READ A SAMPLE:
– A Ticket to Ride
When I decided to change my library books that evening, I had
no idea that I was taking the first step towards completely changing the lives
of my family or myself. If anyone had told me I was doing so, I would not have
In the first place, I was content with
the way my life was working out and I was not looking to make any immediate
I had a steady job. Id had it all my working life. I had
been working for the same milling company for sixteen years.
I had a good wife. We had been happily married for ten
years. Connie and I had battled hard to establish ourselves as a stable family.
Now we were settled at last and I was very, very happy.
We were fortunate enough to have three lively sons (Frank,
Steve and Geoff) and wed just bought our first home, a semi-detached, three
bedroom house on the outskirts of Sheffield. It had a lovely garden and was
situated in a good suburb. Fortunately, it was also a convenient location for
my job at the time
We had furnished the house. It wasnt grandiose but we paid
cash for everything. Now I had a fine crop of lettuce growing in the vegetable
garden and plans for growing something spectacular in the flowerbeds next
Moving from Sheffield was the last thing on my mind, when I
went to change my books at the public library, as I always did on Tuesday
On the way out, I noticed among the magazines available for
borrowing, a back number of a magazine entitled East Africa and Rhodesia. All
I knew about East Africa was that my wifes brother had worked for a time in
I knew Mombasa was in Kenya, East Africa, and I remembered
that my brother-in-law said it was an interesting place to live. He had a gift
for understatement. Without thinking too much about it, I included the magazine
among my borrowings.
That copy of East Africa and Rhodesia was the trigger for
all that was to come.
A couple of days later, I glanced through the magazine.
After a few pages, I came across an article headed:
THE FASTEST GROWING MILLING COMPANY IN THE WORLD.
I was immediately interested. Milling was my game. I had
worked in the industry ever since Id left school, and never once had I thought
that a milling industry existed in any country other than England.
When I thought about it, I didnt see that any company
operating in an industrial backwater like Kenya could be the fastest growing
But I read the article anyway.
What I read started to make sense, surprisingly. The
population of the East African countries was growing at a rate faster than
anywhere else on earth. The population consisted largely of peasant farmers,
but steady degradation of arable land, the explosion of population and their
migration to the cities, meant that a rapidly increasing number of people had to
buy their daily food. Their food was mostly cereal products.
These were good, sensible, reasons for an East African
milling company growing quickly.
When the article went on to say that the company built at
least one new flour mill every year, and that they could sell all they produced,
I was impressed. That was obviously a factual statement.
It could not be easy to build mills in Africa. A company
capable of doing so at that rate was a mighty efficient organisation. Where else
are new grain mills being built at all? Never mind one a year. I was getting
very interested now.
I read the article again.
As I did so, pictures of white mill buildings, lots of them,
all built on hills that were infinitely greener than the one I occupied, floated
through my mind. A career with a fast growing company in one of the more
pleasant parts of Africa seemed attainable for a moment or two, even for me
anchored with a small family of growing children.
The name of the company was Unga Ltd. The article said that
the word Unga was a Swahili word which meant flour.
Its Head Office was situated in Nairobi. I looked up Nairobi
in a school atlas it wasnt a port. That was strange. Most milling companies
operate from ports but this was a strange milling company.
On a whim, I started to draft a letter to the Managing
Director, Unga Ltd., Nairobi. I didnt exactly ask him for a job, but I told
him what a remarkable asset I would be to his fine Company if, by any chance, I
found myself in Nairobi.
It was a good draft, long on enthusiasm, fairly short on
modesty and devoid of any mention of qualifications. This was absolutely
necessary, as I had none.
When I finished, it seemed a shame to waste a well-crafted
letter, so I gave it to Connie to read. I did this rather diffidently. The
letter seemed to imply that I was dissatisfied with my lot in life and that I
was getting itchy feet, which was not the case at all.
Connie said, This is a pretty good letter. Youll have to
get it properly typed on quality paper before you send it, of course,
That startled me.
I said promptly, Ive no intention of sending it. I just
did it as an exercise. I reckon I could get a job overseas if I tried, but I
dont really want one. Im quite happy here. I know everyone and the children
are just settled into schools.
