Life on Mars – Fishing with Noddy

The other use for the Pier Head is as the focus of the island’s fishing industry.  On our first full day Edsel and I were looking around Georgetown and ended up at the Pier Head just as a couple of boats were bringing back their catches.  Trays of fish were being hauled up, and on a stone slab to one side of the quay, the fishermen were skinning, gutting and filleting the fish, mainly yellow fin tuna.  We watched them for several minutes; for me it was interesting to see the skill, but for Edsel it tugged at his heartstrings.  Like most West Indians, fishing is inbred into your culture, and he was obviously reminiscing about trips in boats, or dangling a rod off the rocks.

He made up his mind there and then that we needed to go out fishing.  After making a few inquiries, he found out that one old Saint, a guy called Noddy, was happy to take tourists out for an afternoon’s fishing.  We persuaded Anselmo, Tara’s husband, to come with us, and a young American guy from the base was keen on it too.  We turned up in our shorts and t shirts and met this old small wizened guy dressed in green overalls.  We were taken out in a small launch to his fishing boat just off from the pier and sat back and watched the preparations by him and his assistants  First we gathered up some bait from the inshore waters, and then chugged off under the stern of the US supply ship.  Immediately we headed out from the Pier Head we were targeted by a flock of frigate birds who circled overhead like vultures.  Noddy set up a few rods and handed them over to his four paying guests.  I had never fished in my life but had watched so many films and TV programmes which had fishing involved – how hard could it be?  We got to put on the support belts for the rod round our waist.   He showed me how to let the reel out gently, and simulated a fish being caught and showed me how to reel in and lock the wheel so once you pulled in it was not pulled out again. Nothing too it, the mechanism worked with ease and was no trouble.

Eventually Noddy decided this was the best place to hold position.  Nothing appeared to us as particularly favourable, but he must have known that at this time of the afternoon (about 4pm) the tuna were coming into the shallower waters to feed on the shoals of juvenile fish in the area.

Nothing happened for a while then Edsel got a bite.  I was watching from my limp rod position (no sniggers) as he pulled hard back into the boat to lift his rod upwards but he struggled to wind in the reel.  He repeated this several times but the strain was telling.  With a fag nonchalantly hanging out of his mouth, Noddy reached forward and tried to assist Edsel keep hold.  He motioned for me to take over and help Edsel and we pulled with all our might.  Our American friend had also got a fish and was similarly struggling.  After what seemed like ages the shimmering silver body of a yellow fin tuna broke the surface, but the fish was still not giving up.  He tried to head for the stern of the boat and we had to change angle to bring him back close to our side. Noddy reached for a boat hook and hauled the creature in.  I was amazed to see how easily he manipulated the huge fish, flinging it down into the boat,  but when his overalls were unbuttoned you saw the sinewy hard muscle that has come from 40 years fishing in these waters.

Once aboard I had a quick chance to assimilate the beauty of the creature we had brought aboard.  Forty pounds of sheer muscle, tightly packed into an aerodynamic sleek body.  Long thin tail and dorsal fins, couple of other fins, anal and pectoral, also sleek on the lower side.  and the perfect coloration for a ocean hunter – deep blue above to stop predators from the sky, silvery underneath to confuse the prey.  And little yellow features on the fins and along the centre of the trunk.  And at its head a huge pair of eyes to see in the gloom and the most vicious set of jaws for a creature this size.

There was little time to take this all in , as Noddy moved the fish around on the end of his fishhook then bashed it over the brains with a cosh.  In my naivety  I had always thought bringing a fish out of water was enough to kill it but when I saw these tuna bash around in the well of the boat with brutal force, I realised you had to take more affirmative action.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With a bit of help from Noddy, we managed to haul out a few more fish.  It was all a bit of an act.  I posed for photos with the rod bent right over; the American guy asking me “Face the camera”, and “Where’s the flash” and all I can say is “Take the fucking photo” through gritted teeth.  In about an hour we had six heavyset tuna in the bottom of the boat.  Noddy was getting bored with us though, and flung a load of bait into the water.  The tuna started jumping immediately – we were slap bang in the middle of a school of them, Noddy waved a fishhook over the water like a lance, one tuna jumped up and Noddy speared it and with the tuna still moving forward, he used its momentum to bring it into the boat.  I was astonished.  He did it with one arm.  In the space of the next fifteen minutes he matched the catch that four of us had managed to achieve in two hours.  Bait in the air, tuna jump, fishhook in, tuna somersaulted into the boat.  He was not always so lucky; when he threw the bait in the air, it was a competition between the tuna and the frigate birds as to who got there first.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Noddy’s simpler method

