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Monday Memories – Living in South Africa Pt. 1

Continuing the occasional series in which I record significant events from my life. This installment takes up a couple of months before the previous one ended.

For the first couple of weeks after Freda and Ian arrived, in September 1973, they joined me in the hotel which I had been staying in since my arrival. Soon we were offered a furnished house. A traditional colonial style bungalow with a tin roof and veranda, this cottage had been vacated by the owner who had a modern bungalow built at the back. At first it seemed quite romantic with its early twentieth century furnishings and decor. That was until the night Freda went into the kitchen to brew a nightcap – and screamed.

Anyone who knows anything about cockroaches will know that they hate the light. They come out to play after dark. If their playground is suddenly illuminated, by someone switching on a light for example, they scuttle back to their hiding places – in this case under the kitchen cabinets. “I’m not staying here,” was Freda’s verdict. When I explained the situation to the HR department, who passed it on to the owner, that lady insisted there were no cockroaches in her house, implying that we were impugning her reputation by suggesting such a thing. In that case, why were there several cockroach traps under various pieces of furniture? We wondered.

Cockroach image found at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34517443

The company agreed to relocate us at the hotel for the time being. Construction, by a local developer, of a block of five terraced houses was almost complete and the company had taken a lease on two of them. One would be allocated to us. We were given an allowance to spend on furniture and textiles and told to visit an emporium in the inland town of Alexandria. “Ask for Smiley”, we were told.

“Smiley” turned out to be a very accommodating Indian gentleman and we selected beds, a settee and chairs, curtains and bedding from his overflowing warehouse. The day we moved in, the developer pointed out that a pair of Minah birds had constructed a nest in the eves. Should he remove it? No, we said. It would be a shame to disturb the birds, at least until after their young had fledged. Also, it would be interesting for Ian to watch the birds.

We got into the habit of doing our weekly shop on a Saturday morning in a new mall in the larger town of Amanzimtoti a few miles away on the road to Durban. We had become used to hearing the birds chatter but one Saturday, as we were having lunch after our shopping trip, they seemed especially noisy. “Those birds are inside,” Freda said.

“Don’t be silly, how could they get in?” was my response.

“I left the bedroom window open.”

With that she climbed the stairs – and, once again, screamed.

One of the birds had indeed come in through the window. Confused by the dressing table mirror, which was situated directly opposite the window, it had been trying to fly out of the reflected window. We succeeded in guiding it to the real window. There was now an awful mess to clear up.

All three of us developed itchy rashes which we put down to the change of climate. Several mornings we noticed accumulations of grit on the corner of the bath. Then one day I noticed that the ‘grit’ was moving. Once again we contacted the HR department and they sent along someone to have a look. “You have an infestation of bird lice,” was the verdict. “The birds’ nest has to be destroyed and the whole place fumigated.”

With the birds removed and the place fumigated we settled into a routine. The house was on a hill overlooking the estuary and the Indian Ocean, a view we never tired of. Ian was, by now in school. At that time in South Africa children did not commence school until they reached 7, unlike the UK where 5 was the usual starting age. At 8, Ian was therefore 2 years ahead of most of the children his age in the school and entered the 4th year alongside 10 and 11 year olds. Indeed, some were older because a grade system was in use which meant that children who failed to make the grade at the end of any year were held back. Ian, I’m glad to say, had no trouble keeping up, except with regard to the compulsory second language, Afrikaans.

Our son also joined the cub scouts. This was run by the wife of the factory’s Electrical Engineer, both of them German and both delightful to know. Over our time in South Africa we took part in various fund raising efforts for the Cubs and helped out at some events.

Before we knew, the spring of 1973 had metamorphosed into summer, the highlights of which were Christmas and New Year celebrations. These included an outdoor Christingle service on the village football ground and a factory Christmas party at which a group of the African labourers entertained us with their “Gumboot Dance”, a traditional African stomping dance performed in Wellingon boots.

