Dear Judith. Thanks your email
I am all but 82 and well retired. After a spell in the Navy where I took up hydrographic surveying – the business of marine charts which was inaugurated by Captain Cook – I moved to a marine salvage firm in Southampton that had the unique speciality of recovering cargoes from sunken ships in less than a thousand feet of water. Most of the targets were non-ferrous metals in commercial quantities – tin, nickel, copper, brass, and so on, in merchant ships sunk in the First and second world wars. May not sound exciting but they fetched $ 2-3m even then. (Before submarines came along any warship encountering an enemy warship captured it and kept its cargo for themselves). We did get a ton and a half of gold in two lots – off New Zealand and Canada.
Altogether the company recovered cargoes from eighty four ships. It closed in 1980 because there were too few cargoes left to be economic. The targets needed to be in clusters or exceptionally valuable because you could never be certain that what you were looking for was in fact where it was said to be. I wrote a rather amateurish illustrated book about it all called Riches from Wrecks which was published by John Brown and Fergusson.
* * *
I am penning my childish recollections of life in Kenya and Tanganyika betwee1940 and 1949. The attachment is the bones of one chapter. It has no pictures, more’s the pity.
By way of introduction to it:
My father lost his livelihood in England in the Depression. He emigrated to Kenya in 1932 and eventually got work as a underground miner on the goldfields at Kakamega. He had an uncle who owned an ex-German property twenty-five miles from Arusha, a lonely old widower with no children. My father became his farm manager, and when the old man died in 1940 my mother borrowed the funds to buy his farm from his estate very cheaply because the Italians were expected to invade from Abyssinia. He was then conscripted into the army, leaving my mother to run in a strange country a 1200-head dairy farm about which she had everything to learn.
She had children aged two ad four. There was no electricity, no telephone, no neighbours – and a petrol ration that allowed one trip to town each week. When tsetse fly struck in 1943 all but six of the milking herd died within three months. She turned the place into a game-watching guesthouse and had paid off the mortgage by the end of the war. She was a remarkable woman.
I may say that when I visited the junior school in 2014 I was hugely impressed with all you were achieving, a really useful contribution to Africa. I feel proud to have been there.
Regards Fergus Hinds
Some Recollections of Fergus Hinds
At St Andrews Turi 1942 – 1945
After eighteen hours of travelling came the Final Stretch of the Journey
Nairobi station was always bustle and excitement, lots of people you didn’t even know, porters with trolleys carrying passenger luggage and goods buzzing about on what I saw as a very wide platform – raised, paved and roofed, and at night lit by electricity – all wonderful. My school-bound trains always used that platform right side to, and the return ones left side to, so I dare say it was the only one. (For passengers at any rate – there were the odd goods platforms alongside warehouses).
We must have had reserved compartments for us where the hand luggage and valises went, with the trunks put in the guards van by the railway people. We went to bed as soon as the train moved off, and were woken by an attendant adult in time to dress before the train arrived at Turi about seven a.m. There must have been quite a long stop there on the first day of each term because someone would have had to unload the valises from every compartment – they were too big and heavy for small boys. We all walked the odd mile to the school and the luggage followed in a lorry. It was a very long way from a small boy’s home.
* * *
St Andrews School
I first alighted from that train in September 1942 aged six and a quarter.
Before that Heather had taught me the 3 R’s on the veranda at the ‘school table’. Almost nothing sticks in my mind about those lessons – perhaps a Freudian blackout of a time made disagreeable for not being spent playing? I think we spent about two or three hours a day at it. I doubt that Heather could have afforded the time to be with me throughout, so there was doubtless an element of homework to the proceedings. All I recall now was a reading book largely in monosyllables called ‘Old Lob’. Heather once said that she could not teach me properly and run the farm at the same time, but my schooling started at the same time she turned the farm into a holiday guest house so she would not have had time for it anyway; besides, I was bound to go to board at St Andrews, so her decision only brought it forward. Jonquil never went away to school at all; she was educated at home until she was eleven via a correspondence course; the education was alright but the lack of contemporary companionship affected her. The school in Arusha, whose headmaster we knew socially, took both day and boarding pupils. A government family we knew sent two girls to it for a while, travelling each day on a donkey led by an African, but then they were withdrawn and taught by correspondence at home. I do not know why neither they nor Jonquil went to St Andrews.
