Directors I have known, Brook and Barrault, Two very different men

During my years at the Roundhouse Theatre, we had the most amazing range of shows, from enormous film festivals, film crews shooting films, classical concerts, both ancient and contemporary, musicals, Shakespeare in a variety of styles, rock concerts, conferences, dance theatre and so on, the list is actually way too long to remember. Most shows were either one day events or only stayed with us for a month or so. Thus the change overs were long and frequent.

I have never worked so hard in my life as I did there.

Some of the events we had, do remain firmly in my memory, others have disappeared in the mists of time, which for some of them is a kindness to put it mildly as they were so unbelievably awful they deserve no better.

For the fun of it I shall describe some of those that did stick in my memory and the events surrounding them.

Some of these descriptions will be short, and only mention things that stood out about a particular production, others may well be rather longer if I can both remember anything much about them, and if they were so remarkable they are worth describing in some detail. So a series of random anecdotes really.

Obviously this will mean that I shall tell of my impressions of working with a number of amazingly talented, famous or totally untalented individuals who passed me in those years. Some of the least talented were also the most famous… Amazing what some people can manage with a loud voice and no talent.

Lets start with Peter Brook.

At that time he was probably the most successful and famous theatre director in the world, held in awe and almost godlike admiration by all actors and theatre folk for his brilliant directing mainly of Shakespeare. And there is no denying that he was a most amazing and wonderful director, and all his productions were a joy to experience. But unfortunately for me and my stage technicians, he was also a most unpleasant and arrogant man to have to deal with.

While I was at the Roundhouse he directed, either A Midsummer’s Dream, or the Tempest, I cant remember which it was, and his production entailed completely rebuilding the stage and seating in the theatre, which is a hell of a lot of work obviously. This we were used to, and had systems in place to make it as easy as possible, but it is a noisy and messy affair.

Generally productions were rehearsed elsewhere in rehearsal rooms somewhere, and the actors only came to rehears in the theatre for the last few days before their show opened, which gave us the time to crash around, hang lights, build seating rostra and stages and so on at our own pace.

For some reason however, Brooke felt it was necessary for him and his actors to do all their preparations in the theatre itself, not a happy mix.. Noisy technicians and actors trying to come to terms with his idiosyncratic vision of the play do not go well in the same space.

So whilst demanding we build a very complex auditorium and stage for his production, Brook also insisted on total silence as he and his actors played a range of theatrical games in a corner of the theatre.

His technique for getting silence was to sort of freeze whenever a particularly loud crash or stream of furious swearing from one or other technician occurred. Curious to see, he would sit there like a statue waiting for us to realise he was displeased and stop making any noises.

Unfortunately for him, my technicians had seen so many famous and admired people that they were totally unimpressed by him, and started to play a game with him… One of them would start hammering away at a bit of wood, which would cause him to freeze…. Silence would fall…. Then Brook would unfreeze and start working again.. whereupon one of the technicians would produce a loud noise… Brook would freeze again, and so it would go on, all day long.

During all of this I tried to stay out of sight, so I couldn’t be asked to make my guys work in total silence, as this would obviously been impossible and silly.

On the other hand, we also had a production called Rabelais, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault who was also a director of genius, a man with a long and highly regarded history in film and theatre. Unlike Brooke, this guy was a dream to work with, kind, thoughtful, brilliant, funny and civilised, and more importantly also worshiped by actors, particularly the cast of this show.

In spite of hardly speaking a word of English, and working here with an entirely English cast, he managed to communicate his ideas and needs with no real trouble, often resorting to mime to do this (for those of you who do not know of him, he was a famous mime among other things). I shall never forget him miming a war horse for one of the British actors who was having trouble miming that damned horse….. Barrault got up on the stage and damn me, but he became a horse… Superb guy.


He even managed to win over my technicians, which is no mean achievement, they fell for him totally, and would do anything he asked of them at once and to the best of their abilities.

Curiously he had a remarkable similarity to Kenneth Williams, which was a bit disconcerting at times.

The show itself was great fun to see, as it took place without seating over a long more or less cruciform set of stages, so the audience sort of followed the action from stage area to stage area. By the way, it was actually Rabalaise’s story of Gargantua, a very noisy, earthy and funny story, which an all English cast managed to pull off, in spite of the trouble English trained actors have with moving, being more word orientated in their training.

It is interesting to see how two more or less equally brilliant directors got the results they did by such totally different approaches to their cast and technicians. Give me Barrault’s approach any day over Brook’s arrogant approach.. The Barrault experience was a real pleasure for all involved, the Brook was only good for the audience, we hated him with a passion and thus got no enjoyment out of our work with him. And enjoying your work is important we all felt..

More to come as I think of it….

Our lives on a couple of boats – Part Three

Well, so far we have arrived in Amsterdam and sold Mjojo and bought the Good Old Water Rat, and continued to settle in A’dam, that most pleasing of cities and next thing was to start converting Water Rat into a house on the water, which occupied us for the next 20 odd years, and finally was more or less finished about a month before we finally left Holland and went to live in France – also another story worth telling, probably I have already told in this blog, have a look at the various posts, there are 201 after all, and you will find various accounts of our lives in La Douce France.