By then the house next door to us had been let to a young couple. The husband was a Welsh Chemical Engineer. Having begun his career in one of the steel mills in South Wales, he had emigrated to South Africa to work for the South African Steel Corporation (SASCOR). From there he had moved to SAICOR with his Dutch wife. For clarity, when I say “Dutch” I mean that she was born in Holland, not that she was a South African of Dutch descent. As a new employee he was provided with temporary accommodation whilst he awaited the construction of his own house in the company’s staff village. This was an area of land owned by the company where employees could purchase a plot and have a house built to their own specification.

They brought with them twin boys about 2 years old, both as blond and pale skinned as their mother and each determined to play with the other’s toy despite having his own identical copy! The poor woman was forever having to break up fights between them, or so it sometimes seemed. To be fair, they were a delightful family and we quite often “babysat” for each other.

The summer climate was extremely hot and humid – or seemed so to us being more used to the British climate. Days would usually begin very hot with clear skies and brilliant sunshine. In the afternoon clouds would appear and the atmosphere would become very oppressive. There were frequent thunder storms with torrential rain in the late afternoon and early evening. One consequence of this was that the ocean in the vicinity of the estuary became red with the soil being carried down river from cultivated lands in the hills above.

The other feature of the portion of ocean visible from our windows was a long line of white surf about a mile off-shore. This, we learned, was a rocky outcrop known as the Aliwal Shoal. One Sunday, having taken Ian to a scouts’ event in a town a few miles down the coast, I noticed as we were traveling back without him, a tanker that appeared to be too close in. We stopped at a lay-by to take a closer look and it was obvious that the vessel was listing. Once back in Umkomaas we watched from our upstairs window as a couple of the ski boats operated by local fishermen journeyed to the stricken vessel to bring the crew to shore.

Scotborough Beach. We were returning from Scotborough to Umkomaas when we spotted the stricken vessel. Image found at https://www.safarinow.com/things-to-do/umkomaas/default.aspx

Ian was back in town in time to see the helicopter that landed to take the crew back to Durban. According to the newspaper the following day, the vessel was carrying molasses (raw sugar) from Mozambique. It had docked in Durban to refuel on the Saturday. It seems the Norwegian crew had a good night out in Durban and, after leaving the port on Sunday lunch time, had set a course due South before heading for their bunks, forgetting to allow for the Aliwal Shoal on their course.

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Monday Memories – Arrival in South Africa

Continuing the occasional series in which I record significant events from my life. This installment takes up where the previous one ended.

We had given up our membership of the co-ownership housing scheme and Freda moved back to her parents’ home in Herefordshire. It was the long summer break from school so there was no disruption to Ian’s education.

A week or so after I arrived in South Africa the small team was joined by an electrical engineer. A week after that he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised in Durban. In the circumstances his wife was flown over to join us.

I had not previously met any of the team members. Walter, my fellow Mechanical Designer, although based in Coventry, had been engaged on another overseas project – this one in the Soviet Union. The team leader and the Electrical Engineer were both from the company’s Derby facility, where the former held a senior management post. As a consequence his role as our team leader was part-time and he returned to the UK after a few weeks, to pay the occasional flying visit every few months.

Before he left, he was determined to demonstrate his driving prowess. Back in the UK Barry had built, and raced, a Formula Ford racing car. The team had been allocated 2 cars – necessary for travel from Umkomaas village to the mill and for personal transport at weekends. On his last weekend Barry decided we should have a group outing to Zululand, an area to the North of Durban characterised by spectacular mountain roads and beautiful scenery. The roads were, of course, unmettalled.

Not surprisingly, I can’t recall precisely who travelled with whom. I’m certain that Peter, the electrical engineer and his wife, Vi, were passengers in Barry’s pale blue Peugeot 504. And, of course, Freda and Ian were with me in a dark green Datsun (Nissan) 260 C. I am less certain of Walter’s position – if he was in our car, why was he not driving?

Walter was a widower. Whilst he was in the USSR his daughter was cared for by his mother but he was determined to have her with him in South Africa. About six weeks after Walter and I arrived in South Africa, Walter’s mother delivered the daughter to Freda in Hereford, from where she, Freda and Ian were picked up by a company driver and taken to Heathrow. Walter and I were permitted to fly from Durban to Johannesberg in order to meet them and accompany them on the final leg of their long journey.

