My Parents met in the Second World War. Theirs was a classic wartime romance, which began in Egypt circa 1943.
They were married in 1946 – the war had been over for a year, but work was hard to find in the UK’s shattered post-war economy. Having tried their luck at farm life in Surrey, and found that it was not producing enough money, they made the decision to join the “Colonial Service” in Africa where jobs were available in local Government and the salary – which included compensation for overseas postings – was reasonable for the time.
In 1947, my father shipped out to his first posting in the “Gold Coast” now Ghana, leaving my mother behind in the care of her family, who lived in the Somerset and Devon area.
In 1948 he was back in the UK, and I was “on the way”. In about 1950, I was aged one, and my mother took me with her to begin our new adventure in Africa.
My father had good qualities and bad. He was born in Essex and somewhere in his family tree, there was the surname Noble, and an Italian ancestor called Carlo Duce who allegedly was a versatile pianist who played professionally in the nineteenth century.
Unfortunately, my father did not inherit any musical talent. He was intelligent and a natural engineer – of the Jack of All Trades variety – and could fix almost anything – although some “fixes” could be a little Heath Robinson. This was a good quality, and he passed on this knowledge to me together with his interest in games and learning. His favourite sport was Tennis.
However, he had a temper and was incapable of being diplomatic – something which damaged his chances for advancement in the RAF and the Colonial Service. Also, he was competitive with his own sons, and found it very difficult to give praise.
My mother came from an “upper middle class” family in South West England, with a strong Royal Naval tradition: her father was the RN Commander for Naval Defences at Plymouth in WW2, and both she and her brother served in the Navy during the war. When my mother was growing up, the family owned the Pentire Hotel in Newquay, Cornwall and so life was comfortable.
Her maiden name was Martin, and in her family tree was the name McKay, and so there was an ancestral connection with Scotland. As a child, she loved dance and performing, and in later life her passion was painting with water colours. She had a natural ability for dress making and designing costumes. Her skills as an interior decorator, together with my father’s handyman qualities, made a good business combination in later life, by buying, “doing up” and reselling homes.
She was a good mother, always putting her children first and defending them where necessary.
However, there was not a great deal in common between my parents, and if at the time divorce had been easier and not so much of a social stigma, I believe my mother would have left my father as soon as her children were independent. Theirs was not a loving relationship, she was not happy, and she turned to alcohol before she was 50.
Where we lived 1948 to 1962
I was born in Dorking Surrey at the end of 1948, and shortly afterwards my mother took me to the Gold Coast to be with my father. I don’t remember much about Ghana: we lived in Takoradi, about 120 miles from the capital Accra, and my father worked in the Government office at the port. The roads were made of murram, and I particularly recall watching from the car rear window the clouds of dust generated as we drove along these roads.
One of the pets we had in the house (colonial style bungalow) was Bambi – a very tame deer or small buck. And of course, my constant companion was Toby, the English wire-haired Fox Terrier who came with us from the UK.
After nearly two years, we returned to the UK because my mother was pregnant again – Robert was born in November 1952. During this time (1952/1953) we lived with my mother’s family in the West Country – good old fashioned country houses with large open fires, and with outside barns which were of great interest to myself and Toby.
One day Toby and I went a little too far and I remember falling down a wooded slope – in a small forest – and not being able to climb out again. We were there for several hours until it began to get dark, but Toby never left me, and kept barking until rescue arrived: I had sparked a local search and rescue, and remember to this day the rather worried and disapproving face of my grandfather, a retired RN Commander.
When my brother was old enough, it was 1954/55 and we travelled together to meet my father who had taken up his next Posting in Uganda. I think this time we travelled with BOAC (now British Airways) – in an Argonaut or Comet – with a stopover in Cairo.
So the family started a new adventure in Entebbe, Uganda – which lasted six years until Uganda achieved Independence. Entebbe Airport was in July 1976 later to be the scene of the notorious hijacking and the rescue raid carried out by the Israeli special forces.
My early Life in Uganda
Life in Africa was totally different to life in the UK. Uganda is very close to the Equator, which meant a hot climate with a lot of insects and wild animals and reptiles. Sleeping at night required mosquito nets: at the time (1955) electricity was available but it was necessary to have back-up lighting – torches and gas-lamps.