I had struck a nerve though.
Connie was enthused at the prospect of travelling anywhere
abroad particularly. Anywhere in Europe would satisfy her previously
unsuspected urge. Asia would have been better. Africa was just perfect.
Connie said, You can get a job anywhere if you try. What do
you lose if they are not interested?
There are a few problems, I pointed out. The prospect of
finding an employer who is willing to uplift a man without qualifications, a man
who has a wife and three children, and house them in East Africa, in the hope
that he will be useful, is very small indeed.
Detail! Connie said. Dont get involved in detail.
Rewrite the letter on some better paper and post it. If you dont get a reply,
youve wasted a stamp, thats all.
I like to get a family consensus on such decisions, before I
do what I was always going to do anyway. A family that decides everything
together always has someone else to share the blame.
So, I consulted my oldest son. What do you think, Frank?
How do I know? Frank replied. We only do Great Britain
and Europe at school.
Well, he was consulted anyway.
The next day I bought some beautiful paper, rewrote the
letter and posted it. I didnt know the full address but there could not be
many Unga Ltds. in Nairobi.
There was surprisingly little information on East Africa,
Kenya or Nairobi to be found in the local public library. Information abounded
about lions, antelopes and the animals that inhabited the game plains, but I
could find almost nothing about the people who lived in that part of the world,
their townships and their habits.
I couldnt even find out how many of them there were. The
only decent reference book I found assured me that it was impossible to take a
census in Nairobi, Kenya or East Africa generally.
It was surprising to find that as late as 1951, a large chunk
of the world remained virtually unknown to outsiders. More information was
available about its dumb animals than was available about its peoples, their
numbers or their lifestyles.
Something strange was happening to me. In the space of a day
or two, I had changed from the contented father of three small boys, with not
much more ambition than to grow a good crop of lettuce in the back garden, into
something of an adventurer. I was actually preparing to take a young family
into the unknown, inspired by an article in a magazine that few people ever
The only aspect of this change that seemed familiar was that
I always had a habit of doing things first and reading the instructions
I felt I was taking a big gamble. I dont know why. The
price of a stamp was a fair price to pay for a chance of travel and adventure
even though I would just as soon read a good book myself.
To my surprise, there was a letter waiting for me when I came
home from work a fortnight later. The envelope was of beautiful velvety
quality. The postmark was Nairobi. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had struck
oil, as surely as if a large gusher had thrust its way up through the centre of
When I opened the envelope, it contained a letter signed
personally by the Managing Director. I had expected that if I received a reply
at all, it would be from a Personnel Director, who would enclose a form for me
to complete and him to dump in the waste paper bin.
The Managing Directors letter thanked me for writing to
him. It went on to say that his Companys agents in London would be inviting me
to attend an interview as soon as it was convenient to travel.
The superb quality of the paper and the courteous tone of the
letter impressed me. I was warming to this man I had never met and the company
Sure enough, ten days later I was in London talking with his
Companys agents – people who were entirely familiar with Kenya, Uganda and
Tanganyika. Those places were not just green hills on my minds horizon, they
Before Id set off for London, Id expected the interview to
be an ordeal. When I was at the interview though, I was so interested in asking
questions and listening closely to the answers that I forgot about being
What was the climate like? Was housing provided for the
staff? What about schools? What sort of salary could I expect? So many
questions and I was so interested in the answers that I forgot to be nervous.
They were being interviewed, not me! I probably gave them the best impression I
could have done, quite unconsciously.
Back home, I faced far more formidable questions.
Connie asked all the questions I had asked and some I had
never even thought about. Do you sleep under mosquito nets? What are the
shops like? Do the houses have proper bathrooms?
Frank had his own priorities: Do the schools have football
teams? Soccer or rugby?
Steve and Geoff were worried: Could they get they get Beano
and Dandy [comics] out there?
That was not the end of the interview road, though.
Two weeks later, as a result of another handsome parchment
letter from Nairobi, I was to be back in London again. I was still in there
with a chance!
This time my assignment was to be more formidable an
interview with Kent, Jones and Amos. Even I, an ignorant son of the soil in the
sticks, knew that Kent, Jones and Amos were the leading cereal chemists in the
This was the Grand Final. Cheerful blather would get me
nowhere this time.