The school was located at Turi on the western side of the Rift valley in Kenya, at an altitude of nearly eight thousand feet. It was there I saw frost for the first time – early in the morning on the shaded side of a wooden block left on the ground overnight.. Two thirds of the hundred and twenty pupils were girls up to twelve, the rest and boys up to about nine or ten.
The buildings were all single storey and all made of wood – lapped planks under a shingle roof over a plank floor – except the lavatories and bathrooms (stone and concrete) and the generator house (corrugated iron). The small boys’ dormitory was attached to the main building which housed bathrooms, offices, dining room, and assembly hall with a stage. The girls’ dormitories must have been attached to the main building too. The chapel was detached, so also one single and one double classroom, both for older children; I don’t remember our classrooms at all. The boys’ lavatories (for hygene?) and the kitchen (for fire safety reasons) were joined to the main building by open-sided covered walks floored with concrete and roofed with shingles. The electric generator house was also detached round the back. I never saw the inside because we were not allowed in, but it was surrounded by a plantless patch of oil-soaked earth and the exhaust was a fat pipe coming out through a hole cut in the corrugated iron wall and discharging into a covered pit to act as a silencer. The machine ran from dark till ten o’clock each night.
Between the kitchen and the chapel was a big grove of tall conifers which was a playground. It was called the ‘Cargame’ because, so I supposed circa seven years old, we played cars there – which meant pushing blocks of wood along ‘roads’ winding in and out of the tree roots making engine noises the while, most particularly double de-clutching. It seems a bit odd now, but other reminiscences on the school website confirm the name. The blocks were provided, as a set of toy bricks might be. (On all cars before the war to change gear upwards the driver had only to de-clutch, move to the next gear, and engage the clutch again; but to change down he de-clutched, lifted his foot, revved up the engine in neutral to equalise the cog speeds, de-clutched again – whence the ‘double’ – and then engaged the lower gear. That made for a distinctive noise).
Beyond the chapel was a very large expanse of mown grass. On it near the school were two horizontal wooden ladders as climbing frames, one say ten feet long and about five off the ground, the other twenty long and seven feet up. There was a seesaw as well, and the odd swing? On the far side of the grass was the ‘Big Pavilion’, a sort of gym hall with a polished wooden floor, walls of wire netting all round attached to stumpy wooden pillars which were tree trunks, and a steep thatched roof. I think there must have been a shack to be distinguished as the Little Pavilion, but I have only the haziest recollection of it. We played football on this grass, we had athletics on it, and played self-arranged (or sometime staff-organised?) running around games like ‘Cowboys and Indians’, ‘French and English’ and the like – similar rules for the lot probably. French cricket too; (one batsman with a tennis racquet protecting his legs, which were the wicket, and everyone else ringed around against him; anyone who had the ball was bowler).
There were nice flowers planted around the place.
The owners of school were a husband and wife called Lavers, she the live wire by a long chalk. The girls called them Ma and Pa Lavers; the boys called him Sir, but I forget how we addressed or referred to her. In England years later I heard that she had had some odd proclivities. I dismissed them as gossip, but a couple of the posted reminiscences suggest how the tale came about. Apparently she would read, or make up, stories for the younger girls from time to time, and one of them had to stand beside her throughout combing her dandruffy hair – using their own comb! One says there were no volunteers for the job – easily credited. I can remember ‘Sir’ slippering the boys for misdemeanours – little discomfort as I recall – but nothing of any teachers or teaching beyond my first two-figure multiplication sum, memorable for the wonder of finding that seven times fourteen ‘turned into’ ninety-eight – the right answer – much as a kissed frog turns into a prince. We must have learnt history because the boy’s lavatories had stickers on the inside of the doors bearing little ditties made up the headmistress. Here are two:
William the Conqueror 1066
Made all the peasants pick up sticks
Julius Caesar looked across the sea
“I like the look of Britain” he said, said he
So he sailed across and took it in 54 BC.
It must have worked, I know both dates still.
So far as the life style was concerned almost nothing comes to mind. Heather told friends more than once how harrowing it was for her to see off her little lad on the train while he was tearing around the platform at Nairobi having a whale of a time with all his mates. There was certainly an element of excitement about it. Being up so late was a unique treat and because I, and I suppose everyone else, had to go to sleep in the afternoon beforehand we all had bags of energy. And I led a solitary existence at home so far as contemporaries were concerned, and friends were fun. But however much the mums suffered on the platform they would have been much more upset if they had been flies on the wall of the carriages. All the kids up to about eight or so sobbed themselves to sleep once the lights were off. It was a wrench. Next night (the first at school) a little less bad perhaps, and so on. The older ones stayed dry-eyed but the real tinies would keep it up for about the first three weeks of each term.
