richard mark dobson HUB
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

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 27

The Lamma island ferry was a treat. A clunker of a boat, called the How Man Tin, two decks, made of a rough cast iron. The hull painted black. And then white from there on up. Upper deck was sealed and air conditioned. Sort of. Lower deck sweaty and noisy. For at the back the engine room doors were flung open to let some of the heat and fumes out. It was a noisy ride!

A bunch of shirtless sweaty gweilos (foreigners/westerners) we're gathered aft and since they were besides the engine room they were shouting at each other over the din. In between screams and laughter they would suck on cigs, swill cans of chilled San Miguel, and flick cigarette ash into the prop wash over the low grey cast iron rim of the stern guard rail. I do seem to recall hearing over the years about more than one drunken gweilo, while sitting on the aft rail, losing his balance and disappearing into the frothy greasy harbour waters. In all honesty, after settling into Lamma life, it didn't take me long to become one of the beer swilling, cig sucking sweating gweilos down the back.

As our ferry chugged out into Victoria harbour, it belched great plumes of diesel smoke. Because of the boats rather short funnel, the soot, instead of dissipating into the hazy summer sky, whipped through the side windows and had us all feeling a little giddy. It didn't matter to me, I was just enjoying the trip (excuse the pun).

As we cleared the edge of Kennedy town and ran between the headland to our left and the Vietnamese boat people detention centre that rimmed the little green island, called Green Island, to our right, the great expanse of the jade coloured sea of the East Lamma channel stretched out before us. I marveled at the flotilla of gargantuan cargo ships moored in the deep water, and there on the horizon, replete with towering Mount Stenhouse and two large chimneys from the China Light and Power-station was the place that was to become home for the next three years. Lamma Island!

Jes, Monica and I, stepped off the ferry onto a raised concrete jetty that ran on stilts until it hit island proper some 100 yards ahead. To my left across a stretch of sea there was a rocky promitory, with a small Chinese temple. In the adjoining cove was an assortment of stilt houses and sampans. A fishing village. Tanka peoples I learned later. To my right as we wandered the pier was Yung Shue Wan bay with an assortment of leisure craft bobbing in murky brown waters. The dragon boats caught my eye as did one rather ramshackle looking wooden yacht. More akin to a Chinese junk, moored away from the rest. Later I was told, it belonged to a red haired bearded American recluse called Hunter.
As we entered the small village past a few Chinese restaurants, the 'island bar' stood out. It was full of reasonably genteel looking gweilos, quaffing litre jugs of ale. A little further into the village we passed another drinking establishment. This time 'The Corner bar', not on a corner at all but tucked off to the left, besides an abandoned old Chinese shophouse along the Yung Shue wan main street. Full of rather ungenteel hairy hippie gweilos, who besides quaffing buckets of lager, were rolling doobies. It was a raucous place and needless to say it became my place of insobriety. The corner bar was where we hippie Lamma-ites got trashed. Monday to Sunday. Repeat!

Just as the village path did an abrupt 90 degree turn to the left, there was a small butchers shop on the corner. Hanging from three hooks were ghastly chunks of ropey looking meat. The place had a rather rancid smell and it was to become a point of reference for all us gweilos on the island. We took our directional cues from the stinky butchers shop. "You know where the stinky meant shop is"? "Yes I do". "Then the Lancômbe seafood restaurant is just along the lane to the right of the stinky meat shop". "To the right of that!". "Turn left at the stinky meat shop". "Straight ahead from the stinky meat shop"......etc etc.....
Oh yes the stinky meat shop! I had not really seen anything like it before, and it was to become the precursor for many many more stinky meat shops I would see on my travels in China over the coming years. But besides slabs of greasy pork, it could be spotty pink cow tongues or worse. Fly covered dog? Meat? No surely not. "Are those gnarly hairless things hanging upside down on hooks dogs"? I would ask myself! Jesus Christ they are dogs. Bloody 'ell! Noooo. Yes. Those were early days for me in Asia. Over time one just got used to seeing things in Asian food markets that we in the West would coo over in pet shops. Heck China in the early 90's had a habit of turning my stomach. I was an Asia newbie. Lots to learn. Tiananmen where???

Another thing I had noticed about Lamma as I followed Jes and Monica up a gentle incline away from the stinky meat shop was the dearth of cars. In fact there were none. Instead there were a few lawn mower engine powered buggies. Long and slim so they could travel the narrow concrete islands pathways. Two small seats up front and an open carrying box at the back. It was with these that the locals shunted produce about the island. Car-less, Lamma beyond the main village was a heavenly peaceful place.

Jes told me we were heading to Yung Shin Yeah beach. About a 15 minute walk. Already in the humid summer heat, I was wilting. We marched and sweated profusely to the shrill of cicada beatles. Passed groves of banana and papaya trees. There was lots of jungly undergrowth. Elephants ear, clumps of bamboo. It all felt very exotic. Lamma had its own smell. That of fish paste and rotting vegetation.

Jerry's place was a neat and tidy newly built single level 2 bedroom apartment overlooking a pretty beach, and afforded great views of Mount Stenhouse off to the left. Brooding and craggy looking, Stenhouse at 350m tugged at my mountaineering spirit. It would be some monthS before I stood upon her summit. I settled in the spare bedroom for two weeks while I looked for my own place. Each morning and evening I soaked up the beauty of the surrounding area from the vantage point of Jes's outside verandah. A Chinese fishing junk would come chugging daily into the cove, dragging a big fishing net behind it from outrigger poles that stuck out like wings. The shape of the junk, the jade green sea, the palm trees and the milky skies. I loved this corner of the island, my daily swims. As fate would have it, less than a year later I would have my own apartment a little further up the hill behind Jerry with even better views.

England and South Africa seemed like a million light years away. And they were. I was fitfully aware that deepest darkest China was just over the horizon. And that made me feel giddy. China was a place with a million strong marching army I had read as a young boy in England. That was sometime way back in 1973. Mao was still alive then. I never forgot the photo. Lines of soldiers tapering off into infinity. A sea of green jackets and caps emblazoned with a red star. They looked menacing in their profusion. Scowling, slanty eyed fellas with strange looking machine guns. Goodness. China was just over them hills......i felt a twinge of apprehension every time the thought crossed my mind.

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 28.

I needed a job. My 4 months in the Philippines had bled me dry financially. Monica, Jes's Chinese wife showed an obvious dislike to the idea of me been around their house for too long. She didn't say it, but she gave me a look each morning that spoke of 'so when are you leaving Richard'. I needed work and I needed a place to stay. Fast.

I had only two decent shirts. And I was to find out very quickly that in summer humid Hong Kong you didn't dump your clothes in a pile in the laundry basket. I did, and my decent job interview shirt number one sprung some God awful rust colored mould blotches all over it within 24 hours. Needless to say it went from the laundry basket to the bin.

Metaphorically speaking some dark clouds were gathering up there in deepest darkest China. In Peking to be exact. Events that would indirectly help me to secure lots of English teaching work. I didn't know it yet, but the massacre that happened within three weeks of my arrival, would send shock waves through Hong Kong. In less than 9 years, the British were handing its citizens back to China, and the violence unleashed upon helpless students in Tiananmen square, would cause widespread panic.

