In 2016, I wrote a little piece about my semi-colonial life as a forces child in Malaysia back in the swinging sixties. The post – Reflections of an Army Brat – featured a blurry old black and white image I found online of Mountbatten Primary School, the school I attended. It started quite a conversation between ex-pupils, a conversation which continues to this day.
The post from way back also took me to a Facebook group called ‘We are Terendakians’ – Terendak being the name of the army camp originally built for the 28th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade which consisted of soldiers from the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The Facebook group is a place to reminisce and interact. And reminisce and interact they do with some wonderfully evocative pictures of a bygone era. Sometimes it even gets up close and personal.
This might be me aged around 7:
And this is almost certainly my mother on the ladies badminton team:
Attending the annual Families in Global Transition jamboree in Amsterdam last month (#FIGT16NL) got me thinking about my own minor experience as a ‘third culture kid’ (TCK for short) – children and young people who are raised in a culture different from that of their parents for a significant part of their developmental years. For good or ill, we live in a world of mass migration and the term can apply to anyone along the #TCK continuum – a child desperately fleeing a war zone clinging to a hopelessly overcrowded dinghy or children flying business class riding the coattails of an executive parent. Such things present their own emotional challenges, though I’m sure we all agree the plight of a refugee child is way off the scale.
I was born in married quarters and was an army brat for the first ten years of my life. My Dad was posted here and there and I attended four different primary schools, three of which are still molding young minds to this day. The fourth, Mountbatten Primary School, Terendak Camp, Malaysia, is long gone. Malaysia was my one and only experience of living abroad as a child. I have no deep or wise words about our semi-colonial tropical idyll except to say I had a ball. I ran around Mowgli-style half naked and shoeless, climbed exotic trees (and fell out of a few), got stung by nasty red ants, crashed a homemade go-cart into a concrete monsoon drain (I still have the scar to prove it), played Chinese hopscotch with our maid, built a den out of army-issue packing crates under lofty coconut trees, learned to swim and got all my badges, tasted my first vanilla milkshake and played I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours with the girl next door. The only cultural dislocation I remember feeling was when we arrived back at RAF Northolt in West London. It was a cold and wet November day and I didn’t like it one little bit. And I never got to play Chinese hopscotch ever again.
Here are some old, well-worn and torn snaps – Mum in her best sequined frock and Dad looking dapper in his dress uniform, me with my little sister just after she was born, an undersized me posing with my oversized scooter, me with my best friend and a strapping Aussie lad (right) who tried to mug me out of my pocket money and made me cry (but relented when he saw my tears and befriended me), and a really hazy image of Mountbatten School I found on Digger History.
I noticed a little growth on my head beneath my slowly receding hairline. An ugly little lumpy bump popped up without warning. I didn’t know what it was. Best get it checked out, I thought. A childhood spent splashing around in the tropical sun fleeing leeches as an army brat and four years under Anatolian skies squashing mozzies as a lotus eater and I could well be asking for trouble. My fierce (her word) German GP didn’t know what it was either. “Best get it checked out,” she barked and sent me off to a dermatologist. He didn’t know what it was. “Best get it sliced off,” he said. Four blue stitches, a neat little scar and a lab report later, it was just a wart. Not the viral kind of my carefree childhood days but the worry warts of my impending dotage. Wisdom warts Frau Doktor calls them. Witch’s warts I call them. I’ve already got a thicket sprouting from my nose, silver short and curlies and unregulated wind. What next? Gout?
For a glorious tail-end to summer, the flip flops were dusted down and the shorts were washed out for a final flourish and a sunny bite with my publisher Jo Parfitt, the tour de force who is Summertime Publishing. Jo was passing through the county, visiting her folks before she sets sail on her latest expat expedition, this time to Malaysia. Jo treated us to a gastro-pub lunch at the Orange Tree in Thornham, on the north Norfolk coast. It was an unmissable chance to cruise through the bread basket of England during harvest time while it’s still above sea level. Thornham is a picture-postcard hamlet dripping with money, converted barns and upmarket holiday lets, the kind of place featured on those minor-channel relocation programmes like ‘Escape to the Country.’ Liam loves to watch these shows but since we don’t quite have half a million stashed away in an off-shore piggy bank, watching is all we ever get to do. The pub grub was delicious and Jo was delightful, as were her splendid parents who popped along for a glass. While Jo is sipping Singapore Slings on her latest posting, she’s asked me to join her small cohort of trusted confidantes, a huge complement and a nice little earner. So, to Ms Parfitt, I thank you. To Summertime authors, if your Kindle file goes tits-up, on my head be it.
Overwhelmingly, most pansyfans hail from Britain, Turkey or the States so you can imagine my delight when I noticed that someone from Malaysia was pushing the numbers up by having a good old root around the blog – 334 posts and rising. In the late sixties, I spent nearly three years in Malaysia as a young army brat on a base just outside Malacca. My memories of life in the tropical sun are vivid and glorious. In fact, both my sisters were born in the country (at different times – my sergeant major father was posted there twice). I hope to pop back one day, as my eldest brother has done. So, whoever you are my Malaysian friend, I thank you. You’ve provided the perfect excuse to fish out some ancient time-worn snaps and take a skip down memory lane.