ON MODERN ARTS
Modern poetry is such a bore
Obscure symbology, nothing more
I don't understand it most of the time,
Careful -- Oh Careful
You're making this rhyme
Poetry should not be verse
Must be new you know!
But there's nothing new,
Shush! That's sacrilege
Or even worse.
There I go again.
Rhyming, and I know it.
I guess I'11 never make a poet
All this abstract prose,
Gives me dark suspicions,
Is it all a subtle con trick,
Played on my inhibitions?
I dare not boast my failure,
To comprehend a single line,
So must I do as the critics tell me,
And proclaim it as art sublime?
This is verse again,
The critics will abhor it,
Penguins will throw up their hands in pain,
And no one will be for it.
Ughl That was ghastly!
You did that deliberately!
I know, I’m a throwback.
Woe! Woe! Woe!
Woe is me.
I don't smoke hashish!
I‘m not neurotic!
I'm not even in love with my father!
With those handicaps,
I doubt if I could even write scripts for television,
Much less poetry.
Gloom. Gloom. Gloom.
Does anybody want to buy a typewriter?
The Marregh/Riken are an aquatic race of amoebic time travellers. Their mother ship is hidden behind the furthest ice planet of the solar system, while an observation vessel orbits unseen high above the only partially inviting world of deep blue oceans.
The oceans are too saline to colonize, but even worse they are divided by dry continents where insane land creatures wage an incomprehensible war.
The first horrified instinct of the Marregh/Riken is to move on, to explore elsewhere in the galaxies, but then they discover an appalling fact. This insane human species stands on the edge of space exploration, already they have begun to explore their own solar system, and eventually they could pose a direct threat to the peaceful races of other star systems.
So the Marregh/Riken begin a systematic study, to try and understand the motives and psychology of these alien creatures, by attaching themselves mentally to some of the key players in the long nightmare which the Earth beings have called the Vietnam War.
The Marregh/Riken must decide whether the human race is fit to survive, or whether they should be destroyed before they can become too powerful and export their blind hatreds out into the galaxies.
The first hosts chosen are the French Paratroop Lieutenant Rene Chauvel, and the orphan child who will eventually be called Phat Sang. Through their eyes the Marregh/Riken follow the events of the lost colonial war.
PROGRESS REPORT: EARTH/A/IC/VN JARHL-ONE X95
The Marregh observation capsule was in geostationary orbit 22,3OO miles above the third planet in the minor sun system on the far outer rim of the home galaxy. It was a planet of mixed blue oceans and land mass, pleasing in its variety of colours and white cloud patterns, and ideally located in the dead centre of the sun's potential life orbit. It was neither too close nor too far from the radiant heat of the star, which at this distance was wholly benevolent.
The seas were a deep disappointment of lethal salinity and oxygen content, which had produced a multitude of life forms but with only minimal mind energy. The land animals were diverse and dominated by a humanoid species which had achieved a sixth-level technology with only a fifth level intelligence. It was this imbalance of technical ability, beyond the capability to deploy that technology with full rationality, which was of grave concern to the Marregh/Riken.
The planet was known to its human inhabitants as Earth. With so many billions of planets orbiting the stars of the known galaxies the Marregh/Riken had tired of inventing names for them, and so in the last five thousand years of galactic exploration the local names of the inhabited planets had been deemed sufficient for the record. Where there was no intelligence and no name the planets were simply numbered.
The GS orbit had placed the observation capsule immediately above one of the largest land masses, which was listed under the headings, Continent Asia, General Area Indo-China, Local Area Vietnam. In that ravaged area of the globe the humanoids were waging what was for them a high technology war between two competing ideologies, with a ferocity which was to the Marregh/Riken both insane and inexplicable.
The capsule carried nine minds in a crew of three. Six were resting. Two had already achieved mind-melt with their chosen subjects on the planet below. Jarhl-One remained on watch, slowly recovering from the draining exhaustion caused by the total detachment of his mind-brothers. He had not realized that premature separation of the minds alone would be as devastating as this. He felt torn apart, vulnerable, incomplete - and afraid. He floated in the nutrition/protein rich liquid environment of the observation capsule and carefully mind-sampled this confusing new range of -- of what? He thought that perhaps this totally new network of experience was what the humanoids below termed emotions. The mind pulses coming back to him from Jarhl-Two and Jarhl-Three on the planet's surface had already given him new insight into such things.
His vision passed over the monitor readings which were grouped around the watch station. It was almost a meaningless exercise, for he had no direct control of any function of the capsule. Everything here was monitored and directed by the Marregh Timeship that was in fixed orbit far out behind the ninth planet of this particular solar system. The Timeship was hidden from Earth behind the frozen planet the humanoids called Pluto, while the observation capsule was hidden behind the warp haze of its time-distortation shield. On the Timeship more than a thousand tri-minds of the Marregh/Riken observed everything, learned everything, knew everything, and controlled everything.
It was this unity of minds, the total racial concentration of mental energy, which gave the Marregh/Riken their supremacy in this quadrant of the galaxy. It also made them vulnerable. With their minds wholly open to each other they could only act in racial harmony and in the racial interest. There was no possibility of the individual selfishness which could only flourish in a closed mind. Without selfishness there was no need for hostility or aggression. Their skills in time and space manipulation were light years ahead of the primitive nuclear technology on the planet below them, and yet they had no comparable weaponry. Within the next few thousand years, human aggression could prove lethal to the life forms that had evolved, and were evolving, around the star systems of Alpha Centauri, Sirius and Vega. Conceivably, and in the inevitability of time, it could also prove dangerous to the Marregh/Riken. Rike, the second home-star, was only twelve light years beyond Vega.
Thus the purpose of the present study was threefold: first to understand the nature of this bizarre phenomenon of violent inter-species aggression; second to determine whether the flaw would be self-eradicating as, and if, the species evolved into higher levels of mental ability; and third to determine what could, or should be done if the species should stumble on to one of the simpler forms of interstellar travel while it was still burdened with its present murderous aggressive impulse.
The study had been under way for thirty-six earth years, covering two global conflicts which the humanoids referred to as World War One and World War Two. Both upheavals had been bloody, destructive, contradictory and bewildering, providing vast quantities of intercepted radio and television recordings for analysis and thought-comparison. The results offered only the vaguest conclusions, the speeches and proclaimed intentions of the world statesmen and military leaders in both conflicts had simply refused to map on to the patterns of events as they occurred. The principles of propaganda, lying, evasion and deceit were all equally unknown to the Marregh/Riken, and it took time before they fully discerned how all of these additional elements were extensively used in human political behaviour.
Now there was another major war, in the country which the humanoids called Vietnam. The rhetoric on both sides was as unhelpful as before, the causes as obscure, the reasoning as invalid, and so the ultimate technique of mind-melt had been sanctioned. The difference was that this time the study was not to be directed specifically at those who dictated the war, but at those who actually fought it. Mind-melt was to be achieved with subjects who were experiencing the full horrors of human conflict at the front line and ground level.
"Jarhl -” The mind pulse came gently from the far rim of the solar system, spear-headed by Revehl the Prime Focus, but with the full admonition of the Timeship behind it. "We know all these things.”
"We all know all things," Jarhl-One mind-pulsed back with uncharacteristic irritability. "Except for those things which none of us know.”
"Jarhl, we know and share your pain.”
"It was a tearing - like dying."
"True division is dying, when one becomes three, and each one evolves into three again."
"This is Different.” Jarhl-one had difficulty in making his mind pulse, his mental energy was drained. “My mind-brothers are not close in separate parts of our own body. They are locked into alien forms. They/we are weakened by the pain of separation. Natural dying is birth. This is not birth. It is not natural."
"You can recall them." There was reluctance in the mind pulse, but also empathy. "There is no compulsion. You can regroup."
"No." Jarhl-One felt the familiar triad of thought as he amplified it. "It is done. We can bear it. We will persist."
"What of the humanoid subjects?" There was concern for the alien life form.
Jarhl-One concentrated, strengthening the mind-link with his brothers, then he pulsed the thoughts outward.
"There is no apparent harm done. Both subjects appear totally unaware of the intrusions. Their minds are not as highly sensitised as our own. Their mental energy level is far below us.”
"Even so, the humanoid thought patterns distort and partially veil the thought pulses of your brothers. You must penetrate and act as relay. If you are tired you may waken Korhl, or Serhl.”
"They are my brothers. I will maintain the mind-link."
"So be it." The mind pulse was soothing, but expectant.
Jarhl-One concentrated on his report. "Jarhl-Three has entered the mind of a Viet Minh fighter named Vo Than Moi. This humanoid is in the state they call sleep. Jarhl-Two has mind-melted with a fighting man of the other side. He is a Lieutenant of the French paratroops who is named Rene Chauvel…….”
They flew into the jaws of hell, like blind lambs to the slaughter.
It was the fifth day of April, 1954, and Lieutenant Rene Chauvel of the Eighth Foreign Legion Paratroop Battalion should have been celebrating his twenty fourth birthday. Instead the French High Command in Indo China had chosen this particular night to drop him into the flame-ringed, blood-soaked, swamp-cum-furnace that was the beleaguered valley of Dienbienphu.
With him, sitting like dark shadows in stone along the uncomfortable benches inside the fuselage of the droning C 47 Dakota, were a further twenty-three legionnaire paratroops. They were a mixture of nationalities, some German, some French, two dark-eyed Algerians and a coal-black Sudanese, a scattering of men without past or background, drawn from all corners of the broken ruins of Africa and Europe.
Somewhere in the pitch black night, beyond the steel bowels of their own aircraft, and lost in the small armada of Dakotas and C-119 Packets flying the nightly hell-run of supplies and ammunition to the trapped garrison, were three more planes carrying twenty-four man batches of the Eighth Battalion. A total of ninety six relief men who would not even replace the day's dead at Dienbienphu, and each one with a less than fifty percent chance of survival. The Communist divisions under General Vo Nguyen Giap had already overwhelmed the outer strongpoints, and were tightening their stranglehold around the main French defence complex in the heart of the valley. Now Dienbienphu was a death-trap, drowning in mud, blood and flame, and all of them knew it.
Chauvel looked along the row of hard bleak faces opposite, searching for expression but finding none in the silent gloom. The legionnaires, like those in his own row, sat hunched and clumsy in their parachute harness with submachine guns slung from their chests and held between their knees. They were mottled robots in their camouflage battle-dress, each man adopting a pose of rigid relaxation, and a blank gaze that concealed any hidden fears. Their eyes were hidden under the bars of black shadow below the steel rims of their helmets, and so they betrayed nothing. Even the Sudanese was an impassive blind man. Tonight all faces were dark and he did not stand out from the rest.
Chauvel finished his scrutiny of the twelve men facing him and only two of them showed any response, just the slight shifting of their eyes towards him, and then immediately back again to face front. The Dakota rocked in a sudden air pocket which caused it briefly to fall, and their hands tightened around their weapons but no man spoke. Only one touched his fingers to the sick bag with which they had all been provided. Chauvel watched them and wondered why.
Why were they here?
Why were they prepared to jump to their deaths without a murmur of protest?
They could have refused to buckle on their parachutes; refused to pick up their weapons; or in the final moments refused to file on board the waiting aircraft at Bach Mai, the military airport at Hanoi. But they had not refused. They had not even considered refusal, when rationally it should have been the only sane thing to do. Why? Were they madmen, or heroes?
Chauvel moved his gaze along the row of faces once again, and decided they were neither fools nor glory-seekers. Were they then simply soldiers, obeying orders, following discipline, dedicated to duty?
Obeying orders perhaps, but dedicated to what duty?