At our mooring at the Entrepotdok in Amsterdam – with a load of firewood for the winter

The first job we had to start the conversion of the Water Rat into a house was to take up the planks that were on the floor of the hold, and grease all the steel-work on the inside of the hull bottom.    So, that is what we did, heating up the grease so that it ran nicely into the corners and so on under the hold floor.  Whilst as a barge, she was a relatively small vessel, this was still a hell of a big job as far as we were concerned – but in due time it was finished and we could put back all the planks that were the hold floor and start to consider how we wanted to convert her into a house.

All of this took a very long time, as we were far from fanatical about it all, and also we had to earn our livings as well – in my case that was as a model maker, chiefly working for museums and similar, and Lotty was a teacher at the International School of Amsterdam.   Also, we wanted to enjoy ourselves and use the Water Rat to see the Netherlands, so we chugged happily around the country enjoying ourselves with the freedom that she gave us.   We could – and did – fill her up with water at the fuel bunker ships along all the major canals, and at night we could simply head for the side of the river or canal and tie her up to a handy tree and enjoy ourselves in the quiet country side.

As we had the engine running at the same speed all day long, she was very economical with diesel fuel, and considering that she had what was in effect a large truck engine, our fuel costs were not unreasonable.   We also became really expert at dealing with the many locks we encountered, or bridges that had to be opened for us to pass under them, and on a number of occasions we ventured out into what was in effect the north sea, the Ijsselmeer to the north of Amsterdam, where on occasions we found ourselves in a dodgy situation as barges are not really designed to sail in rough water – one of the drawbacks of having a vessel with a flat bottom, waves get under it and push you over………

Anyhow, happily this never happened to us, though we did have our teeth clenching moments.

One of the things about the Water Rat was that as she wasn’t laden with cargo, her bows were actually out of the water, so on one occasion whilst in a very small canal in Friesland, and found our way blocked by a bridge that had a sign on it telling us that it would next open in June…….   And this was in April!   So, as it was not really possible to reverse for the many kilometers to the larger canal that we had turned off.  I thought about it for a while, and came to the conclusion that the only solution was to set the bows up on the canal bank and turn on that fulcrum.  So, I did just that, scaring the hell out of a flock of sheep who were grazing in that field when suddenly a very large steel thing came at them, and managed to get about 8 or so meters onto their field.   Anyhow, it worked OK, and we sailed without a care back to the bigger canal.

Maintaining our mobile home was an annual event, every year we went to a beach on the tidal river Lek, and when the tide went out we ensured that the Water Rat was nice and high and dry, and over a couple of tides we would tar the whole of her ides, up to and over the water line.   Then every alternate year, we had to go onto a slip and do the same, as well as under her hull…   As you can see in the photos, this was a hell of a lot of work – she may have been a small barge, but she was still damn big!

Me and Jake engaged in spreading tar all over the Water Rat

Slowly we converted her… clad the walls inside the hold with tongue and groove pine, installed a working kitchen, built a shower and lavatory, created a bed (raised) for us and a decent cabin at the bows for Jake and generally made her into a civilised home… And the finishing touch we finally achieved about 3 months before we sold her and left the Netherlands and moved to France, which was installing an efficient oil fired central heating system.

With some extremely good friends, one of our favourite people, Margot. The kitchen is behind me and the wood stove is in the foreground…
One of those geese was named Diner….. With an obvious intention on our part… But it never happened, and we later heard that she lived to a ripe old age as a free spirit on the canals of Amsterdam…………

At about this time, I created a steel and copper model of the Water Rat for the Maritime museum, the model was about a meter long…

Well, in a way, that is the story of our various house boats, after that we lived in boring houses…  Well not really – In France we lived in a ruined granite mine and in Australia we have actually built our house from the ground up, with our hands…   Anyhow, that is it for now.

Our lives on a couple of boats – Part Two

As I hope you will have read in part one of this stirring account of our lives on boats, we had just bought the Water Rat and managed to get it as far as Alphen on the Rijn where the engine had blown up.   So there I was, on my own in a shipyard wrestling with the problems about choosing a new engine for our later to be trusty vessel.

An odd business altogether really.   Other people dashing about on our boat was a new experience to us both – Lotty had driven down and joined me on board.

Anyhow, to cut a long and painful experience short, in due time a 6 cylinder Deutz was built into the boat, and all connected up and tested, and so off I went again, still alone in the boat as Lotty had to drive the car back to Amsterdam.

Happily this time it all went smoothly, including getting through the lock at the start of the canal.   The only real problem I had was the huge Pusher tugs with their 12,000 ton lighters in front of them hurtling along at 30 kilometers, could and did  pick up my boat in their bow wave, which was alarming to say the least – I found myself surfing on a 28 meter long vessel, not a good idea!!  I discovered that if I put her into reverse and gave it all the power in her, we came off the bow wave and could carry on calmly.  It was then a case of quickly putting her into forward again and carrying on before the bows swung around and I ended across the canal.  Altogether a dodgy situation!!

Water Rat chugging along in Friesland. The “cage” behind the wheel house is a Kinder Kooi, a safe place for a young kid to be while the boat was chugging along.

At this time we were based in the north of Amsterdam, at a place called Nieuwendamerdijk where we had tied up with Mjojo for some time, so we tied up the Water Rat in the same place and carried on with our lives.

We quickly fell foul of the Harbour Service of Amsterdam, who came around to charge us the fee for being in Amsterdam, and quickly told us that we could only stay in Amsterdam for about 6 weeks and then had to go away for some days, and then of course we could return………..

So, that was the story of our lives for quite some years – tied up in Nieuwendamerdijk for about a month, and then off to Weesp or some other town outside Amsterdam.  All a bit tedious, but it did force us to learn how to drive the good old Water Rat around, and get her through locks safely and generally learn how to cope with such a large vessel.

