There has been a sudden burst of interest in an article I posted two years ago, asking if nobody now remembers Comex Two, a Commonwealth youth expedition overland to India in which I took part in 1967, aged 17, when things went horribly wrong and a number of equally young people died.
The events of, now, 47 years ago this summer are, I have to confess, a little blurred; if I ever truly remembered them. Most of the worst of what took place I learned only from hearsay. I had begun to think that perhaps I might have invented many of the details, if not the whole story, as I am not now certain about much of my life as I recall it, and do not trust myself not to be increasingly polluting fact with supposition as my faculties deteriorate.
I am grateful then to ‘Caleb’, who has Commented overnight that he tracked down my article, having recently come across the gravestone of one of the dead students in a churchyard in Durham, which mentions Comex Two in the inscription.
So there is at least one small piece of evidence somewhere, literally ‘set in stone’, of what, if it happened today, would have been a major human-interest story attended with the usual media circus, sonorous police enquiries, offers of counselling, finger-pointing and hand-wringing punditry.
The point of my article was that it was not.
I cannot speak for any of the others, but my own experience of arriving home half-starved, post-dysenteric and in shock was to be told simply to get over it. I was not aware of there being very much press coverage, nor was I ever asked by anyone in any official capacity to testify about my experience. The incident was never again mentioned in my step-family, who had a close relationship with the expedition leader, Lt-Col Lionel Gregory*; although I suspect it probably had a lasting effect on me.
My page has acquired five viewings since yesterday, a record, and I am wondering if the inquest into the death of Horatio Chapple, the 16-year-old Eton schoolboy killed by a marauding bear while trekking on Svalbard island last year, might be responsible?
The tragedy of losing a promising child, as Chapple clearly was, must be made marginally worse for his family by the manner of his death. Upper-class young men are only killed by polar bears in adventure stories, or in wrily comic novels by Evelyn Waugh. There is a sort of horrible irony attached to this very raw loss. There is guilt in letting-go a son, one imagines the optimism with which he must have set off, but every parent knows it has to be done. It makes the man, albeit in this case too shockingly briefly.
And it does not always have to end in tragedy. The commemorations attending the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War remind us of the hundreds of thousands of young men on all sides who never came back. ‘In the midst of life, we are in death’, as the burial service reads. But nine out of ten still did come back. The recent toll of 435 British service personnel who died for what now seems to have been a bit of a lost cause in Afghanistan can be set in the context of the more-than 100,000 who served in the Afghan theatre over 13 years.
In the case of the fourteen Comex students from Durham University, they died pointlessly in a road accident in then-Jugoslavia, sitting uncomfortably in a coach, chatting, laughing, fitfully snoozing, when the unsecured jib of a mobile crane coming in the opposite direction swung across their path and sliced the roof off. The coach had been travelling at speed, trying to make up time as the whole expedition was several days behind schedule, returning home.
Had the Oxford coach, on which I was travelling, not been delayed the day before by another serious accident in Bulgaria, in which amazingly no-one was killed (except for two poor horses – I still hear one screaming in pain, its smoking guts spilled across the carriageway) – it might very well have been us, as we had been in front of Durham on the same route. I had formed a friendship with one of the young women on the Durham coach, and but for my schoolboy shyness might have jumped ship to travel with her.
Might this, might that. But not.
Let’s be clear: I do not blame ‘Greg’, for whom forging bonds of friendship and Commonwealth, hands-across-the-sea, etc., were at the core of his being, and who went on to organise nine more Comexes without trouble. But I do feel there ought to have been more official interest and, possibly, sanction over the somewhat ad hoc organisation of the second expedition. The numbers were too ambitious for one man to manage, as Greg insisted on doing through a system of volunteer ‘coach captains’. The coaches themselves were barely adequate, old-style Bedford Duples, mechanically unreliable, basic and cramped. The drivers were inexperienced, students who had passed their PSV tests only a week before departure. Their efforts were truly heroic, but at what risk? The roads were often primitive: unmetalled, vertiginous and unguarded.
None of this contributed significantly to an awful, random event. One might more easily anticipate marauding, hungry bears in the wilderness. From the inquest testimony so far it seems the anti-bear precautions may have been inadequate, although they were taken. The question might arise as to why the leader did not know how to operate the rifle, although which of us would have performed better under the circumstances? A broader question will remain about why polar bears are starving, as man-made global warming consumes their summer hunting-grounds.
In the end we learn lessons, we move on, but such tragedies ought never to dissuade young people from adventure, or teachers and retired, slightly bonkers ex-Gurkha-regiment colonels from arranging challenging expeditions to the vanishing places of the world.
No-one could have anticipated an industrial accident, a faulty crane choosing to malfunction at that precise moment in time, on a perfectly straight road. It reminded me of the Thornton Wilder story, The Bridge Over the San Luis Rey, where a young priest tries to understand why five particular individuals’ lives should have been snuffed-out when the bridge collapses, only to lose his faith when he realises that everything is totally arbitrary.
The result, however, for the survivors is the same: ‘I’m alive, they’re not.’ A 20-year-old student, same age as my son now is, lies buried in a Durham churchyard, who will never receive his shitty little take-on pack from the Department of Work and Pensions. A small part of me lies buried in my mind, stuffed away, taken out rarely and examined for clues, then put back again, ready for the next life.
Frankly, not a lot of it makes sense.
*Lt-Col Gregory died in February this year, aged 95.
The eldest of my half-uncles, Peter-John I., was a public-school master in the 1970s, ex-army and an avid outward-bounder, who led several school climbing expeditions to challenging places. On one such expedition to the Andes, two of his pupils were killed in an avalanche. Two years later, he too disappeared while climbing with a school party in Peru, and was never found.
If anyone has any more detailed knowledge of these events, I should be grateful, etcetera.