Surely it was not a duty to France who considered them an army of mercenaries, their war an awkward embarrassment to be forgotten on the far side of the globe. France had betrayed them by refusing to send them finance or reinforcements and by forcing them to wage a cut-price war with too few men and surplus American-aid equipment.
The French politicians had vacillated and dithered, and in the final analysis done nothing definite about their war-torn colony of Indo-China. They had refused to commit themselves to any explicit political programme, or to any concrete military strategy. France fondly hoped that the Indo-China problem would be solved and the armies of the Viet Minh suppressed at no cost other than the shedding of mercenary blood.
No, Chauvel decided with a firmness that surprised him. These men were not throwing themselves on to an altar for the Glory of France. That might suffice for their officers, but not for the rank and file.
The question remained, worrying him, swollen out of all proportion as minor questions tend to be when major ones could not be faced. If they were not mad, and did not jump for glory or the honour of France, then why were they willing to jump at all?
Chauvel asked himself what bound them, and the answer was The Legion, and then he knew. They jumped because they were not individuals concerned with their individual skins, but because they were a part of The Legion; and a large part of them were already down there in the jaws of their own private hell. They jumped not for the politicians, or the generals, or even for France, but for each other. They jumped in the name of comradeship, and shared beers, and cigarettes and women; of shared hardship and shared sweat. They jumped because even if they did not know the names and faces of the men below them they had at least fought in the same battles, choked on the same red dust of the jungle roads, and bled the same red blood in the same, dimly-defined cause. They jumped because they could not leave their blood brothers to die alone, and because they were The Legion.
THE LEGION. The name was as good as any, yet it could have stood for any group of battle-trained men, welded together by intimate knowledge of each other, and by past deeds and actions, both good and bad, that had to be repaid. Ninety six paratroops would jump tonight because they were an integral part of a group, a part of The Legion, and because a man who abandons his brother in the hour of battle was a man in his conscience forever alone.
And the generals, and their clever black shadows the politicians, knowing so well the structure of a soldier's mind, and exploiting his loyalties as always, had grandly tossed them as sacrificial pawns on to the bloodied chessboard of Dienbienphu.
Chauvel realized that he had very little sympathy left for the generals; and for an officer schooled at the French Military Academy of St. Cyr, and descended from a long line of male ancestors dedicated to the military service of France, that realization came as a sudden shock. His father had fought as a major with the Free French Forces of de Gaulle, and would at least have been a lieutenant-colonel if he had not been invalided out of the army with a leg shattered at Amiens. His grandfather had died while still a captain in the trenches of the First World War; and his great grandfather had seen the beginning of French rule in Indo China as part of the naval squadron that had first occupied Saigon in the year of 1859. In the light of his rank and heritage, Chauvel knew that he was thinking treason, and yet treason was truth.
He pondered the thought for a moment, and then irony smoothed away the shadows of his doubts. It was all irrelevant now, for he was no less committed than the men around him. He too was one of them, and even more, for they looked to him for command. Even if it were possible for him to turn his back upon France and the generals, his men still depended on him for leadership. Like them, he would jump tonight for The Legion.
Wearily Chauvel closed his eyes, shutting out the blank faces opposite, trying to squeeze them, and the Legion, and all that was relevant to his present situation out of his mind. Being here was bad enough, without thinking about it. Too much of this sort of thinking could drive a man crazy. He tried instead to project his mind back to more pleasant thoughts in the past.
Thoughts of Suzanne in Paris and Lien Tha in Hanoi.
Suzanne Lasalle was nineteen, bright-eyed and vivacious with tumbling auburn curls, and without a doubt the most beautiful young woman Chauvel had ever known, or could ever hope to know. All of his recent leaves in Paris had been blissfully filled with Suzanne's company. They had danced and dined in the candle-lit restaurants of Montmarre, exchanged lovers’ kisses on the romantic banks of the Seine, sailed boats on the lakes of the Bois de Bologne, and loved wildly and passionately at every opportunity.
Of course it was all too good to be true. Suzanne had a sexual maturity beyond her years which delighted and amazed him, but the ways in which she flaunted her sexuality inflamed him with both jealousy and desire. He suspected that despite her avowals of undying love her favours were not reserved for him alone. Suspicion had become certainty on his last leave when he seen her dancing in one of their favourite haunts with another man.
Her partner was another officer of the Legion, a tall man, a few years older than Chauvel, resplendent in his Captain's uniform. Chauvel had paused in the cafe doorway, shocked and hurt, and, he realized bitterly, out-ranked. His first impulse had been to storm in and start a fight, but military discipline had held him back, that and the reluctance to make a scene which might drive Suzanne away from him forever. He had fumed for several moments as he stood watching, but Suzanne and her partner had eyes only for each other, and before either of them had noticed him, Chauvel had turned abruptly away and left the café.
He had telephoned her the next morning and she had joined him over coffee at one of the sun-splashed pavement tables along the Avenue Des Champs Elysees. The June sky made a tourist postcard of the magnificent Arc De Triomphe, and Suzanne was as vibrant and gay as the spirit of Paris itself. She greeted him with genuine pleasure and a sweet, warm kiss. Her chatter was cheerful and untroubled, but the dark cloud inside Chauvel had refused to disperse as he gave their order. Finally he had challenged her.
Suzanne had stared at him, faintly surprised, her large hazel eyes wide and innocent.
"I saw you," he repeated. "I arrived in Paris yesterday afternoon. I called your home but you were out. So last night I went out for a drink alone. I stopped at the Cafe Gabrielle, because it had so many good memories. But I did not stay for a beer. I saw you dancing with another man - a Captain of the Legion."
Suzanne hesitated, and then accepted the accusation with a shrug of her pretty shoulders. "That was Pierre, he is only a friend."
"You were dancing together, very close.” The image burned of their bodies embraced, their lips touching, only their clothes and the public place preventing complete sexual contact, but he could not bring himself to elaborate. His hands curled into fists which he should have used the night before as he finished angrily: "The way you dance with me.”
"Rene, please don't be jealous. There is no need. While you are away in Indo China I cannot stay at home all the time like some poor nun. I have to go out sometimes. I have friends. I like to dance. Pierre is a friend. We had a meal and we danced together. That is all. We are not lovers."
Chauvel did not believe her. His face revealed his doubts.
Suzanne smiled at him, reached out one hand and began to gently stroke the back of his clenched fist.
"Rene, don't be tiresome. I won't see Pierre again if it bothers you so much. Tonight you will take me dancing, and afterwards, I will make everything up to you. I promise."
He still did not believe her, but he knew she would keep her promise. And she had. The rest of that leave had been everything he could have wanted, if only he had not seen her that one time with Pierre.
Chauvel had not seen Pierre in Paris again, but two months after his return to Indo China he had recognized the tall captain in a hotel bar in Hanoi. He was in the company of another woman, a slim, fragile Vietnamese with exquisite almond eyes. The two were at a small, dim-lit corner table, sharing laughter, cigarettes and cognacs, and when they left it was arm in arm to go upstairs toward the bedrooms. Chauvel had watched them with anger boiling inside him that had still found no outlet.
He had returned to the hotel at the next opportunity, hoping to find Pierre alone, perhaps to pick a fight. He wasn't really sure. But instead he had found the Vietnamese girl alone at the bar. Some perversity made him approach her, and he soon found that she was not a whore as he had first supposed. She was a journalist, working for a French newspaper, and her name was Lien Tha.
Chauvel was convinced that Captain Pierre and Suzanne had been lovers. And he was equally certain that Pierre and Lien Tha were lovers. Somehow his anger, jealousy and perversity had all combined together in ways that he did not fully understand, and two weeks later Chauvel was sleeping with Lien Tha. It was a way of hitting back at Captain Pierre and Suzanne.
The flight from Bach Mai to the besieged valley close to the Laos border lasted approximately ninety minutes, and Chauvel felt a hollowness in his belly when the voice of the pilot came over the intercom to tell them that they were on the final approach, The Jumpmaster, a grizzled old Sergeant who had already jumped his fill, told them to stand up and be ready.
Chauvel felt like using the sick-bag, but no one had used one yet and he could not be the first. He could only be first in the exit line to vacate the plane and stood up to shuffle forward and fasten his snap hook to the cable running the length of the fuselage above his head, The eleven men in his row followed his example, the hooks clicking into place, their bodies pressing close in a tense line. Chauvel could hear the man behind him breathing harshly and could feel the man's submachine gun jabbing against his thigh. He knew the gun was loaded, and had to trust that the safety catch was on. That was all part of the Legion, a part of being a member of an elite group; you had to trust the man behind you, or beside you, and knowing that he also had to place his trust in you meant that you could never let him down, A minute passed, and then Chauvel’s ears caught the first sounds of artillery and belching flak, the aircraft shuddered in the first shock waves and the lights went out as the pilot made his final run in total darkness.
The jumpmaster pulled open the door, Cold air rushed into the belly of the Dakota, and the crash of guns and exploding shells were a nightmare crescendo all around them. Somewhere in the tumultuous darkness other planes were flying, also with their lights out, but the four Dakotas with their human cargoes were to make the first drop. The pilot throttled back and began to spiral down gently into the exploding hell that waited below,
Chauvel squinted his eyes against the rush of wind; and stared down into that pit of evil fascination. The red flashes of the communist field pieces buried in the jungle hills that rimmed the valley formed an almost complete circle of flame, and into the centre of that circle he was expected to jump. Tracer bullets came up towards him in crimson streams, and a shell that burst too close for comfort set the Dakota rocking and almost threw him out into the night ahead of schedule. Shreds of cloud whipped past, but overall the cloud was high, shutting out the stars but leaving a clear view below. The Dakota circled once more and gleams of red lit up the open doorway as more shells burst outside. The plane descended to six thousand feet and then another Dakota flying above and to their left suddenly exploded into a mighty crash of flame as a shell scored a direct hit, The smoking wreckage tumbled past in a sweeping dive and in the same moment the green light flashed once above Chauvel’s head, The Jumpmaster yelled "GO" and pushed him squarely in the back. Chauvel obeyed and plunged head foremost out into space.
He closed his eyes as he fell and counted briefly, one, two, three, and then he pulled the metal handle at his chest. For a split second nothing happened, and it didn’t matter. The moment of jumping was always the same, whether into bright blue sunshine or blackest night. He threw his soul to the sky, to the stars and the winds, and to God, and then awaited their verdict. It came with the sudden, violent jerk as the parachute billowed out into a silk dome above him and the straps tightened beneath his armpits and groin. His freefall stopped and he was dangling upright, the air was sweet and clean and once again the Gods had scorned to take him,
Above him the eleven men of the first row were already out of the aircraft and the second batch of twelve paratroopers was quickly following. By looking up and craning his neck backwards Chauvel could just distinguish the white blobs of their chutes in the darkness, Below the blackness was still gashed by the spitting flashes of the artillery, and right in the centre of that deathly circle was the tiny flame of the burning gasoline barrel that was his marker. The maze of barbed wire entanglements, the trenches and gun-bristling bunkers were lit at intervals by the white burst of flares.
Apart from tugging at his harness to direct himself towards the marker there was nothing that Chauvel could do to command his own fate until his feet touched earth and he thought briefly of the other parachute drops that had preceded this one.
Chauvel had served a little less than three years in Indo China, and when he had arrived fresh from France in the summer of 1951 the war had been going reasonably well. During the first six months of that year the French had successfully fought off three savage campaigns launched by the Viet Minh divisions of General Giap in the Red River Delta. It was felt that Giap had learned his lesson, and French morale was the highest that it had been since 1949 when the Red Chinese had started the supply of military aid that was to turn the Viet Minh from scattered guerrilla fighters into a recognized army.