As for the weekend motoring tour of Zululand; I think Barry thought he was taking part in the African Safari Rally. I do recall Vi telling us that he scared her witless whilst pointing out various interesting features of the landscape with his eyes averted from sharp bends above sheer precipices ahead. As for me, I did my best to keep up as we raced along rutted dirt roads in the cloud of dust thrown up by Barry’s car.

A recent image of the SAICCOR plant taken from their website. There are many more buildings there now than when I was there 45 years ago.

The mill is located – yes, it is still operating all these years later,  though now owned by SAPPI, the world’s largest producer of dissolving wood pulp as well as paper and board – a few miles upstream from the point at which the Umkomaas River enters the Indian Ocean. Originally a project created jointly by the South African government, an Italian fibre producer called Snia Viscosa, and Courtaulds, the plant was constructed by a team from Italy, many of whom had remained as the nucleus of the Engineering management and development team.

The basic idea was to establish plantations of fast growing eucalyptus which would be coppiced to provide the feedstock for the mill. The resultant pulp would be exported to Italy and the UK to be converted into viscose fibre by the two specialist corporations. Whilst Courtaulds had succeeded in adapting their process – which originally used pulp from Scandinavian soft woods – Snia had not, and sold their share in the mill to Courtaulds.

The project to modernise the raw material handling and storage for the mill had begun in the small in-house design office. Realising they lacked sufficient resources to handle such a large undertaking, they had turned to Courtaulds Engineering Limited to complete the job.

The production of pulp from timber is a simple enough process. Apart from wood, the only ingredients are Sulphur and Limestone, which are used to create an acid in which the wood, having been reduced to small chips, is dissolved to separate the celulose from the resin that holds it together in its natural state. The mill in Umkomaas also generated its own steam and electricity. A new coal fired boiler was being installed by Babcock and Wilcox when we arrived.

My first task was to complete the crane and conveyor system for transferring coal from the storage area to the boiler. Design for this had been partially completed, and construction of the reinforced concrete elements begun, already. I had to design the hoppers through which coal would be dropped onto a conveyor, evaluate tenders for their manufacture, and supervise the installation and commissioning.

Walter was undertaking a similar exercise for the Limestone and Sulphur handling facilities. The Electrical Engineer took care of the selection and installation of electric motors and wiring for all three. These were comparatively simple tasks and were completed by Christmas. The real ‘meat’ of the project concerned the complete reorganisation of the timber handling facility which would occupy us for the whole of 1974.

I’ll reveal more about this part of the project, my role, and our experience of living on the South African coast, in the next installment.


Monday Memories: 1972/3 More Naivete and South Africa beckons.

Continuing the occasional series in which I describe significant events in my life.

Despite my long hours at the pub, we were still struggling financially. Freda wanted to make a bigger contribution and it occurred to us that a small shop, of the kind where we would live on the premises, would enable her to use her training and experience in retail over a greater part of the day. Moreover, instead of working at the pub at weekends I would be available to work behind the counter of our own shop. We began looking at the property advertisements in the local paper and found just such an enterprise. It seemed to be within our capacity to purchase if we sold our present home.

We arranged a viewing at which we were told the place was already under offer. If that offer fell through then we would have a chance. Meanwhile would we like to put our house on the market?

We looked at a few other potential retail opportunities before we discovered that the size of mortgage available for such properties was less than that for a house. ‘Goodwill’ was not something that could be used as security. How would we finance the purchase of stock?

The plan began to look like a non-starter. Then we saw a leasehold property where the remainder of the lease was being offered for a relatively low price. Our offer was accepted, subject to the approval of the landlord. We received an offer for our house from a couple who did not want to take possession until after their marriage in March, six months away. This, we fondly supposed, gave us plenty of time to find something if the landlord did not approve our proposal – and why would he not?

We were, I now know, incredibly naive. The landlord strung us along throughout the winter. He even came to discuss our plans whilst I was at work in the pub, but still would not give us an answer.

