I am Steve Jones, the Old Gaffer’s grandson. I’m pleased to report that he’s still around, although is now in a care home. His health is such that he is unable to contribute to this blog anymore, but he wanted to convey his gratitude and best wishes to readers everywhere – the comments have been great over the years.
Spike is a lifelong friend of my grandson, Steve, and as I have not been able to contact him, to thank him for generously sending me a bottle of Irish whiskey, something that I am very fond of and with which I will be toasting his health, when Stephen and I get together, I am using the blog to send my thanks. In consequence then I thought I would also give an account of how I personally see the changes in the drinking habits of the British, over the last 90 years. However, seeing that we are talking about alcohol, you might find it interesting to use a search engine, typing .’Passing out parade’ on this blog to seek where alcohol was inducing some strange results. In one case I was put in irons and dropped into the tiller flat, an unpleasant part of the ship. To start with I want to say that alcohol is really a social drink, and I find living by myself that I do not have the pleasure I once had, nightly, with my glass of scotch. There is no one to discuss the merits, to talk instances and brands. Instead one is reading, or watching television or dozing, while the glass sits there unheaded.
My experience goes back to when I was in Africa in the British Raj, but my knowledge goes further back as a result of conversations, and expressions of disgust, by different members of the family under certain circumstances when I was a child and a young man. The television has shown the horrors of the 14/18 war, the horrific needless loss of life, and the unbelievable conditions under which those men lived, Introducing words like trench mouth, and trench foot into the English language. If those men became alcoholic, and I believe many did, it would be understandable. In Africa in the 20s, the civil servants in the Colonial service were living well above their means, subscribed by the government, and would meet every evening at five o’clock in somebody’s house for Tiffin, the locked tantalus, would be opened and everyone would be drinking spirits rather than beer or soft drinks.
However the interesting thing that I have found was that drink, and especially the type of drink taken, varied across the social boundaries. Among the general population, leaving aside the Lord’s in their Manors, there were roughly 4 classes in society. There was the working class, the lower-middle-class, the upper-middle-class, and the upper-class, unsurprisingly what people drank in each of the classes depended on two things, habit and money.. I can remember as a child hearing my grandmother give off, when she would see a pram with a child left outside a public house while the mother would be inside drinking one of the regular drinks that women drank in those days, such as ‘Gin and it’,the ‘it’ being Italian Vermouth, Port and lemon, and any other combination that was in vogue.
The working class mainly drank beer, the lower-middle-class, in general, had aspirations to become the upper-middle-class, and they rarely drink at all, except as a mild celebration on high days and holidays. Then, the sherry bottle would come out with a good deal of theatre, but very little sherry. The upper-middle-class sampled the wine list, and if invited to a party by friends in the lower middle class, might be horrified to discover that they were expected to drink ‘Fruit Cup’, made mostly with a bottle of cheap wine.
Then came the Second World War, when young men were introduced to alcohol, the quality of which varied on the depth of their pockets , and the contents of the pub that was on short commons because of the war. Use the search engine on this blog by typing in Southend, you will find a typical wartime drinking session and the outcome. Any time I was on leave I saw little or no evidence of excessive drinking at home. and a trip to the pub on a Sunday was an occasion.
Like with everything else, the 1960s was a time of change when new experiences were the order of the day, but I believe that the level of intake of alcohol, was more to do with money than it was with change. In the 70s, there was a great change, making home-made wine and beer became common, and some of the chemists shops sold ingredients and equipment.
I can remember in the 20s and early 30s it was quite common to see men staggering home on a Saturday night having their one evening’s drink of the week’ .But to repeat myself I have to say that money in the pocket has a great effect on the ability to buy alcohol. We now live in a time when children seem to have unlimited pocket money, and recently in Bangor, Northern Ireland,we had two nights of expensive entertainment by American bands, and it was reported by those who knew, that the excessive drinking and drunkenness by teenage and young people, was staggering to people of a mature age, Especially as it was coupled with a tremendous amount of the most unpleasant swear words taken as part of the sentences.
I’m not a prude, and I work on the principle that everyone is responsible for themselves when they reach a certain age. It’s not up to the individual to dictate to anyone, but what I think is obvious to us all is that there has been a vast change in what Victorians would have called moral standards, in behaviour and our total way of life.
