The sun-drenched elsewhere: Learning to fly in Mozambique

Recently I wrote a poem following one of Jo Bell’s 52 poem prompts. The prompt was “first time” and, easily discounting the obvious, I wrote about a time, almost ten years’ ago, in Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago, when I found myself at the controls of a small plane. My friend Amanda, over at Amanda’s Circus, who is also following the prompts, read the poem and wanted more details. So, adapted from my diary at the time, Amanda, this is for you:

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I don’t much like flying – especially not in small planes where there is so little separating one from all that empty space. This pilot, with his clipped South African accent, young man’s confident grin and long fingers picking at a plate of peri peri cashew nuts says he has the answer. What I need, apparently, is the joystick in my hand.

His plane is a Piper Cherokee, a tiny thing that might have been plucked from a toy box and dropped here, on this sandy strip of runway between the Indian Ocean and the palm trees that seal off Pemba’s old town. Somewhere out there, across the glassy water is the Quirimbas Archipelago. I wonder if I mightn’t prefer to stay in Pemba, even if it means no migratory humpbacks, turtles or dugong. But the pilot is quick to dispatch us to our places: my husband to the seat behind his; a big man with a smile that’s too small for his face, to the back; and me to the co-pilot’s seat. In front of me is a joystick which, it transpires, isn’t a joystick at all but a thing called a yoke.

The switch-flicking that comprises the pre-flight checks is followed by the roar of the engines, so loud and physical it seems to set every cell of my body vibrating. We bounce along the runway, blurring the sea to turquoise opacity. Just as it appears that we must run out of sand, the nose of the plane lifts and, halfway to vertical, the rest follows.

Levelled out again, between blue sky and green sea, the pilot lowers his visor against the glare of the sun striking the water. He twists round in his seat and assures the passengers the hardest part is behind us. The smile on the man at the back of the plane becomes rictus-like. He’s guessed what is to come and is rightly terrified. From somewhere I hear the words: put your hand on the yoke.

It thrums with the movement of the plane and resists more than I expect. Turn it to the left, I’m told. I do so and the aircraft rolls beneath us, the space that its fuselage shaded giving up two dhows, their white sails catching the same air that holds us aloft.

Below, lines of green so dark they’re almost black are the deep water channels along which the humpbacks migrate. Pushing the yoke forwards, as instructed, the darkness lurches towards us, shoving the sky out of the way. I shake my head and the pilot, still grinning, pulls back on his own yoke to lift the plane. Released, I look down at the patchwork of tiny islands Mozambique’s civil war so long kept for the cartographers. Soon one of them will resolve into the mangrove-fringed, baobab-studded bit of earth where we are to land but for now, for once, I’m happy here, suspended between sea and sky – and resolutely not at the controls.

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William Faulkner Taylor – part 2

Born in 1890 in Leicester, William Faulkner Taylor was the second son of William and Emilie. In 1906, the whole family apart from the eldest son, George (usually known by his middle name of Harold), emigrated to Canada. They settled in the prairie town of Senlac, Saskatchewan and established themselves as farmers. Ten years’ later in 1916, William Faulkner Taylor, now 26 years’ old, enlisted with the 46th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry (Saskatchewan Regiment) and set sail for England. By August, after a few weeks in a training camp in Hampshire, he was on his way across the Channel. I’ve already posted one of the first letters he sent “home”, to his brother, Harold, in England. However Harold was soon also to enlist – in the Royal Engineers – and William began writing instead to Dorothy, his sister-in-law.

Belgium, August 29th

“Dear Dorothy,

Just a few lines to let you know that I am alright, we came out of the trenches last night, after an eight days [sic] stay there, we have been to the trenches twice now the first time we were only there for two days, we are out behind the lines now in a rest camp for a little while. It was fairly quiet while we were in the trenches all but one day & then it was rather interesting for a while. Fritz kept us busy dodging a few things that the boys call rum jars but I didn’t think there was much rum about them. I got a letter from Sis the other day & one from her intended & I got one from Laura since I have been over here. Tell granddad I will write to him soon & tell Harold to send me his address will you, well I think this is all now so good by

Will”

 

Sis, more properly known as Frances, and Laura, were Bill’s sisters, back home in Canada. This is the only letter, at least that I have, in which Bill signs himself “Will”. Maybe I’m being fanciful but it’s tempting to imagine the young man who had so recently exchanged the green prairies of Canada for the devastated, shell-swept farmland of northern Europe trying out a new nickname to fit his new reality.