Eventually, one morning in February 1972, when we were becoming increasingly desperate to have the business concluded, I took a call at work from our solicitor. The vendor’s solicitor had contacted him to say that the landlord had foreclosed on the lease, for non-payment of rent, and that, the vendor, no longer had anything to sell.

In answer to my question he indicated that we would have to negotiate directly with the landlord. Unsurprisingly, he was not available that day. When we did make contact it was to be told that he had let the property to someone else.

Looking back, it is impossible not to conclude that we were nothing more than a back-up plan to him. The tenant to whom he let the place, a small bakery chain, was the one he wanted and they wanted the premises without having to pay anything to the outgoing tenant. As she could not pay the rent, all the landlord needed to do was to delay until the point when he could legally end her tenancy. Only if the bakers became impatient would he need to find an alternative. He could have turned down our offer at the outset but it suited him to keep us ‘on ice’, stringing us along until he achieved his intended outcome.

We, now, had to be out of our house in a matter of weeks. House prices had started to rise rapidly since we had agreed our own sale, so buying was no longer an option for us. We would have to find somewhere to rent.

What we found was a small co-ownership apartment block on the West side of the city. The apartment offered two bedrooms, a decent sized kitchen, living room, bathroom and a garage in a separate block. The rent was affordable and, if we stayed for five years, we could claim a share of the equity on leaving. As it happens, we did not stay for long because, within a year and a half, I was offered an opportunity much too good to refuse.

Meanwhile I continued working at the pub, painted the Corsair yellow, and watched unbelieving as Hereford United achieved unprecedented success in the FA cup, beating

tumblr_mnm95mol8h1qkjn8jo1_1280

Fans and players celebrate Hereford United’s victory over Newcastle United, February 1972. Image found at http://futbolintellect.tumblr.com/post/51726166655/1972-non-league-hereford-united-taken-down

Newcastle United and drawing with West Ham United in the 3rd. and 4th rounds respectively. On August 19th 1972 I attended their first home match in the English Football League Division 4 in which they beat Reading 3-0 having previously lost in away matches to Colchester (Div.4) and Aston Villa (League Cup). They would go on to win promotion to the 3rd Division at the end of that season. [For those whose memories don’t go back far enough, League Div. 4 was equivalent to the present EFL Div.2, Divisions 1 and 2 having been superceded by the Premier League and Championship, respectively.]

In another attempt to increase our income I went to Brmingham one evening to attend a presentation from a multi-level marketing organisation that involved selling Unit Trust investments. Although I did buy into the investment, cold selling was not for me so nothing came of this.

One day my boss called me into the office. Our subsidiary had been asked to assist with a project in a pulp mill in which the parent company had an interest. The mill was in Swaziland, a small country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. I would need a passport and several inoculations – Yellow Fever, Typhus and a Small Pox booster, among others.

I had the ‘jabs’, got a passport – and then was told the job was cancelled. I continued with what I was doing – I can’t recall precisely what that was at the time. One important project undertaken around this time was the detailed design of the first production scale manufacturing plant for ibuprofen at the Boots pharmaceutical facility in Nottingham. All we were told about the product at the time was that it was “a new arthritis drug”. I suspect that even Boots would have been surprised at the way in which their invention has become ubiquitous as a pain killer and remedy for colds and flu.

In the summer of 1973 I was called into the boss’s office again. This time the project for which I was being recommended was in South Africa. Expected to last for between 18 months and 2 years, the team would be accompanied by our families. We would be provided with accommodation and basic living expenses whilst our salaries would continue to be paid into our UK bank accounts.

Ian was 7 and attending a primary school in Coventry with children of assorted ethnic origins. I wondered how a period living in a country in which people of colour were treated as second or third class citizens would affect him. After due consideration we, his parents, decided that it would be advantageous to see for ourselves whether conditions were as bad as the UK media portrayed them.

I tried very hard to get the company to allow us to travel together. To no avail. I don’t know the reason, whether it was to do with South African visa regulations or the possible cost to the company should a situation rise in which I did not fit in with the team and had to return.

