Well he’s very keen” Kelvin would spin Tony’s way, while the boss was having non of it.

Kelvin eventually coined the name Lurker as I had a habit of showing up in the corners of large 10x8 transparencies. I would sort of accidentally creep into camera frame in my eagerness to watch all the strobe flashlight synch indicators atop the strobe packs that were positioned around set. This was well before the days of digital photography, so once a polaroid had locked down an exposure, the shooing was blind while using a plate camera. Any small movement into set and you ran the risk of appearing in the photo. I lurked across more than one shoot. I decided I wanted to be a location photographer. I wanted to be out in the big outdoors. So I started looking around for a good location photographer. I had one in mind. A certain Duncan Sim

Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 15

Dip & Dunc

On my weekends off I would spend my time out wandering with my camera or back at home, in the attic, buried in photography magazines. I had a few favourites;, Zoom, one simply called Photography, there was Outdoor Photographer, Amateur photographer. And then one day while in a hurry to catch a bus, I grabbed a copy of DLSR photographer.

About half way in, I turned the page and an image leapt off the page and grabbed me by the throat. It was of a Buick crashing through a torrent of water, it’s headlights rim lighting the spray and dark brooding mountains seen in the background. It was alive, urgent, threatening, fucking brilliant. And I wondered how the photographer had managed to create it. It seemed too perfect to be shot by chance, more staged, like the guy had employed a team of special effects wizards. The more I looked at it the more it intrigued me. Then I looked for the name. Photographer. Duncan Sim. I knew there and then this was the guy I wanted to assist.

On another weekend off, a Saturday morning to be exact, I asked at the AFEAP office if they had Duncan Sim’s studio number on file. The young lady behind the desk opened a small black book and to my delight jotted a number down on a piece of paper.

A soft spoken voice answered the phone. “This is Neil”. I explained that I was a Duncan Sim fan and asked if there was any chance of a job. “Not one at the moment but come on over anyway” Neil replied. I was given an address in Old Street, London EC1. Paul’s Street to be exact. Just off Great Eastern!

I arrived in front of a shabby 4 storey Victorian red brick building which had probably been some sort of wharehouse in former times. It appeared empty. I stepped into an old rickety cage style elevator and clattered my way to the top floor. As I slid open the cage, standing framed in a door almost opposite was a rather gaunt looking lad waiting for me. He had the same nervous twitchy demeanor of small antelope I had observed on various bush whacking excursions back in Africa. “Duncan is not here” Neil said. “This is a good time to talk. I can relax a bit”.

Once through the door there was a strong smell of cat poo. I looked down the length of the interior which was long and narrow. Sloping beams from the roof led down to windows that ran the entire length of one side of the room, letting in a soft grey London light. From where I stood I could make out an unmade double bed in the far corner and a bunch of directors chairs scattered across the room. Coffee cups sprinkled liberally throughout.

At my side of the room stood two cat litter trays which explained the smell. Wasn’t sure where the cats were. Black tatty curtains hanging from floor to ceiling sort of separated what was obviously more a living space down the other side, to where I was standing near the entrance. I looked around me and it reminded me of a photographic equipment depot. There was a lot of gear. A number of large 5k arri-lights, some long silver cases, in fact there was any number of silver cases. Almost a mountain of them and they all had crudely stenciled Duncan Sim Studio lettering sprayed in black on them. Running down one wall against the door was a series of shelves and cupboards, upon which was piled almost to ceiling height, 5x4 sheet film boxes. By the 100’s I guessed.

Neil began to tell me about life at the Sim Studio, and he kept emphasizing that it was crazy. “Heaven and Hell all wrapped into one glorious mind fuck” he said and sort of whimpered. He then hinted he might be leaving. I gave him my Priory rd number.

About 2 weeks later Mrs Nussbaum handed me a note of paper with a message to call Neil. Christ I thought. “This could be it”! It was it! And I was told to come in a week. Monday morning 9am sharp.

Kelvin was relaxed about me leaving, I think inwardly relieved I wouldn’t be around to kick over any more light stands or trip over and yank out power cables mid shoot. He wished me all the best!

On Monday morning I arrived promptly. Neil let me in. I heard Duncan before I saw him. He was down the other end of the room, obscured by the hanging black curtains. He spoke with a deep baritone voice and I remember his words “well if they want me to photograph trees then we’re going to the fucking giant redwoods in Northern California”.

I was led past the curtains and while he continued to talk I took a good look at him. He was sitting in a lying position, almost parallel to the ground in his directors chair. Feet up on the trestle table that stood before the window. Bare chested and with tight denims tucked into very pointy leather cowboy boots. He looked like a character out of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’. He was massaging his temple with his free hand, the other clasped around the phone, a cig smouldering between his fingers and as he spoke, his great mane of tussled blonde hair was hanging down the back of the chair. He was to say the least rather a scary sight. When he put the phone down and stood up to greet me, he reminded me of a giant troll, albeit a good looking one. He had a large forehead and deep set blue eyes that had hint of menace in them when he frowned but made you feel a lot more at ease when he laughed.

“Hello Rick” he said, but instead of shaking my hand, he thrust both hands into his pockets and sort of rocked back and forth on the heels of his boots, and declared in a great rumbling voice, “Neil’s gonna show you what to pack, where flying to Spain tomorrow”! He then let out a great guffaw. Big belly laughs. Almost simultaneously I heard a woman’s voice; “oh Dunc it’s going to be such fun”! I glanced behind me and a skinny model-esque girl, with high cheekbones and a tussle of long auburn hair, unashamedly wrapped in a towel, appeared through a black door cut in the wood paneling that was obviously the petition between bathroom and bedroom/office. She gave me a rather piercing look, said “Hi, I’m Lara” Lara Compton offered me a bony hand, and then proceeded to cosy up to Dunc, running her slim fingers through his main of chest hair!

I felt sort of queazy!

Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 16

Heaven and Hell all wrapped into one glorious mind fuck.

The flight to Madrid was uneventful. The flight to Malaga was uneventful, even the boat on water shoot in Marbella was uneventful.

What was eventful was what happened back at the hotel with 160 sheets of exposed 5x4 film. All of them had to be offloaded and packed in batches of 20 sheets into empty film boxes. Unexposed film came out of the new boxes, loaded into the dark slides and then exposed film came out of the dark slides and went back into the waiting empty boxes. The trick was always to know where in the box a particular sheet was. So if the photographer wanted to process sheet 11 at + 1/3, you could dig it out.

However, because film was loaded into a box that had in effect two boxes in one, an inner tray system that acted as a light trap, the number system had to be reversed. You loaded the last sheet of exposed film first and worked backwards. Film sheet numbers would be written on the box lid, eg. Box A, Sheet 1,2,3,4,5 etc etc, which had to correspond to the shooting sheets which listed what was shot, exposures and filters used etc etc.

Luckily I had learned most of this at the Tony Bowran studio in a specially built ‘darkroom’. What I hadn’t learned however was how to offload film in a hotel room. Duncan hadn’t bothered to invest in what was called a changing bag. A small tent like structure you zipped film into and through special light tight arm slots put your hands in and did the offloading. A device that allowed the changing of film in any sort of ambient light. Duncan’s idea was to utilize hotel bathrooms (at night), since he deemed most to be windowless. My bathroom certainly was. He had explained to me the high-tech duct tape light sealing technique!

-Enter bathroom-turn off the lights-let your eyes adjust to the dark-where one sees light leaks, under doors, around windows, duct tape the crap out of them!

So at approximately 12 Midnight when Duncan and Lara had moseyed off to bed, I began the task of offloading film, dusting dark slides and reloading. I had a 2-hour task ahead of me.

After taping up the cracks and crannies, satisfied all was light proof, I let my eyes adjust to the dark. I could see nothing. Not even my hand in front from my face. I sat on the floor cross legged. The pile of sheet film holders, all 80 of them, before me, (2 sheets of film per holder) placed on top of a small flight case which acted as a low table. The open empty film box waited to accept the exposed sheets.

So began the process! Lift up dark slide number 160. Open it facing me. Feel for the edge of the film. Pull it out carefully so as not to scratch the emulsion. Don’t scrape off the silver halide crystals. If you did that you binned the sheet. Then flip the sheet into the open box ensuring the emulsion is facing up. Good 160 home. Just another 159 to go.

I sat in the void of nothingness going through the motions. Sometimes my eyes would be open, other times closed. It didn’t matter, it was pitch black anyway. The film box in front of me filled up with exposed sheets of film.

About half way through the process with my head tilted back, mostly from fatigue, I opened my eyes. My line of sight was the ceiling. A black ceiling. Noooooooooo!!!!

Right in the middle of the blackness was something that resembled the shimmering evening star in the night sky. A golden orb of fucking light particles. Someone in the room above had turned on their bathroom light and the small ventilation duct in my ceiling and their floor was now conducting a mind fuck experiment with me. I stared at this light for a few seconds and then realized my open box of exposed film was lying directly below it, with emulsion side facing up. In a moment of sheer panic I slammed down the box lid.

