by Bertin Deneire
Today’s Guest Centenary blog is a first-hand look at the UK Project scene from Bertin Deneire who took part in many activities back in the seventies and maintains a close connection to Talbot House to this day.
At Talbot House, the famous British soldiers’ club in Poperinge, I had heard of Toc H Projects, an organisation that ran camps for underprivileged children with the help of volunteers, native as well as from abroad. I made enquiries to one Miss Rolande Blanckaert, the local Toc H representative and a Talbot House trustee who would test you before your ‘application’. She was a kindly and most helpful spinster who lived only a few yards from The Old House in Gasthuisstraat where she ran a millinery and hatter’s shop.
I can still picture Miss B sitting in her cosy little backroom bedecked with Albion souvenirs and other paraphernalia of Britishness: Jasperware pottery, a miniature Union Jack, a Toby jug, a couple of old Fortnum & Mason jars, pictures of royalty, a framed brass rubbing… On the mantelpiece was a silver-framed B&W picture that clearly had pride of place in this shrine of anglophilia. It was that of Miss B shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II, as in 1966 – on the anniversary of Toc H – she had been introduced to HRH herself on that most memorable occasion.
When I first visited her, she immediately started testing my English, stressing the fact that everything in the language hinged on collocations and prepositions (how right she was!). If I paid attention to these, I would be OK, she claimed. After a few further questions, Miss B seemed quite surprised that she didn’t have to coax me into joining the Projects, as I was already ‘keen as mustard’ and ‘raring to go’. To me, Miss B herself spoke absolutely perfect RP English (maybe that was because she listened to Radio 4 all day). How I envied her command! And so, together with Stephen, a younger schoolmate of mine, I decided to travel to Guildford (Surrey) in Southern England for ‘a fortnight’s holiday with children who otherwise would not have one’, as the heading on the Toc H Projects brochure read.
The booklet mentioned ‘deprived’ kids, and as I had never heard this word before I quickly looked it up in my well-thumbed Prisma Dictionary. Before long I would come to realise that the true meaning of the term was quite different from the one explained in the book…
Anyway, as I had been working as a tobacco stringer for the past month, I had earned some good pocket money that was to be used for my travelling expenses. This was topped up with some extra sterling that my generous granddad had bought off good old George Sutherland, a mate of his (a Scottish expat actually), who worked as a gardener for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Poperinge and who frequently travelled to the UK.
In my battered and CND-stickered wallet I kept a chart of the various notes and coins plus a handy conversion table based on fractions of a 240th (the common denominator to add up the pounds, shillings and pence). As the pound in those days was still ‘old money’, it was not an easy thing for us continentals to get acquainted with.
Instead of ‘decimal’, the system was still ‘imperial’ with 20 shillings to a pound (spelled £) though not in a ‘guinea’! and 12 pence (spelled ‘d’) to a shilling (called ‘bob’). Apart from such monetary absurdity, there were more puzzles in this enigmatic money-game such as half-a-crown, sixpence, three-pence and twopence (spelled ‘tuppence’). There was even a ‘monkey’ (although my budget did not reach that far) plus an assortment of Mickey Mouse coins like ‘halfpennies’ and ‘farthings’ at the other end of the scale. Very, very confusing… indeed.
We are sailing, we are sailing…
In spite of ample parental advice to be prepared for all kinds of weather, I wanted to travel light, and so I packed only what I imagined to be the bare necessities for a holiday in England: my pocket Dutch-English dictionary, a pair of faded blue jeans (flared in those days!), my trusted M65 army jacket, a pair of well-trodden Claysons, my precious Alpine pocket knife, a down sleeping bag, a few spare T-shirts and some clean underwear.
Since English summers were reportedly wet, or at least humid, I thought some kind of impermeable jacket would protect me against the notorious British climate. As I did not own such a garment, I reluctantly asked my Mum for her expert advice. She claimed that a fisherman’s oilskin would be the best choice. However, there were no such things on sale in the clothes shops of a rural backwater like Poperinge, so I took recourse to the local DIY shop where they sold PVC jackets for navvies…. And although I would stick out like a human canary, the garment would at least keep me dry even in the worst of deluges. Although the newly introduced hovercraft was the in thing at the time, we still thought in ‘national’ rather than ‘European’ terms, and by consequence we unwisely opted for the Ostend to Dover crossing rather than the much shorter Calais-Dover route. Stephen and I had decided to hitchhike our way to Ostend as in those days this way of travelling was well accepted and without much danger, certainly for boys. But Stephen’s Dad objected, not because of any risk to ourselves but simply because we stood a chance of missing the ferry, if we were unlucky at thumbing a lift.And so, early that auspicious August morning in 1969, Stephen’s father took us in his comfortable Citroën DS, and dropped us off – holdalls and all – at the ferry terminal in Ostend. Here we were, two green Flemish kids with hardly any travelling experience but ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ for the coming adventure across the Small Divide.
I must stress that we had arrived there well on time for, as the man at the travel agency had warned, you needed to complete a number of official forms before boarding the ferry. In those days every ship’s passenger had to fill in a pink Visitor’s Card, a white Landing Card and a grey Immigration Card. The first one was the most important of the three, as you had to present it to the Immigration Officer on arrival in Dover. And this man – we had been told – would question you about your purpose for travelling to the UK…!
I vividly remember how we gingerly boarded the ‘Princess Astrid’ across a wobbly gangplank. She had been finished only recently at Hoboken’s historic Cockerill Yards by the renowned ‘Compagnie Maritime Belge’ and was so named after our latest princess royal (my granddad sneered that royals “bred like rabbits though never lifted a finger for their keep”).
‘Astrid’ had three impressive funnels and big, white horn-like ventilation shafts sticking out from her upper-deck, a vessel much like those in a Tintin comic book. To my landlubber’s mind, she seemed absolutely enormous, but once on the open sea she would look (and behave!) more like a nutshell. The weather was clear and fine on that auspicious August morning but there was a brisk wind and a rather nasty swell in the Channel.
A salty dog
I must admit that I had little idea of what a sea journey meant, as the best experience I had yet had with aquatic transport was a rowing-boat trip on Dikkebus Pond near Ieper and a leisurely boat trip on a school outing to Walcheren in South Holland. Anyway, for us this was going to be like a mini cruise, we hoped. Stephen and I bought ourselves a 33-cl Stella Artois can, a small prismatic bar of Toblerone and a packet of 20 Senior Service Plain. We both rented a folding deckchair from the Purser’s Office and so, for the price of 5 BEF (today’s equivalent of some 20 Euro cent), we finally sat ourselves down on the sun-deck among the other – mainly young – passengers.
As I have always been most susceptible to smells, I thought I discerned a faint smell of vomit coming from the canvas fabric of my chair, but I soon dismissed this as an unfounded impression of mine. One smell that was unmistakably around was that of diesel oil. Ever since we had left the quay I had discerned the sickening stench of diesel wafting from the ship’s engine room. But worse was to come…
The year 1969 still was the time of hippies and other ‘long-haired lovers’, and so a colourful crowd of backpackers and other young travellers were lazing on the upper deck, basking in the sunshine. Some faint guitar chords could be heard coming from a young bloke leaning against the ship’s railings. Sheer heaven, I thought.
