Continuing his series on writing and where the written word can take you in the world of books, magazines, broadcasting and newspapers, ex-Fleet Street journalist Terry Manners takes a look at the market for travel features and the importance of keeping a notebook and camera with you at all times … and how wandering off the beaten track can pay dividends if you keep your eyes open to capture alternative lifestyles and events. But the unexpected adventure can also sometimes prove daunting and even risky as well as exciting, as he discovered.
BLOG 7A - Notebooks, Cameras and Hawaii
3rd March 2021
IN THE late 1970s tennis stars Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were the talk of Wimbledon and the world. But Connors stole the headlines, not just for his aggressive tennis style on the Centre Court but also for his love double with female American tennis ace Chrissie Evert.
It was during this time that I found myself on an American Airlines flight from Heathrow to Honolulu to write a feature series on the exotic Pacific islands of Hawaii, and particularly Pearl Harbour. Pearl had become one of the world’s three major Dark Tourism sites on the main Hawaiian island of O’ahu, equally famous to me for the beach where Elvis Presley sang ‘Slicin Sand’ in the iconic 1960s movie Blue Hawaii. A bonus was that Connors was in training on the island. Could I get an interview, I wondered?
Pearl was the American Naval base attacked by the Japanese at 07.55am on December 7, 1941, without warning. Eighteen US warships were sunk, and 2500 service men and women were killed. The raid by 188 Japanese aircraft from a massive Imperial Japanese fleet, was to bring America into the war … and finally result in a five-ton atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. The site had become an official war grave with many of the ships and bodies of the men, left untouched. It amazed me just recently in a poll of University students in the UK, that most thought Pearl was attacked by Osama bin Laden. Some also believed it was the Taliban, others that the Americans did it.
Another reason for going, was the flight was the first to open up a 17-hour route for Brits to get to the paradise island, most of us had only seen in the hit American TV crime series, Hawaii Five-O,featuring detectives Steve and Dano. With a touchdown and three-night stay in magical Singapore, there would be a wealth of colourful copy to write for the Daily Express and the colour supplement. My notebook, always at hand, would be full. And that is why I always recommend you carry a notebook and pencil/pen at all times. There are words to write and sell everywhere. And when you get back to your hotel room, enter your notes up on the laptop or Ipad.
Singapore was a treasure. A sovereign, paradise island State between the Indian Ocean and the China Sea … with virtually no crime, beautiful sandy beaches, lagoons, glitzy hotels palm trees, exotic plants and wildlife. It was once the hub of British colonialism. But it had another side, as I was soon to find out. There was little crime because even spitting in the Lift was punishable by a hefty fine or jail. And people still had their hands chopped off for stealing. It was ruled by the iron fist of His Excellency Lee Kuan Yew since 1959. His motto was: “If nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless.”
Yew led Singapore after its separation from Malaysia to become one of the world’s most powerful financial centres on a par with London, New York and Switzerland. His firm grip firm grip on power left no scope for corruption and violence. Criminals were frightened of losing their heads and his orderly country attracted millionaires and businesses from Colonial Britain. Billions of dollars poured in, which he used to build decent housing for his citizens.
But his people, I soon discovered, lived a different way of life to us Brits. Even shopping was an eye opener. Downtown, I wandered into a huge shopping warehouse, a bit like an aircraft carrier for jumbo jets. It was packed with housewives of all ages shouting and shoving each other to get to the front of queues. The giant stone floor was wet and red water flowed down gulleys, cut into cement. It was a meat market … but not a butcher’s shop like our dear old high street.
Everything was alive. And the smell of death and fear was everywhere. Shoppers picked out chickens; lizards; all manner of creatures running around. Their owners would pick them up and slaughter them in front of the crowd before stuffing them in bags and handing them to the customer. I had to get out. I couldn’t stand looking at the live creatures. They knew what was coming. No wonder Covid finally came our way from Asia. The RSPCA would throw in the towel in a minute.
Eating out could be an experience. I was one of several British journalists on the trip to experience this new route opening up for tourism. One evening we were invited to a trendy VIP restaurant in an upmarket area, used by millionaires and top government officials. The six of us were ushered into a top room, dimly lit with candles. The walls were covered with shelves of jars containing substances and objects of different colours, and we speculated what they might be as the wine and beer flowed.
In front of us at the round wooden table were table mats made of dried banana leaves. As we chatted, the restaurant owner appeared and introduced us to the restaurant’s resident doctor, a willowy but elderly gentleman with a goatee white beard, who asked to check our temperatures and take our pulses … looked into our eyes and did other strange tableside health checks, even checking the ends of my hair. He pointed to the jars and explained that these contained all manner of health potions and aphrodisiacs made from an assortment of pickled eyeballs; bird brains; bulls’ penises; chicken guts and other innards which were part of the planet’s life force. Once he made his assessment, he would decide which mixture to advise for each of our sauces for the meal. We began to lose our appetites.
