Remember the Empire, Laddie

2010-07-31 00:00

MY grandnephew by marriage is a nice boy of seventeen or so who has nothing wrong with him except he’s covered in pimples and goes about in a miasma of pheromone vapours to attract females, like a tomcat peeing on a tree. His mind too is focused on crumpet, fantastically, obsessively, there’s just a small corner left for Matric stuff, and if he does sort of listen to one speaking of other things now and then it is as a bit of time off from hard mental labour as he drinks a cup of tea for the caffeine. So we’re sipping this cuppa as we overlook the Bayhead area of Durbs harbour and I point out a certain huge corrugated-iron shed presently used as a marine engineering workshop, but which in its day was a hangar for bloody great flying boats with tails as high as a three-storey house. There were three of them in those days, say I. You mean they had three boats which could FLY? says he. Sweet Jesu save us all! say I, three hangars. We had many aircraft which took off from water and we’d haul certain of them out and put them in the hangars for repairs. Ah yes, says he, they have those in Canada, but they’re only small, man. No I’m not talking about floatplanes, I’m talking about something the size of a Boeing 737 which would land on its belly in the water, say I, and his pimples go all luminous from laughing. You’re having me on, says he.

Put your money where your mouth is, say I, I myself have flown such a boat. And what a spectacle! A huge cumulus of spray flung up by four huge props, and if there were even small waves a din like somebody beating a tin bath with a plank, then there was a bend halfway down the Maydon Channel so you’d have to bash on hard right rudder just as you were getting airborne and there before your staring eyeballs were the harbour cranes sticking up in the sky waiting to shred you if you had any engine failure. Oh balls! says G/nephew, for today’s youth have no respect for the elderly, but mock their greying hairs and their wisdom. Balls, says he, you’re having me on, water is like concrete at the flying speed of any aircraft. Okay dummkopf, say I, let me tell you a few more things about this boat which flew and we will lay even money on this story and you can go and look it up on the Internet at which you are so smartarse. Put your money on the table.

Only the Brits would think of naming an aircraft the Empire. The Short Brothers’ C-Class “Empire” Flying Boat. Beautiful, man, beautiful. The Empire was as graceful as the Concorde, and as efficient, the only difference being that a Concorde did Joburg to Heathrow in five hours and the Empire did Durban to Southampton in seven days. Naturally the fare was double that of the Concorde, because you had a jolly holiday along the way, see? And classy, man, classy! £150 in days when a brand-new Ford V8 motor car cost £320. You didn’t get your grub prepacked on a tray on an Empire boat, they had a galley on board, a dinkum kitchen, and you took luncheon at a table with a tablecloth and starched table napkins and a rose in a vase. And a proper menu. Afterwards you could go for a smoke in the lounge and view the landscape from 6 000-feet altitude, that’s a bit higher than Joeys is above Durbs. Alas! they couldn’t show you the snows of Kilimanjaro because they were at 19 000 feet and obligatory oxygen altitude was 10 000 feet, but if your pilots espied a nice herd of elephants on the plains of Serengeti they would descend to 2 000 feet or so and fly round and round so all could get a good view and maybe snapshots for their photo albums. But nothing to beat the evenings. That’s when the Empire would alight on a suitable stretch of water at a suitably exotic city and you would be whisked off to a suitably posh hotel where you could take a genteel shower and put on your swanky evening dress for a posh dindins and a bit of ballroom dancing for the young at heart.

Why, you might well take an English breakfast on the very same Khartoum verandah where Gordon took his hot strong British tea, with great rattan fans waved by natives with ropes, also Alexandria where we have the choice of an alternative Egyptian breakfast with tepid weak Moorish tea and electric fans. Alex is v. exciting too because here we depart Africa and suddenly enter Europe, what culture shock! and where better to enter than Marseille? Here there is a light touch. Girls kick up their legs, Apaches in berets play accordions, there is an oyster and champers breakfast. In France it is known as Oo-la-la. Jou ma se Oo-la-la, says G/nephew, what’s laid on for crumpet in Southampton?

Afterwards you could go for a smoke in the lounge and view the landscape from 6 000-feet altitude.

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