Blog #3. Accra, Gold Coast, West Africa. January 1956.

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

The details of the party at which his parents had met in Accra were hazy to Charlie as he sat there in Sydney on Easter Sunday in April 2020, trying to envisage the occasion. He'd had a feeling that they'd met when Pam had stepped out into the garden for some evening air and to smoke a cigarette, where she'd encountered Joe puking onto the lawn from an excess of garlic in something he'd eaten at the buffet dinner. However it was his father who put him straight on the details of the party, and a few other items in the narrative of this third blog, after he'd read it back in England, on Easter Monday, and those corrections have now been incorporated into the narrative, before the 4th blog commences.

It turns out that that Jock, the Scottish accountant at Conch oil, and his wife Jane, had quietly been vetting young Joe, and had seemingly set up the meeting with Pam as almost a blind date, with the other two couples present at the dinner party to help things along. Joe hadn't in fact puked from garlic, but there was indeed a garden encounter. As his father told him the tale of the party over the phone in April 2020, some sixty four years after the night in question, the details became clearer.

Seemingly, the sudden change from the cold of the British winter to the warmth of the tropical West African climate had adversely impacted them both, but in markedly different ways. Joe had proceeded to have a major nosebleed, just after dinner, which entailed him having to lie on the floor, with a key down the back of his shirt to try and stem the bleeding, (seemingly an old Scots remedy), while Pam experienced an uncontrollable fit of sneezing, to her consternation, but to the amusement of Joe, whose laughter only increased the flow of the nosebleed, which then had everyone else laughing.

The story of the garden encounter, so Joe told Charlie, focused on Pam not quite understanding the term "Let's go look at Africa". While ladies in polite company would talk about going to 'powder their noses', seemingly in Colonial West Africa in the latter half of the 50s the terminology, when the chaps took it upon themselves to 'water the lawn' outside, was to say that they were going to 'go and have a look at Africa'. Upon hearing that the boys were going outside to look at Africa Pam decided that this sounded like a splendid idea and followed them out shortly thereafter, only to find the gentlemen lined up in a row, sprinkling the grass. Hilarity ensued and, well, from such auspicious beginnings are 50 year marriages made.

Both were very busy in their respective new roles but love took its course and by the time Ghana gained its Independence in March 1957 they were engaged. Charlie had seen the pictures of the Marriage Proposal acceptance in a kasava plantation, on the road from somewhere up-country back to Accra. They looked so incredibly happy and in love. There were also treasure troves of wonderful black & white pictures of frolicking in the ocean waves of the Gulf of Guinea; of weekends away at Conch Oil beach houses, spent in the company of Conch and Government friends; of oil tankers and terminals; of local African markets, and of life in general.

A fellow Scottish PA who worked with Pam at the Colonial Office, and whose flat was directly below hers in the apartment block provided by the Colonial office, one Hyssie McGissie to her friends, or Valerie Hyslop to the Colonial Office, was to become a lifelong friend of both Pam and Joe, and would prove to be something of a mentor and an inspiration to Charlie when he eventually got to meet her in his teenage years back in Britain. But once again, that's getting well ahead of matters at this point.

The highlight of Pam's career in Africa, and indeed of her working life full stop, was when she took down, verbatim, in her squiggly shorthand, the words of the world's Press at a large Press Conference held in Accra on the eve of Ghana's Independence under Summer 1957. There are some great photos of the event in an album back in Sussex, as indeed there are of the Independence Day celebrations as well.

Pam's contract reached its end in June 1957, about two months before the end of Joe's first tour of duty with Conch Oil in what was now Ghana, and the decision was made to have an Autumn Wedding in Gourock, after which the new Mr and Mrs Johnson would head back to West Africa together, to another British colony heading towards Independence, namely Ghana's near neighbour, Nigeria.