However, defensive tactics were not enough to satisfy the Americans who were financing the French-fought war, and so the French had taken the initiative with a shock raid into Viet Minh territory outside the circle of fortified outposts known as the de Lattre line that protected the delta. The aim had been to occupy the town of Hoa Binh and cut off the Viet Minh from their supply routes and the rice-rich provinces of the south. Three paratroop battalions had jumped to occupy the valley on the Black River, and with them Rene Chauvel had made his first drop from the skies of Indo-China.
That one had been a perfect drop, the hundreds of white parachutes settling gracefully like a fall of silk snow flakes from the blue sky. Below the green rice fields were like lakes of emerald and there had been little resistance on landing. The paratroops had captured and held the area with casual ease, and when French ground troops had moved in to take over they had cheerfully withdrawn.
Soon, however, Giap had responded to the challenge and moved his regular divisions into the area. Hoa Binh became an unexpected defeat for the French and eventually had to be evacuated in a savage two-day fighting retreat,
In the following year the tide of war ran even more strongly against the French. The Viet Minh had massacred their outposts along the jungle-covered Nglia Lo ridge to the west, and a counter attack into the Viet Bac, the border area touching China that was the Viet Minh base land and the home of their Government in exile, burrowed deep into hidden limestone caves, proved a failure. The hundred mile thrust to the north was named Operation Lorraine. It achieved little and cost a thousand casualties.
It was up to the paratroops to win a victory, and they did so with Operation Hirondelle, an airborne raid on Long San which was again in the enemy heart-land of the Viet Bac. Chauvel had jumped with the first wave, and this time to a warm reception. Bullets spat up to meet him and he had answered with short bursts from his submachine-gun as he floated down. Some of the legionnaires descending beside him had cursed and screamed and died in their harness, but he survived. Men like skinny scarecrows in black pyjamas had suddenly burst out of a clump of fast-approaching bushes and began to run. Chauvel fired again, instinctively, and cut two of them down. In the same moment he saw that one man was unarmed; perhaps he was a frightened farmer, or perhaps he had thrown his gun away. It was too late to tell. Chauvel had landed badly and rolled clumsily to his knees, still firing blindly as the silk settled beside him.
The operation was fast, with limited aims. Their task was simple, to blow up the Viet Minh supply dumps in the area which they did with gusto. Afterwards they retreated smartly to the coast and were taken off by waiting naval craft. It was a classic strike and destroy action and the ever-confident paratroopers had cause to be well satisfied.
However one victory does not win a war, On the Laos border the Viet Minh were still in control, and were threatening the Laotian capital of Luang Prabang. It was decided that the route into Laos must be blocked and so on November 20th of 1953 three paratroop battalions had been dropped in to expel the Viet Minh and take control of the strategic valley of Dienbienphu. The final decision to launch the operation had hinged upon the fickle weather, but the skies had been clear and cloudless on that fateful morning.
The garrison had been swiftly built up into a formidable force, with bulldozers, tanks, artillery, supplies and personnel daily flown or parachuted in to the two airstrips. A full Colonel was flown in to command what was fondly looked upon as a raiding base for aggressive patrols into Viet Minh territory, and high-ranking Generals grandly flew in and out to discuss how they would thrash the enemy.
Giap, the Schoolmaster-General, once more picked up the nonchalantly thrown gauntlet, and began to move his infantry divisions into the area. By December it was accepted that there would be a major battle over Dienbienphu and the French High Command were jubilant.
For too long the war had been a frustrating and fluid affair, fought over shifting ground with towns being lost to the Viet Minh, re-taken by the French, evacuated, taken and lost again. The French armoured columns were restricted to daylight and the roads, while the Viet Minh guerrillas ruled the countryside and the night. After his defeats in the delta in 1951 Giap had wisely returned to the type of guerrilla warfare in which his followers excelled, and now they controlled five thousand out of the seven thousand villages in the delta plain. For too long the baffled French had struggled to come to grips with their elusive enemy who massacred their outposts at night but refused to stand up in the open and fight by day.
Now, at last, Giap was becoming bold enough to repeat his earlier mistakes. He was preparing for a set battle and an all-out offensive against Dienbienphu. The French Generals believed that it would be Giap’s long-awaited big mistake, and had gleefully anticipated a mass slaughter.
The mass slaughter had come and it was the French garrison and French troops that were being buried under the overwhelming ranks of the Viet Minh. The contemptible little schoolmaster General who had dared to challenge the proud knights of St Cyr had out-guessed and out-manoeuvred them at every turn, and had performed logistical miracles which they had not believed possible.
Now the French High Command quarrelled amongst themselves to decide where to apportion the blame for the disaster which they had brought upon their own heads. While at Dienbienphu men fought and died in an orgy of futile guts and glory.
The memories flickered at random through Chauvel's mind as he fell slowly through the night. The violent earth was close now and he began to concentrate on steering himself toward the smoking red flame that was his marker. His body was tense and buffeted by the shock waves of the exploding shells around him, and he realized grimly that this one was to be no picnic like Hoa Binh and Long San. Jumping had never been as bad as this before, and he tasted the first sharp, bitter dryness of fear.
Another shell burst close enough to send his body swaying violently beneath the canopy, and as he struggled for control red tracer fire streamed up toward him.
His fear was taking over, threatening to drown him. His whole body was sweating and flinching as he fought his parachute lines to straighten and re-direct his fall.
The parachute steadied, his body hung limp, but his terror was now a cold, paralysing vice. He tried to fight it by blanking out the present in his mind, to focus his mind away from now and the fear. Past parachute drops were no antidote or comfort, and he tried to focus his thoughts desperately on Suzanne - and Lien.
He needed only the erotic memories now, the vivid, passionate moments of love-making. He had to fill his mind with those images to keep the fear from swamping his whole being.
Suzanne, naked and ecstatic beneath him, her arms and legs wrapped tightly around him, her entire joyful body actively engulfing him.
Lien trembling as he kissed her smooth olive breast, his tongue gently stirring the warm brown nipple.
Tracer fire seeking his helpless body like swarms of angry red hornets.
Suzanne's open-mouth kisses, hot, moist and hungry, her nimble tongue darting and entwining with his own.
More shell bursts, pressure slamming him first one way and then another.
Lien crying out as he entered her, his own hips thrusting, thrusting -
Artillery fire, machineguns, mortars.
Suzanne writhing, heaving, responding. Himself thrusting, thrusting --
Flame, smoke, noise, darkness.
Lien gasping and moaning, her nude body slippery with sweat in the humid bedroom.
The night deafening. The earth dangerously closes.
Suzanne crying his name in the frenzy of climax.
Lien holding him tight, her body rigid, eyes closed and mouth open, yielding.
Instinct of danger. He forced his eyes open.
He was going to miss the marker.
The burning gasoline barrel was thirty yards to his left and the wind was veering him away. He yanked desperately at his harness straps, sensed rather than saw the ugly tangle of barbed wire that was directly below, and heaved hard to change his direction yet again. He was down in a black nightmare stitched together by the red tracer streams of a score of chattering machine guns, and then his feet were striking solid earth. He hit down on the edge of a trench and tumbled forward into its mud-walled depths.
It was another bad landing, but mercifully no bones were broken. He finished up sprawling, face down across a strange indefinable heap that squelched beneath him. A terrible, revolting smell struck his nostrils and sickened his stomach. As his canopy settled around him he tried to push himself up but his hand slipped on something wet. He recognized the stench of blood and in stark horror he scrambled frantically away. It was not only blood that he could smell, but also the smell of filth and rotting flesh, and he realized that he had fallen across a heap of dead bodies piled outside the makeshift morgue to wait whatever facade of burial they could get.
Where is your shadow now?
Rome overshadowed you
And even Rome is gone.
The stars still wheel the sky,
That watched you fall and die,
And cared as little for the fall of Rome.
Your ships that ruled the seas
And all the sea-fringed lands,
Even their bones have perished
Beneath the waves and sands,
And still the endless tide,
Where once your ships did ride,
And barely saw you go.
The wind that filled your sails
And carried far your fame,
Still furl the white-froth clouds
That flaunt above the main.
Carthage is past, and Rome is sped,
Mightier empires yet have fled.
The winds remain.
Where pride Carthage?
Lost beneath the ruins of Rome,
Unremembered by the heedless stars
Forgotten by the careless seas,
Dust-cloaked by the scornful wind
Where pride Carthage?
Oh proud Carthage,
Where is your shadow now?
This month I'm adding another free read first chapter.
Despite every effort of the Fire Brigade, and of Detective Sergeant Judy Kane who had been first on the scene, Helen Douglas had died. But it was not the fire that had killed her, Helen had been murdered.
Helen was the wife of Mike Douglas, an Assistant Divisional Officer at Granchester Fire Station. Judy is married to Granchester’s Station Officer, Ben Kane. The four had become close friends, and so for Judy the police investigation becomes a double nightmare with Ben and Mike heading the list of possible suspects.
The house was burning, but as yet no one had noticed the first curling wisps of smoke seeping in soft grey tendrils from the upper windows. In the nearby centre of Granchester the early morning rush hour was clogging the main road arteries with vehicles, but here on the Lark Meadow Housing Estate the traffic was slight. Most of the early morning commuters had already left, leaving a semi-ghost town, where the majority of garages and driveways were already empty. The large, four-bed-roomed house at the select end of the estate was set in its own lawns, edged with miniature rose bushes, and with a red Japanese maple catching the sun's rays in all its autumn glory. The tree itself might have been on fire, its natural splendour out-glowing the dull glimmer of red that was slowly brightening behind the drawn curtains.
Birds were singing, a paper-boy whistled in the distance. The first faint cracklings of the fire were no louder.
WDS Judy Kane was humming softly to herself as she drove on to the estate. Life, at this particular moment was pretty good. She was twenty-eight years old, fit and healthy, with short cut blonde hair and a figure that could still turn heads. She had just won her promotion from DC and felt that with luck and hard work she could go even higher. Last night she and Ben had celebrated by curling up on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a batch of travel brochures to plan a winter skiing holiday in Switzerland. Afterwards they had made love, gently and then passionately, without interruptions from either of their bleepers, and this morning she was still dreamily happy.
Today she would again be working with DI Harding, but even that thought could not spoil her lingering feeling of warm satisfaction. A year ago Flash Ron (as she privately thought of him), had been a serious pain, but if he chose to be petulant because he couldn't always work with another hard-case male, then that was his problem and she had tried to ignore it. Eventually, as she had gained in experience and confidence, Harding had become only a minor irritant. In fact, Judy was beginning to suspect that by now they might even be forming a grudging respect for each other.
The radio/telephone on the dashboard of the car broke into her thoughts. The calm message from the police control room informed her that there had been a three-car pile-up at the Barford-Granchester crossroads, but it was not for her. She was C.I.D. Two of the traffic patrol cars responded, and she could picture them speeding on their way. However, the interruption did remind her that she too was in a police car and on her way to the station, and she was running late. She speeded up just a little.
At the next T junction she turned left. The road ahead was long and straight, passing through ranks of neat, modern three and four-bed-roomed detached houses. Most of them suggested modest affluence, with frilled curtains, polished brass door furniture, and well groomed gardens and lawns. All was still quiet and peaceful, except for one thing.
The far end of the road was filled with thick black smoke.
Judy stared. The tune she had been humming to herself was instantly forgotten. Her wandering thoughts also vanished as though an ice-cold wind had swept through her idling brain. Her hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel as her arms and shoulders stiffened with the sudden shock.
"Oh, my god," she gasped softly.
For a second that was her only reaction. Then she saw the bright red of the flames lancing through the windows of the burning house. The smoke billowed writhing and evil in all directions. The second of shock was past and her foot stamped down hard on the accelerator as she raced toward the scene, and with one hand she snatched up the radio/telephone.