We fitted remarkably well into the local life in Nieuwendamerdijk and became good friends with both other boat dwellers (mostly professional cargo carrying folk) and shore dwellers too, and had a very enjoyable number of years there, even with the everlasting having to leave Amsterdam at regular intervals.

Showing the wheel house and Het Roofje. This was taken while she was on the slip so we could paint her hull with tar

At this time, we lived in what was called het Roofje, which is the accommodation behind the wheel house. which was very civilised, consisting of two small bedrooms, a bog, a sitting room and a small kitchen, and Jake lived in het vooronder, which was a double cabin right up in the bows of the boat.

The actual hold was still as it was in the time of the previous owner, who was a professional skipper, a 17 x 5 x 3 meter long empty space, which we intended to convert into our home in due course.

So, that is all for this installment….   More to come, of course!

Our lives on a couple of boats – Part One

Just before I left the Roundhouse Theatre in London in 1974 (in itself that is a story worth knowing!  Link to that story) , we decided that we would sail to Australia (as one does) and via a friend we found the ideal boat for this voyage, Mjojo, and lived on her for a couple of years and made various passages around the English coast and finally we set off to sail to Australia, but ran into incredible South Western storms, with waves taller than the mast of Mjojo, so rather than fight our way into this ridiculous storm, we gave in and turned around, and ended up in Amsterdam, where we lived on her (with occasional trips into the North Sea) for about 2 years until the birth of our son.

Mjojo was her name, and she was perhaps the most beautiful sailing boat you could imagine.   She had been designed by an English architect, Rod Pickering, based on a combination of ideas, the boat that Joshua Slocum used when he sailed around the world, the Spray, and the boats that were in use every day in the Indian Ocean, so he had her built on Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya by the guys there who normally built Dhows for the local sailors.

The building off Mjojo is an epic tale in itself, and well worth reading, so here is a link to the website of Jojo, Rod’s daughter after whom the boat was named:

Mjojo=Little Jojo.       https://islandswift.blogspot.com/2014/08/mjojo.html

In passing I would like to point out that you will read in Jojo’s account, that Mjojo was kept in Amsterdam and started to rot.  This is true, but not while we had her.  We sold her to a local when our son was born (1976) when it became apparent that we would have to stay in Holland as we were told our son would need medication for his entire life – this turned out not to be true, by the way.

Anyhow, here are some photos of Mjojo in all her glory to show you what a beautiful vessel she was – and is.

Just for your information, she was 42 feet long (+bowsprit of 15 feet), beam was 15 feet, she drew 7 feet along her entire keel so she was incredibly stable and was a gaff rigged cutter.  Oh, and she weighed 24 tons, because of the incredibly heavy wood she was built from (72 pounds a cubic foot!).

Anyway, as I said, on the birth of our son we thought that we would have to stay in Holland for his entire childhood, and as I have pointed out earlier in this post, keeping an ocean going wooden sailboat in the fresh water of Amsterdam wasn’t a good idea for a wooden boat – also she was a bit small for us to actually live in if we were staying in Amsterdam.   So we sold her to a German guy who apparently had all manner of plans for her, none of which actually occurred, so she started to rot, poor boat.

We borrowed a flat from a friend in a small town near to Amsterdam and set about looking for a steel barge to live in (and to wander around Europe’s extensive network of inland water-ways in).   After some months, we found a likely barge, called Eerste Zorg (which means First Worry ) a 28 meter long steel barge, built in 1924, registered to carry 120 tons and we could afford her asking price.  So we negotiated with the owner, and reached agreement and then came to great day when we would have to take her over.

Nerve wracking to say the least, as I had never tried to sail such a large vessel, and one that only had an engine as well.    So I went to Papendrecht (just to the south of Rotterdam) to take her over, and the owner agreed to sail with me up to Rotterdam so that I had a chance to see how it all worked.

So that is what happened.

Together we sailed, well, I say sailed, actually it was a question of driving her, up to Rotterdam and once there, the previous owner tied us up to a jetty and went on his merry way, leaving me with the job of getting her from Rotterdam to Amsterdam on my own.  Lotty, my wife, had driven me down to meet the previous owner, and then driven back to Amsterdam.

Gulp!

Anyhow, taking my courage in my hands…  I set off up the river Lek, which leads from Rotterdam to the start of the Amsterdam-Rijn canal, which as its name would suggest, connects the Rijn (Rhine) to Amsterdam.   At this point in its journey to the North Sea the Rhine is called the Lek.

The Lek is a very wide river, and much used by all manner of cargo barges of all sizes, and I quickly realised that my 120 ton 28 meter Luxe Motor (that is the name of its type of barge) is a really small vessel.   I was surrounded by barges of 500 tons to huge combinations of 3000 ton lighters connected up in threes to a sort of super pushing boat hurtling along at upwards of 30 kilometers per hour – to put this in context, my little barge could only manage about 11 kilometers per hour.

Altogether alarming to put it mildly!

After about an hour of this nerve wracking stuff, there was suddenly an explosion below me, in the engine room of my barge, and the motor stopped.   So there I was, effectively in the fast lane of an aquatic motorway with a barge without an engine.

I rushed to the bows, and managed to drop the anchor, which was huge!  Luckily it gripped the river bottom, and I swung around so my stern was pointing down river to Rotterdam, and there I was, stuck.

