THE HYMN OF LIFE
In church and cathedral, on each Sunday morn,
Hymns fill the rafters and sweet praise is born,
High up to Heaven, on glad tides of song,
Float voices of Faith, a million times strong.
Faltering and failing, my own voice is small,
I know some of the words, but I don’t know them all,
In uncertain moments I lose the tune’s theme,
Or else my mind wanders and drifts in a dream.
But the gaps are all filled by the voices around me,
The harmonious whole is all that surrounds me,
And perhaps when another voice misses a note,
In filling that gap is where I contribute.
Perhaps it’s like that in the Great Hymn of Life,
The Song of Creation, with its joys and its strife.
We all seem so pointless, but we each play a part,
Like the links of a chain, or the beats of a heart.
When one of us fails, or misses a cue,
With all of us trying, someone will win through.
The Great Hymn of Life will go on and on,
Eternally noble, eternally strong.
This month's free read first chapter is the second book of my Vietnam series EXTINCTION'S EDGE. Together the six books tell the complete story of Vietnam as seen through the mind-melting techniques of the alien Marregh/Riken. Book Two is entitled THE YEARS OF THE WARLORDS.
The alien surveillance continues as the Marragh/Riken sanction the third mind-melt with Vu Phan Quang, the corrupt politician first encountered by Phat Sang in a Hanoi refugee camp. Quang escapes from the horrors of the communist victory in the north to reach the dubious safety of Saigon and immediately becomes embroiled in the battles of the three rival groups who fought for political control before the USA threw its support behind the South Vietnamese government headed by Ngo Dinh Diem.
The bloodshed and suffering resume as the warlords tear apart the new Vietnam, while the Time-watchers struggle to understand the motivation behind the madness.
Rene Chauvel, the first mind-melt, returns to Saigon as a war correspondent for a Paris Newspaper, and Quang becomes captivated by Chauvel’s new wife.
The second mind-melt, the orphan girl Phat Sang, survives the Great Terror of the North Vietnamese Land Reform campaigns to become a refugee again in South Vietnam.
MIND-PULSE: 9E XV723.
PROGRESS REPORT: EARTH/A/IC/V/ KORHL-ONE Z53
In the beginning Marre had been a vast planetary ocean. There had been no continents and no islands, just the endless sun-warmed seas. On the ocean floor there was cataclysmic violence, great quakes split open vast trenches and chasms, volcanoes swelled and burst, emitting writhing streams of undersea lava that boiled the tormented waters. There was great diversity of temperature in the erupting depths, coupled with fearful currents and shock waves.
Millennia passed. The planetary core began to cool, and became calmer. The sea-beds settled, with longer breathing spaces between disruptions. The first life evolved, a simple life form that multiplied by division. It did not diversify; it yielded no division between predators and prey. The natural dangers crushed, or cooked, or dismembered its excess numbers.
Millennia passed. The core was stable. The Marregh filled the life-giving waters. The first glimmers of intelligence dawned. As each life form divided the sum total of its knowledge continued. There was always new knowledge to be learned, but knowledge once known was never forgotten. There was no necessity for re-learning.
Millennia passed. The Marregh constructed undersea bulwarks, excavated their own trenches and enlarged selected caves. The results of their labours gave them added protection from the undersea quakes and shock waves that still endangered their ocean world. They developed manipulative tentacles, with the need for cooperation their mental energy was stimulated and their mental powers increased.
Millennia passed, the Marregh could exist on minimal resources, but even so their vast numbers began to strain the life-supporting potential of their ocean environment. To compensate they learned to extend the duration of each life form before sub-division, effectively slowing their rate of multiplication. With longer individual life came growing mental power, mind-links were bridged between the generation lines. The Marregh became telepathic.
Millions of years went by. The star around which the ocean planet Marre revolved began to overheat. As the star burned more brightly and fiercely the seas of Marre began to evaporate, the waters being steamed off remorselessly into space. As the ocean diminished islands began to appear, and then continents of rapidly baking rock and mud. Large colonies of the Marregh were trapped in the smaller, shrinking seas. Vast migrations began, and where the rising land barriers had completely cut off some of the newly-formed seas it became necessary to emerge for the first time from their liquid environment.
