I had never seen a small child so agitated. He was only – in a phrase that my wife, Merran, liked to use – “knee-high to a grasshopper” but he was screaming in agony: “No, no, no. They mustn’t!” The veins on his little neck were standing out. “No, no!”
It took me a few moments to realise what was causing him such distress. The date must have been November 1964 so he would have been not quite two years old. 5th of November, to be precise: “Remember, remember the fifth of November … gunpowder, Treason, gunpowder and plot… I see no reason…”
When I realised I picked up the little boy and hugged him and walked with him in the dark gardens: “Don’t be upset. Nobody is being hurt. That’s not a real man … it’s just a pyjama stuffed with straw. It’s not a man. Really it isn’t.”
They had indeed made the “guy” look realistic. A rocket with two wire hoops was dangling from a cable stretched across the garden. When they lit it, the rocket shot at speed towards the figure of the “guy” which must have been sprayed with benzene which was must have been how it caught fire so rapidly.
This must have happened at the Aeroclub which was something of a social centre for the Europeans of Blantyre, Nyasaland (now Malawi). It had a swimming pool with a slide and see-saws for the kids and tennis courts for the adults and a bar. A kitchen edible supplied meals. Dining tables stood in the cool shade of blue-blooming jacaranda trees.
Out on the tarmac stood several 2 or 3-seater planes. In a small corrugated iron shed stood a book where one could book oneself in for a flying lesson. The nearest commercial airport was many miles away so the learner pilots did not interfere with international flights.
It took a while to calm the child. Buying him an ice cream may have helped.
I was asking around: Anyone else wants to climb Mount Mlanje? I had got a party of six together and had already reserved the mountain hut where we would spend our night on the way up,. They advised us that since we were not experienced mountaineers, we should also book the hut for our descent.
Our group had a successful climb. They still boasted about it years later. But not I. Flu struck me the day before we were due to set out. In our group we had a doctor. He strongly advised me against attempting the climb. The entire party would catch my flu.
Anyway, having seen my infant son in such a state of distress I thought he might need all my parental support. And the more I thought about that distressing scene, the prouder I became of the humanity that one so young could exhibit.