Various barges honked at me as basically I was blocking the “fast Lane” but there was nothing I could do about it.

After a while, a police boat appeared and came alongside to demand to know what the hell I thought I was playing at, anchoring in the middle of a hugely busy river and holding every one up.

Once one of these cops came on board, and I was able to show him what had happened (peering into my engine room at an obviously destroyed engine), he said to me that I should crank up the anchor and they would tow me to a repair yard to get things looked at.

This caused the next embarrassment for me…  How the hell do you bring up an anchor on such a boat?   I had no idea how to do that, and feeling idiotic, I told the cop this.   So, with the patience of Job, he showed me how it worked, and clambered back onto his boat and gave me a tow rope to secure to my bows, and we hauled up the anchor, see photo below for the size of it, and off we went.

Anyhow, to cut a very long story short, it turned out that the motor was totally destroyed, and it would be necessary to replace it, and as I had bought the barge “as is” I had no claim on the previous owner.  So, I gritted my teeth and told the ship yard to go ahead and bung another – more modern – engine into her.

So, after this exciting start to our ownership of what became the Water Rat (chosen because it is the same in Dutch and English) began.

And for the following 24 years we lived in her traveled around Holland in her and generally had a great life on her.

So, in a following installment I shall tell all about how that all went….

In the mean time, here is a photo of her in all her glory at a later mooring in Amsterdam, along side the Maritime Museum for whom I made models somewhat later…….

If you have any thoughts on any of the above, or sailed on Mjojo or the Water Rat please drop me a line to tell me about how it all went.

Thoughts on, or about, being self-isolated during Corona Virus outbreak

Like almost everyone in the first world just now, both my wife (Lotty) and I, as we are both well over 70 years old, are in voluntary isolation, which is a very odd situation for us both in different ways.

For my part it has meant that I no longer lead the life of a Professional Volunteer as I am in the habit of doing (see several other posts on this aspect of my life) and as a result I am feeling more than a little discombobulated to say the least.  For Lotty it has meant the end of her regular walks with our pooch, Gizmo, and a number of friends, followed by a happy hour or two sitting in one or other of Samford’s many cafes solving the many problems of the world or taking several Alpacas for their daily walks at a local riding school.

On the other hand it has meant that she has almost unlimited time for her garden, which is great, as her garden is a self-created jungle in a near vertical slope.

All of that is is pretty normal I suppose.  If one is suddenly unable to pursue one’s normal activities for whatever reason.  But given that we are healthy enough (for our ages) and at peace with the world, it is an odd feeling that it is unimportant to know what day of the week it is, the almost total silence on the nearby roads (we live in the country about 35 km outside Brisbane) and our normally well filled calendar (Literally, that is how we keep track of our various activities) is now empty – apart from a dental appointment I made this morning for the 1st October to make sure that I beat the rush when this isolation finishes – assuming it ever does of course.

Also the lack of having to be anywhere or do anything special at a given time is an odd feeling.  We are able to wander around in our garden so we don’t feel that we are in prison, which I can well imagine those who live in flats in cities can do, so apart from not having used either of our two cars for days now we are living in a reasonably “normal” fashion by and large I suppose.

So basically, we are living in a more or less normal way but with a feeling of isolation at all times, as if the outside world has ceased to exist – which is very odd to say the least.  We are sort of living in a small bubble, just our garden and a small section of the road outside our house.

The other main change is that we see none of our friends any more – occasionally one passes on the road and we shout greetings at each other and then they go on their way, so apart from via Facebook and the phone, we have really no contact with anyone else in the whole world and it is now several weeks since I was away from our house – not even in the local village to shop as our son is dealing with all of that.

So we are living in more or less complete isolation in the middle of thousands of other people doing the same – really an odd thing.

Oh well, assuming it will ever be open ( and humanity still exists), I assume it will all return to what we consider to be normal, which is really a pity I feel.

The Life Of A Professional Volunteer

Having settled in Australia as a thoroughly retired old man, I had to find something to do which would interest me and make a good change from the house building I was doing and would keep my brain alive.

So, I discovered the life of a volunteer………

Since about 2011 I have been a very active volunteer in a very wide range of enjoyable activities, ranging from doing all the computer work for a local farming group to working on a wide range of festivals in Brisbane, such as the French Festival, the Writers Festival, the World Science Fair and a number of that sort of event.

I have also worked (as a lavatory cleaner) on the Woodford Folk Festival, which was not as bad as it sounds.   We didn’t have to deal with blocked lavatories or similar horrible things, but simply make sure that the lavatories and showers were equipped with paper and so on, and clean.

Since this work entailed starting at about 5 am and finishing at about midnight, we in our team divided the days up between ourselves, which meant that we were able to attend any concerts, talks or demonstrations we particularly wanted to, which was pleasant and rewarding…  We were part of a team of people doing the same work all around the Festival and its huge camping grounds – up to 100 000 people attend this festival, and there are about 3000 volunteers who make it all happen.   Our group were officially called The Intergalactic S-bend Warriors, and we had T-shirts that proclaimed that name.

We have also worked on The Planting, which is a much smaller Festival in the same place, but more about planting trees, vegetables and similar, but it also has lots of talks, so there both Lotty and I were working as Stage Managers, in separate venues.

