AFRICANS AND COMMUNISTS
believe my luck. I was stood on the bow of a brand new ship. She was a
fifty eight thousand ton giant called the ĎCity Of Durbaní and this
was her maiden voyage. She didnít look much like a container vessel,
more of a luxury liner with a block of flats situated aft.
seventeenth birthday had occurred halfway across the Atlantic. After
about eight days sailing, the ocean had turned a beautiful bright blue.
When the waves broke across her bow they burst up and dispersed falling
back into the sea like a million jewels of purest green. As I looked
down there were dolphins racing us, bobbing out of the water like
something from stingray. With a warm breeze in my hair and the coast of
Africa off to starboard I felt truly alive.
The food on
board was sumptuous. The menu seemed infinite I had been eating steak
When I woke
up the next day we were in dock. I rushed out on deck and could see
nothing but cloud and mist everywhere. The bad thing about being a
galley boy was that they got you up at 5.30 in the morning. I didnít
care; I had prepped my area and was stood on deck staring into the mistsí
of Africa. As the cloud rose up like a huge curtain it was well worth
the wait, I nearly fell over from shock. Table Top Mountain loomed up
like a stupendous sentinel presiding over Cape Town. The sun came out
with a vengeance. Africa is a hot place. I had to work the first day but
I was dying to get ashore. This was going to be a great trip unlike my
last experience where I managed to fall down what seemed like a million
stone steps, leading to the docks in Murmansk. I would have been killed
if two Russians hadnít kitted me out in the largest fur hat and coat I
had ever worn. I cared not if I resembled a large teddy bear. Russia was
cold unbelievably cold! While sailing into the Arctic Circle an older
seaman had attempted to prepare me with a nautical vernacular.
you piss over the side it will freeze before it reaches your knee."
Whether he was joking or not I wasnít going to try. I didnít
understand anything about the cold war or the Soviet Union but I really
liked the Russians they were very kind to me. In this inhospitable
climate, and despite the armed soldiers everywhere, there was certain
warmth amongst the people.
paradise was not all it seemed. When I ventured ashore I discovered a
thing called Apartheid and it was in full swing. Being from the wilds of
Knottingley I didnít fully understand this. What I did understand were
black and white benches for the relevant coloured people. This
segregating theme was prevalent throughout the city. When I tried to
have a conversation with a black African woman, she looked at me in
horror and backed off. The Bosun from our ship laughed and informed me
that chatting to the wrong person could end up in a beating or even
murder for either party. I couldnít believe that a place so beautiful
could feel so ominous.
a place called Valley of a thousand hills. This staggering area of lush
vegetation had tall green hills that resembled a vista from another
planet. I remembered feeling slightly dizzy in amazement. A Dinosaur
would not have looked out of place in this panorama. This was all very
different from my home landscape of Knottingley with Greggís tall
tower and factory.
In the late
sixties with my last days at Church school I can remember being told off
for daydreaming I was made to stand with my nose about two inches from
the blackboard. I was dying for a pee and the teacher paid no heed to my
hand in the air. As I looked down I saw a bucket, half full of dirty
water. In my infant mentality I assumed it was obviously for any naughty
kid stuck facing the blackboard. This may sound weird but in our house
(which had an outside toilet.) we often used chamber pots or a bucket
behind the back door, covered with a cloth. You cannot imagine how
horrified the teacher was, to catch me urinating in the bucket she used
to soak her blackboard cloths in. She attacked me like something from
the Exorcist. I just wished sheíd let me button my trousers up, as she
was the one who finished up with wet feet.
at home, my father was on usual form. He woke us up just after eleven. I
heard him shout to my mother, "Whereís my axe?" This wasnít
an unusual request, as he would sometimes chop some wood from the
derelict house next door. (Yes at almost midnight!) However something in
the tone of his voice told me that kindling wasnít on the agenda. From
the window at the top of the stairs I watched him walk out onto the land
in front of our house and smash a car to pieces. When every area of
glass on the vehicle was broken he proceeded to put axe holes in the
bonnet and roof. Upon finishing he just walked back into the house
dropped the axe and went straight to bed. Within minutes a blue flashing
light appeared in Harkers Street. The Police then began asking if anyone
had seen anything. Funnily enough no one had.
the only other witness to these acts of stupidity was my dog Duke. Not
much of a guard dog but very much a friend, Duke was the nicest dog you
could ever meet. He was an Alsatian by trade but he was very skinny and
his nails were so long he used to slip on the oilcloth. Most of his ribs
were visible and his left ear was always flopped down. Heíd never
bitten anyone in his life and he looked more like a Disney drawing of an
old wolf than a German Shepherd.