However, as we approached the open sea, the colour of the water turned a menacing dark green. ‘Astrid’, for her part, soon began rocking wildly and for those who were lying on their backs on the deck – in true hippie tradition – it was getting more and more difficult not to roll onto their neighbours. My father had told me that he’d heard from his British acquaintances that crossing the Channel on the Ostend-Dover line normally took four and a half hours: one and a half hours leaving the Belgian coast, one and a half in the open sea and another one and a half with the English coast in view. As the journey proceeded, the sea became increasingly choppy, and now and then I saw white foam flying from the ship’s bow.
As Stephen was becoming more or less the same colour as the sea, I advised him to go down to the toilets and battle it out there. I for one was convinced that as long as I could keep my eyes fixed on the horizon I would be OK, so I remained on the upper deck, now and then swallowing a hint of heartburn that was lingering at the back of my throat.
Besides, the fresh air seemed to help, in contrast to the vile smell coming from the lower deck where the toilets were. It seemed to do the trick for a while but more and more people around me were clearly turning a ‘whiter shade of pale…’ sending those still standing ‘cartwheeling across the floor’. When they too were beginning to be sick, the smell became absolutely revolting, and I turned my face from the queasy crowd in a bid not to become the next victim. I tried to recapture ‘my’ horizon but all I saw were two green walls of waves embracing the ship on both sides. I thought… my God, how will this end…? Just as I was about to join Stephen downstairs, someone on the upper deck called out ‘Dover!’ and sure enough… in the distance there seemed to emerge a greyish strip that had to be the English coastline. Almost at the same time the swell started to subside and through the salty flying spray, there appeared what Vera Lynn once glorified as ‘the White Cliffs of Dover’. Unfortunately, I can’t remember exactly how white they were in those days, as I have the impression that today they should rather be dubbed ‘the Grey Cliffs of Dover’.
As we staggered down the gangplank at Dover Western Docks, we weren’t half relieved to get off our erstwhile Titanic. And although it was now well past lunchtime neither Stephen nor I felt particularly peckish. The quay was draughty and humid, and the presence of a few menacing seagulls came across like the backdrop to a Hitchcock film. The ferry terminal looked positively Victorian, with its wrought-iron staircases, and a pervasive smell that was somewhere between creosote and Dettol hung in the air. In spite of my self-pity I couldn’t help thinking of the poor boys in the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force who, some three decades before us, had arrived dishevelled and exhausted after their narrow escape from Dunkirk.
We were now directed through a long, draughty corridor until we reached a number of booths where stern-looking officials in long trenchcoats were checking passports and collecting our Visitor’s Cards. Here, things went agonisingly slow as the Immigration Officer – who looked not unlike Blakey, the lanky ticket collector in ‘On the Buses’ – was doing his job very much by the book. When my turn came up, the bespectacled Blakey enquired: “What is the purpose of your visit, young man?” “A holiday, Sir” I said. “How long are you staying?” “A fortnight, Sir” I replied politely. He briefly looked up from his registers and went on: “And where are you heading for?” Since the word ‘head for’ was not in my vocabulary yet he had to put the question differently. But when I said “A holiday camp with Toc H” his undertaker’s face lit up. Now would you believe it, he knew Toc H…!
I instantly felt the urge to ask him if he had ever met Tubby Clayton but I refrained from doing so. Besides, a long queue of impatient travellers was forming behind me, and as the boat had already suffered some serious delay, time was pressing for all of us. But above all, I didn’t want to hold up our waiting drivers any longer.
In the meantime, Stephen too had gone through Immigration and Customs, and so we both proceeded to Western Docks Railway Station. Here, a metallic voice was calling “Dover… (it sounded like doughver, Western Docks. All aboard for London Victoria Station”. Just as we were beginning to think that our hosts might have missed us, a voice rang out from among the crowd calling “Toc H, Toc H Projects…”
Sure enough, there they were at the station’s entrance: the three men who – we had been promised – would come and collect us – plus a few other volunteers: Bill, a white-haired, pipe-smoking gentleman in a posh Rover; Alan (who introduced himself as the camp leader) in a flimsy Hillman, and the moustachioed Rob in a flashy Ford Capri 3-litre. Rob, the one in the middle, was holding up a cardboard panel that read ‘Toc H Camp Guildford’. And so, we met our first real ‘live’ Englishmen.
After a firm handshake and some brief introductions we jumped into the cars and prepared to set off towards London. Already waiting in the cars were three more English volunteers from the Kent area, plus one German girl who had arrived on an earlier ferry and was to be dropped at a different Toc H Project location. She looked utterly Teutonic with her blue eyes and flaxy plaits. When she heard we were Flemish, she started a verbal avalanche in her native tongue but when Miss Jungmädel felt that she wasn’t getting much audience, she changed the subject. Next came a detailed account of her voyage, which apparently had been very much like ours. ”Ze vind” had been “zo fiolent” that she had been “ferry afraid of ze vaild zea… und hat mich ganz Seekrank gemacht.”
I must admit, I wasn’t unduly impressed by her presence… A square peg in a round hole I thought (or was it vice versa?)! Understandably, we didn’t ‘mention the war’! To my utter relief I was soon detached from my ‘Jungmädel’ (I hadn’t come to England to meet Germans, I was thinking) as she was heading for a different campsite. Now our hosts asked us to ‘jump in’ and so after throwing our holdalls into the boot of the car, we got in. I was a bit disappointed to be assigned to the slowest of the three vehicles. I had been hoping to admire the mahogany interior of the Rover or feel the breakneck acceleration of the sporty Capri. Anyway, we soon left Dover for the A2 with me sitting in the front of the Hillman. I must say, it gave an odd feeling especially when a car was coming in the opposite direction, you were inclined to think that it was going to run straight into you. And so, every time Alan overtook the car in front I involuntarily closed my eyes while I inadvertently leant over a little to his side.
After about an hour or so on the A2 we saw a signpost for Canterbury. Immediately a number of school memories sprang to mind. I vividly remembered Mr D’s lecture on the Murder at the Cathedral in 1170, when Archbishop Thomasà- Becket was scalped by four knights of Henry II – right in front of the altar – and how after that “most heinous of crimes” Canterbury had quickly become a place of pilgrimage when apparently all kinds of miracles started to happen there and then. Mr D had also told us of how some four centuries later the city had become the Cradle of the Anglican Church after Henry VIII had broken away from Rome because the Pope wouldn’t dissolve the king’s marriage, after which Henry still saw himself as ‘Defender of the Faith’ (though the new one!), putting the Archbishop of Canterbury in charge of his new Anglican Church.
By now the sun had come out and we were getting rather thirsty. So, some distance past the city I dared suggest stopping for a drink, something Alan found a good idea. I remember him pulling over at a roadside café in the shape of a bridge, a tubular construction that spanned both sides of the A2. We all had a lemonade at a yellow Formica-topped table enjoying our ‘bird’s eye view’. I found it exhilarating to be able to sit and relax while the traffic was hissing by under our feet – a novelty we’d never seen in backward Belgium!
Through the Garden of England
In the meantime the journey took us through the rolling Kentish countryside. The roads were full of weird and antiquated cars like bulky Zephyrs, ‘bowler-hat’ Morris Minors and three-wheeled Reliants that looked absolutely out of this world. I was wondering why – in spite of the humid climate – there were so many Minis on the roads here, as every Belgian motor mechanic swore that these little Austins and Morrises were totally unreliable and notorious ‘bad starters’ on a damp morning. Apparently, they broke down as soon as they went through as little as a puddle, and it was rumoured that the clutch burned out after only 500 miles!
