Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Mission Beach, Far North Queensland, looking over to Dunk Island

A flying visit to Far North Queensland – in this case a wedding at seemingly endless Mission Beach – reminds me powerfully of my childhood visiting the coastal tropical paradise than runs almost the length of the Eastern seaboard of South Africa.

Like South Africa, the bizarre and the wonderful and the otherworldly abound in FNQ. Driving along little country lanes one passes over rickety old bridges covering deep slashes of dark, mysterious water; streams that tumble and cascade through the rainforest to the ocean turning into turgid, broad estuaries where the rainfall and sea mix.

This is not a place to step out of the car. There is hardly a waterway here that is not home to the ubiquitous salt-water crocodile. Slowing down and gazing out of the car window for tell-tale eyes or snouts reminds me powerfully of driving around African game reserves spotting rhinos amongst the thorn trees and bushes. You don’t get out of the car there, either, without the benefit of a guide and good running shoes. Here neither would help you much if you ventured incautiously into the creek, looking for some barramundi to BBQ for dinner, nestling beneath the waterside vegetation. Mr and Mrs Croc can make about 30mph through the water, and you’re easier to catch than a barra.

Better to stick to the beach, except swimming is unwise, even out of stinger season. The waters hereabouts are stocked with jellyfish of all kinds. Some will give you a nasty sting that’s reasonably easily treated with vinegar, or if none is to hand, urinating on the wound. The well-known “bluebottle” is one such – a blob of nastiness followed by a seemingly endless strand of stinging tail that wraps round your leg all too easily. But that’s just a nasty annoyance. Others, such as the virtually unspottable irukandji, will kill you, if the people with you don’t know that when you stop breathing you’re not yet dead, and if they perform mouth-to-mouth you’ll wake up again. But even if they are so briefed, who wants to find out how good their memory is? About a centimetre across at the biggest, their tendrils can be up to a metre in length. Their sting – they fire little barbs into you just to make sure – is 100 times more potent than a cobra and 1000 times more potent than a tarantulas. And that’s just the irukandji. There are others.

Back to the resort pool after a nice walk on the beach, then.

Mind you, while we’re discussing tarantulas, when walking after dark it’s wise to avoid the spiders webs that end up strung across paths in what seems like no time flat, especially as, yes, most of the spiders round here will give you a nasty suck. Luckily we spotted one substantial specimen crawling on our arm yesterday and flicked it off as it reared up to go for a nibble. We were not stung, but a blood pressure count taken up to an hour afterwards would have seen us whisked off to ER quick smart.

There are actually more killer sharks down south than there are up here, but they’re around. Mind you, their threat (which really is not very great, if you look at the stats) seems trivial when compared to the crocs. We were told that just a few days before our arrival a 4.2 metre specimen was spotted patrolling up and down the beach – not lurking in his estuary where he was meant to be. Backwards and forwards, with a hungry look in his eye.

Why are the crocs so numerous? Well, they’re protected, for one thing. But the real answer is easy. Lots of fish to eat. Lots and lots of fish. These waters are swarming with tasty comestibles for croc and man alike, which is why fishing would have to be pretty much the number 1 leisure activity in these parts, after drinking cold beer – and, of course, no one said you can’t drink beer and fish simultaneously.

None of the above should deter you from visiting. For one thing, the plant life in the area is worth a visit on its own. Riotous bursts of variegation and colour in endless variety are testament to a growing environment close to that of the Garden of Eden. Hot … damned hot … and very wet. Plants that are mere pot specimens in our home town grow here to above head height. With the blazing tropical sun broken up by the high branches of palm trees and then filtered again by the progressive layers of ferns and other delights, not only is it possible to stay cool, but one can also wander as if in a primordial landscape just metres from civilisation. So long as there are no water courses nearby.

Port St Johns “Second Beach”

As I said, it reminds me powerfully of childhood holidays in Natal and the Transkei/Pondoland. I fell to thinking of one time – we were at a delightful out-of-the-way spot called Second Beach at Port St Johns – and I would have been perhaps 11 – when a local Xhosa boy called Winston (after Winston Churchill) offered his services to our family as a gillie. Essentially, a baiter of hooks, a runner of errands, and a stand-in babysitter for me. Winston was maybe 14 and ineffably cool. Wise beyond his years, always smiling, never fatigued, endlessly obliging. For being permanently available to do whatever was needed, he was rewarded with what was then probably two or three pounds a day – enough for him to live moderately well, although I am sure it went home to his family, and he was gifted the occasional fish, which definitely did.