"Charlie Delta Five to control." She snapped her call sign briskly. "I'm on Carrington Drive on the Lark Meadow estate. There's a house on fire directly in front of me."
"Your message received, Charlie Delta Five." The voice of the duty control officer remained steady and unruffled, as always. "Can you give us some indication of the extent of the fire?"
"It's what Ben would call, Well Alight." After three years of marriage to Station Officer Ben Kane the Fire Service terminology came as easy to her as police procedures. She finished more precisely: "You'd better tell the Brigade to make pumps two, at least."
She dropped the r/t back on to its cradle as she skidded to a stop, mounting the pavement with a shoulder-wrenching jolt to leave the road clear for the emergency vehicles that would follow. She jumped out of the car, slammed the door behind her, and ran the last few yards. The heat hit her, the almost solid blow of a radiating energy field, and with it the second sense of violent shock as she suddenly recognized the house that was now pouring out flames and smoke clouds from its upper levels.
"Oh my god," She said again. And this time it was a heart-felt cry of personal anguish. "It's Helen's house."
On the neatly trimmed front lawn there was a white board with the words THE LOVE NEST engraved in black. The glass-paneled dark oak front door had polished brass furniture; letter box, ornate door knob, and the numbers twenty seven, now fixed by her horrified gaze, as though branding themselves for ever into her mind. These and the splendid Japanese maple left no room for doubt. She and Ben had been here often, for parties, meals, or just wine and cheese or coffee get-togethers --almost as often as Helen and Mike Douglas had come to them. The four of them had been friends for a long time, moving in the same social circle, inviting each other back and forth to their different functions.
She stared up at the windows in anguish, looking for movement, wondering whether Mike or Helen might be inside. A pane of glass cracked and shattered as she watched, and she was aware now of the roaring hunger of the fire. She stared around wildly, and saw another woman, not Helen, standing further back along the pavement. The woman, probably a neighbour, was also transfixed with horror as she stared at the fire.
Judy ran to the other woman and grabbed roughly at her arm, her fear for her two best friends causing her to shout desperately.
"Mike and Helen - do you know if they're inside? Have you seen anyone go in or out?"
"I don't know." The woman was anguished, biting her lip and almost in tears. "I saw Mrs Douglas last night. I think Mr Douglas has gone away. I haven't seen either of them this morning. I just don't know."
Judy left her and ran to the front door. Flames roared above her and another window shattered, showering shards of broken glass all around her as she wrenched at the brass door knob. The door was locked and too solid to break down and she was forced to back off from the heat and falling debris. The smoke stung her eyes and her cheek bled from a flying sliver of glass, but those hurts were nothing compared to the tumult of emotions choking her up from inside.
She realized that it was hopeless trying to make any entry from the front of the building. But if the full force of the fire was in the front bedrooms then there might be a chance from the back. She looked for the woman she has spoken to a few moments before and saw that there was now a small knot of horrified watchers.
"I'm going to try from the back!" She yelled hoarsely. And, trusting that someone amongst them would inform whoever arrived first to back her up, she ran for the wrought-iron gate at the side of the house.
The gate was open, leading as she knew on to a path that ran beside the house and round to the neat patio with its sunbeds and flower tubs, and the long back garden. She ran clear of the house and patio, trampling a bed of stately blue and pink lupins to get a clear view of the rear bedroom windows. They were intact, and although there was some smoke and she could see flickers of red deep inside, she felt room for hope. It looked as though the seat and full ferocity of the fire might still be confined to the front bedroom. She ran back on to the patio to the back door which led into the kitchen.
One professional corner of her mind was still functioning, and registered that the small pane of the kitchen window was broken close by the door, even though there was as yet no direct heat from the fire. The door was not locked, and with a mixture of relief and apprehension she threw it open and went inside.
The kitchen was neat and spotless, recently re-fitted in polished yellow pine. It was Helen's pride and joy. On Judy's last visit it had been filled with the rich aroma of a casserole, and roasting potatoes, and Helen had been preparing strawberries and cream while Mike uncorked the wine. Now there was only raw smoke that started her coughing and forced her down on to her knees. She remembered what Ben had often told her: smoke and heat would always rise, and if there was any breathable air in this kind of situation it would be down at ground level. The air was cleaner near to the floor and she pulled out a handkerchief to hold as a filter over her mouth and nose.
Crouching, she opened the door into the open plan dining and living room. The smoke was thicker but there was no glow of red, no actual fire. A quick look round showed that the ground floor was empty. She could hear the roaring of the fire above her and the crash of a falling ceiling in the bedroom. She knew with a sinking heart and rising terror that above her was an inferno, and that perhaps, at any moment, the ceiling might come crashing down.
Her heart was hammering and the tears were beginning to stream from her smarting eyes. Part of her wanted to go back and get out, to flee from the terror and the danger, but instead she ran quickly to the far door which she knew led into the entrance hall and stairway. She crouched low again, and from the memory of a past conversation she heard Ben quoting Fire Brigade lore in her mind, in a burning building firemen never initially grip a door handle, he had told her, for there could be damaged electrical wiring trailing down to touch the handle on the other side. In that situation the shocked hand would instinctively close into a fist, locking onto the source of the current and probably causing death by electrocution. Instead firemen always tested with the back of the hand. That way any shock would cause the hand to snap into a fist, but jerk away from the lethal contact.
She had forgotten with the first door she had opened, but now she tried to remember everything about fires that Ben had ever told her as she checked the second handle with the back of her hand, feeling heat, but no electric shock. Carefully then she gripped the handle and partially eased open the door, making sure the door itself protected her from any flashover. There was no nightmare burst of flame above her head, and so she risked a quick glance inside.
The heat hit her face and despite her handkerchief the smoke filled her throat and renewed her coughing. Except for the smoke and heat, and the coats on the hallstand, the hallway was empty. Her gaze shifted up the carpeted staircase and the renewal of fear went through her like a sharp, stomach-slicing knife.
It was an inferno up there. The flames glowed bright and red and hungry at the top of the stairs, and trailing over the edge of the landing on to the top step was one limp white hand, the long, slim fingers outstretched, as though begging mutely for help.
In Granchester fire station it had been a quiet night and the nine a.m. change-over of the duty watch had just taken place. The men of the night watch were climbing into their cars, shouting their farewell catcalls and departing, while in the appliance bay behind the two parked red-and-silver fire engines the oncoming duty crew lined up on parade. Each man had his fire helmet, fire-fighting jacket and boots, stacked neatly in front of him. Most of them were discussing the boxing match that had been, for them, the highlight of the previous night's TV. Two who were non-sporting exchanged bored yawns.
The burly figure of their Sub-officer appeared, clipboard in one hand, ramming his cap on to his blunt, short-cropped head with the other. Mick Duncan was the oldest sub-officer on the station. He had been passed over several times for promotion and transfer and it was generally accepted that he would go no further. But he was still a good, reliable sub, as well-liked as any by his watch. The crew became quiet and came smartly to attention when called.
Duncan began reading them their daily orders from the notes on his clipboard, beginning with their designated roles and places on the first appliance:
"Duty crew on the first pump: Myself, officer-in-charge; driver and pump operator, Fireman Willis; B A wearers, Fireman White and Leading Fireman Palmer; B A control, fireman -- "
He was cut short by the deafening warble of the alarm bells from the speakers on the wall above the watch room door, and the parade broke up as the line of men in front of him scrambled quickly into their fire-fighting gear. Willis, the designated driver, pulled himself nimbly into the driving seat of the nearest pump and had the engine started in seconds. Duncan shouted the names of the last two men to take the final places on the pump over his shoulder as he ran to rip the fire message from the teleprinter.
He collided with Station Office Ben Kane, the fire station's operational commander, who was moving fast out of the watchroom. Kane was a few inches taller than the sub-officer, but less bulky, so that both of them averaged out at the same weight. Kane had fair hair, blue eyes and an easy grin. They were old friends who had come up through the ranks side-by-side, and they read the printed slip together.
It was the call to the house fire on Carington Drive, with the cryptic, adrenalin-pumping addition -- "Make pumps two. Persons reported trapped."
Half a mile away Geoff Morrison was carefully painting the gable end bargeboards of a large Victorian house on the Cambridge Road. He had no fear of heights and one of the compensations of his job on a bright, sunny morning like this one was the bird's-eye views he often enjoyed over the town centre. From here he could clearly see the soaring cathedral spire and the more stubby stone and flint towers of the town's three churches. Granchester was an ancient market town, grown rich in the middle ages on wheat and wool. The elegant and stately spire was the expression of land-held wealth and piety, the more solid and dependable looking towers the centres of common prayer, or so it always seemed to Morrison. The view was not exactly Oxford or Cambridge, but against the background of blue sky, drifting white clouds and an undulating patchwork of green, gold and brown fields, Granchester from this height did sometimes have a peaceful, dreaming quality.
Morrison was normally a cheerful man, who could frequently be heard whistling as he worked. A self-employed man he worked alone, was well liked, and was usually busy. Today he painted with slow concentration, and his face wore an abstract frown. He was a man deeply preoccupied with his own thoughts, or with worries on his mind.
His range of vision did not extend to the Lark Meadow Estate, where he might have been alerted by the dark smudge of smoke now staining the sky above Carrington Drive. Instead the peace, and his own stressed thoughts, were broken by the urgent bleeping of the retained fireman's pocket alerter clipped in its neat black leather case to his belt. Morrison hesitated for a moment, as though startled or uncertain. Then he began to scramble quickly down his ladder.
Across Granchester more bleepers were sounding as the rest of the town's retained firemen abandoned whatever work they were doing, running to their conveniently parked cars, roaring the engines violently, and racing to the fire station to turn out the second pump.
For Judy there was no time for any conscious decision. She ducked her face down to the carpet, filled her lungs with the relatively clean air at ground level, and then, holding her breath, made a desperate dash up the stairs.
As her face came above the level of the landing it was seared and blasted with the heat, terrifying her with the thought that her own hair might burst instantly into flames. She snatched the limp wrist with both hands and heaved with all her strength, pulling back down the staircase and dragging the slack body of Helen Douglas over the edge of the landing.
Helen was wearing only a flimsy nylon nightdress, and its bottom edge was already on fire.
There was another crash as another part of the ceiling collapsed, and the flames roared higher above the landing. Judy was blind, her eyes now screwed shut against the streaming tears. Helen was sliding face down over the top stairs and then her body lodged. Judy heaved the dead weight over on to her back and then got both hands under the other woman's armpits. She was choking now but she dragged Helen with her as she continued down the staircase. Her shoulders hit the hall wall and she moved along it until she found the gap that was the doorway that allowed her back into the living room.
There she collapsed on to her knees, lowering her face to the floor again, and gasping to suck in more air.
* * * * *
The sound of two-tone horns heralded the arrival of the first fire engine. The small group of on-lookers at the front of the house had now swelled to about a dozen people and they hastily cleared the way. A white, Fire Service car with a blue light flashing led the big red and silver engine by a matter of seconds.
Ben Kane stepped out of the car and went directly to the boot. He spun his peaked cap inside, replaced it with his white station officer's helmet encircled with its single black band of rank. He kicked off his shoes and began pulling his leggings and boots on over his uniform. As the pump drew up behind him he shouted to the watching crowd.
"Is there anyone inside that building?"
The neighbour who had been first at the scene took an uncertain step forward.
"We don't know. A woman from that car ran round the back to find out. The front door is locked."
