Eight: Paris, workcamps and more

Previous chapter: Seven: Paris and Arligs

1962

In the spring of 1962, Arthur and I had to arrange a world conference for workcamp organisers and were delighted that a member-group in the central African country of Cameroon invited us to hold this gathering at the town of N’kpwang, close to Sangmélima a hundred miles or so south of the capital. The president of this workcamp group, Monsieur Gaston Medou, had told us that a purpose-built conference centre was nearly complete. We would be the first to use it, and it would then become a wonderful community education resource for the whole area. It sounded fabulous, exotic, in the pioneering spirit, and the Coordinating Committee gave us the go-ahead.

But even in the capital city, Yaoundé, as our 25 delegates boarded a hired bus and drove south on the red-earth Sangmėlima road, we were told to expect complications. Four hours later we passed under a huge banner stretched across the road proclaiming “BIENVENUS A LA 13ème CONFERENCE MONDIALE DE L’UNESCO” (which our small gathering most certainly was not) and rumbled into N’kpwang – a village of thatched mud and concrete block huts, steaming in the sun after a tropical downpour. We bumped off the main road onto a building site, passing a pile of unopened cement bags, clearly rock hard, stacked in the red mud. The centrepiece of the site was an assembly room, without doors or windows, but with a cement floor and roofed with corrugated iron sheets. Around it were several smaller barrack blocks of the same materials and at the same level of readiness for our conference participants. Washing facilities were of a similar state of readiness, and one of the first practical jobs for participants was to use broad teak planks to construct rudimentary toilet screens. During our week-long conference, birds would fly in and out of the window spaces and inquisitive monkeys observed proceedings from window sills and roof struts. All discussion paused while afternoon downpours thundered on the corrugated roof.

Despite the crazy setting, and perhaps even helped by it – the need to improvise at every stage, our interpreters giving simultaneous translations via an ancient amplifier and heavy Bakelite headphones (for a ‘sound-proofed studio’, each sat under a large cardboard box) – the participants bonded and worked hard to make the conference a success. Food was always tasty, so long as one did not dwell on the nature of the forest “bush meat” – anything, from monkey to rat. The villagers of N’kpwang also helped in many ways and one afternoon challenged the conference to a football match, both sides to play barefoot. Given the torrid heat and high humidity, I reckon we didn’t do badly to lose 13-0. The Foreign Minister of Cameroon attended our closing ceremony, and a Russian youth organisation presented him with a large model of a Sputnik, ‘on behalf of the 13th Conference of Work Camp Organisations’ – to the deep annoyance of various US participants.

The view from 30,000 feet on the flight back to Paris offered a wonderful lesson in geography. Over Cameroon and southern Nigeria stretched thick, green jungle, veined by red laterite roads and brown, winding rivers. Then: shrub, open country, grassland, yellowing to sand dunes and the vast, blinding Sahara, taking hours to cross. Eventually the low mountains of Algeria appeared. Next, a thin strip of green, cultivated land – and we were suddenly over the blue Mediterranean, darkening to purple as we reached France at the Côte d’Azur. Up the Rhone Valley as night fell – until a glow, and then a myriad of white and orange lights below, as we circled and then landed in Paris.

This was a year of other ups and downs for me and I shall pick out only few key incidents. Six months earlier, something had happened to my feelings for Sigyn. It was obvious that she would like us to get married and settle down, but I still wanted to see the world and achieve something special: a common enough dilemma, but still painful, especially for her, especially as she was slightly older than I. And my assuring her that, ‘I am still very fond of you and respect you and want us to be good friends’, though true, was not what she wanted to hear. So contact between us waned.

This drifting apart was made easier, I must admit, by the fact that having our own boats moored in the centre of Paris and knowing any number of girls of our age working in UNESCO or the local volunteer agencies, Arthur and I were not short of romantic possibilities. Recently I had met, and been enchanted by, a young Indian woman, whom I shall call Indira. She was lively, petite, exquisite – and steadfast in her commitment to promoting voluntary service world-wide. She seemed an exotic contrast to Sigyn – good, honest and lovely though she was – with her seemingly modest goals of teaching and settling down to married life in Sweden.

Besides a commitment to working for global peace and justice, Indira followed other worthy principles: she was a strict vegetarian, she drank no alcohol. Overnight, I, too, became vegetarian and teetotal – at least for the trial period of a year, after which, Indira was due to return to Delhi. Giving up meat and wine was no great hardship, and my sacrifice certainly paid off in deepening the warm feelings between us, though once in a cafė (with different friends) I forgot that I had given up meat and ordered a steak-pommes frites. As we were leaving, the waiter clearing the plates asked if there was something wrong with my untouched steak. He gave me a very Gallic look when I explained, ‘Pas du tout, merci. Mais je suis vegetarian’.

