Back in the Day

Old Nov 13th 2021, 6:16 pm
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Default Back in the Day

The New Hebrides (the independent nation of Vanuatu since 1989) was an Anglo-French condominium in the Pacific Ocean – and a Franco-Britannique one called Nouvelles Hebrides, to the French. It had a bizarre constitutional set-up – the result of a strange episode in its history as a European protectorate. Some selective BE members might be interested in the set-up.

By the late 1800s, most of the islands in the Pacific had fallen under the control of the European empires of the day, plus the USA. The native peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia had no weapons to match those of the Western powers, who simply divvied up the territories among themselves.

France claimed New Caledonia, Britain claimed Fiji. Germany wanted the New Hebrides, but neither Britain nor France wanted a German presence in the region; they also didn’t want the Islands themselves. The logical thing to do would have been to split the entire archipelago down the middle; but logic has never featured strongly in Anglo-French intercourse over the centuries. What they did was agree to run the Islands jointly, as a “condominium”. It was referred to by one and all, when we lived there in the 1970s, as a pandemonium.

The imperial headquarters of the British and French expatriates composed two legal Codes, one for each populace in its own language. Expats of other nationalities were obliged to choose which Code they would be bound by. Additionally, there was a Condominium Code, applicable to all residents – British, French, all other foreigners, and all natives.

A fourth collection of rules comprised a Native Code that applied to all natives and all native-white affairs. This was published (as was the Condominium code) in both English and French, by a printer in Montreal. The translations did not always correspond exactly, but that’s life. Or c’est la vie, of course.

Finally, there was a fifth set of laws that the natives had to cope with, and that was their own “Custom Law”, analogous to England’s Common Law. It was unwritten, and little known among expats. It didn’t vary much from village to village – although, with seventy Melanesian and four Polynesian languages spoken in the archipelago (none of them written), there existed some scope for disagreement.

When I had nothing better to do at the office, I waded my way through the Islands’ constitutional laws, Custom Law excluded. I was intrigued by one odd law in the Native Code that prescribed six months in prison for the crime of “aiding and abetting adultery”. The mind boggled. Surely there wasn’t a travelling cheer-squad that attended each adulterous mating, that the European powers were trying to abolish, like suttee in India? One of the BDAs (British District Administrators) explained it to me, amused by my indignation.

Marriage was taken very seriously by the Melanesians, newly converted to Christianity. But, you know, boys will be boys, and the more attractive of the young bachelors did not always resist the temptation to seduce married women, when the opportunity arose.

An unfaithful wife would be beaten by her husband; Custom Law allowed that. Her partner in infidelity might be killed by the husband; Custom Law allowed that, too. But the Native Code forbade murder, and it took precedence over Custom Law. How could the murders be stopped?

The chiefs had come in a delegation to the European administrators. If the white rulers really wanted to be helpful and stop the killings, would they please amend their Native Code and outlaw adultery? Perhaps it could carry a penalty of six months in pokey, to allow tempers to cool. Well, of course they would! No problem! However, by legal definition, the lawyers said, “adultery” could only be committed by a married person. Outlawing adultery would catch an erring wife, but not her unmarried paramour.

“Aiding and abetting adultery” was not the most elegant of terms, but it did the trick.
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Old Nov 20th 2021, 9:05 pm
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Default Re: Back in the Day

Another “back in the day” report from the New Hebrides in the South Pacific (the stage-play of that name was based there), where my wife and I lived from 1972-75. It (the report) jumps about a bit, but that can’t be helped. It’s how I reminisce. Here we go…

At a party one night, we had chatted to this English couple cordially for a couple of hours, and gotten on like a house on fire. We were a bit taken aback at the response to our invitation to dinner the next Saturday. “Sorry,” the wife said, “but Richard will probably be sick that day.” Wow! How do you handle a brush-off like that?