Hong Kongers wanted to secure homes elsewhere. Canada and Australia been the destination of choice. To get in they needed to learn English. And to fill the clamor for language proficiency, a zillion fly by night English schools sprang up literally overnight, the day after the massacre. It was therefore easy peasy to find work as a native English speaker. My employment prospects proliferated once the guns opened up in Beijing.

Remember I had zero insight or knowledge of China and having been cut off from any form of news while ensconced for months on a little tropical island in the Philippines I was naively unaware of what was brewing in the Chinese capital. People in Hong Kong were intensely preoccupied with the news. I was made aware of this principally by the fact that a pretty Chinese girl I had got to know on the Lamma ferry, showed skant interest in my offers of a boozy night at the Corner Bar. Her mind obviously was far more interested in going home to tune into news feeds from radio RTHK than lusty advances from a 'I want an Oriental babe' sweaty gweilo, who couldn't even pronounce Tsim Sha Tsui properly.

Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 29

Lamma was a place where one made friends easily. Everyone congregated in the village. The pubs, the restaurants, and each ferry ride was another chance to sit next to someone and strike up of a conversation. This was of course was well before smart phones came along and dumbed everyone down. I made so many good friends, all of whom are friends today, that I would say without a doubt Lamma was, besides school days, a soul mate incubator. I will be mentioning some but not all of those Lamma soul mates. Best try to describe them as I know or remember them, and will then wait for the law suits to roll in 😉

I will introduce these friends not necessarily in the order that I met them, but rather as I write, the ones that the memories burn brightest. I have a memory like a sieve so I just pluck out the vivid memories first and attempt to coax out more details as I sit and think about great times had over 30 years ago now!

Yes long tall glasses of chilled San Miguel quaffed at the corner bar, became a crux. A daily necessity. The cold beer on hot summer nights quenched the thirst, loosened the tongue. The Corner bar crowd were way cooler and avant guarde than the stuffier expaty crowd at the island bar. So the Corner bar became my second home.

One night I sat down on the outside terrace besides an Indian chap. He called himself Rana. He had dark heavy eyelids that drooped over big watery blood shot eyes. Above his top lip was a scraggly moustache, and while balding on the top, long black waxy hair cascaded around his ears and brushed his shoulders. He sucked on Malrboros and had two boxes ready, one on top of another, in front of him.

Rana introduced himself with a handshake and a laugh that came from a thin mouth with uneven teeth, and a large head which instead of wobbling from side to side in typical Indian tradition, bobbed up and down. He looked stoned. Not long after we got talking, he whipped out a little bank packet of green stuff and proceeded to roll a doobie. He offered me one. I declined. Dope just didn't agree with me I said. He told me he was in the banking business. I chuckled. He looked so un-banker. Ok it was the weekend. His day off, and in his Black Sabbath T-shirt he spoke of his true love. That of music. Later he would show me his most amazing collection of home recorded music cassettes. Stuffed into a nondescript black suitcase. Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Procal Harum, (many years later when we parted company, he was heading abroad, he gave me half his collection in that very same case. I still have those tapes today).

Yes Rana was a music aficionado and lived for vibes, ganga, beer and marlboros. Oh and did a bit of number crunching Mon-Fri. His other vice was his tall Chinese girlfriend called Michelle. Needless to say, we became best of friends and later shared a flat together in Hung Shin Yeah. Rana rolled marley joints from dawn until dusk and I spent rather a lot of time at home, like a demented housewife, going around with a broom and dustpan, sweeping up spent matches and doobie ash. Oh those were the dayzzzz 🙂

Our flat had one and half bedrooms, so we took it in turns swopping, usually when our respective girlfriends came around and we needed a bigger bed 🙂 for the half room had only a squeaky camper. Rana regardless of which room he lay in, would ensure he had rolled at least two king size marley joints before he wheezed his way out bed. But I'm jumping the gun a bit here. It would be almost a year before the two of us found our dream marijuana, booze love nest with lofty views of the South China Sea. Before then we parked off in an assortment of low rise cheap digs up and down the length of Yung Shue Wan. All within stumbling distance to the coroners errr hum sorry the Corner Bar.

Behind the Corner bar, in an annex to the left, was another drinking establishment I seemed to remember we called the Triad bar. It was where wiry, dark skinned Chinese buggy drivers covered in dragon tattoos used to congregate, sing karaoke in the company of a few beautiful girls with the complexion of ivory. It was quite common for a bit of cross pollination between bars it seemed. Triads in the Corner bar for a carlsybag (carlsberg) and we in their place for some canto pop and ice cold Tsing Tao's. Whether these guys were actually triads or not, a couple of them looked quite menacing, and rumor had it that occasionally they might take offense to some obnoxious drunken gweilo and give him a good hiding. The rumors hadn't yet drifted my way, and I was in the habit of smiling and winking at one particular triad bar beauty called Sam. My advances were beginning to get rather brazen until the only regular in there without tattoos wandered over to my table one evening and in reasonably good English told me that to continue gazing, waving and winking at Sam, would result in the probability of the Lamma police dredging me out of Yung Shu Wan bay. One piece at a time. Needless to say I stopped winking at Sam.

Ironically during one of the very few nights I was getting shit faced at the Island bar, the triads for reasons still unclear, ran into the Corner bar with knives, and cut a few gweilos. Rana was one of them. He and a few others had been taken to the little emergency clinic and stitched up. When I passed by on my way home, to my surprise he was sitting ashen faced in his shirt stained heavily with dark clotted blood, drinking a beer and sucking heavily on his Marlboro. Around him the bar staff were sweeping up broken glass and rearranging the furniture. From that point on relations between the two communities of practicing alcoholics chilled somewhat (excuse the pun) and we decided it might be best to stay away from the Triad bar for a while. Needless to say, not long after that violent incident the place closed for good.
 
Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 30

One early Sunday evening I was sat alone scrutinizing the menu at a restaurant that sits boldly at the junction of Yun Shue Wan high street and a path that takes you up over hills to the east side of Lamma island. I forget the eateries name, but it was later dubbed 'the jelly beef restaurant' by one of the gentleman I'm now going to introduce. You see as I sat there trying to decipher which particular dish corresponded to which picture, as I certainly couldn't read Chinese, two lanky gweilos sat down at a table next to me, talking in what sounded like American accents. In friendly yankee fashion the taller blonde one threw a comment my way. 'The deep fried squid is good' he quipped. We got chatting and I hopped across to their circular table. Brent and Steve were Americans indeed.

Brent with great bushy eyebrows, fair hair, and a narrow handsome face, told me he was from an obscure Pacific Northwest town called Wenatchee, sort of well inland from Seattle and usually buried under 5 meters of snow in the winter. Steve darker, scruffier, a Jewish New Yorker I seem to recall, had a beaky nose, large adam's apple befitting his Big Apple status and a bit of a stutter. I thought he was rather Seinfeld-ish. Albeit less funny. Steve laughed a lot at Brent's jokes. I did too. You see Brent was wickedly funny. Not in the mornings however, for as our lives settled into the early dash for the outbound ferry, I would see him striding towards the pier, with a South China morning post tucked under his arm, a cup of coffee in hand. I'd throw him a wave or a 'good morning' and Brent would pretend not to see or hear me. I soon learned he was not to be bothered early mornings. Best left alone to quaff his coffee and hide within the pages of his newspaper. The evening ferry rides home were a different story altogether however. By the time we reconvened down the back of the ferry, clasping cold San Migs, Brent was back to encouraging good conversation, joviality, throwing us amusing anecdotal references to the idiosyncrasies of HK living, politics or the ways of the Chinese. He planned to study Mandarin he told me one afternoon.

