British Expats

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Rete Jan 12th 2022 3:05 pm

Re: Back in the Day
Gordon, I'm enjoying every word. Love your style of writing and the humour you inject into your narrative. What an interesting life you've lead and to have had a helpmate such as Linda by your side was the icing on the cake.

Continue writing, please.


Gordon Barlow Jan 12th 2022 9:40 pm

Re: Back in the Day
In the New Hebs I was able to play cricket, for the first time since leaving school eighteen years before. Of course there had been plenty of opportunities in other places, but the standard was usually higher than I felt comfortable with, so I didn’t bother. Also, the setting in Vila was too beautiful to resist. The field was a specially cleared space in The British Paddock, a high ground overlooking the little harbour with Iririki in the middle distance, where the British governor lived, and where the hospital was.

The standard was one I did feel comfortable with. I was among a whole bunch of useless players, from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and occasional natives of the Islands. Oh, and Scotland. I have a vivid memory of an incident involving our Scottish wicketkeeper, that is worth telling. Here’s what happened.

Now most Scots are cheerful folk, but the nation does produce some individuals who are dour and just plain cranky. Ian was one of these. All the same, we were momentarily sorry when Fred hit him with a cricket ball. Fred was our team’s fast-bowler and Ian was half an hour late on an attempted leg-glance. The ball hit him on the back of his thigh, behind the pad. He went down in a heap – in obvious pain and cursing fit to bust. We fielders cut short our appeal for LBW and gathered round the victim. The umpire wandered down from the bowler’s end. “Are you all right, Ian?” He asked solicitously. Poor Ian. “Of course I’m not all right, you bloody fool! It hurts like hell and I can’t stand up.” The umpire sighed in sympathy. “Well, I’ve got some more bad news for you. You’re out.” Ian was the only man on the field who didn’t see the funny side of that.

It was good to get back to the game. In later years I played in England, Greece , the USA and Cayman. A year or so after leaving Vila, we were living out of a Kombi van and an old tent in a camping ground on Corfu, where I turned out a few times for The British Casuals. That was a scratch team of whatever foreigners happened to be on the Island. The standard was as low as it was in Vila, so I felt no shame.

The British had introduced cricket during their occupation of the Island in the fifty years following the Battle of Waterloo. There was a Greek National Team in my day, whose members were spread among three or four local teams, which played with us on equal terms. All one can decently say about their abilities was that they were better cricketers than umpires.

They weren’t always sure of the rules, which situation generally worked for them. They scrupulously kept the rule about stopping for tea when the clock struck four, but were less fussy about others. On the other hand, they had only a tenuous grasp of tactics, which usually worked against them. An umpire once gave me “run out” when I was yards in. More fool him, because I was about nought after twenty minutes at the crease and the next man in hit the bowlers all around the park and we won the game.

The field was in the middle of the Corfu Town Square, surrounded by seedy hotels and restaurants. Recent photos online show that matches are still played there, but there is also a far nicer place elsewhere on the Island. The Greek National Team is now drawn from eleven clubs and plays in a formal ICC league, ranked very low down alongside places like Pitcairn and Corsica. At least, they did before the current economic crisis. If the poor fellows can’t afford to import bats and balls any more they may revert to the standards of old. I wonder if they still have my name and address in the archives...

Lugsbug Jan 13th 2022 9:16 pm

Re: Back in the Day
Hi Gordon, I came across your posts by chance and think your stories are wonderful! Thank you for sharing :starsmile:

Gordon Barlow Jan 20th 2022 12:17 am

Re: Back in the Day
One of the good things about living in the New Hebs in the 1970s was that everything was a lot simpler than it was in sophisticated cities. For one thing, the food was simpler. It reminded me of my youth in Brisbane, Queensland, where in the 1950s the shops used not carry pre-cooked meals. McDonald’s and KFC hadn’t arrived yet. Every sandwich shop created its fare while we watched. Nothing was prepared ahead of time.

We office workers lined up at midday and gave our orders one by one to sweaty lads living dangerously with sharp knives. There was no air conditioning, and the fans couldn’t really cope with the heat. Hygienic gloves had not yet come into fashion, but we didn’t need them. We hardly ever discovered blood in our fillings. There were no sandwich shops in Vila, but the principle was the same.

