Postcard from Lille, Part 3

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Simla Took Our Local Regiment to India

After a gap of many decades I’m setting off by train to visit the near continent. Some of my family are coming with me and as a special surprise treat I’ve booked first class seats for the trip to London.

Unaccustomed to such things, the family don’t realise that they’re in first class and Mrs AWS, when presented with her ticket, even thought that coach J was the guards van.

However in the mad world of train travel, first class returns to London are cheaper than second. The first price quoted was £380 standard class for a party of five. A subsequent offer appeared of £260 first class for a family group. ‘Spin’ is a wonderful thing and, as we crept out of the station and left our great northern metropolis, I looked out of the window in contentment imagining Branson handing me the £120 difference, cash in hand, for the privilege of being waited on hand and foot on one of his trains. About a quarter of the railway’s revenue is subsidy from the tax payer so in my minds eye I added another £65 squeezed from the pockets of hardworking Poles and Romanians.

The full first class fare would have been over £2000. I could see £740 in notes, on a silver platter being thrown at me by Richard as he water skied past with a naked women on his back.

The serotonin was high. Contentment led me to gaze into the middle distance across the frost kissed (it was the last weekend in November) rows of terraced roofs. But it wasn’t always so. Allow me to reminisce.

Do you remember Viv Nicholson the pools winner from the 1960s? She was going to ‘spend, spend, spend’ her winnings? Can you remember her husband? The newspapers described him as being a ‘three pound a week coal miner’. The reason this sticks in my mind is because my grandfather was a three pound a week railwayman. Leaving the city we pass his old depot. The engine shed, turntable and carriage sheds are gone but sidings, Network Rail wagons and a shanty town of Portakabins have replaced them.

Building up speed we pass the former railway social club’s buildings and playing fields until we pass my grandparent’s old house which was walking distance from my grandfather’s  workplace. In his day there was even a ‘knocker up’ who tapped on the upstairs windows with a stick to wake men for their night time shifts.

I spent about half my childhood overseas and the rest in England. My grandfather was retired by then and, as was the custom in those days, only had a few years of retirement before he died. We used to walk along the river, beside the railway line, enjoying simple pleasures such as throwing frozen cow pats and, of course, watching the trains.

This was towards the end of steam with those engines reduced to hauling freight trains only.

My mother’s family all worked on the railway, an occupation that passed back through the generations. Although having a very local name, my mother’s ancestors had moved south to a place called ‘Yorkshire’. I’ve driven through it. Twinned with Pakistan.  Presumably they emigrated there to take on a bigger farm. After a railway line was built across their land they start appearing in the censuses as railway workers and subsequently completed the circle by moving back here to better railway jobs as signalmen.

Speaking of Pakistan, my grandfather served in uniform at the time of the Great War and was sent there, to Peshawar, in the North West Frontier Territory (NWFT), famous for it’s Khyber Pass through to Kabul and Afghanistan.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Karachi

In a terrible sadness, played out in so many families throughout our land, one of his brothers was killed in the trenches and another lost both of his legs. By the advent of the second war my grandfather was too old to serve and my older uncles all worked on the railway which was a reserved profession meaning that they were needed for the war effort in civvy street.

But Adolf was a trier. My oldest uncle enjoyed telling a hair raising tale about being held in the goods yard at Rugby during an air raid while firing a munitions train.

Meanwhile my great grandfather on my father’s mother’s side (got that?) had also been in the army in Pakistan serving in Waziristan. Family legend had him marked down as an officer but in fact he was an officer’s batman. Being sheep and hill people I suppose that the mountainous regions of the then British India were the obvious place to send our local regiment. Some of our TA have been in Afghanistan in recent years, following in the footsteps of their grandfathers and great grandfathers.

The reasonably well informed amongst you will have noticed that, more than a hundred years later, the good people of Waziristan and NWFT are still slaughtering each other and us too given the chance. Food for thought.

I’ll save my own experiences in Pakistan for another time but can’t resist a quick game of “Guess the Year” and also one anecdote. Those living in countries struggling to get rid of a Prime Minster might want to make notes.

I was there after Prime Minister Zia was killed in an “accident”  but before Prime Minister Bhutto (Mrs) was assassinated and therefore after Prime Minister Bhutto (Mr) was executed.   Which means it was before Prime Minister Musharraf fled the country and well before Prime Minister Gillani was disqualified from public office. Your final clue: the incumbent from my time is, astonishingly, still alive  – but in jail. Fortunately I wasn’t going there to fill a vacant Prime Ministerial post.

The entry point for the south of the country is Karachi in Sind province. At that time the new airport terminal was still being built so the buildings in use were an old arc of concrete blocks and higgledy pigglety slab sided flat roofed structures . Arriving  passengers walked across the runway from their aircraft in the boiling heat.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Jinnah’s Mausoleum

After arriving in Karachi on one especially hot day I could feel something wasn’t right, so  looked down as I strolled towards the terminal. Richard Pryor used to tell an hilarious story about the time he set himself on fire with lighter fuel and suffered 40% burns while running through the streets screaming for help. I bow to his superior story telling, but suffice it to say, my feet were melting on the oven hot concrete. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people who take their socks and shoes off on a flight. I sprinted back to the plane on tip toes but the army guards wouldn’t let me back on. I was despatched to the terminal buildings to find ‘Lost Property’.

Gentlemen adventurers of a certain vintage may regale you with stomach churning tales of the public conveniences at Karachi airport in decades past. These are all true, and then some more.

If the Good Lord wills it (inshallah?) after a long and fruitful life, well lived, your humble author may stand before the Pearly Gates and, when asked by Saint Peter of an example of great courage, can in all honesty and with hand on heart say, “I walked through the lavatories in Karachi airport – barefoot”. And if Saint Peter needs to know such a thing, then I can also tell him that they’re on the way to Lost Property.

After quite a wander, involving all kinds of ups and downs and ins and outs, I found myself in the office of the Brigadier General in charge of missing things. And what a good egg he was. He’d been to English public school and university, rather missed the old place and wanted to talk forever about rugger and cricket. He dispatched two wallahs, one to search the plane and another for chai and silver service.

You’ve all heard the clichés about the property people leave behind on public transport. It’s all true; glass eyes, artificial limbs, the ashes of deceased relatives and more. Plus hundreds of thousands of cigarettes.

As we enjoyed our sweet tea and pastries, the airplane wallah staggered back with armfuls of booty while, I couldn’t help but notice, wearing my shoes.

However, as the Brigadier General began to divide up the spoils, I was surprised and delighted to find myself on the payroll, to the tune of a thousand cigarettes in Dubai duty free cartons, with which I able to buy my shoes back from the aforementioned beaming wallah.

I did promise only one anecdote so must now change tack, but intriguingly the Brigadier General hadn’t quite finished with me. May I forewarn you that Karachi is one of those places where men who half know each other hold hands in public?

Across the years and continents we return to a speeding train tilting between snow capped hillsides. Having left our city, we’re now about to leave our county. The meal trolley approaches, appropriately bringing a baguette and orange juice breakfast. The family are  beginning to suspect we’re in first class which is, according to number three son is, ‘Not too shabby’.

To be continued.
 

© Always Worth Saying 2019
 

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