My heart thumped. Nausea rushed over me. I trembled. I sat frozen with fear. Had this light above my head fogged the film?? I looked down to the box. Blackness. I gazed at my pale hand placed over the box lid. Blackness. I couldn’t see a thing. I looked up. I could see the light. Up and down I glanced. I tried to make mathematical calculations, based on the film ISO (light sensitivity rating), and perceived lumens of the bathroom light that shimmered through the duct. I played with numbers and equations and shutter speeds and f-stop scenarios until my head spun. Then the person above turned off the light. The blazing star vanished.

I sat dumbfounded. Had it fogged the film? I asked myself again! No I decided, it hadn’t. Then the voice of the devil spoke to me! Yes it had. Of course it had! It was light. Light fogs film! I punched back. No ways. It was too faint. The devil persisted. If your eyes could see it, then the film could see it too…!!! oh fuck fuck fuck fuck go away I screamed. And then the devil said, “Duncan scares the crap out of you, of course don’t tell him”! and laughed an evil laugh. I winced, I shook. I cried!!

The bitter conflict arose in my head. Tell him, he’d tear my head off and I’d be out of a job. But at least I rationalized, he could at least call a reshoot. A very expensive reshoot mind you. If I kept quiet I thought, once we got back to London and the film was buggered, the worst that could happen would be to have the Thames river police drag my lifeless body out of the water, a scarf wrapped tightly around my neck. But I’d be dead so there would be no more shame!

The Devil disappeared and I continued to finish off the job. But not before I had smothered the duct with duct tape. By 4am I was in bed. Totally exhausted, physically and mentally. I had decided I would sleep on it and make a decision in the morning. Possibly break the news over breakfast, a meal I wouldn’t have the stomach to eat!

(what would you have done????)
 
The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 17.

The Long Way Home.

While attempting to revive my soggy head under a hot shower the next morning, I had drawn a few conclusions. That not all the film had been exposed to light. And that it was not my fucking fault Duncan had not done the sensible thing and invested in a light tent. He'd shot some 35mm film. That definitely was not fogged, and anyway shooting a boat on water with 4x5 film seemed to me like overkill. We were on a flight back to London after lunch, in less than 24 hours I would know my destiny. Dead or alive. Worst case scenario I concluded is I would be out of a job.

I sat down to the breakfast table. Lara and Duncan looked disheveled. I presumed they had been up all night. They hadn’t been dating long. Duncan had his right hand cupped around a black coffee with a camel filter smoldering in his left. Between him and Lara lay some 5x4 colour polaroids of the previous day’s shoot.

“All ok Rick”, he shot me a question that cut to the bone, and followed it up with a look that I had seen before. A quizzical, probing stare that his clear green blue eyes made all the more unsettling. It was the furrowed brow and the way his nostrils would flare as he exhaled smoke that was the coup de grace in exacting absolute collateral panic. I almost blurted out “no Dunc all is not fucking ok at all” but caught myself before my thoughts could register in my eyes and give the game away. “Yes brilliant” I lied.

Lara wobbled in her chair, sucked on her Virginia slim, blew smoke all over the table and then in her posh aristocratic accent said, “Rick, Duncs decided to take a leisurely drive back to Madrid. We’re going to hire a car and shoot some personal pics for a week. Isn’t that soooooch fabulous news Reeeeck"!

Duncan took a swig of coffee, rocked back on his chair and then cracked up with laughter. I think he must have found something highly amusing about the expression on my face. A look he had interpreted as ‘oh no, you gotta be kidding me, you mean I have to hang out with you two love birds for another 7 days’.

Seven fucking days. What I had just heard sank in and I suddenly needed to excuse myself, dash to the toilet, and throw up.

We set off that afternoon on Dunc’s picture outing, heading towards a place I didn’t know much about and didn’t care much about either. I just wanted to slide into a coma or even better, die.

After what seemed like an eternity we arrived back in London, and the following day I was asked to be in the studio early to prep the film for Duncan to take to the lab. He was very hands on, and preferred to be close to the processing himself. My job after he had left us both back at the house, was to unpack and clean the gear.

Lara flaked out on the couch to wait for Duncs news on the film. She would be the first person he would call. They had a habit of talking about new images excitedly and bestowing them with a sort of sexual reverence. Adjectives like ‘orgasmic’ or phrases like ‘fuck me, get into that’ used very liberally. Meanwhile in the equipment room next door, out of sight of Lara, I felt faint and wanted to flake out too. With every passing minute I was feeling increasingly unwell. After seven days of anxiety and worry, I had reached my limit of mental anguish and just wanted a release. I wanted the waiting to be over.

There was a clap of thunder, the sound of rain and then the telephone rang. I froze. I heard Lara roll off the couch, light a cig, walk a few steps and then flop on the floor. She lifted the receiver. The ringing stopped. “Duncan Sim studio” Lara blurted out. Then there was silence. And more silence. She was listening. And listening. And listening. And I almost broke cover to begin screaming the house down. She slammed down the phone.

“Hey Rick, Dunc says the film is fucking amazing” !!

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking Part 18.

The Road Runner. (Part 1)

Early 1988, Michael Ash, Duncan’s New York agent got him a champion job. It was for Champion spark plugs. The agency wanted a ‘diner in the desert’ sort of vibe, could we say with a hint of Norman Rockwell. You know the diner all lit up, some hint of folks inside bathed in sodium, and out front a couple of classic cars. Say a Buick, or a Desoto. Splashed by a peach sunset. They wanted the Sim mood, oozing Americana. Mood and Americana was Duncan’s forte. Nobody did it better. Except maybe John Claridge, but Duncan would have disagreed.

After a lot of yankee talk with Mr Ash, Duncan’s next job was to hunt down a US based location scout, to find that ‘diner in the desert’. He signed up a certain Larry Selmes. Larry was briefed. We packed. Or rather I did, and within a week we were all aboard a Pan Am 747 bound for New York. We all chose smoking seats and lolled about at the back sucking on fags, swilling Budweiser. It felt like rock and roll!

This was my first trip to America and I was excited. I thought Dunc was the right person to introduce me to the States. While he wasn’t into all the cowboy and red neck nonsense he did borrow elements of dress from the rawhide brigade. He loved his bolo ties, and leather boots. And he was never in anything else but denim. Usually faded black! Add the incessant Camel smoking and his habit of quoting lines from Jack Kerouac’s ‘on the road’, he was closest thing to a beatnik as I was ever going to get. America with him would be an adventure.

JFK was not the best introduction to the States. Our connecting flight to Phoenix meant clearing his mountain of gear through customs. Confronted by Michelin-man sized arrivals hall attendants, when I asked one in blue where to get some trollies, he drawled, “over there, yoo gotta have some dimes”. “But I don’t have any dimes", I retorted, "I’ve just got off a flight from London and I’m in transit”! “Ya gotta go down to the buroooo da change, 3 floors down” he said with his sloppy mouth.

Now I gotta make point of mentioning Duncan didn’t travel light. While Lara would ensure he got his large Filofax aboard, the rest was pretty much up to me!

On this particular trip the customs carnet was almost 3 pages long and included; his piece de resistance, a beautiful dark rosewood 4x5 deardorff plate camera. A flight case with 8 Schneider lenses, ranging from a 65mm through to a stonking 300mm. Then there was the Nikons embedded in another large flight case. Two F2’s with motor-drives and an array of lenses, his favourite 20mmm through to the 500mm mirror. A lens he learned to love while assisting the legendary John Claridge.

Duncan liked shooting film. He carried a minimum of 100 dark slides and maybe 1000 sheets of 4x5 film, added to that another 100 rolls of 35mm film. Boxes and boxes of the stuff. Making sure the x-ray machines didn’t fry it all was one of the many less appealing duties.

He adored his filters and we had one giant domke bag that included a custom made mattbox and a plethora of diffusions, enhancers, polarizers, fogs, nets, colour correction, neutral densities, plum grads, peach grads, violet grads you named it, Dunc had a grad for it. There was also his giant gitzo tripod and for reasons that were beyond me he usually lugged two industrial foggers around the world with him. He liked smoking stuff up.

Larry was waiting for us at PHX. He was standing at the arrivals meet n greet section, wearing a crumpled brown suit and dog eared looking hush puppies. He was clutching a newspaper and when he saw the Duncan Sim road show emerge though the melee of people, he waved the newspaper at us. He had a very wide face, and a mouth that reminded me of a letter box slot, above which sprouted a bushy mustache.

He looked rather startled by the amount of equipment we were carrying. I have absolutely no memory of how we got it all into his car, but I do remember Larry’s rather beat looking Valiant. Tan coloured. Perfect I thought, given how dusty Arizona was.