Childhood allergies were little known, because allergies are immune deficiencies caused by the excessive and needless avoidance of germs. The only kid with asthma in the bush in my childhood was somebody’s cousin from Melbourne, a thousand miles to the south. Maybe he had led too sheltered a life there. He was a delicate boy, who tended to hang back when the rest of us were messing around in the dirt.

Kitchen cleansers that remove ninety-nine per cent of all household germs are bad for young children. It’s that ninety nine per cent of household germs that build up kids’ immunities. In Vila, kids played in the mud. We were continually reminded of simpler times.

Not only was food simpler than it is now: so were menus. Our mothers’ menus at every mealtime were quintessentially simple - namely, what was on the plate. The choice was Hobson's choice: eat it or don’t eat it. Actually: eat it all or don’t bother turning up for the next meal.

My Mum would bend the rules a bit, in a good cause; but she never broke them. I hated pumpkin, so she kindly served me only a token amount' and in the spirit of fair play I ate all of that. In the bush, most of our food was mutton, home-raised at a marginal cost that was close to zero. In town, too, our only meat was mutton, out of residual loyalty to the sheep-farming industry. During my working years in Brisbane my landladies often served up roast beef on Sundays, but it was many years before I could eat it without feeling guilty.

I was left with a lifelong aversion to choice, with regard to foods. Even today I never feel completely comfortable in restaurants. I love eating at friends' houses, because they don’t give their guests a choice. Occasionally a hostess will say, "I hope you like this", but she doesn’t really care. There’s never an alternative on offer. "Sorry, Wendy, I’m a vegetarian." "Oh dear, George; let me scrape the meat off your plate and give you a few more potatoes. There you go."

When courtesy requires, I will eat anything at all. In Tehran, I was once offered a sheep’s eye. As it happened - and fortunately - our host had lived in the West. As I steeled myself, the eye glaring at me defiantly, he took pity. (The host, not the eye. The eye was pitiless.) "I know it’s not a western thing", he said, "and I won’t be offended if you’d rather not eat it. But for us it’s a delicacy. Why not let me eat it?" I settled for the tender eyelid-meat that surrounded the organ. That saved me a little bit of dignity. Linda wouldn’t even eat that.

Somebody once told me of a British couple who discovered a restaurant in Madrid whose specialty was bulls' testicles. Animals killed in the bull-fights are sold at the markets, and no part of the beast is wasted. One night the serving was meagre - wonderfully tasty, but much smaller than usual - and the couple asked why. The waiter shrugged. “Senor, Senora... You know, the bull doesn't always lose. Sometimes it is the matador who dies.” Shrug.
It - umm - it may or may not be a true story, but it’s worth the telling!

Gordon Barlow Jan 27th 2022 8:24 pm

Re: Back in the Day
Back in the day, Linda and I were expats. We both left Australia in 1963, on the same boat but eight months apart. After that, we were expats based in (successively) England, Canada, Bahamas, Western Australia, New Hebrides and Cayman - before making the transition from expats to immigrants in 1981 in Cayman. The distinction between expats and immigrants is clear, in my mind. For me expat is a temporary state, conveying no commitment to settle down.The roots are shallow, ready to be pulled up at any time; immigrants are there for the duration.

As expats, we took advantage of our temporary bases to visit other parts of the world. Based in England, we backpacked through nine countries in the Middle & Near East, and drove my Beetle through another nine behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. Based in Canada, I checked out a few West Indian islands, and Linda drove with a friend down to Mexico. Based in Bahamas, we used our weekends to suss out most of the Out Islands as well as a couple of the Caribbean islands, and took our annual vacations in Europe and Central America. Based in the New Hebs we holidayed in South Africa and Indonesia.

Our journeys as expats took in every continent except Antarctica, which is why it made sense for me to choose "The Rest of the World" section for this thread. In her obituary two years ago Linda claimed to have racked up "about ninety countries"; I didn't check, but it seemed right. I lost the taste for travel in my later years, so my total fell a bit short of hers.