I was introduced to ‘baked custard’ – yellow with a burnt milk top. I loathed it, but eating everything was compulsory – to Mrs Lavers’ frequently repeating ‘remember the little boys and girls in Germany’, and our sulkily thinking ‘why don’t they come and help out then’. Because of the war porridge was unobtainable for a time and we were given maize meal instead. It was ‘posho’, the staple food of Africans, a dense, heavy, unappealing stuff as we got it. Children with rich parents who were lucky enough to be weedy got as an ‘extra’ a heaped up dessert spoon of ‘radio malt’ supplement every day – a dark brown sticky extract that tasted a bit like toffee. Again because of the war (and perhaps a less than ideal diet?) all those who did not have malt had to have palm oil instead. It too was dense – a greasy, bright orange substance with a peculiar taste that very few people took to. Since I remember only these few nasty things I dare say it was palatable overall.
The word ‘radio’ in the malt supplement’s name was, I think, a nineteen-thirties marketing man’s rendering of ‘superior’, ‘smart’, ‘state-of-the-art’. Almost my only memory of an individual incident in my first year or two was another boy showing me ‘electric’ toothpaste. What you did was to roll up very tightly the end of the tube (a nasty white stuff called Kolynos), hold your brush under it, unscrew the cap and, hey presto, the paste came out by itself. That was the ‘electric’ bit, meaning automatic, up-to-the-minute technology again. But this word was a carry-over from the nineteenth century which somehow this lad had picked up. I have seen nineteenth century advertisements using ‘electric’ in exactly this inappropriate way. Similarly, in the Dar es Salaam year book for 1954 there is an advertisement for a big posh British saloon car known as a Humber Super Snipe; it was styled without explanation ‘the world’s first X-ray car!’ I later discovered that they used x-rays to check the cylinder block castings; the customers were supposedly impressed.
An early memory was a swarm of wild bees settling by the ridge under the steep-pitched eaves of the detached classroom – a great sac of buzzing irritation. What did the boys do but start lobbing stones at it? Eventually, by chance, a stone or two hit it, and the whole mass dissolved into a grey cloud of ferocious malevolence, descending to a few feet above ground level and going for everything. They didn’t get me, but there was panic alright, a lot of yelling, and visits to Matron to have stings pulled out.
The facilities, which were pretty good, included riding at a farm a mile or so away. It was an ‘extra’ but I did it and it was good fun. Also a swimming pool, but I never went into it for pleasure. I couldn’t swim when I went there. Arm-bands had yet to be invented – the teaching implement was a pole with a strop dangling from the end of it that went round your chest. As you progressed along the side of the pool the teacher kept your face above water with it, but of course she didn’t. The idea was not to drag you along so she hung back a bit, the strop got slack, and you dipped under. Besides, even a six-year old was heavy at the end of a long stick held at one end only and it must have been hardish work for the teacher.
I excelled at athletics, holding the under eight long jump record of about nine feet. There was the usual board to jump off a couple of feet from the start of the pit, and I think to this day that I jumped off the pit edge rather than the board without anyone noticing.
There was a school play in the assembly hall every year, written by the headmistress with a speaking part for every pupil. My first appearance (aetat.6) was as one of a troupe of rabbits and my line to the effect that ‘We must sweep up the thorns so they don’t prick the fairies’ feet’. We were innocent in them days.
The library comprised two bookcases standing in that same hall. Among the boys’ favourites were the well-illustrated Wonder Books – of this and that, e.g. Ships, Aeroplanes, Astronomy, part of a big series of which the school had about five. The science was probably circa 1900; I see still a dramatic picture of two cold dark ‘burnt out’ stars colliding, the heat of the event setting them going as a ‘sun’! Solar radiation, among the interested public if any, was still said to be chemically-based – not nuclear – even though the books also said the mass of our Sun would only supply the energy it does by chemical means for twelve minutes or whatever. A trifling aside – sellotape was not yet invented; sticky tape was a roll of opaque brown paper liberally applied with glue of the sort you licked, but the school had one special roll of tape of a milky-colour that was transparent only at close quarters like tracing paper is; it was very special, and its use (by teachers only) confined to repairing torn books.