Only when we had cleared the airport and were heading to our pre-booked Best Western Hotel, did I finally wake up to the fact that I was in America. Big cars, big people, and big signs. Signs everywhere. There seemed to be a Dunkin Donuts or Wendy’s down every 300 yards of highway. Larry chatted away, rattling of pleasantries, glancing back at Duncan and Lara who were nodding off in the back. He told us he would be at the hotel first thing in the morning with all the recce pictures he’d taken. He’d found some amazing locations he boasted. Once at the hotel he said, “get some sleep” and waved goodnight.

After a lousy sleep deprived night, I was at the breakfast table first. Larry arrived shortly after. He had a great big bundle of bulging envelops and dumped them onto the table. Duncan and Lara sauntered in, and I deduced they were suffering the effects of jet lag too. I thought we all looked rather shagged, except Larry. He was very perky indeed. While he began to unfurl the envelopes we took solace in great Yankee beakers of piping hot bottomless coffee. He handed the first stack to Duncan.

Duncan sucked on his camel and began flicking through the fan of prints in his hand. His expression was blank.

“Next” he said in a voice which had a gravely resonance. Larry passed him another deck. The big D drew another heavy toke on his cigarette and began thumbing through them, but instead of retaining the integrity of the pack he peeled each one off and threw it over his shoulder. I glanced at Larry. As Duncan continued to flick cards around the room, I watched Larry’s face drain of blood. Duncan nonchalantly, without either an expression of ire or mirth, calmly catapulted prints to all points of the compass.

Larry sort of gurgled out a question? “Hmm so you don’t think I have found what you were looking for?”.

Duncan said nothing at first. His eyes retreated under a deep furrowed brow. His nostrils flared and with the streams of smoke that billowed from them, he reminded me of an angry bull. “No we haven’t found what we are looking for”, he said finally, and took a long slug of coffee.

“My suggestion therefore”, he continued, “is this. We go looking, and we keep looking until we have found we are looking for. We go and find that damned diner in the desert”.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 19

The Road Runner (Part 2).

We left Phoneix for Flagstaff the next morning, in two cars, Larry and I as recce team 1. Dunc and Lara, recce team 2. We headed for the snow covered high ground, that comprised the Coconino National Forest. I recall been blown away by the severe change of landscape that America offered. From the flat dry saguaro cactus clad desert landscapes that surrounded Phoenix, within less than 100 miles we were up in the clutches of massive snow covered granite mountains. The air well below frigid and the roads so thickly covered in great banks of snow, that ploughs were hard at work clearing the stuff. All the while Larry seemed reasonably relaxed. He was chatty, and very American I thought. He told me about his rather troubled past, but very soon I had decided I liked him a lot. I think we both felt relieved to have Lara and Duncan in another car. We could relax a little.

From Flagstaff we drove west along highway 40 which comprised part of the old route 66. Back down into the stark Arizona desert landscapes and it felt bloody marvelous to be travelling this famed bit of tarmacadam in a beat up Valiant with a tubby gregarious American as company. I remember the Wendy’s ketchup dribbled down his front, splashed across a shirt that missed a few buttons, his hairy pot belly threatening to burst out from beneath the crumpled jacket. His thick black hair blowing in the open window, and his words been drowned out by the sound of the noisy V8 motor. With our discarded burger boxes, paper coffee and soda cups piled around us I thought this was all so ‘on the road’ Americana.

At the end of a long hot afternoon we called it a day in Kingman.

Over dinner sat in a classic American diner, replete with shiny red upholstery seats, and a waitress in apron, checkered dress, white collar and a little hat, who chewed gum and refilled our bottomless coffee cups, Duncan announced, “right tomorrow we’re going to split up. You and Larry take the road to LA, Lara and I will head for Vagas. And we’ll rendezvous back here in 2 days.

The following day our luck changed. Substantially! Larry and I, somewhere on the old route 66 between Bagdad and Siberia cleared the brow of a long incline and as we rolled over and into the decline, something up ahead on the left caught both our attention, almost simultaneously.

I can still remember Larry’s broad grin and the whoop he gave as the sign up above snapped into focus. Road Runner Diner. What we had found was beyond our wildest dreams. It was a diner in the desert alright. Tumble weed blew across the empty car park as we stopped adding the cinematic signature ruse for abandonment. It was the embodiment of what we were looking for. Looking like it had been closed for some time. all it needed was a good dusting off and that sign lighting up. Duncan we decided would be over the moon with joy.

Back at Kingman we developed the pics we had taken, and waited for Duncan and Lara to return. Sure enough, this time Duncan didn’t chuck any of the prints over his shoulder. Instead he gave out a giddy laugh and acknowledged they had found nothing, and we had found something beyond his wildest dreams. Larry got his redemption and a big bear hug from Duncan.

Hollywood special effects guys came up from LA to rewire the signage and refurbish, repaint. The classic cars arrived on a trailer. The agency AD’s arrived. Shoot day dawned. Final preparations were carried out. Duncan worked out his plate camera angles. The models took their stations. And then we waited for dusk. The Arizona sky went electric. The Road Runner sign glowed in front of Duncan’s Deardorff and Schneider glass. Lenses heavily diffused with his signature filters. The Desoto and Buick headlights were turned on for optimum effect. The whole scene looked bloody amazing. And the art director cooed with every colour 4x5 polaroid Duncan pulled. 50 sheets of film later and Duncan was calling it a wrap.

I still have one of the colour polaroids from this day, and I still love looking at it. Wonderful memories indeed.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 20.

Tobacco you can taste in a Force 10. SHOOTING WITH DUNCAN Duncan Sim

This is a rather long story. It’s my attempt at creative memoir writing, or rather an entertaining personal take of an event that I’ve entertained many of my photo assistants verbally over the years, but never written about it. Yes an event I was privy to, working for one of the most celebrated photographers of his age, Duncan Sim, as he shot one of the most celebrated advertising campaigns of the times. Namely Van Nelle ‘Tobacco you can taste in a Force 10”. Dunc I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I am going to enjoy writing it ☺ and remember while its largely based on a true story, I might be inclined to prefabricate some of the finer details…just for entertainments sake. Here goes reliving a journey that by all accounts must rate as one of the craziest and memorable trips of my life ☺

Here goes…..

I remember the day well. It was an unusually idle one at the Duncan Sim studio, due in part to the stifling heat. We were in the grip of a rare London heat wave and the muggy air, sweetened by copious quanties of vehicle emissions was wafting in through the wide open sash lounge window of Mr Sim’s South Kensington semi. It was the summer of 1988.

Strewn across the large living room floor, was an assortment of unwashed coffee cups, two filo faxes, one his, one hers, a green & grey hefty BT telecom phone, a fax machine, a couple of Nikon primes and a classic Nikon F2 titanium body with a 500mm mirror lens attached. A number of ashtrays over flowing with cigarette stubs complimented perfectly the ash grey daubs and intermittent orange stub burns that dotted the cream plush pile carpet. Sprawled across the couch to one side of the room, was Lady Lara, smoking a drum rollie, flicking her ash and flicking through a Cosmo, while opposite on a single seater was Duncan. He sat massaging his temple with his left hand, (as he was prone to do) head down, deep in thought while pulling heavily on more loosely rolled drum baccy. The room was imbued with a bluish bohemian haze. We were just back from shooting a campaign in the USA, Dunc and his girlfriend Lara were in a very laxadasical mood indeed.

Then the fax machine buzzed into life!!!!

I dutifully crossed the room to wait until the transmission had ended. What emerged from the little teleprinter was a line of grainy pictures of North Atlantic fishermen in sowesters on boats, riding storm thrashed seas…water sloshing across boughs, and at the bottom of the page a hand written scribble, “Tobacco you can taste in a force 10” campaign. Can you shoot it? Creative Director. TBWA Amsterdam.

I handed Dunc the long ream of paper. He studied it for approx 25 seconds, motionless and then like a startled goliath (he had the physique and presence of a grizzly bear) leapt out of his chair, grabbed the phone, punched some numbers, and asked for a name I cant remember!!!

From that point on the solitude ended and the madness began!

At the end of the rather long international call, he chuckled and told me to get packing. We were going to Holland. The agency wanted him to shoot in his distinctive moody style a series of compelling colour images of fishermen on boats, in storms, getting very wet and cold and toking on Van Nelle rolling tobacco, (the direct competition to more universally know Drum, of which Dunc, Lara and myself were loyal patrons).

The dilemma Duncan was having with the agency was they wanted this shooting on the Zuider Zee in Holland in mid Summer, and he quite rightly thought this a ludicrous idea stating his case that the only place for force 10 in July was the South Atlantic. Chile, South Africa or New Zealand. Initially the agency got their way, he agreed on us going to Holland, but I knew Dunc been Dunc, had bigger plans and would wait for his moment to unleash PLAN B.