There seemed to be hardly any bicycles about, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the many Nortons, Triumphs, BSAs, Royal Enfields and other shiny motorbikes thumping away gently on these winding country lanes. In my blownup imagination, their riders, wearing Cromwell crash-helmets and leather goggles, looked more like pilots from a Biggles’ squadron than motorbikers in the first place. Since we were heading for Surrey, I was secretly hoping to get some free time so that I might visit Brooklands near Weybridge, once the Mecca of British motor-racing. Alan told me that the original racetrack was still there but that it was now derelict and not open to the general public. I don’t know why, but my preconception of ‘The Garden of England’ had been one of a rich but flat county, a bit like our Flemish Polders. So I was pleasantly surprised to see what an undulating landscape it really was. I also noticed how well preserved it looked, with centuries-old oak trees solitarily dotted in lush, verdant meadows.
But most of all, my first impression was one of space and expanse, as even in the late 60s Flanders already looked cramped with its many built-up areas and its typical urban ribbon development. The countless sheep happily grazing away only added a touch of tranquillity to this absolutely unspoilt landscape. Here and there I noticed old timber-framed cottages with thatched roofs looking like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel’s fairytale. Now and again, Alan pointed out the traditional round oasthouses, their white pivoted cowls clearly sticking out from a canopy of green.
Time and time again as we passed through some quaint Kentish village I noticed an open grassy space, which Alan explained was the ‘village green’ or ‘common’. I couldn’t help joking that in Belgium such a big space would promptly be turned into a car park or supermarket. Other, more tended ‘greens’ that we saw, were manned by groups of sedate gentlemen playing a rather static game, apparently called ‘cricket’. I thought it looked a bit like baseball but more relaxed, an observation that prompted Alan to retort that it was anything BUT what their ‘American cousins’ played. His obvious irritation kept me from saying that at first sight, it had looked to me like a rally of the combined Kent Butchers’ & Bakers’ Unions.
When we bypassed towns like Ashford and Maidstone I finally got a glimpse of English suburbia: nice but rather small houses, smart, semi-detached dwellings and cosy pre-war bungalows. The local Norman village churches seemed Romanesque in style and with their castellated parapets and grey flint walls they looked more like barbicans than churches. Most of the houses seemed to have well-kept gardens, both at the front and back of the house. Wisteria and honeysuckle covered walls and facades, and the neatly-trimmed lawns looked very much like the ones in the Commonwealth War Cemeteries of South West Flanders. As far as rhododendrons were concerned, I had never seen such giant specimen; this being the result of acid soil, Alan explained.
Later, as we approached Greater London, we passed row upon row of identical terraced-houses with their typical bay-windows. They seemed to go on for miles and miles, and I was wondering how people were supposed to find their own front-door in the dark after a night on the town… During the journey Alan told me at length about the camp and the planned activities. “To put you in the picture”, he said (leaving me wondering what picture he was talking about). Anyhow, I immediately felt he was a responsible chap and that the project was going to be a promising one. He was studying to become a chartered accountant, he told me, while Rob was an engineer on holiday from his oilrig in the North Sea, I learned. And Bill… well, Bill was a retired bank manager and had been a lifelong Toc H member. He had volunteered to come and collect the rest of the party in his spacious Rover.
Although the conversation we were having grew more and more interesting, the trip to Guildford (some 90 miles from Dover) seemed endless and in spite of the incitements to ‘Take Courage’ beckoning from roadside pubs, ‘miles’ appeared to be so much longer than ‘kilometres’. Besides, the M20 had not yet been built, and the journey sometimes went over narrow trunk roads with the odd stretch of ‘dual carriageway ahead’. And so, it was already getting dark when the groaning little Hillman pulled off towards Guildford.
It was almost pitch dark when we finally arrived at the campsite, which carried the military name of ‘Henley Fort’ (nicknamed ‘Henry Ford’, our drivers told us). The Toc H recruitment brochure said that the place had been built during the Napoleonic Wars to protect England in case the French invaded, and that it had been used in the Second World War by the Home Guard.
In many respects Henley Fort resembled an army bulwark, complete with a highwalled perimeter and self-sufficient facilities. At even distances around the camp hung red buckets filled with sand. As they read ‘fire’, I assumed they were a kind of primitive fire extinguishers. The site was situated on the outskirts of the city, roughly between Farnham in the west and Guildford in the east.
The Fort lay right on top of the Hog’s Back, a wooded hillcrest (basically an ancient ridgeway, part of the North Downs) and this elevated position – which the Celts had used for its strategic value – was just perfect for a holiday of this nature. Compared with the main part of the Downs to the east of it, it looked a narrow, elongated ridge, hence its name.
Alan told me that in the Middle Ages the Hog’s Back lay on the road from London to Winchester and that it also formed part of the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury. This well-preserved and unspoilt green area boasted a wide array of wildlife including foxes, badgers, hedgehogs and even roe deer, while the spreading bushes and hedges – as we were to find out – yielded an abundance of mulberries, brambles, rosehip, blackcurrants and elderberries. A beauty spot indeed confirmed by none less than Jane Austen who, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, wrote: “I never saw the Country from the Hog’s Back so advantageously…”
The kids, who had arrived earlier that afternoon, were still out and about. Some were riding piggyback on the volunteers. Others were just running around barefoot, screaming and shouting like madmen, while a few intrepid boys were chasing some of the girl volunteers through the adjoining bushes. I thought, my goodness – what a bunch of rascals…!
The children slept in small, green tents while we, the volunteers, were under bigger canvas, feet to the middle. The camp leader and the caterers slept in a wooden chalet where they also had a small office, a first-aid post (which smelled of – what I would later come to know – TCP), and – adjacent – an oddity called the ‘tuck shop’. The kids were surprisingly young, some of them just toddlers really, but what struck me most on that first encounter was how good their English was – in spite of their young age. To any Brit this must sound like a strange thing to say, but I was so impressed by their pronunciation, their accent and intonation that for the first time I understood the true meaning of the expressions ‘mother tongue’ and ‘native speakers’.
Soon, Stephen and I were introduced to the other volunteers, most of whom seemed to be about the same age as ourselves. A number of them were sons or daughters of Toc H members while quite a few others were Police Cadets who had joined the project as part of their compulsory ‘social competence’ training. But it was Angie, an 18-year-old traffic warden from Greater London, who struck my eye from the very moment we met. She had soft features and the most beautiful beady eyes I had ever seen, and… she seemed to smile at me all the time…
Eye (and ear) openers galore
Alan took us into a stale-smelling building with two long trestle tables and an assortment of folding chairs. This room – I figured – was the dining-hall. As we were still standing, he said, “Park your bums, lads!”, to which I drew a complete blank. Surely, HE was the driver of the car, so why were WE supposed to park HIS car, I thought… Besides, I wasn’t too sure about that ‘bum’ bit either (was that short for ‘bumper’, perhaps?). But soon Alan smilingly rephrased his invitation to “take a seat and make yourselves comfortable”. And so we cottoned on…
As we had had nothing to eat since our departure from Belgium, he went into the kitchen to get us some food. This, however, was going to be an eye-opener, to say the least. Since Mr Trawlber, the visiting cook, had already left, Alan was going to do the cooking himself, he promised.