Ben looked toward the car, noticing it for the first time and recognizing it immediately. Only an hour ago when he had left home the smart blue saloon had been parked on his own driveway. Judy had waved to him from the kitchen window, blowing him a kiss that had brought back all the wonderful memories of the previous night. Now the car was here, but Judy was nowhere to be seen. Ben also recognized the burning house and swore softly under his breath. Mick Duncan was now beside him, shouting orders back at the fire crew as they scrambled out on to the road.
"Mick, get your B.A. team round the back." Ben had already started running and threw the explanation over his shoulder as he disappeared round the corner of the house. "That's Judy's car. I think she may have gone inside."
The Sub-Officer turned to hurry up the two firemen wearing breathing apparatus who were standing ready and they quickly went through the set procedures of starting up their sets, checking their gauges, and fitting their face masks. All three hurried after their Station Officer.
Ben found Judy in the back garden, and felt a huge surge of relief when he saw that she was safe. She had dragged Helen Douglas well clear of the burning building and was kneeling over her and desperately applying mouth to mouth resuscitation. Judy was on the point of collapse, her face white and streaked with smoke and tears.
"I'll take over."
Judy heard him but refused to move aside. For the past few minutes she had been frantically breathing into Helen's cold, slack mouth. She had alternated every two inflations with five firm double-handed downward thrusts of heart massage on Helen's chest, and twice she almost believed she had felt a response. Her own senses were reeling but she worked with the blind belief that just a little more effort would bring Helen back to life. To stop now, even for a few seconds while Ben took her place, might mean that they would lose her.
"Judy, it's okay. I'll take over."
Ben spoke more urgently and almost pushed her out of the way. Judy knew that he was right. He was fresh and fit while she was barely able to breathe for herself, and yet still she felt a mixture of guilt and resentment as she reluctantly gave way. She had been praying for Ben to arrive and help her, but now that he was here she did not want to give up her own despairing efforts. Ben squeezed in between his wife and the crumpled figure in the now dew-soaked nightdress, and Judy crouched, gasping hoarsely, on her hands and knees beside them. Ben cupped his hand under Helen's neck, trusted that Judy had already cleared the airway, and closed his mouth over the chalk white lips. He blew firmly to inflate Helen's lungs.
Mick Duncan appeared with his B.A. team, and a fourth fireman pulling a hose-reel and carrying a breathing apparatus control board. Duncan changed direction when he saw the three figures on the lawn and ran toward them. Ben looked up at him briefly between inflations.
"Mick, get your lads in to make a search. And get the oxygen resuscitator."
Duncan acknowledged and ran back to his crew. The four hurried to the still open kitchen door, where the two B.A. wearers handed over their tallies and disappeared inside, taking the hose-reel with them. Duncan took temporary charge of the control board, filling in the times of entry and the cylinder pressure readings for each man, and sent the fourth man running back to their machine for the resuscitator.
Ben continued with the mouth to mouth resuscitation, although instinctively he knew that it was hopeless. When the resuscitator arrived he fitted the mask over Helen's face and opened the cylinder, turning up the regulator to force the maximum flow of pure oxygen directly into her mouth, but still there was no response.
Judy had controlled her coughing and regained some of her breath. She reached out one hand to feel Helen's wrist but there was no pulse. She pressed hard with her fingertips, seeking the flicker of life that a few minutes ago she had momentarily believed was there, but still there was nothing. Her eyes met Ben's and she shook her head wretchedly.
Only then did she notice the blood on the back of her left hand, the hand that had supported the back of Helen's neck when she had begun the initial attempt at mouth to mouth. She turned her hand over and saw more blood smeared on her palm, but there was no cut on her own hand.
Ben saw what she was doing, and slowly removed his own hand from the back of Helen's neck. He too had a palm covered in blood that was not his own.
And Helen Douglas was very definitely dead.
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I wrote and published this article in 1999, since then the old Ipswich wet dock has been extensively renovated and changed but the feature is still an accurate picture of all the fun, fantasy and nostalgia of a major British Maritime Festival
FESTIVAL OF THE SEA
BY ROBERT LEADER
At first it was Ipswich Sail, and then Maritime Ipswich. The name was changed to give more scope to the range of vessels that could be encouraged to participate. But by any name it will still be East Anglia’s most spectacular maritime gathering of tall ships and small ships, sailors and shantymen, and all things salty, steam-driven and wind-blown, that sing or shout of our glorious heritage of the sea.
The festival celebrates the maritime history of Ipswich, a long tradition stretching back to the seventh century when the town and port were probably founded by the powerful dynasty of Anglian Kings who are best known through their burial site at Sutton Hoo. The town and trading centre were then called Gippeswic, meaning the trading centre at a corner of the Gipping; the corner being the sharp bend where the River Gipping turned into the Orwell, and out into the estuary toward the sea. That corner is still the site of the wet dock today.
For almost two hundred years the area suffered from the vicissitudes of Viking raids and Danish rule, and then the port prospered through the middle ages as a major outlet for East Anglian cloth, wool and agricultural produce. King John granted Ipswich its charter in the year 1200, and the town’s seal showed the first ship to have a fixed rudder instead of a simple oar.
In the thirteenth century war galleys were being built here for King Edward the First. In 1607 Bartholomew Gosnold sailed from Ipswich on a voyage to North America where he founded the first English settlement at Jamestown. In the eighteen-forties the new wet dock was built to accommodate the tall sailing ships and the new steamships of the nineteenth century, and the Port of Ipswich took on a new lease of life as trade increased to every corner of the world. In 1940 there were barges from Ipswich among that gallant fleet of little ships that sailed to bring about the evacuation from Dunkirk.
All of this, and much more, is gloriously remembered in what has now become this annual reunion and festive salute to all things nautical
Ipswich Sail in 1997 attracted two hundred vessels of all shapes and sizes, and some thirty-two thousand visitors passed through the gates of Ipswich’s wet dock during the two day festival to enjoy its multitude of attractions. In 1998 Maritime Ipswich drew three hundred vessels and thirty seven thousand visitors to see the dragon-boat regatta, and to watch the tall ships Phoenix and the Earl Of Pembroke taking on the roles of pirate raider and naval champion in a spirited display of kidnapping, cannon-fire, and swordplay. It was all enthusiastically-acted, blood-stirring stuff, and in a swashbuckling finale the bold navy captain led his cutter crew in boarding the pirates to rescue his trembling daughters, and to bring the despicable Captains Nasty and Hookpiece to justice.
It was a display watched by thousands of visitors lining the quayside, and the imposing steps of the Victorian Old Custom House with its columned facade, all shrouded in the lingering mists of cannon smoke as the booming echoes of the broadsides drifted away.
This year’s event due on the 19th and 20th of June promises to be even more spectacular than the previous two, with a Sea Creatures theme that will involve sharks and whales, diving bells and mermaids, and the brand new star of the show, Inky the Octopus. Jan Davies, the incredibly hard-working co-ordinator of this ever-growing annual event expects even more ships, and more visitors.
“We’re getting bigger and bigger,” she says positively. “We’re very enthusiastic and confident. The numbers keep going up and up. This year we’re expecting up to 400 ships and forty-thousand visitors. And we’re expecting by the Millennium to reach fifty thousand.
Jan spends sixty-five percent of her time almost all the year round in planning for this magnificent two-day celebration of East-Anglia’s sea-going tradition, with its heady mix of waterborne and quayside entertainment. The tall ships are so popular that their engagement diaries are fixed from one year to the next, and the armada of vessels that descend upon Ipswich for the festival are drawn from all over the world. In addition the shanty singers, Morris dancers, clowns and bands, workshops, Punch and Judy, the fun fair and the circus, and sky-blazing firework displays that end each day, all have to be organized.
It all has to come together at the end of June, but the marathon task of ensuring that it does has to commence as soon as the last of the empty coke cans and pop-corn bags have been cleared away at the beginning of July.
“Putting a festival like this together is not a simple business like booking a park and hiring a band,” Jan explained. “This isn’t purely a marina, and although Ipswich people know that, the majority of outside visitors probably don’t realize that Ipswich is still a working wet dock. It has multi-varied ownership, so first you’ve got to get the backing and cooperation of all the factions that own and work the dock. Then you’ve got to transform the working dock into a festival site, and although the planning and organization is spread throughout the year, the actual transformation has to take place in a matter of days.
“It really is a major operation. Last year, right up until the Tuesday before Maritime Ipswich, the area where the festival theatre and the stage were finally erected was still covered with stacks of timber. That Friday we had to get the timber out, set up the stage and bring in the flowers. At the same time we already had two tall ships in, but there was a huge tanker moored just past the Custom House and still loading grain.
“The harbour master tried his best to get the tanker moved on the Friday-morning tide, but then she had to have some maintenance work carried out, and so we couldn’t get her moved until the afternoon. The boats that were coming in couldn’t moor there until she had cleared the dock, and in the meantime we had to barricade the area off to comply with health and safety regulations. So it’s all very hard work. To walk the site on the Saturday before the show, and then walk it again on the Thursday and see the difference is almost unbelievable. It’s like a miracle!”
A miracle it may be, but it keeps happening. 1997 saw the French sailing ships well represented with three of their splendid square riggers. Last year saw the magnificent Sail Training Association schooner The Malcolm Miller paying a visit, together with the brig Phoenix and the three-mast barque The Earl of Pembroke, the two ships which played their roles so rumbustiously in that classic pirate battle. This year the tall ships will include the polish barquentine Polgaria, and the Shtandart, the replica of St. Peter The Great’s brigantine which has just been completed in renamed St. Pertersberg, and will be calling at Ipswich as part of her maiden voyage. And, as always, the upper reaches of the dock beyond The Old Custom House, will be a waterborne mass of the rigging and masts of the smaller ships, all decked out in their multi-coloured finery of flags and bunting.
The shantymen will be back, singing of old ships, and fearful storms, fishing and whale-hunting, and all the old working songs that seamen used to sing to keep time as they hauled up the sails or hauled in the anchor. No doubt there will be a few grog and ale drinking songs as well, and plenty of opportunity to join in with both the choruses and the consumption.
Although there will be plenty to interest and involve the adults, the highlights again will cater for the children. The fancy dress parade will feature sea creatures in place of pirates, so there will be plenty of little mermaids vying for first prize with little sea serpents and little sea monsters. There’ll be a funfair and a vast assortment of entertainments. There’s an aquarium and an undersea exhibition, and of course, Inky the Octopus, the new top attraction specially commissioned for this year’s show.
Next year Maritime Ipswich is planned to form part of Millennium Maritime Britain, the huge national millennium festival of the sea. It will begin at Canary Wharf where a ten day festival is planned, and then the whole flotilla of vessels will circumnavigate England with Ipswich as the first of twenty showcase festivals that will be their ports of call.
The whole plan is to get all of the large and small maritime festivals involved in the one big event, and Ipswich, as far as the boating world is concerned, is definitely one of the major highlights of the round-Britain voyage.
As Jan Davies says, Maritime Ipswich just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and better and better.
Have you seen the film DEEPWATER HORIZON yet?
It’s a fantastic fiery film about an oil rig explosion and the resulting inferno and environmental disaster. It would make a perfect prologue for a film of my novel SEASCREAM. In SEASCREAM the new warm water currents generated by an oil rig explosion penetrate deep into the ocean to disturb a colony of prehistoric plesiosaurus. The monsters move and eventually surface off the coast of Cornwall. The story is DEEPWATER HORIZON, plus the guys that ate jaws as a passing snack, with a Romeo and Juliet love story between two warring fishing families.
When the hungry horrors cause the wreck of a giant supertanker it seems as though setting fire to the oil spill might be the only way of driving them back where they came from.
The film rights are still available. (If you are an American producer you can always substitute Cornwall with the coast of Florida.) In the meantime you can read the first chapter of SEASCREAM for free below.
