I don't know why I have suddenly rekindled my interest in Aden. Perhaps it is a mid life crisis I am going through. Perhaps it is because when people ask me, "Where were you born" and I answer, "Aden" I see a blank look which means either, "Where the hell is that?" or "Did he say he was born in Eden?"
The more likely reason is that from about the time of my 40th birthday in January 2001 I have been thinking more and more about my birth place and have built up a strange yearning to go back there for a visit. Why, I don't know, as there's probably nothing left that I would recognise. Maybe I have to reconfirm who I am and to where I belong. My father was born in Broxburn (a small town in West Lothian, Scotland), my mother was born in Bridgend, a small village in West Lothian, Scotland), and I was born 4,000 miles from there in a foreign land, and spoke with an English accent until one day in June 1978, my girlfriend asked me, "Which part of England are you from?" The place holds deep memories, in fact I have few good childhood memories from many places other than Aden. ( I intend writing about my boarding school exploits in another forum). So there you have it. Barren, hot, dry, inhospitable, scary, beautiful Aden. This was my home for the first 14 years of my life.
My story probably starts in 1950-something when my father accepted a job working in the British Petroleum refinery in Little Aden. From that moment on my fate was sealed. I was born on 19th January 1961 in Little Aden Hospital. At the time the place was the People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen, but thanks to the slowly diminishing British Empire, technically I was born in a little part of Britain called Aden (Colony).
As a toddler I don't recollect much about daily life. My first vivid memories are probably of the British Army before the evacuation. My dad had a cine camera which was probably top of the range for the day. I got all his stuff converted to video for his 60th birthday. We have watched it several times and there's some brilliant footage of an army open day in one of the camps on the way to Bir Fukum. From my point of view, the road to Bir Fukum was the road where you went 'straight on' instead of turning left to go to the BP Club. To a 7 year old this road represented a journey into the great unknown and a great adventure. The mountain pass you go through is very imposing and I almost felt as if it led to another world. I remember climbing all over a tank and the soldiers had made the camp into a fairground with stalls and free rides in army jeeps. Part of the open day was a fly over, and to cap it all we got our photographs taken with these cool dudes in army uniforms. Of course, none of us kids ever asked why these people were there, hanging about in the mountains. It's not something we worried about.
Like I say, early on my memories are vague. It's a mixture of coffee mornings, beetle drives, curry lunches, Lassie films at the weekly cinema in the BP Club, Rin Tin Tin, Zorro and Casey Jones on the black and white telly in the house and constant wall-to-wall sunshine. It must have rained once because I can remember being at the school and being unable to go out into the playground because there was a huge puddle. Once in so many years!
In Aden the weekend was Thursday and Friday. One of life's few constants was the Friday feed in the BP Club. Dad had curry with all the side dishes (which sadly many of the curry shops nowadays don't do), mum had the lobster theremodore and I always had the bangers, mash and beans.
I don't remember being evacuated. It was 1968 and I would be 7. I have seen the cine film of my mother and I standing in the queue to get into this very ancient looking aeroplane with propellers. The men were left behind to get on with the oil refining process and I was bundled back to this cold place called Scotland where I was forced to spend time with people who spoke with a different accent from me!
Fortunately that was temporary, and soon we were back where it was warm and I felt I belonged. I was 8 and was soon to have my short life turned on it's head. In Little Aden, there is education provided up to a point. This point came in 1969. I went to boarding school. New Park School in St. Andrews to be precise. In reality, this meant that I had to fly unaccompanied from Aden to Edinburgh via Jeddah, Beirut, Geneva and London three times a year (unless my folks were on holiday in Scotland anyway). When I say unaccompanied, I mean no adults. At the end of the school holidays it would be common for there to be a dozen kids on the same flight out of Aden (in the early days). Soon I was in an established pattern of coming 'home' for holidays. Sadly the thing I never got used to was leaving Aden at the end of the holiday. Flights out seemed to be early in the morning, hence an early alarm call. To this day I don't like getting woken up early for a flight. The sight of the suitcases and the dark outside bring back some terrible memories of being 9 and scared of being on my own.
Around this time was when the British left the locals to get on with it, and this coincided with my most vivid memories. There's probably a book in this somewhere, however, here's a brief summary of my best times in Aden between 1970 and 1975.
I lived in 3 different houses in my time. The first was before I remember, the second was a street called 1 Hampshire Crescent. This must have been early 1970. I recall an old guy (Christ he was probably about 45!) opposite. We had no toys, but he had built a house out of used fag packets. We played with it for ages. Latterly we moved to 15 Marine Drive. This was a magnificent road that skirted the curved Ghadir Bay and had a great view. I don't remember when it stopped being called that but I remember my air mail letters from school had to be changed to 15 Kornish-Al-Ghadir. It was still the same place when I had my next holiday.