“How about some soup and a pie, boys?”, Alan asked. We nodded eagerly as we were rumbling with hunger after our erstwhile maritime ordeal. Being fond of soup, we had no objection to the proposed starter, but after we had tasted some of Campbell’s Tomato Cream ‘Alanese’ we were beginning to think he had erroneously added sugar instead of salt, as we had no idea that soup could ever taste sweet!
As far as the pie was concerned, I vaguely remembered my father, who had been posted with BAOR (the British Army On the Rhine) during his National Service, speaking highly of the delicious English pie. But, obviously, Dad had only tasted apple and cherry pies during his spell with the British, and he might not have heard of the savoury variety. After Alan had popped two frozen porkpies in the oven, he opened a bag of peas the size of marbles (a far cry from my Mum’s cherished ‘extra fins’), and put some cotton-wool Mother’s Pride bread on the table. I thought it looked more like ‘Mother’s Shame’ compared to the crusty loaves we had back in good old Pop.
The peas, for that matter, smelled like mint and for a brief moment I thought that Stephen, an incorrigible joker, had played one of his practical jokes on me again, and had put toothpaste on these ‘green giants’. Judging by his likewise reaction, I concluded that he hadn’t! And so, in a prompt attempt to camouflage the suspicious smell I topped my share of ‘minty’ peas with a blob from a square sauce bottle standing on our table. It carried the name ‘HP sauce’, which – I supposed – stood for ‘Ham Pickle’ or something. Once again, I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that it was NOT some kind of ketchup, as I had been assuming. Alan explained that the initials HP stood for Houses of Parliament, but once again I failed to see the connection… Was this the staple sauce for MPs, I wondered?
Anyway, when we finally started our momentous ‘First Supper’, the pork pies were still rock-hard inside, and as I did my best to put up a brave face, I felt the pink mince slide down my throat… like a lump of meat ice-cream. For drinks there was only the choice between Nestlé’s instant coffee (which Alan pronounced ‘nessels’) and two complete novelties for us. First, there was ‘Robertson’s squash’, which looked like diluted orange juice, and of course the universal ‘cuppa’. I settled for the latter as I was of the idea that “when in Rome…”
While pouring, Alan suddenly said, “Say when!” I looked at him in slight embarrassment but he just repeated in a higher tone of voice “Say WHEN, Bert.” And so, trying not to be too disobedient to my kind guest I just emulated “When, when what?!” It seemed to do the trick and we were soon to learn that ‘when’ simply meant ‘enough’ in tea lingo. I then brought the scalding mug to my lips (how could anyone drink such a hot beverage in summer, I wondered) but I was surprised to find that it was not at all a herbal tisane. So, I soon refrained from the old Roman adage, as the brew – I thought – tasted like an infusion of… spring hay.
When Alan saw my obvious disappointment, he advised lacing it with milk and adding some sugar. This I did, and sure enough, with some imagination you could have been forgiven for thinking that English tea was some kind of disastrous hot cocoa. When I had finally managed to finish my ‘cuppa’, Alan asked, “Would you care for some more, Bert?”, an offer that I hastily declined with a polite ‘thank you’. However, I was most bewildered to see that he now wanted to fill up my mug again… Only much, much later, and to my obvious detriment, I was to learn that – unlike in Dutch or Flemish – in these circumstances the expression ‘thank you’ actually meant ‘yes please’. Little did I know then that I would come to love the drink. In fact, the experience did not stop me from eventually becoming a tea addict.
Talking of disappointments, my first visit to the toilets that night was both literally and parabolically an ‘eye-opener’. I was a bit surprised to see (or rather ‘feel’) the quality of British toilet paper, which looked much like the kind of greaseproof paper we used in Belgium to wrap dairy butter in. Next to the toilet was a box of sharply-folded sheets that bore the brand name Izal. When I gingerly ‘applied’ the meagre material it didn’t seem to ‘do the job’. Obviously, Mr Deconinck wàs right after all.
Before going to bed we asked if we could have a shower. So Alan promised to show us to our ‘ablutions’. These consisted of a plain wooden shed with one long zinc gutter over which simple brass taps were fitted. At the far end were two primitive showers with wooden, toilet-style louvered doors. Would this work the other way round too, I wondered? Would blue be cold and red be hot? You never knew in a fickle country like this, I reckoned. But, surprise surprise… this was Continental! Or were we British in taps perhaps? As I had forgotten my own soap, I grabbed hold of an orangy-red bar that had been left lying about by the person before me and which bore the name ‘Wright’s’. But when I applied the stuff, it gave off a sharp, almost tarry smell. For a moment I thought it was something the cleaners used to disinfect the floor but sure enough this would prove to be our ‘sample soap’ at the camp.
As we were about to turn in, Alan ushered us into the dank dining-hall asking if everything was to our satisfaction. He then presented us with a hot beverage, which he called Horlick’s. The drink looked like hot cocoa but instead had an unexpected malty flavour. At least a pleasant novelty to round off a most eventful day. After downing our mugs, Stephen and I were shown to our sleeping accommodation, and although I was a trifle apprehensive as to what oddities the following day would bring, we gladly crawled into our down sleeping bags to spend our first night on British soil and slept like logs.
Out and about
The next day, I was up at the crack of dawn. The interior of the tent felt stifling but it was already broad daylight outside. I gingerly slipped out not to wake the others and had a quick look round the camp, which was still dead quiet. I took a deep breath and the prickly smell of newly-mown hay quickly brought me back into the world of the living. Only now did I see what a charming beauty spot the Hog’s Back was, overlooking the city of Guildford below with its massive cathedral still shrouded in the morning mist.
I hurried to the showers and had a quick wash. In the meantime, Alan had opened up the dining-hall from which the penetrating smell of freshly-toasted bread mingled with the crisp morning air. A huge pan of scrambled eggs was waiting on the table while a large tray of baked beans was already simmering in the oven. But there was also fruit juice, milk, various kinds of cereals like Cornflakes and Rice Crispies… while a tea dixie the size of a small oil drum was brewing on a nearby trestle table. Breakfast? I thought this looked more like lunch to us!
A stern-looking, bespectacled character, called Mr Trawlber, was already doling out portions of scrambled egg on small plates for the camp leaders. In his oversized duffel-coat, this chain-smoking ‘Capstan’ chap looked not unlike Jack Hawkins in ‘The Cruel Sea’, I thought. Mrs Trawlber – on the other hand – proved to be a most kindly character with whom I hit it off straightaway. Together with her husband she worked at the campsite as a resident caretaker, doing the odd job and looking after the place when the kids were on their outings.
Later I was to help her out quite a bit with the catering though I was slightly bewildered when she started calling me ‘love’ after a couple of days. Might she have taken a fancy to me, I wondered? When I cautiously told Alan about this, he just had a good laugh as he said that ‘love’ was only a vague term of endearment and that I shouldn’t take it too literally…
Soon the kids were woken up (Wakey wakey, show a leg…) and led – rather unenthusiastically – to the zinc washstands. After this, they filed in four queues for their breakfast: cereals, scrambled egg on toast and tea or milk. As for cereals, they came in the shape of Cornflakes and Rice Crispies plus two oddities that went by the names of ‘Weetabix’ and ‘Shredded Wheat’, little crumbly cakes that seemed to be made of compacted roughage.
