SIX: AUSTRIA AND ISRAEL

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: FIVE: SWEDEN AND BEYOND

After that first workcamp, I wanted more of the same and learned that a cousin of mine, Hazel Rawcliffe, helped to organise Quaker Workcamps at her office in Friends House in London. Within weeks, I was on a new project near Tonypandy in South Wales, refurbishing a miners’ community centre, and during the course of this camp I heard that the British United Nations Association (UNA) needed volunteers to help rebuild a youth hostel in Port Said, damaged in the Anglo-French assault on Suez in 1956.

In September, I joined a group of young people near Linz in Austria assembled before going out to Egypt. For two weeks we worked with refugees from Hungary who had fled the Soviet invasion of 1956. In Austria, they had lived in decrepit wooden barrack blocks, but wanted to build proper houses for themselves. The three things I remember best about this work were the incredibly hot paprika in our lunchtime sandwiches, which brought tears to English eyes, the strength of the middle-aged Hungarian women who, effortlessly, pushed wheelbarrows filled with wet concrete up narrow planks on the building site – putting us youngsters to shame as we struggled with half their loads – and a tall, lanky, bearded Swede by the name of Martin Gellerstam, who was to become a life-long friend.

ray and pete bedroom

Ray and Pete in bedroom

 

A wearisome train ride through Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece brought ten of us down to Athens where we slept for several nights on the roof of a boarding house. It was cheaper that way, and cooler, and the stars above us had a startling brilliance. Less brilliant, when it came, was a telegram from London: PORT SAID WORKCAMP CANCELLED. ALL VOLUNTEERS PLEASE RETURN HOME. Six of our group went along with this, but four of us felt that we had come so far – the furthest we had ever been from home in our lives – and why should we now return with nothing achieved? Martin, I and two other friends, Ray and Pete, went down to the Port of Piraeus to see what we could find. There, coming down a street, guitar in hand, strolled an American. I, too, had mine, so naturally we stopped and chatted, and I learned that he was just back from a kibbutz in Israel. ‘You can easily find work there,’ he urged. ‘No pay, but you’ll be fed and housed and given everything you need. It’s an amazing country, and if you avoid the strict, religious kibbutzim you’ll experience a great atmosphere with cultured, intelligent people’.

With three watermelons (saving funds!) as our only food for the two-day voyage we took deck passage on a ship to Haifa and soon found employment at the Matsuva kibbutz, high in the hills close to the Lebanese border. A truck drove us out each morning, early, before it grew too hot to work in the fields. Even so, we worked hard. Picking oranges sounds romantic, but the trees had inch-long, sharp thorns and our arms soon bled. Propping up banana plants sounds even more exotic and Martin was tall and strong, but the bunches of fruit weighed many kilos and we had to whack each plant with a stick to drive off small, green, venomous snakes that nestled in the bunch of bananas. Emptying a hangar of its large flock of hens took most of one day and was particularly smelly.

martin and banana plant

Martin props up a banana plant

 

However, our Piraeus guitar friend was right: the people living on the kibbutz, the kibbutzniks, were impressively organised, articulate, hard-working and cultured. I found it wonderful to be loading a trailer, for example, with an ex-refugee from Poland – now fit, well and brown as a nut, with a wife and two children on the kibbutz – who could offer me a copy of that week’s New Statesman because he’d already read it and was up to date with the British political and cultural scene.

Our kibbutz was liberal; we even worked on Saturdays, when necessary. We had our main meals communally in the big hall, but ate breakfast in our individual host-family’s cottage. We volunteers slept in wooden cabins, the children slept in dormitories, but enjoyed playing games and making music with their parents in the afternoons and evenings – probably sharing more time together than most children in a typical British home.

On the other hand, we four volunteers sensed that these liberal values did not extend so well to the Palestinian workforce employed in the fields. As we spoke no Hebrew or Arabic, we could not tell just what was said, but the body language, the lack of smiles, the tone of voice, often imperious, made us very uncomfortable. We tried to discuss this with our host-families and, though they were kindness itself to us, we hit a brick wall on this particular issue. ‘You are too new here to understand,’ was the general response.

Living at Matsuva was strange: we were given more or less everything we needed. Accommodation, food, work clothing, sports gear, airmail envelopes, stamps, all was free. Over a couple of months we adapted to the system, and it came as a culture shock on leaving Matsuva to be asked for small sheets of coloured paper and round metal tokens to obtain railway tickets to Jerusalem. It took a day or so to come to terms again with “money” – suddenly central to what we could, or could not, do.