Firstly back in Britain there were future in-laws to be met, on both sides of Hadrian's wall. In Pam's case there were also three future sisters-in-law to be met, a task that went a lot better than had apparently been expected. With Joe being the 3rd youngest of the 4 siblings and much loved by his somewhat protective sisters, they had all been itching to meet this lass from Scotland who had swept him off his feet almost as soon as he'd set foot in Africa, and by all accounts she survived the baptism of rain with aplomb.

For her part, although her mother was one of 9 siblings, mainly Gourock-based, and she had 8 first cousins, Pam was herself an only child, although very sadly two brothers had been born stillborn before her, and her father too was an only child. Joe's parents meanwhile had no nephews or nieces, although between the two of them they had 4 siblings,which meant that later in life Charlie and his sister would eventually end up having 7 English first cousins but no English second cousins, and no Scottish first cousins but more than 20 second cousins through their mother's Scottish side. But all that was a long way off yet in 1957.

Once Joe returned to the UK in August, he and Pam joined his sisters and parents on a rainy camping holiday in Devon, an activity not previously experienced by Pam, and then drove up to Scotland, where it was Joe's turn to meet his inlaws, and copious aunts and uncles, and experience a driving holiday with them in the Highlands, with he and Pam chastely accommodated in separate rooms in a series of Highland hotels. That was to be Joe's first (but not last!) encounter with the notorious Scottish nocturnal insects, the midgies, whose presence tended to discourage anyone from 'Going out and looking at Scotland', Africa-style!

The wedding of Joe Johnson and Pam Mackintosh, aged 27 and 30 respectively, took place at St Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on a hill overlooking the town, with gorgeous views across to the heather-clad mountains on the Cowal peninsula behind Dunoon, the town on the other side of the firth of Clyde to which Gourock was connected by a regular ferry. The celebrant was Joe's father, the vicar, who had travelled up as part of a small Sussex family contingent on the Johnson side to attend the wedding, and once again photos tell the story of a very happy day, with a handsome groom and a radiant bride, which occurred almost two years to the day since Pam had first seen the ad in The Times. In point of fact, Joe's father, also called Joe, but known to the Church of England as Canon Johnson, had had to get special dispensation from his local Bishop to perform the ceremony, something Charlie noted in the church's visitors book when he finally visited it as a teenager, some 20 years later.

The honeymoon took place in the Cotswolds, one of many driving holidays Pam and Joe would enjoy in their 50 years of married life together, not so far from the Shropshire hills where Joe had spent some of his teenage years in evacuation. A surprising aspect of their courtship in Africa had been Joe teaching Pam to drive, something she'd never done in Gourock, which is a task often known to create friction between teacher and pupil. It was a feat apparently achieved on an abandoned airstrip near Accra, and had led to Pam being able to acquire and drive her little Fiat Topolino around Accra, photos of which abound too.

After a Christmas in Sussex, the Johnsons returned to Africa, to Nigeria, for Joe's second tour with Conch Oil in the January of 1958 and, (so Charlie had learnt from his father the previous weekend, when he'd rung him in England to ask for some details about his early life), Charlie's conception had apparently occurred in a hotel in Lagos soon after. Blush!

At this stage, a map of Nigeria might be useful, as the narrative bobs around the country in that first year there, during which Joe undertook a series of posts related to oil distribution. While Lagos was the country's Capital, Joe's first posting was not actually there, but rather in the University city of Ibadan, 100 miles north, where they moved after just a few nights in the aforementioned Lagos hotel, with their belongings not far behind them, having arrived by sea from Britain.

After a few months in Ibadan, where they shared a house 'compound' with another Conch Oil couple, who were to remain lifelong friends, the next transfer for Joe and Pam was to the Niger Delta region, which of course is the source of Nigeria's vast oil reserves. After a short stint near the coast in Port Harcourt the two of them had then apparently moved 50 miles inland to the town of Aba (yes, just the one 'b'), by which stage Pam was quite visibly pregnant.