The beef friend rice arrived on the table. We all took a scoop. We masticated on the rubbery meat for quite a while, and then Brent quipped with a dead pan face. It's jelly beef man! From that day on, it was the jelly beef restaurant. And it’s still there today!

I shared a flat with Brent and Steve for a little while. Just up the hill from the stinky meat shop. Their character differences were made more apparent living in close proximity. Brent was tidier. His room, like mine was a made bed. His door thrown open. He liked the communal spirit of the lounge. Steve by comparison seemed to enjoy living in the perpetual gloom, behind a closed door in an extremely untidy curtained bedroom. In fact it was knee deep in dirty underwear, crusty socks and sweat stained t-shirts. Yes Steve's room was a bit of a health hazard, so we kept out.

I did like teasing Brent about his shoes. Still do in fact. I kinda sensed Brent was one of those less inclined to tie his shoelaces, so he preferred to slouch around in slip on type Hush Puppies. He still quizzes me today. "what's a hush puppy Rich"? Maybe in America they were called something else. Anyway, Brent's Hush Puppies were a sort of dull grey brushed suede. He never brushed them. They had a foamy spongy sole, which facilitated a stealthy exit when he saw someone coming he didn't particularly want to talk to. Me included when I was teasing him about his Hush puppies or before he'd had his morning coffee. Yes Brent moved about Lamma noiselessly in his loafers, asking lots of questions, admittedly looking like the journalist that he was. Long sleeved shirt with thin red lines running vertically, grey flannel trousers with shiny black belt and silver buckle, a couple of biros popped in the top pocket of his shirt. If he wasn't carrying a SCMP he might be clutching a fresh copy of 'Arrival', the magazine he edited. When many months later they did a lousy layout job with my photos, not because of Brent, but because of an incompetent graphic designer, I called it 'Departed' and vowed not to let them publish my pictures again. I think I did though, I always needed money. Regardless of Arrival or Departed, these were heady days for magazine publishing in Hong Kong, and while I was still out seeking work as an English teacher, I was beginning to think about presenting a portfolio of my pictures I'd shot in the Philippines, to the then editor of Asiaweek, Mr David Smith.
 
The Pros and Cons Hitchhiking 31

On June 4th the guns opened up in Beijing. I still didn't have all the pieces to this political jig saw puzzle worked out. The timelines and events leading up to the event. I wasn't that aware of why the students where demonstrating albeit the thrust of the protest was that they wanted more democracy. Peking seemed like a million miles away from where I stood, personally speaking, but right on the doorstep for all the citizens of Hong Kong. Events in Beijing were a huge emotional roller coaster ride for many of the older generation citizens who had fled China during the horrors of the cultural revolution. They didn't need reminding of the brutally that could be metered out on the whims of communist party apparatchiks The psychological peace of mind given within the British protectorate was going to come to an abrupt end at midnight on July 1st, 1997. Just 8 years away. And while that seemed like half a lifetime away for me, not so for the more pragmatic and fatalistic Chinese. For they knew China's history was written in blood and gazing back across its borders from the sanctuary of Hong Kong the killing of innocent, unarmed students was a clear message that the regime in Beijing had no scruples about adopting old principles to contain what they perceived as a threat to stability. Divide and rule. Kill or be killed. Hong Kongers were understandably panicking and the clamor to set up an escape plan, in the form of English language skills and homes in Vancouver or Sydney began in earnest that day.

I found a job at Mr Lau's in Wanchai. 5th floor on a nondescript building just east of the MTR station on Johnston road. Mr Lau was a squint fella, with a disingenuous grin. He could see a mug when he saw one. He offended me HK$30 an hour ($4) teaching conversation English, "to all ages" he told me. Classes were 4-10pm. Yup. 6 straight hours of work for the princely sum of US$24. It sounds a ludicrously low sum now, but in those days it was enough to get by on.

It didn't take me long, after teaching a few attractive female office girls wanting to improve their spoken English, that there were obvious perks to the job that I hadn't originally anticipated. The men and kids to be honest were a bit of a chore. I felt satisfied that I was helping them possibly secure a rosier future, through improving their English skills, but it was only when a 20 something female appeared before me at the start of a new hour, did I get seriously motivated. I decided ' HOW TO MOAN IN ENGLISH' should become the main focus to my lesson planning. One on one in little cubicles. It was all very convenient.

Lesson plans evolved in real time, according to the beauty and relationship status of the particular cute looking student.
Social etiquette and greetings lesson plan.

Q. Hello how are you. What is your name?
A. My name is Flora. I'm 24 years old
Q. What do you like to do on your weekends?
A. I like to go shopping, eating and swimming.
Q.. Do you like to do your hobbies with your boyfriend?
A. Hihihi I'm single
When the answer to question 3 was 'I'm single', I would then switch folders and open the 'excursion to Lamma Island English survival travel grammar course planner'.
Q. Do you like seafood?
A. Yes I do
Q. Do you like swimming in the sea?
A. Oooh yes I love it.....

And so the questions progressed.....

My first excursion field trip to Lamma English practical student was a petit lass who sold insurance and lived in Kowloon Tong. Her name was Doris Ho. She had short cropped silky black hair, freckles, golden suntanned skin, muscular legs, and arrived at the Lamma ferry pier in a mini skirt. As we sat on the ferry and chugged island bound, she sat close to me, a little shy perhaps but her naughty giggle made me feel confident enough to suggest after our swim we go back to my place to look at my terrapins!! "What's a terrapin" she tittered? "Ah terrapins Doris. They are like little turtles, that swim about in my fish tank. They are ever so cute". I grimaced, wondering how I would explain the absence of terrapins once we arrived back at my scruffy bachelor pad. Thinking alcohol might do the trick, after out afternoon swim, I plied her with frosty San Miguels, over delicious helpings of deep fried squid at the Lancombe
Seafood place that overlooks Yung Shue Wan harbour. Great spot, great food. Great heart softener. By the end of the meal she was tugging at my arm to go look at those terrapins 🙂
 
Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 32

Tiffany wrecked my philandering plans. For less than a month into flirting at Mr Lau's, a fellow teacher, a Scottish girl called Joan, stuck her head in my cubicle one afternoon, and said her student had a sister wanting English lessons. Joan introduced me to Eric, a bespectacled young man with pointy ears and impish face. He reminded me of a pixie. Eric handed me a creased, faded print. A photo of a girl. I looked at her image, and instantly knew she was going to become a big big part of my life. Ironic indeed that 30 years after been handed that wrinkled print, Tiffany Lam and I are still best of friends.

I lost interest in all my other female students. All I could think about was meeting the girl in the photo. My first lesson with Tiffany was arranged through Eric. It was agreed, 3pm, Saturday afternoon, at the entrance to the Hong Kong university on Caine road, mid levels, at the foot of the steps opposite the Pentecostal church.

I remember it was a hot sunny afternoon. I sweated as I waited. Sticky from the heat. Sticky from anticipation. I realized how stupid this was. Nervous feelings arising as if on a first date. I had to keep reminding myself this was nothing more than an English lesson, and my student would be expecting an engaging lesson and nothing more. Then I saw her coming. Goodness. It really was love at first sight! I was smitten and she hadn't even greeted me yet!

