Comex Two: Penetrating the fog

For some reason I have not yet worked out, my Page entitled ‘Does No-one Now Remember Comex II?’, a piece I wrote over three years ago about a disastrous end to an optimistic adventure, has attracted 21 Views since yesterday.

Add to that, the three Views its follow-up piece ‘Comex Two: Of Time and Memory’ has also garnered, and two more for ‘Comex Two; Stately Home; Sigh’, a somewhat despairing companion piece commenting on the strange attraction of the two eponymous Pages when compared with the rest of my incredible output, and you have a total of 26 Views of Pages with the word Comex in the title, in a single day.

If I tell you that is more Views than all of my many entertaining and informative, contemporary Posts get in an average month, put together, you may understand my bewilderment.

I suppose it is about the time of year when the events referred to took place, 48 years ago. It’s not an especially propitious anniversary, 48, compared to, say, 50. Fifty years is indeed a long time in anyone’s memory, and the point of the three pieces I wrote is very much about how time blurs memory; and about how imperfect my knowledge was even at the time, and how the story flickers only dimly now at the edges of my imagination.

Traumatic events become distorted in the mind: as any lawyer will tell you, witnesses disagree violently over details. My whole life is like some weird movie whose entrails have got caught up in the projector mechanism and are spewing all over the floor. Most of my memories, I realise, are only memories of having remembered memories over a very long time, and have become divorced from the actual experience, as though I never really experienced them, or as though they never actually happened; more appositely, I suppose, as though they happened to someone else.

For we change. It’s one of those disprovable, ’97 per cent’  factoids, like ‘Humans are 97 per cent water’, or that ‘Humans and chimpanzees have 97 per cent DNA in common’, or that ’97 per cent of the Universe is missing’, that ‘Humans replace 97 per cent of their body cells every seven years’.

But we change.

I am undoubtedly not the same person, turning – as I hope to – 66 in two weeks’ time, that I was when I was 17. My 17-year-old self exists only in one photograph, of a moody-looking youth in a striped shirt, sitting outside a cafe in Venice, strumming a guitar. I have no other clues as to the continuing presence in my life of that beautiful-looking, yet curiously unattractive young man. Only the finest of silk threads connects us.

Yet later that year, he took part in and was a peripheral witness to the events I have described – as if I had only recently read his book about them, and have been trying to convey the fragmentary details as a cohesive narrative to some disinterested interlocutor who is busy texting his mates.

It is partly why there is, or ought to be, such disquiet over the prosecution of ancient crimes: the 94-year-old ex-Nazi death-camp employee gaoled last summer for four years for war crimes committed seven decades ago is only a representative symbol of something evil that was done then. He is not the same willing conspirator who collated the tragic remnants of the prematurely truncated lives of his barbaric masters’ multitudinous victims. His is a case of mistaken identity. That man has only a tenuous link with the past: yet the living simulacrum must face retribution. Closure is everything.

As old men, should we be forced to be responsible for the past crimes of those easily deluded youths who merely bore our names; and then we die, and who is to blame now?

We imagine that perturbations frozen in the flow of time can be replayed endlessly with the diamond stylus of memory through the loudspeaker of moral outrage. But styluses gather fluff, grooves wear out.

History holds individuals responsible, both for human triumphs and tragedies. Often, those are the opposite sides of a coin. Our admiration or disapprobation poses a profound moral question. The victims of history tend to be kings and queens, politicians and generals, scientists, inventors, religious and convicts; because we know most about them: written records serving as public memory.

Ordinary folk, such as you and I, live for a while in the generational memories of our children and grandchildren, our mementos and photographs, the sticks of furniture we sat and slept on and the items of the past we treasured disappearing shard by shard into the spoilheaps and dusty junkshops and non-recoverable media of an unanticipable future, unwinding our coiled fingerprints until the fog of time closes around us and we are gone.

Memory serves us only poorly. It merely perpetuates injustice and the folly of youth and then it becomes malleable history; plasticene mixed and muddily coloured by the expediencies of the present. It is best ignored, abandoned.

Knowing the frailty of memory, why do we insist on endlessly remembering? What good purpose is served by continually chewing over ancient battles, the perpetual reiteration of self-regarding sagas of tragedy and loss, of minor social coups and what we said to whom, or might have said if we’d had the presence of mind; the endless fascination with past misdeeds and the continuing shifting around of unreliable facts, rearranging the disordered living-rooms of the past?

Those who argue we learn from history are either history professors or absurd optimists. Nothing is ever learned, that cannot with the passing of time be unlearned, or changed to suit the present.

But I thank those of you who have troubled to add your Comments on my article, clarifying the story a little, penetrating the fog. To the one actual survivor of the crash I have now heard from, David, I apologise for everything I have certainly got wrong! A good journalist never lets facts get in the way.

After all, ‘I’ wasn’t there. It was someone else altogether.

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Comex Two: exploring time and memory

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.

 

Postscriptum

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.

Does anyone remember Comex 2?

SPECIAL Announcement

There is to be a memorial service in Durham (Cathedral) at 5pm on the 30th Sept to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic crash. There will also be a reception and then some form of informal gathering.