Thank you again, Spike, for your kindness and generosity, yours sincerely John
Friends and relatives have been telling me that my English, and spelling, in the part 4 and part 5 of ‘Do you realize’ has been a little suspect. Most of my general readers are aware that I will be 90 next year, and am severely handicapped, which tends to make me tired. In consequence, I can be a little forgetful when it comes to checking a post. I put this as a forerunner to my next post which will show how I have young people coming in every day to make sure that I am okay, have not fallen, and to carry out duties that are beyond my capability. These people are not only kind and considerate, but they are also younger than my grandson. My condition has made it impossible for me to drive, and so I am also meeting a vast vumber of taxi drivers of all ages.
Do you realize? Part 8 Prognostication
Prognostication, by its flimsy base, must be seen to be a generality, and in consequence, one must examine each circumstance as to whether it is valid. One person’s experience is not the basis for serious modification, merely one for dialectic consideration.
In the 60s most people would have predicted the social changes that have taken place since then, but I don’t think that they would have expected them to be so deep, so quickly. In talking to young people, and some of the not so young, I find an incredible agreement right across the board, among people’s attitudes at what is happening today, governmentally, socially, and financially. For some time, on this blog, I have been critical in the way the financial system has been conducted, and while it had less efect on me personally, I am very much aware of what it was doing to the young and industry. Consequently I propose to make some prognostications on where I believe these changes are leading.
A largenumber of young people that I meet arer living together, often in strange circumstance, because any alternative would be beyond their means. At the end of the last century, the change in the way in which a wedding, and all the peripheral entertainment was couched, rose to an enormously expensive level, and at the same time seemed to be going on rising. I was married 66 years ago, it was a war time wedding, which is described in detail on the blog and is easy to find. We had a service in a church, a meal in a Railway Hotel, and then left by boat and train, for our honeymoon in London. I quote this, because I sincerely believe it is the occasion which is important, not the venue. It is a day for the groom and the bride, and unless they are abnormal, their excitement will be such that the venue has little effect, and they are the people who count, not the relatives and friends, although their contribution more than enhances the proceedings. Young people have said to me that the cost of a girls’ night out, coupled with a stag nights abroad, is bad enough expensively, but to add to that the cost or travelling abroad again for the wedding is a step too far. This was some years ago before the credit crunch.
In the early years of marriage, the fact of being married is a brake on any urge to separate as a result of some strong reaction, which in hindsight, and in a less charged atmosphere, will be seen to be what it was, a reasonable difference of opinion. Young people, I find, are living under very difficult circumstances, in order to be together, which is putting stress on them. In most cases it is as a result of the financial situation. I know a number whose partner, as well as themselves, are both working in shifts, with the result that over some periods of time they see little of one other, except late in the evening or at bedtime. This is no way to live, but these people feel that they have not alternative, because of the financial strictures. I was married in wartime, in 1944, so my home life did not start until 1946. We were in the same situation as the young people of today, and it was not fun. The question then arises as to why we are in this state? It isn’t all that long ago that people had a job for life, but then we were not sending orders for things to be manufactured abroad, or having services positioned abroad
The Royal Ulster Constabluary, Part 2 At that time I was a member of Fortwilliam Golf Club, and not entirely innocent of drink driving. We, a mixture of Regulars and Reservists, would shoot off in the Land Rover and at the whim of the Sergeant in charge, we would stop, set up a control point, ostensibly be looking for terrorists, but I always suspected it was more a case of increasing the drink-driving arrest statistics. This left me with a queasy feeling of being poacher turned gamekeeper, and as many of the points we set up were blatantly on the route home for carousing golfers, I took the precaution of being the first out of the car with the Sten and into the hedge, where I hid as back-up, while the others questioned the motorists. I had no wish to have to choose between duty and friendship.
One day, when we had set up on the entrance to the motorway, I had, as usual shot off to be back-up and the others were doing the questioning when I saw a woman passenger, seeing the police check-point, cover her face with her hands. I realised something was up, nodded to my comrades who went to question the car driver. The latter put down the foot and roared off down the motorway, the rest rushed into the Land Rover and after him, leaving me, on my own, stranded on a motorway, with no back-up. It turned out they had quite a chase and he was drunk, not a terrorist. Ultimately, when all else had been taken care of they remembered they were one short.