With twelve huge fish in our catch, we headed back to land.  It was nearly dark as the catch was hauled on to the hard.  While Noddy and his crew cleaned up the boat, we posed with our catches.  I could barely lift mine for more than a few seconds.  We weighed them, the heaviest was 55lbs. That is a lot of cans of tuna.  But we did not give them all up to Noddy.  We paid him to fillet one for us and Tara agreed to cook it up for us at her house.  An hour later we were sitting down to barely seared tuna steaks, so moist and fresh.  Edsel arranged to have some of his catch frozen.  Somehow he managed to get it back not just to the UK but also through US customs to his house in Nashville.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some of the catch

Life on Mars – Georgetown discovered

The stone buildings down by the pier head have survived much better.  The St Georges Tank pokes up above the rest, where water from Green Mountain was stored for use in the town.  And the Main Store, a massive tuff warehouse down in a dip close to the beach still looks imposing.  The Operational Services team are the main users of this building, storing kit and parts and those little-metal-loops-that-you-are-not-sure-what-you-can-do-with-them-but-you-had-better-keep-them-just-in-case.  It was reputed at one time to be the largest stone building in the southern hemisphere, and it sits amongst a few other similar store houses where the public works people keep their kit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the Water Tank

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Edsel on the “Cricket Wicket”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Stores – largest stone building in the Southern Hemisphere?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From the Stores up to the centre of Georgetown

Heading out from the Exiles to the north you come across a beautiful little whitewashed church.  This is the Anglican St Mary’s.  The Catholics meet in an even more interesting place – the Lady of our Grotto which is set in a volcanic cave down near the US Base. Back round the main street in Georgetown you have buildings which at first sight appear modern, but often they were around when the original barracks were put up.  Here you find the courthouse, the police station, old storehouses (the Africa Store is a name to conjure with) , the Bowling Alley, the Stables.  If you look at an old plan of the town you can see how the barracks were set out, and the residences that are apparently scattered about the edges of the institutional buildings were planned carefully as well.  And to some extent the division of class or rank is still prevalent in Georgetown.  The more senior government officers have expansive villas on a ridge just behind the play area, down by the hospital or at the north end of town looking out over Long Beach.  The more junior officials’ those with families, will likely be up round the back of town in rather run down villas.  Younger couples, maybe just starting out, will often be allocated in the area known as Chinatown.  This is made up of rows of terraced units between the stores and one of the forts.  And the single people are given little digs, almost like student accommodation, close by the Saints Club.  Over the course of my visits a new set of small houses were also built on the road out to the US Base and there were mixed opinions as to their utility.  Some said they were poky and lacking good airflow, others were relieved not to have termites eating away at their walls or mould growing up the insides.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chinatown

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chinatown and the Pier Head

Georgetown is a coastal town, but for many they will ignore the sea for most of the time.  Maybe because the ocean here is always in turmoil.  Even within the relative shelter of Clarence Bay to which Georgetown abuts, the sea is rolling and powerful.  The town sits on low rocky bluffs which section off big sandy beaches.  Atop these bluffs are Fort Thornton and Fort Hayes that were set up in the marine barracks period.  Fort Hayes is open every weekend for a few hours and is a typical 19th century defence – thick walls bunkered down in the hillside.  I found the pink plaster work on most surfaces a little off putting, but it certainly had the capacity to have defended Georgetown if the need had arisen.  The most intriguing piece of kit still left there is the old metal signalling equipment by which this fort could communicate by semaphore with the others.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fort Hayes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Georgetown from Fort Hayes