She was tall, gangly, and dressed in shorts. The first thing I noticed were her long tapered athletic tanned legs. She had a tom-boyish demeanour that I found attractive. She introduced herself in a tone of voice that was soft and sexy. She had a bouncy, nervous energy that I liked too and she sprang up the steep line of steps into the University like teenager. Her long slightly permed brown hair danced around her shoulders and she pranced. She was overtly friendly, even grabbing my arm to drag me up the steps behind her. I was mesmerized by her personality, and looks.

She wore a flattish, slightly oblong shaped face, which might usually suggest ugliness, but not on Tiffany however. With turns of her head, to my eye, she oscillated between attractive to down right gorgeous. Her small nose, perfectly shaped lips, and wide eyes all fit together perfectly, and her golden tan suggested to me she was the outdoorsy type. Her cute girlie satchel added to her appeal. She told me later she was 26, but seemed way younger. We settled into two comfort chairs in the public mezzanine opposite the student canteen on the West wing of the University, to begin our first lesson.

From that point on, my love affair began. She wasn't aware of it yet, but I had made up my mind, I was going to chase her to the ends of the earth if I had to. Little did I know, how prophetic that statement was going to be. Never before in the history of romance, has one girl so diligently shaken off the advances of one man. A man so foolishly naive of the workings of the Oriental female mind, that while he believed he was was winning the 'game of hearts' he was playing, he was in fact losing. Badly. Tiffany Lam you see was astute enough play the game her way! She had this poor gweilo Prince Charming stretched out on the table. Hung drawn and quartered in the emotional stakes. She led him on a wonderful 10 month journey of discovery. Mental discovery. The mind map she presented him had places on it called, Anguish. Despair. Pain. Suffering. Confusion. Bewilderment. Jealousy. Rage. It was a 10 month odyssey that had hapless Prince Uncharming begging for mercy. An end to the misery. Needless to say, Tiffany's English was coming along leaps and bounds......
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 33

I marched through to the close of 1989, to the rhythm of English classes at Mr Lau's and concocting ingenious ways to tempt Tiffany from her office, for lunch dates or away from friends and other social commitments for a more leisurely get together after work. Her official lessons sort of fizzled out when we began to meet as friends, intermittently at first, but as the year progressed, we spent more and more time out together. By now she fully realized my interest went way beyond just conversation English, and she seemed quite happy to play along with the chase. But, she played the game on her terms. Whenever I thought I was making headway and getting closer to her romantically, she would nip it in the bud. Usually by doing a disappearing act, or reminding me she had other romantic interests. Nevertheless, as the storm clouds gathered in the Gulf, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, I put my head down and doggedly pursued her.

Yes while the rumors of war were rife, one day sat outside the corner bar was someone who looked like a war photographer. He had a large presence, and I say that because he was big. Even sat down, the table and people on the verandah shrunk down in size around him. He had big hands, a broad chest, and a gruff voice that carried over the bar chatter. He talked a lot. He was sort of movie star handsome, had a bit of an Errol Flynn look about him I thought. A Nikon hung around his neck. It looked like a miniature camera against the great swathe of his army green, sweat stained shirt. With wavy light brown hair, and a chequered black & white Khmer scarves furled around his neck, he had a rather swashbuckling appearance. Debonaire as he sucked on a cigarette, held between a ginormous forefinger and thumb. A wanna be photography myself, even though he was sat with an attractive, tanned and freckly red head, I decided to go over and introduce myself.

"I'm Kees and this is Sally" he said in a gruff voice, and thrust out a massive hand. As our paws met, I noticed his fingers. Rather his nails. They reminded me of pool table cue balls, that had been sawn in half and embedded into the tips of his large fingers. Kees I decided had hands out of the Jurassic period. "I've just come back from Bangladesh" he announced and then took a long drag on his cigarette. The way he held the butt, and placed it lightly on the tip of his lips as he inhaled, his fag made a sort of fizzing sound. Light wisps of smoke curled around a large nose that sat in the centre of his stubbly rugged features.

"Covering the floods" he continued. "It's a mess out there" he chortled. Sally kept quiet. I asked if he was heading to Iraq. He said no. But he knew plenty about the geo-politics of the Middle East. He'd covered Afghanistan he told me between mouthfuls of San Miguel sipped from a little half pint glass that looked totally inadequate to quench the thirst of this Dutch giant. Why didn't he at least order a pint I thought as he regaled me with stories from Kabul.
"I was in the Philippines for three months" I said. He ran his Jurassic fingers through the golden strands of his wavy fringe, paused, and then began a monologue about his time covering the Edse rebellion and the character defects of Emelda and Ferdinand Marcos. Kees certainly knew his facts. He was extremely articulate, and a good story teller. In fact I began to think that what Kees didn't know about a particular place, wasn't worth knowing about. I say that with a hint of sarcasm, but without a doubt this Haarlem university graduate of chemistry, had travelled far and wide, and knew his shit. I, given my freshman status as a budding photographer, lapped up his every word.

Kees seemed someone worth knowing, and I made it a point to sit down for a beer at the Corner bar, whenever I saw him there. Which was most evenings. He was always easy to spot. Towering over everyone else. Sitting or standing, beer and cig in hand. Talking. Always talking. Sweat stained green shirt, and Khmer scarf. That was his dress code, Monday to Sunday, 24/7. As the Gulf war kicked off, I'd check in with Kees for daily analytical updates. It was sort of like having the Beebs Jeremy Bowen or John Simpson to listen to albeit speaking with a thick Dutch accent. Kees became my news anchorman. Tune in.......to...... 'Kees's World !!!!

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 34

I continued to increase my circle of friends, on and off Lamma. Magnus was someone I was told to meet. He had a small book publishing business situated three floors up in a prewar building, adjacent to the police station, that faced Hollywood road, but had its entrance in Old Bailey street.

As I climbed the stairs up to the Guidebook company, and my 4pm meeting with Magnus, I noticed what appeared to be the janitor and his family sat around a small circular table, rice bowl and chopsticks before them, in what was literally a cubby hole in the stairwell wall. A space under the stairs, between the 2nd & 3rd floors. It made me feel queasy, realizing they lived in this windowless, stuffy cramped space. I would become a regular visitor to the Guidebook company over the years, and it never ceased to amaze me how they would smile and wave back. Four cheerful faces, crouched together in a home that you really couldn't swing a cat.

Magnus was rather tall, wore a white linen shirt, with sleeves rolled up to show taught muscular forearms. He'd been a photographer once upon a time, and now his love was books. He had a rather haughty demeanour, and I'd heard he had a reputation for been rather a shrewd businessman. ie. he was rather adept at getting creative people to work for him for questionable fees. I sensed I was going to be doing the same as he outlined his idea for an illustrated photographic guidebook to Macau he wanted me to shoot.

Magnus was rather humorless, but without doubt highly knowledgeable and articulate. He seemed to command respect and perhaps intimidated his small hushed team of office employees. Everyone worked in silence. Except for a funny little Dickensian looking character, with skinny frame, stooped shoulders, wispy thin hair scraped across a bulbous head, who smoked incessantly, and dashed around the office muttering to himself. I later learned he was Magnus's business partner, a certain Geoff Cloke.