The older I get, the fewer details I can recall. Well, fair enough, I suppose. But we all have our incidents from travels that even old age can't banish. I have a ten-hour trip on the roof of a mini-bus in Haiti in '66, our overnight cattle-boat from Iran to Kuwait in '64, breaching the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie in '65, an outdoors dinner one evening in Montmartre in '70, our son's tree-house home overlooking Lake Atitlan in 2003... Even a human-rights conference in Gibraltar in 2004, on my way to visit the grandchildren in Norway. (And coming back home to a hurricane-battered house, after Linda and an army of Jamaicans had gotten all the water out of it.)

I really hope all this musing will encourage others to reminisce about their own lives as expats, "Back in the Day". Let's hear it. Why not?

Gordon Barlow Feb 6th 2022 7:18 pm

Re: Back in the Day
When Linda and I finally settled down, we happened to be in Grand Cayman in the Caribbean. It was our third "offshore tax haven" – the others being Nassau in the Bahamas (which is not in the Caribbean, just the West Indies) and Vila in what is loosely called Oceania.

Having done our big travel adventure and gotten that out of our systems in 1964/65, we took jobs in Canada on our way back to our respective Australian homes. I was an accountant and she a teacher. We hooked up again in Toronto, and eventually married there in '67. Then I fluked a job in Nassau with an offshore-trust company, while she taught in a government school there. When the local Black Power movement spread to the schools, she became an office secretary in a firm of "offshore" lawyers.

That was a major turning point in our lives. We loved the Island so much that we forgot about going home to Oz. Instead, we decided to retire to a hippie colony in the caves of Crete – which I have told about in an earlier post. A financial catastrophe (my fault - over-reaching!) required us to go back to work, and we looked for jobs in a budding offshore tax-haven to replenish our retirement fund. That was Vila – and nothing replenishes a retirement fund quicker than tax-free salaries. I went to work for Burns Philp’s recently formed trust company (Burns Philp was a longtime inter-island trading company and Linda went to work for the local Peat Marwick representative.) More happy days.

I switched trust companies – as full Manager, this time. This was back in the day when the locally used Australian Dollar was worth more than the US Dollar, so we were able to retire again and head for the caves of Crete again. Linda was pregnant, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Wrong. There are couples who take babies in their stride without drawing breath. Alas, we weren’t one of those. It’s a long story, but from England in a brand-new Kombi, we made it as far as Corfu before throwing in the towel. So – back to England and the hunt for another tax-haven job. This time it was Cayman that got lucky (...), and we began our standard three-year stint in 1978, eleven years after our first tax-haven in Nassau.

And after the three years, we liked the place too much to leave. We gave up on travel, pretty much, and over the years passed the baton to our son. He carried it to England, Australia and several countries in Latin America, before ending up in Norway with three Norwegian children.

He owns a house there in a forest, plus 60 acres of trees plus a few basic cottages halfway up a mountain. He also has title to a treehouse on a 6000 sq ft strip in Guatemala, where he and one of the mothers lived during their hippie period. I hesitate to say he still owns it. Linda and I bought a block of land in Vila when we lived there, as a speculation, but the post-independence government stole it from us in 1980. So who knows whether Ross's has any value, after twenty years? It's not likely, to be fair.

Gordon Barlow Feb 13th 2022 2:18 am

Re: Back in the Day
I have already written here that Vila in the New Hebs was a turning point in our lives when Linda decided we needed a child in the family. But there was a second way that our lives were affected. While there, I discovered a modest talent for propaganda. With little else to do, I composed a surprisingly effective booklet for my employer, a new and struggling trust-company, boosting Vila as the world’s greatest unrecognized offshore tax-haven. Something along those lines anyway…

Three years later in Cayman, I did a similar job as manager of a company here - persuasive enough to pull the Company up to #2 in the Island’s new offshore incorporations. The more companies, the more profit, right? I don't say my booklets were brilliant pieces of work, by any stretch - but they were effective.

And eight years after that, after a long stint as a full-time house-husband, I was invited to open Cayman’s first Chamber of Commerce office. More propaganda booklets, plus this time a monthly newsletter. The latter was an amazingly useful weapon in our war against a radical proposal by the government of the day to introduce a tax on wages. (Such a thing! A tax on wages in a tax-free haven! What were they thinking?) The newsletters enlisted all the Island’s businesses and their employees in a successful battle to reject the proposal.

