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.