When he was gone, several of us nervously played with the banana mats and made a strange discovery. Underneath each one was a circular hole about four inches in diameter. We later learned that these were for the banned tradition of eating warm monkey brains. The hapless monkeys were once chosen from a cage at the table, forced up through the hole and banged on the head. I won’t elaborate. We were assured the practice no longer went on and was now illegal. Having said all this, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal, sauces and all. Cooking in the Far East we agreed was unbeatable … or was it the wine?
The stories tumbled into my notebook on this colourful island where funerals in Old China town are wonderful events of celebration for people who pass away. Days are spent preparing lavish parades to the dear departed. I stumbled across one with my camera … over a dozen floats of paper and flower-based models of everything late aunty always wished for in life, followed the gold-sprayed coffin. A Rolls-Royce car; a mansion; a yacht; a giant TV set; a huge bed, even a giant cooker with a hob. All made of flowers, paper and twigs. Aunty was taking them to the afterlife where they would become real, and the hundreds of mourners who followed in celebration of her life believed it. It was their turn to be rich soon. This was aunties’ own list, created in life. It is things like this you should always have your camera on hand for … the picture set could make you a few bob in a magazine or colour supplement of a national newspaper. Or you could even sell the package to a picture agency.
I stayed at the sumptuous Sheraton Hotel, in a suite of rooms provided to each Western journalist on the trip and we all had the services of a personal butler … in bow tie and tails. All very colonial. Every time I returned to my room a huge Singapore Sling cocktail would be waiting … one ounce of gin; a dash of cherry brandy; Angostura bitters, pineapple and lime juice. And to make sure I enjoyed the colonial experience, I was invited to the opening of the refit of Raffles Hotel, the epitome of old colonialism, wow! A magical palace of white brick, black furniture, palm trees growing in rooms and courtyards surrounded by glass throwing in sunlight at every step. I was walking in the footsteps of famous writers like Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, and many others. Maugham wrote books sitting in the hotel’s plush Palm Court as the orchestra played, so too did Kipling. When the Japanese troops burst in during the Second World War, the orchestra rushed on stage and played rousing anthems stopping them in their tracks. The soldiers couldn’t understand why the musicians weren’t frightened. But it was a cover. Behind the scenes, hotel staff were burying the hotel’s priceless silver treasures. They were saved.
The great thing about attending the hotel opening that day, was that I was made a life member of the prestigious Raffles Club – and given a card that entitles me to a free Singapore Sling in the Palm Court any time I visit. A long way to go for a drink, but it does cost 40 dollars a glass at the bar.
But if Singapore was an eye-opener, I was yet to experience a stranger side of life in the 50th state of America … Hawaii. Paradise. Back on our Jumbo we swept over the ice caps of glaciers and touched down in the 49th State of Alaska, our entry point to America. The little airport was cold and bleak with hundreds of lumberjacks in check-pattern, woollen coats, sporting beards that looked as if they would break the teeth of a comb, sitting around, looking as if they could pick up tree trunks with their bare hands. The air stunk of cannabis or something similar … legal in the State. As we queued for our passport checks before re-boarding our plane for Honolulu again, we wondered if Hawaii would be as warm as we had read. We were not to be disappointed.
From the time we stepped onto the tarmac at Honolulu under the heat of the Pacific sun, we had a warm welcome … Hawaiian music rang out from a band - and men and women in hula skirts danced around passengers, draping us in garlands of flowers. Once clear of customs more native dancers served up free local Mai Tai cocktails … the drink of the islands. A blend of dark rum, almond syrup and pineapple juice. We knew we would like it here.
The first few days were a dream. We were staying at the Holiday Inn on Waikiki Beach, acres of white sands slipping into a clear blue Pacific sea. We went whale and dolphin spotting on a pirate galleon; danced on the beach where Elvis swung his hips singing Slicin’ Sand and enjoyed lunches at Elton’s John’s favourite Hawaiian hotel, the Waikiki Hilton where turtles wandered around the mass of green foliage. We even attended Honolulu barbecue lessons. Well worth it. Vegetarians close your eyes. We all laughed in agreement when the Hawaiians told us that the English blokes were doing it all wrong … and that was why our barbecue guests ended up eating burnt-black meat on the outside … and pink flesh on the inside.
Early one morning we carried a large pig on a spit down to the beach, dug a two-foot hole in the sand, dropped the pig in, covered it up again, and went off for the day. That evening we arrived with the beer, dug up the pig and put it on the spit over the barbecue. The result was a beautiful tender meal. The pig had cooked inside beautifully under the sand in the heat of the sun … and when put on the barbecue, for only a short time, it was smoked to perfection. From that moment on, back home, I always cooked the meat gently in the oven before taking it out to the barbecue to finish off with smoke and sauces, according to our taste. I never had another piece of charcoaled-black steak with pink inside again.
Pearl Harbour was a moving and ironic experience. I boarded a little shuttle boat of about 500 tourists, all clicking away with their cameras – and nearly all of them Japanese … descendants of those who had sunk them. Had they really come to see what a success of the raid their fathers and uncles had made, I wondered? Mournful music played as we weaved in and out of the harbour graves … bows and sterns of ships, turrets, guns and masts stuck out of the water. At each one our boat captain made a little announcement.
