by Ian McCall


There were hardly any people in Scotland in the post-war years, nor in the rest of the United Kingdom I am sure, who did not have some close friend or relative who was thinking of going abroad or was already there. The race for personal space was on. It was repeating what had happened a generation earlier when two uncles of mine went off to find a new life in Canada and India respectively and a third would probably have sought an outlet in which to exercise and develop his talents if he had survived the First World War. A brother of my Aunt Jenny died in Onitsha, Nigeria in 1930 while still a relatively young man working as District Agent for John Holt and Company. Her surviving brother, Uncle Dugald, had served on yachts of the rich and had sailed to faraway places. My Uncle Hugh worked with the Anchor Line sailing between Glasgow and New York and I still have coathangers that he brought back, albeit with the name ‘Waldorf Astoria’ marked on them. A cousin of my mother’s grew tea in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, at a place called Banderapola. Such a geographic spread of the extended family was repeated right across the land.

Stamp collecting was exciting in such an environment. There was always someone who had a relative in some foreign place who was prepared to make a child’s day by remembering he collected stamps. Mrs Petrie had a son in Bolivia and thrust stamps upon me that were so much bigger and more colourful than our own. A neighbour had a relative in Tanganyika which also seemed to have brighter and bigger stamps than ours. Another neighbour, Bob Lockhart, was reputed to have retired at 40 from a job in timber in the Gold Coast. Yet another, Andrew Yuill, nearer my own age, went to work in Burma and soldiered there after the Japanese invasion. There was a house near my grandmother’s in Bervie in north-east Scotland which was called Ilo Ilo after the place the owner had worked in; I was to find out where it was only when I went to the Philippines 30 years later. I suppose it was not surprising that I was fired as a young man by such examples and wanted to try what so many of my relatives and friends’ relatives had experienced and talked about when they returned. Fuel was added to this desire by visiting the Far East when I was in the Royal Navy. While I was at Edinburgh University I took a course in social anthropology. This was not a subject related directly to my studies. A broadening of the mental perspective is encouraged by the Scottish educational system and that was one manifestation of this emphasis. I met African students while studying and realised they had different perceptions of Britain and of its role in their countries than the one generally accepted in the United Kingdom. I am indebted to Joe Beckley, a Nigerian student who lived in the same hall of residence as myself, for explaining this to me. It all stimulated further my interest in people and lands I had not seen. It had the added bonus of becoming increasingly relevant to my interests as the years passed, or perhaps it directed these interests.

By the time I had completed my studies at university, I was 26 years old and keen to get work, preferably abroad. I had a hankering for a job related to agriculture without having an agricultural degree but I was aware of commercial opportunities in that sector. My knowledge of agriculture was confined to dimly remembered tales of my mother and my maternal grandmother who was the widow of a farmer in the Howe of the Mearns in north-east Scotland; to visits to my great-uncle Robert Bell who was one of the pioneers of fruit-growing in the Clyde Valley; to my father’s large garden - his enthusiasm to ‘dig for victory’ during the war had even pushed him to take a field from the neighbouring fathers of St Mary’s Church; to my experience in my vacations as a labourer in the tomato houses locally, as a commercial salmon fisherman on the River Tay, as a process worker in a canning factory at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, as an itinerant hand at a County Agricultural Committee camp near Tonbridge in Kent and as one of many foreign workers at the grape harvest in France. I did toy with the idea of doing a postgraduate Diploma in Rural Studies. While exploring that possibility, I was required to attend, as a result of an earlier expression of interest, a preliminary interview in Edinburgh, for a post in his department, with Andrew Young, who was the Director of the Department of Marketing and Exports, the executive of the Nigeria Produce Marketing Boards. This led to a further interview in Great Smith Street, London followed by the offer of a job subject to a satisfactory medical report.

I was more than pleased to receive a letter of appointment to the Department of Marketing and Exports and subsequently received flight tickets for Lagos. I made arrangements to acquire such gear as was recommended with one or two exceptions and I remember buying a pair of linen sheets at the bargain price of £3 from Ross the Drapers in the Castlegate in Lanark. Mr Ross seemed delighted to have been able to provide some of my kit. I could feel his goodwill. And, of course, he said that he knew my father, code for ‘Well done but don`t get above yourself’.