He seemed to have an almost magical ability to tell us where to cast our lines into the waves to catch the hard-fighting great-eating South African shad, even when there weren’t tell-tale flocks of seabirds diving into the waves to eat the bait fish on which the shad would gorge themselves. Indian shop-keepers – always at the beach before us no matter how early in the pearly dawn light we rose – would walk off the beach muttering “one fish, one fish”, which was code for “Not much around today, man.” But Winston would just stand looking at the water, one leg resting on the knee of the other in perfect balance, until he would point and motion to where he thought there might be fish. He was always right. It was freakish.

Winston saved my life twice that summer. One time, he took his eyes off me for a second when we were playing, (I was playing, he was nursemaiding), and I waded across an estuary to look at a metal sign on an obelisk in the water. As I got there, and started sinking inexorably, I saw that it was a warning against quicksand, in which I was now stuck. Winston swam across the top of the water and grabbed both my hands, pulling me up and out. I was terrified. He just chuckled.

Another time, we were in one of those yellow inflatable oval dinghy things that hang off the back of bigger boats, paddling around in the estuary, doing nothing much. I think I was carelessly dangling a line off the back, which might have stirred up the local fish population a little, as suddenly there was a massive crash on the bank next to us, and vast turbulence in the water. Ignorant, and excited, I went to the side of the boat to see what was what, and was batted back into the middle of the boat by Winston, who then stood there with his paddle raised. “Ingwenya!” he said to me urgently, “Ingwenya!” After a few moments he grabbed both oars and rowed for our lives. I have no doubt that had I leaned over the edge of the boat I would have been crocodile dinner. And Winston would have been in deep shit for having got “little baas” eaten.

When we got back to the holiday hut we were staying in I went and stole two Peter Stuyvestants from my brother’s pack and gave one to Winston, who I had admired smoking the most disgusting bush cheroots imaginable. From the pocket of his ragged shorts, which seemed cavernous enough to hold a seemingly endless cornucopia of useful things, he produced matches and we lit up and strolled to the beach to calm down.

“Ingwenya!” he laughed at me again, and did a little pantomime of a massive jaw closing shut over my head. “Ingwenya!” I assured him I had the point, and tried to convince him I wouldn’t be so stupid as to look over the edge of any boats, ever again. Certainly not in tropical waters. He didn’t understand a word I said, of course, but we just laughed and nodded, him smoking an entire cigarette in two or three huge draughts of smoke, which he blew out of his nose, and which I tried to emulate, but just ended up sneezing with watering eyes.

As I stared into the murky depths of forest and creek today, I caught myself wondering what might have happened to Winston.

Did he end up coughing his life away in the dust-filled gold and diamond mines around Jo’burg?

Did he get swept up in the communal violence that plagued South Africa during the transition to majority rule?

Or did he stay near Port St Johns, baiting hooks and rescuing little pale boys, and now he sits somewhere high on the hills in Transkei, surrounded by his family, and his cows, and watches the ineffable sunsets, and warns his grand-kids to watch out for crocs.

I like to think he does. I hope he has a long and happy old age. I hope he still catches fish. And has plenty of cigarettes.

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Photo: Maarten Van de Voort. Used with permission. See http://maartenvandevoort.nl/

Photo: Maarten Van de Voort. Used with permission.

I first fell in love when I was 10 years and 11 months old. She was 10 something, too.

It was 1967. Early June. A day trip to Brownsea Island. There was me, my Mum, and my best mate Ian Sinclair.

Ian was from Glasgow. Lord knows what his family was doing living in suburban Bournemouth on the genteel South Coast of England – Costa Geriatrica they call it – but he was incredibly exotic and attractive, with his rough Glaswegian accent, short, nuggety frame, tousled brown curls, and impish good looks. I think every girl in school was mad about him, not to mention a few older girls who had already gone ahead to big school, but with whom we shared the local bus service and cafes. Ian was, naturally, going out with the prettiest girl in school, Helen.