I never really managed to understand the strategy of the terrorists. They must have had access to technical knowledge and yet they seemed never to get the best out of any situation. I used to stand at the gate of North Queen Street Station on guard, and I could see several vantage points where a good sniper could have picked me off and got away Scot free and yet they didn’t. One night, when I was part of the Land Rover crew we were having a break for coffee and sangers, round about midnight, when there was a call that there had been a shooting in North Belfast. In fact, we were legitimately off-duty, but the degree of boredom was such that we all tumbled into the Land Rover and with siren wailing, cornering on two wheels, adrenaline high, we roared off to the scene to find a police car, another Land Rover and an Army unit there before us. The police from the car had the matter well in hand. The rest of us all stood gossiping under a street light, an ideal target for a sniper less than half a mile away on the Cavehill slopes, there was no way he could have missed and no way he could have been caught. If it had been a set-up, it would have been an unqualified success.
There were times when we suspected terrorists in a vicinity and had to creep as quietly as we could down dark alleys, in my case, full of apprehension, there were occasions when we roared off siren squealing, adrenaline high, on a false alarm, but mostly it was tedium, the same as I had experienced with the Guards and the Navy – not surprisingly.
Having worked peripherally with the RUC, I know that apart from the odd idiot, in every sense, and odd in a ratio of about five percent – a natural aberration, and taking into account it was an almost totally Protestant force being whittled down weekly by a sectarian organisation bent on mayhem, there was a level of even-handedness and compassion I found not so much surprising as reassuring. They are not the thugs they are painted, they are mainly average young family men doing a unique job in difficult circumstances. There is no doubt that in the heat of an engagement, no matter what form it takes, that adrenaline will run high and it is inevitable under those conditions some degree of indiscipline can creep in to those of a more volatile disposition, but the RUC is normally not singular in this respect, and examination of all the World’s security forces will not only substantiate this, it will show there is above average restraint, because there has to be.
I resigned after I considered I had paid back the cost of the uniform because I considered we, the Reserve, were being used as a cheap alternative to either recruiting more regulars or paying the current Force overtime. The edge had gone off the emergency and they were standing some men down in preference to the Reserve doing onerous security duties, added to which the pressures of nights out and all day at work were beginning to pall. Nonetheless, with hindsight, it was an experience I would have been sorry to have missed.
The Royal Ulster Constabluary, Part 1 She was married, she was young, she was pretty and she was a clerk, she was also a police woman. What she was not was a threat to anyone, any more than the poor old cleaner of a police station who was also killed just because he was unsuspecting and therefore an easy target for a coward. The report of her death was the trigger, I suppose the release valve really, the excuse to go and do something, anything, to get back at the senseless killers. I was working hard at the time, running a big staff and a large number of contracts, but I had to do something, I could no longer stand by. Fighting for a cause is one thing, soft targets, and women to boot, are beyond the pale. I obtained permission from the Department and became an elderly constable in the RUC Reserve.
I did the training, a sort of basic run through on the Law as it affected us, I learned to shoot and care for a gun all over again, I wanted to go to the Springfield Road Station, which was in the thick of it at that time but I finished up in North Queen Street, second best.
Obviously I could only operate at nights and weekends and my duties were to carry a Sten gun and do as I was told. Dressed in uniform, with my personal weapon in a holster, a flak jacket, the Sten and a truncheon, I either stood at gates, sat in huts or rode about in a Land Rover for two years. In that time I discovered a number of things, I rediscovered the tedium of the armed serviceman, the effects of adrenaline, the weird notions of Authority, yet again the irrational behaviour of the terrorist, the philosophy of when and when not to carry a gun, and that level of apprehension I had experienced at sea and later in the sewer.
There was a period when I had to sit in a hut in the garden of a Judge, sometimes with another copper, sometimes alone, from seven o’clock until near midnight. We had a walky talky squawking away, but as we could only hear one side of the conversation it was pretty uninteresting.
On one occasion when I was guarding a Judge’s house by myself, a car with two young people in it pulled into the drive. I admit to apprehension. I got up and stood with my gun pointed at them. They neither looked surprised nor afraid, all they did was put the car very quickly into reverse and depart at speed. Whether they were terrorists I never knew, what they were doing there otherwise is unfathomable. All I know is I was relieved to see them go. I reported it on the radio, but never heard any more.