Laden with rucksacks, we edged our way through the crowd at Jerusalem railway station and out into the dark evening rush hour, with cars and people pushing past. This ancient city steeped in conflict felt particularly mysterious, as Jews and Arabs – some wearing black Homburg hats and long dark overcoats, others invisible behind veils and flowing robes – hurried home for the night. The four of us watched nervously for a while, absorbing the scene but with no idea of what to do or where to go.  Suddenly, in this distant, unfamiliar place, an elderly man stopped on the pavement, then came up and peered at me more closely. ‘You must be Glyn Roberts’, he exclaimed. I was shaken. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, for I knew I had never in my life seen this man before. For a moment, I admit, I actually wondered if he possessed strange powers!

To cut a long story short, Mr. Steinitz was the father of a volunteer on the Bångbro workcamp and had seen photographs of me wearing the Swedish student’s cap that Göran had produced for the university ball in Uppsala. By chance, I was wearing that same cap as we stood in the Jerusalem twilight, but even so, what powers of recall! Mr. Steinitz did not know I was in the city, and to identify me in seconds on the strength of a few photos was an amazing feat. Our food and accommodation for that first night were assured.

bangbro camp

Michael Steiniz (right), Glyn and a French volunteer on the Bångbro camp

 

My own powers of recall are much weaker, as I remember little of Jerusalem apart from the usual sights: pale men and boys of the Orthodox Jewish faith in side-curls, long coats, black stockings and broad-brimmed Fedora hats, walking down the dusty side streets wearing their thick-lensed spectacles, carrying armfuls of books. Their sun-bronzed brothers and sisters back on the kibbutz seemed so much happier and full of vitality. The sight that impressed me most in Israel, I think, was that of their Parliament, the Knesset, its members dressed in short sleeved shirts, with no ties; a marked contrast to the stuffed suits in the British House of Commons. Many of them had a kibbutz background.

From Jerusalem, we all headed to another kibbutz at Ein Gedi, an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. There, we picked gherkins and peppers, a depressing job, as we had to pick specimens of a particular size, not too small and not too big. For a couple of weeks, we worked our way along the same tedious rows of plants, so long that they disappeared over the brow of a hill.

picking gherkins

Picking gherkins at Ein Gedi

 

Each morning, we would start again on the same rows and pick from the self-same plants. It was endless, back-breaking work, very hot after ten-thirty each morning and only partially relieved when we straightened our backs for an occasional rest. Then, Martin taught us short pieces of classical music that could be sung in four-part harmony. With the day’s work over, though, we could jog down to the Dead Sea to try out its wondrous buoyancy. We took care to keep the salty water, nearly as thick as oil, out of eyes, ears and mouth, and each naturally had the standard photo taken of himself, supine and only half-submerged, casually reading a book. But enjoyable it was not; the pleasure came in running back up the hill, jumping into a natural pool fed by a stream of fresh water, and washing off our salt-caked bodies.

The kibbutz folk, again, were kindness itself, providing all we needed, but Ray and I had more ambitious plans. Having tasted something of the Middle East, why not cross the Negev Desert, take a ship from Eilat and work our passage down the Red Sea to East Africa?

In Eilat, we could see ranges of mountains of purple, yellow, orange, green-grey and blue, in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. With a dazzling sun above and clear, inviting sea before us, we decided to swim before going round to the port to find a friendly captain. But no sooner had we swum a few yards than a general cry of ‘Shark!’ had us scrambling for the shore. A shark did indeed appear a hundred yards out, a curved dark fin slipping through the water. In the rush, I trod on a sea urchin, forgot the shark and spent the next hour prising black spines out of the sole of my foot.

Our luck did not change as Ray strode and I limped along the blistering concrete quayside. No ship was bound for East Africa, and had there been one in need of extra crew, we would each have to produce a deposit of £120, unless we were paid up members of a seaman’s union. The romantic days were long over, they advised us, when you could work your passage merely at the nod of the skipper or mate. At Eilat, then, we turned and began our long journey home to northern Europe, deeply disappointed not to have set foot on African soil. Today, I think it was a blessing in disguise.