On the romantic front, spring 1962 brought splendid news from Stockholm: Göran has found the girl of his dreams, Rita, from Holland and Java, from where her family had to flee while she was still a young girl because of the hostile political situation. They met at a fancy dress ball on board a trans-Atlantic liner. Göran and two male friends had no special costumes, so they wrapped themselves in bed sheets and went onto the dance floor as “Three Men in a Boat”. Soon they were dancing with three girls and Göran was chatting to Rita. They met again on the return crossing. And now she is moving to Stockholm to be with him. Wow, things are developing fast – wonderful!

One of my responsibilities during the summer of 1962 was to prepare and run a programme at the World Youth Festival in Helsinki – motto: “FOR PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP” – with 18,000 participants from 137 countries. The CCIVS was divided as to whether we should take part – some German and Dutch workcamp organisations were very against, seeing the Festival as an unashamedly Communist propaganda exercise, while the British & American Quakers and Service Civil International spoke up for our strengthening East-West relations. As a compromise, they decided to send me as a single representative of the Committee. I was to keep a very low profile, and take absolutely no part in political debates or manifestations. Being still fond of Sigyn, as a friend, but perhaps unwisely – and even unfairly – I wrote to her to see if she would like to come along too.

In August, we met in Stockholm and I almost fell in love with her afresh, she was so radiant. In Helsinki, we each spoke about voluntary work at various meetings, we made international contacts and typed up reports late into the night. To my surprise, Sigyn enjoyed the atmosphere and the challenge of a large international gathering, and we worked well together, but we steered clear of the overtly political meetings, keeping our heads down, as instructed by Paris.

Low, that is, until – the event being over – we took advantage of free rail transport taking Festival participants from Helsinki, via Leningrad, to Warsaw – a full 24 hour journey. The train stopped at every blessed station, where town officials, youth representatives and brass bands waited patiently beneath red flags and banners to greet Festival participants and present them as they emerged from the carriages with flowers, ribbons and badges – all celebrating, youth, socialism and Peace & Friendship. Speeches were made, bands played, and after ten minutes the train would pull out – only to coast to a stop again twenty minutes later for a repeat performance. Sigyn and I never left the carriage, dutifully keeping our low profile. As the day went on though, our co-passengers grew bored with these ceremonies and ever-fewer bothered to leave the train. Finally, in the late afternoon at a small station somewhere east of Brest Litovsk, we drew to a halt – and not one person got off.  A brass band struck up the Internationale, a disconsolate reception committee stood outside our carriage proffering flowers and presents. Suddenly, Sigyn and I felt so sorry for them that we looked at each other, nodded and scrambled onto the platform. As sole representatives of the 1962 World Festival of Youth, we exchanged greetings of undying friendship & socialist solidarity with the small town of …..  (We never did catch the name).

We changed trains in Warsaw for the ancient town of Kazimiercz and then went by bus through the evening gloom to visit an East-West work camp that the CCIVS had special hopes for – “a practical example of co-operation by young people from different political backgrounds”. I was to evaluate it and rather hoped to prepare a glowing report. The bus dropped us off in thick mist by a single street lamp and disappeared. We were alone. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we made out the dark forms of buildings that proved to be the work camp centre.

Next morning, we marched along with the volunteers, through the mist, turned off the main road and eventually stopped – in the middle of nowhere. We unloaded picks and shovels from the barrows and headed off in one direction or the other until each person was nearly out of sight of the next – Sigyn a darkish shape thirty meters away. Then we began. Instructions were simple: clear the ditch and throw the earth away from the road into a field.  Around noon, we ate sandwiches, then carried on till four.

On the way back, I asked a girl from Czechoslovakia and a lad from Spain about our road – where did it lead to, why was the work needed? They answered, ‘Don’t know. It just disappears into the mist.’ And at base camp, I could get no explanation. There were no plans, no sketch maps. After our evening meal the volunteers chatted quietly; a few gathered round as Sigyn and I described what a work camp should be like, properly prepared and led in a democratic, imaginative spirit. But this project had only a few days left to run, and the volunteers just wanted to get away. It was the worst work camp I ever came across, before or since.

Partly because of this, but mainly because Sigyn and I still wanted very different things out of life, our onward journey to East Berlin was not a happy one. We separated with a hug, Sigyn sadly clinging on to me, and I feeling dreadful but determined. She then headed back to Sweden, to teach again in one of the poorest districts of Gothenburg, while I carried on to Paris, to the boat, to Indira and to my hectic but fulfilling job.