I had always thought it my duty to shoot if I saw terrorists brandishing guns and with this aim in view I went everywhere with my Walther in its hidden holster. WRONGGG! Guns, calibres, ranges, shot sizes, makes, any damn thing at all to do with guns was a constant topic of conversation during those long night vigils and it was then an old hand put me right about carrying a gun when in civilian clothes. His thesis was – say one was in a pub and a terrorist came in and held up the place, the natural reaction of the off-duty constable would be to pull out his weapon and shoot, or at least warn before shooting. A minute later, a soldier or another policeman comes in and sees a man standing there with a gun in his hand, the chances are he too shoots and ask questions later, by which time the off-duty copper is dead. QED. I stopped carrying a gun off-duty Strangely that is exactly what happened at a petrol station in North Belfast only a few weeks later. Soldiers shot the copper.
THE LUDICROUS GIFT I have referred to the ‘liberation’ of articles by the terrorists. One which happened on a contract I was engaged on, took place a day or two before we stopped for Christmas. We had a gang laying pipes down a main road in the City . On the morning men arrived in a car and one approached the men on the site with a gun held in his hand, not pointed at them , just there, an implicit threat.
“I want to borrow your lorry,” he said with no preamble.
The ganger nodded, what else could he do. The man smiled, thanked them as if he had been granted a favour and he and another drove off. The theft was reported and we heard later in the day the lorry had been seen between Belfast and Ballymena going hell-for-leather down a motorway, filled with booze. Still later we heard a vintner’s wholesale store had been raided. The men were never caught. Next morning the lorry was found parked beside the pipe-track. When the driver opened the door of the cab he found a dozen tins of beer on the seat with a note thanking him and wishing him and his mates a merry Christmas.
Is a question asked in Ireland an Irish question? In this case the question had been asked of the workmen and the questioner had answered himself – What a question!!
* * *
THE ROYAL MARINES – GOD BLESS ‘Em. While you read what follows, bear in mind, if you will, that I was originally English, also Protestant, ex- Navy and a civil servant working in sensitive areas. It was just an ordinary day in the early 70’s, I was on my way home after taking site photographs and had finished late. It was well past lunch time, the day was fine and dry and I was in a good mood. Out into the road stepped a Royal Marine with his hand up, I was being stopped – an everyday occurrence.
“Park over there,” he said pointing to the other side of the road, I complied.
“Get out of the car and open the boot,” he continued. By now his companions were surrounding my car and pointing their rifle at me. Well, why not? They had to point somewhere. I opened the boot. Lying there were two expensive cameras, films, lenses of various sizes, and other equipment amounting to a tidy sum, even on the second-hand market.
“Go and open the bonnet” He said, starting to rummage. I refused, politely but firmly.
“I said, ‘open the bonnet'” He reiterated.
“Of course I will,” I said quite reasonably, “when you’ve finished here.”
While this was going on his colleague was in my car looking through my correspondence, and a friend drove past and waved to me and I waved back. The Marine repeated himself and I refused, adding “I am supposed to be present when my car is being searched. When you have finished, I’ll lock the boot and then you can look in the bonnet.”
The argument went on until he had finished, his companion was still going through the car The same friend drove up and wound down her car window. ” My God,” she said, “Are you still here?” and laughed at my wry expression, it had been a considerable time since she had last passed..
“You wouldn’t think,” I said, taking the opportunity to make a point, “that I’m one of the few English civil servants in this neck of the woods.” She laughed, shook her head and drove off. I opened the bonnet after locking the boot. The marine now went to look in there. I got into the car and switched on the radio. By this time the Marine’s colleague who had been reading my mail was on the radio to base, telling them that they had a desperate criminal with a car registration number of XXXXX.
However, that was not the final curtain, there were a couple of scenes still to run. Chummy (the officious Marine), toured the district with three others of whom two were supposed to be stationed away from the searchers to cover them from other directions, but the dialogue between Chummy and me had been so interesting that one, who had been within earshot, had been edging closer and closer, abandoning his position in favour of the drama. At this juncture, probably bored to death, he decided to take a hand and as I sat tuning the car radio he stuck his rifle into my face and said “Get out!” I must admit I was taken aback. “Why, I?” asked, reasonably, “What now, all I’m doing is waiting for your mate to clear me as he will.”