Not that we made much progress over the next twenty-four hours. One Friday evening, we sat by an air strip on the edge of town hoping for a lift back to Beersheva, some 150 miles across the desert. Not a car picked us up, neither during the chilly night, nor all the next morning. We sat in the sand, looking out over the desert bleached by a glaring white sun. Everything shimmered, bushes, grasses, distant buildings. Then from nowhere – in one of the driest places on Earth – clouds piled up and the heavens opened in a tremendous downpour. But the sun reappeared, the asphalt steamed and we made model boats to float on a roadside pool. More hours passed – and then we realised: this was Saturday, the Shabbat, when people of Jewish faith are forbidden to travel or do any physical work until after nightfall. Slowly, the sun sank towards the western mountains and the heat abated.  Within minutes the desert chill had us shivering again.

We shivered, but our luck was about to change. Sometime around ten, a flat-bed truck offered us a lift across the desert. We clambered into the open back and bumped off into the night, tucked behind the cab, glad out to be out of the wind and jubilant to be leaving Eilat. But we were soon chilled to the marrow and by midnight we ached with cold, even wrapped in sleeping bags. At last the driver dropped us off in Beersheva where the air was wonderfully calm, warm, soft and sweet. We had no idea where to go, but finding ourselves in a small square that was somewhat yielding underfoot, we wriggled into our sleeping bags, burrowed down and slept well. At dawn, the shouts of drivers and snorts of their lanky beasts announced that we had bedded down in the Beersheva camel market and should now depart. We did, but bore no grudge. Over the years, I have slept on many a bed less comfortable than that mattress of fresh, soft camel dung.

Ray and Peter could afford to fly home. Martin and I, with no such funds, chose to go by sea and in Haifa bought remarkably cheap tickets for a Turkish ship bound for Marseille. The voyage itself was unremarkable apart from a couple of shore visits.

Our first stop in Italy was Naples, where we had a full day to spend. Martin went to Pompeii, while I was determined to take the funicular to the top of Vesuvius. On reaching the ticket office at the foot of the mountain, I found it locked and a faded notice to say that all was closed for the winter – office, funicular, path and volcano. It was only five days till Christmas and very cold, the upper half of the mountain lost in cloud. Beyond the flimsy wire fencing on either side of the gate I could see a path leading away into the mist, so I squeezed through and followed it up the slope.

bay of naples and vesuivius

Bay of Naples and Vesuvius

 

The path had clearly not been used for months. In parts, it had collapsed entirely, while other stretches were covered by mini-landslides of volcanic debris. As I walked and scrambled, an icy wind driving me up the slope, the buildings below grew small and faint until all vanished in the mist.

Perhaps an hour later, I began to skirt stretches of snow, the path long gone. I could see only a few yards, but upwards was the obvious way to climb. The angle of slithering pumice and lava blocks became ever steeper and I began to doubt the wisdom of carrying on in the gloom. Then, just minutes later, the ground levelled off and after a few yards it dropped abruptly into the crater.

path up vesuvius

The path up Vesuvius

 

There, vast crags appeared and vanished theatrically in the swirling cloud, grey at times, but sometimes dark as smoke. Smoke? Surely not – I had heard Vesuvius, unlike Stromboli and Etna, to be extinct. Now frozen by the wind, I sheltered behind a rock with my back to the crater, then crouched, and wriggled down an inch or two into the loose material. Suddenly, I felt a wondrous warmth suffusing my behind. I burrowed my fingers down. Vesuvius may not erupt, but that volcano is certainly alive!

Moments later, another drama: the clouds swept away – yes, “as if curtains had been drawn apart” – and the Bay of Naples stretched out before me: sea and land, ships and buildings, all sharp and clear. Full of wonder, perched on my seat in the Gods, I drank in the spectacle; presumably, the only person on Vesuvius that late December afternoon.

Our ship berthed for only four hours in Genoa, but I went ashore to get a feel of the city. Today, I remember nothing of it except for my lunch. I had entered a very ordinary trattoria, empty of customers, and ordered spaghetti Bolognese, the only recognisable item on the menu.  A signora took my order and conveyed it to il signore working in the kitchen, but all was not sweetness and light back there in la cucina. Muttered exchanges grew into louder shouts, in both directions. La signora brought my food, I tucked in – it was excellent – and the shouts and insults continued, now turning fortissimo. Suddenly the lady rushed out of the kitchen, crossed the room, collected knives and forks from a box and hurled handfuls at the open kitchen door. It might have been prudent to leave at this point but I was hungry and only half way through my meal, so I kept my head down and ate on. Il signore peeked out from the kitchen, only to duck back as another volley of cutlery flew through the air. Then la signora rushed back and the row continued for the rest of my meal, sometimes more violently, sometimes less. Yet when I called for the bill she emerged, calm and composed as a nun, and as I paid she gave me a brief smile.