The school had a film projector, 8 mm I suppose, and silent of course, but it owned a wonderful collection of Charlie Chaplin shorts (black and white naturally). They were hugely popular, running I think, for about ten minutes each. We had a showing once a week, (which ‘Sir’ managed now I think of it).
New arrivals were in for a bit of teasing. Three or four older boys would surround some apprehensive little boy and tell him to say ‘I love say one, I love say two, I love say three . . .’ up to ten. Then they’d shout out ‘He loves Satan’! ha ha ha!
More unkind was:
‘Adam and Eve and Pinch Me went down to the sea to bathe
Adam and Eve got drowned, who do think was saved?’
When the friendless mite weakly replied as he thought good – they did. Little boys are beasts.
It is odd to think that I remember only two boys, the first called Chris Benson, a year or so older than I, who let me into his ‘gang’ when I was about seven. The other was a lad called Hector. There was a craze for bows and arrows at one time; the former were bendy sticks with a piece of string between the ends, but we had an effective arrow made from straight stick with a steel double pointed sock knitting needle projecting three inches out of one end. Someone fired this thing straight upwards; we all shouted as it turned to fall on Hector. He threw out his arms to start running and the needle went deep into his forearm. We pulled it out but it was a visit to Matron once again. Perhaps it all indicates that overall I was not very happy, but it may be that my memory was wiped of almost everything prior to one glorious event, the most wished-for of all by every little boy at every boarding school some time or other – the whole place being razed to the ground by fire in a couple of hours!
At about one a.m. on February 29th 1944, leap year day, I was woken by two teachers blowing whistles in our dormitory and flashing torches about. I was seven years old. We all had to don dressing gowns and slippers and congregate in the dark on the path outside before marching off to the chapel. There was a bit of drowsy grumbling among us until the staff had counted us all, and some lad hit on the idea that World War II was over. The headmistress had said more than once that at whatever time of day or night the war ended we would have an immediate thanksgiving service, and he was supposing they had ended hostilities without a thought for us.
After a while we marched off two by two in the dark to the chapel, and as we came up with the kitchen we saw it was on fire. (For the usual reason – a log bigger than the lumps of coal the English cooking range was designed for had fallen glowing from it and, bouncing off the concrete surround designed to catch it, had burned through the wooden floor while the watchman slept or was chatting with his fellows elsewhere). The sight of the flames was enough to wake us up and take notice, but more than that were several Africans armed with axes hacking down the walkway to the dining room; it was this wanton destruction that alerted me to something really untoward.
As we passed by, no more than fifteen yards away, the flames leapt up into the conifers overhead (it was the dry season) and in an instant the fire jumped into the main building. I have a clear recollection of a great rumbling noise, much as when the whole school drew back their dining chairs together to sit down after grace had been said. Whether the building can really have fallen down that quickly while I was still in earshot I do not know, but that is how I remember it.
We were not long in the chapel before we were made to traipse across the grass to the Big Pavilion. Being on the edge of the grove of trees the chapel was at risk too. I think someone must have dragged over a few blankets for us there, but quite soon we were on the move again. It was said afterwards in the newspaper that the flames reached 400 feet. Certainly there were sparks flying skyward that posed a further risk to people under the bone-dry thatch. This time we were led, still in pyjamas, slippers, and dressing gowns, through a hole someone had just cut in the hedge – further destruction – on to a dirt road that ran beside the school. There was a girl’s secondary called St George’s about a mile away and in the dark we walked there.
Next recollections: A smear of watery scrambled egg made with milk was the only breakfast. Then being introduced into a gym or similar in the centre of which was a pile of mixed boys’ clothing at least as high as a child. It had been rescued en masse the night before. We had to find and don a set of our own before we were allowed out – name-taped shirt, shorts, underpants, jersey, and two socks, sought for one by one in this random pile of some 400 garments. And shoes as well I suppose.
Most of the children were sent home in a day or two to their parents, for the most part those settled in major towns with telephones and more or less frequent train services. I was one of about half a dozen who did not leave so promptly, because travel arrangements were difficult to make. In my case there had to be an adult in Nairobi to put me on the Tanganyika train, and another to supervise the change on to the Tanganyika Railways line at Voi, more than half way to Mombasa.
