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Experiencing Commonwealth contact

Comex on the return journey from India

Comex on the return journey from India in the Afghan desert between Kabul and Kandahar. There is a camel train just visible in the distance on the old track that was replaced by the Asian Highway (BO 24) Courtesy of Martin Bennett

Contact did not always follow the pattern intended. Many of those taking part highlighted the disconnection they felt with the landscapes through which they travelled. One participant noted on a short film that ‘when you’re sitting on a coach a lot of the time you’re unaware of what’s going past the window because it’s so difficult to absorb the things you see, they flash past so quickly, you don’t remember the details very much’; another described how ‘it gets pretty cramped on the coach… you draw the curtains across the windows to keep the sun out because its so hot’.

The photographs and diaries produced by Comex participants highlight the ways in which their concerns were often more personal and prosaic than the grand Commonwealth visions on which the exhibition was built. Tales of love affairs, drunkenness, fallings out, crashes, runaway coaches and diarrhoea hint at the myriad of experiences that Comex produced for the participants. Experiences and attitudes varied; in Comex 2 according to one participant the Edinburgh contingent was fairly Presbyterian and abstemious in its outlook, whilst Liverpool spent most of the journey driving too fast and smoking marijuana (private correspondence). Personal development was perhaps at least as important as the development of a Commonwealth ideology and practice for those taking part.

Comex at a campsite

Comex at a campsite in Tehran on the return journey (BO 39)
Courtesy of Martin Bennett

Those taking part followed particular routes and took part in specific activities as prescribed by the Comex vision. However, they did not unthinkingly perform the Commonwealth vision of Gregory.  For those taking part, Comex was not only an opportunity to travel which cannot be understood without reference to other travellers, such as those on the hippy trail, but also a way in which participants forged identities as ‘travellers’. Those involved describe their experiences of the expeditions in these terms (see as does the travel writer Patrick Richardson, a participant on Comex 2 who recalls that ‘travelling across those deserts set off a desire in me to go beyond, it set me up as a traveller for the rest of my life’ (private correspondence).

Members of Comex 3 with their bus in Kabul, Afghanistan

Members of Comex 3 with their bus in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1969 (MB BO21)
Courtesy of Martin Bennett

Comex provides another example of a Commonwealth culture that existed in the era of decolonisation. We can see these expeditions as a site for the intersection of imperialist and internationalist visions for world citizenship and for the shaping of personal identities through this travel.

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