Stephen and decided to go for the Cornflakes (they looked not unlike crisps), though not before we watched how the kids were eating them, with milk and caster sugar (we thought that one was supposed to have them plain). As the kids enthusiastically shook them from big cardboard boxes, Stephen joked that Cornflakes looked like some sort of chicken feed, and with the Kellogg’s cockerel on the box, you might be inclined to think this was indeed the case. When I finally tried a Weetabix, I must admit it didn’t taste too bad, although the biscuit did look like something you might find on the floor of a sawmill… And so this breakfast thing went on and on, while the kids worked their way through the various courses of this extended first meal of the day. Just as we thought all was finished, the kids started to help themselves to big jars of what looked like apricot jam; though it struck me that there appeared to be some sort of small strands in it.
We saw how they spread their buttered toast with this thing that – we now learned – went by the name of ‘marmalade’ (to which Stephen and I reacted with an ‘Obladi Oblada’ chorus). The stuff looked appetising enough so we decided to give it a try. But when I felt the red rind crack between my teeth, releasing a bitter taste on my palate, my enthusiasm for the traditional British breakfast suffered another blow.
Still, no matter how hearty your appetite, no breakfast was never had before you’d said ‘grace’, another linguistic novelty that we emulated parrot-fashion: “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.” Then, after the meal, the kids took it in turns to do the washing up, tidy the tents and sweep the courtyard with witch-style birch brooms. Only then did the day proper start. In the meantime the mist had cleared and gave way to glorious sunshine, leaving the Hog’s Back crowned with a strato-cumulus sky.
Each team was allotted a group of eight to ten kids for two volunteers: one male and one female. My ’buddy’, as they were called, was a 19-year-old policewoman called Judy. She was kind but firm with the kids and turned out to be a very responsible volunteer. Besides, she always proved ready to help me out each time I got stuck in my failing English, and soon I was like putty in her hands. Morning activities at Henley Fort usually meant scavenger hunts, outdoor games like wheelbarrow, tug-of-war or sack races, and of course sports. Football and cricket were the favourites though Steven and I wisely watched the latter from a distance, as our involvement might have had disastrous effects on the game, and even more so on our egos. If wet, activities were shifted to some kind of ‘lecture’ like a lesson in deaf-and-dumb sign language or a cartoon show. Each time we went on a daytrip we took packed lunches, which were had outdoors as one big collective picnic: doorstep Mother’s Pride sandwiches (again!) cut in the familiar triangular shape, small blocks of cheddar (which Stephen and I dubbed ‘candle wax cheese’), bags of Smith’s crisps, bars of Kit- Kat, oranges and bananas and the universal Robertson’s squash, which came in plastic one-gallon containers.
I myself was always hungry enough to help wolf down the piles of sandwiches (only the ones with Marmite – which I initially mistook for maple syrup – which I loathed), so we rarely returned with any leftovers. As for the crisps, these too were rather a novelty for me. I had recently ‘discovered’ them in a souvenir shop on a school outing in Belgium but, having no idea what they tasted like, had assumed they were bits of dried pancake, sprinkled with white caster sugar… Our outings ranged from a visit to the nearby Royal Engineers army barracks at Aldershot (fascinating), a visit to a local piggery (ugh!), boating on the Wey (wet fun), horse and pony-riding (the kids’ absolute favourite), a visit to a local animal park (where – typically – I got bitten in the shoulder by… a donkey!) or to a local adventure playground (no theme parks yet in those days), a picnic at Frencham Pond (a beauty spot), a trip to the seaside and – to top it all – a night at the local stockcar races. Toc H members from the Surrey branch volunteered to drive us in their cars and mini-vans, and kindly took us to these various locations in the county.
One of the regular drivers on these trips was Bill Crook, the man who had also taken some of us from Dover to Guildford. I just loved his company, as he was a kindly and well-spoken gent whom I saw as a paragon of the Old World. I particularly liked the smell of his pipe, which he filled with a ready-rubbed mixture called ‘Parson’s Pleasure’. Wherever Bill went, he was followed in his tracks by a fragrance of honey and figs. There and then I swore that back in Belgium I would take up pipe-smoking, albeit for the sake of looking more British, and hopefully… more ‘intellectual’.
Talking about the seaside, one day we travelled from Guildford to Chichester on the Sussex coast for a ‘bucket-and-spades’ outing. Before we set off, Alan taught us a song for the occasion. It had quite a catchy tune and seemed to cheer up everybody in our ‘gang’. This is how it went:
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,
I do like to be beside the sea,
I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom,
Where the brass bands play Tiddley-om-pom-pom!
So just let me be beside the seaside,
I’ll be beside myself with glee;
And there’s lots of girls beside,
I should like to be beside,
Beside the seaside, beside the sea.
It proved to be another scorcher and all my apprehensions about the British summer were brushed aside there and then. It was absolutely sweltering that day, as it had been most of the time during our stay (we’d hardly had any rain yet). In fact I had expected (or rather wànted) it to rain as in my simplistic mind ‘rain’ would have added up to the quintessential British atmosphere, as I had savoured it in songs like ‘Flowers in the Rain’ and ‘I can hear the grass grow’ by The Move and in The Hollies’ ‘Bus Stop’ (please share my umbrella…).
When I told Alan about my prejudices he explained that due to the presence of the Gulf Stream this part of the UK enjoyed some of the highest summer temperatures in North-West Europe, almost like the French Riviera, he claimed. It very much felt that he was right again.
I was quite surprised to see how different the English coast was compared to our Belgian seaside: very little sand but mainly pebbles, making it difficult to walk barefoot on the beach. Another thing that struck me was that long stretches of coastline were covered in a black, tarry substance blotting our swimming trunks – suspiciously pitch. The blistering August heat made it all the messier, and the sticky substance was soon all over the kids’ bodies. So we had quite a job trying to get these nasty stains off their hands and feet. By the end of the project many kids were still covered in these black smudges, almost as if they were suffering from some contagious skin disease. I soon learned from the locals that this was the visible result of the infamous oil disaster with the ill-fated Torrey Canyon, the oil tanker that had broken up off the coast of Cornwall some two years earlier (1967).
Jam and Jerusalem
A few times during our stay we were invited to a church fête, or found ourselves entertained by members of some local W.I. branch. Anyway, wherever we went people would stuff us with food as if we’d just returned from a long spell in a German POW camp. Obviously, in the days before, these ‘char ladies’, in gaudy floral skirts and grotesque Dame Edna glasses, had been baking all kinds of fanciful cakes for ‘these poor kids’ who ‘must be starving’. Pastry and pies were then put on display in their village hall as if they were about to be inspected by Delia Smith herself. To me, however, the whole do seemed more like a Barbara Castle look-alike contest than just another kids’ party.
The kindly ladies moved about from one trestle table to the other like ‘wallpaper on the march’ while the kids ate themselves to the brink of indigestion. As may be expected, on the return journey we frequently had to stop the ramshackle Bedford van to let ‘dear oh dear’ Dermot or ‘poor thing’ Lesley be sick by the roadside. Needless to say, the nauseating incidence had a knock-on effect on the rest of the willy-nilly witnesses, although in my case the effect was subject to the distance yet to be covered.
One thing was certain: on returning to the campsite volunteers were never queuing up to do the clean-up job (especially not that time when the sliding sidedoor got stuck with puke). So on a few occasions, yours truly had the honour of mopping up the repulsive remains of the previously wolfed-down ‘bridesmaids’ and other by now very obvious ‘upside-down’ cakes. And yes, once again I was nonplussed when they started calling Lesley ‘poorly’. Surely, money could have nothing to do with the fact she went on being ‘sick’, or was it ‘ill’? Gosh! Well, I suppose all downsides must have an upside, as eventually I learned the difference between these two, including one word I bet even Deconinck would never have known – ‘queasy’!
