From 12 to 32 I lived in Africa. My attitude to Africa was ambivalent. I was fascinated to learn about African people and their customs and struggled to learn the Nyanja language. I made friends with Africans. However I hankered after Europe.
On my first “home leave” – as we called it in the colonial civil service – I headed for France. We were entitled to six months “home leave” every three years but I had a disadvantage. I was “locally recruited” and thus not entitled to have my fare “home” paid. I would have to pay my own – Union Castle Line. We called it Union Cattle! Food was outrageously bad. For £55 I got a windowless cabin shared with three others. We spent our days on deck – in the fresh air.
I had acquired a car – my first, a Morris Minor – on advantageous terms. If I drove it around Europe the six months of my vacation, I could bring it into Northern Rhodesia as ‘no longer new’. I would then not have to pay customs duty.
I acquired a Morris Minor.
In those days there was no channel tunnel. A ferry brought me across. I landed at Calais, and took the coast road to Boulogne. But — was there something wrong with my brand-new vehicle? The car was swaying from side to side like a boat at sea. I stopped to examine the tyres. No, there was nothing wrong with them. The cause became immediately obvious: gusts of wind – really fierce – were blowing inland from the sea, causing the car to bend landwards and then, a few moments later, snap back upright: Nothing wrong with the car but plenty with the elements! I turned away from the coast road and drove inland.
Another shock awaited me: War cemeteries – mile after mile after mile of war cemeteries – crosses and more crosses interrupted occasionally by a row of Moslem Crescent Moon and Star and a few Stars of David. Then came gravestones of a different design; inscriptions in German. Most of these graves – French, British, American or German – gave dates of birth, dates of death. Such young men! Some no older than 17. But dead. They hadn’t had much life, had they? Depressing.
Today multi-lane motorways bye-pass these cemeteries but in 1956 it seemed I had entered a continent of the dead.
What had it achieved – that ‘war to end all wars’? A mere 20 years later another had followed!
I made for Paris.