When my brother died, he left behind a lot of unpublished, unedited writing, including his Indian Diary, giving a vivid and at times hilarious account of a two-to-three month journey around India.
From the age of seventeen, he had worked for a series of newspapers, local and national, and it was while at one of them that he was given what was described as an ‘oddball’ assignment, which had the unforeseen effect of leading him to book a flight to Bombay – by way of Cairo!
He arrived in India early in 1973, visiting Bombay, Bangalore, Madras and Delhi, as well as two ashrams, one in Pondicherry, the other in Rishikesh. He travelled on the many forms of human, animal or motorised transport in the sometimes chaotic and unpredictable city traffic, as well as on teeming, tumultuous trains, on longer journeys.
Like 'Jolly Jack' below, the Indian Diary is available at present only as an ebook, but I hope it will appear in print in the not-too-distant future, possibly in a single volume together with 'Jolly Jack'.
Of all the bewildering methods of transport, each steering its erratic path, the bicycle rickshaw, to me at least, was the most vulnerable of all. ... Nobody liked us, certainly not the horse-drawn vehicle on my left that bumped into us, causing a protest from the animal itself, which he expressed by putting his head into my lap and displaying two rows of yellowing teeth. Nor the lorry that slewed across our path, causing some furious honking, or the men pulling iron girders, one of which I had to extract from the seat beside me.” ------
When an Indian travels by train, he takes with him everything including the kitchen sink. And there to see him off are the immediate family, the distant relations, the first cousins, nephews and nieces, the landlord in pursuit of back rent and anyone else who may have had obscure dealings with him over the past five years. Or so it seems.” ------
At Heathrow Airport it’s the tannoy. Flight NS 684 has shown signs of life. Woken from its slumber. Taking off at 18.40, four hours late. No reason given.
It had to rest. I knew the feeling.
The signs as I cross the tarmac, leading my fellow travellers like Moses from Egypt, to Egyptair are daunting. No one to greet us. No “Shalom”. No “Welcome aboard.” Seated in the gangway having a ball, were the cabin crew. Playing a tape. Kiki Dee: Loving and Free.
“You want something?” I’m asked, an intruder.
“Only Cairo and then Bombay,” I say, but my humour doesn’t register. Only Miss Dee. I should have listened to aunt and let her phone Miriam. We stood instead listening to Kiki:
I will untangle myself. Everything will be.
I will untangle myself. Loving and free.’
Only then did they untangle themselves and said to fasten our seat belts. Vishu, a squat little man who ran a newsagent’s, became my eyes and ears. No errant hand could slip by his quick darting eyes into a box of liquorice whirls without him being aware of the misdeed. He didn’t miss a trick. ‘Ruffians,’ he called them, which might well have been overheard because his portion of salmon mornay was decidedly smaller than mine.
I settled down to read a hero, Russell. He’d made the journey over a century before, crossing to Calais in a winter gale, catching by the skin of his teeth a train from Paris to Marseilles, another dash for a steamer to Alexandria, battling the mistral, stopping off at Malta, and thence to Calcutta, a hell on earth. Who had had a more stressful trip? Time would show it to be a toss-up.
At Cairo airport, where I descended at three in the morning, a blissful thought as the plane touched down: a comfy hotel room, a shower, then breakfast before the second stage to Bombay in seven hours.
“What hotel?” yawned the overweight official, his belly button exposed, woken grumpily from his slumbers at the airline desk. “It’s full. Take a seat.” Soon he was snoring.
Vishu was in his element. All his powers of observation accumulated through long experience of schoolboys plundering his confectionery, came into play. “See him, the fat one snoring. Last year I see him selling sweets. Now he’s selling sweet nothings.”
When daylight creakingly arrived, his first piece of detection was that they weren’t accepting Egyptian money at the Egyptian café. Only dollars and pounds. “Ruffians,” repeated Vishu.
Of more concern was the non-appearance of our plane. Rumours as to its whereabouts filtered through. The real truth could not be concealed from Vishu. The same perception that could detect a missing liquorice whirl in a crowded shop now found a lone aircraft on a bleak runway a simple proposition. The plane, with Air Manila markings, had been coming and going several times. All through the morning. It would take off. Then land. Take off. And land. The same plane. Ours.
Vishu was quickly on the scent. The Boeing 707 had been on a training flight. The pilot had not completed enough hours to take us on our way. That was what he was doing. And that was what the fat man, now half awake, failed to deny. Shrugging and smiling.
I gave him all the Egyptian money I could find before at four in the afternoon I led my flock across the tarmac, mumbling as I did so a suitable, hastily composed prayer for the occasion, “Que sera, sera,” and closing my eyes tight on take-off.
Some eight hours later the ordeal was over, during which Vishu, astonishingly, remained wide awake. His repeated requests to visit the cockpit, presumably to check if the pilot was on the right page of the instruction manual, were turned down, with a shrug and a smile.
We were in Bombay. In one piece. ‘Incroyable,’ as the man from Paris observed.
“Anything to declare?” said the Customs bloke, his face wreathed in smiles as he went through my luggage piece by piece. Nothing seemed to interest him until he came upon Hazel’s book. He flicked it open, every now and then giving a grunt, me wondering if I had infringed some morality law.
“Atcha,” he said. “Very OK,” the “Atcha” being accompanied by a head wobble from side to side as if to underline his approval. When I stepped into the glare of the sun and came under the spotlight of the hordes offering all sorts of services, I knew I had met a kindred spirit.
From the book a business card which was frayed around the edges fluttered to the ground. I picked it up and read:
Jack Solomons was born into an immigrant family in the East End of London early in the twentieth century. As soon as he was old enough, he pushed a fish barrow to market each morning before going to school. Useful with his fists, he later had a brief professional boxing career before being given an ultimatum by his fiancee Fanny (Fay): he could choose between her and the ring, the square one that is.He chose her, though without completely abandoning boxing. From now on, however, he would be outside the ropes. It was to lead him to far greater success than he could ever have achieved inside them with the gloves on. After staging fights at a former church hall in the 1930s, he became Britain’s and Europe’s foremost boxing promoter in the decades following the Second World War. And his name, his flamboyant figure and fat cigar were familiar far beyond the circle of boxing enthusiasts.
He and Fay had no children. The nearest substitute was their nephew David, especially in David's younger years. He travelled abroad with them when they were on holiday. When Jack promoted in Dublin, David went with. At home, David would help by putting through calls to managers, matchmakers and others in the boxing fraternity across the Atlantic. When Jack played cards with his friends, David sat by his side. He counted the takings from the fish shop in Hackney, for Jack didn’t completely abandon the fish trade either, though the work was left mainly to his brother Max and an employee.
In short, David was as close to his uncle as anyone apart from Fay. In these wide-ranging reflections, he provides a unique insight into the background, life and accomplishments of the man who in his schooldays could fall asleep at his desk after returning from the fish market. David was living in Hastings on the south coast of England when most of them were written, and Hastings comes into the picture too, as does Bernie, a larger than life character that David likens to Jack, though they were more than a generation apart.