Updated: Apr 30, 2020
When Charlie Johnson sat down to write his second blog entry at his home in Sydney, on Easter Sunday, April 12th, 2020, one month into the coronavirus pandemic that was gripping Australia and the world, he was uncertain how to start his life story. That's ultimately what this blog was going to be, after all, and it needed a starting point.
He found himself ruminating about the idea of chance. Charlie had ended his previous blog on the cusp of describing a chance meeting that was about to occur on the steps of the Midnight Shift nightclub in Sydney in April 1990, which in all probability would most likely not have come about had his blind date, Tommy, not stood him up that night 30 years previously. As he pondered now, sitting at his desk, how to start his second entry, in which he wanted to go right back to the very beginning of the narrative his life, it was this idea of random chance that came to mind.
It was pure chance, for instance, that his parents had ever met. He'd heard the story a number of times from his mother, in both his childhood and his early adulthood, of how one chance event had led to her utterly altering her life, which had then been followed, not too long after, by her meeting his father completely by chance on her very first night in West Africa. Perhaps that was as reasonable a point as any at which to begin.
28 year old Pam Mackintosh had felt trapped in the small town in which she lived in Scotland. By the end of 1955 she had spent her entire life thus far living with her parents in the small coastal ferry port and resort of Gourock, located on a peninsula at the very point where the River Clyde opens out spectacularly into one of the most breathtakingly beautiful estuaries in the world, metamorphosing into the magnificent Firth of Clyde.
The scenery may have been big, but the town was small, and she feared she would end up following the path taken by all of her good friends from school, each of whom had settled down, married local boys, and were now beginning to start families. There'd been plenty of boyfriends, and even a short engagement, but she felt strongly that there was a completely different life waiting out there somewhere, if she could only figure out how to connect with it.
And time was running out. She felt that. She'd been commuting with her father on the 50 minute train ride from Gourock to the bustling metropolis of Glasgow, straddling the Clyde some 30 miles upstream, for more years than she cared to remember, where she'd held a number of senior, but ultimately unsatisfying, secretarial positions.
Having turned 18 during the summer of 1945 when World War 2 had ended, it had rankled her that her parents had not supported her ambition to attend university, but rather had encouraged her to get a practical skill that would be more useful there in Clydeside, where they were expecting her to settle down like her friends and hopefully start presenting them with some grandchildren in the not-too-distant-future.
A habit that she and her father had fallen into was racing each other to complete the daily crossword in the Glasgow Herald newspaper during the morning run up to Glasgow, which they both bought a copy of each day at Gourock's pier head railway station. They were both voracious crossword fans, and it was never a case of doing the simple crossword, like the ones favoured by her mother in the Scottish Daily Express, but rather it was always the mind-bending cryptic ones, similar to those that one might find in The Times, for instance.
It's at this point that chance made its first move. For some reason, long since buried in the mists of time, and unnecessary to know for the purpose of this story, on one particular morning in late 1955 to their surprise they found that the Glasgow Herald was unavailable at the wee kiosk at Gourock station.
The only newspaper available with a decent cryptic crossword, and which wasn't a big seller at the kiosk on that fortuitous morning, was the aforementioned Times, that day's editions of which had presumably come up on the overnight train from London to Glasgow and then down on the commuter line to Gourock, where their two copies were purchased at the station.
In his mother telling of the story, Charlie gathered that she and her father had had their usual crossword 'race', finding the Times's crossword to be a challenging beast, and had then parted company at Glasgow Central, as was customary, heading to their respective jobs.
It was during her lunch break that Pam had seen the small classified ad, hidden away in the back pages of that day's edition of The Times, an advert that would ultimately prove to be her ticket out of Gourock, and which would provide that elusive key to the big wide world of opportunities somewhere out there, that she'd been seeking for so long.
The actual text of the ad wasn't to hand for Charlie to quote verbatim as he sat there in Sydney, 65 years after this momentous event in his mother's life, but in a nutshell it had said that the Office of the Governor General of the Crown Colony of the Gold Coast in West Africa was in need of a Personal Assistant. Pronto.
She needed to have excellent social and organisational skills, with verbatim 100+ word per minute typing speed, and would be expected to complete an 18 month contract, in Accra, at very short notice, during the momentous upcoming transition period that the colony was to about to experience.The Colony of the Gold Coast would be undergoing a metamorphosis to gain Independence as the Republic of Ghana, and in the process becoming the very first Sub-Saharan African nation to emerge from colonialism, and the OGGGC needed a PA, ASAP.