I have to mention that a few weeks before Lady Lara, Duncan and I boarded our flight to Schipol, he in his infinite wisdom and foresight had a top London camera technician design and build a rain deflector contraption. Basically a hexagonal frame enclosing a spinning clear resin screen, powered by batteries, his Nikon F2 butted up against the sealed aperture on two rails with a waterproof cape that once over his head and acting like a ships bridge window, was his first line of defense against highly corrosive and destructive sea spray. Cameras and salt water go together like errr hummm oil and water! He knew too the quality of the imagery was reliant on the camera lenses remaining rain water and salt residue free.

As part of the testing procedure I was ordered to throw a bucket of water as hard as I could at him, cape and camera. Feeling rather queezy since I knew if this experiment backfired I would be the first to take the brunt of Dunc’s disappointment. And I must reiterate. Duncan was a very large and intimidating human being! Barrel chested with Garry Glitter levels of chest hair, replete with a long main of disheveled head hair that got combed every so often, deep set piercing blue eyes, a large furrowed brow, and to cap it all a deep baritone voice which when giving orders or venting rage made the very earth shake. Yes Dunc scared the living _ _ _ _ out of me!

Dry mouthed I did as ordered, and to all of our amazement, the water just atomized off the screen! Wow. The test shots revealed perfect pictures, not a smear or blob of water on any of the Fujichrome frames.

So a few days later with 4 Nikon F2 cameras, a plethora of lenses, packed in two aluminium flight cases, a duffel bag load of Tiffen movie filters, 300 rolls of Fujichrome and the most cherished rain deflector in its very own brand spanking and glittering steel flight case, 5 suitcases of clothes (1 mine, 1 Duncan’s and 3 Lara’s) ☺ loaded aboard the plane we took off from London Heathrow for Amsterdam Schipol airport.

Our first port of call the was the agency to have a production meeting, to discuss the shoot, collect our 100 pouches of “product”, (we were all toking on Van Nelle for the next 6 weeks ) and 2 cartons of an anti seasickness drug called Scopaderm. A ‘behind the ear’ plastic patch that came with a 15 column list of side effects. The most noticeable been, it made us all so stoned and squiffy eyed that we didn’t actually care if we got sea sick or not. We just puked overboard as and when we felt the urge and giggled deliriously.

The puking began however only after we left Holland, for the sea for now was as flat as a millpond. Yes there in the torpid mid July Dutch summer heat we floated on the Zuider Zee, aboard a gorgeous old wooden trading barge, smoked lots of reefer, toked on pouch loads of Van Nelle, and got seriously sun burned. With not a cloud in the sky, not a ripple on the water, by all accounts we were having a wonderful holiday at the expense of TBWA Amsterdam. But by day 4 Duncan’s love for reefer and swimming was waning and I sensed a storm brewing….not around us but inside Dunc’s head. He was not by nature a lay about!!!!

When he finally called the agency from a seaside phone booth he chose his words carefully and succinctly. I remember them well. Duncan: “you are wasting my fucking time and your fucking money”. Art Director. Silence. Duncan: “We need to go to New Zealand and we need to go now”. Art Director. Very long silence. Art Director. “well we can’t send an agency rep with you”. Duncan. “That’s fine. I’ll take a producer and we go it alone”. Art Director. Silence. Silence. More silence. Art Director. “OK you have the go ahead”.

Dunc put the phone on the cradle. “New Zealand here we go” he exclaimed and beamed!!

We met our producer flown in from London the next day at the agency. Duncan reassured the very nervous agency crew we would shoot an award winning campaign without their help!! They produced a shiny black briefcase, and when opened was stuffed with 100 dollar bills. David then dutifully transferred the money into his well thumbed brown case. He was charged with the unenviable task of keeping Duncan in check with regards to how and how quickly the production budget was spent. The TBWA Creative director shook our hands, and wished us luck with a very pained and nervous look in his eyes. The agency would not be seeing one single image until we returned. Whenever that was to be!!! The four of us then proceeded to head for Schipol airport and the long haul, courtesy of TWA to LAX and Air New Zealand to Auckland.

Duncan dressed in his usual big brass buckle denims, pointed cowboy boots and Texan style outdoorsman shirt, Lara in knee high leather boots and twiggy mini (she had the same model-esque skinny frame, and Kate Moss looks and intensity), David the producer in green Burberry parker and worn briefcase, and I dressed in Oxfam hand me downs (Dunc’s assistant wages were marginal to say the least ☺) we must have looked like a renegade pop group staking out our smoking seats at the back of the 747. Yes in those days smoking on board was a God given right, and we were all intent on puffing our way through a few more pouches of Van Nelle, all the while supping free beers and flicking ash on the carpet…..We got drunk on buds, high on scopoderm and giggled our way across the USA and the Pacific Ocean.

We arrived very bleary eyed to drizzle in the NZ capital. The signs were good. Rain. Bad weather! Perfect. Our next leg was a flight further south to Invercargill. A one-horse town imbued with a very wind blown appearance and host to drunken Maori harbor hands and craggy whiskey swilling oyster fishermen. Across the grey choppy waters was Stewart Island, the 50km wide channel, separating the two islands was Favaux straight, regarded by many a mariner as one of the most dangerous stretches of bad ass waters in the world. Duncan had brought us all the way to Hell’s Teeth. He was giddy with excitement. Laura cuddled up to him and cooed like a pussycat, David looked worried and I was positively smitten with fear. If any of the cameras or rain deflector failed, I’d would be getting my ass kicked.

We hunkered down in a bland 3 bedroom family house that smelled dank and looked unloved (owners gone north to find work). Now all we had to do was wait for a force 10, find fishermen willing to risk their boats and head to sea in a force 10, and most importantly find a helicopter pilot willing to fly us at less than wave height, backwards, into the wind and rain with doors open so Dunc could sit sheltered just inside the doorway with one foot on the skids shooting with his rain defector armed Nikons, all the while in a force 10.

We heard of a big storm brewing far off the coast and hurriedly recruited our bad ass subjects offering crates of whiskey in exchange for boats and bravery.

Then we found chopper pilot Bill Black. His forte was swilling Jack Daniels, puffing cheroots (while flying) and regarded by many in New Zeland to be the best pilot money could buy. A veteran of Vietnam he had further honed his flying skills air lifting carcasses out of deep ravines and dangerous crevasses during the massive deer culling operations endorsed by the government in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. What he didn’t know about flying was not worth knowing we were told. And he looked positively happy when asked if he could take us flying in a force 10.

Alas came our first 10. Abruptly. Aggressively. Forcefully. The seas swelled to 8 meter troughs. The sky blackened to the colour of jet, rain lashed the gunwales, and wind tore at our faces. We decided to try some onboard boat shooting first. Our small oyster boat with cramped bridge and slippery decks was no refuge for landlubbers like us. Before boarding I slapped on three extra scopoderms, trebled my hallucination capabilities, all the while taking safety harnesses, Duncs camera cases and rain deflector onto the rocking pitching tub of a boat.

Beyond the protection of the harbour wall the sea became remarkably rougher. Duncan and I stepped out of the relative comfort of the cramped captains bridge into a raging gale and lunging foredeck. Dunc clipped himself to some part of the anchor winch, and then wrestled with the deflector cape. Once ensconced inside he asked for his first camera. I loaded an F2, with film and then began to wretch. I passed the camera. Wretched again. Dunc began shooting and his concentration on getting the shot kept his mind of our circumstances and puke inducing roller coaster ride. I on the other hand charged with reloading cameras, marking rolls, trying to keep equipment dry head down and trying to balance and load, just puked in ever increasing frequency. Our sailor subject hung onto a buoy chain and feigned winching duties as gallons of salt water crashed all around him. Dunc got into his stride and bagged some great first shots.

The weather calmed, the sun came out, and Duncan and Lara decided to fly to Sydney for a few days to test process the first rolls of film (there were no reliable E6 processing in NZ in those days) and see the first pics. I got a call later from Dunc ecstatic “the pics are FCUK-ing amazing Rick”. He and Laura would hang a few days in Oz. With producer David up in Wellington visiting relatives, I had a few days reprieve to rest, clean and maintain gear, and fret about what lay ahead.

Next came the flying pontoon saga. Dunc and Lara wanted to shoot a racing yacht at full tilt, and so an idea was hatched that he would be strapped to the rear right bough of the double-hulled rubber duck while we chased and revved the Southern Oceans racer up and down the south island. Now under cape, tied bondage style to the rubber rear, incarcerated such that so he could not actually move, I envisaged a dunking of Dunc about to take place.

Dutifully I kneeled in the tossing and jostling pontoon, loaded cameras, passed them to him under his cape, and all the while he clicked away, I threw up!!!!

