Brief story of the Tonga Experience. (Revised with New Pictures)

Click on pictures to enlarge them.

Tuesday has gone from my life forever. (well this Tuesday anyway) Crossing the dateline is expensive in time terms.

Wednesday Auckland, New Zealand. Wet, windy cold. I arrived and met up with Hoss and family. Hoss (full name Hossein Nadempour Pahlavi Langroudi, if I remember correctly) was at Sandhurst 40 years ago with me and we had completely lost contact until last Easter, when we dined together in London. I had assumed that he was dead - but that's another story. After a 2 hour wait in Auckland (weather terrible), off to Tonga we flew.

We arrived to some confusion in this warm, humid Pacific island. No one seemed to know who we were and we were lost in sea of dignatories and Tongans returning for the BIG EVENT. Eventually a minibus arrived with OFA, the driver. (Meteorologist) who was, he said, to do anything we asked. BUT didn’t know where we were staying. (SPRA - see later for details.) We then had a 7 hour tour of the main island with many delays for “sight seeing”. “ Would you like to stay here?” Ofa would ask as we stopped outside a Tongan house. It was very hot and very humid. Most uncomfortable. I dreamed of a shower and air conditioning.

Mysteriously, about 6 pm, Ofa received a telephone message that told him where we were supposed to stay. "We will now go to your accommodation". As we had been, very politely, begging for that for the last 5 hours, we were quite sceptical. It seemed quite clear that no one had arranged anything for us and poor Ofa had been told to keep us amused while something was sorted.

But, we arrived at the beach resort at 6.30. No air conditioning, but big fans, high ceilings and, wonderfully, showers!!!!!

The delightful rooms had very nice, clean, polished stone floors with comfortable beds. They faced the beach, 30 yards away with a reef at about 50 yards out, lifting great waves.

That evening we were rushed off to an amazing, luxury yacht reception (dress informal), where we were plied with champagne and canapes. We met the King who was very relaxed and welcoming. Pualani (in the red), back home from her work in San Fransisco, was “assigned” by the king to look after me! Poor girl. We were commanded to be at the investiture the following morning.

Thursday 10am Investiture. Lounge suits. The picture shows the Smythe and Hoss's wife and daughter. Medals were presented by the King. Somehow I wasn’t on the list to receive an award - even though I had received a letter telling me of a decoration from the King. South Pacific precision! Hoss got a lovely set of gold/enamel medals. I confess to feeling very envious. Lani (Pualani) suggested I go through to the King, but the potential embarrassment factor if he’d decided not to give me this honour after all, was just too much. I just had to accept it with good grace and hope that it was a simple error. The Smythe (Sandhurst crew member number 3 - retired Brigadier) was there, looking tall and distinguished. There was no sign of Nick Thornton, final Sandhurst crew number 4, retired Colonel. The accepted wisdom was that he hadn’t turned up - "typical New Zealander."

7 PM (6.30 Ofa's time) we went to a “Formal” Dinner. (Lounge suits were the consensus but there were no firm instructions. That caused a little anxiety.) We met up again with the third Sandhurst party member, Mike Smythe and were introduced to Lord Glenarthur, a member of the House of Lords in the U.K., and other dignatories..

At the 9.30 scheduled finish time, we still hadn’t had the main course. SPRA. (South Pacific Relaxed Approach.) There was Tongan dancing, singing and outside, soft rain. It was a very nice, beautifully presented meal. The Champagne was top quality and it would have been very easy to become very "relaxed". Probably as relaxed as a newt. But I bravely resisted the temptation. There were some really irritating self-important people there I’m afraid but, on balance, a good experience. Had a chance to talk to The Smythe and sort out some of the 40 missing years.

Friday morning, Morning suit day. Hot, heavy, itchy. Coronation day at the Church. The printed place cards were all cocked up and rewritten in felt-tip.(SPRA). We (self and Hoss’s party) were sat at the back and then, realising how "important" we were, were moved forward. On the move, we bumped into Nick Thornton who had been staying at the pompous, expensive, but quite tired, Dateline Hotel. No one had registered that he should have been staying with us. (SPRA. )The picture shows myself, Hoss and Nick Thornton resplendent in our Morning suits.

The Throne in the church was magnificent. Beautiful, Gold. The ceremony was both solemn and awesome. The music was stunning. When the choir hit “Zadoc the Priest”, the hairs on the back of heads stood on end. The ceremony was quite short – thankfully with temperature and the suits -and the king with his magnificent golden crown and sceptre, his sumptuous ermine cloak, led the procession from the church. Somehow, the Smythe wormed his way into the procession ahead of diplomats, Princes and Prime Ministers!

The instructions were quite clear- no cameras to be used in the Church. This was totally ignored by all and sundry. The solemn procession was punctuated with clicks and flashes from hundreds of digital cameras.

The celebration lunch at the Palace was preceded by a reception in the private rooms which developed into a Photo Call. Somehow, the ‘Sandhurst Boys” were ushered in with the dignatories. The Crown Prince of Japan. introduced himself. I responded “Bill Lamin, school teacher from Cornwall, England.” That felt quite good. The incredibly beautiful, Princess of Bhutan was there as was the miserable Helen Clark, NZ Prime Minister. As the reception bit dissolved, we went to sit at our tables in the luncheon marquee and then, before the lunch started, were summoned by the King for a "Sandhurst crew" photo call. Even though he only went to Mons!, Lord Glenarthur and wife were included. It was quite a memorable snap.