English as she is spoke
We volunteers had very little time for ourselves with such energetic children around. They also had a ready tongue for their age, and I soon learned many new – mainly rude – words from them. Especially when emotions ran high, their vocabulary turned to the four-letter version. These kids were simply devilish but at the same time they could be sweet and adorable. I distinctly remember sitting by their bedside at night, telling them a short bedtime story (well, as best I could) or reading a few pages from their comic strips. When I ventured into a fairytale, they would suddenly look up in surprise and say “No, no, it’s not the knight drew his sWord! It’s… the knight drew his SWORD – stupid.” Free teachers!
After the first week I felt absolutely knackered, as we’d had little sleep all week. First, there was always some staff-meeting laid on by the assiduous Alan, an assembly where next day’s activities were presented and discussed. Obviously, this happened only late at night when the kids were sound asleep. And after that, we often kept ‘socialising’ with the other volunteers.
When Alan took the address at these meetings he spoke at length about the past day and about what lay ahead for us and for the kids. Sometimes the other volunteers would interrupt him with a ‘hear! hear!’ exclamation (or was it ‘hear here’?). Again, Stephen and I didn’t know what to think of the use of ‘hear’ in this case. Alan spoke loud enough for us to ‘hear’ him clearly, and obviously the room was light enough for him to see that we were ‘here’. Admittedly, it took us some considerable time to solve the ‘hear hear’ enigma!
On the first meeting of the Project we were obviously the focus of attention for the other, mostly British volunteers. As most of the party knew very little about a small country like Belgium we had to tell them over and over again about our federal nation, about the Flemings and the Walloons and about Brussels as ‘pig in the middle.’
Only the names Bruges and Ypres seemed to ring a distant bell for some. Fortunately, sometime in the previous term, I had prepared an essay for my history lessons on the topic so I was pretty knowledgeable about the situation. We also told our keen audience about the difference between Luxemburg the country and Luxemburg the province; and how Leuven University had remained Flemish thanks to the students’ revolt of the previous year.
Everybody seemed to think that Belgians only spoke French (they’d never heard of Flemish) and that we were some distant cousins of the French. When we explained that in spite of everything the official language in Flanders was Dutch, this must have sounded like ‘double Dutch’, and when I added that we even had a third official language (German!), they simply drew a blank. Most volunteers were astonished to hear that we spoke at least four languages (well, just about). Stephen, who was reading the Classics at the time, added that it was not uncommon for some Flemish students to have a basic to good knowledge of seven languages (including one’s own dialect of course). When the volunteers heard his claim, they prompted him to say, “I love you” in every possible language he knew. When he finally managed ten, he was forever regarded as an expert linguist.
In return we took a test of their French, which turned out to be almost nonexistent. When they tried to speak it, it sounded like something from a Laurel & Hardy sketch, the French version that is; something in the range of “jai voudrai zavoir un verre de vain.” So when one of the female volunteers claimed she could do a French folk song everyone rallied round her in keen anticipation. But as she struck up the first notes, Stephen and I had the greatest difficulty to stifle our laughter as she sounded like a rusty Petula Clark rendering Frère Jacques… Absolutely impossible, if you ask me!
Twice a week you also were on ‘guard duty’, meaning that two of the volunteers had to sit among the kids’ tents at night and make sure that silence was observed after 9 p.m. Whenever there was some noise coming from a tent you had to go in and have a look. Usually, it was one of the kids feeling homesick, a misplaced teddy or someone wanting to pop out to the ‘loo’. If they didn’t keep quiet for no good reason you could always threaten them that they’d be sent off into the dark bushes where “the ‘orrible bogeyman” was lurking about… That usually did the trick.
I distinctly remember that when things went silent (apart from the sound of chirping crickets), David, a volunteer I teamed up with, and myself went on chatting all through the sultry night. In spite of being a staunch anti-Vietnam protester and a confirmed CND supporter, Dave was always dressed in a military jacket and crêpe-soled safari boots, which he called his ‘brothel creepers’. When we were on night shifts, Dave – three years my senior – used to gauge my ‘karma’ while burning long, thin jossticks that he let smoulder gently into a long, thin strip of ash. His typical ‘patchouli’ smell only added to his quintessential hippie charm. Dave had also brought his guitar on which he sometimes played ‘Where do you go to, my lovely’, Peter Sarstedt’s hit of that year. In spite of his placid nature he was quite a talkative chap, most willing to teach me an array of new and useful taboo words, including the various names for the female body parts, something even the progressive Deconinck had been loath to do… Dave’s catchphrase was ‘Jolly good, mate’, a sentence he used for almost every positive reply.
From him I also got to know the hidden meaning of more racy words like ‘Bristols’, ‘cleavage’, ‘gash’ and ‘cherry’. You never knew when these might come in handy, if I were to ‘land’ myself a British ‘bird’, dexterous Dave concluded. And there were quite a few to look out for… There was Pam with the pout, and Jill with the inviting smile. There was Ann with the big b******s who “gave us a couple of good points for discussion”, as Dave put it. But most of all it was the more mature Martine who caught our eye. With her doe eyes and her sylphlike figure she really was the pick of the basket. Even in her faded jeans and sloppy sweater she looked like someone from a lads’ mag. A real ‘stunner’, I was soon to learn. So it didn’t come as a surprise when Martine told me that she was an air stewardess with British Airways. She’d been flying between London and New York on the 747 Jumbo Jet, and was now in her final training for service on Concorde. This knowledge coupled with her glamorous looks made me realise that in this case ‘the sky’ was indeed ‘the limit’.
However, it was good old Dave again who read my thoughts and warned me not to “count” my “blessings”. One day, while we were out and about with the kids we came across some early blackberries by the roadside, and obviously we all started picking them. While I stood straddled across the ditch reaching for some juicy ones luring us on the high bank, Dave shook his head in disbelief. When I wondered why he looked so pensive he said. “Bert, don’t you realise that blackberries are like women?” Totally perplexed I enquired why he would make this sort of comparison. To which he said, “Don’t you know, the most attractive ones – they’re simply out of reach.”
And there were more wise words from ‘Jolly Dave’ – as he came to be known. He also warned me about the dark side of the blue moon, warning me against ‘French blues’ (though most other French expressions were ‘good fun’ he said), ‘purple hearts’, ‘black bombers’ and ‘funny fags’, things we had never heard of in a rural backwater like Poperinge. Anyway, I suppose I learned more about this perfidious lingo in that fortnight than I had done in the whole span of my secondary education.
Our conversations concentrated mainly around pop and rock music, which Dave seemed to be so knowledgeable about. He told me all about budding supergroups like Cream, Jethro Tull, The Who and Pink Floyd but we also reminisced about the past: the Beatles, the Animals and of course the Mersey sound that we both adored. He had also brought a number of copies of Melody Maker, which I simply devoured during my spare moments.
Dave had hoped to travel to Woodstock that year but the cost had proved a bit too high for his ‘meagre means’, and so a working-holiday had to be the alternative. Thus, he was saving for next year’s rock festival on the Isle of Wight where – he rightly predicted – most of the Woodstock bands and singers would converge.