Then the pontoon skipper braked. He had to. We almost ran up and onto the deck of the speeding yacht, chasing in close proximity, at high speeds, with a sudden water surge pushing us dangerously close. Inertia upon slowing abruptly dunked the heavy twin 80 horsepower motors, and yes dunked Dunc with them. He was swallowed up in a great tide of incoming blue black Favauz straight sea water. I could hear loud expletives gurgling out of him as the water drained off. With his F2 camera waterlogged and his film ruined he was unbound and enraged. Back at the hotel, he cooked up an idea to attempt to dry out his cameras in the hotel oven. And at the end of it we had one cooked Nikon that was well errr hummm baked & destined for the O file. Or bin as its called in England. 1 Nikon down and 3 to go. Duncan consoled himself by rolling the biggest Van Nelle doubie he could muster.

Then came the chopper saga. Dunc requested he be winched out of a double door huey down towards if my memory serves me correctly a boat on the water. I think he envisaged some sort of flying superman stunt. I had a feeling something bad was going to happen. The entire team hitched a ride, for Huey’s are great fun. Lara sat upfront with the pilots. David sat rear clutching his briefcase. I kneeled mid cabin, loading cameras, while Duncan buckled into his safety harness and clamped himself to the side of the chopper. I handed him his Nikon F2, with his favourite 20mm lens and lens matt box with a Tiffen polarizer and two neutral density grad filters slotted affront. An expensive collection of specialized glass add-ons. He then disappeared overboard into the rotor wash and down out of sight. I prepped his second camera. Moments later I heard his roar!!!! A roar so loud that it momentarily drowned out the heavy beating and thump of the huey blades.

Seconds later his hair emerged doing a frenetic dance in the motor wash. Then a furrowed brow, followed by glazed and maddened eyes, and a wide open mouth, tinged with saliva and foaming words that could be discerned over the din, and interpreted very clearly as “you fucking prick I’m gonna.........."

I almost blacked out as I saw his hand arise with his Nikon gripped between large clenched fingers, the neck strap loosely flapping above his head. Christ! One strap cleat had come lose, and had he not been holding the camera at the time it would have gone tumbling down into the Pacific Ocean. His rage was such that I was convinced he was going to grab me by the scruff of my neck, drag me out of the door to greet him. And then..........let go!!!!

Alas, Dunc sucked on a Van Nelle, and eventually calmed down. The show had to go on, and with one drowned assistant, who was going to make cups of coffee, and ham sandwiches? Certsinly rated as the most awful moment of my entire assisting tenure I continue to contemplate today how that cleat could have come lose.

Meanwhile in forgiveness of one misdemeanor we commenced to criss-cross the islands of New Zealand for a further 2 weeks. Chasing storms, contour flying terrain and scaring sheep, all the while our voices getting courser as the effect of chain smoking Van Nelle took its toll. Our dependence and addiction to Scopoderm blossomed, we got cold, wet, and increased our intake of hearty Kiwi clam chowder and scotch. I had heart palpitations, Dunc was down to just 2 Nikons. David missed England. Lara was showing signs of a Van Nelle’s overdose too. Her voice a few octaves lower, her once English rose pale slender fingers tinged a lurid orange. But hell the pictures just got better and better…and I post a few here. Yes Dunc’s campaign won numerous awards. It was a trip I will never forget.

Ends.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 21

A Burnt out Case

By late 1988, I looked and felt like Duncan’s previous assistant Neil. Rather undernourished, frazzled, worn out. To borrow from the title of one of my favourite Graham Greene books, I was a burnt out case!

Working with Duncan had taught me a lot, and I would say that while we all have a different way of viewing the world, and therefore develop our own way of shooting, it was Duncan’s attitude, his intensity of character, the way he always pushed through to another level of production. Ultimately he strived for images that grabbed you by the balls, and that ethos he whacked into me. I still carry the echoes of his gravely voiced mantras about with me today. But by late ’88 I wanted to step out from under his heavy presence and go do my own thing. At least go do some traveling of my own.

For the last three months of 1988 and first three months of 1989 I assisted my former boss Kelvin Murray, who by now had left Tony and was a successful photographer in his own right. I took a short trip back home to South Africa for Xmas to see my family after a four year absence, and by March I was ready to set off for the Far East.

I had decided it was time to abscond from dreary London and go have an adventure. A big adventure. One with no set time frame. I had poured over maps of the world, and while my end goal was to visit a South African friend, Jeremy Pearce, who lived permanently in Hong Kong, I was considering Nepal, India, Thailand. Then one day I read about red steam locomotives that worked the sugar cane plantations of Negros Island in the Philippines. The more I read about this nation archipelago of some 10,000 islands the more it fascinated me. It was regarded certainly in those days as ‘off the beaten track’.

Yes the ‘Plips’ I thought as I sat in my rather gloomy bedroom, in a council flat in Stepney Green. A rather drab place I shared with Eric Paul A Lawson, a school chum from my previous life back in England before we emigrated to South Africa. Eric and I had been to Christ Church primary school together. As I sat and gazed through my rain splashed bedroom window, out into the dim half light of a February morning, I imagined the brilliant red loco’s chugging about in verdant green sugar cane fields, dark scrawny Filipino fork hands working the stacks of hewn cane, under a deep blue tropical sky. After lunch I headed into central London to buy my ticket to Manila.

That afternoon while taking a leisurely wander along the South Bank I witnessed something that to my mind signaled the end. The end of England as a place of abode. A sort of grim omen that my life had to play out in sunnier climes.

As I drew up parallel with the Royal Festival hall, I noticed an Indian man probably in his late 50’s casually stroll across the mud towards the river Thames. The day was dark, cold, grey, miserable. He waded into the freezing oily water. I stopped to watch him. I thought it mighty strange he was going paddling on a day like it was that day.

The next moment he was waist deep. And then he just dunked himself down into the water. And never resurfaced. I stood there numbed by what I had just witnessed. This man, incognito, knowing the strong currents of the river, had vanished. Silently. Sucked down into raw black oblivion. As I gazed at the slow undulating waters, and watched the traffic trundle along the opposite bank there was no hint of what had happened. Life just carried on as usual in the big grim! Myself prone to bouts of melancholy, and one who had grown up under an African sun, I realized then there was no future for me in England. That the weather would kill me too.

A week later, on another wet dark Tuesday morning, I rode the Jubilee line with my purple backpack strapped on, heading for Heathrow. I observed the commuters around me, dressed in damp black anoraks, their heads buried in a newspaper, and the same sense of elation I had felt flying out of England to South Africa in 1975 swept over me. A giddy relief that this was not my reality, the lousy London commute. I was heading for sunnier climes. For big adventures. I was heading to the tropics. And I probably would not be coming back. Certainly not to live here ever again.
 
The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking. 22.

Manik Manila. March 1989.

In much the same way I had abruptly fallen in love with photography while viewing the 2 dimensional representation of autumn foliage on Hampstead heath through the fresnel on a slide viewer, my love for SE Asia manifested in a similar way, through an aircraft window, another sort of Fresnel.

At 37,000 ft, the captain of our Philippine Airlines 747 informed us we had entered Vietnam airspace. I leaned over and pressed my face to the glass. Outside was a wondrous 3 dimensional view. Peering down through beautiful billowing cumulonimbus I saw great swathes of green. Dense jungle, and where the forest ended, verdant rice paddies began. The land looked wild, then tamed and fertile, then wild again and unlike anything I had seen before. Our aircraft crossed over Danang and then a ribbon of golden beach that tapered away northwards into a tropical haze. As we passed the boundary between land and water, the Dance of the Valkyries flashed through my head. My imagination ran wild. I was already in awe of the place I was heading.

As we flew out over the shimmering turquoise South China sea, I felt a twinge in my gut. I realized I was a long way from home. England suddenly seemed very distant. Interplanetary distant almost. I whispered under my breath. “welcome to the Far East Richard’. What I saw below me, water that resembled a vast cobalt lagoon, confirmed my notion that where I was heading was into the exotic. I sensed that I was probably going to be overwhelmed by what was to come. That it would change me. That I would fall under it’s spell and be forever unable to clamber from it’s grasp.

I stepped out of Manila airport into a very clammy night, humidity that was suffocating. I was confronted by a wall of small dark people who I guessed where there to greet relatives from abroad. Beyond them, I saw a phalanx of taxi touts, waiting vulture like for a disorientated traveler. Even better, a bleary eyed backpacker. I was mobbed.

For the first few nights I intended to sleep in a guesthouse. I did however have a girl friend of a girlfriend back in London to call once I had my orientation. Karen had told me over drinks along the Brompton road, “write to Julie, she’ll be more than happy to put you up while you’re in Manila”. In the mean time I was taxed with negotiating a fair taxi deal into town. It took a while but eventually I was in the back of a beat up Datsun heading where, I wasn’t sure. It had said Ermita in my notes.

