an alternative celebration: Zanzibar Day!

my dear papa!
My father, Henry, is a born story teller. He doesn't tell jokes, but he does tell tales of the places he's been, what he has seen and the people he has met. Since it is Fathers' Day today, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to share one of my favourite tales. I often talk about my father. Obviously he has been a big influence on me, not least in some of my tastes in food and drink. So this, as they say, is Henry's story; his celebration. It is not strictly about food, but drink was most definitely involved.  

There are some people (well me actually) who are suffering a little bunting fatigue. I am definitely flagging (and I may have mentioned before how I feel about flags!) I am exhausted by the whole Jubilee thing (and sick of the bloody rain) and in England, we still have Euro 2012 to look forward to (or not), and then there is the absolute horror of London 2012 in a few weeks, with it's opening ceremony which I can only suggest sounds like a dance interpretation of Widecombe Fair; Uncle Tom Cobley and all! I am afraid to say that I am already a little sick of the old red, white and blue.

I have never felt less like celebrating. I might still be upset that I lost my Union Jack flag way back when. Besides, Team GB has quite pointedly not called me up to do my Olympic food duty and the Olympic Committee has failed to take up my retro suggestion of competitive cooking and eating as an Olympic sport. It is possible that I am feeling a little peeved by the whole thing. But despite my bah humbug state of mind, I would like to offer you an alternative celebration that I learned about from one of Henry's tales.

While friends and family have entertained me for years with tales of derring-do and monumental achievements, my favourites are always Henry's self-deprecating accounts of heroic failure, tinged with his wry, dry humour and an acceptance of life's vagaries; the joy of serendipity and an appreciation of the absurd. All of which are rounded off with Henry's trademark shining blue eyes, mock serious at times and topped with his idiosyncratic roar of laughter.

There is something rather wonderful about growing up surrounded by stories. I loved the familiarity of repetition. It's a bit like listening to your favourite poem or song, where there is always a bit that you remember, can repeat, chorus or just sing along to. Henry is an entrancing story teller; like an actor he knows how to pace the tale, a slow drawl at times, interspersed with his clipped, enunciated words - his stories are a sort of comfort blanket and they envelop you with his thrilling love of language and humour.

Henry was in the army in Malaya you know. Not in that Ermintrude-the-Cow from The Magic Roundabout, "I was in the Army in Malaya, Dear Heart" kind of a way; chewing the cud and infuriating Dougal the pompous dog with her bovine calm, although I am sure that Henry liked to play on the absurdity of this. No, his involvement like many young men in the British Army in Malaya in the 1950s was actually a little more serious. Of this almost forgotten war, the Malayan Emergency, the British and Malay armies were fighting Communist terrorists in the jungles of Malaya.

I heard someone once ask my father why he never talked about the fighting. "Because it is not funny" said Henry firmly. His stories are about fighting local flora and fauna, and wrestling with leeches and mosquitoes rather than guerrilla warfare.

At 22, as a young English officer seconded to a Malay regiment, if he wasn't quite sure how their jungle encampment one morning was surrounded by the footprints of a large cat, only to be told that his sergeant had magical powers and could turn himself into a panther at night and patrol the perimeter, keeping all the men safe, then Henry wisely kept that to himself.

Henry realised very quickly that his men were eating rather better than he was and took their advice on what foodstuffs to take into the jungle. During Rest + Recreation, he would nip down to the local markets to load up on interesting spice mixes, rather than face another dose of British Army rations. Fortunately, his men taught him how to cook curries too. I am not convinced that left to his own devices that Henry would have survived his own cooking. During trips off-base, Henry discovered the joy of the night stalls and was introduced to steaming bowls of spicy noodles - to this day, he has never met a noodle he didn't like.

While Henry liked to indulge in his twin passions of reading and listening to music, he also found time to watch a few films. On the base, they frequently showed a lot of American films and my father got to indulge his love of slapstick and surreal humour, in particular the wily scoundrel behaviour of Sergeant Bilko, who never is never entirely successful in his schemes but always manages to get one over on his superior officer, Colonel Hall.

Henry's commanding officer was a popular man and was much missed when ill health forced a temporary return to Blighty. His temporary replacement did not fill his men with such affection. "What was wrong with him?" I asked innocently. "Oh darling," said Henry, shaking his head a little dolefully. "He was just . . . such . . . a . . . shit!" Damning words indeed.

One afternoon, the junior officers were down in the officers' mess fortifying themselves with life enhancing liquids. While this was not in itself unusual, the sun had not yet gone over the yard arm, which was.

The door to the officers' mess swung open. The temporary commanding officer stalked in and was immediately confronted with the evidence of what happens when a boisterous bunch of young officers have been hitting the booze well before sundown. The Officious Little Shit, drew himself up, and demanded "What is the meaning of this?"

Crikey!

Quick thinking, Henry leapt to his feet and saluted the OLS. He gracefully pirouetted to salute the portrait of our young queen, returning at ease to smile sleepily and reply with some equanimity. "Don't you know, Sah? It's Zanzibar Day!" At which point he raised the glass he was still clutching and cheered "Zanzibar Day!"

Henry's partners-in-crime managed to stagger to their feet too. Raising their glasses high and somewhat unsteadily, chorusing merrily, "Zanzibar Day!"

Like Sergeant Bilco's C.O., the Officious Little Shit suspected he was being "had"; he just hadn't worked out the detail. The OLS muttered "Very good, carry on" and turned on his officious heels and left the building, followed by cheers of "Zanzibar Day!" resounding in his ears.

But like the OLS, I too didn't know what was going on, despite the roars of laughter as Henry told this story. One day, when I was about twelve years old, I finally asked Henry "But Daddy, what is Zanzibar Day?"

Henry looked at me, blue eyes bright with mischief, yet looking a little downcast. He shook his head in mock sorrow. "Oh darling, don't you know? Every day is Zanzibar Day!"

So I ask you to raise you glasses and give a great big cheer, for Zanzibar Day could be just around the corner!

postscript:
I read a rough draft of this post to Henry, who declared "Oh darling, it wasn't quite like that" before adding "but I do like your version". Cheers, dad!

I was certain that this story might be an armed services equivalent of a child on the first day at school being taken to see the goldfish in school loos, by older kids. Basically, I suspected that it was one of those stories that did the rounds of all the services. So over the last ten or so years, every time I have met a member of the armed forces, whether current or retired, I have told them this story. "No," each told me. "That's not one of ours, but by god, I wish it was!"

3 comments:

  1. Hear, hear! And selfishly, I am not ready to be an orphan! Besides, every time I see him I learn something new . . . last weekend he mentioned offhandedly something about meeting White Russians in Hong Kong . . . wha? Now he tells me. Can't wait to hear how it turns out!

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  2. What a lovely story! Damning words indeed. Here's to more stories in the future.

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