History Happens 1

1. "HISTORY HAPPENS"

Some people make history: For most of us, history just seems to happen.
(... Been there, done that, didn't know a thing about it!)


Looking back on my life, I seem to have been a bewildered spectator, an accidental and often undeserving party to events.

For instance, in the mid 1970s I went to a cocktail party in the Apolo Hotel in Kampala, which had been organised by the Uganda Pepsi Cola bottling company. It was to introduce a special guest of honour who, I had been told, was called “Pele” and, of course, I now realise there are thousands of sports fans who would have killed for the opportunity I had been given. As it was, I was introduced to this short and pleasant fellow and, as I shook his hand, my conversation went along the lines of: "Pleased to meet you, Mr Pele. Tell me, what do you do?"

With regard to mishaps, I am far from unique in our family. How I wish my irrepressible mother had left us a written record, although some of her published short stories do hold glimpses into her early life. The following are but a few of her many scrapes.

In the late 40s my mother worked as an assistant to Jasper Maskelyn, the third generation of a family of magicians whose name is revered in magic circles

Jasper’s grandfather, amongst other claims to fame, invented the stage illusion of levitation. He also invented the toilet door pay mechanism, thus becoming immortalised in polite English society by the expression “spend a penny”.

My mother would be sawn in half, made to levitate, passed through the eye of a needle, locked in a cabinet with swords being plunged through it and act as a clumsy dummy in assorted card tricks. Dumb and clumsy she was not! She could manipulate a deck of cards in the blink of an eye and even in her seventies she could still sit bolt upright on a chair in the full lotus position then bring her knees up to touch her forehead, her hands folded at her side and her entire body forming an unbelievably small, flat package. When that box on the stage was being sawn in half, she was genuinely in there - and had a scar to prove it from when, on one occasion, the act mis-timed and the saw actually nicked her. She bore another scar from when a sword, wielded by an overly enthusiastic member of the audience, was plunged into a cabinet before she had fully moved to her next posture inside it, using Jasper's coded "patter" to evade each sword thrust. She finished the act that night wearing a bright sash round her midriff.

History Happens 2

In 1950, when tarmac in most of Africa was an expensive rarity, normally seen only in the very centre of large towns, my 34 year old mother drove her car from Nairobi to Cape Town, taking part in a Jasper Maskelyn magic tour to the Cape and back.

Even today, with straightened roads and bridges over ravines, the driving distance is some 3,250 miles each way. In those days the journey was well over 4,000 miles and in places the “road” was merely a narrow track through the scrub, marked out by twin parallel paths where previous wheels had passed. During this trip, as she was driving down a steep cutting on the edge of a river bank she saw a lone wheel overtake the car and thought “Look! Someone’s lost a wheel,” before remembering that her battered Chevrolet was the only car in the vicinity! As the Chev tipped down and scraped along the ground, she managed to keep it from going over the edge, brought it to a stop and awaited the travelling troupe’s lorry.

Years later, my elder sister, Ingeborg, and my mother flew on holiday to South Africa. They arrived at midday and my sister wanted to go out that very night, but my mother decided to stay in the hotel, so my sister took a taxi and headed alone for the high spots. My mother retired to their room with a book. Towards midnight there was an urgent knocking sound on her hotel room door and, in her nightie, she opened it a fraction. The corridor was filled with smoke and lying on the floor outside her door was a fireman, breathing through a wet cloth.

"The hotel is on fire!" He told her. He came in, quickly shut the door behind him to keep out the smoke, then sternly asked, "Didn't you hear the alarm?"

"I think so," said she, ever the master of understatement, "But I didn't know what it was for so I ignored it."

Next day the Johannesburg papers sported a large photograph of an heroic fireman bearing a small woman in night attire down an extended fire appliance ladder, with a blazing hotel in the background. To her chagrin, my sister missed most of the fun, having returned shortly after her mother’s ignominious rescue.

Even in her old age, my mother was a passive participant in “incidents” One day, in Mojacar, she drove along the sea front to a “Dames in Spain” meeting in the next town, Garrucha. Out at sea there was a dark cloud, with a deep V shape in part of it. With my mother in her little Nissan were three portly ladies, one of them my mother-in-law, and about half way to Garrucha the V shape came ashore, the centre passing right over that little Nissan. A back window imploded, the wind howled in and the car shook and tried to take off, but was saved by being small and rounded and weighted down by three stout matrons.

History Happens 3

The tornado wreaked havoc inland, tearing roofs off buildings and, on a building site, even picking up a shipping container which had been converted into a site office. The container, complete with office equipment and a terrified secretary, landed some hundred yards away. The bruised and battered secretary suffered, I think, two broken bones. My mother meanwhile, stopped her car and asked in genuine puzzlement “What was that?” The four ladies then continued, unscathed, to the meeting.

It was just another anecdote to add to her immense stock, which included the time when, well into her seventies, necessity dictated that she take a freezing cold wee in the snow, ... by the side of the road, ... just below the crest of the highest mountain pass in the French Alps, ... during a blizzard. (Bless you, mother, you were unique.)

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My father too had narrow escapes. When he married for a second time he took his new bride skiing, which meant climbing to a glacier 16,000 feet above sea level on Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa. It's the sort of thing that any sane idiot does for his honeymoon. They made camp near a fresh mountain stream below the snow line, but above the tree line, and as well as skiing also went exploring. On one walk through the bush further down Mount Kenya, a buffalo took offence at my old man's presence. It charged, head lowered. Fortunately, most buffalo’s horns are quite wide apart and my father escaped a goring, but he was severely tossed a long way. By further good fortune he landed in the middle of an area of thick bush, which the buffalo couldn't penetrate. The beast circled for some hours but eventually gave up and my old man made good his escape, bruised but safe.

Another time, it was after it had become compulsory to have seat belts fitted in cars but before their use was mandatory, he was driving a Renault 4 van on his way back to Nairobi from Nakuru, 100 miles away. It was night and near the half way point, Naivasha, he was blinded by the headlights of an oncoming car that refused to dip, despite being "flashed". The moment the car was past he saw the the rear of an unlit tanker, badly parked at an angle on the verge but still jutting out a quarter of the way across the main road. He swerved but was too close to avoid the vehicle completely. Old tankers had a very high base, made of steel girders supporting the tank, and this base passed just above the bonnet, then ripped into the windscreen, demolishing the empty passenger seat and striking as far across the car as the left edge of the driver's seat. When I went to the accident site the next day I saw the Renault with its roof peeled back like the lid of a sardine tin, and both seats, rather bent, ripped off their fixings and lying in the back of the van.

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My father? He hadn’t been wearing his seat belt and recovered conciousness to find himself lying on the grass verge some way beyond the tanker, with the windscreen rubber round his neck. In some form of kinetic trickery he must have been catapulted over the end bit of the lorry, just missing the actual tank. He was taken to the local hospital, where his worst injury was found to be a nasty case of water on the knee.

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With antecedents such as these, I ask you, how could I possibly expect a quiet and mundane existence?


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