Just as Magnus was wrapping up his vision for Macau, a lanky blonde lad, who struck me as a younger, skinner version of Magnus walked into the office. He carried with him an air of authority. The staff greeted him with a nod and a smile. He had a pale luminous complexion, wore a black polo neck sweater, and matching back slacks. His belt was drawn so tightly into a narrow waist, that it looked like it was cutting him in half. He had one of those funny pager devices hanging from the belt. Magnus introduced me to this blue eyed boy, who looked not a day over 16. "This is Kaz, my Son".

Kaz in a deep voice, that seemed at odds with his skinniness, said hello. He gave me a firm handshake, and looked at me with piercing steely blue eyes. This young man had a presence about him, that commanded attention. Even his towering father seemed to shrink a little in his presence.

I stood back and observed the interaction between them as they conversed. It appeared a little strained. A formal interaction. Less father and son talking and more businesslike. Kasyan was as mentioned a carbon copy younger version of his father. They had almost identical mannerisms. The same haughtiness, and a thin mouth that could curl into a sneer at times. Kasyan laughed like his father too. As I stood there listening in, Kasyan I sensed was an even better story teller than his Father, and far funnier. He had a maturity and grown up demeanour that was way ahead of his years. I soon learned that he was a successful businessman in his own right, and had at such a tender age, already punched his way to the top, in a city that was notoriously adept at tripping foreigners up.

Kaz and I became the best of friends. He offered me hints and tips on how to deal with his father. Over long hoppy beers at the Schnurtbart, a favourite Belgium drinking hole in Lan Kwai Fong, I sat in on countless occasions listening to him entertain fellow business buddies. He had everyone in howls of laughter. You see Kaz could remember all the details needed to pull together a compelling yarn. He knew how to drag out the body copy of the story or joke, long enough and in such a crafty tantalizing way, that everyone was hanging on his every word. Then with us all on the edge of our seats, he would drop the punchline! Women found him irresistible. I knew this wonder kid was someone to hang around, and hang around I did. Some of our Wanchai exploits are the stuff of legend and best kept under wraps. For the time being at least. 🙂
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 35

When I think about Lamma island, I think of the people. All of us living in close proximity. Not in the sense of the cheek by jowel high density apartment crush prevalent in other corners of Hong Kong. Quite the contrary. We all lived in rather spacious two level apartments, sparsely sprinkled around the fringes of Yung Shue Wan village. But it was in the bars and restaurants and little supermarkets and on the ferry or at the beach that we got to see the same people over and over again and in so doing, we got to know them. Not all of them closely, but certainly regularly enough to get to know their peculiarities and of course island gossip carried on the sultry sea spray infused air.

I remember Miles. The hairy English teacher. He had very long arms, covered in matted thick black hair, that ensured his large hairy hands hung lower than most. With a long sloping forehead and thick sqaure jaw, there was something Neanderthal about Miles. He never said much. Kept to himself, building a boat in his garden up on the hill for what seemed like an eternity. When the launch date was finally announced, we all helped him get it down to the beach, first by breaking a hole in his garden wall, and then on a rather elaborate systems of rolling logs. Everyone was stoned and pissed. Only Miles stayed sober, even during the pre-launch party on the power station beach. I guess because he wanted clarity of vision for his inaugural single handed circumnavigation of Lamma. When the boat finally did hit water, and after we had all waved waved him off, he sailed around the first headland and ran it aground on some rocks. That was end of Miles's sailing ambitions.

There was little Rich as we called him. A James Dean looking pint sized Welsh photographer, who had the audacity of well errrr hmm, the Welsh, and the confidence and bravado of someone twice his size. He would pop up everywhere, camera in hand. Always snooping around for a story. When he didn't appear, we all knew he was away in China. With his 'connections'. Those we never met, but who miraculously got him into places like public executions that no one was supposed to see. Somehow little Rich used his size to appear incognito. Time and time again. He was everywhere in China but nowhere at the same time. At least that's how he appeared to the authorities. It would take the Beijing regime nearly two decades to wise up to his cunning, and rumour has it, they didn't catch him, he was snitched out by one of his own. Not one of his connections, but as rumour has it, by a fellow journalist who for some reason had a personal grudge. Needless to say little Rich kept away from China for a while.

There was another photographer on Lamma, Australian Bob Davis. Bob knew everyone, and everyone knew Bob. He'd been there longer than most. If you wanted to find him, you looked in the Island bar. And if he was not there, he was usually at the main bar of the FCC. (Foreign Correspondents Club) on Hong Kong island. Otherwise from time to time he might be spotted at his image licensing company, the Stock house in Wanchai. Bob left most of the day to day running of his business to his Chinese wife, which eventually some might say was his eventual downfall. But that's another story.

While having a reputation for been a tad cantankerous, and ever so occasionally kind of aloof and stand offish, Bobs greatest talent was bringing photographers together. Certainly well known ones visiting Hong Kong. Bob was the go to go guy for any sort of photography questions, and his black and white record of Hong Kong in the 1970's was one of his greatest contributions to the city. His BW picture of a bare chested triad, covered in dragon tattoos clutching a Mont Blanc fountain pen, was and still is my favourite BD image......

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 36

There was a spate of bizarre and unexpected deaths on Lamma. Unsettling to say the least. The untimely demise of such young and talented people, which forced many of us to feel that some kind of bad omen or jinx had settled on the island. Did some foreigner upset the sea Goddess deity Tin Hau, much revered by the native seafaring peoples of the archipelago that is Hong Kong? The first incident involved two journalists John and Eddie. I'd met both of them around the bars of Yung Shue Wan. John had a particularly beautiful Korean wife called Janet. New Years Eve, 1990, they had been out on a pleasure junk sailing Victoria harbour to watch the fireworks. When I returned to the Lamma island ferry station after I had been up on the Hong Kong island peak, photographic the firework display for the Mandarin Oriental Magazine, I thought it strange to see police milling about the terminal. There had been an accident I was told when I asked one of them. He didn't elaborate.

I asked other people waiting to catch the last ferry back to Lamma, and the pieces to the tragic story came together. John and Eddie had been sitting together on one side of the open deck junk, their legs dangling over the side. Talking, sipping beer, and watching Hong King island draw closer as the junk captain returned to station to drop off the guests after watching the show. In close proximity to their junk was a large Lantau ferry coming in for docking at the same time. The two boats collided! The junk literally rammed broadside into the iron side of the giant Lamma ferry. On impact, Eddie had both his legs lopped off at the knees. Both were thrown overboard. Eddie was rescued and rushed to intensive care at the Queen Mary hospital, but died of his injuries 24 hours later. John's body was dragged from the harbour some 10 days later after a long frantic search. His wife, Janet, grief stricken and traumatized by the incident, didn't regain her composure for the time we knew her after the accident. She soon left Lamma. I think needing to try make sense of things in private. Incognito. Elsewhere.

Then there was the base player for the Lamma band, The Sisters of Sharon. One night he was found dead in Wanchai besides a trash can, asphyxiated by his own vomit. Cant remember his name. Just his face. He had long bushy hair, and a wide mouth, with two enlarged incisor teeth. He had always reminded me of a Werewolf, but not in a freakish way. More in a theatrical sense. Especially when he was banging out a Sharon number. Usually half cut. Like the rest of us.

