Royal navy 1941 to ’46 in order, Chats Round the Pot-bellied Stove

There was no dearth of extroverts in the Navy, the trick was trying to avoid them. We were a great mixture in that class going through Leydene Signal School. There were sailors who had been telegraphists and had spent years at sea and knew every dodge in the book. They would tell you that if you could play a sport, life would be a bed of roses, you would be wanted by every shore station going, especially if the sport was tennis. These men were often in their late twenties and early thirties and had seen the whole world through a porthole, a phrase which I translated to mean they were well versed in the seamier parts of every port from Malta to Melbourne, from Suez to Hong Kong. In spite of this though, most were conciliatory to us, the inexperienced HO’s. I suspect some of the tall stories we heard at night, seated drinking cocoa round the pot-bellied stoves which heated a small area of the huge hut, were apocryphal, but then again, some of the hairiest were obviously also true. Those evening discussions were fascinating. We would sit round the stove and read, study, smoke, mend socks or clothing and there was always a discussion or a monologue on some subject being carried on over peoples’ heads whether they were taking part or not.

A class-mate, Williams say, had been a radio repair man in civilian life. He gave us an insight to his methods; something I never forgot and something which created in me a cynicism with regard to jobbing people in general, which has been repeatedly reinforced. Williams explained that before the war, broke and looking to make money, he hit on ‘The Great Idea’. Firstly he bought a tool-roll, one of those canvas or leather rolls with loops and pockets for small tools, spanners, pliers, and the like. Next he had a flier printed for pushing through letter boxes in a selected area and then sat back and waited before calling on them. The flier implied that everyone who had a car had it serviced regularly, and he included sweeping chimneys. He followed this with the suggestion that the radio was a delicate device which too should be regularly maintained. He offered to provide a service starting with a free trial. If the client was satisfied he could sign up to have the set serviced for an annual fee and from then all labour would be free for up to two visits and only the materials would have to be paid for. The prospective client would receive a visit and they could make up their mind then.

It must be understood that radios then were in their infancy, they generally consisted of only two valves, three at the most, with huge coils or condensers for tuning. The aerials could stretch the length of the back garden and reception was very poor When the set was installed it was only a matter of hooking up to the aerial, connecting the wet and dry batteries and then one tried to tune into the only station available, the BBC, unless one could receive Luxembourg. Almost invariably people wanted to take advantage of the free service. The set was running so there should be no need to pay for replacements – something for nothing.

Williams, when he entered a home, made a great show protecting the table, anticipating vast amounts of dust He then took the back off the radio. Standing in awe, the housewife, saw him brush out the dust and fluff.. Williams running commentary was how one could not expect the best results from something obviously so dusty. With the client’s full attention, he tuned in to the BBC and then proceeded to tune the set to the aerial, which should have been done at the time of installation but rarely was. Williams had proved his point, regular servicing was clearly needed and the client signed up and handed over a reasonable sum for the twelve month service. The client was unaware that Williams had drawn a pencil line between two terminals so that a very small current leaked from one to the other. Not enough to reduce the quality but with time it would mean that a new transformer, or some other component would be needed and he would be called out to repair the set.

Other times Williams merely cleaned the set and left the tuning of the aerial to the next visit when he would say that a valve was on its last legs, but he just happened to have one which he would install reasonably. He would then change the valve, tune the aerial and low, the client was convinced, and delighted she had joined his happy band. The valve Williams had used had probably come out of the last set he had worked the trick on and so he was constantly being paid for a non-existent valve. There were other tricks Williams boasted of, equally heinous and sordid, but you get the gist. Little, it seems, can be taken at face value when dealing with an unscrupulous person with a specialised knowledge.

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