On a wing and a prayer: the serpent's tale

Things have changed a great deal in the world of travel. Which airline would let you keep a snake under your plane seat nowadays? By John Fay

SEPTEMBER SEES a flurry of juvenile activity at Britain's bigger airports, as children of expatriates arrive from the four corners ready for the fourth form at one of the more minor public schools. As they jet in non-stop from Singapore or Sao Paulo, I wonder if they realise how intrepid the life of a shuttling schoolboy can be.

My US-born, Canadian-raised but pure-Irish-blooded father managed a sizeable tea estate; my Anglo-Scots maternal grandparents' home was in Surrey. Three years after Nazi Germany surrendered, and after my first year boarding at a monastic prep school in deepest Sussex, I first fastened my seatbelt in a close relative of the Lancaster, that famous wartime four-engined bomber. The civilian version, the Lancastrian, flew out of a Heathrow that I remember then as being little more than an untidy collection of Nissen huts. It was operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation, forerunner of today's BA.

At the start of the 1947 summer holidays, my mother and I had made our first return to that beautiful island - hanging like a pearl earring from the tip of India - and named Serendip by Arab traders in the days before the Dutch, the Portuguese and then the British became its colonial masters.

In the fading tradition of Empire, we travelled out first class by ship. Then came five weeks of unashamedly indulging the colonial privileges of being the son of the "big master". He ran the Dickwella Tea Company of London's 1,000 acres of prime Ceylon tea in Uva province, on a steep hillside that rose 1,300ft from the river on the valley floor to the estate's processing factory at 4,000ft, three miles down the road from the railhead at the nearest village, Hali-Ela.

But in early September, all this came to an end and our estate driver set out on the 120-mile road to Colombo in my father's old bone-shaking Ford Prefect. A few days later my parents, with some trepidation, saw me on to the Lancastrian at Colombo airport. There were, I recall, just 13 passengers in a cramped fuselage, not unlike today's Concorde, and the journey to Heathrow took three slow days, with overnight stops at Karachi and Cairo.

This pattern of summer holiday flights every two years - my parents took home leave in the intervening summers - continued throughout my schooldays, though the aircraft got bigger and faster, while the engines got quieter as they were upgraded from piston to turbo-props.

One other summer, I was one of 32 passengers in a piston-engined Argonaut approaching Heathrow. Thirty of us, who were all reluctant returnees to boarding school incarceration, started a pillow-cum-bun fight with the lunch-time bread rolls and small, loose cushions on each seat. Not being quite in Lord of the Flies mode, and long before "air rage", we politely desisted when the harassed captain appeared in the main cabin to complain that he could not trim the aircraft fore and aft for landing, on account of all our "rushing about".

Another summer, when I was 15, I had to fulfil a promise to a schoolfellow. He collected scaly creatures, including baby alligators and snakes, in such numbers that his study-bedroom looked more like a DIY reptile house. I had said I would bring him a rat snake, whose venomous qualities were restricted only by its fangs being at the back of its jaws, not the front, so that it had to close its mouth across a finger, or a rat's neck, to do any damage.

In that cosy colonial world, acquiring a rat snake was simple. My parents knew the director of the Colombo Zoo, a Dutchman. He kindly supplied - free of charge - both the snake and, to transport it, a stout wooden box with a sliding, perforated metal lid.

The next stage seems almost inconceivable nowadays. But, upon a polite request, BOAC said: "Yes, certainly you can fly your snake home with us, but you must keep it under your seat and look after it yourself... Oh, and make sure it can't get out of its box."

The flight home was uneventful. I think the snake, well fed before take- off, slept all the way. But in the Customs Hall at Heathrow I walked up to a rather grand figure in an impressive uniform who was standing behind a table. He seemed to treat all passengers with lofty disdain, particularly rather grubby schoolboys laden with far more "hand luggage" than was really permitted by cabin regulations.

"What's in that?" he languidly demanded, looking down his nose at me and pointing to my wooden box.

I placed it on the table in front of him; took six steps back, and answered: "A snake, sir." (We were much more respectful of uniformed authority in those days than we are now.) From my safe distance, I watched this lordly representative of HM Customs slide the lid of my box slowly open.

Never have I seen anyone slam a box-lid shut so quickly. In a merest moment, this haughty servant of the Crown completely lost his composure.

"Get this damned thing out of here!" he screamed at me.

As I quickly grabbed my snake box and ran off to meet the uncle who had come to collect me, I completely forgot to declare the dozen Japanese lighters that I knew would fetch a profitable sum among my schoolfellows - particularly as no import duty had been demanded on them.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

    £40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

    £17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)