One night as we were having a big bonfire on the campsite we rallied round Dave who taught us his favourite tune. Accompanied by his guitar and kazoo, he sang Don Partridge’s BLUE EYES, a simple busker’s song that matched his jolly nature. Soon, he had everybody singing along. This is how it went.
It happens every spring
I hear this bluebird sing
Love is here again to stay
But now that I’ve seen you I know this time it’s true
Love is really here to stay
Blue eyes look my way
Make today my lucky day
Blue eyes looking at me
Hope you’re liking what you see
Hope you’re liking what you see
Nobody ever saw
This deep deep blue before
Bluebells look up in surprise
The sky admits defeat
The sea will kiss your feet
I could drown in those blue eyes
Blue eyes shining down
Everything is right somehow
Blue eyes stay here with me
Find my world in those blue eyes
Find my world in those blue eyes
It happens every spring I hear this bluebird sing
Love is here again to stay
But now that I’ve seen you I know this time it’s true
Love is really here to stay
Blue eyes look my way
Make today my lucky day
Blue eyes looking at me
Hope you’re liking what you see
Hope you’re liking what you see
And the beat goes on… into the night
When your ‘buddy’ proved to be a ‘she’, the shift promised to be all the more exciting. Twice that fortnight I had guard duty with Angie, the traffic warden, and I was thrilled that we hit it off like the proverbial ‘house on fire’. She had everything I liked in girls in those days: of a kindly nature and very feminine, though a bit on the plump side. Besides, she proved to be a good listener with a bubbly personality, something that worked wonders with the kids. With her dark beady eyes, wavy hair and chubby cheeks, dressed in floral blouse and flared jeans she looked not unlike Margaret Ashton, the young actress in ‘A Family at War’, I imagined.
On a few occasions Angie told me about her frustrating job and how she wanted to move on to the proper police force, which she called ‘the Met’. She told me all about life on the beat in ‘the Smoke’. She seemed to be quite knowledgeable about historic criminals like Doctor Crippen and Reginald Christie, two infamous killers whose horrific murders were displayed at Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. She also knew a lot about the Kray Twins, a couple of dangerous gangsters who had recently been convicted for a number of murders in East End gangland.
I must confess that apart from new words, she taught me a few other exciting things into the bargain… Many a night we spent in the open – back to back – looking out on the star-strewn Surrey skyline, talking the time away, with Angie’s crackling trannie tuned to 199 metres Medium Wave. The nights were chilly and the damp coolness of the soil beneath us made me realise autumn (and school!) was just around the comer. But the sky was spangled with stars, and the air was heavy with the scent of a nearby honeysuckle. And when one night she whispered those three well-known words, followed by a lush, lingering kiss…. I felt like in a Hollywood movie, as never before had anyone made that age-old declaration to me… in English. I suppose if Alan had known what was going on during our night shifts, he probably would have had second thoughts about teaming us up. Thinking back about those blissful moments, I’m sure I never felt happier in my life… though, with hindsight it was all very, very innocent indeed.
Booze-up! What booze-up?
On the Saturday of the first weekend, the kids’ parents were invited to come and visit their sons or daughters and see how things were ‘shaping up’ at the camp. There would be a party that night for all of them, and David and Alan’s parents with some volunteers were going to supervise the campsite. Alan had decided that Stephen and I could have the night off, as apparently we had done more than was expected in the past week. So it was decided to visit some countryside pub where live music was laid on. David and Alan disappeared with some of the female volunteers and promised to be back with some means of transportation to take us to their ‘drinking den’, as they termed it.
In the meantime, Stephen and I walked into Guildford town centre to make that long-promised phone call to our parents back in Belgium. As I stepped into the familiar red booth for the first time I thought things would work like in our public telephone kiosks, though I should have known better by now. I lifted the heavy receiver from its hook and inserted a few half-crowns. Not being familiar with GPO procedures, I had to recourse to a passer-by to help me out with this new enigma. I just couldn’t get through. The kindly lady who assisted me soon saw what was wrong. You had to dial the number first and only put your money in once the connection had been made after which you had to push the A button. Apparently, they first connected you and only then did you pay… What a country, I thought!
When we arrived back at the campsite we had a quick wash and a change of clothes, but apart from a pair of crackling-new Wranglers and a clean cotton shirt there was little else to wear for the ‘grand outing’ that we had been promised. So Stephen and I felt all the more embarrassed when a smart Cortina pulled into the courtyard and the four of them got out all dressed up to the nines: Dave and Alan both in drainpipes, roller-neck pullovers and suede jackets and the girls, well… they were simply unrecognisable: hair all done up in beehives, tight miniskirts, mascara and make-up, and smelling like English roses. Boy, what a transformation! We hardly recognised them.
The pub lay at a fair distance from the campsite, and so when we arrived there the ‘gig’ was already in full swing. Just as Stephen was about to enter, a brawny doorkeeper held his hand up against Stephen’s chest and said, “Sorry mate, but you’re not coming in like that”. When Stephen asked why, the answer came without delay “No jeans allowed!”
I thought it a bit odd that our hosts did not try to coax the man into making an exception for two ‘ignorant’ foreigners, as we ourselves would certainly have done in such a case in Belgium. But this was England and – as we were to joke – Britannia “never waived the rules…” And so we simply returned to the car park discussing where we could go instead. As I was wearing jeans as well, the odds were much against us ever being allowed into any other club.
But Stephen, a resourceful fellow in dire times, then came up with a bright idea. In order not to run the same risk again, we decided to turn our jeans inside out and wear our shirts casually over them. Sneaking behind the cream-coloured Cortina we both undid our trousers and so, in ‘reversed’ jeans, which looked not unlike a pair of grey canvas trousers, we entered the next establishment where – fortunately – nobody seemed to object to our ‘Belgian slacks’.
Inside ’The Hare & Hounds’, a cosy pub with bottle-bottom windows, a small band was playing to a capacity crowd: R&B and a touch of jazz. Stephen and I thought that this might be a dancing do or something, but our English hosts only seemed to be interested in the bar. Soon it appeared that they were intent on having us sample every possible beverage the pub had on offer. So we had lager, mild, bitter, half-and-half, stout, porter, real ale, draught Guinness… you name it… but none of these ales seemed to have much taste, we concluded. In fact, they all tasted pretty much like the time-honoured ‘near beer’ kids drank at lunchtime in Belgium, Stephen and I concluded.
Dave and Alan were quite impressed that this number of drinks didn’t have much effect on us. What’s more, we assumed that the pub’s fridge had broken down, as all of the drinks were served positively tepid. And, that in the middle of summer! There was nothing wrong with the fridge, Alan assured us; that was the way to drink it! The girls, for their part, drank even greater oddities: shandy (which – horror of horrors – seemed to be a mixture of lager and lemonade!), a kind of flat and weak cider, a Bambiish bubbly called ‘Babycham’ and a spicy tipple called ‘ginger beer’ which was anything but beer…
We thought little of the skills of the bartender as one, you never serve beer without a head (in Belgium this was a sign of stale beer) and two, you certainly didn’t fill it to the brim as this made you spill your precious drink all over the place. Some country! Beer glasses too seemed to be different from the ones in our Belgian cafés: big conical ones for pints and small mug-like glasses for halfpints. I also noticed a few elderly gents having their drinks from dull metal beakers that did not look unlike the pewter cups Belgian cycling champions are presented with. These – I learned – were called ‘tankards’, Dave explained, and were supposed to give the beer a smoother taste. He also informed us that it was quite normal for some customers to keep their personal tankard over the pub counter. What oddities, I thought.