“Get out, or I’ll shoot!” he said this time. I think if there had been a witness I would have put him to the test to see if he really would, but one man on his own with no witnesses should never tempt fate. I got out. We had only been together for twenty minutes so I had not really had a chance to build any bridges, we still hated one another, even when I left.
That evening I was seated watching TV when I saw Sophie, my beloved wife, came in through the front door beckoning some men in camouflage to follow her. She stuck her head into the room and said, “I was sorry for these poor chaps, I’ve brought them in for coffee or a beer.” She wondered why I laughed, but she was too busy with her social duties to find out, she had four mouths to feed. That’s right, they were Royal Marines!
THE THEFT OF THE DRAWINGSAt the time I was tendering for a large contract, worth enough to bring contractors over from the Mainland to consider pricing. The drawings for the job ran into two rolls of between thirty and forty drawings a roll, and these I permanently kept in the boot of the car so I could meet the contractors straight from the plane and take them to the site.
My daughtee borrowed the car to go to the Queen’s Film Society and while she was in the screening the car was stolen. We suspected it was the paramilitaries and this had me very worried because these drawings indicated where so much sensitive material was which was vital to the life blood of the area -the high pressure gas mains, high octane aeroplane fuel lines, telephone links and so on were all marked and described so the contractors would be able to price for the necessary precautions. This new eventuality had never been envisaged.
What to do? I thought long and hard for most of the night when I heard the news, and came to the conclusion that there was really nothing anyone could do but worry. It would have taken almost the whole of the British Army to have guarded everything depicted there and even then terror might have struck. I decided to keep the whole sorry story to myself and await developments.Within ten days the car was returned. There was no spare wheel, my golf clubs and other personal effects were gone, the engine had been tuned like a racer and the old valve was in the pocket to prove it. It had done a thousand miles in those ten days which said much for what it had carried and the drawings were lying flat in the boot, untouched, which in turn said something about the people who had stolen the car and the drawings!
ONE CAN BE PUSHED TOO FARPrior to the Troubles, to my mind, among the general public, there was a distinct easing of the tensions between the two factions in Northern Ireland. Whether this presented a threat to some people’s political aspirations, I shall never know, but I always have James’s theory of the grass in the Queen’s Road in my mind.
As the years went on, the Prods thought they were more and more under pressure both from the IRA and sources outside the country, coupled with the political and subversive interference of the Irish-American Lobby in what we considered British politics. Slowly many people, people who, like myself, were immigrants without the background of internecine hatred and who had no axe to grind, became both frustrated that no one seemed to see their side of the argument and no one seemed to care that we were trapped in a situation not of our making, year after bloody year.
There is no point in labouring the matter, it has been well documented but a comment on one aspect might stress what we, the common, apolitical man and woman in the street suffered and its reaction psychologically. At the time I was permitted to carry a Walter Automatic Pistol for personal protection and I soon discovered I could walk through body searches without it being uncovered, hence the body searches were a complete farce.
To cut a long story short, a searcher wanted to run his hands over me even though, because of a heat wave I was only wearing a thin nylon shirt, which was transparent more than translucent. What he thought I had concealed I can’t imagine. I hated being searched and when it was unnecessary, and the man clearly had no intention of searching my car, which could have contained anything, I lost my temper. At that time, around 1971 attrition was taking its toll and everyone was becoming tetchy. The barrage on body and mind had been going on long enough to become more an irritant.
ANOTHER IRISH QUESTION
In the 40’s, you would have thought Ireland was nearer Australia than Britain for all the majority of the residents of Britain knew about the place and, I’m afraid, I fell squarely into that category too, when I was dispatched there by the Navy in ’42. In fact I knew more about France, which is about the same distance off-shore, than I did of Ireland. When I was sent, I had some vague idea I was going to the green and pleasant land I had seen depicted in the cinema.
One person who had helped to confirm the British concept of Ireland was Barry Fitzgerald with his portrayal of the Irish as slightly oily, very obsequious, forelock tugging, guileful little folk, who, in a minute, would bite the hand that fed them while smiling into the other’s eyes, or perhaps, dotty eccentrics. The myths, too, perpetuated in song and on canvas, of thatched cottages and donkeys with their panniers in the peat cuttings, of this nirvana across the pond with its 4 million population, have been fostered in the minds of its 50 million ex-pats in the USA. In actual fact one has to search the wilder extremes of the country to find this idyll, which ironically is shrinking with every pound or punt poured in by the same ex-pats..