“Ohhh,” she said. “I’d better explain that.” And she did, and we let it go, and sure enough Richard was sick that weekend. (We checked.) His malaria, contracted in Kenya some years before, where they used to live, was of the recurring kind, which laid him out for three days around the same day every year. They had it on their kitchen calendar. It never happened in England, because the climate was different there – but in New Hebs, the tropical humidity was just like home, for the virus.

The Islands were an embryo offshore tax-haven, back then, and probably still are. When they went independent as the nation of Vanuatu, they confiscated non-residents’ land (including ours), and that’s never a smart move. Anyway, back then…A new client flew in from Australia one day, checked into his hotel, and woke up with a high fever in the morning. The local British doctor was bamboozled. “It looks for all the world like malaria,” he said. “But the fever doesn’t come overnight. And you say you’ve never been up in this area before.” “That’s right,” the visitor said. “I’ve lived in Sydney all my life… except during the War, of course.”

Of course. Thirty years had passed since he had been a soldier in New Guinea, and the malaria-parasite had lain doggo ever since – coming to life as soon as conditions were suitable.

I was lucky with my malaria, when it came. It was the common-or-garden variety that required only a few days of heavy sweating at home in bed – and no repeats. Its worst effect was the weakening of my immune system that enabled Hepatitis ‘A’ to catch hold immediately afterwards. That kept me under for another week or so, but it didn’t recur either.

Neither illness warranted a trip to hospital, that’s the focus of this story. As a joint British-French protectorate, Efate (the main island) had two hospitals - one British and one French. The latter was staffed by French Army doctors, who rarely met a leg they didn’t feel obliged to amputate. The British one had a better reputation, and very few people died in it.

The British one (Paton Memorial Hospital, called “PMH”) was a short boat ride across from the main island, followed by a long and steep stairway up a rocky hill. A ferryman was on call 24/7, at least in theory. One had to phone him at his home, and wait at the dock while he got dressed (if he was in bed) and rode his bike down. His duties then were to help manhandle the patient on board and off at the other end, and help him or her up the exhausting stairs – to the hospital if still breathing or to the mortuary if not. The hospital had an excellent survival ratio, although the path didn’t.

By coincidence, Linda and I were familiar with the initials “PMH” from our three years in Nassau, Bahamas. There, they stood for the Princess Margaret Hospital, named for the Queen’s sister. The time interval for us had been only fifteen months, so Linda’s mistake was forgivable.

She had to phone and reserve a bed for after her appendix operation, which she had delayed until after the Queen’s visit. Royalty was on people’s minds. Somehow her call was answered not by the switchboard but by someone at the nurses’ station, who assumed it was an internal call. So the greeting was casual: just, “Hello?” Linda, thrown a bit by the informality, asked “Is that Princess Margaret?” “Uhhh…” Linda, uncertainly: “Is that Princess Margaret?” Silence. Had the line gone dead? That was common enough. Linda, again, giving it one last shot, “Is this the number for Princess Margaret?” Finally, politely, puzzled and apologetic, a small voice ventured, “She’s not at this number. This is Nurse Bong.”

I must say Linda was treated very respectfully, when the time came. It’s always nice to have friends in high places, isn’t it?
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Old Nov 24th 2021, 11:35 am
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Default Re: Back in the Day

In my youth i lived in Iran.

As the child of a british diplomat, i of course went to the british embassy school. This was the best school in the country imho, and definitely the only one that educated in english, so it was the school for all diplomatic children. It was also the school for the shah's kids. School plays and sports days were graced with Shah Rezah Pahlavi and his wife or girlfriend, an ex model, french? and his huge security detail who were under strict instructions not to interrupt the fun.