In the two weeks before I went to London again, I really
studied the subject of grain milling, for the first time in my life. I was
appalled to find what a complex subject grain milling was. What surprised me
more was that it was fascinating.
When I started to do my homework, I thought grain milling
meant wheat flour milling. I soon found out how wrong I was. Milling was
involved in just about every manufactured product that a human being or an
So I quickly switched to a crash course on nutrition. After
all, nutrition covers everything you can eat and I reckoned that no interviewer
could expect me to know anything abstruse about the chemistry side of it. I
wasnt trying to put myself in line for a technical milling job.
It was not so much a crash course I took as a demolition
derby. I thanked the Lord that I could speed read naturally, even about
At the interview I was greeted by Doctor Samuel, a small,
white haired gentleman with sharp blue eyes faded from reading too much fine
print. He had the appearance of a kindly gnome who hopes and expects to find
the best in everyone.
He represented the worlds greatest milling experts. But if
he hoped to discover my knowledge of milling in fact, find it – without the
benefit of a magnifying glass, he would be doing well. I faced him without a
great deal of optimism. It felt like I was back at school again.
He asked me, What do you know about Vitamin B12, Mr.
I couldnt believe my luck. If he had asked me that question
a fortnight earlier, he would have got a blank stare as an answer. But,
fortunately for me, a working knowledge of Vitamin B12 was one of the rare
blooms on the bare windswept slopes of my brainbox.
I knew about Vitamin B12. I knew an awful lot about Vitamin
B12. It was the flavour of the month in nutrition circles just then. It had
just been isolated. Newspapers and magazines had reported the discovery
One of the advantages of knowing little is that there is
plenty of room for the resident knowledge to spread itself about comfortably.
I told the good doctor more than he really wanted to know
about Vitamin B12, including a graphic account of its discovery and isolation,
achieved by researchers trying to account for remarkable weight gains and health
of chickens kept on the deep litter system.
It was enough.
The good doctor switched to the trivia and gossip of the
milling industry. He accepted me as being reasonably knowledgeable about the
milling industry. He must have reasoned that if I was not knowledgeable, I was
interested enough to keep abreast of research into the nutrition affecting it.
It was one of those days when all the traffic lights turn
green as you approach them. Heigh Ho, Silver! Whoever Silver was.
At the end of the interview, the Doctor said he was sure that
I would enjoy working with his good friends in Kenya, who were highly respected
in milling circles. On the strength of that, I treated myself to a good dinner
in London that night.
Im almost certain that we will be going to Kenya now, I
told Connie on my return to Sheffield. I gave her a full account of all that
happened at Kent Jones and Amos.
Almost certain isnt sure, Connie retorted. There is not
much we can do until we are sure. We need to have a contract in our hands and
airline tickets for all the family, before we can start selling things. I take
it that you are letting all of us come with you!
We didnt have to wait long before almost certain became a
sure thing. A week later another parcel of quality paper came through the
letterbox, postmarked Nairobi. The postman was starting to be respectful now.
He knocked on the door and handed us the accompanying letter.
I held my breath as I opened the envelope. Hallelujah!
There was a contract in there.
It seemed a fair, well-balanced document when I read it
through. Unga Ltd. offered me employment as a Technical Feeds Assistant for a
period of four years. On completion of four years service, I would be entitled
to overseas leave of four months, with fares for my whole family paid for by the
The salary offered was slightly more than I was earning in
the U.K. There were substantial benefits though. Free housing, insured health
care and an allowance for employment of servants were parts of my entitlement.
My first thought was: What happens if I am fired before the
four years are completed?
All that sort of thing was covered in the fine print. It
appeared to me that, provided I was not convicted of stealing a flour mill, I
would be unconditionally entitled to free passages back to the U.K. plus three
months salary. It seemed a fair enough contract to me.
My second thought was: My God! . . . Technical Feeds
Assistant! I know practically nothing about animal feeds, no matter what Kent
Jones and Amos think.
A third thought occurred to me: Connie would murder me if I
chickened out now.
Connie was all smiles when she read the letter and contract.