One of my favourite “jobs” was at the Brisbane Jazz Club, where I worked for about 4 years setting the club up for the night’s show, looking after the patrons and tidying up after the show was finished.    This one I worked on about 2 nights a week, and absolutely loved the huge range of jazz that came our way.. everything from Big Band Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, dixieland and every sort of jazz you could imagine, and all of a very high standard…  Good folk to work with too.

However, after those years, I became a bit tired of the work, so I stopped and started working at La Boite instead.   This is a moderately experimental theatre attached to the Technical University Of Queensland, where shows are put on at, curiously enough, a theatre called The Roundhouse, so I have sort of come full circle and am ending my life and starting my life working in a theatre called The Roundhouse.

Here we have all manner of shows, ranging from wildly experimental shows to relatively low key productions, as well as regular student performances..  All good fun though.

The Joys (and otherwise) Of Scuba Diving Off Australia

While I was living in the Philippines (Cebu to be precise) I took up scuba diving in a very serious fashion, and ended up becoming what is rather dramatically called a Rescue Diver.  This simply meant that I was supposed to be master of a number of techniques to help other divers should they get into difficulties underwater – panic attacks, running out of air, getting stuck under water and so on – and I had a number of moments when I had to put my training into action, but always as a result of an accident, as the various Dive Masters I dived with took their work very seriously and avoidable mistakes were……. avoided.

However, during this period in my life, I also had to come to Australia reasonably often, to just outside Brisbane to be exact, and I thought it would be pleasing to dive here as well.   So I hunted around for affordable ways to dive in and around Brisbane.

As a result of this, I found a club attached to one of the Universities in Brisbane as well as a couple of straightforwardly commercial operations, and I signed up with them and went on a number of dives with them.

I had already discovered that Australia is the Land Of Health And Safety Rules, so I wasn’t surprised to be confronted with a number of forms that I had to fill in every dive I went on, listing my diving qualifications and so on.  All perfectly reasonable stuff, if slightly over the top and unheard of in the Philippines where all one had to do was to show the Dive Master one’s log book which listed all one’s dives and level of qualifications.

This paper work cheerfully filled the time one was on the way to where we were going to dive, about several hours out of Bribie Island to an artificial reef just off Morton Island – also, of course, we got our gear on during this trip.

Being an experienced Paddi Rescue diver, and having dived hundreds of times off Cebu, I was expecting that we would divide ourselves up into buddy pairs before leaping into the water – a very basic safety rule for scuba divers, but nope. these people simply arrived at the diving site, and leaped into the sea regardless.  And then swam off in various directions on their own or with several other divers, but in a completely random fashion.

Another daunting experience was on one of these dives a fellow diver simply leaped into the sea without bothering to turn on his air-tank – added to which, he had not bothered to put any air into his BCD ( a sort of life jacket divers wear to sort out their buoyancy underwater) so he of course simply sank like a stone.   This was a problem for him as it is very tricky to turn on your tank while you are wearing it.  Luckily I had noticed him disappearing under water, so I was able to follow him down to the (luckily) not very deep sea-bottom, and turn on his air, so all was well.

But no one else had noticed him sinking, and as no one was his “Buddy”, he would have simply drowned if I hadn’t happened to see him.  Nasty….

But the paperwork was all correct happily, so all would have been well if he had drowned.

The other problem I had here was the temperature of the sea…  It was cold!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anyhow, after several of these experiences, I decided that scuba diving in Australia was not for me, and went back to the Philippines for my diving, and since living in this otherwise admirable and enjoyable country I have not bothered with scuba diving.

Namibia – Africa For Beginners.

A proper African holiday complete with lions, elephants and all the other trappings of Africa – most of which were absent from Angola as they had all been killed during the civil war (Mostly by Generals shooting them with heavy machine guns from Helicopter Gun Ships – Ah big game hunting is such fun!).

Generally when we had holidays or breaks from our work at the Luanda International School, Lotty and I went and wandered around in Angola, since we wanted to come to grips with this fascinating and complex country while we had the chance.  But on one holiday, several of our colleagues asked us to join them on a holiday in the neighbouring country of Namibia.   A proper African holiday complete with lions, elephants and all the other trappings of Africa – most of which were absent from Angola as they had all been killed during the civil war (Mostly by Generals shooting them with heavy machine guns from Helicopter Gun Ships – Ah big game hunting is such fun!).

So in due time the great moment arrived, and we all boarded the plane to fly us from Luanda to Windhoek International Airport.

On arrival we were first somewhat stunned by the modernity and cleanliness of the terminal, and then even more stunned by the fact that the guys from the travel company we had arranged our hire vehicles with were actually there.

We were swept up by these good men, taken to remarkably modern and clean pick-up trucks and driven off to Windhoek.  This was also a serious form of culture shock for us Angolan refugees… The roads were perfect, the vehicles driving on them were all new, clean and driven sensibly.   No weird battered, rusty ancient wrecks creeping crablike down the pot-holed roads here…  Everything was modern, clean, well maintained and impeccable.  After the mess and chaos of Luanda this was an eye-opener for us all.

Then we got to Windhoek, which turned out to be a small and also totally neat, tidy and clean little city, full of well dressed and well fed looking people.  Not a cripple, street kid or dead body to be seen anywhere.

By this time we were all reeling somewhat from the totally different place we now found ourselves in.   In a matter of a couple of hours flying, we had gone from a war-torn, medieval city to a 20th century, well organised and normal place.