1963

The early 1960s saw a major change in the nature of international volunteering. Up till then, most youth volunteer work had occurred in work camps lasting two or three weeks – and this system continued for decades afterwards. But President John Kennedy then inspired several generations of Americans to think in terms of serving abroad, in the so-called developing countries, for two years or more. In fact, this formula had been successfully pioneered by several non-governmental organisations such as the British-based Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), but the U.S. government initiative was on a vastly greater scale. It was a programme soon to be copied by the French, the Germans, the Japanese, the Dutch, the Canadians and a number of other countries.

Soon, many thousands of young motor mechanics, vets, nurses, agriculturalists and building engineers were stepping onto the tarmac of airports throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, sometimes to the consternation of their hosts, for the supply proved often greater than the hosts’ capacity to put it to use. Time and again, surplus volunteers were absorbed as teachers, often ending up teaching a subject about which they knew little or nothing. With no alternative jobs, it was simply assumed that anyone can teach.

Much of the year I spent corresponding with the CCIVS member organisations in the Third World, and their reports were increasingly critical of the new wave of volunteering. We tried to organise a conference for sending organisations to raise these criticisms and to get the concept of long-term volunteer service brought under the United Nations, but our efforts collapsed. The CCIVS was seen as too radical by Western governments, and anyway, they wanted their own programmes for their own ends.

We then asked the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust in York if it would sponsor me on an 18 month survey of volunteers in Africa and Asia and the Trust agreed.

One of my regular pleasures on a Saturday morning was to visit the Marché aux Puces (Flea Market) at the Porte de Clignancourt. There, you could find just about anything at knock-down prices and much of Geneviève’s equipment – ropes, riding lights, sou’westers and even a huge anchor – came from this wonderful place. (Later, Sigyn and I bought our engagement rings there. They were of aluminium: to be used as templates for the rings of gold I wanted to make for our wedding.) One day, at the marché – for no particular reason, except that it looked impressive – I bought a magnificent old stamp, the kind one uses for rubber stamping documents, although this was not rubber, but of etched steel with a mahogany handle. Oval in shape, it bore the words Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez round the bottom, with the same words (presumably) in Arabic around the top. Between, was an etching of the canal itself, with a liner steaming along, palms on each bank, sand dunes and Pyramids in the distance. I took it back to the CCIVS office, where it was admired for a week and then forgotten.

Forgotten – until April 1st 1963, when I happened upon it, and a small devil in my mind hit on the idea of sending a spoof letter to the headquarters of Service Civil International (SCI), a work camps organisation in Berne with branches in several European countries. My letter went something like this:

Compagnie UNIVERSELLE du Canal MARITIME de Suez

1st April, 1963

Dear Sirs,

As you will be aware, traffic on the Suez Canal is much reduced following the Anglo-French military action in 1956, with several sunken vessels remaining as a hindrance to navigation.

After extensive research, our Company calculates that if the canal were widened by only two metres, most normal shipping could resume once more, to the benefit of all concerned.

If your young volunteers could undertake this task, it would encourage Peace, Friendship and International Understanding throughout the world.

Faithfully yours,

Ferdinand de Lesseps

I stamped it with the company seal and posted it to SCI in Berne – confident that our Swiss friends would enjoy the April fool’s joke. If anything, I felt, it was rather too obvious.

In July, I arrived slightly late at a committee meeting of SCI and was aghast to see a document headed, ‘Agenda item 7: Widening of the Suez Canal – Preparatory Report’. It was all systems go: the French could send 20 volunteers, the British 20, the Dutch 15. The German branch would provide digging equipment, kitchen utensils and tents…  Only one problem: the Suez Canal Company itself had still not answered questions concerning technical details, timing and finance.

I felt quite sick and thought frantically as the meeting went on. The Suez Canal Project had to be stopped dead in its tracks before SCI wasted any more time and money. Was there some ingenious way of getting out of this mess? If so, it escaped me. So, when they reached agenda item seven, and having thought up no clever plan to extricate myself, I broke in lamely, ‘Mister Chairman, perhaps I should explain…’

They were not amused – not by an April 1st joke, not by the farcical nature of the original letter or it being signed, ‘Ferdinand de Lesseps’. I was severely reprimanded for my irresponsible behaviour.

In the summer and autumn, I was constantly travelling by train to meetings in Europe, Arthur was away for longish periods in South America running courses for work camp organisers, and by October, although we had new helpers joining the team, I was becoming exhausted. The following month, fatigue turned to downright depression. Everything seemed to demand too much effort to be worth doing. The prospect of heading off to Africa and Asia for two years – initially exciting – had now become a sick feeling, especially when I considered the economics of the journey. UNESCO had given me a Youth Travel Grant, basically an air ticket that took me from one country to another, capital city to capital city, but covered no internal travel. The Joseph Rowntree grant was to cover all local journeys, accommodation and all other living costs. It worked out at a mere US$5 a day.   Friends and colleagues noticed that I was not myself and tried to cheer me up, but I simply could not respond and, knowing that they meant well, I felt even worse about being so resolutely low. I felt particularly bad at not responding to Indira’s gentle encouragement, especially as we were soon to part when she returned to India at the end of the year. And then something wonderful happened that I still cannot explain. I sometimes tell myself: Yes, it certainly occurred, but could it really have been so ineffable?

