Roald dahl, flying profiteroles & other near misses

Browsing through the second hand bookstore, my interest settled first upon a number of typically bland self-help titles. My gaze moved rapidly onto the religious section which was always a favourite for me. But Noam Chomsky’s book did not merit the price attached to it. Still my interest waned and I walked out of the shop with nothing in hand. A final glance at the window display and my eyes caught sight of a young woman trekking across the African savannah. I tried to remember if it was indeed Fyfona Campbell who was so rudely heckled by Roald Dahl at our reunion dinner in 1985. I bought the book, ‘On Foot Through Africa’ through no desire to actually read it. I just wanted to verify if it was her or not.

Our six-week expedition to the Lyngen Alps, somewhere just above the arctic circle was over all too quickly. It was September 1984, and the majority of us ‘Young Explorers’ had returned to the UK to start our first year at universities. The call to dine with royalty and a group of veteran explorers was received later in the year and we reconvened at the Royal Geographical Society one sunny but cold day in January 1985.

I remember very little of the lecture itself, since lectures were now a staple diet. All I wanted to do was to eat, drink and laugh the evening away with my old comrades. These were comrades with whom I had been trapped for days on snow drifts and ice capped mountains. We had been roped together on glaciers and plunged into creaking, moving crevasses. We had toiled day after day delivering survival rations, up and down scree slopes, walls of ice and mountain tops, to our erstwhile compatriots and expedition scientists. I was young and impressionable at the time and these had been intense days. We were now about to celebrate our achievements and to say goodbye one final time.

Sitting down in the oak paneled dining hall, I was more than aware of the rowdy bunch of septuagenarians sitting right behind me and I was reliably informed the man sitting just a few feet away was, the now legendary, Roald Dahl. At the time, I had a vague knowledge of his works but knew little of his reputation. The noise generated by Roald Dahl and the ‘Young Explorers’ of 1934 far exceeded anything us young whippersnappers were capable of. And we still maintained a degree of respect for our elders and betters. They held no such sentiments and were completely unfettered by any discernable social etiquette. As the keynote speaker told us of the night her Land-Rover and back up team of two male mechanics slipped off into the darkness leaving her stranded in the African desert, Roald Dahl shouted out across the floor – ‘with a face like yours I am not surprised!’. There was uproarious laughter on the table behind me. It was an age before political correctness had fully taken root, though most of us youngsters were nevertheless quietly shocked by Roald Dahl’s outburst.

Later in the evening as the final course was served up the noise in the far corner of the hall was rising distinctly. Then suddenly another elderly gentleman stood up, stiff and erect, exclaiming in the most indelible and punctuated up class accent – ‘my wife…. has been hit by a Flying Profiterole…. and I do not expect this to happen again’. At which point he promptly dusted himself off and sat down again. His poor wife clearly hoped to avoid such embarrassment and would have made nothing of it knowing all too well what was about to happen. And surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west a barrage of profiteroles flew into the air. Moments later our stern gentleman rose once more to explain – ‘my wife has been hit by another Flying Profiterol and we are now leaving’. It was a riot and a joy to behold.

We later retired to an ante-room where our royal guest and patron circled the room discussing all things technical with the young explorers but I was just a little too inebriated to be much interested in the difference between plastic and leather snow boots.

Over twenty years later I found myself inadvertently discussing celebrity encounters and ‘near misses’ with our procurement agent over dinner in a quiet restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Many years ago, Suki had apparently been talking to a rather flirtatious member of the royal family about the relative merits of different types of alpine footwear at a reunion dinner at …at … and as she struggled to fill in the details I was able to finish off her sentence… at … the Royal Geographical Society, BSES Lyngen Alps Reunion Dinner 1985. Her amazement was matched by all the other guests around the table. And I was just a little shocked myself to discover that Suki, with whom I had been working so closely now for six months, had in fact, probably shared a tent with me and others, somewhere long ago, on a snow drift in the arctic circle. Those glorious days of our youth.