Then there was the story about John Wilson (surname changed). Yes another John, and another tragic tale. John I remember was a handsome freckly faced lad with fine coppery coloured hair. He had the most polite manner. A book editor I seem to recall. While we were not really friends, whenever I saw him in the village or on the beach, we would stop to have a natter. Around the island in the summer months, he dressed in tight fitting khaki shorts and was always bare chested. Tanned and athletic looking, he had a very pretty girlfriend. Then one day I heard that John was dead. The story of his demise had the most bizarre twist. His brother we were told had committed suicide in the U.K. by hanging himself. John had been very close to his brother. About a week after returning to Lamma from the funeral, John it seemed, felt compelled to enact the scene that took his bothers life. With his girlfriend as witness, around a BBQ fire, John rigged up a rope with a noose around the lone tree that stood in their small garden. They drank and of course John sobbed and wailed and attempted to appease his broken heart. By midnight, John had calmed down, and his girlfriend, tired, decided to retire to bed to let John work through his emotions alone. When she stepped out of the house in he morning surprised to find that John had not come to bed, she found him hanging lifeless from the tree!!! No one could ever decide for sure whether he died intentionally or had accidentally fallen off the stool.

Another great tragedy was the murder of part time male model Jason (name changed) and his girlfriend Susie. We all knew them on Lamma, because they stood out. Such a beautiful couple. In 1992, they left Hong Kong to open a small restaurant in Sihanoekville, Cambodia. These were still highly dangerous times given that factions of Pol Pot's splintered and dwindling Khmer Rouge continued to carrying out brazen attacks and ambushes up and down the country. Jason and Suzy knew the risks and decided they were worth taking. Cambodia was and still is the most enigmatic of lands. The road from Sihanoekville to Phnom Penh was notoriously risky. People were encouraged to travel in convoys escorted by at least one army truck. After stocking up on food on a regular supply runs to the capital, Jason and Susie, with one other friend, decided to chance it back to Sihanoekville unescorted.

The convoy departure schedule had been changed they were told. Some Government official tagging along had been delayed, officialdom was holding him up. Accounts of the chain of events thereafter differ. But after a long investigation which involved Scotland Yard and the Australian police, it was determined that the three had in fact been abducted by the Khmer Rouge. The road block and ambush set to snare the government official, about 50km east of Sihanoekville, had netted the communist guerrillas three western hostages instead. Jason, Susie and friend where never seen again. The reasons behind their abduction and murder is far too long to elaborate upon here.

The Interpol search for them lasted for over 2 years. When at last their remains were found in a shallow grave besides a river, not far from the ambush point, it was determined by the investigating team that the guerilla camp leader, who had no intention of risking revealing their hidden camp putting out a ransom, decided to have them killed. His original plan had been to kill the official. The camp commander it seems lost his nerve and ordered the three of them shot. I still think about Jason today. And as his father also a long time Lamma resident lamented to me recently, "Jason has now been dead longer than he had been alive". There were other deaths, some of which I have forgotten. But I think 7 is enough for one day. For such a small island community, each tragedy felt like an enormous burden to overcome.....

There were other deaths, some of which I have forgotten. But I think 7 is enough for one day. For such a small island community, each tragedy felt like an enormous burden to overcome.....
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 37

Artist Susana Sanroman talks about the sunshine memories of the mind. I believe by this she means those mental images that sit lodged in our memory data base, and as we recall them, they trigger more than just a memory, but an emotional response. These icons of experience, cause a chemical change within our brains and we feel a sort of warm fuzzy, flowery feeling in our gut. A sensation that to my understanding of it, speaks of a summation of a time and place.

One of these 'memory icons' is when I think of the moment I was riding a ferry boat out to one of the many Vietnamese boat people detention centers. The exact location of the centre I cannot remember. All I can recall is standing on the open deck, seeing the jade green waters of Victoria harbour all around me. Recalling the sweltering heat and humidity and the smell. The smell of the Orient. When I think of this moment and the sunshine fluttery feeling that arises in my belly, within the abstraction of this thought, it whispers to me 'Richard this single memory is the summation of all your great adventures. All those before, and certainly all those ever since'.

This single memory unites all my cravings for what I have always strived for. And that is to lead 'an interesting life'. This little outing with a journalist from the South China Morning Post, which was in effect my very first commissioned photographic assignment in the summer of 1990, is one of the most vivid memories of all my memories. I recall feeling kind of giddy anticipating arriving at the camp. With my camera around my neck, while gazing up into a deep blue topical sky, marveling at the towering cumulo nimbus clouds, hearing the chatter of Vietnamese around me, real refugees from the legacy of the Vietnam war, the memory icon glows. It glows because it represents above all other memory icons, that sense of accomplishment.

That I had arrived at the threshold of my dreams. Here I was, getting paid, to witness a place and a situation that only those with journalists credentials would get to see. I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do. Not everyone gets that chance.
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 38

Still on the subject of memory, or in my case, what often seems like a lack of memory, I often ruminate why we remember what we do. Why we forget so much too. I spend a lot of time digging about in my head, for vivid glimpses of my past life. Encouraging the sunshine memories to arise! I would say that I find my memories more precious than the present moment, which according to the philosophies of say someone like Eckard Tolle, living in the past is a complete no no. "The past is history, the future is a mystery, the present is a gift" he states rather sternly.

I seem to recall the highlights, the 'glow moments', and suppress the bad memories. Not that I really have any bad memories. There has been no trauma, or ugly divorces, or litigation, or accidents, loss of property or major violence. Touch wood, it continues. What there has been is just an abundance of adventure, and distinct life chapters played out in some amazing places in the world. Countries. Cities. Lots of fiends and relationships, all good. Non toxic. I've never been fired from work, or had to deal with crappy office politics or a grumpy boss. Or endure the lousy work commute. Week in, week out. Year in year out! Sadly the reality for most people.

When I cast me eye over my list of aeroplane flights, 625 and counting, and think of all the things seen, adventures had, I wonder how come I can't remember more. I wonder then how some folks who have had a rather mundane existence, back and forth to the office most of their life, shuffling bits of paper around, taking a holiday once or twice a year, what do they remember when they begin to look back on their own lives. Maybe they remember the little details. I certainly don't.

A case in point is how I have forgotten most of the details of my first foray into deepest darkest China. Book publisher Magnus Bartlett, suggested to me one day, that it would be great if I could get some China eye view photos of Macau for the illustrated guide book he had commissioned me to produce. Pictures of how the mainland Chinese see the 'free East'. The free port of Macau! Glimpsed from behind high barbed wire fences and walls. "Be careful" he told me. "Photographing around sensitive border control areas will be risky". Ooooh cool. I thought. I get to play 007, and go on my own Mission Impossible. But then how come looking back, I've forgotten so many of the details I ask myself. My first trip into Communist paranoid China, not as a tourist, but as "call me James.... James Bond"! The lack of mission details will be revealed in my next very short post. 🙂
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 39

My first glimpse of China came in the form of the piece of paper that smothered an entire page in my passport emblazoned with a great big red star. My immediate thought upon seeing it was, 'the East is Red, Long Live Chairman Mao, Red Guards, The Long March, Kalashnikovs, the Red Peril. This was my first China visa stamp, but it was not to be the last. In fact when I finally left Hong Kong in 1997 for South Africa, I had collected approximately 50 such stamps. Chinese immigration had virtually obliterated an entire passport.