Since the Governor General was going to be redundant in 18 months time, so would the PA's in his office be, but that mattered not. An opportunity such as this may never come her way again, and although the Isle of Man, sitting 150 miles south in the Irish Sea, was the furthest away from Gourock that she'd been thus far in her life, she was absolutely determined to get the position.
Her mother, in particular, thought she'd taken leave of her senses when she told them that evening over dinner that that she'd applied for the position that very afternoon, having an updated CV to the ready, because from her mother's perspective West Africa might just as well have been Pluto: in Scots vernacular it was somewhere completely beyond her ken.
However, after that things moved pretty quickly. Within a month, following a gruelling series of interviews and typing competency tests down in London, to which she'd taken her first return flights, paid for by the Foreign & Colonial Office, and after receiving a series of innoculations against tropical diseases, again paid for, and indeed administered by, the FCO, Pam had been issued her first passport and was not only ready to go, she was raring to go.
She'd actually fluffed her first typing test badly, being a bundle of nerves, but the kind lady conducting the test had suggested she take a walk in St James' Park for a while and then come back, and pretend she was just taking dictation from her boss in Glasgow. This advice had apparently worked a treat, as she came back and knocked it out of the ball park This detail was always an important part of the story, one that would be used as encouragement later in life when either Charlie or his sister encountered obstacles along the way.
Thus it was that at the start of 1956 Pam Mackintosh, erstwhile of Ashton Road, Gourock, boarded her second flight from Glasgow to London, from where after a few day's briefing at the FCO, she'd fly out on a BOAC Argonaut to Tropical West Africa. Another part of the story that Charlie knew well was the advice that Grandpa had given Pam at Glasgow airport.
He infact had had an opportunity to move the family to Canada, with his job, sometime in the 1930s, pre-war, when Pam, their only child, had been quite young, but Gran (Charlie's maternal grandmother) had not wanted to, and thus they'd stayed, in Gourock. He passed her a note, to be read on the flight, which included in it a famous Mark Twain quote.
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour and catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." Charlie smiled as he remembered when his mother had passed him a note to be read on a plane with those exact same words three decades later when he was heading to Australia.
However that's getting ahead of things. Once the decision had been made that she was to be heading out to West Africa, the Scottish ex-pat drum beats worked quite efficiently. A distant family friend, Jock Dennison, was in fact working in the Gold Coast as an accountant in the oil industry, and he and his wife Jane ensured that Pam would be met at Accra airport, get settled into her government flat, and that there'd be a welcome party for her that night at a house belonging to some other oil industry friends . Being a journey nearly due south from London to Accra there was no jet lag, and besides Pam was too excited to turn down a party invitation on her first night in Africa. Which is precisely when chance decided to step in once more.
Joe Johnson, aged 25, had been in West Africa for all of two weeks by the time of this fateful party. Sussex-born, public school educated, he was the son of a Church of England vicar and his wife, who were approaching retirement from their long ministry in the Sussex coastal resort of Hastings, where Joe and his three sisters had grown up in a vicarage, which had been bombed and destroyed during WW2, although thankfully not at a time when any of the family were at home.
He'd actually spent 6 years of his childhood evacuated in the West Country and the Welsh border country of Shropshire, due to Hastings being so close to occupied France, while his parents had remained and had been air wardens in the town. Following two years of compulsory National service, in which he'd been deployed to Egypt, he'd entered Oxford University as a mature undergrad, which was quite a common occurrence in the early 1950s.
Graduating with a degree in History, he opted against becoming a historian and applied instead for a job with a well known international oil company, who'll be referred to in Charlie's Chronicles as Conch Oil, and was recruited to their West Africa division, arriving on a BOAC Argonaut to take up his position in Accra exactly a fortnight before Pam stepped off her BOAC Argonaut. Just as Pam had had boyfriends, he'd also had a few girl friends over the years, too, but he was definitely single on the night that he was invited to attend a party being held by friends of the Scottish fellow, Jock, in the Accounts Department at Conch, whom he'd met in his first week, which was being put on to welcome a new female arrival from Scotland.
TO BE CONTINUED.