Metro Manila sprawled and sprawled some more. Shanty town manic to the point of unreal. On the main thoroughfares traffic was at a standstill. It was way past midnight. We dodged down backstreets teeming with humanity and other life forms. Chickens and pigs scarpered about between the cars and the people. There was a lot of people. There was a lot of chickens and pigs, there was a lot of traffic. We ran besides fetid black creeks that wreaked of ammonia.

Once at the pension, I collapsed in a room with a single bed, a manky mattress and a ceiling fan. There were plenty of cockroaches! I didn’t care. I just wanted sleep. I dozed off to the sight of the whirring ceiling fan and awoke to the sight of the whirring ceiling fan. My watch read 4am. I had slept for a few hours. Once outside in need of fresh air, for the room had been stuffy and hot, I’d expected deserted streets. But instead kids ran about, folks flame grilled chicken, fried crispy pork, and open ended bench seat taxis called Jeepneys trundled past full of people. I thought “could this be real? Or am I hallucinating from the effects of spinning half way around the world”? Then I pondered, at this time, back in London, the dark sodium lit streets would be deserted. Eerily empty. “Why weren’t all these people in bed”? I asked myself. This was all so unexpected. It made me certain I was in another world entirely.

Manila was and still is regarded as one of Asia more risqué cities. A place that one instinctively walked about with caution. Filipinos are adept hustlers, they hustle you in your own language, which is not always a good thing. Because they can choose their words carefully, they can sweet talk you. I liked the edgy vibe. The heat made me drowsy, the great mounds of rotting stuff that was ditched along the pavements gave off a stench that tugged at my nostrils, and coated my throat. A fruity aroma that made me feel lightheaded.

And then there were the girls. Doe-eyed, with gorgeous silky black hair, gleaming white teeth and shiny coffee coloured skin, and who were, quite frankly, everywhere. Beckoning me from doorways or street corners with smiles and glances. I was tempted by the eastern promise of exotic pleasure. I was full of longing and fascination but equally unsure how to deal with the attention. For after all I was Asia freshman status, Asia uninitiated. It would take me at least a year to wise up to the heady bar girl scene. And then like many before me, head down the slippery slope, face first, towards the trappings that had and continued to be the ruination of many a good or bad man.

Yes, I would later learn hard lessons, that Asia had a way of reducing anyone with little self discipline or low moral fabric to a husk of their former self. Financially. Mentally. Spiritually. That it hoodwinked the unwary, tripped up the foolish and sent many of the less sensible back home either in handcuffs or even worse, a wooden box. But most certainly skint.

It was common that frisky US servicemen based at Subic on their R&R nights to Angeles City, after accepting a drink from a hazel eyed princess with a name like Angel in a bar called Heaven, would wake up naked in a paddy field, some way out of town! Minus their wallets of course. Yes, stupid white western males in Asia stories abounded. Tales so fabulously rich in folly, yarns so plentiful that there was an entire publishing industry devoted to the subject. But I had just stepped off a plane, and back then I was on a mission to find little red riding rooster trains. Coconut princesses were not going to deflect me from my mission. Nope they could wink and smile all they wanted, but they weren’t having me. Just yet!

I moved across to Julie’s place. She lived in Makati on the swanky side of town, if there was such a thing as a swanky side to Manila. Her condo was just off Edsa boulevard. Close to the bronze statue erected in remembrance of the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. Husband of Corazon Aquino, the 11th President of the Philippines and first woman to hold office (1986 to 1992). Benigno, a staunch critic of former despot Ferdinand Marcos was gunned down at Manila airport in 1986, returning after years of exile in the USA.

Julie regaled me with sordid Manila stories and told me to be careful down in Negros. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila was called Cardinal Sin. The name said it all. Manila. It was one crazy place. I would visit more than half a dozen times in later years and get myself into a few scrapes, but I never did have the fortitude or connections to head too far down into the barrios. That was the domain of fellow photographer Gerhard Joren. He should write his Manila memoirs. They’d make fascinating reading.

I said goodbye to Julie, took a taxi to Manila domestic airport. I was heading south across a few thousand islands for Bacolod city. Negros Occidental. The great SE Asia adventure had begun.


The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 23.

Coconut Trees & The journey to Matabas

Sitting in the obligatory window seat of the ATR turbo-prop, I had the quintessential view of emerald green islands dotted about in azure blue seas. I thought. I’m floating through Tropicana.

With the sound of the turbo prop I imagined Iwo Gima, and the battle of Guadacanal. I conjoured up images of Japanese Zero’s doing barrel rolls out of the sun. I thought about a postage stamp that my Grandma had in her collection that depicted the bust of a beautiful dusky tropical maiden, with an orchid set in her glistening black hair, set against a tropical sky and coconut trees. Ah coconut trees. There would be more of those where I was going. As we bobbed and bounced through clumps of tropical cloud I thought about the coconut trees I had seen along Manila bay. My first ever encounter with coconut trees. An important milestone in my life. Yip. A date with coconut trees. I saw them as an effigy to the good life. A symbol that life was sweet and warm and a fucking long way away from cold miserable England. And as we clipped the tops of coconut trees on our final approach into Bacolod city airport I thought, ‘welcome to Coconutville’.

Bacolod felt provincial after Manila. It was provincial. It was a bunch of streets surrounded by sugar cane fields and yes, coconut trees. I found a cheap pensione with a rooftop bar that looked across the piazza to a Spanish built church. It was where I sat at dusk, sucked on very chilled San Migules and watched the fruit bats flutter around the sugar palms. It was at the rooftop bar that I met Eric and Danny. Two fellas that sauntered over and introduced themselves. I told them I was looking for Red Steam locomotives. They informed me many of them had been decommissioned. Scrapped for a better word. I remember feeling a bit crestfallen upon hearing the news. I mentioned to them I had read about the practice of using dynamite to catch fish, an article that had caught my attention in the Bacolod Gazette. They mentioned Matabas island and that the inhabitants used dynamite. I asked if they could take me there. They said yes. I asked how much for their leadership. They said 100 pesos each. I said, “OK, let’s go”!

The next day we were at Bacolod bus station and aboard a 1960’s classic Mitsubishi, replete with open windows and wooden floor boards, the kind that are still the regular commute in Bangkok. In the Thai capital it would be golden Buddhas swinging from the driver’s rear view mirror, but in the Philippines it was Mother Mary. After a pleasant two-hour drive along winding country roads, rimmed by fields of sugar cane, we came to another provincial town. Smaller than Bacolod. 4 streets and a church. Here we flagged down three motorcycle trishaws. This time we set off along muddy roads that cut through the sugar cane. Breezes rustled the cane, and the sharp fronds made a cracking sound as the wind whipped into them. The sun beat down. I was enjoying the journey into the unknown. By late afternoon we had arrived at a small coastal town called Vito. Two streets and a church. The locals were very curious. It seemed they hadn’t seen any white folks in this neck of the coconut trees.

Eric negotiated our sea passage. It was aboard what is called a Banca in the Philippines. A boat with an oversized canoe shaped hull, supported with outriggers. The bamboo trestle system used left and right of the bough on the bigger craft or just on one side for a single person banca. The horizontal bamboo poles acted as buoyancy stabilizers skipping on the water as the boat rocked from side to side. Eric told me we would be departing for Matabas after dark.

Vito was the staging point for many of the outlying islands it seemed. There was a jetty lined with bancas stretching out into what could only be described as picture postcard crystal clear waters. I thought. ‘Bloody ‘ell. This really is Tropicana! I felt like Robinson Crusoe about to head off to his own version of ‘marooned on a desert island’.

They loaded lit oil lamps onto the banca, and other supplies. There were two other folks joining us, so I guessed this was sort of a scheduled departure. An inter-island commute. It beat the rain plastered 159 red routemaster from West Hampstead to Oxford street any day!

We chugged away under power from the big truck engine outboard welded to the back of the boat. The couple on board stared at me. I smiled back at them. Eric and Danny dozed off stretched across aft deck plates. The oil lamps were doused to encourage us all to sleep I guessed. I turned my attention to the star studded night. Before long the lights of Veto were distant, star-like, twinkling on the horizon. I watched enchanted as bioluminescent plankton flashed in the water as our boat jiggled forwards. This magical stuff, called sea sparkle, gave me a sense of just how clear the water was, for I could see pricks of light deep down. It reminded me of stars suspended in space. I dipped my hand over board and it was like holding sparklers on bonfire night. There was no toffee but the air smelled sweet. I felt suspended between the glittery heavens above and glittery depths below. ‘Dreams are made of this’ I thought.

Approximately 2 hours later I noticed a few distant lights ahead. I wasn’t sure if it was land or a boat. I was aware of movement behind me. Eric came over and told me we were closing in on Matabas. By this time the moon had risen and I could then begin to make out shapes on the horizon. Blobs of black lying flat against a pale, translucent undulating sea. As we closed in on the islands, I was aware that the sea floor was not far below us. The water was gin clear. I could see the coral beds in the moonlight. This was paradise found.

