In 1961, at the age of six, I entered the English school system for the first time. No-one in our family had ever lived in England before. I had a generally happy time at Overchurch, a popular and progressive state primary around the corner from our house in Upton. My new classmates said I talked dead funny, and even Double Dutch – born in Glasgow, I’d spent the previous two years in Indonesia, where Dad was working, and I had no reason to lose my Scottish accent.

Dad had taken a job with the French company Bureau Veritas and bravely decided to accept a position as their representative in Indonesia. Surabaya, as you may or may not be aware, is Indonesia’s second city. It stands on the northern shore of eastern Java on the edge of the Madura Strait.

Even today it sounds exotic

Air travel in the late 50s was a serious undertaking. As you can see from my BOAC Junior Jet Club Log Book, it took six separate flights to get from London to Singapore, via Zurich, Beirut, Karachi, Calcutta and Rangoon. Since the airport at Jakarta was closed (there were holes in the runway), we then had to make our way from Singapore by ferry and car.

It did not help that I had measles!

My prized BOAC Junior Jet Club Log Book

Prior to Overchurch, my only formal education had been in a tiny school which the ex-pat denizens of Surabaya had established for their children. There were about a dozen of us (British, German, Dutch, American and Japanese); we were taught in English by two ladies, one Chinese and the other Indonesian. That is where I learned to read, write and do sums.

When I started at Overchurch my parents were pleased to hear that I was not lagging behind the others; in fact, I was one of the three best readers in the class (the other two being girls). English books were not plentiful or easy to get hold of in Surabaya, so I read whatever my parents could lay their hands on. Apart from a couple of Noddies, they were all from the USA. Consequently I knew about Captain Kangaroo and Brer Rabbit but not about Winnie the Pooh and all that soppy English stuff. There is a library of classic children’s books that I never read because I didn’t know they existed until it was “too late”.

One of my childhood favourites

Those two years affected my life in a crucial and permanent way. For one thing, if we hadn’t come to live in Indonesia, it’s possible that we would never have left Scotland. It’s certainly unlikely that we would have come to the Wirral, so I wouldn’t have gone on to Birkenhead School which, whether you liked it or not, was very good at getting its pupils into Oxbridge… still, Glasgow and Edinburgh have fine universities too.

There was one area in which I did lag

Having lived in Asia I didn’t know how to play European team games. I don’t recall anyone ever attempting to teach me the rules of cricket or football. (I eventually worked them out for myself, but I was 10 by then.) But anyway, I wasn’t lonely for long. Despite my apparently impenetrable accent I soon made friends. But, as an only child, I existed in a nuclear family – grandparents and cousins were in Glasgow. I wasn’t too bothered because that was normal, as far as I was concerned.

Balinese village girls

More long-lasting was the effect of having experienced a fundamentally different culture at such an early age. In the early 60s, people did not travel abroad (even to Spain), unless they were in the armed forces or wealthy. Few people at my school had the means – or perhaps the desire – to take foreign holidays, and the war was still fresh in people’s minds. My classmates had little conception of what “abroad” was like – apart from what they gleaned from war films, Wagon Train and Tarzan – and no-one of any age, let alone my schoolmates, had heard of Indonesia. Obviously I must have meant India.

My stamp album
My stamp album

Our bungalow at 79 Jalan Raya Darmo was near the zoo, where you could visit the funny orang-utans and scary Komodo dragons. It had a garage and a garden, in which grew limes, papayas and bananas. It was also where Dad had his office, so there was a secretary and a driver (for our Ford Prefect) in addition to the three servants.

Ford Prefect, 1960
Ford Prefect, 1960

It was, and still is, hard to explain that this did not make us posh

It was normal to employ servants (unless you wanted to queue up in a sweltering hot market to buy food and return to sweep the floors of ants and cockroaches yourself) and, indeed, something of a social obligation. By employing three servants you were effectively feeding three local families.

My glamorous parents, far right
My glamorous parents, far right

I wish I could say that being exposed to Bahasa Indonesia turned me into a precocious linguist. It didn’t – I hardly learned a word, which of course I regret. If I’d been a bit older I might have tried harder. But then, I might have been at boarding school… who knows?

Air France 707 brochure, 1961
Air France 707 brochure, 1961

Maybe it’s time to jet back to Surabaya and rekindle some half-forgotten memories.

2 thoughts on “Surabaya Johnny

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