Our first home in Entebbe was a small bungalow very close to the lake (Lake Victoria) so insects were more of a problem – especially at night. The mosquitoes were large and noisy – Malaria was a risk, as was Bilharzia a nasty parasite carried by snails and flatworms, which also infected fish. Another unappreciated event was the regular nocturnal visits by Hippos to our garden, where they proceeded to eat the flowers – my mother was extremely upset when her best rose bushes were vandalised. Hippos are big and powerful and not particularly friendly – especially if you block their escape route to water….
After some months, we were able to move into a larger property in Church Road – the centre of Entebbe and away from the lake. This was our home for most of our time in Uganda, and I remember we had a large garden and a view of Entebbe airport. Being able to watch all manner of planes landing and taking off was fascinating for me.
My father had a position in the Uganda Pensions Department, and my mother’s first job in Uganda was as Cipher Officer at Government House – a job for which her previous wartime experience was invaluable. She later became a Ground Hostess for BOAC at the airport.
Uganda’s social hierarchy was generally pretty much the same as in all the East African Colonies at the time – white people were in Government administration, Indian people were the business backbone (all the stores and shops were run by Indians and their families) and the native population pretty much continued life as before. Most Europeans had servants because wages were low – I remember we had at least one “houseboy” and one cook and one “gardenboy” at any one time, and their families stayed in the servant quarters on the property.
Sailing from the UK to Africa The most memorable trip for me as a child occurred in about 1960. We had a small family car in Uganda (a Hillman Minx – I still remember the registration number as UFN647) and now that they had some financial stability, my parents had decided to return to the UK for a short time – staying with family – and my father had his eye on a new car – a FIAT 1800. The return journey from the UK was to be by sea with the new car on the passenger ship. the SS Uganda to Mombasa in Kenya stopping at Gibraltar, Naples, Port Said, Aden, and Mombasa.
This sea trip took about 3 weeks, and the port visits lasted one or two days so that it was possible to explore. As a family, we “checked out” Gibraltar, Naples and Rome, Port Said (which was close to where my parents were stationed in WW2) and visited some friends in Aden.
The best was yet to come – a true Boy’s Own adventure! Mombasa is the main sea port for Kenya. and about 500 miles from Entebbe. So, with our new car and all our luggage, we drove from Mombasa to Entebbe, passing over atrocious roads, through game reserves, close to the Rift Valley and staying overnight at lodges on the way. It took 3 days and was a fantastic experience for an 11 year old boy. One particular incident involving my father stands out in my memory to this day: we were approaching a game lodge where we were to stay the night somewhere in Northern Kenya. At the side of the road, no more than 50 metres away was a large elephant, and near the elephant a sign saying “Do NOT get out of your Car” My father ignored the sign, got out of the car, and approached the elephant. To this day, I do not know what he was trying to prove, but when the elephant looked in his direction. raised his ears and proceeded to make “I am about to charge” signals, my father thought better of it – thank God! And there were no mobile phones at the time to summon help….
Freedom I remember that for me the best part of this period in my life was the freedom I enjoyed: with my trusty Raleigh bicycle, I could be miles from home, sometimes with a “gang” of other boys, sometimes alone, and could explore to my heart’s content. One of my favourite past-times was building model aircraft (usually Airfix) and then blowing them up with bangers (fireworks). I had an air rifle (a very underpowered Diana Model 1 as I recall) and spent hours making and using catapults and other destructive weapons. I am afraid that some of the things I got up to as a child were not always praiseworthy – for example, in the large garden was a large hedge which separated the neighbours from us, and this hedge got exceptionally dry during the summer months. The “game” was to set fire to the hedge in a controlled manner and then extinguish the blaze before it got out of hand. Of course, one day the blaze took over and destroyed the entire hedge: my parents and the neighbours were not pleased.
What about snakes? Yes, there were snakes – some harmless and some quite the opposite, but generally they were not to be seen. And there were other fascinating creatures like giant butterflies, large hornets, tarantulas (spiders) antlions, chameleons. And the most amazing bird life, with vivid plumage.
My first feelings for the opposite sex also started: I remember the girl’s name even today. Julie Saunders. I was about 10 and one day – with younger brother in tow – I paid a visit to her house and let myself in, uninvited. Luckily her parents were not at home, but the romance was not reciprocated!
1962 was the end of this fantastic experience in Uganda: I had started school in the UK and as luck would have it, Uganda became independent at about the same time, which meant that my parents were out of a job and back in the UK.