They could not survive outside the seas, and so they built sea-filled vehicles to carry them across the hostile terrain. Many perished as their first crude vehicles crashed and split open, plunged over dry cliffs, or simply broke down to become stranded and immobile.
Millennia passed. Their star continued to overheat. The seas continued to shrink. The urgent need for survival forced the advance of desperate new technology. They surveyed their solar system and located a second planet with inhabitable oceans that was twice the distance of Marre from their dying sun. Again the Marregh mass-migrated in a new generation of space vehicles which carried them to their second planetary home.
Millennia passed. Their dying star was an expanding red giant. The process of evaporation that had extinguished the oceans of Marre began to be repeated on the new planet. In renewed desperation the Marregh were forced to look beyond the confines of their own solar system.
Circling a young star they had called Rike they located another ocean planet which appeared hopeful. But hope was twelve light years away in the intervening vastness of space.
Centuries passed. The Marregh could now think as one focussed racial mind, and all their mental effort was concentrated upon solving the problem of the great leap from one solar system to another. They explored all the possibilities of space and time, and finally came to understand the principles of time-slip and time-warp.
The first timeships carried them to Riken-Four with a bare few hundred years to spare before their first star boiled dry the last ocean on their second home planet. By then Marre had already been totally engulfed in the bloated red mass of awesome fire. Two million years later the old star collapsed and exploded in a spectacular supernova.
By then the Marregh/Riken, as they now called themselves, were exploring the far reaches of the galaxy in their timeships. They mapped every planet with life-supporting oceans, and in many they left new colonies of their own kind. Never again would they be at the risk of extinction because of a dying star, or a drying planet.
They surveyed the Earth, but its saline waters were polluted with oxygen. They passed on.
Millennia passed, and then from the ignored planet they detected a strange and unexpected surge of radio wave activity.
Ever curious, the Marregh/Riken came back.
Korhl-One understood now what Jarhl had been through. Telepathy only conveyed up to eighty percent of the actual physical experience. For the experiencing mind there was an excruciating, agonized edge to the pain that cut sharper and deeper to the very core of his being. Normally each Marregh triad divided at maturity, the second and third minds separating in their own compartments of the body vehicle, each of them to eventually evolve into a new Marregh triad while the first mind slowly declined and deceased. Mind-melting with an alien life form was only possible in the period prior to natural separation when the minds were fully developed, although the Marregh body was not yet ready to divide. The departure of the second and third minds left those compartments of the body vacant, and all the stress and shock to the combined system was felt in full by the first mind which remained. It was worse, much worse, than Korhl-One had expected.
Jarhl and Serhl floated bedside him, their mind pulses impinging gently as they sought to soothe and sustain him. Korhl now felt a unique intensity of fellow-feeling with his two companions. He and Jarhl fully understood each other, and Serhl was destined soon to join them. They had become, he searched for a definition and found it in the memory of one of the mind pulses that had come from Jarhl-Two and Chauvel, they had become an elite.
He was aware of Revehl and the Timeship awaiting his report, but first he concentrated on strengthening his mind links with the planet below. Korhl-Two and Korhl-Three had each in their turn made a millisecond timeshift. It was the only way to transfer to another mind, for the Marregh/Riken could not exist for more than milliseconds between minds. Again both mind-melts had been achieved without either of the Earth hosts showing any awareness of what had happened.
When he was satisfied that both of his mind brothers were undamaged and functioning clearly he turned his own mind outward, pulsing his report to the far reaches of the solar system.
"We are successful. Korhl-Two is now with the Buddhist priest who is called Thich Quang Duc. Korhl-Three is with the Vietnamese male Vu Phan Quang.”
'We are uncertain about this." There was a ripple of questioning behind the focussed mind pulse from Revehl. "Why were these subjects chosen? We understand that neither of them are participants in the fighting, and also that the monk is extremely old."