The residential part of Little Aden wasn't huge. You could walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. For a young person I seemed to know everybody. Even if there weren't kids around there were always grown ups who would take you places.
As a child in Little Aden I had expectations. I didn't appreciate what was done for me until over 20 years later, but there must have been a committee made up of mums and dads who decided on different events over the holidays to keep us kids occupied. When I got off that plane the first thing I did after I woke up was ask to see the list of events and find out when the fancy dress party, the beach BBQ, the dhow trip, the sandcastle competition, the swimming gala, the car treasure hunt, the quiz night (which included a kids section) and the various discos were. The list of events also included the organised film show and the special sporting events. I have mentioned the Lassie films already. I can't remember most of the others, but one fond memory is of seeing Jason and the Argonauts for the first time. There was also organised badminton and golf among other things.
If somebody reading this was one of these people who organised all these events just for my enjoyment then I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I had a ball.
In between these events, I conducted my social life by going to the BP Club beach daily, which was a safe area surrounded by fences and breakwaters to keep undesirable fish and big waves out. Sadly it only kept undesirable BIG fish out, so we still had to swim with conger eels, barracuda, sting rays, stone fish, jelly fish, sea slugs and cray fish. But we were hardy and young and didn't know what we were doing. We had a ball there every day, swimming without a care in the world. We had beach BBQ's with water fights, we had sand castle competitions and in the early days the beach was full of people.
By the early 1970's I got the impression that the BP Club beach was run down. The shop that sold iced lollies and Coke always seemed to be shut and I suspected that there were big holes in the protective fences. This must have been a gradual process because I can't put it down to a single event. Possibly it was because there was a swimming pool open for use by merchant seamen that we were allowed to use. I remember vaguely on several occasions arriving at the beach and seeing no people, then deciding to go to the 'seaman's mission' instead. What I don't know is whether people deserted the beach because it was run down or because there was a better option (what is probably more close to the truth was that more people were leaving Aden following independence but that was something that went right over my head as an 11 year old - after all this was my home, why would I leave?)
So what was the food like? Apart from the BP Club there was nowhere to go for a meal unless the parents made their own entertainment. I wasn't responsible for the purchasing of food, but I was there when the fish man came to the back door once a week with his stinking offering covered in flies. To my horror my mother always purchased something. It was the same in the car park outside the BP Club when the fruit and vegetable man came. Through the flies, my parents found enough to bring us sustenance. Two other memorable incidents spring to mind. I remember buying mars bars and asking my dad why the chocolate was white. He said it was the heat. Yeah, right! I also remember having to open a packet of corn flakes and spreading them out, picking out the cockroaches before putting them back in the packet as if nothing was wrong. It was what we did. It's against this backdrop that the Little Aden parents excelled themselves by making edible meals and bringing us up on as normal a diet as possible.
Many people had a servant. Others had an aiya. The servant did the cooking, the aiya did the cleaning and ironing. If I remember right, most houses had servants and, coincidentally each house had a servant's quarters built in. Some people had cooks who didn't 'live in' and some just had servants who appeared at random, and I'm sure I wasn't the only child who was baby sat by someone who didn't speak a word of English. As a small child, I was oblivious to the working and living conditions of these people. What is memorable for me is the heat in their quarters, which adjoined the garage. No air conditioning. Also, they all had outside toilets with no flush, no bog paper and it always stank. Sometimes the quarters were occupied, sometimes they were empty. Their names were invariably Mohammed or Aisha, and no sooner were you attached to one then they moved on. Some were magnificent cooks. My parents tell me that certain dinner parties were legendary. In fact, some of the cooks would team together for a big one. Given the lack of food for sale, it's amazing that many people were still able to have the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding once a week!
So what of the troubles? As a kid I am sure that my parents shielded me from some of the realities of life, after all, once I was 8, I was only coming home (I still don't have a problem calling it home) three times a year for an average of 12 weeks. All houses had verandas and all verandas had trellis work all around it. When I asked my dad, he said it was to stop a grenade. Seemed like a good idea to me. There must have been incidents, but the only one I witnessed was well after the army had left. It was on Marine Drive and a group of local militia driving along the road in a truck shot a dog that was not exactly a pet, but it was known to most of us kids. It lay for ages before it died. We didn't know why they did it. For being in a country in which walking 10 yards from A to B must have been so dangerous at times, we were oblivious. I remember an alley way just beside our house in Hampshire Crescent and seeing an albino Arab throwing conkers at us. We got our gang together and chased him. He got his gang and we had a set-to on some piece of waste ground for no particular reason. Nobody won, yet we always looked out for him after that.