Fort Thornton is more difficult to explore although it is accessible, and in between is the Pier Head itself.  For most of the time this is a quiet spot for locals to hang out and have a few beers.  The teenagers tended to congregate down here late at night at the weekend and let off steam, much to the aggravation of older residents in Chinatown and up on the ridge.  Only when the RMS or other boats are in the offing will the Pier Head really come to life as the launches work hard to bring people back and forth and barges are loaded and unloaded by a massive crane on the pier itself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Semaphore Signalling Gantry

Life on Mars – In Gentle Decline

And so the island’s infrastructure, where not directly fed from outside interests, tends to decay.  Ascension’s history is lying all over the place.  The bric a brac of ruins is the legacy of brief periods when the island was useful.  The first major investment was the building of barracks on the island.  The imprisonment of Napoleon on St Helena was one of the biggest times where the British felt it necessary to have defensive infrastructure on the island.  Napoleon was such a personality, and although a hate figure in the UK, was still so much revered by the French and its territories that there was a fear that some group or other would mount a rescue mission.  Ascension Island provided a location to defend the island from approaches from the north, albeit being 500 miles to the north west and a speck of land in an ocean of water.  Georgetown grew out of this and the layout of the town is much more like a barracks than a civilian settlement.  Two Boats grew out of the need to house workers at the transmitter stations in the 1950s, with Cable and Wireless joining in later.  The air bases at the other end of the island were to billet workers for the newly constructed air field.  Over time the numbers of people have oscillated, with a huge influx when Britain went to war with the Argentineans in the Falklands.  But all businesses oscillate in their fortunes, and also in the efficiencies modern technology brings.  Most of the installations on Ascension now need far fewer people to keep them maintained than in the past, and contractors can be brought in temporarily to fix things or improve them.  The Government itself suffers the most.  It has to provide operational and technical services to keep the lights on, the houses maintained (not easy when they were built in an era of asbestos, have suffered rat and termite infestations, and the general wear of salty winds is gradually denuding the walls and roofs away), provide social and educational services… all with a tiny tax base, small help from outside and little opportunity to raise other revenue.

So things decline.  The barrack structures built in the Napoleonic era are the most grand on Ascension.  The centrepiece of Georgetown is the Exiles Club.  It was the original marine barracks but served as a club at one time.  It is taller than most in town and, adorned with a imposing clock tower, is the town’s defining landmark.  But it has been more or less in disuse for fifty years and is rotting away.  Parade grounds around the Exiles are still empty of any other buildings which allows you to get a full view from almost every angle, but it is so faded; what would be a Grade 1 listed building bustling with cafes, performance spaces and boutiques in any other town in the UK, here it is a majestic but sad representation of Ascension.

P1010237.JPG

The Exiles – fading away

Life On Mars – No right of abode

This whole issue of Ascension being a working island makes for a bit of a quandary. Everything seems so temporary on Ascension.  Nobody owns any property, everything is leased through the US or UK (aka the Ascension Island) governments.  One of the reasons businesses fail is because there are few opportunities to do any long term investment or planning.  And the population will say they are Brit, Saint, American, Canadian but not Ascension Island.  And yet, as I say, some were born there, have always worked there, are even now raising their own families there but cannot be considered an Ascension Islander.

The UK Government at one time investigated whether the policy of allowing belonger status to exist on Ascension.  I was on island when some of the consultations occurred, indeed I shared my breakfast table at the Obsidian with the guy who was here to deliberate.  Like a few diplomats I have dealt with, he played his cards close to the table, the conversation seemed open and investigative, but something at the back of my mind told me that it would not be up to the people who lived on Ascension Island to decide if they could stay there.  Its strategic importance militarily made it too valuable to both the British and Americans to give up their complete control of policy to civilians.  Not only was it a crucial airfield and intelligence gathering location, but supply ships from both navies could sit offshore here relatively undetected and ready to mobilise far more easily than from their home ports.  One of these, the TSGT John A Chapman, part of the prepositioning service that could deliver a war to a country in days regularly sat in Clarence Bay.  It contains all the kit, food, vehicles, supplies that can keep an army functional for weeks.  Given the protracted dispute between the UK, US and residents of Diego Garcia, the British do not want to open up another diplomatic sore like that in the mid Atlantic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

TSGT John A Chapman

But that leaves a few people spiritually homeless. As one guy told me, I was born on Ascension to Saint parents, but I have never felt attached to St Helena.  It is a place I go to visit relatives and have a holiday.  I don’t belong there, as much as I don’t belong to Swindon.