We simply ran aground on pearly white sand. I remember the bark of dogs. It must have been about 10pm. Set back behind the sand was a row of houses partly concealed by breadfruit trees. Breeze block, wood and tin structures. The couple stayed onboard. The boat was going on to another island.

Eric, Danny and myself walked the soft sand up to a blue door. The island was asleep. Danny knocked. There was a cough. I heard a child’s voice. Then the front door opened. A man in his late 50’s craggy looking and greying at the temples but possessing a kind welcoming face, smiled and beckoned us inside.

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 24.

Matabas. An introduction to Paradise.

I was first introduced to More Alegre, pronounced Moray Alegray. Then to his wife Inday who emerged from behind a door cut into a wood veneer partition with 8 of his 10 children. They all stepped down from the adjoining room that I later noticed stood on stilts. The whites of their eyes and brilliant teeth flashed against their sun dark skin in our lamplight. I guessed they slept together on the bamboo lattice floor I could see just ever so faintly in the darkness beyond the door. I had been told on the boat ride out by Eric that More had lost one child at birth and had two older sons living on the island, both married.

The welcome I received from the family was timid. I don’t think they knew how to react to this strange, tall, pink person standing before them barefoot with ginger facial hair and wispy golden stuff atop a beetroot red face. The youngest boy looked positively terrified. It was obvious to me that they hadn’t had someone as ‘weird’ looking as I in their midst. Ever.

Eric introduce me to each of them by name. Then three mats were thrown on the floor. It was bed time. I had brought an old army surplus store sleeping bag, designed for European winters, useless in the tropics, other than to be used as a portable mattress. I curled up on the bag, pulled the loose sheet I’d been given over me and fell asleep, to the sound of the sea washing up on the beach just outside the door.

I awoke to cocks crowing and the titter of children’s laughter. I was aware of eyes peeping through the petal shaped holes of the breeze block walls that surrounded me. It seemed word had travelled fast that an alien had arrived on the island. I stood up and the little eyes melted away. The family had slipped out very early I found out, on the water fishing, tending nets that sort of thing. Eric pushed open the front door and I stepped outside onto a path of compressed sand. It was then that I saw the crowd of kids. The entire island of youngsters had waited for my appearance. I thought this was what celebrity felt like!

Eric proceeded to take me around the island. I guessed no larger than 2 hectares. He told me that approximately 30 families lived on Matabas. Most of them sustenance fishermen. The main village was sort of L-shaped along one corner of the island. Nipa huts. Wooden structures with nipa leaf rooves. Where the nipa had been blown off by tropical storms, tin had replaced it. There was a small alter, an alabaster figure of Mother Mary and wooden benches. The village church, in village central. The islanders stopped what they were doing as my entourage strolled by. I waved. They waved back. I saw lots of pointing and the sound of Visayan been spoken. Tugalog was the national language of the Phillipines but in the Visyas, the geographic centre of the island nation, Visayan was the local dialect.

We passed beyond the village, and walked across a basket ball court. An open area of soft sand, with two nets on poles either end. Beyond that we came to a short avenue of coconut trees. While we made our way across the island, I would turn to look at my entourage. As soon as I made eye contact with the line of kids following me, they would giggle and all run off the path and back into the grass. I turned away. I could hear them creep back up behind me again. I whipped around. They shrieked and scarpered. This game went on for the first two or three days. I’d walk about like the Messiah with his line of devout followers. Disciples that ran away whenever Pink Jesus turned to talk with them.

Along the left flank of the island was mangrove and at the opposite end of Matabas, the furthest point from the village was a black rocky headland made of what looked like volcanic rock. And then there was the sea surrounding us. It had the colour of white wine in places, a pale tan hue where it lay shallow across open stretches of sandy areas. It turned light greeny blue over coral beds and where the terrain fell away sharply into deep water, the sea became a rich midnight blue. It was crystal clear. It looked enticing. I wanted a swim.

Back at the house to collect my swimming goggles, I was introduced to each of More’s kids again. Their names for the most have slipped my mind. But there was Dugong, the eldest son, a blast fisherman so more about him later. I remember Johnny his youngest child. Nunoy his 16 yr old boy, More’s regular companion on fishing trips. And I will never forget Maria- Fe Alegre his 15 year old daughter, who much later wrote me a letter after I had departed the island for Hong Kong. The airmail envelope arrived about 3 months into my new life. A few paragraphs written on a pink paper. Words that still choke me up a little. Lovely poetic scribbles that I will share later.

Regardless of their names this fisherman, his wife and 10 kids welcomed me into their world, and it was not long before I felt genuinely part of the family. The community. For they too slowly ingratiated me into their presence. Looking back on this experience, the two months I spent on Matabas, I don’t think there has been or ever will be a space in my life to allow me to equal the experience. It was also before mass tourism and how the digital era has made almost everywhere accessible. Probably by now the islands have tourist boats gate crashing in on them, but in those days I was genuinely a stranger in their midst. Older folks on the islands later told me, white people on these islands before me were US marines during WW2.

At 26 I was wide eyed and bushy tailed and on an open ended adventure. I had all the time in the world with nothing or no one beckoning me to move on. I was there, open to just parking off, and allowing their island existence to rub off on me. There were no phones on the island. News and information just travelled by word of mouth. Usually when the next banca arrived. The community was close. They sang together at night around open fires, the kids played games, made things. How it was before the internet and smart phones came along and fucked it all up! I enjoy delving back into these memories, because as far as I’m concerned they were better times.

I said to Eric. “Right can we go swim”?

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking Part 25.

Deaf & Dynamite

We swam out to some nearby moored bancas. It was midday and the sun was intense. A gaggle of kids stood on the shoreline and watched our progress out into deeper water. I had been given a pair of hand made wood and glass swimming goggles. They fit tightly around my eyes and while rudimentary in design they actually worked well. The clarity of the water was unlike anything I had encountered before. We frolicked about and intermittently climbed into one of the bancas. We lay in the sun, and when almost at boiling point, we just hopped back in the beautiful cool blue waters again.

I took a long deep dive down, to see how far I could go, and just as I resurfaced gasping for air, there was a sharp cracking sound and a shock wave in the water whipped at my legs. It was a sensation similar to been struck by a cane, a memory still vivid from school days. “Dynamite fishermen” Eric said. Thankfully, all of us, our heads above the water line had been spared burst eardrums. I was convinced the pressure shock would have injured us all. I felt both relieved and unnerved about just how lucky we had been. The thought of dealing with bleeding ears and searing pain, in this far flung place didn’t bear thinking about. I shrugged, thanked my guardian angel, the late great WF Dobson, and said to Eric, “we have been spared a lot of pain Eric, do they do this sort of thing regularly’? “Yes” he replied. I thought that was possibly why the kids had not bothered to come in after us. They knew what was going on out there in water that looked idyllic but harboured a menacing presence. Not sharks. But other humans. Eric, Danny and I were city folks and not fully aware of the risks we took. Our little sea outing had taught us a few things, and it was my introduction to the perils of dynamite fishing.

I began to investigate the connection the Matabas community had to blast fishing. Talking to elders I was told it was the left over ordnance and munitions from WW2 that spurned the idea. Far easier to lob a bottle full of dynamite at a shoal of fish that to lay nets and line. Especially in these clear tropical waters. Fish could be seen many meters below the surface. Huge shoals of mackerel and tuna.

The early experiments with powder mixtures and depth charges had devastating consequences. Death and maiming common place. The ingredients slowly evolved to a more readily available chemical. Ammonium nitrate, or common fertilizers, mixed with sawdust was compacted down into 1 litre glass soft drink bottles. By the time I reached Matabas, this was the mainstay arsenal with their war on fish.

The community was divided over it’s use. More Alegre disdained it entirely. He was fully aware of the devastating environmental impact it was having. Destroying coral beds at an alarming rate and with it fish breeding habitats. Catches were declining. He lamented the sorry state of affairs, but was powerless to stop the distribution of a commodity tightly controlled by corrupt local officials, police and gangsters. His eldest Son Dugong was an avid user, and his attempts to encourage him to return to the line and nets used for millennia were in vain. Dugong was not interested. He wanted a quick fix solution.

More would employ what was called the Kitang. A wicker basket that contained many meters of filament and baited hooks clipped into the lip of the basket. Once at sea the long line would be set from the boat. Traditional techniques were in decline. Blast fishing was on the increase.

I ventured out on a number of blast fishing sorties. Usually aboard one of the bigger bancas that was more suited to longer range missions and to work deeper water. There would be a spotter on the prow of the boat. His trained eye could see shoals way down. Flashes of silver fish below sun sparkled waters. It was a skill that took some time to learn. Once a shoal had been spotted the ‘bomber’ would join the spotter…the boat captain would gun the engines up to full speed. The banca would chase down the shoal. The ‘bomb’ fuse lit, the bottle tossed overboard.