I left the UK, together with another mechanical designer and the team leader, on 3rd August, 1973 aboard a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” operated by the then newly formed British Airways.

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A British Airways Boeing 747 like the one that took me to South Africa in August 1973. Photo found at https://www.yesterdaysairlines.com/ba-liveries-1974-2015.html

Double Digit Birthdays

I suppose it is a truism that the most of these one can have is nine. I just reached my seventh. Seems like a good time to look back at the others and see what I was doing.

My first, 11 in 1952, saw me just commenced at boarding school. About six weeks into my first term in this new and strange environment I can’t honestly recall what I was feeling. I do know that I was not particularly happy in that first year. Looking back at the whole of the six years I spent there I do think the experience was good for me. Over the last few years, thanks to the magic of the internet I have been able to make contact with some of the men who were fellow pupils there. In the last couple of days we have been discussing the effect on us of the religious education we received there and it seems that the majority are, like me, either atheist or agnostic, certainly sceptical about religions.

My second double digit birthday, 22 in 1963, happened six weeks after my marriage and 3 months after completing my apprenticeship. Definitely a happy time, excited at the life ahead of us as a couple and the interesting work I was already doing in a small design drawing office.

My third, 33 in 1974, I was in South Africa, embarking on what would become a very happy and fruitful period. There will be more about this in forthcoming installment in my Monday Memories sequence.

240px-cleethorpes_central_promarade_28june_201229By double digit birthday number four, 44 in 1985, I was a County Councillor in North East Lincolnshire, then part of Humberside. One of 4 Liberals holding the balance of power, I was struggling to keep up with the enormous work load and my full time job. A year later I accepted a generous severance package which allowed me more time for political activities and, or so I fondly imagined, writing.

On my fifth double digit birthday, 55/1996, you would have found me working as a Project Planner at a steel works in Scunthorpe. Knowing the job would not last beyond the following summer, I attended a recruitment fair staged in Leeds around that time by British Aerospace. Later I would be invited to attend a selection day, and at the end of June 1997 I joined that company, still in the role of Project Planner.

Eleven years ago, my 66th birthday on November 2nd 2007, I was beginning my second year resident in Ireland, retired, painting, writing and looking for opportunities for volunteering. The following year I began work as a volunteer with the local community development company, a move which subsequently led to both of us becoming volunteers with a local support group for cancer patients and their relatives, which we still are.

If I make it to an eighth double digit birthday I shall have out-lived my mother by a week – she died the day after the 7/7 bombings, five days before her 88th birthday. As for 99, that’s too far in the future to contemplate!

How Volunteers Respond to Disasters #WATWB

watwic-bright-tuqblkThis month I’m linking to a post from a blogger in her seventies who participates in a voluntary project rebuilding homes for people who lost everything as a consequence of wild fires. I’m also linking to regional newspaper coverage of the project.

https://shatara46.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/williams-lake-volunteer-project-update/

https://www.wltribune.com/news/mennonite-volunteers-help-wildfire-victims-rebuild-homes/

It is heartening to know that there are people of all ages and all religions (and none) working to help people whose lives have been devastated by natural disasters. With that in mind, I think it worth pointing out that Irish men and women have been helping in Haiti since the earthquake there several years ago whilst others make annual trips to South Africa to build homes and schools for families in that country’s poorest townships.

Have you got a good news story to share with the world? Here’s how to join in:

1. Keep your post to Below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. Link to a human news story on your blog, one that shows love, humanity, and brotherhood. Paste in an excerpt and tell us why it touched you. The Link is important, because it actually makes us look through news to find the positive ones to post.

3. No story is too big or small, as long as it Goes Beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

Place the WE ARE THE WORLD badge or banner on your Post and your Sidebar. Some of you have already done so, this is just a gentle reminder for the others.

5. Help us spread the word on social media. Feel free to tweet, share using the #WATWB hashtag to help us trend!

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Simon Falk, Andrea Michaels, Shilpa Garg, Sylvia Stein, Belinda Witzenhausen.