"The war appears to be temporarily over now that the French have been defeated at Dienbienphu,” Korhl-One mind-pulsed his explanation carefully. "However, the signs are that on many levels conflict will continue. The humanoid feelings of anger, grief, frustration and outrage are all extremely volatile."
"But why chose a priest? This humanoid is passive. He has withdrawn from these conflicts."
"The mind of the priest is a rich storehouse of historical knowledge and religious lore. It will repay a detailed study.”
“The purpose of our study is to understand the innate aggression of this species -- to learn why they are driven to fight and destroy each other." The collective mind-pulse from the Timeship was heavy with criticism.
Korhl-One paused. He felt the agitation in the mind pulses that were now coming up to him from Korhl-Two and sent calming pulses down in return. Then he relayed his mind-brother's defence outward:
"The mental nature of this species is extremely complex. Because they develop from birth ignorance into separate minds they evolve with different beliefs about the way things should be, and the way things are - any two can have different understandings of their own situation. These differences in what they call religion and philosophy are the proclaimed causes of much of their large-scale fighting. Their perceptions of their past history and the injustices they see there are also claimed as causes for their madness."
"Much of this we already know from interceptions of their radio and television waves."
Korhl-One hesitated. He was uncertain of how to respond to disapproval. "I/we feel that this study within a learned mind will be fruitful.”
"And this other one?”
"Vu Phan Quang has powerful political ambitions. The Earth qualities of aggressiveness and selfishness which are most alien to us are strongly represented in this man. He too will repay a detailed study."
"This recommendation was made by Jarhl-Three?"
"Yes. For a short time the child Phat Sang and the man Vu Phan Quang were refugees together. Jarhl-Three sensed that the man was a suitable study for the next mind-melt."
"Why has Jarhl-Three remained with the child?"
There was more doubt in the cold mind pulse from Revehl. Jarhl-One was aware of Korhl-One's uncertainty and felt it necessary to intervene and answer on behalf of his mind brothers.
"It seems that attractions form between ourselves and our hosts." The vibrations of his mental pulsing betrayed Jarhl-One's own perplexity at the phenomena. "The humanoids have simple mind structures compared to ours, but their emotional and nervous systems are much more complex. They are much more physical than we are. And this and the insulated state of their minds leads them to develop different temperaments and characteristics. Thus there is a form of uniqueness to each humanoid. My mind brothers find this of great interest. They believe that no other humanoids will be exactly the same as Chauvel and Phat Sang with whom they have formed attachments. They do not want to return until it becomes necessary.”
"We must consider this." The central mind pulse was cautious, and behind it a flutter of conflicting opinion.
Jarhl-One felt a tug of loyalty toward his mind brothers that may have been against the race and the Timeship. It was a slight feeling but one that was rare enough to be uncomfortable. "Jarhl-Three believes it will prove useful to study one of these creatures as it develops from childhood to adulthood." he mind-pulsed defensively. “Jarhl-Two also believes that there is much more to be learned from Chauvel. The Frenchman is angry and deeply involved. I/we do not think that he has finished with Vietnam."
"We will consider.” The closing mind-pulse from the Timeship was abrupt and again cold. "In the meantime Serhl-Two and Serhl-Three will remain with the observation capsule. Future mind-melts will only be made with humanoids who.are engaged in actual fighting.........
The Hanoi office of Cathay Pacific airlines was crowded when Quang entered, mostly with Chinese businessmen and foreign nationals, although there were a few prosperous looking Vietnamese. Quang felt conspicuous in his shabby shirt and trousers beside all these lightweight city suits, but he took his place quietly behind a group of French civilians in the fluid, shapeless queue. At the head of the line a flaccid-faced American was flourishing his wallet before the booking clerk and saying briskly.
"I want three seats on the next available plane to Saigon. That's for me, my wife and my daughter."