While all these things were being fixed up on our behalf we went to the farm that supplied the school’s riding facilities. We had a wonderful time – no lessons, perpetual mucking about in a new place, rides once or twice every day, and out in the country rather than traipsing round a ring doing dressage. When the Tanganyika arrangements had been made Heather was sent a telegram to tell her what day I would arrive – no need to say which train, there was only the one – but the message never arrived! However, the burning down of the school (along with the fact that there had been no loss of life) had made the five minute local news bulletin on the radio, so Heather had sent an African down every train-day to Usa River station about seven miles away for a passenger list – which they had, the telegraph lines all running beside the railways – so she knew when to meet me.
The only fatalities in the fire were a rather bad-tempered grey parrot and a yappy little white Scotch terrier. Both belonged to the headmistress and neither was reckoned much loss by the boys. Much more serious was the demise of the entire library of Chaplin shorts.
All this happened in less-regulated colonial times, and under private enterprise. No surprise therefore that the school re-opened on time at the beginning of the next term without any buildings. That really was fun.
After the Fire
The African school terms were a little different to England because the weather was different. It rains all over East Africa in April and May, and is generally overcast and damp in June and later. For that reason the long ‘summer’ holidays were over Christmas and New Year and the terms shifted to fit. The term after the fire opened early in May, which was when it would have begun anyway. The posted reminiscences suggest that pupil numbers were down a bit.
On arrival we walked as usual from the station to find that all the wreckage of the old buildings had been cleared away, but we could wander over some of the site and find bits of melted glass, copper wires, cutlery and so forth as souvenirs. What remained was the chapel, the only building that could now accommodate the whole school at once; the double classrooms which were now to serve as girls’ dormitories – in three-tiers of bunks I think, though I never saw inside – that were erected by local carpenters; and the small detached single classroom used as a dining room when it was wet, the school eating in shifts because only half could be packed in at a time; and lastly the generator house.
There must have been a new-built temporary kitchen of corrugated iron. The boys lavatories, a row of about six cubicles walled and roofed with macouti – rectangles of thatch made by tying coconut palm tree leaves to lengths the spine that each frond has along its centre – with hessian stretched over a flimsy wooden frame for doors. They were sited over a row of holes dug near what had been the front gate of the school. I do not know what the girls had; maybe the boys’ original concrete-built lavatories had survived and they used them. For reasons I do not know the swimming pool was not used after the fire. It must have survived because in 2014 they told me that masses of bedding from the dormitories had been saved by throwing it wholesale into the water.
There were no classrooms at all. Under the conifers they set clusters of tables, chairs and benches a few yards apart. Each one served one class, the teacher with a blackboard on an easel at one end of the table, talking reasonably quietly so as not to intrude on the nearby ‘classes’. We ate all meals there when it was fine – breakfast, lunch, and supper (which must have been served before dark), something like a perpetual picnic.
When it rained the whole school congregated in the chapel and were taught, almost always by the headmistress in person. She would teach us songs. There was a piano which she played and I am sure most of the songs came from the Oxford English Songbook because, when I inherited Heather’s copy of that work thirty-five years later, a lot of them were familiar. She read us poems, and told us vaguely historical stories about Alfred and the Cakes, or what good eggs famous figures like Nelson were. It was all good cultural background, and not time wasted. Each session must have been prepared to an extent, but she could not have known when or how often these efforts would be required. She was a remarkable woman.
At first there were there no boys’ dormitories. We all slept, in groups of six or eight, in houses and farms around. We would walk there just before dark and come back first thing in the morning. My billet was a wooden shed which had been fitted with bunks and about six of us slept in it. It had only limited washing facilities. We got a cup of cocoa before bed and possibly some milk in the morning, but breakfast proper was always at school. Our hostess was not very friendly. Perhaps the headmistress had, for the sake of neighbourliness, cajoled her into doing something she did not much care for.
Those walks to and from school were a great pleasure. At that time of year and altitude the countryside was always green, and when damp the soil was an attractive contrasting red, a bit like Devon. There were no buildings more than a single storey high, no pylons or telegraph wires, no street lamps, no bitumen roads, never any traffic at the times we were on the move, unless perhaps a few cows were being driven somewhere. The air was always clean and, in the mornings, crisp.