Boom. A huge mushroom of water would erupt from the surface. The ‘collectors’ would don goggles, grab their nets and plug a length of flexible hose into their mouths that was connected to an air compressor. A rudimentary scuba regulator to say the least. Down they would go to collect the dead fish. A highly effective killing spree I thought. Nothing was spared. Literally anything within the blast radius was blitzed. Corals, sea ferns, turtles. A shameful practice. And one that in those days the government seemed powerless to stamp out.

I left the island in mid 1989. It was an emotional goodbye. I had grown very fond of the Alegre’s and the people of Matabas. I left More and his family feeling genuinely concerned about their future given the ongoing environmental calamity been metered out by the short sighted folly of blast fishing.

Alas I haven’t yet returned. I think there might be some semblance of a film concept. Going back some 30 years later. Taking with me the pictures I made of them all at that juncture of their lives. Certainly identifying the kids who by now are middle aged. That should bring squeals of laughter to those that still remain on the island. More and Inday could well be dead. Maria Fe, then 15, will now be 43. The thought seems almost uncanny. Her own kids will be in their teens and even early 20’s. Another sobering thought.

I will leave you with the words Maria-Fe penned to me in a letter that arrived some months later at the Lamma island post office, Hong Kong. I had sent a short letter back to Matabas, thanking them all for their wonderful hospitality. I didn’t expect a reply. By the time Maria’s letter arrived I was busy with my new life in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. Swept up in the hectic pace of life in the big city. To receive this letter from Maria and what she wrote, choked me up. I guessed then she might have fallen a little for the Pink Jesus.

I do want to go back. Find out what happened to Maria Fe Alegre. Her life, her destiny. How it has panned out!

17-8-1989

Dearest Richard,

The sun no longer gives it’s brilliant rays when I began to recall a letter from abroad reaches in our lonely and deserted place.

Hello! How is life getting along? Is it fine? I hope so. As for me by the aid of our heavenly father, I’m alright the same as usual. I received your letter and I feel very happy. How I miss you so much. You know we are always longing and yearning for your return here in the island.

Love always
Maria Fe Alegre & Family

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking  Part 26.

Hong Kong (chapter 1) - Hold on here comes Kai Tak.

Nothing quite prepares you for Hong Kong! No matter how many picture books you see, or how many Jean Paul Van Damme, Bruce Lee or Jacky Chan movies you watch. You have to be there, in it, to fully understand what Hong Kong does to your senses.

To my mind only one other city, New York, equals in the ‘buzzed’ stakes. Both share a high-rise hegemony. Both are unashamedly welded to the pursuit of money. While Hong Kong might not be imbued with a skyscraper architecture and design legacy to equal the Big Apple, it certainly beats it hands down in terms of geographical splendor. For Hong Kong is built on mountains and sea and is in fact a vast islands archipelago. The Chinese worship money like no other, so while New York does sleep, Hong Kong doesn’t. It vibrates 24/7 from the rattle of cash registers. Both cities have an intense energy about them. But I would say Hong Kong takes the number one spot in terms of sheer dynamic energy flow.

What I knew about Hong Kong and particularly China prior to my arrival could be summed up as such. Hong Kong: The place where they made the little cheap tin and enamel painted dinky cars that I bought as a kid in England, and which had ‘made in Hong Kong’ stamped on the bottom. China: Mao Zedong. I knew that he was a funny looking fella, with bad teeth and a silly haircut, wore rather drab suits and was responsible for the calamitous ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution. Beyond that I hadn’t the foggiest about either. And Tiananmen Where? Oh Tiananmen Square. Where is Tiananmen Square? It’s in Peking! Where is Peking? And so the story goes.

My arrival into Hong Kong airport was a white knuckle affair. All of us on the plane I think were convinced we were about to crash into lots of buildings. I certainly was contemplating adopting the brace position. Nobody had told us about Kai Tak. In summary. A very very busy international airport sandwiched on a tiny spit of land between Victoria harbor and Kowloon, one of the most densely populated precincts on earth. Added to the pilots list of many things to avoid while on finals to the single runway jutting into the jade green waters of Kowloon bay, was Lion Rock. A line of towering craggy granite that rimmed the Kowloon peninsular and almost bumped up against the perimeter fence on the airport’s left flank. As a result, planes had to approach at 90 degrees to the run-way, parallel to the mountains and then literally at the last minute, above the rooftops of Kowloon, do a fierce right turn.

Our 747 wing dipped at an angle that would suggest to most passengers on all other airport approaches that, ‘aaarrgg we’re crashing’!!!!! I gripped the hand rest convinced we were actually now flying between the buildings and not over them. This has always been regarded as an exaggeration by most folks hearing about landings at Kai Tak. But honestly! As I squinted down the wing tip it seemed inches from the apartment windows and I could actually see people inside eating bowls of noodles. Welcome to Hong Kong Kai Tak style!

I was met by my South African friend Jeremy Pearce and his Chinese fiancée Monica and they immediately took me from the airport for a meal in Tsim Sha Tsui. I was flabbergasted. After walking through the entrance of a rather innocuous building, and into an elevator with dull grey doors, 9 floors up, we stepped out into a cavernous room full of people. Rows of circular tables covered in dim sum baskets and plates, cups, bowls, and teapots. The place was like a mad house. Women with trolleys, served stuff, throwing stuff onto tables. Waiters refilled teapots. The gabble of Cantonese at fever pitch. Lines of folks waited for tables. We were ushered down to the far end of what I would describe as a gigantic dining hall. There were golden dragon motifs on the walls. Some strange big fish swimming about in tanks. Were they to eat or for display I wondered?

Our table had been pre-booked. At once, waiters appeared from 4 quadrants. All tasked with different duties. They brought menus, placed peanuts in a bowl, washed the eating utensils in hot tea, cracked open the wet wipes packet. Threw live prawns into a pot of boiling water on a strange spinning glass disk thing at the centre our table. They slopped crab soup into our bowls. Poured tea into cups and made sure it splashed and dribbled all over the nice white table cloth.

Once we had begun eating I enjoyed watching my hosts spitting little chicken feet bones onto the table cloth. Pulling fine fish bones out from between their teeth and dropping those on the table cloth too. In fact everything went onto the table cloth. Something Mum had drilled into me from an early age. “don’t make a mess on the table cloth Richard’. I thought this was great. And before long I was enjoying spitting the half chewed contents of my mouth onto the white linen. Say morning glory fibers that I could not chew fine enough. There was also the fun of spreading cartilage around a bit. Like crab bones, prawns skins, bits of pigs ear, maybe a parsons nose or two. Heck I was even allowed to gob a big goobie, into a silver bucket on the floor, under the table mid meal if wanted to. Wonderful I thought. I could now abandon all the silly table manners drummed into me as a kid, make a complete and utter pig of myself and everyone would be all smiles. Welcome to Hong Kong.

We drove from Kowloon to Central by the ubiquitous Toyota Crown taxi. There are black London cabs. Yellow New York taxis. Well Hong Kong has red Crowns. It took me a while to get used to the lie of the land and to understand that Hong Kong was actually an island facing Kowloon. To get to Hong Kong from Kowloon you either crossed the harbor by the Star Ferry or if driving you took one of the two tunnels. (now there are 3 cross harbor tunnels). We arrived at the central ferry terminal. Jeremy explained that Lamma Island where he and Monica lived was a 45 minute ride from Central. “Don’t miss the last ferry back at 11:20pm” Jeremy warned me. “otherwise you have a long wait for the first one out in the morning”. (I would miss countless evening ferries over the years from drunken shenanigans in Wan Chai bars and discos, sleeping under tables until daybreak, but that’s another story).

The ferry ride out to Lamma was magical. We chugged past countless other water craft. Small 20 seater passenger hovercraft, that skipped and bounced across the choppy waters of the Victoria harbour. I saw a great big red and white thing called a Jetfoil that sounded like a 747 taking off. It moved at speed, raised out of the water on stilts, trailing a large plume of water behind it. It looked like something ouit of ‘War of the Worlds’. It was heading for Macau I was told. We passed countless other ferry boats of various shapes and sizes. Once past the end of Hong Kong island and Kennedy Town, and the Vietnamese boat people detention centre on Green Island, we maneuvered between gargantuan cargo boats moored in the East Lamma channel. Further away I could make out an island with a rather tall looking mountain in the middle and three chimney stacks rising from a thin tapered ridge. “That’s Lamma island” Jeremy said.

I looked around me at the passengers on the ferry. There was more than a sprinkling of foreigners in amongst the Chinese. I asked why this was so, and Jes told me Lamma was a favourite residential retreat for a rather bohemian sect of westerners. “There’s a heady mix of teachers, artists, musicians, photographers, journalists, alcoholics, dope fiends, hillbillies. You will feel right at home Rich”. 3 years later I was still there
 
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