Well, going by the number of e-mails I have received I have hurried along my second set of memories. Before I go on, I would like to thank all those who have contacted me. I have received messages from BP people and forces people and it has been a pleasure just to realise that there are people out there who share the same feelings as myself. The more the merrier
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the first part of my memories; here, in no particular order is another set of things that just came to mind. What you have to remember is that all of these are seen through the eyes of an 11-14 year old.
It's easy to accept now, but in 1973 Aden (me aged 11) there were no pet shops. I was a cat lover, and I and my friends Edwina and Eleanor regularly befriended cats from neighbouring houses. What you need to understand is that when we were on holiday in Aden, there were numerous occasions when other families were having their holiday in the UK leaving their houses unoccupied, therefore their whole garden was available to us kids. Since nobody had an official pet, we knew where the 'action' was. I had a cat called Tortie (original name for a tortoise shell cat - eh). From the amount of kittens this thing produced I wondered if it had been spawned off a rabbit! A couple of houses down there was another litter of kittens and we befriended one we named Roary, because every time you picked it up if it didn't shit on you it roared at you. We had air conditioning in the houses and there was an outhouse at the back that you could open and at any one time there were up to 10 cats in there sheltering from the heat.
When we were not playing with cats we were always looking for somewhere new to explore. In those days everywhere was a dangerous place to explore so we had to wait for an adult who was willing to take us to those exotic locations. I'd like to personally thank the following grown ups, without whose expertise and encouragement I would have achieved nothing.
Phillip Preston, Dudley Hall, David Wiles, and my dad (Andrew Young)
It's probably not possible for anyone to appreciate this paragraph unless they have been to a seaside resort (Blackpool, Scarborough) and tried to purchase a small bag of seashells. In Aden, if you went looking for shells at low tide, you could find the sexiest shells ever. We're talking about razor shells with both halves intact, scorpion shells, sea urchins and the piece de resistance, the cowrie. While the first two mentioned could be found lying on the beach, you had to place your hand into the unknown to get the cowrie. In a world where as an 11 year old you could get your hand bitten off by a moray eel this was a very special adventure. The cowries were alive and you left them out in the sun to die then picked them out with a toothpick. Our house was decorated most beautifully with shells including sea urchins. With hindsight I think we took them for granted. Today my mum and dad still have sea urchins in their house that they brought home from Aden, and I only wish I knew then what I know now about shells and how rare they are.
As a young kid growing up, there were always two boat trips laid on. The dhow trip was always one of the highlights of the holidays and there was always at least one organised for the family. I never really knew what my mum put into the cool box that was chucked onto the boat. I should explain the word boat first. We're talking about a pile of wood hammered together. These things never looked seaworthy but when I think about it, the best times were when it was windy and the spray from the sea was coming over the top of the boat. It seemed to me all the kids enjoyed it, yet the adults always had a wee green look about them. On nearly all occasions the dhow trip included a trip into the blue grotto, which was an island that was just a cave. There were bats (that cleared out when they heard the boat's motor), and sharks (that the crew scared away by plunging large stones into the water suspended by ropes). It was in this atmosphere where we were now expected to 'swim', which we duly did.
The second boat trip that was arranged was on a more modern launch called the Al-se-ma-ma. The good thing about this trip was that there were more kids and fewer adults. Although I never knew, I suppose the parents drew straws as to who would 'supervise' the children. The Al-se-ma-ma was a seaworthy launch and basically the captain just pointed the thing towards the open sea and pressed 'go'. We sat on the front and got the white-knuckle ride of our lives. Wet, scared and in need of a clean pair of pants, we loved every minute. When he stopped, we had a buffet (or is it a smorgasbord), and then we headed back. He had a net that he dragged behind the boat and we all had to cling onto. It was a shorter trip than the dhow trip, but again, it was one of the highlights.
After that, we retired to one of the Yemen's many uninhabited beaches for the picnic. For people in the know I would say that the beaches we visited were just north of Bir Fokum. Deserted yellow sands, blue sea, coral, mountains, sunshine and plenty to eat - you would be forgiven for thinking that this was paradise. We spent all day in this wilderness without a care in the world and when it was time to go home we all left with heavy hearts. How could we forget the flying fish, which on one occasion actually leapt into the boat, the giant manta rays, and the porpoises that seemed to follow us everywhere.