Another thing that struck me was that English girls smoked so much more than their Belgian counterparts. In those days, cigarettes were still socially acceptable but it was quite unheard of for Belgian girls to be heavy smokers. Maybe it all had to do with the ‘emancipation craze’ of the day. Anyway, the universal ‘fag’ at the time was the golden Benson & Hedges for men, and the navy blue Rothmans for women. Just as we was getting in the mood, a loud bell rang out from somewhere above the counter. At first I thought there was a fire-alarm but, as Alan explained, it simply meant ‘last orders’, and so after a final hasty swig we found ourselves back in the car again.
Fortunately, on the way home we found a fish & chip shop still open. Dave got out of the car and ordered us each a helping of soggy chips (they looked more like sliced potatoes to me) and some tasteless fish in a batter, “the ultimate British meal” he declared. When we were handed our portion I was surprised to see it came wrapped in a newspaper… But Dave ensured that this was “the done thing” and besides, it kept the ‘grub’ hot, he claimed. Once again, we were not unduly impressed by this time-honoured British ‘delicacy’. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop Stephen and me from gobbling up the fatty food like greedy gluttons. And this… while The Surrey Advertiser was being printed all over our fingers and thumbs.
Close encounters of the hairy kind…
When we arrived back at the campsite, the parents had already left and “all was quiet on the Western Front”, as we used to joke. I staggered to my tent and, after having some difficulty unzipping a ‘reversed’ fly, fell asleep almost immediately. Some time later I woke up with a bulging bladder that was close to bursting. I gingerly crawled out on hands and knees, and hurried to the bracken bushes to answer the much-needed ‘call of nature’.
Just as I began to relieve myself, I heard a sinister grunting a few paces from where I stood. For a brief moment I thought the dreaded bogeyman DID exist after all, but I was still sober enough to see a hairy, pig-like animal run off at lightning speed. Anyway, that ‘close encounter of the hairy kind’ would result in one thing, in that the word ‘wild boar’ has never been deleted from my ready vocabulary since. The next day, the running joke was that “Bert had seen the Hog’s Back from close-up”.
The second week was very much a repetition of the first one; only time flew by even more quickly. On the final day it took us almost half an hour to shake hands and hug all those boisterous kids whom we had come to love so dearly. And, after we had said goodbye to our closest friends, Stephen and I publicly promised to come back the following year, a statement that was cheerfully applauded by the gathered crowd. Naturally, also Jolly Dave came over with a final piece of advice to keep our ‘pecker’ up. As far as Angie was concerned, she was probably too upset to see us (me?) off…
These boots are made for… bragging
After that, we went down to Guildford town centre for a hasty lunch in a gaudy Wimpy bar and a spot of shopping. As – by now – I had more or less run out of money I was thinking of changing some of my spare Belgian francs into sterling. To my surprise, Alan showed me into an office in the High Street that said ‘Building Society’. I was glad he had accompanied me there, as I would never have guessed that British banks hid behind such deceptive names. Perfidious Albion, I thought.
Later, while window-shopping, I suddenly spotted a group of bald, young chaps dressed in orange silk garments. They were walking down the High Street in a row behind each other, singing and chanting, and beating tambourines. They seemed to be singing the same plaintive song over and over again. Alan explained that they were Hari Krishna people, some kind of eastern cult, apparently.
Personally, I couldn’t understand why young people would want to shave off all their hair (while we did all we could to grow ours as long as possible!), then dress up like the Dalai Lama, and go walking the streets half in a trance for the sake of some obscure religion…
Still, it seemed to be the ‘in thing’ at the time. Alan went on to explain that he knew one of them, as they had once been in the same school. “Always was a bit of an oddball”, Alan concluded. “What ball?” I repeated, wondering if this was some kind of physical description of the man in question.
As far as our shopping spree was concerned, we were adamant to bring back something you couldn’t get hold of in Belgium, something that was to serve as the ultimate proof of our trip across the Small Divide. So Stephen bought himself a couple of ‘psychedelic’ batiked T-shirts and a sleeveless kashmir fleece jacket, both of which he got from the local hippie haunt. I for one found a bulky Chambers’ English dictionary (for the princely sum of £1) and a pair of smart black leather ‘Chelsea boots’, the sort that pop stars wore.
Besides, we were hoping that our purchases would – in some way – lessen the impending pain, since we were both due for school in a fortnight. In spite of this unpleasant prospect, I already saw myself strutting through the school gate, shod like a British beatnik, while Stephen was sure to be branded the first genuine ‘hippie’ in our school. Hopefully, if ‘Endive’, the rigid priest Prefect, would turn a blind eye to our outlandish attire, we were bound to be ‘the talk of the town’.
As far as the boots were concerned, I remember when I went into the shop, the sales assistant was a trifle puzzled to hear me claim that I took a 44! But, after some clarification it turned out that I took a 10. “Imperial size!”, he now stressed! The man kindly gave me a tin of dubbin grease as a bonus, and he further enquired if – perhaps – I wanted a pair of matching “shoe trees”. Once again, I was at a loss as I had no idea what ‘trees’ could have to do with ‘shoes’.
When he finally showed me a pair of the said utensils, my penny dropped for the umpteenth time. Unlike the shoes, which my mother was to condemn as ‘sheer dandy boots’, the dictionary proved to be a wise investment as it is still – in spite of its battered condition – one of my favourite reference works after all these years…
Anyway, we couldn’t linger on in the High Street as Bill was already waiting to take us back to Dover. The return trip was totally uneventful and both Stephen and I slept off our accumulated tiredness on the back seat of his speeding Rover. As soon as we were back on the ferry, I climbed to the top deck of the ship’s aft side and watched the White Cliffs slowly disappear in the dusk. This time the sea was like a millpond but the sky was slightly overcast with a hint of fog, like a thin shroud tucking up the land we were leaving behind us.
Can you tell me where my country lies?
I remember staring at this picture-perfect skyline where the sea touched the sky, wondering how anything could ever be so faultlessly level after our ghastly inward journey two weeks before. A few of the erstwhile menacing seagulls followed in the ship’s frothy wash like an airborne escort on our way out, almost as if they were waving us goodbye. For a brief moment I imagined they were albatrosses, as Fleetwood Mac’s namesake hit had been ringing in my ears over the past fortnight.
So, here we were, back on our way to our Flemish hometown with the prospect of a new – and final – year at secondary school. And although I wasn’t burning with anticipation for the new stint, I was now more adamant than ever that I wanted to become an English teacher. What’s more, I could hardly wait to tell good old Deconinck about our ‘outlandish’ experiences and about the countless linguistic oddities we had picked up over the past fortnight, which had proved him so right.
Clearly, I was in two minds about my first holiday in England. What a wonderful and unforgettable experience it had been. Yet, at the same time – and for the first time in my life – I felt homesick for a country that wasn’t mine! I didn’t know about Stephen, who was fast asleep on the deck by now, but as far as I was concerned I wondered whether I would be able to keep my promise to Angie, Dave and the others, and come back for a second spell… Little did I know that in the coming half century I would cross the Channel hundreds of times, hoping each and every time it wouldn’t be the last…
Bertin Deneire © July 2020