Now of course, the media reports during the seventies, eighties and nineties, of the internecine war, so euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’, have changed all that, but only marginally. The real Ireland is none of these, it is better and it is worse, it is beautiful beyond belief and in places it is an anachronism, held solid in the aspic of its own myths and prejudices; but above all it is a contradiction.
To make the point, take the phrase itself, ‘The Troubles’, a euphemism if there ever was one, and so at odds with what the ‘Troubles’ really represent. It is certainly an interesting reflection on an absurd sense of propriety when one considers that working class women used to refer to their gynaecological ills in the same terms, perhaps they still do – the comedian, the late Les Dawson, used to make great play of womens’ ‘troubles’ in his Northern sketches.
When one lives in Northern Ireland, in spite of every attempt to be liberal and non-biased, one soaks up the political atmosphere unknowingly because it enters the pores, like the sun on a Costa beach, until the whole of one’s perceptions become coloured. It may not affect one’s outlook, nor one’s attitudes to individuals, but it is there, like a third eye peering over the shoulder, looking for the bias in others and mentally countering every statement with the question, ‘is that really so?’ This conditioning starts the day one arrives and continues from then on.
THE CASE OF THE FARCE AT THE BARRIER One day in the 70’s I was faced with yet another typically Irish question, equally stupid, but highly charged, It was at the height of the bombing campaign by the IRA. I was telephoned from Head Office to be told that bombs were ‘on all the bridges’. This was referred to road bridges over the River Lagan. What I and my colleague did not realise was that applied to all the bridges, over culverts, and the railway The site was closed down to facilitate people making their way home and I decided on a route round the outskirts of the city. At every turn I was frustrated and slowly found myself herded by circumstance into what was then thought of as ‘no-go’ areas. At one point soldiers appeared from behind a hedge and held me at gun point until they were satisfied I was bona fide. I then had to decide whether to either drive through a certain UDA (Protestant militant) barrier or possibly one set by the IRA. I chose the former. I found rails driven into the roadway at junctions by the UDA to stop speeding bombers, and was brought up short at a barrier with no escape route I locked all the doors of the car and put the car into reverse with the clutch out and the engine running, and while I was deciding what to do, a young thug dressed in camouflaged army surplus, with a bush-hat over his eyes, swaggered over to the car and knocked on the window.
“Show me your licence,” he said parroting the police and military in similar circumstances.
“I will not. “I said, firmly. I resented these vigilante groups. “You’ve no right to ask.” I added. This conversation went on its boring and repetitive way until finally I became fed up and said, ” you might as well let me through, because I’m not giving you my licence.” The irony and indeed stupidity of the whole performance was that when I was stopped by the barrier, I was leaving the area they were supervising, not entering,A large man in his forties appeared, clearly a man to be reckoned with. His gait was steady if slow and his face expressionless. By this time, while outwardly calm, I was in a state of high tension. Alone, with no witnesses, completely vulnerable to say the least, I had made a stand and now was not the time to capitulate. There ensued a question and answer session between the two men and older man asked me if I had any other means of identification. I showed a pass through the window.. This seemed acceptable, and I was about to put the car into forward gear, preparatory to departure when the man said, “Get out and open the boot.” It caught me off balance so I said the first thing which came into my head
“If you intend stealing the car,” (a common occurrence at that time), “you’ll have to steal me with it, I’m not giving it up.” In truth I was incensed, although I immediately saw how ridiculous the threat was.
“No,” the man said, “I just want to see into your boot.”
“I suppose I have to trust you,” I said, he played along and nodded, and I duly got out of the car and opened the boot.
Inside was a set of golf clubs belonging to a professional, circuit golfer, each club chosen and modified to suit, the whole set representing his livelihood. I could see the interest shown by the man and worried whether I would lose them to him, it would not be the first time things were ‘liberated’
“A golfer,” he said, smiling broadly, “what’s your handicap?”
The sudden volte face, the drop in tension, the banality of the words in this charged situation were nearly my undoing. Up until that moment I had been prepared for anything and was playing it by ear , but that final remark left me weak.