There was a little hope that the island would be opened up for belongers and maybe turned into a retirement paradise, but both the politics and the economics did not stand up and the lid was put firmly back on the belonger issue a few years ago. There is a little more democracy on the island with an elected council although there is some resistance to that too- a smoke and mirrors trick to rubber stamp decisions made elsewhere perhaps.

Life On Mars – Business and Rights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Conservation Office Block

 

The Conservation Office where Edsel and I would work was on the main strip coming into town, so very little escaped us unless it came down the hill from Two Boats Village down the one way road off Cross Hill.  We shared the same building with the Legal Secretary and the Drawing Office of Technical Services.  Behind was the Cable and Wireless building.  Apart from the military importance of Ascension Island, it was also a useful communication hub.  Cable And Wireless had been operating on the island since the days of the telegraph and now had relay stations here, as well as being the only telephone and internet supplier.  Next door to them was the Administrators Complex.  This smart building contained many of the offices for most of the small government, including the Administrator himself and a conference room, and a proud union jack flying from the flagpole outside on the “black grass”, the loose black chippings that seemed to cover the whole of Georgetown.  The Government was small; the big organisations on the island dealt with many of their own services, contracts and other issues, but the AIG pulled it all together.  This is after all a working island.  Apart from the RAF and USAF, there were a small number of companies as well as Cable And Wireless.  There were contractors for the British Broadcasting Corporation who kept a set of transmitters at the northern end of the island for their World Service broadcasts to both Africa and South America.  And then there was CSO.  An arm of the UK intelligence service, part of GCHQ, a small office was housed in Two Boats. They heard of Edsel and our presence on the island and were alarmed to find out that we had purchased satellite imagery of the island.  We were dragged up to the office and gently interrogated about our proposed activities.  We were told we were not allowed to map the radar stations, dishes and transmitters that pepper the island.  We said we had not intended to do anything of the sort, but might spot the thorn bushes and a few turtle nests.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Huge BBC World Service Transmitters

The implications of the island being run for a few businesses are not explicit at first sight – after all businesses and institutions exist everywhere.  But here in Ascension Island, if you are not working or connected with someone who is working, you are not allowed to stay on the island.  That means if you are made redundant from one contract, if you cannot find another job quickly you will most likely be asked to leave.  And then forced to leave.  And nobody can retire.  Apart from the odd white haired tourist, you do not see anyone over the age of 65 on Ascension Island.  Thus there are a lot of single people working on temporary contracts around the bases or in government, or maybe contracted out to work down the power station.  Then there are key critical posts, and people come down from the UK to work on short 2-3 year contracts, bringing their families with them.  A few have become long term residents but often end up doubling up on roles – the dentist also owns the Obsidian business.  Some of the government posts have become long term, many of the Saints we worked with in Conservation had been there many years, a few born there as their parents had come over as contractors and stayed.

One upshot of this is that the hospital is a very quiet place. Apart from maternity clinics and quick fixes for children or the odd industrial or sporting injury, it does not see a massive amount of activity.  And there is a morgue on the island out at the north end near Long Beach, but it, too, rarely gets used.  I took a walk to the Georgetown Cemetery at the southern end of town one time, and looked at the grand old headstones and memorials here.  Stories of passengers on ships that had fallen ill and died, fevers and even the odd shipwreck.  But just a few graves dug in the last forty years.  A few heart attacks, the odd horrific work injury.  And even in these cases, everyone is related to someone off island, the bodies tend to be sent to the Morgue for cold storage before being transferred on the airbridge or RMS.

Life on Mars – Consumers and Customer Relations

P9280008.JPG

BIRDIES FUEL STATION – The only place to fill up

Attend any of the events and you would get a slice of island life.  Often you saw the same partygoers at any event.  The exception to this was the Volcano Club.  Some of the contract workers in the US saw Ascension as a godforsaken hell hole, a hardship posting, and dared not go outside the fences that the commander put up to keep out the donkeys, the only threat to US sovereignty.  So they did their job, ate in the mess, pumped up in the gym or on the basketball court, then drunk away their sorrows in the Volcano Club.  How much were they missing?