I was blamed for the victory. My Work Permit was pulled, and my family was scheduled for immediate expulsion. My allies and I fought vigorously, taking the battle to the UK overseers of Britain’s remaining colonies, and ultimately we were grudgingly allowed to stay. Resentful of my treatment, I took to writing newspaper columns that were severely critical of selected local policies. For the next twenty years or so I was the sole public defender of free speech and civil rights in Cayman - a hero to some and a pain in the neck to others. Sigh... That’s life, eh?

(By the way... My failure as an advocate for free speech in Cayman was dismal. Our main online news-forum is quite popular, but I have just checked its current thread on our local Covid effort,, and of 194 comments only one was signed with what looks like a proper name. Twenty others had obviously fake names, and the rest were signed either "anonymous" or "anon". This, in a British colony! Sheesh.)

I wish I’d done something useful for the native Melanesians in the New Hebrides when we were there. They lived their traditional way of life, largely outside a money-economy. The main modern equipment they used was the transistor radio. Young women would take casual house-cleaning jobs to earn money enough to buy new batteries for the family radio. When they had enough- they disappeared back to their home villages until the batteries died again.

Gordon Barlow Feb 22nd 2022 12:06 am

Re: Back in the Day
I have told why we moved from Perth to Vila, but forgot to tell how we already knew about Vila. It was very much an embryo tax-haven at that time (1971), and not at all well known. But how we knew about it is that we had called in there on our way from Nassau back to Oz. We had island-hopped across the Pacific, by plane.

In those days it was usually just as cheap to jump from island to island as to take a direct flight. I had learnt that, when I was working in Toronto and got a flight around the Caribbean for the same price as I would have paid for a direct flight to Barbados and back. I was able to touch down in Nassau, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and St Thomas, and back via Bermuda, stopping off at each place.

This time, we flew from Nassau to Townsville via Mexico City, Pago Pago (American Samoa), Tahiti, Fiji and Vila. We stayed at the cheapest places we could find in each place – including Madame Rossi's guest house in Vila. During our three days there we wandered around and saw what there was to see, never thinking we would spend three and a half years there after the Perth venture went sour.

We made good use of our time there. Weekends were spent on some of the other Islands - including Espiritu Santo, a popular scuba-diving site with its magnificent underwater view of US Army equipment from 1945. The story behind that is interesting, and here it is. When the war ended, the Army offered to sell all its equipment (jeeps, bulldozers, furniture, and all the usual wartime-base paraphernalia worth millions of dollars) to Britain and/or France for six cents on the dollar. The British and French authorities scoffed at the idea of paying anything at all for stuff that the departing owners were going to leave behind anyway. So... the US Army built a jetty and drove every single piece of equipment off the end, in two days of angry frenzy. Check the story online: “Million Dollar Point”.

Our two annual vacations were spent in South Africa (where my Best Man from 1966 lived) and Indonesia (where a banker friend had been posted). Apart from the fact that our son was conceived in Java - at least according to our calculations, later on - the vacation was memorable for a bus trip in Bali. As I recall, it was a stinking hot day - really stifling. Linda was allowed to sit up on the front step where she could get fresh air every time the door opened, while I grabbed a window-seat just in case I was overcome by the heat. I was fine, as it happened, but the local man seated next to me wasn"t. He had to reach across me from time to time to throw regurgitated rice from his hand out the window. Most of it got there safely, though not all...

BEVS Feb 23rd 2022 3:49 am

Re: Back in the Day
I really enjoy reading these posts Gordon . Lifts a person.

Lion in Winter Feb 23rd 2022 3:17 pm

Re: Back in the Day

Originally Posted by BEVS (Post 13096731)
I really enjoy reading these posts Gordon . Lifts a person.

I hadn't realised. There's a whole biography in here!

Gordon Barlow Feb 23rd 2022 4:32 pm

Re: Back in the Day
Thanks for the encouragement, BEVS. You're very kind and thoughtful. Much appreciated!

