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).