At Marseilles, Martin and I regretfully decided to part. We had become great friends, and still are, but at that moment each needed to boost his chances by travelling alone. Two beardy hitch hikers together would not stand a chance. For me it worked immediately, but only as far as Valence. There, on the bleak outskirts of town, my luck ran out and I waited for hours by the roadside. Night had already fallen when a small Renault stopped and a man shouted, “I ‘ave passed you several times today. No one will pick you up now. I will take you back to Valence. There, you can sleep the night.”  Grateful, I climbed into his warm car and we headed into town, but it was soon clear that my driver was very drunk and had no idea what to do with me. We lurched up and down the empty streets, until he suddenly braked outside the Gendarmerie, marched me in and, breathing alcoholic fumes over the desk officer, demanded, “Monsieur le Gendarme, we need your pity, your compassion. This young man has come a long, long way. For the love of God provide him with….” The Gendarme grabbed him by the collar, took me by the rucksack and in one easy motion threw us out into the street.

My benefactor staggered to his car and drove off. I sought the railway station, planning to sleep in the waiting room, but could not get in without buying a railway ticket. This was out of the question; I needed my few remaining francs for the Channel crossing. The night that followed was particularly long, nibbling scraps of bread saved from ship’s breakfast and wondering how to cover the eight hundred kilometres to Boulogne. Once across that strip of water, I believed, I would be as good as back in Manchester. ‘Only get to England,’ a friend had once assured me, ‘and the Police are duty-bound to provide any distressed British traveller with funds to get home.’ These had to be repaid, naturally, but that could be sorted out later. Before leaving the station, I inquired the cost of a ticket, Valence-Boulogne: sixty five francs.

Valence: the morning before Christmas Eve, bright and very cold. I entered a music shop, offering to sell my guitar for a mere sixty five francs. But the instrument was scratched and they shook their heads. Back on the street, I found a strip of cardboard, wrote “BELLE GUITARE A VENDRE: 65 FRANCS”, stuck it through the guitar strings, and wandered on. Everywhere around me was festivity – happy crowds thronging the streets, shops full of colour and presents, Christmas decorations, a Salvation Army band playing in the square. Feeling helpless, I drifted towards the music, joined the audience and listened to a few carols, but moments later a uniformed man approached bearing a collection box. Ashamed, I sidled away, but he caught up and asked why I wanted to sell the guitar. I explained and to my huge relief he took it at the asking price. Within minutes, I was back at the station and soon on a train, grateful that my troubles were over. Since then, I have always had a soft spot for the Salvation Army.

Folkestone Harbour: 7.00 a.m., Christmas Eve – a dark, miserable, dripping dawn and I am looking for a policeman from whom to claim the £4 needed to reach Manchester. There’s never one when you need one – until, yes, over there, an actual P.C.! I hurry to him and explain that £4 should cover my travel costs nicely, but could he make it snappy please, as the London train will be leaving in fifteen minutes. He gives me the strangest look and puts me to rights about the Police (duties of), but then he adds, ‘Well go on, tell me your story.’ I pour out the saga, from Austria to Israel to Valence to Folkestone – and this Bobby, this wonderful British Bobby (who surely does a bit with the Sally Army in his spare time) says, ‘Well, you’ve got an honest face, so I’ll lend you four quid out of me own pocket.’

Manchester: 6 p.m., Christmas Eve. Dense fog. I’m on the bus to Prestwich – the last lap of a long journey – but the fog is so thick that the driver loses his route. Passengers shout, “Turn left at ‘t next one, driver!” and, “Nay, nay, lad. Keep on straight, then a LEFT at ‘t lights!” At last he finds his bearings and I get off at our stop: Butterstile Lane. A weary walk up the silent lane to Northwood, down the steps into our garden and up the path to our back door. A light is on in the kitchen. I don’t knock, but march straight in, and delight at seeing the astonished faces of my mother and father – who, till that moment, thought I was still in Israel.

(And, yes, I did return the Bobby his £4.)

NEXT CHAPTER: SEVEN: PARIS AND ARLIGS
CONTENTS: MEMOIR CHAPTERS