I was later told that the first thing the Namibian President ordered when they became independent of South Africa, was a huge clean up of the country.. It took them a year apparently, but the results were truly impressive…

We were taken to our hotel, and signed in and as one we all rushed straight out of the hotel to see for ourselves what it was like in the shops and cafes of this place.   Another shock, the Supermarket’s shelves were filled with all manner of food and other necessities, the cafes were clean and relaxed places serving delicious coffee in clean, uncracked cups – just like any normal western city in fact.   This was a very strange feeling for us, coming from a place where the Supermarkets frequently had almost completely empty shelves, cafes were rough and ready and the only drink you could rely on them having was beer.

Anyhow, we wandered around in a sort of daze for a few hours, then retired, confused and relaxed to our beds at the end of our very disconcerting first day in Namibia.

The next day, Lotty and I in one camping truck, and Jayne and Mathu in the other one set off northwards to go to a nature reserve way up on the Namibia/Angolan border.

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……………………… Sort of flat!

This entailed a drive of something like 1200 km over countryside that made Holland seem mountainous.    I have never seen such a flat landscape in my life…. Not even a pimple to be seen.   If it wasn’t for the occasional Elephant, or warthog wandering across the road and the regular police check points it would have been the most boring bit of driving I had ever done.  Occasionally one came to small remarkably neat little towns, all of which still showed very clearly that the Germans used to be the Colonial power in Namibia.. Sort of miniature German villages dropped in the middle of this vast African tundra.

When we finally reached the northern border of Namibia, which was demarcated by a wide, muddy and sluggish river, with Angola on the far side, we camped in an amazingly luxurious camp site and in the evening, we sat like good colonialists beside the river, with long cool drinks in our hands, listening to the frog chorus and gazing over the river at the darkness of Angola.  Not a light to be seen on the Angolan side of the river.. Just darkest Africa.   And then suddenly drums started up on the Angolan side… Very strange feeling, listening to that drumming in the pitch dark night.

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Gazing over the river at Angola…….

The next day we headed off into the Caprivi strip, a curious narrow strip of Namibia that runs west-east between Zambia and Botswana, where there was a nature reserve we wanted to explore.

We duly arrived at the entrance to the park, to be told that no one else was currently visiting, but that we were very welcome to stay if we wished.  And directed to the camp site – with dire warnings about not getting out of our vehicles anywhere except in the camp site – Lions you know.  The remarkably solid and tall wall around the reception offices rather reinforced this warning.

So off we drove, into the park.  Which was beautiful, sort of tall elephant grass and groups of trees.  Lots of warthogs and various sorts of deer, and loads of monkeys leaping about the place.   Not a lion or elephant to be seen.

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Warthogs with their ridiculous tails

We duly found the camp site – we recognised it as there was an outside lavatory block there – for the rest, nothing, no fence, electricity, water or even a place to dispose of our rubbish.  Obviously one of those places where if you brought it in you took it out when you left.  Reasonably enough, given the monkeys around the place.

The bit that worried me was that it was on the edge of a river, and had what was obviously the place where large creatures came out of the river right slap bang into the middle of the camp site.  Since these animals could only be crocodiles or hippopotamuses, both of which are highly dangerous, I wasn’t too happy about this.

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The camp site with our campers

We could see no crocs, but we did see the noses and eyes of quite a few hippos in the river.  Unsettling feeling.

Anyhow, we settled down, set up our camp and relaxed.

As the evening drew in, two wonderful things occurred.  The first was the arrival of a huge family group of baboons, who settled noisily down for the night in the trees around our campers.  In spite of having the reputation of being a real pest, and even dangerous to campers, this family group ignored us totally, and simply got on with their own domestic affairs.  Loved watching them doing this.

Then the second joy of the African countryside started up.. namely the evening chorus of hundreds of different sorts of frogs and toads.. Each sort with its own song…. These different songs combined to produce the most wonderful and huge choral work, that went on for about an hour… totally entrancing to listen to.

During the night we could hear the Hippos snorting and coughing in the river nearby, so I was extremely glad to be sleeping on the roof tent of our camper, rather than in a tent on the ground..   Hippos are generally considered the second most dangerous animal in Africa – the first of course, being humans – but they stayed in the river and didn’t bother us in any way, I am happy to say.

I shall write the second half of this Namibian thing later……..

Singapore – Colonial Memories

I had the curious experience of living in Singapore while it was still a British Colony… Here are some of my memories of that time

Back in the late 40’s and early 50’s of the last century, we lived in Singapore, which in those far off days , was of course, still a British Colony, which in the case of the Malayan peninsular (what is now called Malaysia) meant it was ruled to Britain’s advantage by lower middle class Brits, and in the case of Singapore (which was still part of Malaya), we Brits pretended to rule it, but it was in fact ruled, as now, by the Chinese.

It was a strange place to live in back then, an atmosphere of suffocating Petit Bourgeois attitudes, tremendous racialism – the poor old Indians being at the bottom of that particular heap, a very unpleasant guerrilla war (more about that below), and annual racist riots in which the whites were the target of mass hatred and killed if possible by hordes of infuriated Muslim Malayans.

A scary Anniversary:

This last was the result of a sad story.   When the Japs invaded Singapore, the whites all left as hurriedly as possible, all was chaos obviously, and in this chaos, a small Dutch baby girl got left behind, but was found by a Malay family, who took her in and cared for her.   Obviously, being Malay they were Muslims, so naturally, the little girl was brought up as a Muslim.

All was well until the Japs were chased out of Singapore, and the little girl was discovered by the European authorities, and it was decided that she should be sent to Holland to be brought up as a Dutch girl (even though I believe her parents were never found).