I handed King George a gift from the 4 Sandhurst boys – a small silver tray, properly inscribed. Lovingly carried all the way from the U.K. by the tall distinguished one, who has never stopped complaining about the task.

The Coronation Lunch was a big formal meal with wine and speeches. The “hot option” never turned up. (SPRA) There was Significant speech from Tongan Prime Minister, committing the King to a move towards democracy. There followed traditional Tongan Dancing to Queen Salote’s song about bird of paradise and other Tongan music. The dancers, obvious local celebrities, were dripping with palm oil, to which money was stuck. It looked very similar to lap dancing but was, apparently, raising money for charity.

Charity Concert George (the King) had organised a charity concert from the visiting Chinese Orchestra. We were hot and tired and needed a break before the Ball and so decided to give it a miss. The swimming pool at the resort was most welcome.

Coronation Ball There was only one Ball, not three as the papers predicted. Mick Jagger, Elton et al didn’t show so we, the Sandhurst crew, were , clearly, the celebrities as we were seated on the raised floor with the VVIPS and were addressed by the King as he did his tour of the upper tier.

There were four wonderful bands. We danced ‘till 3.30 am! Even I, an habitual non-dancer, tripped the light fantastic with the gorgeous ladies who all seemed keen to dance. (Mind you, I did look a bit smooth in the white tie and tails.)

The high spot was joining the band to sing my version of “Ruby Tuesday” ( See pic) The band's singer, who supported me quite gamely, was tall and lovely. I am short. If it were raining, I could have comfortably sheltered under her mini skirt.

Saturday Back into the morning “torture by temperature” suit for the Military Parade. It was a nostalgia morning. The parade followed, to a pace, the format for the Sovereign’s Parade at Sandhurst. The commands were in English, and were exactly as used 40 years ago on the parade ground back in England. “Break into quick time, pause, pause, Quick March!” all in a precise marching rhythm that gave the exact tempo for the march. Was this the origin of rap?

Full marks to the Tongan Military. The Sandhurst Cadets would have been proud of such precision and discipline – all in the blazing Tongan sunshine. I know we had the heavy kit, but we were in the shade, under canopies and didn’t have to move.

"Commander of the Order of the Crown - Tonga." My medals eventually arrived! There was, apparently, a mix-up with the lists at the investiture. My name was on one list, but not on the list for the caller-out-of names-to -go-in. (SPRA) They are quite beautiful and, even though I can't honestly think what I've done to deserve them, I'm very proud of them. When my citation eventually arrives, it will be, erm, interesting.

Lunch was a modest affair. (Not) We were in the same huge marquee in the palace grounds as was used for the post Coronation lunch but, what a difference! The tables were piled high with traditional Tongan food – each table was provisioned by one of the villages and was very impressive. Crayfish, lobsters, crabs, roast whole pigs, fruit, breadfruit, coconuts (fresh and pale, not the doormat textured lumps we find in the U.K.), dishes of fish, squid, octopus, clams and more fruit! Endless bowls, all in perfect condition. This wasn’t laid out as a formal dinner, it was wrapped in cling film, piled on the tables, three or four dishes high. For the first time there was no fine wine, no champagne. The drinks on offer were just fruit juice and coconut. When handed a coconut with straw, there was no space to put it on the table. Between slurps, it had to be placed on the floor!

After an interminable “grace” (in Tongan, so it was quite hard to follow) we just tucked in and ate and ate. We needed a bit of help with some of the unfamiliar dishes and struggled unsatisfactorily to make any impression on the piles on the tables. After two hours there was no noticeable change. Apparently, that was the way it was meant to be. Each village regarded it as matter of pride that their table was so well provisioned that there was to be no chance of any of the dishes being finished.

After we left, the routine was that a second sitting of “lesser subjects “ took over the unequal struggle. Finally, the providing village took the third sitting. It does sound incredibly “non PC” in our culture but this was a “traditional Tongan Feast”, a celebration that had evolved in a Feudal culture that was only just, in the 21st century, moving towards democracy. There is still a great deal to be done before the strict hierarchy, from the absolute monarchy downwards, is at all dented.

That was the last of the formal events for the Sandhurst crew. We had survived a cocktail party with the King, an investiture, a formal dinner, a Coronation, the Coronation Lunch, The Ball, The Military Parade and the traditional Tongan feast. It was impossible to even think about the best or most memorable experience. The whole time in Tonga was absolutely staggeringly fresh and exciting and I wouldn’t have missed a moment.

The beach resort accommodation was excellent. The sound of the waves breaking on the reef made sleep a simple pleasure and the outdoor evening meals were just lovely, sociable events. After all this, we were, almost, back to tourist status – apart from Ofa, the dutiful driver, Lani (Pualani) our minder and the ever-present influence of the King.


  1. Hey Billy Bach,
    good to see you have finally found your social level in life! Nice suits by the way (or is it suites?)Say hi to Dovey for me nad tell him to stop e mailing when he is pissed - we can all do maudlin afetr a few...

  2. Ah Laminator

    A smelly sock amongst silken stockings - get thee back to the darning basket