Lion: not a complete bio, just "back in the day" stuff. I mostly skip over the last 44 years!

Gordon Barlow Feb 28th 2022 2:50 am

Re: Back in the Day
I don’t remember ever going to the beach when we lived in Vila. The shallow waters were home to what were called “stone fish” – famously poisonous creatures indistinguishable from the sea floor, that poisoned anybody who trod on them. Equally dangerous were mosquitos that carried the dengue virus. That virus was a variant of malaria, second only to Yellow Fever in that category. We all dutifully took our quinine tablets that made our eyes go yellow – and didn’t always work anyway.

The Island's squash-court was a five-minute boat-ride away, long enough for me to get bitten on one trip, by one or more mosquitos. Mine was the common-or-garden malaria, not one of the exotic varieties. Lucky for me: only a week in bed, sweating profusely. Unluckily, it weakened me enough to catch hepatitis-A, which was doing the rounds at the British BESA Club at the time. So. Back to bed for another week, while Linda shot off to Melbourne thinking she had cancer.

Surprisingly, we never even saw a snake in the New Hebs. Surely there were some, given the tropical jungle on every island - but not one did we see. Snakes used to feature highly in my childhood nightmares in "the bush" - a 5000-acre sheep farm 250 miles west of Brisbane - and we saw plenty, but were never bitten. I had to wait till I had settled down in middle age in the suburbs here in the West Indies before my nightmare came true. Here's a quick summary of what happened then.

Filling in time until our international flight to visit the children, I walked around the house checking the security of our back windows. I caught my foot in the tendril of a weed, and tried vigorously to shake myself free. Irritated, I looked down to find that the tendril was in fact a small snake - maybe three feet long. Struggling to get out from under, it nipped me just above the ankle.

Now then... this is where the family narrative divide. Linda always told people I went white with fright. But as I recall - and I should know - I was Mister Cool from start to finish. I phoned the hospital and asked the nurse whether Cayman had any poisonous snakes these days, and what would she do if I came to see her. She said no, Cayman did not have any poisonous snakes yet, as far as she knew, and if I came in she would give me a tetanus shot and an aspirin and send me home. So I sat down and reviewed my options.

We had to check in at the airport in two hours, and the wait at the hospital would be at least two hours. Either the snake was local and non-poisonous or it was an illegal immigrant and poisonous as likely as not. I decided to wait for a clear sign of danger, before panicking. Linda dabbed some Dettol on the tiny punctures while I sat and sipped a cup of tea, on the alert for a Sign. Pain or swelling would mean a trip to the Emergency Room and maybe a night or two in hospital; no pain or swelling would mean no problem, and we could catch our plane.

And that’s how it was. A week later, in Ross’s forest-cabin, a nasty boil appeared on the side of my shin, for the first time in my life. But it went away again, and probably had nothing to do with the snakebite anyway. Who knows? And for the record - I did not go white with fright. And, for someone who went to sleep with the sheet over his head to protect himself from the deadly snakes beneath my bed as a boy, I was Mister Cool. Relatively speaking...

Gordon Barlow Mar 3rd 2022 5:47 pm

Re: Back in the Day
When my mother's maternal grandfather died in 1908 on his small sugar plantation outside Mackay in Queensland, his widow took the body and her two children to the town, over creeks swollen with recent rains. She did the journey with the help of the family's "indentured labourers" - Pacific Islanders who had been persuaded and/or forcibly abducted from their island-homes by British traders licensed by the State's government.

Formally, they weren't slaves-– any more than the transported convicts had been slaves since the first British settlements in Oz. The same system had been adopted in all British overseas colonies, after the formal abolition of slavery in 1834. Most (all?) of the Caribbean colonies and ex-colonies today have ethnic minorities descended from indentured labourers who had been recruited in India and China. The practice was only discontinued in the early 1900s. (And the actual system itself has continued to this day. All migrant workers here in Cayman are indentured to their employers, and cannot change employers without specific permission from the authorities.)