Sorry I have no formal contact details.

 

Comex Two

A cursory search (yes, jokes already!) on Google produces no reference to Comex 2 on the first five pages, which is about as far as I generally go. We find numerous commodity exchanges and obscure global corporations; even a young man, according to a report in Forbes Magazine, who has twice succeeded in hacking Apple’s supposedly unhackable iPhone operating system, and goes by the name of Comex, which I guess stands modestly for ‘computer expert’? They are not the Comex I am looking for.

Forty-five years ago this month*, nine coaches were racing miles apart through southern Europe near the end of a three-months-long expedition overland to India. “Comex” was an acronym of Commonwealth Youth Expedition, a project run virtually singlehandedly by a former colonel in the Gurkhas’ regiment, Lionel Gregory. Though he gave off an air of soldierly distinction, Gregory had merely been in charge of a transport division, hence in retirement his dedication to the pursuit and logistics of large-scale adventuring.

As you might guess, Comex II was the second such expedition, larger and more ambitious than the previous year’s. Each of the nine coaches was allocated to a British university, thence to be driven over vertiginous mountain passes on twisting and unguarded rubble roads littered with the upturned skeletons of burned-out vehicles, by newly licensed undergraduate students. Each carried up to forty young people, who organised themselves into performing groups and put on shows of British culture and displays of friendly solidarity at other universities along the 4,164-mile route between London and New Delhi. I know this because, aged 17, a seat had been wangled for me on the Oxford coach by my step-aunt, Jeannine Scott, who rented office space to Col Gregory and was a patron of his charity. Having just left school without confirmation of a university place, I was being packed off ready to see the world.

It was not entirely a happy expedition. We set off in July, at a time when the government was enduring one of its perennial financial crises and had limited every British traveller abroad to just £25 spending money. Mine lasted all the way to Germany, about four days, after which I was forced to sponge off students who had been more careful with theirs. Living mostly on yoghurt, chapattis and cucumbers, sleeping rough in the desert, we wound our way across the Bosphorus, over terrible mountain roads through Anatolia and into Iran, Afghanistan (between wars), through the infamous Khyber Pass and, under sheets of monsoon rain, into Pakistan. By the time we reached Delhi I had contracted amoebic dysentery and spent ten days in the university there, unable to afford medicine, shaking with fever, drizzling blood into a grimy toilet. The back of the door was the most I saw of India, until we drove up to the former British hill station of Simla, where in the cool mountain air and with cleaner water I soon recovered.

Our return was rushed, as we were far behind schedule. In Bulgaria, we were bombing along a dual carriageway when, with a terrible crash, we hit a cart driven by an elderly farmer who had pulled out onto the road without looking. Shattered glass and timber and dying horses lay everywhere amid scattered corncobs — I don’t know how our driver survived. The farmer himself stood in the midst of it, stunned and babbling, but otherwise miraculously unscathed. In local law, it had been his right of way. After the various police formalities had been completed we were allowed to carry on our way, now two days late, in a vehicle crippled by the loss of most of its front-end — only to learn, as we entered then-Yugoslavia, of a far worse event that had occurred while we were perhaps fortunately detained.

The party from Durham university had been travelling at speed along a perfectly straight stretch of road, when the unsecured jib of a mobile crane mounted on a lorry heading the other way swung out across their path, slicing the top off the coach. Fourteen students were decapitated. The student driver was arrested, put on trial and automatically sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, although the accident had not been his fault. Limping on through Austria and southern Germany, we shivered in silence as the snowflakes blew in through the missing windshield. Somewhere along the autobahn, we naughty boys at the back were persuaded by the coach captain, Vipin Suri (how funny that we recall so many names from the past, yet none from five minutes ago)  to ditch the kilo cake of Afghan black hash we’d been hoping to smuggle back to Britain. To a casual passer-by, it must have looked like a cowpat. Indeed, it probably was.

***

The media nowadays goes into paroxysms of intrusive, speculative reporting for days and weeks over such incidents. Police, social workers, counsellors, coroners, politicians are involved, public enquiries demanded… . In 1967, however, we lived in a less emotive age. I returned from Dover to my home in London, gaunt and two stone lighter than when I had left, was passed fit by our elderly, no-nonsense GP, and nothing more was ever said or heard about it.

Somewhere surely are survivors, the elderly parents, sisters and brothers of the dead, the driver (who, I seem to remember, was released on appeal); but we do not hear a word from them. The incident slipped rapidly out of public notice into history, significant anniversaries ignored. The mark it has left on me, assuming that my long cycles of depression and digestive sensitivities have nothing to do with it, is that I still sink gibbering to my knees, or have to slow the car to a terrified crawl, at the prospect of a sheer drop of more than a few feet. I didn’t manage to get a place at university, that year or any other. Instead I was sent to film school, before drunk-walking into a decade of improbable jobs in the media for which I had not the slightest qualification.

Within days of our return, the bluff and soldierly Col Gregory, seemingly untouched by any responsibility, was already planning Comex III.

Note: I have Posted a later article reflecting on this topic, if it is of interest. Comex Two: of Time and Memory (July 2014).