I had my open-ended ticket for Hong Kong and some holiday due, so Doreen and I were able to have our first real holiday together. Our first city of choice was Damascus, then an exotic place not a destructive war zone. Our Western style hotel in the centre of the modern city was close enough to walk to the main attractions. We visited the brilliant Omayyad Mosque where Doreen was given a cloak to better cover herself. We were treated kindly by everyone, even by the macho taxi driver with a mouth full of gold teeth.
Next day as we relaxed in an open air cafe, 2 guys struck up a conversation with us, and offered to show us around. We didn’t want to be obliged so we refused the offer. The next day we looked for the house from which St. Paul was reputed to have escaped after his conversion. On the way we bought a small mosaic inlaid box for the equivalent of one shilling – 5p.
About an hour later our friend from the evening before appeared, upset that we had refused his offer of a tour and insisted that we enter his house which was close by, and have tea. We agreed as long it was only for tea. He led us from the heat of the street into an inner courtyard, green with plants and with a fountain playing. A servant brought us black tea and we began to relax. He apologised for having been too pushy and told us he would pay for a taxi to take us back to our hotel. He even said it was nice that we had bought a small box. How did he know that? A taxi did indeed take us back for free. We didn’t see him again and we never understood the sub-plot to our stay in delightful Damascus.
We next flew to Baghdad. This was my idea. I’d read an Agatha Christie book which was set there. What a difference from Damascus. Baghdad was stiflingly hot. People were surly. Women spat at Doreen for not being completely covered. We ate some dubious curry. They would not take their own currency back when we left. Memorable in quite a different way!
On to Teheran, which we had really looked forward to. Still ruled by the Shah, it was very western in attitude. Alas, I became unwell with food poisoning – perhaps from the curry in Baghdad – and stayed in bed. Doreen bought antibiotics, and next day I felt better. But now Doreen was ill. My turn to buy the pills. 24 hours later, when it was now time to leave, she began to feel better. So all we saw of Teheran was the road to the airport. A disaster, as we had stopped there because we really wanted to visit the ancient city of Isfahan.
New Dehli was our next target, with a flight to Kathmandu next day in a Vickers Viscount 4 prop aircraft, through fluffy clouds surrounding the towering mountains. Our hotel was simple and spotlessly clean with vegetarian dishes on the menu. A beautiful simple place to recover from stomach troubles. We hired bicycles and pedalled around the city. Sadly much of what we saw in 1971 has been damaged by the earthquake 2 years ago.
Time to leave. Driving to the airport we saw a plane taking off, and when we checked in an hour before our scheduled departure time, we were told that our flight had just left, and the next plane wouldn’t be for another three days! But — if we agreed to take that one, they would put us up in a superior hotel. Too good a chance to miss! They re-scheduled our stay in Thailand, and we enjoyed the simplicity of Kathmandu for a 3 bonus days.
The short trip in the airport shuttle bus to our hotel in Bangkok was awful, hot and sticky. In contrast, our hotel was the best yet. A beautiful room overlooking a verdant garden stretching down to the river. Away from teeming main streets, the gardens were tranquil. As were the Buddhist temples. We visited the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and listened to the chanting of the monks as did the Thai people. Must confess we also bought the usual tourist teak bowls which we still use to this day.
At last to Hong Kong. Flying into Kai Tak airport was a real experience. The approach flight path took one below the height of the skyscrapers in Kowloon. We found an apartment on the West side of the island with spectacular views over Hong Kong harbour and the South China Sea.
It was here in Hong Kong that our first son, Jason, was born in 1972.
About 6 months later, our new telex exchange went ‘live’, reducing the telex connection time to Europe from 45 minutes to about 30 seconds. We stayed for 6 months to ‘babysit’ the system, and make sure the client knew how to use it.
When we had time on our hands, we’d take the exciting 40 mile hydrofoil ferryboat ride to the ancient Portugese enclave in Macao, China. Built in an 18th Century European style, it seemed to be crumbling to pieces, as all the investment goes into the big casino. Gambling isn’t permitted in Hong Kong and as the Chinese are inveterate gamblers, they regularly ferry over to Macao to lose their hard earned wages. We tried to go into the casino, but were banned because Jason – aged 3 months – was with us. An underage minor was barred from entry in case he was corrupted by what went on inside!