The only reason for mentioning the remarkably short stay in Aba, of less than a week, is indeed the reason for its brevity. Within a week of arriving, and before they had had a chance to unpack, the house was badly burnt in a fire. Seemingly the humidity in the Delta region was so high that clothes, sheets, and the like got damp and mildewy very easily. As Joe explained it to Charlie, there were small heaters placed in the cupboards, whose purpose was to keep the contents of the cupboards dry and avoid the mildew. A pillow had apparently fallen on one of these cupboard heaters at some stage and that was what had started the fire. A number of their recently shipped belongings, including many of their wedding presents, were lost, with the happy exception of the magnificent wood-panelled portable record player, a present from Pam's parents, which lived on well into the 1970s to play Charlie's Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper LPs along side their treasured west African-bought records.

A pram had been purchased by that stage, and the two concerned African firemen of the Aba fire service, described in the recent phone call with Charlie's Dad as comprising one ancient pump on wheels, towed by an ageing police car, were apparently most concerned incase there was a baby somewhere in the house, but Charlie had not yet emerged into this world. The fire took place in the morning, and fortunately neither Pam, who was at a coffee morning elsewhere, nor Joe, who was up country somewhere, were present.

With Aba a write off, and with a few new belongings donated by Joe's boss, Port Harcourt-based Ron, and his wife Jess (who was shortly to become Charlie's godmother), Joe and Pam moved once again, this time 150 miles further inland to the town of Enugu, where they were accommodated in a house belonging to West African Airways. It should be mentioned that at this stage they had also secured the loyal services of a steward, called Godwin, and an assistant, Moses, who were to be with them for the next 3 years, in two different residences, until the Johnsons returned to the UK in 1961. It had been they who had rescued most of the belongings from the Aba house, and who had explained to the firemen that the baby was not yet born.

It was in Enugu that Charlie was due to be born, but apparently he was in no hurry to arrive and was, according to his father, very late arriving, in fact dangerously so. The town didn't have a proper hospital, so Pam was moved about 100 miles away to the town of Owerri, back closer to Aba, where Conch Oil and British Petroleum operated a jointly-run hospital. It was here in Owerri, the town mentioned as his Place of Birth in all his future passports, a place which would later become, for a short while, the capital city of the breakaway state of Biafra, that Charlie Johnson eventually reluctantly entered the world as a Libran, in the Year of the Dog, in mid October 1958.

To say it was a difficult birth would be an understatement. Apparently after 25 to 26 hours of labour the doctors made the call and opted for a caesarian birth, with both mother and infant in danger at this stage. To compound matters, almost immediately after this traumatic birth Pam contracted a very bad case of amoebic dysentery, and needed to stay on in the hospital considerably longer than initially anticipated. This necessitated Joe needing to make the 200 or so mile round trip from Enugu to Owerri in his Hillman car on some pretty basic Nigerian roads, although on occasions he was apparently able to hitch a lift on a company helicopter.

In his birth certificate, which Joe had very sensibly bribed the registrar to make 5 hand-written copes of, realising immediately the difficulty at later stages in his life that his son might encounter in accessing this important item of identification, Charlie is registered in the Non-Native Births Register for Enugu District, Nigeria, as having been born in Owerri as a British Citizen, born to British Citizens, residing at Ekulu Compound, Enugu, Nigeria.

There are actually a few other significant details on the certificate, but being as it is Nigeria, the global epicentre of online fraud, that's being talked about there, it is still, even some 60 years or more later, probably safer to keep some aspects of the document undisclosed. And thus is was that the three of them returned to Enugu, and the watchful eyes of Godwin and Moses, to start their family life together.


#newyear #resolutions #old

89 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Blog #7. Hastings, Sussex: Day Boy: January 1966.

Charlie Johnson, or just plain 'Johnson', as he'd now have to get used to being called, had a great deal to catch up on when he started his first term at Eastleagh Preparatory School in January 1966,

Blog #5. Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. January 1964.

The Johnson clan (minus the dachshund, Copper, who was found a new home in Mid Sussex,) arrived in Kuala Lumpur in late November 1963, about a day before the assassination of President JFK in Dallas,