I was going out with the next prettiest, her twin sister Julie. Both girls were exceptionally attractive, awesomely tall, slender, played a demon game of netball, and were kindness personified. But whereas at nearly eleven Helen and Ian were already a little more “advanced” than might have been quite proper with their affections, neither Julie and I really had a clue what we were doing, apart from snatching the occasional mis-managed kiss and giggling inanely. She used to draw a lot of cartoon horses heads, too, and delighted in drawing them kissing each other, which was, she explained, a cipher for our affections, and much easier than both of us trying to surreptitiously watch the more skilled Ian and Helen and work out what we were doing wrong.

At the time, this compromise satisfied my emotional requirements from a girlfriend entirely, and we were great friends. But then, one fateful day, on Brownsea Island, Ian and I rounded a corner, having left my mother reading the early edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo on the sun-kissed grassy lawns, and walked into Erin. Erin was the same height as me. Her lustrous hair, cut into a fringe behind which a pony tail tumbled and bounded around her shoulders (think Olivia Newton-John in the early scenes of Grease, but with light brown hair) shone – literally shone – and her face seemed almost to have a halo around it.

She wore a simple summer dress, and across the bridge of her upturned nose lay a spray of tiny freckles. Above that, a pair of laughing, humourous brown eyes twinkled challengingly.

I swear I stopped stone dead. Transfixed. She was, without question, the most beautiful creature I had ever clapped eyes on. Despite her holding my gaze, and swinging her body invitingly from side to side, I simply couldn’t speak. Ian laughed: “This is my best friend, Steve. I’m going over there, you talk.” And with that, he left. Wise beyond his years, to a fault, was our Ian.

In retrospect, she did all the work. couple handsShe asked where I was from, explained she was from a village nearby, told me her life history, (which basically consisted of which school subjects she liked), and generally tried to put me at my ease.

She was smiling constantly, as if in possession of a secret I did not share. Before long she had enough of talking, and her innately wild spirit took over.

She insisted we wander the more isolated part of the island, and soon enough, hand in hand, that is what we did. She was not my first kiss. But she was the first that happened spontaneously. Sneaky games of spin the bottle didn’t count, even if I had been introduced to the joys of kissing “properly” by Rick’s big sister Anna, who when the bottle slowly ground to a halt in front of me took me into the hall and proceeded to inculcate in me a joy of necking that stood me in good stead in years to come. With a rather tired and world-weary air, the 13 year old took me under her wing, almost as a social service. It was great. But my goodness, it was not as great as kissing Erin.

Our lips met, without warning, and it was perfect. It wasn’t forced, or scary. I felt a rush of emotions that were mainly composed of testosterone and adrenalin, and it was altogether wonderful. When I pulled back, she stood there with her arms around my waist, and leaned back, gauging, I think, the reaction in my face. Obviously satisfied, she kissed me again.

We walked a bit, mostly in silence, punctuated by laughter. She told me what she liked about me. At that moment, nothing was wrong, or could be wrong.

Then we ran. Ran as if the wild winds of the world were snapping at our heels. We ran for what seemed like hours, but it can only have been only a few minutes, maybe thirty, running with complete abandon, but always hand in hand. Our hands were clasped as if to let go would be to bring the world to an abrupt end. We ran through tree branches and bushes and down tracks and up hills and over the endless fields of purple heather and nothing could stop us; at that moment, I think I could have gladly run forever and never needed to breathe.

Until, of course, we ran into Ian, just before we reached the lawn, and the ferry that would take us and the Triumph Herald back to the mainland, and the inevitable goodbye, and the hilarity in Ian’s face punctured the moment, and Erin kissed me briefly just once more, and wrote down her phone number, and I went home. Somewhere a peacock cried its lamentation to the skies.

As I left, she got smaller and smaller, but it looked like she didn’t take her eyes off the ferry, until we had bumped off the other end, and turned left along the Sandbanks sand-dunes, and she was hidden from view.

And when Mum asked us in the car what we were talking about, she told me in no uncertain terms that I was too young to be getting a bus to another village to see a girl the same age, and goodness me, what would her mother think, for Heaven’s sake, and no, I couldn’t ring, and give me that piece of paper, and that, emphatically and finally, was that.