There were three ways to walk to school. Probably the driest underfoot was largely along the railway, an unfenced single track laid on wooden sleepers bedded into the red earth, but I may be confusing them with the Tanganyika Railway’s sleepers. (At least some of KUR&H’ sleepers lay on stones). It took a curve on an embankment round a pond mostly girt with bushes and reeds, quite a big one, man-made for watering cattle. Various waterfowl lived and nested on it, and we usually took time off to see what they were up to. Another route was on a farm track below the railway line much closer to the pond, which allowed a better view of the nests and the young on the water. Once past the pond the track was hedged for part of the way, and we knew the whereabouts of several more birds’ nests that we kept an eye on. The third route must have been the road, a single width country lane, which was probably the quickest.
It was, I suppose, during the first term of this regime that a boys’ dormitory was built on the edge of the big playing field. It was a temporary affair of local construction – vertical poles about six inches thick and six feet apart dug into the earth. Horizontal laths of split bamboo were nailed inside and out at about four inch spacing, and the gap between filled with mud. It was wattle and daub essentially.
We were put to building some of it ourselves. About four or five of us at a time wearing only swimming trunks would get into a shallow hole in the ground six or eight feet across filled with earth and water, and then tramp around barefoot to mix up mud to the right consistency. When it was ready we would take the mud out of that hole in bucketfuls and put it with our hands into the space between the laths while other boys mixed up another batch in a different hole. Of course we could only reach up to about four feet and I doubt if we contributed as much as five percent to the total, so it was probably more recreational than useful help, but it was fun.
The whole building accommodated a dozen or more beds each side, so it must have been quite long. The roof was thatched with macouti. There was no ceiling. The floor was unplaned planks suspended a couple of feet above the ground. When the mud was dry it was whitewashed inside and out. There was a door at each end; the windows had no glass in them, just shutters, so there was plenty of fresh air. I do not recall any furniture other than the iron-framed beds – but there must have been hooks somewhere for clothes. When we first moved into the place one of the games was reaching for the wall behind you as soon as the lights were out, breaking off a lump of mud and pitching in the dark in the direction of some other lad. The lumps were very hard but no one got hit to hurt – though that was mostly luck of course. The game ended when there were no more projections to break off.
While we were in that place measles struck. One by one the kids went down with it, those who had it sleeping at one end of the room, those without at the other. When about three quarters were suffering school routine came to an effective halt for the remainder, and we had a wonderful time just mucking about. But the end of term was approaching and, since infection meant about ten days or so in bed or in quarantine, suddenly the ‘toughies’ who had not gone down with it began to get a bit anxious as there loomed the possibility of being kept back when the holidays started. The disease got me about three days from the end of term. It was not bad really, the same gang who had enjoyed the disrupted routine of school were still a special case, but it wasn’t quite such fun in our own time.
Meanwhile the proper re-building of the school went on apace. The general plan was still single storey, but it was to be stone-built throughout. Dressed stone walls, floors of chips of coloured stones randomly cast into thin concrete slabs polished by a machine with carborundum grinders to give a perfectly flat and colourful cross section of the slab. I forget what the roofs were, but they were not shingles.
The first building to go up was used as a dining room to start with, as yet with no ceiling and also, I think, with a bare concrete floor pending the proper surface being laid on it. I think the girls’ permanent dormitories were built before ours; the one we moved into was about forty yards or so from one of theirs, and parallel to it. A topic of discussion even among nine-year-old lads was girls’ ‘sights’, as a view was called. Whether there were at first no curtains or shutters on either building, or they were not drawn quite early enough I do not know, but my recollection was of the odd distant display at long range in poor light of an eleven-year old lass donning a nightie, everything below the waist fortuitously concealed by the height of the window sill. Ah well.
The reconstruction work was blessed by the presence of scores of Italian craftsmen, all prisoners of war captured in Ethiopia. They were much more experienced and talented than the local fundis, well-disposed towards children, and happy to be doing something worthwhile instead of mouldering in a camp. We had all sorts of simple wooden toys that they made us in their spare time. The carpenters among them made a lot of the furniture too. The first beds in the new stone dormitories were smoothed but unpainted wood, unpolished, and unvarnished. The sleeping surface was a flat wooden board with a central rectangle about eighteen inches by three feet of ‘coffee tray wire’. This was fairly robust galvanised wire formed into a quarter-inch square mesh, a common material used for sieving coffee beans after the pulp had rotted off. It was very inflexible, no sag at all. I forget what the mattresses were like.
There were no bedside lamps or bedside tables. Where we put our clothes I don’t know, I suppose on hooks in the foot boards of the beds. We may have had a rush mat beside each bed, but the rest was bare stone.