So over the protestations of the Malay family who had looked after her during the war, this little girl was sent off to Holland, and put into a Catholic convent orphanage, and brought up further as a good little Catholic.

This infuriated the Malay community in Singapore and the rest of Malaya, so every year on the anniversary of the removal of this little girl, there were terrible riots in which gangs of angry Malayans rampaged around, smashing any European objects they came across, and killing any Europeans they could catch.  Scary times.  Not least since the cops there were almost all Malay, and thus sympathised with the rioters, and looked the other way.

A Guerrilla War:

As I mentioned above,there was also a pretty serious guerrilla war going on in the jungle of the Malay Peninsular at this time as well.

This was being reported as a “Communist Terrorist War”  (those were the bogey men of that period, same as the ISIS now).   In fact the origins of this particular war had nothing to do with Communism, but was caused by the duplicity of the then British government – sound familiar?

What had happened was that when the Japs were on the point of kicking the Brits out of Malaya, the Brits recruited a number of Chinese and armed them and asked them to stay behind in the jungle and make life difficult for the Jap occupiers, in return for which, the Brits promised that on their return to Malaya (how about that for arrogance?), they would pay the Chinese soldiers much fine money, give them land to farm and generally look after them.

So these faithful Chinese stayed in the jungle, and with great suffering did exactly as requested.

The Brits duly came back, and the Chinese came out of the jungle and asked to have their promised payment.  Reasonably one might think.  Sadly,the Brits kept putting them off.

So after a couple of years of prevarication on the part of the Brits, the annoyed Chinese said damn you, turned around, grabbed their guns and went back into the jungle and started shooting Europeans.

This is when the Chinese Communists stepped in and made the battle their own.  So the origins had nothing to do with communism, but with broken promises.  Also familiar?

An Unnerving Experience:

One small result of this war for me was finding myself in hospital in the bed next to a guerrilla fighter who had been condemned to death by the Brits.

I was in hospital for a minor complaint, but it kept me in hospital for a couple of weeks in a public ward which gave me time to get to know this guy a bit (for complex reasons I could speak a fair amount of Cantonese so he and I could talk).   He had been captured by the British army, and then tried and condemned to be hanged, but owing to his years in the jungle, he was in very bad health, so the Brits felt he was too unhealthy to be hanged!!!  I know, sounds insane, but I promise you it is true.

So he was bunged into hospital to be fed and made healthy again – and once he was in good shape, they were planning to take him out and hang him.

So there he lay in his bed next to mine, with a heavily armed Sikh soldier guarding him 24 hours a day, being fed on vitamins, good meals and all manner of antibiotics to get him healthy enough to be hanged.

We became quite good friends before he was taken away to be killed finally.

Made one hell of an impression on me I can tell you – I was about 9 years old at the time.

Copyright:  Tony Cole

The Joys Of Owning A Paintball Centre – Ker-Splat!

Our last endeavour in France was a Paintball Centre…. Great fun, hard work and not at all violent – to my surprise

Some years ago we purchased about 20 hectares of French hillside in the western Vosges…. Heavily forested and rough.  The intention was to start a sort of School Field Centre, but for various reasons that didn’t happen, so we were left with all that land and no idea what on earth to do with it.

Then one fine day, a friend was wandering around in our forest with me and he casually remarked that it would make an amazing Paintball field.   Well I had never heard of Paintball, so I asked him what he meant.  He explained in a few succinct words what Paintball actually was.

Paintball is not Rambo!

To begin with we were far from interested, as the idea of a bunch of wannabee Rambos rushing around our land, shooting at each other didn’t really appeal one bit.   But he insisted that it was actually in no real way a sort of glorification of machismo  or of violence, but was actually great fun, and not at all aggressive – nor did it glorify war, killing and other totally nasty and unacceptable ideas.

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So we looked into it, and discovered that apparently he was quite correct.  All the stuff on the Internet about paintball seemed to emphasis fun, laughter and a sort of return to childhood playing of cowboys and Indians… “Bang bang, your dead, count to 100 and carry on” seemed to be the essence of the game.

There is a sort of version of Paintball called Airsoft, which uses replica firearms and shoot small plastic pellets instead of the rather large marble-like Paintballs.  This is a militaristic and to my way of thinking rather unpleasant “sport”.  People get dressed up in military uniforms and rush around with their replica AK47’s, M16’s and so on… Not for me.

So we looked into the sort of investment that would be needed to make it happen, and found that actually it was not an impossible amount of money, given that we already owned the most expensive part of setting up such a centre – the land itself.

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Anyway, to make a long story short, we decided to give it a go, raised the money we needed to get it started, with thanks to the several people who lent us the money we needed (Buying shares in the company we set up to run the Paintball field, which we named Aigle Paintball, which is French for Eagle Paintball), and set about creating the necessary battlefields in our land for people to play the game in.

This entailed a good local friend of mine called Jean Pierre and myself, armed with a variety of large chainsaws, cutting down any trees that were in the way to create enough clear forest for people to be able to see and shoot at each other, then using the bits of the trees we had felled to make a whole range of bunkers, walls to hide behind and other fun constructions all over the place.

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This was bloody hard work, as some of those trees were huge, and took a lot of cutting to reduce to a manageable collection of logs to build our bunkers with.  And we were of course, left with mountains of smaller branches and other tree type rubbish to dispose of.   But we had fun the two of us doing all of this.