The Saints and Two Boats Clubs had skittle alleys and most nights you could hear the shouts and cheers as different teams played out in a league.  I learnt to love St Helena Fishcakes (and try to make an inferior version back home now) and on a Friday,  if you headed round the back of the Saint’s Club as the sun went down you could join a hundred people getting their fill of the cakes and relaxing in the open air.

For a time, there was even a coffee shop in Georgetown.  In the old Conservation Office, more or less a shed at the northern end of town, a couple of entrepreneurs got hold of the equipment and beans from St Helena itself , served up some tasty biscuits and cakes and immediately got a clientele.  It seemed people working in Georgetown were desperate for such a service.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Georgetown’s temporary Coffee Shop

And this was a problem, people wanted many of the trappings of life they may have got elsewhere, even the Saints for whom it was second nature to make do and mend; if they had seen these services when on holiday away from the islands, they were keen to have the same at home.  But with a population of barely a 1000 people, it was hard to sustain a large enough market to have so much choice.  Some of these little businesses would open with a big flourish but the realities of rent, costs of supplies, services and lack of footfall would often do for them in a few months.

So it was with shopping.  If you were on the island a long time you made your own arrangements.  You could pre-order goods through shippers and it would be brought in on the next RMS or one of the other little ships that once in a while passed through.  With a bit more money, you could order in food through the RAF flights.  Shipping from Tesco in Bristol became quite a frequent event, if you could afford it. But for the rest you had to depend upon the couple of shops.  As a visitor, unless you were able to bring your own supplies on the plane, you had to make use of the two Solomon’s shops, one in Georgetown, one in Two Boats.  In recent years the one up in Two Boats was not doing enough business to stay open.  And the choice was small and the prices big.

Next door someone had established a bakery and there was much enthusiasm about the chance to get fresh bread and cakes every day.  Queues would form outside his little hatch throughout the morning and if you were a little late you were bound to disappointed.

Most of the businesses had weird opening hours, weird to an outsider of course.  The sole filling station up at One Boat would be open only a few days a week at certain hours.  This was mainly because the people who manned it doubled up on jobs elsewhere and could not sit there waiting for custom on the off chance.  People did tend to do more than one job, and often volunteered for a bunch of other things to keep it all going.

Life on Mars – Getting into the Nightlife

For a bit more money, attending one of the Tasty Tucker Wednesday Food Nights was a treat.  A set three course menu was put out, with everyone sitting down together and proper table cloths and napkins, nice so.  They tended to theme an Indian, or Mexican, or Chinese night; one time we had a fantastic Lancashire Hotpot. Sometimes they had to improvise with the ingredients – chick peas turned into frozen broad beans at one Indian Night.  But it was nice to see a bit of sophistication on an island that generally just made do.

On our first night in Georgetown, Edsel and I decided to head out for a night on the tiles.  The Obsidian more or less closed up after dinner, Tasty Tucker already shut up shop for the night, but we heard some noise coming from the centre of town and wandered over.  About a hundred people were crammed into an old stone building right in the centre of town.  This was the Saints Club – and was the focus of many a Saint, many of whom worked in Georgetown or on one of the bases.  That night the bar was packed out and a disco was in full flow in an adjoining room – it was like a cross between a village hall and a working men’s club.  We had a drink there and started chatting to each other but it was not long before several of the Saints started to introduce themselves.  One of the refuse collectors, a fireman, and someone who was an administrator in the government building. Before long we were the centre of attention and everyone wanted to know what we were up to.  When I said I was going to go on to St Helena in a few weeks time, I was bombarded with loads of suggestions of what to do there.

