A Memoir by Robin Lloyd-Jones
When the war in Europe ended, my mother, my brother and I returned from India to England. After waiting six weeks in a transit camp, we were allocated berths on the Durban Castle. Our route was through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, unlike our journey out to India in 1940 when we had gone all the way round South Africa because the Mediterranean was controlled by the Italian fleet. The Durban Castle, a passenger liner in peace time, had been fitted out as a troop ship and was carrying about 30% more passengers than were originally intended. A luxury cruise it was not.
My first impression of England as the Durban Castle docked in Liverpool, and one which came as quite a shock, was the sight of white men doing manual labour. And soon after that, I saw an almost unbelievable thing; a newspaper vendor had wandered off, leaving his papers and a hat full of coins on the street, unattended and they were still there!
We travelled by train to Bristol. Everything was so green. Even in the wet season, India was never as green as this. The following week, I was due to start school. Term had already begun, but a few days were needed to buy clothes and school uniforms and get to grips with the unfamiliar world of ration books, clothing coupons, shortages and queues for everything. Everything seemed grey in Bristol – grey skies, grey buildings and pavements, grey faces, grey school uniform, but I was amazed at how wonderful the food was – meat that was succulent instead of tough and stringy, fresh butter and cheese instead of hard processed stuff out of tins, milk from cows fed on lush green grass. I soon learnt to keep my enthusiasm to myself. What people wanted to hear was how hard things had been for them and how much they’d suffered and we didn’t know how lucky we’d been, living abroad in the lap of luxury - which was true, of course. I realised, even then, that going from a household with fourteen servants to one with none would be difficult for my mother. The adjustment was eased by spending the first month in a boarding-house while we looked for a flat.
It was time for school. The first lesson of the day was Geography. The teacher registered me, the new boy, in a big book. ‘What house?’ He enquired. The correct answer should have been that I had been assigned to Drake House, but I said, ‘I don’t live in a house, I’m in a sort of hotel.’ Derision and groans all round. The lesson was about India. The beautiful, colourful country I had left behind, full of fascinating, exotic sights, sounds and smells bore no relation to the place in the textbook with its rainfall graphs and statistics about imports and exports. Towards the end of the lesson came the weekly test. The teacher had devised this system whereby whoever came top in the test one week got to set the test the next week. The ten-year-old boy asking the questions on the chapter which had been studied for homework was coming up with questions like, ‘What was the name above the shop in the picture of the market place on page twenty-three?’ I, the only one in the class who had lived in India, scored nil.
Science followed Geography. This was held in the Science Lab which had tiers of seats banked in a semicircle round the front table. As we entered the room I was aware of my class-mates whispering to each other and glancing at me. We sat in the bottom tier at ground level while the teacher rattled on about things which meant absolutely nothing to me. Suddenly, the entire class jumped up and rushed to the highest seats at the back of the room … the entire class, except me, that is, who remained where I was, looking around in utter bewilderment. The teacher beckoned me forward and, ignoring all protests, gave me three strokes on the backside with a bamboo cane. I found out later that, to keep the class alert and hanging on his every utterance, he had told the class, at the beginning of term, to listen for the word ‘heat’. It was the signal to race for the back seats. The last one there got beaten.
At the morning break I discovered that I had exchanged a school in the Nilgiri Hills, surrounded by virgin forest into which we were free to roam, for a tarmac playground encircled by a high wall beyond which roared city traffic. After the break came Physical Training. It was the day for boxing. The instructor, known to one and all as Sarge, was a small, wiry man, not much bigger than me. In his day he had been army champion at light featherweight.
‘New blood!’ he exclaimed, looking at me and licking his lips.
‘He’s from India,’ someone said, pityingly.
‘Ah, the Lion of Kabul,’ Sarge said, ‘Let’s see what you can do, then.’
I had never put on boxing-gloves before. They have an unforgettable smell – the odour of dried blood on leather and, from their dank interior, the tang of stale sweat, the kind that stinks of fear. Sarge’s weaving gloves mesmerised me. He seemed to be able to hit me wherever and whenever he wanted. I landed a lucky punch … a bad mistake. I opened my eyes to find Sarge bending over me. He helped me to my feet and patted me on the back.
‘Welcome to England,’ he said.