03 June 2006


I grew up in a post-war Hong Kong, my father a member of spookish British Army Aid Group (BAAG), dangerously spottable gaijins  in their early 30s operating behind Japanese lines.

Most of them, like Dad, stayed on in the Hong Kong colonial service and these were the types I knew as parental pals.

Now I've read Oliver Lindsay's book of their exploits I know what they went thru but at the time, what does a 8- or 9-year-old care or know?

Bernard was one. Mad keen sailor for whom I'd crew, curious about but never vulgar enough to ask about the scars and lacerations about his bod.

Gentlest adult to a skinny junior I knew. The sort, could take a man out with just one punch, but didn't like to talk about it all that much."

One afternoon, a good wind leaving a diminishing Gin Drinkers Bay to starboard, I asked why the First Mate was called "Adlestrop".

I say First Mate but Adders was navigator, chief washer-up (well, licker up is more accurate), rat catcher, dinghy retriever and general all-round good guy.

Some said he was labrador crossed with terrier but Bernard said there was definite pirate in him and count your snacks before you disembarked.

Surest footed canine on the South China sea.

"You don't know 'Adlestrop'?" growled B. "What yer old man teaching you? Here, grab the wheel and steer us sou' sou' west thru the Lizards. Keep Amah Rock at two o'clock and we'll be fine."

With that, he stood up and declaimed the first poem to set me on fire.

"Yes, I remember Adlestrop--
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop - only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I got home and told Mum to "buy" it for me.

Six years later, I held my hand up in class and told Miss Gordon, yes, I'd like to recite in the school poetry comp.

I didn't win. Bagnall with his jut-jawed histrionics with a Rupert Brooke took the honours, but Miss Dehlinger told me later she thought I *should* have won, and that was enough.

Last night, dozing to BBC World Service, I heard it read - a little too fast and not enough wonderment - but I lip-synched along and, gosh darn it, I had it almost word perfect. After all those years.

There's a touching addendum to this all: around 2 years later, Hong Kong was hit by one of its usual pea-souper fogs and Adles went missing. The grown-ups were out calling and all and then Bernard phoned Dad and said, "I know it's late and all, old chap, but any chance Christopher can come out?"

I arrived and B just said, "The bally idiot's took a wrong turn, lost his way, damfool."

"What we want you to do-" started my father, but Bernard silenced him with a "Leave it, Ronnie. The boy's got it."

The boy's got it. How many times are we given *that* break.

I remember looking into the mist and thinking of him out there. If he hadn't come to all the shouting, not good.

I had this puny clap I'd do when we went ashore and Ad would dash up into the jungle to frighten the chickens and roll in good old dung. I did my clap. I also had this puny yelp that I'd try not to do because it was so pathetic and unmanly: "Addie boy, Addah addah. Attaboy, Addie addie".

I don't know how long but out of the mist trotted Adlestrop.

"Someone call?"

"Give that man a large whiskey," hollered Bern.

Giving my shoulder a brisk grip, "Mission accomplished, Officer Holmes. Well played."

Oh to have had the lines, "It's my job, and I do it for pay, and when it's all over, as soon go on my way."

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