There were three other night spots on Ascension, although you had to know when they operated and how to get transport to them.  The liveliest was the Volcano club.  Situated in the heart of the US Airbase, it had a totally different feel from anywhere else.  While the Americans had leasehold over quite a chunk of land in Ascension , including the airfield, the US Air Base is the only place which does not feel British.  As you approach on the road from Georgetown you see the welcome sign, go over a cattle grid and it is like you have flown over the pond.  The look of the buildings, the street lights and of course the vehicles all look different.  I thought we might have to change sides of the road as we passed through.  And in the Volcano Club and the adjoining fast food restaurant, you had to pay in US currency.  Edsel was pleased to be back in the US, mainly as the attachment on his electric razor had US low voltage and the only place he could find to take a shave was in the restrooms of the Volcano Club.  In the bar were all the American beers, Budweiser ads, pictures from back home , neon signs, and on the big TV screens all the Baseball and American Football you would ever want to access.  While BFBS was being broadcast to the rest of the island, the US equivalent was pushed out here.  If the conditions were right, I could just about receive one of the US channels in my hotel room in Georgetown, if I could stand watching through a fog of interference.

Up the road in Travellers Hill was the NAAFI.  I rarely ate there, although the Volcano Club food was all fast and greasy at least it reminded you of a McDonalds.  The pizza at the NAAFI was like cardboard covered in tomato sauce that some squaddie had been sick on.  But there were a few good parties up there.  Finally there was the Two Boats Club perched on the ridge below the village of the same name.  Again this had a different air.  While the Volcano Club and NAAFI were pointed at the young vigorous and often single base workers, and the Saints too was a hangout for the single male government workers – the families in Georgetown tending to go to events in the early evening or daytime, Two Boats was much more about family entertainment.  Here you would have the bingo sessions, the line dancing, the quiz nights.  The Saints club had a similar set of events but was less skewed towards the families.  And the advantage of the Two Boats club was that the bar opened out on to a large deck area where open air barbecues and parties could be held, and below you was a swimming pool where you could dump the kids for a couple of hours.  It had a perfect setting close to the lowest point in the village, but perched on a ridge that looked down towards Georgetown to the west.

Life on Mars – The Obsidian and Tasty Tucker

We were booked into the Obsidian Hotel,  the only true hotel on the whole island.  It was once an Officer’s Mess and, apart from the RAF commander’s house and the Administration Complex, the only two storey building in Georgetown still in use.  Through some misunderstanding in Conservation, we were put in the plush VIP rooms up top on my first visit – and I felt very comfortable with my views over the town and the spacious suite.  Since then most of my visits have put me in Hayes House which has much smaller rooms in a prefabricated building, still comfortable enough but not really hotel like.  The Obsidian have a series of accommodation blocks spread across the centre of town and Hayes, as Tara put it “is handy for the Conservation Office”, but was a hike to the restaurant and bar in the Obsidian.

Sometimes I felt that at the Obsidian you had to know their routines and fit in with them.  Over time I have got used to it, but I found the reception a bit frosty to start with.  Being the only hotel there gave them perhaps no drive to go out of the way to please guests, ’cause where else were you going to go?  But on the whole I enjoyed the quiet ambience of the place and their had to be the appreciation that you could not expect all the normal mod cons and comforts of a hotel on a rock 1000 miles from the next country.  In the corner of the outside restaurant was the Anchor Inn, a mixture of English pub and tropical beach bar, and it was a great place to perch on a stool and catch up with everyone coming through – the tourists and travellers or the locals popping in for an after work slurp.  The courtyard out front would occasionally be full of people at a barbecue but more often than not, all you could hear was the wind breezing through the occasional trees or the shriek of a mynah bird. There was something about the silence of Ascension, so unlike anywhere else in the world.  The only birds in Georgetown were the introduced sparrows and mynahs, maybe one of the feral donkeys or sheep would pass through.  Peak hour traffic would be three cars passing by.  Every vehicle noise could be discerned individually, there was no background hum. Every action by anyone was immediately picked up because there was nothing else distracting you – the creaking of a gate, a cough, footsteps crunching on gravel. And in between, long periods of nothing but the wind.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tasty Tucker in its heyday