The clerk was a dishevelled young man who looked as though he was on the point of a nervous breakdown. He said in the voice of a man who has repeated himself many times:
"I am sorry, monsieur. All of our flights to Saigon are fully booked for the next three weeks." He turned over the sheets of his passenger lists and added: "The next flight with three vacancies will be on the seventeenth of next month."
"But I can’t wait that long. The people at the U.S. Consulate have advised me to get my family out to Saigon immediately. That means now."
"I am sorry," the clerk repeated. "Every flight is fully booked."
"Then lay on some extra flights."
"We are already making as many flights as we have aeroplanes. We can do no more."
"Then screw you, I'll try another airline."
"As you wish, monsieur," The clerk shrugged. "But you will find them all the same."
The American left. The queue moved forward, and although there was much reluctance and arguing most of the would-be passengers accepted places on the flights three weeks ahead. When Quang's turn came he had carefully opened his shirt, and for the first time in eight weeks he showed the fat money belt that was strapped around his waist. He smiled and said in a low tone:
"I need to get to Saigon quickly. If there are any cancellations I can afford to pay."
The clerk shook his head, ignoring the inference in Quang’s bland smile.
"I am sorry, monsieur. There is already a long list of people awaiting cancellations. The next flight that now has vacant seats will be on the nineteenth."
Quang bit his lip and fastened his shirt.
"That is much too late," he said. He was afraid that other eyes might have seen the money belt and hurried away.
Quang tried the other airlines without success, and then began the round of the shipping agencies. Again the offices were crowded, and all sea passages were fully booked weeks ahead. He was becoming desperate for he felt that it was urgent that he left before the Communists took over the city. It was dusk as he emerged from the last agency office and he stood for a moment pondering his next move. A young Vietnamese wearing a light grey suit watched him for a moment, correctly reading the look of thoughtful agitation on Quang's face. Then he moved up to Quang‘s side, smiled and asked:
"Are you trying to get a ticket to the south?”
Quang turned to look at him. He noted the young man's knowing smile, the western suit, and the long, carefully manicured nails on the little fingers of each hand, an indication of the youth's pride in the fact that he did no manual work. Quang nodded slowly and the youth smiled again.
“I have a ticket,” he offered. “It is for a ship that sails from Haiphong n two day’s time."
Quang guessed that the youth had bought up a number of tickets as soon as the mass exodus began, and now he was re-selling them at a profit. It was the sort of thing that Quang himself would have done, but it annoyed him that he was the one who was being cheated. He said cautiously, "How much?"
"How much money do you have?
Quang pursed his lips, which was an unconscious habit when he was both frustrated and angry, "Five hundred piastres."
The youth laughed. "It is not enough."
"Six hundred piastres."
The youth started to walk away and Quang said desperately, "Eight hundred. It is all I have!"
The youth hesitated, and then came back. He smiled at Quang and held out his hand.
"Let me see."
Quang reached one hand inside his shirt to touch his money belt, and then hesitated. Dusk was a quickly passing phase and although it was now dark there were too many people and too many lights on the open street. There was a narrow alley nearby and Quang nodded towards it.
"Let us first get off the street."
The youth eyed him doubtfully for a moment, and then assumed that Quang had not come by his money honestly, which was a fairly accurate guess. He nodded and they moved together into the alley-mouth. Quang faltered again, and demanded:
"Let me see the ticket first."
The youth shrugged. He was confident that he had made a sale and he had the goods to deliver, He produced a ticket folder from his inside pocket and showed that it was all in order. It bore the official stamps and only the name of the passenger was left open. Quang was satisfied and backed deeper into the alley to unfasten his shirt and draw out his money belt.
The belt was actually a long sock stuffed with notes which he had fashioned himself and contained almost a thousand piastres. Quang knew that if he started to count it out then the youth would want it all, and he had planned on having almost half of that sum left after paying his passage to stake himself on arrival in Saigon. He simply could not bring himself to hand it all over, and because he had no love for physical violence he began to sweat. He held out the money belt, fumbled and deliberately dropped it.