It was out there somewhere offshore in the thick swirling mist which filled the pitch black night.
It was a diffused sound which could have come from any direction, or from all directions
AS THOUGH THE SEA ITSELF WAS SCREAMING
The sea creatures were not unknown. They were frequently sighted and recorded in the days of sail when ships moved silently under wind power, or lay becalmed in remote parts of the world's vast oceans. The sightings stopped when the ships were fitted with noisy thudding engines and kept to direct but relatively narrow sea lanes which the creatures learned to avoid.
But the creatures were still there, far down in the abyss depths, where they might have remained, unseen and undisturbed, if Aztec Three had not exploded to turn the sea above them into a sea of fire.
The creatures moved east across the Atlantic. They were angry and they were hungry, and for those who had to live and work upon the sea it was the beginning of a savage, screaming nightmare.
The gas bubble had been born more than one thousand feet down below the bed of the ocean. For a millennium of years it had been trapped motionless under enormous pressure, but now the three hundred foot thick layer of hard, compressing cap rock had been drilled through to reach the vast deposits of oil in which the gas bubble floated. The bubble was pure hydrogen and after aeons in lifeless limbo in the stygian darkness it began slowly to move.
Its progress was invisible and unknown, drifting slow millimetre by slow millimetre through the huge undersea reservoir of oil. Time and its direction were meaningless. Another century or another thousand years were as irrelevant as the journey itself. The bubble simply moved, following the pull of the strange new forces which had broken into and changed its world, Ultimately it reached the drill hole where the two miles of steel pipe had penetrated from the surface.
On the last part of its journey the bubble was drawn faster, the sucking pull increasing and the pressures all building up inexorably behind it. No longer drifting it was hurtled into the upward swirling vortex to eternity.
The production rig straddling the new well had been named Aztec Three and was an offshore platform operated by Pemex, the Mexican State oil monopoly. During the late seventies the discovery of immense oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico had promoted the Mexican oil industry into one of the biggest in the world. Their own proven reserves were the sixth largest in any part of the globe, and encouraged by this veritable bonanza, together with eager American Investment, Pemex had expanded its operations throughout the entire Caribbean. Wherever the drilling rights could be bought or leased the Pemex rigs flourished, and Aztec Three was the most far‑flung outpost of a booming oil‑industry empire. It was also the first rig to step outside the Caribbean and be sited on the Atlantic side of the Windward Isles,
And Aztec Three had struck oil, another black gold bonanza with estimated reserves of up to a thousand million barrels.
For five months the rig had been bringing up oil at the rate of twenty thousand barrels per day, but on the day of the disaster the round‑the‑clock drilling operation had been stopped. The wellhead was due for its first routine overhaul and maintenance cheek. Various pieces of piping and safety valves had to be cleaned, checked for wear and efficiency and if necessary be replaced,
The first priority was to kill the well, which meant stopping the oil flow. This was achieved by pumping heavy liquid mud from the big side tanks on the platform down through the steel pipeline into the well. The density of the mud had to be finely judged until its sheer weight was enough to plug the well and hold down the upward thrusting pressure of the trapped crude oil and natural gases straining to escape from below.
The next step was to remove the Christmas tree, the gigantic fire hydrant arrangement of valves which was clamped on to the producing well, The Christmas Tree had to be removed for inspection, and while this was taking place the hard rubber mass known as blow‑out preventers would be snapped shut on top of the open tubes to seal off the well head. The changeover was the crucial moment the few vital minutes of real danger, and before making this move the engineers on Aztec Three had waited for five hours to be sure their well was stable with no sudden surges of unexpected pressure from below.
When the five hour safety delay was over the engineers began their work. They did not know ‑‑ could not possibly have known ‑‑ that the fatal gas bubble was lurking two thousand feet down in the volatile darkness.
By killing the well the fast, upward rush of the hydrogen bubble had been checked, but it had entered the pipeline and being lighter than the surrounding column of crude oil it had slowly squeezed its way upward. Finally it had by‑passed the oil and encountered the downward thrust of the liquid mud.
Slowly, infinitely slowly, the gas bubble continued to rise, pushing up against the mud, finding its way through and allowing the pressure of the bottled crude oil to build up behind it.
The first sign to reach the working platform of the oil rig was the slowly rising level of the liquid mud in the mud tanks. At first it was so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and for a full minute it was not noticed.
It was during this minute that the last bolts were removed and the Christmas tree was swung clear of the well head.
The mud level in the tank rose faster and bubbles began to appear. A roustabout watching from a higher level suddenly realized what was happening and uttered an urgent shout of alarm.
For the men working at the wellhead one look into the mud tanks was enough. The level was rising visibly and the first streaks of thick brown crude were showing through the heaving grey surface of the mud. Their luck was out and disaster was already overtaking then.
The engineer in charge of the operation yelled frantic orders and in panic the work team grabbed for the blow out preventer and tried desperately to manoeuvre it into position. They had less than three minutes and the seconds were fast running out.
The hydrogen bubble was gaining in momentum. The surge of mud and oil overflowed the tanks and slopped on to the platform. The well-head team found themselves fumbling, dropping vital bolts and tools, but right from the very beginning they had been given no chance at all. The first spurts of oil jetted out from the well head, spraying them with thick grey brown slime, and then they fled as the well blew out with a force which hurled the partially positioned preventer cap clear across the platform.
The blow‑out was uncontrollable and within seconds it was a hundred‑foot high geyser which was drenching the entire rig with its downpour of black rain. The alarms were already sounding as men ran from all directions to abandon the rig.
The rig master and his senior officers and engineers made hopeless efforts to maintain some discipline and order, but mostly they were ignored in the blind, yelling scramble to launch the life rafts. The men who had been working on the upper levels saw the very real possibility that they might be left behind in the general panic and became even more reckless and desperate in their race to reach the main deck.
One of these was a maintenance engineer who had been working to tighten up a wind‑loosened radio mast high up on the black steel derrick tower which topped the rig. With his heart thudding with fear he had tried to restrain the speed of his descent on the dangerously slippery ladder rungs inside the derrick. By the time he had climbed down to the upper catwalks his red overalls were saturated with oil. Somehow he had, lost his hard hat and the oil was flowing out of his hair and over his face, half blinding him and almost choking him. As he swallowed a mouthful of the filthy mixture he saw through the black downpour the first of the life rafts being launched far below. He still had a long way to go and a cry of anguish spilled up from his gagging throat as he broke into a fast run along the catwalk. The perforated steel planking beneath his feet was smothered in oil, but now the fear of slipping and falling was by far the lesser of two evils.
And inevitably he did fall, His feet skidded from under him and he screamed as he grabbed at a hand rail to stop himself from shooting out into space. His hands slipped along the rail, his body twisted painfully in mid‑fall and he hit down on the catwalk on his shoulder, slithering forward and groping for another hold as the top of the next gangway rushed to meet him. Somehow he braked, wedging his toes into the peroration holes in the steel planking. He stopped with his face thrust out over the top of the gangway but an object of black steel carried on past him and soared out in a slow falling arc to the decks below.
The scream froze on his lips as he watched it fall. He knew what it was and with sickening certainty he knew what was going to happen next.
He had been carrying the heavy steel wrench in the long thigh pocket of his overall, and the sudden absence of its weight against his leg helped him to recognise it as it had blurred past him. Everything was frozen now, time, the breath in his body, and even the wild pumping of his heart. He was suspended in that agonised second before death. For he knew he was dead. They were all dead.
As if in a slow motion dream he saw the wrench move in a circle and drop. The wrench started to spin, turning gracefully in mid air as it fell. And then it met the steel rail of another catwalk two decks down with a resounding clang.
It was steel upon steel, the fatal spark. The up-rush of hydrogen in the great geyser of escaping oil ignited, and Aztec Three was blown up into a million red hot fragments in the most spectacular rig explosion the oil industry had ever known. Not one man survived, and where the rig had been, a vast, spreading sea of flames leaped high on the bulging surface of the ocean.
With the rig totally destroyed there was nothing which could be done to control the raging fire-spill inferno. Within a matter of hours the monstrous red flame tongues were rising a hundred feet above the well site, and, within a week the blazing oil slick covered a, hundred square miles of ocean. And with every hour it was spreading wider. Until the pressure eased from below there was no hope of getting another rig close enough to drill a relief well, and even when that was achieved it would still take many more weeks before the oil reservoir could be tapped again and the flow diverted so that the wild well could be capped.
In the meantime the fire-spill continued to expand, a hundred foot high wall of creeping flames advancing on three fronts and blanketed by a pall of thick black smoke which turned even the days into perpetual, night. Mercifully the initial winds had been favourable, and instead of threatening the long chain of islands encircling the Caribbean the fire-spill was slowly pushed out into mid Atlantic.
For the peoples of the Windward and Leeward islands, and for the oil industry and the governments of Mexico the USA and Venezuela, this was a huge relief. The disaster was not as catastrophic as it might have been if the firewall had engulfed the inhabited islands, and the prevailing easterly winds had proved a blessing. Soon the ecologists and the environmentalists were the only ones left gnashing their teeth and making an ungrateful howling. The media made a seven day sensation out of the story, but with no coastline endangered it soon ceased to be news.
The governments and oil industrialists of three nations argued over the best ways to disperse or contain their fiery problem, while the rest of the world lost any immediate interest.
Unfortunately the ecologists and the environmentalists had some valid points. Their views were sought, debated and forgotten, but the dangers they feared did not go away. Vast areas of the ocean were being warmed up as the fierce heat radiated eastward from the gigantic fire blanket on the surface, and the violent changes in temperature and current movements began to have unseen effects.
The ocean waters are never still, but are constantly moving in a complex pattern of currents stirred by the forces of the winds, the rotation of that earth the gravitational pulls from the moon and sun, and the differing densities of cold and warm water. The superheated waters from beneath the fire-spill injected a new, random factor, some of it being circulated on the existing currents, and some of it causing whole new current patterns as it encountered waters of different temperatures.
The currents were not confined to the surface water. They curved deep through all levels, through sunlight, through twilight, to the abyss. Meanders from the main currents often broke away to curl back and form spirals toward their point of origin. Smaller eddies would spin off the spirals and gradually reach to all parts of the ocean. So it happened that one of the new currents of warm water generated by the fire-spill slowly made its way out into mid Atlantic, circled deeper through a thousand miles of ocean and finally curled back westward to penetrate into the freezing, abyssal darkness of the Puerto Rico Deep.
By the time the warm water current had completed its long involved journey from its source down through twenty‑seven thousand feet to the bottom of the Deep, it was capable of raising the sub‑zero temperatures at that depth by only a few degrees. But it was enough to disturb the creatures.
They were a prehistoric colony which had survived here for millions of years. Once, their ancestors had been warm‑blooded, flesh‑eating surface creatures, which had inhabited the upper surface waters of their world, then had come the great ice ages of advancing glaciers, which had brought doom and extinction to their land‑walking counterparts. Most of the surface‑feeding sea creatures of that long forgotten era had also perished, but a few had adapted by going deeper in search of food, and gradually evolving into the essential cold-blooded creatures of their new environment.
Now the slight temperature increase could not harm them, but it irritated them, making them uncertain. It moved them from their deep familiar haunts causing then to embark upon a lost, blind pilgrimage to nowhere. Their tiny brains could not know that they would have fared better to remain where they were. Instead they moved up from the depths and began to travel eastward across the Atlantic.
To buy and read the rest of the book follow the link on my Horror books page
I spent twenty years as a retained fireman on call with the Suffolk Brigade so when I started writing for the Suffolk Journal it was almost inevitable that I would write a piece on the Fire Service. It’s hard to believe now that this was more than twenty years ago.