Pondering how best to make a road for people to stalk each other along, and set ambushes and all the other jolly things that Paintball entails.

We created three large fields, each with a very different character, and between the three of them, we probably had about 5 or so hectares (about 12 acres) for the games. One was a large area of relatively gentle slopes and loads of trees, another was on the rather steep side of a hill, not so many trees, but enough to give cover, and the third was in a flat area of scrawny thin trees where we built two villages, and lots of tracks with street names and so forth, and my old Volvo station wagon as part of the scenery.

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During all  of this work, I became what is known as a Gas Master…  Sounds good eh? What it meant was that I knew all about filling the Paintball gun’s gas bottles with CO2 without causing explosions or freezing my hands to the bottles (CO2 when the pressure is released is extremely cold,) so as I filled the bottles they became covered in a thick layer of ice….   We also looked at a whole range of Paintball guns to find a type that were tough enough for rental work, as we supplied about 95% of the people who came and played on our fields with the equipment they needed – Face masks, breast plates (for women players), overalls, gloves ammo belts and of course, the Paintball guns themselves.

In passing, as parts of our Paintball fields were more or less beside either a road or a public forest path, we had to string up a 4 meter high net all along those sections of our Fields, so that no one walking on the public roads could get accidentally shot.   Wouldn’t have made for good relations with the community if we made a habit of splatting casual passers-by now would it?

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These nets were a high maintenance factor for us, as the very large wild boar and deer who shared the forests with us simply walked into them and dragged them down to the ground as they wandered around at night.

We also set up a firing range at the entrance to the main field, so that people could try out their guns before heading into the first game, seemed essential as the great majority of our customers had never seen a Paintball gun, let alone fired one before.

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The games themselves tended to last about 10 minutes each, and a session at our centre was generally about 2 to 3 hours play.  Playing a number of games in each of the three fields.

The games all had some sort of scenario – capturing the enemies flag, getting an important personage from point A to point B without him (or her) getting shot en route, Capturing the enemies fortress or village, simple attrition (“kill” all your opponents) and so on.  We were constantly thinking up new games, and ended up with several hundred distinct games to be offered to our customers.

Unlike most Paintball centres, we felt that as the people had paid good money to play on our fields, being shot shouldn’t be the end of that particular game for them, so basically we made a rule that when hit, you had to retreat about 50 metres, wait a few minutes, and then join in again.  This had two advantages, they got more play time, and this in turn meant they used more Paintballs, which is were we really made our money.  In the entry fee we included a couple of hundred Paintballs, which were generally used up within the first 30 minutes ( a lot of people simply sprayed Paintballs like they were shooting machine guns.  You could actually shoot off about 7 Paintballs per second with the semi-automatic weapons we rented them).  So my Marshals who walked around controlling the games also carried thousands of spare Paintballs with them, that they sold to people as they needed them… Not unusual for us to get through up to 30 000 Paintballs in a day.

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Women, soldiers and firemen play seriously, men like testosterone flooded idiots

During these games I observed some intriguing behavour patterns.   When we got groups of women with no men, they listened carefully as the rules of the various games were explained, gave thought within their teams as how best to achieve the set gaols, and then systematically went about it, following their agreed strategies.   Very careful and economic players by and large.  However, when it was a mixed group (men and women) the women tended to take a back seat and leave it up to the men to make all the decisions, and didn’t really use their brains at all.  Groups of men only, tended to be extremely macho, shoot like mad things, almost invariably fail to achieve the aims of the games as they were too busy being “men” to think very clearly – we loved them as they got through enormous numbers of Paintballs.  Occasionally we had groups of Firemen, Policemen or soldiers.  They mostly went about it all rather as the women-only groups did, carefully considering the aims of the game and doing their best to achieve them..

From our point of view, groups of professional infantrymen were the worst customers, as they hardly shot any Paintballs at all… Not surprisingly I suppose.

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The Game Marshals I used were all local young people, who turned out to be superb at this work.   They could control the players, ensure a very high level of safety (Paintballs go fast and if you got one in your eye or ear could cause serious injury) and ensured that the atmosphere was light and fun.  I had a pool of about 10 or so of these young people to draw upon, and was constantly amazed at how well they went about their work for us.

Great bunch of kids they were.

As I mentioned above, Paintball is essentially a childish game, and it was great to see the groups who came and played.  Most of them really hadn’t a clue what they were letting themselves in for, and were reasonably enough, very apprehensive about it all.  But invariably after the first game had been played, and the players gathered together to catch their breath and relax before the next game, they were all unwound, laughing at each other and totally at peace with themselves.  It turned out that Paintball is a very cathartic game, about the best way of relaxing a bunch of uptight and nervous adults I have ever seen.

However, I rapidly discovered that almost no one in that part of France had even heard of Paintball, so we had a very uphill battle on our hands to get people to become aware of us, and to come and try it out.

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We made slow but steady progress with this, but after some 3 years we were still only breaking even, and we had effectively run out of money, just as our collection of Paintball guns were ready to be replaced by new ones – This we simply couldn’t afford to do, sadly.  So we decided that we would have to do something radical to get our financial feet under us again.   What this turned out to be was Lotty getting a job in an international school in Luanda – the capital of Angola – and us heading off to Africa to make our fortunes there.

So, as one of the Dutch people in the village was looking for a place to set up a large scale bar and restaurant, we swapped our land and all upon it for three houses that he and his wife owned between them, and headed off to our next adventure, Angola.

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