They both stooped quickly to pick it up again, but Quang's hand fastened over a large stone that lay nearby. He brought it up with a savage swing of his hand and struck the youth square across the forehead. The youth cried out, stumbling to one side with blood spilling from the broken skin, and in an agony of fear and nausea Quang hit him again and again with the stone until he fell down. He was like a frightened rabbit now as he scooped up his money belt and stuffed it back inside his shirt. The youth lay groaning and whimpering in the dirt of the alley, but Quang rolled him over and took the vital boat ticket from the inside of his jacket. He had just sufficient self control to check that the youth had no more boat tickets on which he in turn could have made a profit, and then he scrambled up and ran away fast down the alley.
With the Donald and the Korean Fat Boy both bragging about the size of their buttons and the length of their throw, this seems a good time to introduce some reality.
The lord creates clouds,
Of delicate white lace,
Drifting on the pure blue of His peace.
The Lord creates clouds,
Of piled marshmallows,
Mouth-watering in their mountainous magnificence.
The lord creates clouds,
Shot through with rays of sunlight,
Brilliant with the changing splendour of his moods.
The lord creates clouds
Racked in banks of crimson,
Edged with the golden glory of sunrise and sunset.
The Lord creates clouds,
Dark with rain and thunder,
Bright with the lightning of his wrath.
Man creates a cloud,
That is only a mushroom of evil,
Red-veined with fire and destruction.
The Lord’s clouds create life.
Man’s cloud can create only Death.
TO START OFFF THE NEW YEAR I AM ADDING A FREE READ FIRST CHAPTER TO ONE OF MY COUNTY GUIDE BOOKS. IF YOU LIKE IT PLEASE HIT THE SHARE BUTTON.
EXPLORING HISTORICAL ESSEX
A guide and souvenir to Essex
BY ROBERT LEADER
The prime glory of Essex has to be its marvelous maritime heritage. Between the Stour and the Thames there are a multitude of waterways, river mouths and estuaries, creeks and marshes. They are the haunts of sailors and fishermen, and once the havens of old time smugglers.
The Maldon Barge race brings it all alive. The tall masts hove slowly in to view, most with sails furled but one with a magnificent spread of full red sails, as they zig-zagged with infinite grace and drifting laziness up the invisible Blackwater. The tops of the masts moved left to right, then right to left, left to right again, each sweep showing them larger and more distinct across the green banks and trees hiding the lower reaches of the river. Then at last they reappeared in their full size and glory to bear down the last curve toward the Hythe Quay.
They were under motor power for the last lap, for the tide and the river were still low, but in their hey-day before there were engines, they would have had to wait for high tide to give them more room to manoeuvre under sail. What a splendid sight they would have all made then. Today there are only a relative handful left but 100 years ago there would have been more than 5000 plying up and down the twisting Essex shores.
Inland too, Essex has a rewarding diversity of endless attractions, flower-draped cottages, cosy thatched villages, mediaeval market towns, castles and abbeys, the cool splendours of Epping Forest, and a windmill or a church tower peeping over almost every wooded hilltop.
It is all within easy reach of London, growing ever more rural and idyllic as the ripples of fields and woodlands spread northward from the M25. The county is a joy to explore, following the wanderings of the river valleys from their sources to the sea. The rivers were always the main corridors of exploration, colonization and trade, and the villages and towns that have grown up along their banks all have a story to tell. From the Charm of the Chelmer to the Blackwater By-ways, every twist and turn finds a new delight. Essex is a county to savour at leisure, and a single summer is not enough.
SWEET THAMES FLOW SOFTLY
That line from a popular folk song, hauntingly sung by The Spinners, is awash with nostalgia. For the Thames has always been a river of dreams. In centuries past sailors and explorers, merchants and adventurers, have all journeyed down the river from London to seek their fortunes or their destiny, while others from afar have sailed up the river on a similar quest or enterprise. For all of them the low Essex shore was always their first and last glimpse of England.