And now for the warts-and-all. Heather’s Oxford Song Book – which dated from 1916 – contained a huge selection of English, Scottish, Irish, and American songs. I read them after she died and found myself remembering the odd snatches of a good thirty of them that I must have picked from those rainy-day sessions in the chapel. Besides a few carols there were four from Scotland – Auld Lang Syne, the Bluebells of Scotland, Coming through the Rye, Loch Lomond, and from another source The Skye Boat Song; there was Cockles and Mussles from Ireland and Men of Harlech from Wales. Rousing English songs included Rule Britannia, the British Grenadiers, 40 Years On, Hearts of Oak, and the National Anthem; sing-along songs included Drink to Me Only, The Tavern in the Town , John Peel, Oh No John, The Keel Row, and from somewhere else Ilkley Moor and Early One Morning; longer ballad-like songs included Widdicombe Fair and The Mermaid, and also from somewhere else Strawberry Fair and The Raggle Taggle Gypsies. The United States contributed The Camptown Races, Clementine, John Brown’s Body, and Marching through Georgia; but one other of them, called Uncle Ned, froze me with a frisson of horror. Did we really sing that? It was a mid-nineteenth century American song from before the Civil War, recalling a very old slave. The first two verses listed his infirmities. He was frail, blind, toothless, bald, and no longer able to play the fiddle. The lines I remembered were these only:
He had no wool on de top ob his head
In de place where de wool ought to grow.
The last verse goes:
When old Ned die Massa take it mighty hard,
And de tears ran down like de rain;
Old Missus turn pale an’ she get berry sad
‘Cayse she never see old Ned again.
It was a kindly and affectionate song. The first enormity to modern ears was its opening:
There was an old nigger, and his name was Uncle Ned,
But he’s dead long ago, long ago;
How utterly shocking to our refined twenty-first century sensibilities! But there was much worse to come, for the chorus went:
Den lay down de shubble an’ de hoe,
Hang up de fiddle an’ de bow;
Dere’s no more hard work for poor old Ned,
He’s gone whar de good niggers go.
You have to laugh.
To analyse it all: We have made the word ‘nigger’ unutterable, as if it were a Polynesian taboo. Just as many actors still will not mouth the name Macbeth, calling it instead ‘the Scotch play’ (or Scottish if they like their superstitions in the twenty-first century mode), so most public speakers say to universal approval ‘the n word’, or some other circumlocution. And yet we snigger at our forebears’ cringing like salted snails at ‘bloody’ or ‘damn’. The fact is that words move in and out of fashion so far as acceptability goes; what matters is not the phonemes but what the speaker means by them. By the end of the nineteenth century ‘nigger’ had become a term of extreme abuse and contempt in parts of some southern states of the USA, and in the twentieth that usage seeped abroad. But the word need not, and formerly did not, carry that meaning always, in the States or anywhere else. Massa and Missus were as decent people as you’d hope to meet and we have no business to think ourselves in the slightest degree more moral or worthy than they. In their times ‘nigger’ was a descriptive term used by both communities for people who were self-evidently different to each other by race and education, neither more nor less. And if anyone now wants to argue the injustice of different ‘heavens’ they had better explain first what they mean by heaven at all.
That paragraph provoked heated comments and discussions among my family and friends, two of them saying the song did not even imply separate heavens – though my Christian Sri Lankan sister-in-law said shortly ‘Of course it does’.
I dislike slavery as much as anyone, particularly where it is inter-racial, and I have no doubt that field slaves in the United States were sometimes treated very badly; but to be contemptuous of servants with whom one is in daily contact is crassly counterproductive, and where they are domestics it must be uncomfortable as well. I do not believe it would be possible after years of loyal service, so I looked to see how the song came to be written. There used to be groups of what we would call music hall entertainers in New York in the first half of the nineteenth century; they blacked their faces and were at first called ‘Ethiopian Delineators’, later shortened to ‘Ethiopians’. Old Ned was written in the late 1840’s by a white man called Collins Foster who intended, in his own words, ‘to build up a taste for the minstrel songs among refined people by making words suitable to their taste instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order’.
So there we are, one hundred and fifty years ago ‘nigger’ was refined taste. It seems to me these days there is a widespread cultural block against so much as thinking about the enslavement of black people by white ones, and very few attempts to see it through the eyes of people living at the time. I let my first words stand.