Through necessity, ordering meals at the Obsidian was a strict affair.  If you fell in to the habit you could just say yes at breakfast and turn up for dinner.  But there was not a massive choice on the menu and it was a bit pricy for what you got.  Fortunately an alternative was available.  Just across the way from Hayes House was an amazing little cafe called Tasty Tucker.  It had been a canteen for the AIG workers once, but a lady from Formby near Liverpool had decided to run it commercially.  It served a set of basic meals, but the options were far more than the Obsidian and you could just turn up and eat.  St Helena Fish Cakes were their speciality but there were burgers and soups, fish and chips.  In the daytime it would be busy.  They provided guys (they were mainly guys) from the single quarters with their meals on a commission basis for AIG, but others would pop in and the few tourists who were there would often visit.  Being on the main strip most of the island would pass by at some time of the day.  It was a great place to go for coffee, and Edsel and I also would get our evening meals there.  Being a cafe style it was not open late but it was OK to get in the habit at eating by 6pm each night.  Best of all they did a cracking Sunday Roast takeaway.  You had to remember to preorder it and pick it up by 5.30 but it was the kind of wholesome cooking that a single guy away from home would relish.  Through repeated custom, the Tasty Tucker staff got to know us pretty well, apart from the owner there was another middle aged  lady (she will love me for describing her that way!) , who I forget her name now, but it may have been Fran. She and I chatted a lot.  She was a Saint and was keen to hear about my travels down on her home island.  She also had children who had set up families in the south of England.  She was so good to me.  On a couple of occasions I might have forgotten to warn them I would like a meal, and she would look at me sadly and say sorry there was not much she could do, but then still do me egg and chips.  Once when I was about to leave she and I were chatting about luxuries, particularly food.  She had a craving for Marks and Spencer’s biscuits.  I often brought little gifts to people in Ascension and St Helena and quality food parcels were always appreciated. So next time I went down, I tucked a big box of chocolate biscuits from Marks and Sparks in my luggage and presented it to her on my first day there.  She was made up, asked how much she owed me, to which I just shook my head.  It was this kind of friendship you got from the Saints that made any trip to the islands something to look forward to and relish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Main St, Georgetown – with Hayes House Compound on the right

Life on Mars – Welcome to Georgetown

30 minutes later we repeated out taxi to the runway.  Every single person had their fingers crossed and were daring to hope we might leave.  It was now about 70 hours since Edsel and I had first left Kent and we had only achieved about 100 miles of our 4000 mile trip.  The engines revved up, then roared then we powered almost interminably along the 10,000ft runway.  We lifted, slowly, and rose into the air and the relief amongst everyone on board was palpable as we got to our cruising altitude, leaving the sunshine and harvesting of southern England below us and heading out towards Iberia and the West African coast.

The age of the plane meant that the only entertainment was from large screens at the front of each cabin and it turned out that only children’s films were shown.  I read a lot of my book that day.  We were served “dinner” about 11 am-  a ham sandwich which Edsel would not touch, and breakfast about 6pm – pork sausage and scrambled egg and  again Edsel had to pick out the pork.  No flexibility to the time of day – the catering reflected the original night time flight plan.

Over several trips to Ascension Island I have never been so delayed, and very little changed over the service.  Different charter airlines have undertaken the contract for the RAF, including an American firm who shipped over their own cabin staff who called you honey and chassed up and down the aisle in their tight uniforms.  The planes changed to , including a DC10 and an Airbus.  And the last time the entertainment did change and iPads were handed round from which you could select your movie or music.  But those two meals of ham sandwich and sausage and egg have never been altered.

The sun was set by the time we came into land at Ascension and all we saw was the red lights of obstacles around the airfield and the huge floodlights on the airport apron.  I’d met our host, Tara once before in London, and once the introductions to Edsel were made, we were taken the few miles to the capital city – Georgetown.  I’d not bothered to call Tara to tell her about the delays – she knew far more through the network on island and what was the point when the only option was to wait for the plane to depart and pick us up when we arrived.