It doesnt say when we have to fly, she remarked. It says
as soon as possible. Tomorrow morning if you like. Just pop out, sell the
house and furniture. Sell the children too, if you like. Then well be
It was time to do a bit of planning. I spoke to Mitchell
Cotts, Unga Ltd.s agents, and agreed with their suggestion that we fly out by
February 2nd, 1952. That gave us one month to sell our possessions and buy what
we thought we needed.
Financial considerations meant that I would be staying on
working and earning until we were almost ready to go.
While I worked out my period of notice, Connie had the
heartbreaking job of selling the home we had put together so laboriously over
the past ten years.
There is absolutely no relationship between the value of a
home to its owner and the price it will fetch on the market, particularly if it
is a forced sale. The price Connie could realise for some of her most treasured
items brought tears to her eyes.
Generous, tender-hearted, furniture dealers may exist, but
you can never find one when you need one. On the last few items to go, the
difference between the price offered and nothing was so small that Connie gave
the goods to the Salvation Army instead of selling them. At least they would
find a good home.
We did not expect that it would be difficult to sell our
semi-detached, three bedroomed house with all mod. cons. The real estate men we
spoke with agreed, but they could not complete the sale within a time frame of a
Luckily for us, Norman, our neighbour and an excellent
fellow, agreed that if the real estate agents were unable to sell the house for
us before we flew to Kenya, he would act for us in the sale, after we had gone.
That was a huge weight off our shoulders. Connie and I knew
that we could rely implicitly on Normans honesty. We never hesitated for a
moment in giving him authority to act for us.
In due course, our airline tickets arrived from the agents in
London. Enclosed with them was a map of Kenya. It was a lovely little map,
brightly coloured like a page from a childs picture book. It was definitely
not Mercators projection; it was more like Hans Christian Andersens. A bright
yellow sun with a smiling face shone over Kenya. A jolly brown lion with a
black mane stood alongside Nairobi. A cute black and white zebra stood to its
left. To the north and south-east of Nairobi there were two blue mountains with
snow on the peaks. They looked like inverted ice cream cones.
I wondered if Kenya really was like that bright, sunny and
cheerful, with fairy tale mountains, lion and zebra. Years later I often
thought of that little map. In a way it was my first taste of Africa.
Our sons absolutely loved our airline tickets and the map.
Every night, by special request, Frank would read every word printed on them to
Steve and Geoff, with the exception of some of the fine print. That was too
hard and not so interesting. The map was studied endlessly.
The agents had booked us into a three star hotel in London
for the night of February 1st. At that point in time, I had never stayed in a
hotel. My only foray outside the confines of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire before
my two trips to London had been a solo bicycle ride over the Pennines to
Manchester at twelve years old.
I was beginning to realise that I was one of the original
backwoods boys and I had better learn how to cope with the real world outside.
On February 2nd we would fly by BOAC from
Heathrow, London to Nairobi via Rome, Castel Benito and Khartoum. The place
names were their idea of romance, especially Castel Benito. It wasnt even on
their maps. Going somewhere that was not on a map was their idea of real
On arrival, we would be met at the airport and driven to The
New Stanley Hotel for the first three nights of our stay. Then we would move
into more permanent accommodation. It all seemed very satisfactory.
From then on, it was all go.
Every day, more of our familiar possessions would disappear.
The clock and the radio vanished one day. My armchair was gone and I hadnt had
the chance to say goodbye to it.
Some of the proceeds would turn into new lightweight clothing
we thought suitable for Equatorial Africa. The new clothes disappeared into
recently purchased suitcases.
I almost wept when I went into the garden shed and found that
all my gardening tools had disappeared even my beloved gleaning fork. What
kind of creature is a gardener without a fork?
I did not miss the blankets until I felt extremely cold in
bed one night. I was going to complain to the management about it. Then I
realised that I might find myself sleeping on the floor in my overcoat before
this exercise was completed.
Fortunately Connie was able to sell the beds for delivery on
the day we were scheduled to leave.
When the great day came and we left Sheffield for the last
time en route for London, one tableau is etched on my mind Connie standing
against the wall of an absolutely bare living room, with her arms around three
small boys, looking very vulnerable.