I silently got back into the car, the barrier was removed and I drove round the corner for a hundred yards; I could go no further. The tension, the build up of adrenaline in the system and then the sudden release had produced a pain in my back of paralysing proportions. For a while all I could do was sit there and wait for it to disperse, my brain in limbo.
A few minutes later I was sufficiently recovered to start to drive home and as I drove I was astounded, not only at the bland stupidity of the whole exercise, but the total ignorance of these people of the effects their charade could have on a law abiding citizen.
The rider to this story took place a couple of nights later when Soph and I were visiting friends and I was relating the experience. I was explaining how I felt strongly about handing over my car to these people who appeared from nowhere and demanded a car at gun-point. I was heard to say, “I wouldn’t give them the car unless Soph was in it.”
A real event – dramatised
I ‘m a bricklayer who has been instructed to examine the main drainage culvert beneath the quiet dark streets of our sleeping city. All afternoon a joiner and two men have been erecting a temporary sluice gate they call a stank to hold back the waters of the whole city which will be collecting as I work. We have chosen to work at night because, apart from the effects of heavy rain, that is when the flows are low.
Now the heavy timbers are in place it is time for me to put on my thigh boots and make my way over to the others standing at the gaping manhole in the bright circle of the arc lights. The men look up as I approach and one steps aside to allow a late traveller to pass quietly by, the black round curves of the car momentarily reflecting the gentle activity, before being swallowed up in the rising mist. Natt steps forward with the lifeline, harness and lamp and tells me that the sewer has been tested for gas, methane, the killer. Only a few weeks previously a man had passed out at the bottom of a manhole and his friend and colleague who had then gone down to rescue him had died with him. We were now being extra careful.
The tightness of the harness gives me confidence like a warm comforting arm around my waist, and with my hammer, chisel and lamp I descend the old, dirty and rusty, wrought-iron ladder to the bottom of the shaft. I am familiar with the tarry smell of sewers but I have never become accustomed to the loneliness and severance from those above. I stand on the concrete shelf and shine my torch at the almost still grey waters at my feet. A bubble of gas rises to the surface in the light of my lamp to form a grey sinister bulging eye in the viscous liquid and then, after surveying sightlessly the round red brick tube that is garlanded at every projection with the bunting of refuse, bursts silently as it passes down stream.
I wade through the sticky silt towards the sluice that is holding in check tons of water, slowly rising, behind the timbers, like the shadow of an evil gene. It must not rain.
I have been down here some time now and I’m tired through the effort of lifting my legs in the sludge of years. I stop again and listen to the steady trickle of water through the joints in the temporary barrage. Has the noise increased? No! There are two noises. It must be the small pipe discharging as well. Perhaps it has started to rain after all. I stop and watch the level of water against the culvert wall with the bricks acting as a gauge, it is not rising. On I go again, tapping to see if the joints are sound, to see if the steel beams are still strong, to guess how long it will be before another inspection will be necessary, lifting each heavy leg from the clinging slime, easing my bent and aching back, surveying as I go, but all the time keeping an ear attuned to the trickling water.
What was that? It was at my ear. I turn my torch and two beady eyes peer at me from a small pipe at face level. A rat. I have a childish fear of the creatures, bred of old wives’ tales. A rat in a field; a rat, dead on a railway line means no more to me than a sparrow on a pavement; but this intruder is assuming the proportions of a black panther. I clap my hands and struggle to hurry on. There is no one here to se my callow fear.
I think I hear a creak. My pulse is beating. I must control my imagination. The rat has shaken my confidence. Is the gushing louder?. Before I can reassess the sound, a thunder clap reverberates along the tunnel like a charge along the barrel of a gun and as I stand dumbfounded, for a brief second I hear the torrential rushing of the angry waters freed from their imprisonment. The timbers have cracked. The sluice can no longer hold the water in check. I turn and drop my tools in frantic flight. I tug the rope, all signals forgotten and feel the tension taken from above. I cannot run, I can barely walk. I can but flounder like a fly held in illicit jam. In my haste I splash but I care little if I mouth the water which is rising round my knees. I must take off my boots, but how? Is there time? Now in my haste I have fallen, my torch is lost.
Dragged by the rope through the stinking blackness I lose my breath. I struggle once more but now the rushing waters carry me on as the rope never could and tiredness and exhaustion have seeped my will to fight. All is going black. Thank God!