Hong Kong was a vibrant city, never sleeping, with super-rich living cheek by jowl with the dirt-poor. We met a Swiss banker and his English wife, who said that when he went to see a client with a huge investment portfolio, they perhaps would be sitting in the street still wearing pyjamas! The buses were re-cycled London buses which gave an exhilarating ride over the tortuous road over The Peak mountain on the Hong Kong Island. As the Chinese don’t eat or drink dairy products, it was surprising to come across a herd of Jersey cows on the mountain, there to provide for the tastes of the Europeans. Our Chinese colleagues took us on trips to the New Territories to view the Red Chinese border, visit the duck farms and Kowloon City.
After 12 months in Hong Kong we returned to Switzerland with a diversion to Japan on the way. We traveled from Kyoto, the ancient capital, visiting tranquil gardens and Zen Buddhist temples, then across the Inland Sea to Hiroshima, where the local people greeted us with the peace sign. We caused a minor commotion wherever we went. In 1972, not many people outside Tokyo had seen a white bearded European with a baby boy. Japanese ladies were fascinated, pulling down his vest to stop evil spirits from entering his navel.
Knowing no Japanese, we had managed to survive for 2 weeks with a young baby by asking hotel staff to write down our destination and the words for ‘boiling water’ so we could mix Jason’s formula. We took the Bullet Train back to Tokyo which in 1972 was a real experience for us, but seemed quite normal for the Japanese.
Back in Bern, we lived in the ground floor flat in a late 19th century town house with access to the garden where we even grew vegetables. Two years later, Rupert was born in Bern. I was now working on the specifications for a much more advanced telex exchange to be installed in Sydney, Australia Perhaps we should have stuck with telex, but we decided to return to England, get on the housing ladder and educate the boys to play cricket rather than ice hockey.
So, in 1974, I took a job with the Plessey Co. at Romsey in Hampshire, working on a military communications system designed for the British Army in Northern Europe. The Cold War meant that the military didn’t say ‘if the Russians come’ but ‘when the Russians come’. We lived in a lovely 1930’s house near Southampton and found a letter in the attic from the War Office informing the owner that he would have to take in displaced persons from the wartime bombing of Southampton, presumably.
After 4 years I swapped jobs to a civil telephone exchange system – System X. This meant a relocation to the Thames Valley area, really expensive, but we found a unique house made of cedarwood, on the top of the Chiltern Hills which had been built as a Convalescent Home for children recovering from TB. The rooms were large, the doorways wide, we had an Aga and shared a septic tank with our neighbours. As a project manager on System X, we were responsible for satisfying the requirements of BT.
Work was based in Taplow, near Maidenhead, in the house which used to be the country pile of Lord and Lady Desborough. Staff were blessed with a county class bowling green, tennis court, football pitch, a croquet lawn, gardens and boats on a private backwater of the Thames. Somehow we did manage to fit in some useful work. The first System X to go ‘live’ was in London, with my Taplow team taking the credit.
The system was later enhanced and rolled out to provide the trunk switching network for the UK in the 1980’s. When operations at Taplow Court were closed down, the company offered relocation to either Liverpool or Poole in Dorset. I was given the choice of just Liverpool; the sort of choice you can’t afford to refuse. So after 10 years in Oxfordshire, with the boys well integrated in their school in Henley on Thames and Doreen teaching in a secondary school in Abingdon, we bought a house on the outskirts of Chester and I commuted to Liverpool via the Mersey Tunnel. Chester was an interesting place to live, the boys were in a good school, Doreen was supply teaching at the same school and we made brilliant friends.
The move did not work out for me professionally, so at 49 I rejoined the Swiss company in Bern. We sold our 5 bedroom house in Chester with its acre of garden, now too big for Doreen to manage and our 2 Great Danes. So while Doreen bought a house close to the Chester Racecourse, I rented a studio flat in Bern.
Before the advent of cheap flights I could only get back to Chester once a month, a situation which could not be permanent. So I rented a large apartment with a brilliant train connection to Bern. Doreen left her townhouse and job, and with our surviving Great Dane we drove from Chester back to Bern, the last stage of my working life.
But there is still a bit more journeying to tell, and I think I will keep this for another – shorter – chapter in next month’s Pump.