My second glimpse of China, came not via one of its historically imbued cities, such as Beijing or Shanghai, but a scruffy, characterless little town, just across the border with Macau, called Qianshan, part of greater Zhuhai. The dour faced Chinese customs official, reminded me of the grubby looking soldiers I had seen in pictures as a kid back in England. The 1.000.000 man strong People's Liberation Army. The person before me, dressed in a tzatziki sauce green shirt, flat cap emblazoned with red star, and lapels, scowled as he slapped a rubber stamp down, dead centre on a blank page.

As I cleared the immigration building and stepped onto the street, I realized with a twinge of apprehension that my mission had begun and I was now officially in deepest darkest China. It looked disheveled, and felt chaotic. While hardly any cars, there were a zillion glum looking people, dressed in rather drab clothes, scurrying about on foot or riding black bicycles. I recall making a mental note of the tall, sallow faced, nervous looking police or soldiers that loitered at street intersections or outside various buildings.

This was China just beginning to open to the world. The land of open and closed cities. Foreigners could not travel where they wanted. Only to designated 'open' major cities. Much of China hinterland was off limits to us long nosed barbarians (Gweilos). We couldn't possess local currency either! The renminbi. Only US or HKD cash could be exchanged for FEC's (Foreign Exchange Certificates) at specially designated bureau de change or foreigner friendly hotels. FEC's could only be spent in foreigner friendly restaurants and shops. There were no cruising taxis either. Non Chinese had to arrange a taxi from the concierge of foreigner friendly hotels. Hence part A of my mission plan was to find one such hotel. This was a time well before Wechat maps and street view. 🙂

I stumbled about looking for the Dong Fang hotel. My tatty second hand copy of the lonely planet China tome, with rudimentary Zuhai map and smattering of mandarin phrases at the back that included 'hotel' was my only guide. I had also prepared in advance of mission launch, a print out map of Qianshan and surrounding region, and circled in red, a point on it, of an area I believed would give me the best China eye view of the landmark Penha hill church in Macau.

Playing James 009 here, I had cunningly identified a point to aim for once over the border. A scruffy looking town, glimpsed from across the great divide. Namely a creek that forms part of what is called the inner harbour. A natural barrier between communist China, and the free Portuguese enclave of Macau. Less than 200m wide, the rivers grey waters was the channel for Macau's fleet of fishing junks. Standing at the wharf, with binoculars in hand, I had probed the opposite bank, and visually scoured what I could see of Red China. That drab place over there, affronted with barbed wire fences, whatever it was called, wherever it was in relation to the border crossing, was where I had to go. I hadn't the foggiest ideas how I was going to find it once inside China. My best bet I pondered, would be to find a taxi driver daft enough to take me there.

I walked into the Dong Fang hotel and asked a sallow faced spotty young man, if I could get some FEC's and if he could arrange a taxi for me........
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 40

I climbed into the back of a burgundy coloured Volkswagen Passat. VW had got their foot in the China door well ahead of the pack. Passats were standard Taxi fare in those years.

I can't for the life of me remember how I communicated to the young taxi driver my intentions, and why I wanted to go to this obscure point circled in red on my print out map. I think I must have showed him my camera, and said "Macau. click click".

Instead of looking at me in a bemused way, he just smiled, and drove off. I thought to myself, 'this guy hasn't a clue what I meant. He's just intent on taking taking me on a guided sight seeing tour of Zhuhai and neighbouring provinces'.
We sort of left the town and within 15 minutes, were driving down a road that one would call rural. I seem to remember a few unfinished buildings scattered about in what looked like the dried up remnants of paddy fields. My senses began to pique as I started to see a high fence some way off in the distance. And then as we rounded a bend, I saw a People's Liberation Army soldier. My driver gesticulated. I knew what he meant. Slump right down in my seat. I looked at him in amazement. Why was he willing to take this risk with me? Had he done this before? What was his motive beyond the taxi fare? I had not negotiated with him any danger fee. All the details surrounding these questions are lost. I simply can't remember. But I do remember folding myself flat down onto the back seat as we passed the soldier in PLA green with semi automatic slung over his shoulder.

Not far down the road, another guard post. I crouched down a second time. Now I was getting nervous. I looked at my driver. He was just grinning and sucking on his panda cigarette. Jesus I thought. Is this guy one of them? Is he a plain clothed State Security agent masquerading as a taxi driver? Was I been led to the gulags??

When my head came up a second time, we were now running beside the fence. To my amazement, through the wire and barbs, across a swathe of derelict land and beyond that, a stretch of water, I could clearly see, not that far off in the distance, the unmistakable shape of Penha hill, Macau. Replete with the pointed spire of the Penha hill church. I couldn't believe my eyes. I looked up the road, and behind us, and seeing no more soldiers, I asked for him to stop.

Once out of the car, I thought best to work quickly. I shot a few photos through the fence, but decided that the image would have much more visual impact if i included the barbs. Yes Penha hill seen through chrome poles and razor wire. Much more interesting. I stepped back to compose my shot. After half a dozen clicks I heard something that made my heart miss a beat. Someone was blowing a whistle.

I looked left. Then felt an exaggerated convulsion in my gut. For cycling towards me at a rather frantic pace, was a guy in green, wearing a flat cap on a black bicycle. Aaaah PLA. I thought. It's game over!!!!
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 41

I looked at my taxi driver. His grin had disappeared. He was glancing back and forth between me and the approaching soldier, with an expression on his face that one would describe as, apprehensive, fearful, scared!!! His unease made me feel very uneasy. So he was not one of them after all I decided.

The young soldier arrived at speed, and kind of stepped off his still moving bicycle, in such a hurry was he to dismount and assert his authority. He was unarmed! Maybe off duty I thought. He appeared rather pleased with himself. With his 'catch'. He had a smirk on his face as he started intimidating my driver. Loud words, blurted out in Mandarin. He had no walkie talkie, and so couldn't hold us here until he called in his superiors. Instead he gesticulated with his arms and I presume barked an order at my driver for us follow him. I climbed in the back of the VW. My driver, lighting another cigarette, gave a sort of double clucking, tongue against teeth sound as he turned the ignition key. Yes I thought, 'this is going to be a fuck around'.

As we ambled back down the track behind the soldier, I thought it might be prudent to change the roll of film. Get rid of the incriminating evidence. So I wound the unfinished spool back into its canister, and tucked it into my sock. Hidden? No! First place they would look if there was going to be a serious body search. But at least it was worth making an effort. I loaded my Nikon FM2 with a fresh roll, and fired off 10 frames in quick succession out of the window of my moving vehicle.

Around a bend I saw a small building. In front was a Chinese flag fluttering on a pole. A couple of unmarked cars. We pulled up beside the pole. The young soldier darted inside. Out came two other fellas in green uniforms. We were ordered out of the car, and asked to follow them inside. The office was cluttered with tables, chairs, cabinets, reams of papers stacked on shelves. There was a TV blaring out some Chinese entertainment in one corner. At the back of the office, sat a rather thick set fella, his hat and a pistol in a holster placed on the desk before him. He was bald. He was smoking. The blue twirling plume of cigarette smoke was backlit from a window behind him. It looked rather cinematic I thought he looked like Colonel Kurz.

