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Here In Africa: The 1940s And All That

Musing on the way the world has changed, Barbara Durlacher recalls a flight from the UK to South Africa more than 40 years ago.

A friend and I were reminiscing about the changes we oldies have experienced since the ‘30s and ‘40s and when you cast your mind back, it’s astonishing how different the world is today to what it was then. As she said, thankfully the changes have been gradual, spanning decades, and consequently less obvious, but when you think back, it’s a tribute to senior citizen’s powers of adaptation that they’ve coped as well as they have. What with the roller coasters of political change from 1946 onwards; continuing threats of war hovering balefully over us, the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and then all the technological changes that began in the ‘70s which culminated in the computer revolution and enormous developments in all forms of transport and communication, including a recent experiment to use cellphones for everyday payment in stores, it’s remarkable how easily we have coped.

A recent documentary showed how one of Japan’s foremost electrical engineers is working on a new 800 horsepower six-wheeled electric car powered by batteries direct to the four small back wheels. This luxury experimental car – soon to be put into mass production – will be recharged daily from photo-voltaic cells on the roofs of the owner’s house during the night, and can reach speeds sufficiently high to satisfy the most demanding of customers. One of its most important advantages is that it is specifically designed to emit ‘nil’ emissions on the world’s highways.

Thinking along these lines, I remember flying back to South Africa in the 1967 or ’68 on a privately operated airline which, as it was in competition with the State-owned carrier, did not have a licence to operate from any of the UK airports. A rather ingenuous compromise had been reached by starting the journey officially from Luxembourg - not then part of the still to be invented EU. Another compromise was the elimination of a second crew, a standard procedure on long-haul destinations in those days. Other airlines maintained a second crew in Nairobi, but this particular airline conformed to regulations by doing the journey in a series of hops across Europe and down Africa to reach Johannesburg three days later, using the original crew and seemingly without difficulty.

Boarding in London, we flew to Luxembourg. Here we had a scratch lunch at the airport before we were ‘officially’ signed on and were on our way. Our first stop was the island of Malta where we spent the night, accommodated at the Malta Hilton, then one of the best hotels on the island. Taking advantage of the 18 hour stopover, I hired a taxi and was able to do a whistle-stop tour of this fascinating and historic island, a vital link in communications for the Allied armies fighting in the North African desert in WWII. Savagely bombed for nearly four years of war and nearly starved into submission, in 1942 George VI awarded the citizens of this tiny island the George Cross in recognition of what the citizens had done to help to win the war.

One of the most extraordinary events of that terrible bombing was on April 9, 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, when a 200 kg German bomb pierced the dome of Mosta church (two others bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass and did not explode. Its replica is now on display inside the rotunda under the words (English translation) The Malta Bomb Miracle, April 9, 1942).

One version of this event states that, upon opening the bomb, it was found to be filled with sand instead of explosive and contained a note saying "greetings from Plzeň" from the workers at Škoda Works in the German-occupied Czechoslovakia (then Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia) who had allegedly sabotaged its production (thanks Wikipedia for the condensed account.)

During a quick visit to Valetta, the main town, I saw the long flight of stairs which descends to the deep water harbour and the ingenuous lift which carries those either too lazy or infirm to wake their way up and down this steep incline. Entering St John’s Co-Catherdral, I observed for the first and only time, a woman prostrating herself to her full length, followed by her son carrying her handbag and watching anxiously in case the poor soul collapsed from exhaustion, as she lowered herself onto her stomach with arms outstretched. She rose to her feet and moved forward to the place indicated by her son which her outstretched fingertips had touched. She had performed this exhausting operation for several miles, over and over again; up the steps of the cathedral right to the end, up the centre aisle to the altar. I felt so sorry for her, and her embarrassing form of expiation (to me, a non-believer), that I left the church before she had completed her act of contrition, full of wonder at the many forms religious devotion can take. A circular drive around the rest of the island ended with a brief visit to the walled town of Mdina with its sister town of Rabat, two names which interested me as their originals are well-known to visitors to Morocco, and then it was time to return to the airport and be on our way.

In those days, smaller commercial planes were still using one of the several RAF wartime airports, and once we were loaded and strapped into our seats, the hostess handed out the usual hard candies to suck during the ascent. As the aircraft taxied down the short runway – a runway which ended in a sheer drop over the sea, a mother with a small child strapped in her lap, shouted out, “Stop. Stop the plane! My baby’s choking on a sweet!”

Of course, it was impossible to stop, if in fact the pilot had even heard her anguished cry, and acting with great presence of mind, she whipped off the lap-strap, upended the baby and gave it a resounding whack on its bottom. Out popped the candy and a gout of vomit; the kid gave a mighty wail and everyone burst into tears of relief.

Our next stop was hours later, sometime around 11am the next day when we landed at Brazzaville, one of the recently independent Congolese countries, and we were allowed to disembark while the plane refuelled. We were told we were not to go further than the airport exit doors and would hazard our lives if we did, as the guards were all heavily armed and trigger happy. Aloft again, much to my surprise, it was not long before the Captain made his way to my seat saying, “You can come up to the cockpit now; and drive if you like.” Then, to my horror he seated me in the pilot’s seat, made sure I was comfortable, and left the cabin! Too frightened to touch anything I realised that of course he would never have done this unless the craft was flying on auto, so I expelled my long-held breath and began to look around. It was exceedingly hot in the cockpit with the 360 degree windowed nose and roof and as I looked down on the empty expanses of Africa stretching hundreds of miles on either side I felt no matter how great the problem became, the world’s pollution would never impinge on this desolate wilderness.

I wonder if a similar flight today would show me the same emptiness and give me the same feeling of complacent disinterest.

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