We used to go to his palaces for parties. I will always remember one where the theme was cowboys and indians. We were all given very professional looking bows and arrows [soft tip, very low powered, but very accurate] or replica revolvers [toy isnt the right word] which we all kept. Anyway, in full battle we rattled round the palace, avoiding various priceless antiques - mostly. However in one living room we were shooed out by a security guy after someone managed to hit a painting. It wasnt a very nice painting, a blue daub of a weird looking woman. The boy who did it complained to one of the shahs kids, who complained to dad who told the guard to not restrict the fun. Im not sure ho much the shah paid picasso to paint his wife, but i thought it wasnt worth it at the time. Today i wonder how much he charged for commissions.
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Old Nov 24th 2021, 11:42 am
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Default Re: Back in the Day

One christmas, we did a play, that needed us to make a set inside a british castle. I had a kids plastic knights outfit, and i was asked to donate it to the effort, which i did reluctantly. After the play i proudly told the shah that was my plastic armour on the set, but they had stuck it together so couldnt be used again. He smiled and asked if i would like a persian shield, and i said yes please. He just took one off the wall and handed it to me. A week later his secretary wrote to my dad confirming that the shield was now my property which was legally fortunate, and at which point he looked at it more closely.

Its on loan, in the british museum.
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Old Yesterday, 2:46 am
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Default Re: Back in the Day

Gosh, you certainly moved in high circles, Grenada! Something to remember, that's for sure.

My time in Iran (all ten days of it, in 1964, with Linda) was at a completely different level! The closest we got to royalty was the ruins of King Darius's palace at Persepolis. We hitched down from Qum, and wandered around the site quite unsupervised. I had always wanted to go there, because I had been impressed at school with Shelley's poem "Ozymandias". I found out later it - the poem - referred to a ruined statue in Egypt, but never mind! The place lived up to my expectations anyway.

After taking our few pennies’ entrance money, the ticket-seller disappeared, trusting us not to steal any of the ancient stones. (Wikipedia has a photo of what they look like now, but back then it hadn't been tarted up for tourists at all.) We inspected the site at leisure, but once the snow began to fall, we disappeared too, jumping on the first truck headed south - to Shiraz, where we spent the coldest night of our lives. The next day, we walked to the western edge of town and flagged down a bus to the nearest port (Abadan) to find a ferry to Kuwait.

There were no ferries, for some reason, so we haggled for a passage on a boat carrying cattle. They spoke Arabic in that part of Iran, which was some relief. Not that either of us spoke Arabic, but at least I had a dictionary with 800 words of it. Our departure was quite a contrast to our arrival in the country. At the Turkish border we had fallen in with a convoy of returning expats in almost-new Mercedes Benzes they had driven down from Germany for resale. Two days in, one of the drivers nearly drove off a cliff, so he was fired in favour of the team’s new emergency backup. We two drove into Tehran in as grand a style as a couple of young travel bums ever did. The cattle-boat was a bit of a comedown.

A vivid memory of mine from the voyage is the flash of a pearly white bottom as Linda perched warily on the pooping seat way above the poop deck (what else?) before I joined the five crewmen and faced the bow, staring diligently ahead until she clambered down and rejoined us. It was a rough sea, and I’ve never known how she managed. If she’d fallen off, it might have been five minutes before any of us dared to look round and discovered the loss. Inch’Allah, we all muttered – “It’s in the hands of God”.

We got in at three in the morning, and slept on the porch outside the Immigration shed until the staff arrived for work. Those were early days for Kuwait. The arrival-procedures have probably been brought up to speed since then.
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Old Yesterday, 10:22 am
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Default Re: Back in the Day

Persepolis really is something isnt it. The fact you can still see the burn marks where alexander accidentally set fire to it with his boyfriend. Did you see the stone floor of the treasury bowed by the weight of tons of gold? To think darius didnt add protective walls because at the time it was 1000 miles to his borders. We visited most of the sites, Isfahan The river at Qum is fascinating, its literally carpeted. They put new carpets in the river bed with a stone at each corner to wash for a few days.

One basement vault of the national bank contains the crown jewels, far more impressive than the british ones, their collection of faberge eggs, and peacock thrones is fascinating, beats topkapi. While i was there the shah attended the airshow at farnborough, and said he wanted to have one. So one day they just shut the airport and had one. The british and americans brought their toys and we all had a wonderful day , none of that strange european idea of not flying supersonic or not using actual weapons. They blew big holes in the desert, using a vulcan bomber, and fired real missiles from a lightning. I was told they did make sure nobody was there first!
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