The young soldier appeared to explain the situation. What he had found us doing . He pointed at my camera. Where he had found us. He pointed in the direction we had come. He then pointed at my driver. There was a long pause. Nobody spoke. I glanced at my driver. He looked nervous. I felt nervous. The young soldier looked nervous. The two other guys appeared rather amused. The Colonel, just looked rather bored, and took a long toke on his cigarette. He coughed and stood up. He sauntered over to me, and smiling, offered me a cigarette. I happily accepted it. He held out his arm, flicked the lighter in his hand. I lit my panda and took a hefty drag. He stepped across to my driver. He didn't offer him anything other than a scowl. I glanced at my watch, it was 2:15pm. I thought it highly unlikely I would be back in Macau that evening. My hotel bed would remain empty. Would the concierge miss my presence ?

There was another cough from the Colonel. He beckoned us to sit down, and returned to his desk. He picked up the receiver to a large black bakerlite phone, dialed and then waited for an answer. I waged a guess. There were 5 Chinese in the room and not one of them could speak English. I presumed he was calling for an interpreter/interrogator..........
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 42

Not long after the Colonel had made his call, I heard a car pull up outside. We all turned our heads to see who was walking into the office. I liked what I saw. A tall and extremely attractive Chinese woman, dressed in the regular police green uniform strode in. She had a pale oval face, full sensual lips, and long silky black hair pulled into a pony tail. She was real leggy for a Chinese woman and well above average height. 'Ah women in uniforms, she can tie me up and interrogate me for as long as she likes' I thought as she smiled and held out her hand. I shook it and introduced myself. There was no hint of menace in her eyes. She was smiling and I looked around the room and everyone else was smiling, except for my taxi driver. He looked terrified.

She gestured for me to take a seat. She then asked me in perfect English what I was doing here? "Here in China", I replied, "or here in this area"? "Both", she said, tilting her head so that her eyes focused on me diagonally rather than level. That slight movement of her head threw me off balance. Made me look deeper into her eyes. She was psyching me out obviously. Could she mind read I wondered?

I told her the truth. Mostly. About my Macau book project. That the publisher wanted a China eye view of Macau. That I had no contacts here. That I enlisted the help of this innocent young taxi driver to help me find a suitable vantage spot, and that I had no wish for him to get into trouble. That I had no idea this was a restricted area. As I told the little white lie at the end of my monologue, her diagonal eyes blinked in rapid succession. Were her eyes blinking because she detected the lie I thought? Was this eye candy gal in uniform, who's shiny brass tunic buttons strained to contain her large breasts. A pair so ample they threatened to pop those bottoms right off that police coat altogether. Was she a lie detector? A fib detective? I then told her I had not taken any photos of the fence, through the fence, and that they could check my roll of film! Another lie. Her eyes blinked again!!!!!
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 43

She turned to the Colonel and a rather long exchange of Mandarin ensued. She then spun around to face my driver. Immediately her body language, temperament, facial expression and tone of voice changed. Her soft sensuality receded, replaced by a gruff sternness. Stony faced, she sort of spat her words out at my driver.

I realized that in all probability he was going be in a lot of trouble, and I wondered once again why he had been so willing to take risks. Risks he surely understood. I felt a sense of guilt rise in me. That i hadn't even considered the consequences of my request for his assistance.

I had reckoned that if caught I might get detained for a few days. Fined. Most probably deported and barred from entering China. But he, a country boy from the provinces, desperate to make a living as a taxi driver in the big city, wanting to pocket my negotiated fare of US$50, and most probably not wanting to lose face, he had been determined to get me to the place he knew was a risk. To that front line borderline where he knew he could give me the vantage point I desired. He'd thrown caution to the wind, and just taken me. In Zen Buddhist fashion, he'd blocked negative thoughts or anxiety,. Suppressed concern for his own safety! He'd just lit a cigarette, possibly his only vice, gripped the steering wheel and then headed into no mans land.

As I studied the now surly interrogator, leaning aggressively in her chair towards the cowering taxi man, he with his head bowed, not daring to even look at her, I ruminated briefly on the premise that they might lead me to a vacant plot with 5 other guys shouldering rifles. My execution squad would be all smiles, offering me cigarettes, and handshakes, and exchanging rudimentary English pleasantries, like "where you come from" or "what's your name"! Yes foreigners where still a big novelty in China in the early 90's. I'd be made to feel welcome moments before they riddled me with bullets. But my hapless driver would be less lucky. He'd probably be dragged out in leg irons. A sheet of cardboard roped to his chest with some slogan scribbled across it that might read 'down with the Western Lackey'. He'd be pistol whipped and kicked across across the scruffy vacant plot. No cigarettes offered to him. Merely a slap across the face. Jeered at. Ridiculed. Mao had set a precedent just 20 years earlier on how to make the last 15 minutes of a mans life so miserable, he literally begged to be shot.
 
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking 44

Her shifting attitude, smiles at me, scowls at my driver, suggested leniency for me, and punishment for him. I wished I had not made this outing at all. Not because I felt bad about what I had done, pursuing my objective, but because I had not considered the consequences of my actions, and how this would impact the life of my taxi driver. He would probably have to deal with the repercussions of this day trip for a long time after my deportation back to Macau.

She swiveled around in her chair to face me. Smiled. And then in a polite manner, told me to hand over my film. I nodded, and thought, does she mean the roll in my camera or the roll in my sock? Or both? Hastily I popped open the film chamber door and tore out the roll of film. As a result of my exaggerated aggressive way, feigning irritation, I wanted her to think from the expression on my face, and my manner that she was ruining my day. Screwing with my mission. I wanted her to gain face and kudos in front of the Colonel. As I handed her the spool with its tail of curly wurly perforated film I hoped my surly manner would suppress any further thoughts my captors might have of hidden evidence.

I placed the spring of coiled gelatin and little aluminum can into the centre of the pretty interpreter's outstretched level palm. Her fingers immediately curled tight around it and she gave me a cockeyed smile. The Colonel grinned. So did his subordinates. My taxi driver with head bowed, continued to stare at the floor. His face expressionless.

She then spun 180 degrees in her chair and handed the film to one of the gangly goons standing beside her. He then walked 4 paces across the room to hand it to the Colonel. She spun back to face me and paused. We both stared at each other for what seemed like an awfully long time. I waited for her next question. I fully expected it to be, "do you have any more film"? I waited. The question never came. Instead she stood up and walked over to the Colonel. A conversation I couldn't understand ensued. I fidgeted with the neck strap on my camera. My driver didn't move at all.

She turned once again to face me. Strolled purposely across the room and stood before me. She said, "you will be escorted to immigration and you will leave the People's Republic of China this evening. We don't expect to see you back here again. Your driver will be fined for his actions. He should have known better. Goodbye Mr Dobson". She left the cluttered, airless room. The Colonel coughed, sucked heavily on his panda cigarette and gestured for us to leave.

I stood up. My driver did the same. One of the lanky lads in green said something to my driver and then two of them escorted us outside to our car. One soldier sat beside me on the back seat. The other upfront. We drove to the border gate in silence. Once there I was asked to step out of the vehicle. The soldier upfront climbed out and tugged at my arm to follow him. As I was led away, I glanced back at my driver. He gave me a very fleeting smile. It seemed to suggest to me that he was resigned to his fate and would deal with the consequences. I left the PRC feeling like shit! I had my pictures, and my freedom. My driver would not receive his fee, he would be fined, possibly lose his taxi license and even jailed. That was my first foray into China and one I wanted to forget.

 

 
 
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