I’ve had a thing for freckles ever since. And girls called Erin. I never even got to say sorry. She must have thought I didn’t care.

Girl in the window, Salvador Dali
The girl in the window, Salvador Dali, mid-1920s

Some of the writing on WordPress is utterly charming. Emily Hauser’s work at In My Head often attains a flow of such effortlessly fluid competence that it leaves me, as a fellow professional, gasping. I have her to thank for many a heart-warming or thought-provoking start to my day.

I warmly recommend her musings on her childhood newspaper delivery round at http://emilylhauserinmyhead.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/tales-of-an-11-year-old-papergirl/

In the UK, being a paper boy was even more exhausting than Emily remembers from her Chicago childhood.

Unlike the USA, where papers are vaguely flung in the direction of the front yard, in the UK they were always delivered through the letterbox, which was usually an impossibly narrow or idiotically positioned integral component of a front door, rather than a decent-size receptacle intelligently stuck on a pole at the front gate. And the front door was invariably up the end of a path or driveway, which was always, equally certainly, covered in treacherously invisible black ice mysteriously laid down in the frigid pre-dawn.

Bikes were impractical; you’d have been on and off the thing 500 times a morning. So, rain, hail, snow or shine, one walked, carrying a bag weighing about the same as a small car on one’s ten year old frame. A bag that was made of a sort of hessian, that got heavier and smellier as it got wetter from the freezing rain that always came in horizontally off the English Channel in that seaside town of blessed memory.

Sooner or later the papers inside would get wet, and start to glutinously stick together, until eventually the whole interior started to resemble a sort of papier mâché sculpture of indistinct design.

Oh, how we laughed.

Just as it became almost overwhelmingly tempting to dump the whole bag behind the vast hedge at Miss King’s the piano teacher and run away to sea, there was something to live for.

Every morning, Sophie, the new girl with impossibly blue eyes who had moved into the yellow house down the road, used to wave at me as she sat in her bedroom window eating her rice crispies , as I vainly tried to squeeze the Daily Telegraph through their impossibly small letterbox, usually shredding it in the process.

Her father, who became infamous for writing a letter complaining about the state of the roads to the local paper, (in those days an impossibly infra dig* thing to have done), must have cursed me daily. Sophie just gazed down, like an imprisoned princess in a tower of sunflower weatherboards and slate tiles, a sudden ray of sunshine on a sodden day.

She went away the next year, to big school, until a famously hot summer some eight years later, when we endured one awful first – and last – kiss in the back of a taxi after an awkward shared meal of chicken chow mein and egg fried rice where neither of us could think of anything to say. We should have left it at a lonely wave and a gentle smile that made the unendurable worthwhile.

Never go back, Dear Reader. Never go back.

*Infra dig: a phrase beloved of my mother, one of the genteel poor, meaning unbecoming of one’s position or beneath one’s dignity.

It derives from the Latin infra dignitatem, literally ‘beneath (one’s) dignity’. It is first recorded by William Hazlitt in Table talk; or, Original essays on men and manners, 1822:

“Among other things, the learned languages are a ready passport to this sort of unmeaning, unanalysed reputation. They presently lift a man up among the celestial constellations, the signs of the zodiac (as it were) and third heaven of inspiration, from whence he looks down on those who are toiling on in this lower sphere, and earning their bread by the sweat of their brain, at leisure and in scorn. If the graduates in this way condescend to express their thoughts in English, it is understood to be infra dignitatem …”

The first person to put the shortened infra dig. version into print was Sir Walter Scott. He uses it in his 1825 novel Redgauntlet:

“It would be infra dig. in the Provost of this most flourishing and loyal town to associate with Redgauntlet.”

If ever used, it is now more commonly written without the full stop. Even most of those who realise it is an abbreviation now consider it to be well-enough established not to require it, as amp – short for ampere – is now accepted without a full stop.

What is beneath one’s dignity is obviously a matter of judgment. The group most often associated with the term are the British upper middle classes, a mindset rather than a measurement of purchasing power, although they might now consider it infra dig ever to use it.