Starting with Fif

The heading ‘People in My Life’ replaces the original ‘Faces of York’ on the main menu.  When we first uploaded the MOLL-Y web-site I conceived the unlikely idea of asking a random selection of down-and-outs, minor celebrities and various other reprobates across the city of York to contribute a piece or two about themselves. Alas, through fear, laziness, or most likely, straightforward indifference I achieved a zero uptake! Visitor numbers to the website, over the first two years, remained disappointingly low at an average of one or two per day and I am unsure whether or not ‘Google Analytics’ actually records my login attempts within that total. How sad! So, to get the ball rolling again and to add some spice and a wider outside perspective I decided to go-global and to replace the original menu heading to what we have today. I am convinced there have been plenty enough extroverts in my sphere of influence who will be willing to contribute.

I want to start, however with someone who is no longer with us. Someone, who left an indelible mark on my memory and with whom I spent some intense days and fascinating weeks travelling around Ecuador – Mr Fif Robinson of Whitby, North Yorkshire.

This particular episode of mine, started when ‘Operation Raleigh’ told me I did not have the requisite camping skills and outdoors experience to move forward. The next phase of their selection procedure, handling snakes and all that real rufty-tufty ‘Boys Own’ stuff which I desperately desired, was denied to me. I was surprised and perplexed. The idea of a ‘gap year’ in the 1980s was relatively uncommon and most nineteen year-olds coming from the state school system, hardly had the finances to feed themselves let alone travel round the globe camping and hiking in exotic locations. Nevertheless, this particular student had in truth, spent six continuous weeks camping in the valleys, hills and snow-capped Lyngen Alps, way above the Arctic Circle in Norway. What more did they want? The injustice worked its usual magic and galvanized my determination to ‘stuff-em’ and do it myself under my own steam.

One line in the subsequent British Schools Exploring Society’s newsletter caught my attention;

‘Field Assistants needed to accompany experts on botanical exploration of the Rio Mazan rainforest in the Cajas National Park, Ecuador – contact expedition leader now’.

I did, and was asked to attend an interview – at The Admiralty public house off Trafalgar Square in London. It was a good half an hour into the ‘interview’ before I just had to ask –

“Am I actually going on this expedition?”

Fif and the expedition leader looked at me askance.

“Of course you are. You made it to London didn’t you and you do want to go don’t you?”

‘Ah!’ I thought. That must be how things work when you finally decide to do it yourself and one stops relying on the establishment to satisfy one's wanderlust. I just had to get the cash together to fund this madcap scheme saving bats, birds, worms and spiders on the other side of the planet but that is another story altogether.

The advance party, six of us as I vaguely recall, convened in the flat of a ‘mate’ in Quito. We slept on the floor and soon realized the expedition would not go far unless we could release our highly specialised expedition gear from the port in Guayaquil. Someone had to go to effect that release but on consulting our lonely planet guide (or whatever equivalent we had in those days) no one wanted to volunteer! The guide simply advised tourists and expedition members to avoid the place at all costs. The incidence of homosexual rape in the city was extremely high it noted, especially after 6pm in the evening if one was found loitering outside of one’s hotel. Guayaquil sounded like a sexually rampant version of Transylvania and everyone wanted to stay in Quito for obvious reasons. Fif literally drew the first short straw and I the second. We thus committed ourselves to the honourable loss of our virginity for the sake of all those endangered birds, bees, reptiles, arachnids and helminths residing in the Rio Mazan. The bus trip was just crazy and we booked into a real cheap hotel on arrival, so cheap in fact the shower-head and connecting pipe appeared to be cemented directly into the wall with no further connection to the mains supply. It was hot and sticky and scary but Fif found great delight in all the wildlife that crept around our room at night and especially the enormous population of bats that made the city their home.

Fif and I bugged Mr Velasquez our shipping agent every day for a week until finally we received the promise that our equipment would be sent forthwith and directly to Cuenca in the south.

Having missed our 6.00pm curfew on a couple of occasions and realizing we had not in fact been raped, Fif and I manned up and enjoyed a number of crazy nights out in Guayaquil. These proved every bit as amazing and exciting as any Latin American port city ought to be.

One last thing I remember from our days in Guayaquil was the importance of our nightly Spanish lessons though I really ought to forget some of the words. Sensibly we determined each and every day to learn at least ten new words and through some spark of lunacy we chose to add something totally useless and facile to the list. Unfortunately, the only word I can actually recall from those lessons is ‘segadora-trilladora’ and I have never, to this day, been called upon in any situation to need, buy, use or indeed drive a combined thresher-harvester!

Fif was a multi-talented and very affable man. Everyone on the expedition enjoyed his friendship and company and I loved listening to his knowledge of bats, accompanying him on forays into the forest to catch, identify and release these beautiful creatures back into the wild. On one occasion, we found a bat too tired to fly away and spent hours feeding it and watching it do its business at close hand before it eventual dropped off the wall and glided away into the darkness. That was a surreal experience and one much less disturbing than a later visit to the university in Quito where the bat department kept a million dead 'murcielago' in a thousand jars of formaldehyde. Back to Transylvania!

As mere assistants, and little more than slave-labour to the botanical experts, we finally revolted and refused to bring back any more living samples to be gassed, squashed, pinned to boards and stuck in formaldehyde. Fif approved and apparently, is now credited with developing various non-lethal techniques for gathering zoological specimens and data.

After the Rio Mazan we went our separate ways and lost touch until one day sometime around the year 2010 when I was running a random google-search, looking for old buddies. I discovered from a ‘Guardian’ obituary that Fif was dead and was buried somewhere in North Yorkshire. He had died suddenly and with no warning from a brain tumour, leaving four children and his wife Sabine whom he had met on the same expedition. I was gutted and had to take the day off to quietly mourn. I plan to visit his grave soon and pay my respects.

Now you may, quite rightly, be asking yourselves why this piece has not been placed in my blog section – ‘In the Footsteps of’? I will tell you why. Prior to the expedition leaving the UK we convened a number of hare-brained planning meetings, one of which was held in Fif’s flat in Lewisham. On entering his living space he would ask all his guests to pick up paper, pens, crayons, felt tips and/or various other artistic media and to submit a self-portrait for blue-tacking to the walls. One could never resist since the first thing one would do on entering Fif’s flat was to acquaint oneself with a vast array of faces – happy and sad, fat and thin, some brilliantly drafted and some scribbled in seconds. Through this activity, he beautifully captured the essence of his own carefree life; this brotherhood of random images.

By means of this web page and and drop down menu, I hope through Fif’s inspiration to bring back into clear focus, some of the important people in my life.