I joke when I say we headed to the capital city.  True it is the administrative centre of the island, but in fact it was a town of barely 250 souls, in a country of about 1000 people.  The make up of the island was a mixture of military staff and workers supporting the functioning of the island, and one or two private businesses.  There are actually very few military ranks there.  Around the airport is the American Air Force base but apart from the commander and a couple of others they tend to be contract workers keeping the place oiled and greased in case it is needed.  The RAF base is up the hill about a mile away from the airfield.  It holds a few military staff but again has more contractors keeping the place going and a host of visitors including military people on rest and recuperation or R&R from the Falkland Islands.  What a shock it must be to them to feel the tropical heat of Ascension Island after the windswept cold of the Falklands.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Georgetown

Life on Mars – Will we ever get there?

About 150 people gathered under the portico of the hotel, but no buses arrived for nearly half an hour.  We contemplated walking to the terminal and in fact we saw some head off alone, but in the end we complied with authority (was I already being brainwashed into acceptance of taking orders?)  and when the buses arrived dutifully boarded.

The trip took less than four minutes but was uncomfortable as this old bus rattled as it bounced over speed bumps.  Once at the airport we had no queuing to do as we already had our boarding passes from the check in the day before.  It was an RAF boarding pass in red and blue.  Despite the flight being conducted on a charter jumbo jet and crewed by a commercial airline, it was still treated as a military flight.

We were held in the check in area for about an hour and given there were no windows onto airside, we had no idea whether our plane had turned up or not.  Rumours went round but we had no firm evidence.  I saw now that although many people were in civilian clothes, some of these were military.  On this occasion and later trips I could usually distinguish between the majority who were travelling to the Falklands and those who were alighting half way at Ascension Island.  The Falklands bunch had fleeces, bubble jackets, heavy sweaters and scarves about their person.  Ascension Island travellers were in t shirts and light trousers.  As well as the British there were a number of darker skinned people with a variety of different features but all with something in their pleasant countenances that made me link them together.  This was my first real encounter with the Saints.

Saints are the common term for people who come from St Helena.  There has always been a smattering of them on any flight up and down to the island.  They may come from St Helena but many work on Ascension Island and the Falklands where the wages have traditionally been much better.  And several have taken up residency in the UK.  The UK is also where many go to University and there are little honey pot concentrations of them in West London and Swindon.  The latter is not really much of a surprise as it is the nearest large town to Brize Norton.

After another long sit we were called through to the departure lounge.  To get there we went through the ticket check and airport security machines like you do at any airport, but the staffing was small at Brize and I found the same people who check you in were often at the boarding pass stand and both checked the x-rays and frisked you on the way in.

We were now in an airy but boring room.  But at least there were large windows at one end and I could now see the white jumbo jet that had been causing all the problems.  We were never told exactly what had happened to it to cause it not to travel on time, but still be able to be piloted to Luxembourg to be fixed.  It’s not a huge worry but it always makes me a little more nervous of a flyer when I know something has recently been wrong with my aircraft.  I know deep down it is more likely that it is in a better state now than it had been but it does not stop me thinking about my fatality probabilities.

It seemed another age before we were called forward to the gate and shuttled off on buses.  Curiously, the military do queues by rank, so all officers went first, then the enlisted men, the contractors and consultants and finally the civvies like ourselves.  When we got on board we were all scattered around this huge aircraft – and there was at least two seats for every passenger.  We waited for ages again and I had time to look in a bit more detail.  The aircraft had obviously been owned by British Airways at some stage – some 1980’s style branding was still evident on the panels, but its history had obviously been more complicated as it had instructions stuck on the seat backs about life vests and seatbelts that appeared to be in Indonesian.  I later saw a plaque which stated that this had been the first ever 747 that had been delivered to British Airways.  And it showed.  Some of the seats were broken, tray tables were missing bits and every armrest had an ashtray.

This was going to be an interesting flight…. if we ever got off the ground.  Eventually with a huge apology from the captain for the delay, we taxied down to the runway and turned and waited for the all clear to take off.  And we waited.  And we waited.  And then slowly but definitely the huge jumbo full of weary, angry passengers lumbered back to the terminal.  The shrieks of “oh what” and “no way” around all the cabins  were almost in unison.  The captain once more apologised and explained that all jumbo jets have 7 compasses, and one of them had failed.  And without it they could not leave.  This did nothing to enhance the incredulity of the passengers, but we were told we would stay on the plane and an engineer was being called in from the airfield to take a look.