Up until the middle of the last century British ships sailing out of the Port of London dominated the trade routes of the world. The Cunard Queens ruled the Atlantic. Royal Mail Lines carried passengers to Brazil and South America, with some of their ships pushing up the Amazon as far as Iquitos. P&O and Orient lines serviced Hong Kong and Japan and Australia. The New Zealand Shipping Line sailed to Australia and New Zealand. The liners of Union Castle circumnavigated Africa. All those once familiar names have disappeared now, and modern container ships and plush cruise ships have replaced almost all of the old passenger-cargo lines that once flew the Red Duster into every ocean of the world.
Times have changed, but there is still an endless variety of shipping using the Thames, and as you begin to pass the Essex shore the river is now overshadowed by the magnificent, Queen Elizabeth 11 Dartford Suspension Bridge, which was opened in 1991. Cars flow continuously overhead on the congested arc of the M 25, and four concrete towers with their spider-web tracery of cables soar into the sky.
However, the rest of the long, flat Essex shoreline, which many a young sailor used to watch with either the slight tang of immediate homesickness, or the buoyant elation of homecoming, is still pretty much unchanged. Most sailors had their minds fixed on the more exotic places at the far end of each voyage, but they were missing something, for there is much to be explored and enjoyed along the Essex side of the great river.
Cruise ships still come up to Tilbury, where the old passenger liners used to pick up and disembark passengers before making the last lap up to KG5 or Victoria docks, but Tilbury has expanded and is now the principal container port for the Port of London. It is also the site of the huge, star-shaped, moated and earth-walled fort that is the best preserved of all the fortifications that were once strung out along both river banks to guard London’s most vulnerable gateway.
There was a blockhouse here at the time of the Spanish Armada, and the present Tilbury Fort was built to replace it in the late 17th Century. It was regularly garrisoned through the Napoleonic wars and through the First World War. There has always been the possible threat of an enemy fleet, our mercantile rivals the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and finally the Germans.
The big artillery pieces still point out from the east and west gun lines along the embankment and the day I strolled there a Royal Navy destroyer and an old, red-sailed Thames sailing barge were both moving up the river. The Navy ship gleamed grey and sleek in the sunshine, brisk and direct about her business, while the barge tacked slowly and lazily, a nostalgia image of a bygone age.
Follow the river and you will come to Canvey Island, which is connected to the mainland by the bridge at South Benfleet. The island was once a lonely wasteland of mudflats and tidal inlets, until the land was reclaimed and protected by a series of embankments and drainage dykes built by a Dutch Engineer in 1623. Despite this the island is still vulnerable to exceptional tidal flooding. In 1953 the terrible combination of North Sea storms and Spring tide surge that devastated the whole of the eastern counties coastline swamped Canvey and drowned 58 people. However, that hasn’t stopped it from filling up with summer cottages and camper sites. Small pleasure craft abound, as it is especially popular with the boating fraternity.
Canvey is now also the site of a huge petroleum refining industry, a gigantic conglomeration of massed storage tanks and writhing pipelines, like the silver steel entrails of some distorted industrial monster laid bare.
One of the best views of the whole island is from the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, which overlook the vast sweep of the estuary. Hadleigh Castle was built in the 11th Century to guard the mouth of the Thames and for centuries its great stone towers and walls stood equal to the task. Sadly, today only the south east tower remains almost intact, with a few crumbling walls marking the rest of the site, and the split wall of the north east tower standing like some great shattered tooth.
A few miles further down the river is Old Leigh, once a small fishing community overlooking a small marshy inlet, the village has now been virtually swallowed up by the expansion of sprawling Southend. However, the flavour of Old Leigh is still there, with its cobbled high street and rows of fishermen’s cottages and a handful of fishing boats moored up among the pleasure craft at its old wharves.
There is an old black clapboard sail maker’s loft at Victoria Wharf, which is now a First Aid Post manned by the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, and the scene here seemed to sum up Old Leigh. A small pleasure yacht was moored at the quay and nearby was a small sandy beach where families played and sunbathed.