In Queensland in the mid- to late-1800s, the trade was called "blackbirding", and the victims' homes were the nearby islands, including The New Hebrides. The same practice existed in the eastern Pacific, where native Hawaiians were taken to the western regions of the USA and Canada. The common name for them all was "kanakas", the Hawaiian word for "men". My great-grandmother used that term when telling the story to her daughter, who told my mother.

When Britain's six Australian colonies united in 1901, the first law passed by the new Federal parliament was the Pacific Islanders Act, which cancelled all the indentures and sent the labourers home. Except those who had been in Australia for longer than five years, who could stay if they wanted. Some did stay: there was a colony of them living near my mother (!) in the village of Fingal on the New South Wales border in the 1970s.

My ancestor's sugar farm was sold by his widow, and a portion of the proceeds was inherited by her daughters, and some of that filtered down to me. I may well owe a few quid to some of those labourers' descendants. Ah, BUT... there is a corresponding debt owed to me. What goes around, comes around! When the New Hebrides islands united as the Republic of Vanuatu in 1980, the new parliament's first Act was to confiscate land owned by non-residents - including a half-acre town block that Linda and I had bought (from another expat) for our eventual retirement.

I was indignant about that at the time, naturally enough. But I really shouldn’t have been...

Gordon Barlow Mar 10th 2022 3:35 pm

Re: Back in the Day
My first boss in Vila was a fish out of water. Or maybe a bird under water. One of those. A nice enough fellow and capable enough, but a big-city man used to big-city efficiency. I never learned what local tribulations he had to deal with before our arrival, but we were there for the last two.

He invited us to dinner at his home for our first Saturday on the Island. As it happened, a mild cyclone (hurricane) blew up on the Friday; we had no phone where we were staying, so no way of knowing whether the dinner was off or not. We assumed it was on. It wasn't a bad storm - not any worse than we had survived in Nassau; still, there were palm fronds flying around as we drove to his house. Knocked on the door, and he opened it a crack and yelled "Are you bloody mad?!" and that was that..

Five days later, back in the office, the local phone service let him down, and that was the final straw for him. Cursing wildly, he wrenched the phoneline out of the wall, raced home, packed, and took the first plane back to the big city. That was how, two weeks after my arrival, I became the Acting Manager of the Burns Philp Trustee Company. We never did get to meet his wife.

The Company's Directors in Sydney brought in a high-powered manager from Nassau, which disappointed me enough to quit and talk my way into a job with an even smaller offshore-trust company - but with the always-important title of Manager, with a Manager's salary and a Manager's new car. And a working telephone... Plus the opportunity to go overseas fishing for clients in eastern Asia from Singapore and Manila up to Taipei and Tokyo. It was that second job that got me a similar one in Cayman five years later, after three years in Vila and a futile adventure in Europe with a baby in a Kombi.

Gordon Barlow Mar 14th 2022 9:33 pm

Re: Back in the Day
Pam and Bruce (post #10 above) were our first house-guests in Vila, in 1972. Linda never saw them again, but I stayed with them for a few days in their home in Penticton, Canada, on my way to Australia with Ross 13 years later. He & I took the Amtrak train across the US from Tucson to Seattle, and the bus from there. What a super trip that was - highly recommended!

We only ever had two more guests, not counting the travel bums mentioned in Post #9. One was my Mum, who flew up from Brisbane for a week, and the others were the Johnstones, whom we had known in Nassau. Dave Johnstone was in the front row of the audience when I came 4th in the live-radio Bahamas Champion of Knowledge competition in 1969. I should have been 2nd, but I had a brain-freeze when asked what the Dewey Decimal system was. Dave being a school librarian was disgusted with my failure; another friend referred to me ever after as "Brain-of-the-Bahamas-brackets-failed". (My 4th prize was a copy of the Larousse Encyclopedia, which has a wonderfully comprehensive explanation of the bloody Dewey Decimal system, as it happens.)

The Johnstones were teachers in Popondetta in PNG, at the time of their stay with us, and were on their way to Fiji or NZ or somewhere on holidays. Dave's widow lives in Cayman now, and drops by from time to time with her daughter (now 50 or so) who at the age of one slept in a spare drawer in our flat out on the road to Mele, outside Vila. Of course she (the daughter) doesn't remember that - ungrateful wench!

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