I left for Nigeria by air in the summer of 1951. The excitement of ceaseless tannoy announcements of departures to far-sounding places heightened the feeling of excitement I had been experiencing for a week or more before my date of departure. My sister Marjorie, who was doing her midwifery training at Guy`s Hospital in London, and Dora Hickey, soon to marry my good friend Ian Orr, were there to see me off. I didn`t feel the sadness I felt at leaving my parents for both girls shared with me that desire to see new places and meet different people as they would later demonstrate. I remember the plane revving up at the end of the runway preparatory to take off and then, with a suitable apology from the captain, returning to the apron for a technical inspection. I had thoughts of the China Clipper planes crossing the Pacific and beloved of Hollywood - had I escaped an incident which, if it had not been anticipated and rectified, could have happened beyond the point of no return somewhere over the Sahara desert?

This was my first flight in a civil aircraft. It is quite easy to appear nonchalant when you are a seasoned traveller. It is not at all easy to give the impression of a man-about-the-air-space when you have stubbed out your cigarette in the ashtray only to be told by the person sat next to you that it is for glasses. And also that the ashtray pulls out from the arm of the seat. Tangential thinking was not something I had knowingly practised and I had expected an ashtray to be in the back of the seat in front as in the buses that went to Carluke, Forth and Carnwath from the Horsemarket. The idea that drinks would be supplied on board had not crossed my mind but I didn`t find it a trial to adjust to it. The plane was a Hermes with a maximum ceiling of 16,000 feet. This meant that on the leg to Rome we had to fly down the Alpine passes. The view of the Alps this gave travellers was quite indelibly magnificent. You felt you could have reached out and scraped some of the snow off the mountain sides with the nail of your forefinger. The scale of the mountains was emphasised by the time it took to pass them by. The next leg was to Tripoli where we landed in the dark. My position overlooking the engines allowed me to see the red glow of the exhaust manifolds and the flames issuing from them. My fellow traveller, who had seen me glancing regularly in the direction of the glow in the night sky, assumed I was worried rather than interested and assured me that it was the guarantee that all was well. It was only if I didn’t see it that it would be time to worry, he averred.

The man sitting next to me, an engineer with the Public Works Department, told me that the Hermes was a relatively recent innovation and that flights to Lagos were previously from Poole in Dorset by flying boat and that the journey took two days, one night being spent in Malta where passengers were taken off by tender to their hotel. They had dressed for dinner. When the first flying-boats landed at Lagos, the locals who assisted with mooring and re-fuelling, called them ‘de canoe de go for up’. The crews used expressions from the sea rather than the language of the air. They went down hatchways rather than stairs to the lower deck; passengers looked down on the countryside they were crossing through ports rather than windows and engineers periodically checked the bilges. My informant did not know whether the cockpit was called the bridge or something else.

It was daylight when we put down at Kano, the last stop before Lagos and the first place I saw in Nigeria. The ground below seemed nothing but sand or scrub as we banked steeply to line up on the runway. When the door was opened to let passengers disembark your entire person was assailed by a blast of dry heat like the draught on sun-reddened knees from the outside of hot air extractors when you walked past them on a ship. We got down from the plane at Ikeja Airport, Lagos, and filed into the terminal building. Gone was the dry heat. Now it was a heat that nearly drowned you and left you struggling to fill your lungs with fresh air that wasn’t there. It recalled my time in the Far East a few years earlier, only this was stickier.

The drive in from the airport was a blur of tumbling sensations; a mass of bicycles that ensured car drivers drove nearer to the middle of the road than I had been accustomed to. One cyclist, complete with what I took to be local headgear, was pedalling with his heels and holding aloft an umbrella as a parasol while guiding his bike with his free hand, his robes flowing behind him in the slight breeze he was creating. Another, who obviously did not feel it necessary to protect himself from the sun at that particular time, rode with his folded umbrella hooked over his shoulder by the handle and hanging down his back. Houses were squeezed into all kinds of chaotic patterns emphasised by the outlines of their corrugated iron roofs and highlighted by the reflections from the newer roofs among them; there were lorries with slogans painted on them; an unprepossessing building with a notice ‘Safebirth Nursing Home’ affixed; a roadside grave with what seemed to be a memorial stone and effigy of the deceased; the erectness of the women and the gracefulness of their bearing as they moved easily with their loads on their heads; the predominantly blue colours of the clothing worn by people as they weaved their way in and out of the heaving throng; the sealing wax palms pointed out to me in the grounds of Government House with their distinctive red hue at the crown of the trunk; the deep open drains and the new and different smells that wafted through the open car windows. Then came my immediate goal, the Catering Rest House. The very name sounded exotic.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003