France, Sep 25/16

“Dear Dorothy,

                        I received your welcome letter last week, just about half an hour after I posted that last letter to you. Well we are in a different part of the country now, we were on the march the last three days of last week & we are away from the trenches now, we are billeted in a little village, this is a fine country & all the people around here are fine, different altogether to where we were before. You were pretty lucky to be able to go & stay close to Harold it would be quite a holiday. Well Dorothy I want you to do something for me if you will please, I am enclosing a ten shilling note & I would like you to get me two dozen Gillett safety razor blades & send them to me as soon as you can, we never get into a big enough place to be able to get them over here. I think this is all now so good bye

                                                                                                                        Bill

PS You asked me what kind of tobacco I smoke so that you could send me some, thanks very much but I get all the smokes that I can use mother sent me some & we get issued every week with tobacco [sic] & cigarettes, but I wouldn’t mind if you would send me a cake or something like that.”

 

France,

Dec 6 / 16

“Dear Dorothy,

This is the first time I have had a chance to write to thank you for the pipe  & watch. I got them about ten days ago. When we got them we were living up to our knees in mud, but we are alright now, we have been on the march for eight days & we are billeted now in a small town quite a way from the trenches & believe me it’s great to be back in something like civilisation again. We were just seven weeks on the Somme & I don’t want to go there again.

Well Dorothy, that pipe you sent me is a dandy, I couldn’t have got one to suit me better if I had picked it myself & the watch is doing fine, so I am very much obliged to you. I am going around town tonight to see if I can’t get you an Xmas present.

We were all going to get leave, we heard, about a week ago. One man out of our section did go, & now we hear today that it is cancelled, so I am afraid I won’t be able to see those three girls, that’s tough luck, eh what.

Tell Harold when you write to him that he hasn’t reached the limit yet by a long way, sleeping in a wagon under a tarpaulin is quite comfortable to what he will get when he gets over here.

I don’t know what’s happened to the mail. I haven’t heard from home for three weeks, but I might get some letters any time now that we are settled for a few days.

My chum got badly wounded the last afternoon we were in the trenches, he was only about two yards from me when a bullet hit him, went in his shoulder & out through his back. It broke his collar bone & his lungs were touched. I haven’t heard anything about him yet whether he lived or not. He was a Sheffield boy.

Well I think this is all this time so I will close with love

Bill

PS A merry Xmas & a happy new year.

I have just been around town trying to find something to send to you & I couldn’t find anything just to suit me. I wanted to get a silk apron but they were all sold out so I decided to buy you enough silk goods to make a blouse. I hope you will like it, I had some time around town in the shops. I went into quite a few before I got suited. You ought to have seen some of the things those girls fetched out for me to look at. At last I found a place where the girl could sling a little English& there was a fellow with me that could sling a little French so we got on fine & this silk is what she persuaded me to buy.

I have just had a letter from Harold & one from mother. All the folks at home are quite well. Mother says she hasn’t heard from you for a long time. Well this is all now. Good by dear.

Bill” 

 

France Dec 11/16

“Dear Dorothy,

Got your letter yesterday, & posted one to you the day before, as usual. Some lecture you gave me, but don’t worry dear I’ll be good. Say I hope you are right about someone waiting for me & I hope she is just like you.

Bill”

The short note above was written inside a hand-stitched Christmas card. I can’t imagine where he got it from or how he kept it safe. And I wish I knew the history behind these three sentences.

One hundred years’ on: poppies, the Battle of the Somme & William Faulkner Taylor

 

 

On Friday I was dog-walking on the chalk fields around my home. At their fringes, where the farmer has left off with his sprays, the oil seed rape is woven with grasses, small scabious, bird’s foot trefoil – and poppies. I stopped and photographed them, and thought of one soldier in particular: my great-great uncle, William Faulkner Taylor, who had arrived from Canada almost exactly 100 years’ earlier, at the end of June 1916. He’d pitched up not so very far from me, in a training camp in Bramshott, Hampshire, to await his passage to France. He didn’t yet know it but the Somme was to be his bloody baptism.
“July 2nd 1916

Dear Harold,

I arrived in England last Thursday. I have been hoping to be able to come up to see you before we go to France, but the Colonel told us this morning at church parade that it was impossible to grant any leave at all because they want to rush us through & get us ready to go to France sometime in August, he said the only passes that he could give us were from noon on Saturday until ten o’clock on Sunday night & that wouldn’t be any use at all. I went home for a day before we left Canada & everybody was quite well when I was there, we left Saskatoon on the 12 of June. We were inspected yesterday by the King about 8 miles from here & believe me it was some march with a full pack after doing nothing but sit around for nearly 3 weeks, we were away at 6 in the morning & didn’t get back until six at night & were pretty tired boys. Have you enlisted yet or what are you doing, I suppose this letter will find you if you are not at home, I have been wondering if you have enlisted and are by any chance camped anywhere around here, if so we could arrange to see one another somewhere. Well, I think this is all now I will write again as soon as I hear from you.