Snorkelling and Spearfishing
I was never mega-adventurous but I had a pal (Jeremy Wiles) whose dad had a boat and took us out in Ghadir Bay snorkelling. I have since been snorkelling elsewhere but I have to say this was very scary. The only fish we wanted to skewer was a parrotfish, yet most of the fish we saw were either ugly or very scary. I remember the final time I went spear fishing was one day when Jeremy's dad left us on the breakwater that runs from the swimming pool at the seamen's mission. This was unchartered territory for me and is the only time in my life when I have come face to face with a shark. I have no idea what type it was or how big it was. I saw it from about 20 yards and that was the last time I swam in the open sea in Aden!
Each summer holiday there were always two ambitions. First was to climb what we called 'observation tower', which was a hill on Ghadir Bay near the hospital. The second was a mountain that we called 'shamsan'. It probably has a more Arabic name, but to a 12 year old I could sometimes see this huge mountain through the heat haze on a clear day and I knew that people had been up it, but we always had the same problem - whose dad would take us?
I climbed observation tower several times over the years. This must have been an old army look out, but the view was worth the many, many steps (If anyone knows how many, E-mail me email@example.com and I'll modify this part of the article). My eternal regret is that I never ever took my camera up to the top. I long for a photograph over Ghadir Bay with my house in it.
To the best of my memory I only ever climbed Shamsan once. It was with Philip Preston who took a car full of us with a picnic. A trip into 'Big Aden' was a treat in itself, a drive though Malla, up through the Crater Pass and basically, for us, into the unknown. I wish I had a more vivid memory of the climb, but I remember clearly the wind up the top and the overwhelming feeling when I saw the view. In world terms it's probably not a very big peak, but it certainly was the highlight of that particular holiday.
The Forbidden Zone
As a young teenager I suppose we all do things our parents would not approve of. My only major indiscretion was to build a tree house and to borrow my dad's matches to light a small fire in the tree house. Needless to say, the whole thing caught fire and I have to thank our houseboy Saeed for putting it out. The only other thing my friends and I did was to explore the hills, which I suppose separated Little Aden from the ports where the tankers came in. In my terms these were mountains right beside my friend Kevin Moran's house. Close by there was a disused building that we called the "white house". It was easy to get onto the roof and we used this as a base. Further on and round the corner overlooking the 'golf course' there was a cave. We always called this the hyena's cave (or was that the older boys trying to scare us). I never ever saw a hyena, yet none of us ever progressed past the first bend! Further on, there was a no-go zone. It had signs up, and was probably used as a shooting range at one point, but there seemed to be a lot of clay around. We sometimes went that far, but it was seriously quiet ...and what about those hyenas! We were probably more at risk from the scorpions, which funnily enough we used to catch with our hands and put into jars and make them fight each other.
What does a youngster in the early 70's do when he has no Gameboy, Playstation, television or video recorder? I'll tell you. Invite your friends along for a crab race.
On Ghadir Beach lived at least 3 million hermit crabs. We made a crab-run out of Lego and sometimes we had up to 300 hermit crabs in my bedroom at one time. We would always release them the next day before they became dehydrated, but there were always a few that 'got away'. I remember my mum shouting, "What's that clicking noise in the corner of my room?" Sure enough, one had escaped. Good times, though.
To finish this second part of my Aden memories, can I mention those who I would like to get in touch with. Not all are close friends and some may not even remember me, but if you are a parent of, or a son of the following, could you please get in touch?
Russell Titmuss Nigel Stoneman
Kevin Moran Nigel Molesworth
Jeremy Wiles Penelope Wiles
Kelvin Micheal Adrien Michael
Andrew Morgan Richard Morgan
Eleanor Linton Wendy Hargreaves
Donna Philips Marianne Dunbar
Martin Dunbar William Dunbar
Karen Roberts Julian Dilley
Chris Dilley Erica Rolfe
Karen Wilson Lindsay Wilson
Penelope or Amanda Meiras
A good friend called Jane Davies?
Someone at the British embassy called Bedria
Gillian and Dudley Hall
Anyone else who may have photographs of those above or their parents, or any scenery photographs from Little Aden, Big Aden, the Seamen's mission, the BP Club, Bir Fukum, the golf club, the community centre, even the hospital or the cinema. I'd even take a photograph of Khadris, or a photo of the vegetable man who frequented the car park of the BP club.
Basically, I lived there for 14 years and hardly took a decent photograph of the place or my friends.
More stuff soon
Again, E-Mail me firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to share any memories with me. I gotta get back there sometime. Is there anybody reading this who has been back? Please get in touch.