Not far away was the Essex Yacht Club, where scores of young people were bobbing around in bright-sailed small boats, or wrestling with them up and down the slipways on either side of the Bembridge, an ex-cruising pilot cutter that now serves as the clubhouse. Club racing events are monitored from the old wooden bridge where there are fine sea views over the bows.
During the Georgian period the south end of Prittlewell was becoming a small, fashionable seaside resort for the well to do. It was a place of sedate beach huts where ladies in knee and elbow length bathing suits discreetly emerged to paddle their toes. From there it expanded rapidly.
With the coming of the railway in 1856 Southend was only an hour away from the capital and promptly became the favourite holiday resort for the East End of London. The town is practically divided by the far protruding pier, with on either side the amusement arcades, fast rides and the children’s paradise of Adventure Island. Here and to the left of the pier is the wild, brash and noisy face of Southend, the centre of all the bright lights, fish and chip shops and fun. Go to the right and you will find the more genteel aspects, with all the peace and beauty of its many manicured lawns and cliff top flower gardens.
Go up from the promenade and walk along the Royal Terrace, where the Royal Hotel was built in 1791 to commemorate a visit by Princess Caroline, the wife of the then Prince of Wales. Her visit helped to establish even more firmly the fashionable reputation of Southend. The terrace was restored in 1978, and in summer there is usually a massed array of glorious, multi-coloured hanging baskets decorating the modern hotel fronts.
Further along the white statue of Queen Victoria, flanked by palm trees, overlooks rich red and yellow rose beds. Beside her there is an elegant Victorian bandstand where waltzing couples glide gracefully on sunny afternoons. Opposite is Prittlewell Square, Southend’s oldest surviving park, with its high splashing central fountain framed in white wrought iron entrance gates. Everywhere there are sumptuous flower beds.
In Priory Park stands the old Prittlewell Priory which was once a Cluniac monastery and is now a museum. Beside it stands the solid grey Crow Stone, which once stood on the beach at Chalkwell to mark the eastern extent of London’s jurisdiction.
Down on the Western Esplanade is where the annual London to Southend Classic Car Rally finishes, usually with three hundred or more vintage vehicles assembled there on the big day. This is just one of the big annual events in this pleasure-geared seaside resort, ranging from the Old Leigh Regatta and the Thames Sailing Barge Match, both held out on the river, to the high-flying Air Show in the skies above.
If you can’t face an hour’s brisk walk a full size train now takes you out to the far end of the pier, which was almost always my last glimpse and first sight of the mouth of the Thames. The pier was built in 1889, and has survived seven boat crashes and three fires. One and a third miles long, it is the longest pier in the world.
Rows of fishermen cast their lines over the rails, hoping to haul a fat bass or mullet up on to the deck boards, and there is a pier head viewing tower with wide-ranging views. From here anything from a cockle boat to an oil tanker may hove into view
Shoeburyness occupies the last elbow of land before the shoreline turns away to the north. Until the middle of the 18th Century it was a smuggler’s haven of misty marshes and hidden creeks. Then came the Royal Artillery Garrison and School of Gunnery and the village began to grow. Between the wars its safe bathing beaches made it another holiday spot.
Plans have been put forward for another future barrier here to span the full mouth of the Thames. London and the marshlands of Essex have always been vulnerable to flooding, due to the slow increase of river and sea levels over the centuries, and now that rate of increase is accelerating due to Global warming. The Thames Barrier high up the river at Greenwich which was officially opened in 1984 is no longer considered adequate protection for the nation’s capital. More flood and storm tides of the 1953 variety are predicted as a high probability, and the ongoing battle against the hungry sea will continue. If the proposed barrier is built it will be a massive structure stretching far into the marshes on either side which will change the shore and skyline for ever.
However, for the moment the Thames has reached the cold North Sea without further hindrance. Having started far inland in the Cotswolds, passing through the great heart of London, and caressing the winding Essex shore, the river still flows by in all its many moods, timeless and continuous, on its romantic way to the far, wide world.
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