The main sea grave was USS Arizona, resting place of 1,102 sailors and marines. Over two million tourists visit it every year. But in every adventure I have encountered on the writing trail, there is always something that comes out of the blue … something that perhaps shakes you. It came as a result of trying to hunt down tennis star Jimmy Connors, hitting the world headlines with his love affair with Wimbledon champion Chrissie Evert. Luck had it that a party was being thrown for Connors in my hotel. Couldn’t believe it. Getting an invite to this grand celebration wouldn’t be a problem because the management were ‘looking after’ their guests from the British Press – in the hope that the Holiday Inn would get coverage in their articles. I was proved right. The management arranged invites for myself and a journalist I had teamed up with from Manchester’s Radio Piccadilly – Steve.
The party didn’t kick off until around 9pm, so, early that evening, dressed in a cream linen suit, I went to the hotel’s Jazz Bar for a couple of Kiawa Honey beers. It was my favourite bar … a sort of glitzy Manhattan snug with a grand piano, a small band and an assortment of jazz singers who would have given Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong a run for their money. The beer went down well, and I stayed later than intended. When I got to the huge lounge where the party was being thrown, I could hardly get in. It was packed. Forcing my way through the crowd, I looked out for my favourite waiter … a black guy, 6ft 4in tall, built like Mohammad Ali with a physique to match, Toby.
True to journalistic form, Steve and I had cultivated him with tips in dollars since we arrived. Sure enough, I soon spotted him in his red and gold waistcoat, carrying a tray of drinks above his head. We made eye contact and my evening drinks were assured. With a glass of bubbly in my hand, I squeezed around the room, looking for Connors, stopping to chat in circles of people. Whenever my glass was empty, Toby magically appeared by my side and topped it up. This went merrily on until I got into a conversation about British politics for some reason. At least I think it was about politics and I think the listeners were American.
Not sure. But I suddenly became aware that they were looking at me strangely. My words seemed to be coming out of my mouth back to front, if that makes sense. I knew what I was saying … but when I heard my own words hitting the airwaves, I was confused. They weren’t what I was saying at all. For example, if I said: “I think the Prime Minister has a difficult task ahead on the economy.” It would come out: “The economy ahead difficult task I think Prime Minister.” This went on for a short while, until I realised that people were turning away and not listening to me.
My instincts took over and I knew I had to get out of the room. I had stayed in the Jazz Bar too long and now the bubbly was hitting the mark. I made for the reception area and the lifts, in a very matter of fact kind of way. I can still see myself walking to the silver doors of the elevators in my mind’s eye to this day. I was on the 17th floor and I pressed the button for 17. Up I went, and I got out, only to find myself back on the ground floor again. I had gone up and apparently come down again. I knew I was in trouble and must not embarrass the newspaper by being so drunk, not good Karma. I concentrated hard. I willed myself into the lift again and this time got out at the 17th.
My room was opposite the lift doors. I put the card in the lock and entered, the door automatically closed behind me. I distinctly remember turning and putting the chain in the lock. I walked to the TV and turned it on, while taking off my suit. I even remember the show … it was The Fonz in Happy Days. Then I threw myself on the bed and stared at the mirrored ceiling. Not long after that, how long I am not sure, I couldn’t move. I was completely paralysed and struggled to turn my head. I couldn’t lift my legs or arms at all. It was as if the bed was a magnet, and I was a lump of metal. And then the show began in my luxury room on the 17th floor. Red Indians danced around me. An Indian Chief smoked a pipe. A wolf bared his teeth at me. Other animals appeared … bears and hyenas. An Indian brave was walking around the bed, banging a drum.
And then I realised that I could manipulate them to do my bidding. I got the brave to walk backwards. And got the Indian Chief to put out his pipe. This went on for a bit until I heard the bedroom door rattle. Someone was trying to get in. Someone was calling out my name. But the chain was on … they couldn’t enter, and I couldn’t move. Then I blacked out or fell asleep.
The sound of the TV woke me up next morning. I had no hangover and felt fine, which made me feel worse in my mind. I got up and checked the door. It was shut and the chain still in place. A horror thought popped up. I was on the 17th floor, couldn’t move … I could have been thrown out of the window.
It was still early when I went down to the outside pool overlooking the sea … there was just one person there on a sunbed alone, Steve. He looked shaken. The same sort of thing had happened to him at the party. We had never met up, and never found Jimmy Connors … and we had both been ‘topped up’ by our friend Toby. The hotel management later told us that Toby thought he was just being friendly … and dropped some ‘magic mushroom juice’ into our drinks to give us a good time. The mushrooms are grown and cultivated on the islands. We never saw Toby again … what happened to him we will never know. But we decided not to make it an international incident.
All this in pursuit of words eh?
Terry Manners was formerly Editor-in-Chief of Express Newspapers in Scotland, Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London, Editor and Director of the Western Daily Press and Associated Editor of the Press Association. He has written seven books for major publishes and was Deputy Chairman of the Variety Club’s Gold Heart Campaign.