I hear a
lot of people today looking down on Council houses. When we acquired
ours on the Warwick estate it was a revelation. We had a bath with hot
running water!, a toilet upstairs and radiators to keep the house
wonderfully warm. The house on Sycamore Avenue had a strange odour about
the place. I later learned this was the smell of the council fumigation
process; the previous tenant had done something horrid there. We didnít
care, it was spotless when we moved in. My father decided in his
infinite wisdom to enrol me in a Karate club. He had been an army boxer
so I would have to learn to look after myself. When I first attended
these sessions I hated it. I would trudge down to Kellingley social
club, pay fifteen pence and then be forced to do dozens of sit ups,
press ups and a vast array of odd fighting techniques which to me seemed
ridiculous. However as the months rolled on I felt myself becoming
physically stronger. I could run faster and felt very supple and agile.
Years later at sea when some idiot attempted to rape me I unleashed a
monster my father had beaten in to me. One thing I learned from Martial
Arts is how to temper violence and keep it separate from emotional rage.
This sobriety makes you a very dangerous opponent.
70s Yorkshire was a haphazard affair. Instructors werenít sure about
contact or semi-contact in sparring. Sometimes it became a bit messy
there were lots of bloody noses and broken bits. Then the Bruce Lee
films came out and martial arts became fashionable complete with
ridiculous myths. You would hear people say " Donít touch him, he
does Kung Fu. One jab and your head will explode." I think my
father thought that Karate would Ďtoughen me up.í He was wrong; one
Japanese instructor I had taught me about philosophy and writings on
Buddhism, Shintoism and the love of nature. The library in Knottingley
and the wonderful staff who worked there helped me obtain these books.
first showed my father my favourite piece of Samurai poetry. He asked me
if I was gay. An anonymous Samurai wrote the poetry in question, in the
14th Century. To a selfish or complacent person to poem might seem
insular. But when lonely, frightened or just plain lost the poem begins
to make sense, and give you direction.
stuff by the Dalai Lama or Confucius I began to realise my father was a
thick psycho. If you think Iím exaggerating. I dare you to read on!
home one day from the Wallbottle pub, on the Warwick estate. I was
ordered to put Duke (my Alsatian.) on a lead. Dad had a friend with him
called Ken, so I assumed he was just showing off. As we walked over the
fields toward the sand factory there was a small area of loose soil. My
father stuck a spade into it and casually said, "Thatís his
grave". I thought to myself, Oh God, the dog and I are about
to get a hiding so he can prove some ridiculous point. After a while we
arrived at a secluded area surrounded by trees. Ken produced a washing
line and began to tie a knot in it. My father stared at me hard
"Give me the dog." I shook my head and began to cry. He smacked
me in the mouth and snatched Duke away. Ken stepped forward and placed his
hands on my shoulders to turn me away.
My father snarled at him, "What
the **ck you doing?"
in amazement, "You
canít make him watch."
time he learned to be a man", Dad retorted.
macho men then lynched my dog from an elder tree. Through my sobbing I
observed their incompetence as the line stretched and Dukeís hind legs
touched the ground. His slow strangulation looked agonising. Ken became
very uneasy and spun me away from the horror. I wiped my eyes and turned
back (To this day I donít know why.) I saw my father try and
decapitate Duke with the spade. A small drop of blood landed on my
cheek, it felt horribly warm. Dad raised the spade again as the line
snapped. Duke was lying on the floor dreadfully injured. He took another
swing and Duke gave out the loudest howl Iíve ever heard. About nine
feet to my fathers left three men appeared. All their faces wore the
same expression of shock. One of them spoke,
on God's earth are you doing?"
turned towards them with a blood-covered spade; "You
come any nearer Iíll give you some of this."
backed off. My Father pushed me hard and snarled at me to run. As they
legged it I took one last look at my dear friend who lay dying beneath
the elder tree. I then ran away feeling unbelievably guilty.
part of the samurai poem goes like this.
I have no
parents: I make the heaven and earth my parents
I have no
home: I make awareness my home
I have no
life or death: I make the tides of breathing my life and death
It was dusk
when we sailed away from Cape Town and I could just about spot seals
bobbing about in the calm ocean. As we headed for Durban I decided, I
didnít much like South Africa. Even though Russia had been freezing
and we got stuck in the Ice and it was so cold the anchor had fallen
off. Bleak looking as it was, appearances can be deceptive.
22 October 2003
Also by Mike Edwards
Memories of Knottingley - My Knottingley
More Memories of Knottingley - My Knottingley II
Stranger Things Can Happen At Sea
Teachers of the 70's