Your dearly beloved little chip, Bill”

Eight days

Eight days’ ago, my writing “to do” list looked something like this:

-Refine elevator pitch for The Gardener’s Boy

-Rewrite synopsis

-Tailor cover letter to agents

-Wait for kind beta readers to return said novel covered in corrections and suggestions

-Catch up on the last three poems for the “52 poems project”

-Write travel piece on flying a light aeroplane in Mozambique

What I’ve actually achieved is more like:

-Flood Facebook and Twitter with dozens of incredulous/furious/sorrowful posts about, yes, Brexit

-Shout at the television and radio

-Read everything I could find on why why goddamnit why this has happened and where we might go next other than hell in a handcart

-Talk until my jaw stopped working to everyone I know who shares my stupefied horror.

And that last point is becoming the crux for me. I happen to live in one of the very few places in England which returned a majority remain vote. Most of my friends are remainers. Likewise, bar one person, so are my family and in-laws. I also spent over a decade working at an international law firm. Its clients – largely from the financial sector, FTSE 100 and comparable foreign-listed companies – tended to be international in set-up and global in outlook. We had offices in over a dozen countries and I was fortunate enough to spend time in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Ireland as part of my job. I made friends from all over Europe, some of whom are still very dear to me. And I ended up feeling very European. It is as much a part of my identity – maybe even a little more so right now – as my Britishness. Learning that my legal identity as a European is to be removed feels rather like bereavement: the disbelief, the growing anger and first-thing-to-greet-me-in-the-morning sorrow is uncanny in its similarity.

With an EU-focussed jobs, as mine was, I learned a good deal about how that sprawling, gargantuan organisation works. I am aware of how desperately it needs reforming in some aspects. I am also aware of how much of a force for good it is. I discounted half the headlines I caught sight of, particularly if they were in The Sun: everything from wonky bananas to EU legislation not being scrutinised by the UK Parliament before being adopted. I had an idea of just how much money was ploughed into deprived regions of the UK such as the Welsh Valleys, Cornwall and, yes, Sunderland. I knew just how much our financial services’ sector – our main export nowadays, for want of a better description – relies on being able to operate across EU markets thanks to the “passporting” scheme. I understood that in these days of increasing globalisation, more and more countries are forming trading blocs and that trying to negotiate with one of these as a single state might be a little like chucking someone down a crevasse and expecting them to haul themselves up again with no rope or crampons.

I can’t remember not seeing the risibility in the argument that Britain was just fine and dandy before the EU and so could be again. Hark back 120 years and we were riding on the bowed shoulders of an empire that rightly no longer exists but that, while it did, supplied us with low cost raw materials while we, in turn, forced them to buy our manufactured goods at prices that suited us better than them. Moving forward a little further, were the two world wars, both of which had their genesis in Europe. Quite aside from the human cost, those wars left us, and the rest of Europe, financially devastated. Once aid from the US-funded Marshall Plan stopped in 1952, it was still a long haul back into the black. Thankfully we had a strong manufacturing and mining industry. That’s all gone now, driven to obsoletion by lower priced competition from developing nations. And here’s the bit I let my London-centric, left-leaning, liberal, all-friends-together bubble blind me to: all those devastated communities, whose jobs and hope seeped away as mine after mine and factory after factory closed did not feel the same as me about what the EU had given them. Why should they? In what way did their lives bear any similarity to mine? Angry, bitter and increasingly disenfranchised by a political system that never fails to look after its own, who should be surprised that millions of those people voted out last week? It was the first chance they’d had to have a voice and to make that voice count – even if they were shouting the wrong way and at the wrong people.

The immigration issue that appears to have exercised so many people is too depressing to spill many words over. But this “fear of the other” that is apparently so entrenched in so many communities and that people seemed to have misunderstood, or been denied the information to help them understand, that the free trade they so desire to keep is, according to the current rules governing the EEA and EFTA, entirely unachievable without free movement of labour – the one thing that is abhorred above all else – makes me feel a sick stranger in what its supposed to be my own country. I am furious with the disingenuous, self-serving leave campaign that not only failed to deliver the facts but that flooded its recipients with hopeful lies. And I’m starting to find fury with the remain campaign, with myself, for not finding some better way of explaining all of this, with making some attempt to engage those people who felt they no longer mattered.

So we are where we are. And, frankly, it’s as if the grown-ups have gone away for good and left us to re-enact our very own Lord of the Flies. The Government exists in name only, prominent Leave supporters are falling over themselves to knife each other in the back, one individual who decimated our education and prison systems and spent years telling us “I can’t be leader, I’d be no good, I can’t be leader” is now asking his party to elect him, and the opposition is rapidly turning itself into a cult. No wonder the Irish embassy has just asked eligible UK citizens to hold off applying for passports as its systems shook under the weight of applications already received. No wonder China is holding us up as an example of why democracy does not work.

Where now? Where now? There has to be something beyond posting memes on Facebook, signing petitions and worrying over our children’s future. Who is going to show us what that is?