One afternoon, I started to feel well again – more than well, incredibly happy. Next morning the joy was still there, even more intense. Colours around me became radiant and the most trivial thing – a paper clip on the floor, a leaf, a door handle – took on great significance. I was amazed, and I watched myself being amazed. I was simply in love with the world. As night fell, I dreaded that when I woke up next day, the buoyant feelings would be gone. But, no, next morning they stayed on, powerful as ever, and I lived one more wonderful day in what a man of God would call a state of Grace, what a psychiatrist might put down to a bi-polar period, or what the police might suspect was a drug-induced condition. Since my first and last experience of narcotics occurred four months later in the Sahara Desert, I can rule out the drugs theory – unless a friend was putting something into my coffee. This, I doubt, as nobody among my acquaintances took drugs – apart from Arthur’s cigarettes and our regular bottles of cheap red wine (which I did not drink, being still in my teetotal year – though that was coming to an end).

The following morning, my joyous state had indeed evaporated, but I did not plunge back again into gloom. The experience left me mystified, grateful to have lived it, but now calm and ready to get on with the next big adventure.

December was extraordinarily busy, with much to do before I flew to Algeria early in January.  Arthur, too, was to leave CCIVS, to begin work in the Youth Division of UNESCO. We finished off all the tasks we could and handed over to a new fellow, Benny Dembitzer. Benny – who had experienced the horrors of Nazi imprisonment as a child – had a seething volcano of energy burning within him. Privately, we wondered if he would stay the course as he seemed to have several unresolved issues driving him along. In the event, he stayed the course, and how! After the CCIVS, he married an Ethiopian girl and worked in various projects for genuine “development-on-a-human scale” for the next fifty years – and I believe he is still going strong.

The other person to join the CCIVS at this time was my old friend from L.S.E. Drama Society, Martin Dyas, Fishkin in Jim Dandy and one of the troupe that toured Spain with the York Mystery Plays. He was the best character actor and the funniest person I have ever known. The more we laughed with him, the more he would laugh, quite often ending up on the floor, his legs kicking the air like an upturned beetle.

One dark afternoon, a week before Christmas, Arthur, Indira and I spent a couple of hours on Geneviève, my small wood-burning stove warming the cabin and an oil lamp adding to the cosiness. We were soon to part, Indira to Delhi, I to Africa and Arthur to start his new job with the Youth Division in UNESCO, so we were excited and yet a little sad. The boat rocked and jerked. The Seine in flood, its swirling brown waters, pouring through the arches of le Pont de la Concorde, tugged Geneviève at the end of her mooring lines.

When it was time to leave, Arthur hoisted himself up onto the quayside – with some difficulty, as it was nearly five feet above deck level – and we were left wondering how to get the petite Indira ashore. We decided that I should lift her by her waist, Arthur would catch her under the armpits and so raise her onto the quay.  I lifted, Arthur caught her, but simply hadn’t the strength to get up off his knees lifting fifty kilos of gorgeous young woman. A new problem arose: the more I strained to lift Indira higher, the more my feet pushed the boat away from the wall, until I was angled at perhaps 70 degrees. The flooding river surged and bubbled beneath us. My back was in agony, but if we fell into those waters, swept away into mid-stream and darkness, I doubted either of us would survive.

Then the mooring ropes reached their limit, with Geneviève now three feet away from the wall. Arthur guaranteed that he could hold Indira alone for a minute while he stayed on his knees, so I shoved myself upright and scrambled to tighten the mooring lines, fore and aft. With Geneviève once more solidly beneath Indira, she dropped back on board. Had those ropes been a little slacker… we felt sick thinking of the consequences.

Our second attempt, with the boat firmly secured, went without a hitch.

Christmas came. I cleared my desk at rue Franklin and said goodbye to the many friends I had made in Paris, and headed back to spend the festive season with my parents in Manchester, inviting Arthur to join us, as he had done the year before.

I remember nothing of how we spent those winter days, except that my mother – as we sat round the dining room table for Christmas dinner – announced, ‘Now isn’t this nice? And to celebrate, let’s share what’s left of the bottle of the champagne that Arthur brought over with him last Christmas. It would be a shame to waste it!’

A week or two later, I flew out to Algeria to begin my survey of long-term volunteers in twenty countries of Africa and Asia.

Next chapter: Nine: Africa survey

Return to contents: Memoir chapters