BY ROBERT LEADER
It’s three o’clock in the morning and you are wrenched out of a cozy, dreaming sleep like death catapulted out of a coffin. It’s mid-winter and outside your bedroom window a full-scale blizzard is raging, and East Anglia is doing one of its credible imitations of the frozen Arctic. Your brain is shattered, and your multitone pocket alerter is shrieking its urgent bleeping.
Somewhere out there in the howling, hostile night, there’s a blazing inferno, or a piled-up road traffic accident with bloodied human bodies and mangled vehicles scattered over black ice -- or perhaps it’s just a slice of burnt toast setting off somebody’s over-sensitive automatic fire alarm. You won’t know until you get to the Fire station, and whatever it is, you have to respond to the call.
That was just one of the joys of being a retained fireman, on call 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. And it’s not just when your nicely tucked up in bed that the inconvenient call out comes. Emergency situations happen when they happen. The bleeper has no respect for those most intimate moments of your private life, no coyness about whether you’re in the bath, on the loo, or even making love.
Make no mistake, carrying a Fire Service bleeper is a definite pain, constant interruptions dominate your life, and elicit howls of frustration from your luckless spouse. And yet, most of those who carry one would not be without it. I’ve collected my own Twenty Years Long Service and Good Conduct Medal from the Suffolk Fire Service, and I have no regrets. In fact, now that I’m retired and bleeperless, I find I miss the damned thing.
Now I can actually finish every meal I start, take the time to soak and luxuriate in a hot bath, and sleep peacefully right through every night; but sometimes I would just rather be riding that big red engine again, with the blue lights flashing and the adrenaline pumping as I struggle into the harness of a breathing apparatus set. It was often hard, dirty, hot, and even dangerous work, alternating with the frustration of the “Mickey Mouse” calls, as we dubbed the false alarms, the routine of small chimney and grass fires, or the boredom of just waiting on stand-by. But in action or waiting you are always a part of an Elite Team, always ready for the Big One.
It’s hard to know precisely how many lives the Fire Service saves. A “Persons Reported” message gets the blood pounding quicker than anything, but mercifully live person rescues from burning buildings are relatively rare. The most common life or death situation is the road traffic accident. Here you work to free casualties as quickly as possible, without adding to or exacerbating the injuries they have already suffered. The final battle will usually be carried out by surgeons at the nearest hospital, but you have the satisfaction of knowing that if you have worked carefully and quickly enough, then you will have added to that person’s chance of survival as the ambulance ferries them away.
On one occasion we arrived on the scene just as one of the crashed vehicles burst into flames. The driver was trapped helpless behind the wheel, his feet crushed up between the foot pedals, and I shall never forget his horrified face, framed in the broken glass of the shattered windscreen and wreathed in tongues of leaping fire. Two of us hit the road running to whip the hose-reels, always the quickest means of attack, from either side of our machine, and I know for certain that on that day we did save a life.
Of course, for all of us Old Timers, our year of pride and glory was the hot summer of 1976. I was part of the fire crew at Brandon, and through July and August I never finished a single meal or slept a full night at home. We were in the heart of Breckland and ran till we were exhausted from one forest fire to the next. We finished that scorching summer with a plane crash. A Phantom jet from USAF Lakenheath nose-dived immediately after take-off with a full load of aviation fuel on board. In those tinder-dry conditions it set four square miles of fir plantations alight. Adrenaline-pumping stuff indeed!
In 1979 I transferred to Bury St. Edmunds, then a three-pump station, with the second and third pumps still manned by retained crews. In March the following year, at four-thirty in the morning of the 19th, the Bury St. Edmunds Sports Centre was completely destroyed by fire, an incident involving seventy men, fourteen major pumps and a turntable ladder. The fire had started in the cafeteria end of the upper building and when the first pumps arrived strong winds had swept the flames through the full length of the roof.
The first breathing apparatus teams to go inside were quickly pulled out again when the roof started to collapse. I went in twice with the second waves of BA teams allowed in after the roof was down, hauling a fire-fighting jet up the concrete central staircase that gave us some protection from any further collapse, but there was no way to beat that particular fire. Fifteen hours later we were still there, sweat-soaked and smoke-blackened, wearily damping down a huge pile of twisted girders and steaming debris.
But we didn’t really lose that fire. As any fireman will tell you, it’s still a good stop if you save the foundations!
So was it all worth it? Of course it was -- and there are always vacancies for those who can still do it. Most of East Anglia is covered by retained fire stations where crews are on bleeper call as and when they are needed, and even the few full time stations also need retained back-up. A full fire-crew is six fire-fighters, which means that to allow for sickness, holidays, and those times when you just can’t respond, the ideal is for twelve fire-fighters to be on call for each pump. However, the demands of most modern employers mean that not many people in full-time employment can make the total commitment needed for what is technically a part-time job so many stations are often short of crew.
Actually, it’s not quite a total commitment. It is recognized that even retained firemen are only human, so you will only be expected to make 65% of your station’s total number of calls. Training is usually an initial one week course, and then a two-hour drill night once a week.
So if you are a fit and healthy insomniac who doesn’t mind interrupted meals, and interruptions to all those other delicate activities which ordinary mortals expect to conduct in peace and privacy, then why not give it a go? Serving your community brings its own reward, and just one life saved, or one rampaging fire stopped in its tracks, makes it all worthwhile. Plus you’re almost guaranteed a cheerful, wise-cracking camaraderie that you won’t find anywhere else. London’s Burning got that part right at least.
I know that I’d do it all over again, if only they’d let me.
A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL MY READERS.
In December I put up the last chapter of SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY. Well, not quite the last chapter. The good news is that in putting up the book chapters on this blog I have again made contact with Tim. He is currently running fishing safaris on Lake Nasser in Egypt. (Look up the full details on his website at www.african-angler.com) Tim is keen to resurrect the book with a new third section on the highlights of all the following Siafu expeditions he organized through the seventies and eighties. We’re working on that together and hope to get the book published under a new title, OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA.
In the meantime I have to decide how to continue this blog. Over the past eighteen years I have published over three hundred feature articles in the East Anglian county magazines, the old, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire Journals, the Essex Magazine, and currently the Suffolk/Norfolk Life. I realize that for people outside East Anglia this is a foreign country and so I intend to go back to the beginning and put them all up here, alternating with some of the poetry that originated in my travelling days.
My first article was LORDS OF THE DANCE, a feature on Morris Dancing which appeared in the May 1988 issue of The Suffolk Journal. It was published with the first seven of my photographs. Since then I have had over two thousand of my photographs published.
LORDS OF THE DANCE
By ROBERT LEADER
From May to September you will find them all over England, outside pubs, on village greens, at folk fairs and festivals, feet flying, bells jingling, thwacking sticks or waving handkerchiefs, flamboyant costumes whirling and weaving in circle and line dances that have evolved from the pre-Christian mists of pagan Britain. The dances are a celebration of the cycle of the seasons, for hunting and fishing, of Spring and Harvest, of fertility rites and rites of passage as ancient as Stonehenge and the druids. The dancers are, of course, the Morris Dancers, the modern day Lords - and Ladies - of the ritual dance.
Symbology abounds, greenery and maypoles for the resurgence of nature and the renewal of life. Circle dances to represent the changes of the seasons, the passage of the sun or the phases of the moon, or perhaps just the spirit of the community. Much of the true meanings are lost in the past, in the instincts, experiences and emotions of our long dead ancestors, and the explanations are now best guesses or logical deductions.
The themes are world wide, and in England Morris Dancing seems to have reached the height of its development around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Then most of the dancing would have been village based by agricultural labourers celebrating Christmas, Plough Monday (The first Monday after Twelth Night when the fields were ploughed and the crops were planted), May Day and the completion of harvest. Through the seventeenth century the dances were boosted by inter-village competitions, and by the injection of new factory sponsored teams, where clog-dancing was introduced in the new industrial towns. The clogs were initially the only footwear the mill working men possessed, but they were ideal for stamping out a heavy, noisy rhythm, and so many Morris sides still wear them today.
Morris dancing almost died out during the First World War, due to the vast numbers of young men who perished on the bloody battlefields of Europe, and it was only the introduction of female dancers which kept the traditions going, leading eventually to the modern day folk revival. A few areas such as the Cotswolds resisted the new mixed side trend, preferring to stay male only. All male sides can get much more robust, especially in the many stick battle dances that are possibly derived from the concept of summer beating back winter, and may deliberately try to break each other’s sticks. With ladies involved the mixed sides tend to be just as enthusiastic, but perhaps a little less aggressive.
In Suffolk alone there are almost twenty sides with strange names like Lagabag, Barley Brigg, Danegeld, Devil’s Dyke, Flying Tatters, Gyppeswyck Garland, Haganeth, Green Dragon, and the Haughley Hoofers, to name just a few.
Usually a Morris side needs around twenty members to be sure of fielding a regular dancing eight with at least two musicians favouring melodium and drums. Most of them will practice regularly in winter and dance out at pubs, festivals and street fairs at least once a week through the summer. Traditionally most of them will dance at the crack of dawn on Mayday, perhaps in a farmer’s field, although some prefer to wait to catch an early bird audience in the centre of one of our bustling market towns. The rest of the time they will dance for the fun of it, and perhaps the sheer joy of working up, and then slaking, a good thirst.
Most of the dance routines performed by the Suffolk Morris sides are derived from the more traditional dancing areas of England, but Suffolk ingenuity means that they are often given a new style and flair of their own. Danegeld, who are based at Woodbridge, wear black trousers or skirts and yellow shirts and socks, female waistcoats are green and the male waistcoats are red. Their vividly colourful dances are a form of North West clog morris which originated in Lancashire and Cheshire.
Some are processional dances associated with the ancient customs of well dressing, others celebrate rituals like the changing of the rushes, one of the many forms of dance that once took place within churches. Before Cromwell and the puritans it was not uncommon for folk dancers to perform inside the churches, or to dance around them in circles of unity.
Danegeld, who will celebrate their tenth birthday in October,(1988) take their name from Danish Gold, the extortion demanded by the Danes in the eleventh century as an alternative to their raping and pillaging your town or village. It was perhaps the first known protection racket. Danegeld’s tongue-in-cheek variation of the principle is that if you don’t put money in their hat they threaten to dance again.
Green Dragon Morris, who are based in Bury St Edmunds, dance in tatter coats and black faces. The tatter coats, jackets sewn with a complete covering of brightly coloured strips of rag, or tatters, represent the tattered poverty of the original dancers, the agricultural labourers or factory workers who had only rags to wear. Today the streaming tatters are also popular for their colourful whirlwind effect as the dancers leap and twirl.
The custom of blacking their faces is generally held to have originated from the dancer’s need in some circumstances to disguise their identities. Just as the modern day groups need to pass round the hat to cover their costs in transport, instruments, costumes, and hiring halls for winter practice, so many of the mediaeval dancers had to beg to survive. Blackening their faces meant that they were not so easily recognized when work became available again and they had to face their prospective employers. Also their pagan posturing became looked upon with disfavour when the puritans came to power, and it was not necessarily a good thing for the church and civic leaders to know exactly who the dancers were.
Most of Green Dragon’s dances come from the Cambridgeshire borders, although combined with any other style that takes their fancy, including the creation of “traditional” styles of their own. There is nothing static in folk dancing, like everything else that is alive and vibrant, it evolves.
One of the Cambridgeshire traditions is Molly Dancing. The “Molly” was a man dressed as a woman, who usually partnered the “Squire”, in dances that deliberately aped and ridiculed the more genteel, Mozartian waltzing of their betters. Many dances, and especially the mummers plays that go hand in hand with Morris Dancing, were cheerfully disorderly and satirical, reversing the rules and roles of rural society, and generally taking the mickey.
Today’s Morris dancing is a feast of colourful, traditional entertainment, of noisy music and dance that is joyful and vigorously energetic. Its devotees are drawn from all walks of life. Green Dragon’s dancers include a computer operator and a carpet-fitter, a radiographer and a schoolteacher, a nanny and a doctor. All they need in common is a little rhythm, a great deal of physical energy, a love of life and a great sense of fun.
And why do they do it. The obvious reason is to keep our national dancing traditions alive. It’s also a fantastic way of keeping fit. It’s a great day or evening out with convivial company. It’s an opportunity to dress up and play to the crowd. It’s the ultimate stress-buster, because dancing is an exhilarating and happy way to escape into the thrill of the moment.
It could lead to travel. Danegeld have danced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Luxembourg, Normany and Germany. They simply present themselves at the local tourist information office and ask if they can dance in the town square. To celebrate the inauguration of the new Stenna Line hover-speed service the side danced on the quayside in Holland.
And of course, there is always the possibility of romance. When Pip Conen, a lady dancer with the Green Dragon Morris, fell in love with Adam Garland, a male dancer from the long-established East Suffolk Morris, both sides turned up in full regalia to provide a ceremonial arch of honour, and then danced outside the church. Dancing at weddings, especially when it is one of their own, is one of the things Morris dancers do best.
If you fancy having a go, then contact a bagman. The bagman is the one who carries the bag with the paperwork and money, a sort of secretary-come-treasurer.
(Look up the sides on the internet to find their contact details.)
SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LADER
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: SIAFU IS BORN
There was only one way to pull Siafu and myself out of the red and that was to promote an immediate return trip to England using the same four Land Rovers. There was a tremendous amount of work to be done before my ancient indestructibles were fit to tackle the overland route again and I had to practically re-build each vehicle. At the same time I placed more advertisements in the South Africa Press. Thanks to these and the publicity I had been given in the Rhodesian press when we had made our jubilant entry into Salisbury I gradually began to pull together enough adventurous spirits to form a new expedition. Some of them were South Africans and Rhodesians, travelling of course on British passports, and there was the usual sprinkling of Australians and New Zealanders.
During the six months that I spent in South Africa organizing the return trip I stayed with the Hooper family who very kindly allowed me to use their home as the base of my operations. Peter was still working in London but during my stay he flew out to South Africa on a brief visit and I was very happy to met up with him again. My dept to the Hooper family is a very large one for they gave me support and encouragement at a very trying time when I needed it most. My fledgling idea for turning Trans-Africa into a viable business enterprise was struggling to survive and most people still considered that I was crazy. However, the Hoopers gave me moral support and allowed me to run my course. There was a standing joke between Mrs Hooper and myself that she was my Southern Hemisphere Mother, and indeed it was more truth than a joke.
Gradually the new expedition took shape and with the money paid by my new companions in fares I was able to purchase the necessary food and spares and pay off some of my debts to my original team. By this means I managed to reduce my total debt to eight hundred pounds.
I still had Andy Robertson to help me in running the show but my hardest task was to replace Allan Crook. Allan had continued his travels by sea to Borneo, where he had joined another Land Rover party driving overland to Australia, and so I needed a new mechanic. Not just any mechanic, but a good bush mechanic who could improvise and keep my vehicles moving under practically any circumstances. It was a headache, but one that was finally solved when Don Townsend, an old school-friend and another expatriate from Kenya answered my advertisement in the press. Don was working in South Africa but was keen to visit England. He was a big, stalwart character, an ideal man to have on the trip, and more to the point another brilliant mechanic. I signed him up immediately.
It was in October of 1969 that I set out with Andy to lead my battered convoy of reconditioned Land Rovers back across twelve thousand miles of Africa. We by-passed the delicate Rhodesia-Zambia border by circling through Malawi and here we stopped for a few days by the lake to remove every made in Rhodesia or made in South Africa label from every single item of our food and equipment. We cut the tags out of shirts and clothing, hacked the giveaway words from rubber tyres and clipped the labels from literally hundreds soup packets and food can wrappers.
That return trip proved much the same as the trip down except that the amount and the variety of mechanical breakdowns increased. However, I had again picked a splendid team who tackled the journey as an adventure and a challenge in which it was up to each one of them to help get the expedition through. They all relished every minute of it; the hard work and the campfire parties, the dust and the mud and the cold beer at every stop, the Congo roads and the Malindi nights, the difficulties and the delays, and the ever changing panorama of Africa with its diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna and people.
In the Congo we had trouble again at Monga. The Congolese officer in charge of the garrison there was blind drunk when we arrived and because he enjoyed the presence of our girls he refused to let the party cross the river. He insisted that we all stay to drink with him instead. We eased out of that situation by passing round a bottle of cane spirit drugged with sedatives from our medical chest. While we pretended to take sips he took hefty pulls and finally passed out.
In Tamanrasset we ran foul of our old friends the customs officers when they found that one of our party was smuggling a revolver. I had warned everybody of the folly of trying to carry a gun and now there was nothing I could do to help him. He was jailed for two months and had to pay a fine of four hundred and fifty pounds to get out.
Finally, after another journey of three months, “Henry”, “Sarah”, “Maggie” and “Matilda” all limped wearily into London. During the last few weeks the whole expedition had again been desperately short of money but again we had arrived safely at our destination. Reluctantly I put the four Land Rovers up for sale and with the proceeds I succeeded in paying off the last of my debts and breaking even.
Now I had to review my situation yet again. I had no debts but I had no assets either. Without my Land Rovers I had nothing except the fact that I had led two successful expeditions across Africa and proved that my project was feasible. I started to look around for someone who would back me financially and this time I found the support I needed. Errol Baker, a good friend and at one time my managing director at “Samorgan” decided to invest in Siafu. He was joined by Gilbert Brown, another old colleague who had worked for an associate firm during my “Samorgan” days. They put up the hard cash to purchase new vehicles and equipment and again with Andy Robertson I led two more successful expeditions to and fro across Africa.
We hit a new problem in crossing the Oubangui at Bangassou. The ferry we had previously used had now rotted through and sunk. Undaunted we hired a fleet of native canoes, placed planks across them athwart ships and gingerly drove our vehicles onto those make-shift rafts. It was a risky business paddling our own improvised ferry across the wide sweep of the river, but we made every crossing without mishap.
In other spheres the trip became easier. The civil war in Nigeria was over and both Central Africa and the Congo became much more settled. The Siafu ant painted on the white door of a Land Rover eventually became familiar over the whole overland route and past experience and old contacts helped to smooth our way. With new vehicles and a sound knowledge of the hazards and terrain each trip became a little less difficult than the last, although Africa itself remained the same magnificent adventure.
In May of 1970 we were at last able to open an office at Abbey House in Victoria Street as a permanent base. And SIAFU EXPEDITIONS was registered as a Limited Company with Errol Baker, Gilbert Brown and Tim Baily listed as directors.
From this point on Siafu Expeditions were making regular Trans-African safaris, each one lasting three months between London and Nairobi and vice versa. Each safari consisted of approximately twenty-five young people in four Land Rovers. Plus an experienced expedition leader and a competent mechanic as second in command. Our prices were all-inclusive of transport, all the necessary equipment for cooking and camping, and all game park fees, camping fees and ferry tolls. All the organization and planning was done by Siafu, but once the expedition left London or Nairobi the expedition members were on their own. It was their trip and it was up to them to run it, for it was our endeavour to offer adventure and a challenge. The men took their turns at driving the vehicles, carrying the water and erecting the tents; while the girls did the bartering in the native markets and cooked the meals. In the event of a real emergency or an expedition leader being taken ill I was always ready to fly out personally and take charge, but otherwise it was our policy to give our expeditions free rein to show their own mettle.
Now that Siafu had pioneered the way there were soon other companies moving into the exciting new field of Trans-African travel. The route was getting easier but Siafu continued to run expeditions the hard way, opening up new routes to avoid the advancing spread of civilization. We began running expeditions down through Tunisia and entering Algeria via Djanet, and from there making the wildly beautiful but unmarked crossing over eight hundred miles of vividly painted sandstone desert before rejoining the main through route at Agadez. The Djanet crossing took an extra three days and had to be made by compass bearings with the help of Toureg guides. Economically, we were told, Djanet is crazy. Those extra days mean extra costs and the passenger on his first Trans-Sahara trip will never know the difference if we take him by the cheaper but less spectacular main road. My answer always reverted to the basic principle of Siafu – our aim was always to offer young people genuine adventure and to show them the best of Africa. We were a part of Africa and not just another commercially-minded company selling holidays.
In the shifting moods of Africa it became Siafu policy to explore every new route that became politically possible. Wherever there was something new to be tried in African experience or Trans-African travel, then Siafu would attempt it.
As we grew we expanded our ambitions. In addition to our regular overland expeditions Siafu would also contact out to private expeditions with a definite purpose. We could arrange specialized climbing expeditions to tackle Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro, or short purely photographic expeditions in search of any specific animal. We were the experts with all the necessary knowledge, vehicles and equipment and the experienced personnel to outfit any type of expedition anywhere in Africa. We were ready, and able, to cater for zoological or archaeological, or any other scientific or university research teams who needed to penetrate into the more remote and difficult regions of the continent.
Siafu soon became linked with the Association of World Learning. For any group that wished to promote a greater understanding of Africa; whether it be by studying prehistoric rock painting in the Sahara, living with the Congo pygmies, or combing the Ruwenzories for those few remaining gorillas, Siafu was always ready to undertake the organization of such an expedition. We could guarantee the safe and efficient transport of its members to the site of their researches.
Siafu in the mid-seventies was a thriving company, with many thanks due to the early generosity of my fellow directors Errol Baker and Gilbert Brown. Our vehicles were the best and the personal contacts I had built up over the past few years had ensured reasonably smooth sailing through all the political frontiers we had to pass.
However, the overland journey through Africa is never certain and will never be easy. To make that trans-continental journey will always be a challenge and an unsurpassable adventure. In an age where man has left his footprints on the moon Africa can still offer untrodden regions of forest and jungle. Africa is mystique and excitement, freedom and peace and nature untamed and timeless.
And even in our safe, comfortable and insulated welfare state world, I believe there will always be young men and women ready to respond to the magic call of Africa. For the young man or woman who truly wants to discover his or her own capacity, strengths and weaknesses, there is no better testing ground than Africa. Under expedition conditions true character must emerge and be strengthened.
On a Siafu expedition there is much hard work to be done: sand, mud, dust, heat and tsetse flies to be faced. But on the credit side there is the experience of a lifetime: the close circles of talk and laughter lit by the red glow of the camp fires, the blue skies that burn above beautiful desert isolation, the mountain peaks whose snows dazzle under the equatorial sun, the vast grassy plains dotted with wildlife, the tangled forests with their green and mysterious depths, and the continuous pageant of fascinating indigenous peoples.
All these, I can testify, are the rewards of Africa. But most of all, he who discovers Africa the hard way, the Siafu way, will also discover himself.
So ends the original book.
However, the good news is that in putting these chapters up on The Far Horizons I have again been able to make contact with Tim Baily. Tim is now running fishing safaris on Lake Nasser in Egypt. You can check out his website at www.african-angler.net
Tim is still keen to see the book published and we are now working together on a third section telling all the highlight stories and dramas of the later expeditions that continued to run all through the seventies and eighties. There are some fantastic tales here for Africa never fails to surprise and delight.
So watch this space.
Look out for the Book.
It’s going to be called:
OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA