General Pre-WW2

Willie And The Suitcase

My mother’s nickname was Willie, and you can imagine the confusion in small minds when my children referred to ‘Granny Willie’ – but that’s our family way.

Willie was one of those who constantly find themselves in alien situations, mostly because of a determination to right wrongs – a sort of latter day, female Don Quixote. Before WW1, she left Deal and went to London to work as a bookkeeper. She worked for Simpson’s or a similar chain of restaurants in London; establishments where middle-class people would dine on special occasions, and while not in the top echelon, they were in their day considered more than acceptable to all but the very wealthy. Once, between the wars, Willie took me there I found it very dull, the dark, deep-piled, patterned carpet, the heavy dark mahogany and the hushed atmosphere were all too sombre for me at that time – it was a wasted expense, I preferred the Brasserie of the Lyons Corner House where it was bright with a lively orchestra competing with the clatter of plates and the chatter of conversation.; just what a young person looked forward to on his next birthday.

Willie was housed at the top of one of the restaurants in a sort of dormitory under the roof, where the company maintained lodgings which the female staff were obliged to occupy unless they lived at home. Situated on the borders of Soho, she sometimes heard screams from outside which made her hide under the bedclothes. I asked the obvious question, ‘what caused the screams?’ but she said it was better not to know.

At some point she was promoted to stock taker as well as bookkeeper and went round the restaurants checking stocks. This included the stocks in the kitchens and as the implements would be part of the stock, the chef had to be on hand. On one such occasion she watched with horror while the chef nonchalantly dug a boiled rat out of a cauldron of congealed fat that had been set on the floor overnight to cool. He then proceeded to place the fat on the stove to reheat for use through the day. This incident, related to me when I was about ten years old, had a profound effect on my enjoyment from then on. Blessed with a highly developed visual imagination I could see the whole scene and never forgot it, but it was not the idea of the dead rat nor the casual attitude of the chef to common hygiene which affected me so markedly, it was the way these considerations had affected my mother all her adult life; she would never again be able to sit in a restaurant without being confronted in her mind by that incident in her past.

She was not the only one affected in a material sense, as a result of her almost, irrational, and certainly singular views on restaurants and the catering industry. She introduced the ‘dreaded suitcase’, an article I loathed every time an expedition was muted. The suitcase was an albatross I had to bear, not around my neck, but it turned an outing into a drudge. I was envious of my friends, and added to this, toward the end of a long day round Hampton Court Palace, when the shins were complaining at the battering from the suitcase and the arms were tired from my turns at carrying it, there was a deep, heartfelt resentment. My specification for a day out, consisted primarily of being taken to a restaurant for a celebration lunch, the odd ice cream, sweets and maybe another meal later. My school friends would regularly relate visits to places like the Zoo, describing how they had lunched in the open air at the restaurant, what they had eaten and drunk. I could see it all, and envied them. For me, however, the disgusting chef had scotched this level of debauchery.

On the rare occasions Willie and I set out by train or bus to visit such places as the Tower of London, full of anticipation in some respects, I was burdened by a suitcase containing a ham salad for two, complete with plates, ironmongery, salt, pepper, salad cream, indeed all a person could possibly need for a picnic out of a suitcase, including tea, milk, cups and sugar. The whole procedure was ludicrous, especially as other members of the family would take me to cafes and restaurants. Willie’s sister, Josie, would think nothing of eating winkles from a stall on any promenade you care to mention.

There has been one plus to this unusual saga, however – my own children ate all manner of food in all manner of places and, as far as I know, were none the worse for it.

Frivolity WW2

The Northover Projector

Some lunatic inventor had thought up the Northover Projector.- an enlarged version of a toy cannon I had as a child. The toy worked on the principle of a leaf-spring fixed tightly up against the back end of the barrel while one slid bullets (match sticks) into the business end. They slid down the barrel, when one pulled back the spring the match followed it. On release the spring propelled the match out of the gun and hit toy soldiers with considerable force at least 36 inches away. The Northover Projector had a wind-up spring instead of the leaf-spring, otherwise the thing was much the same as the toy cannon – made by the Germans in the twenties – a symbol of the efficiency of the War Office in general, and their thinking with regard to the Home Guard in particular.

Representatives of all the platoons of the Westminster area were taken by bus to a secret location which we reckoned was Box Hill, formed up and marched into a forest. arranged in a semi-circle in a clearing, at the centre of which stood the Northover Projector (NOP) along with Mr Northover (I think). I remember it was a squat little thing, the gun, not Mr Northover. The NOP was shiny as if cobbled together out of spare aluminium bits. We were then instructed on the ammunition, which was a form of Molotov Cocktail, consisting of petrol with a cube of phosphorous floating on the top in a lemonade bottle. We were informed that the phosphorous would burst into flame when exposed to the air and ignite the petrol, and they were right. Later it occurred to me that, all things considered, I would not like to have to make a Molotov Cocktail, I couldn’t quite see how to get the phosphorus into the bottle without exposing it to the air.

A huge target of corrugated sheet steel had been erected against the forest backdrop and the NOP faced it squarely. We were told how tricky phosphorous was and how to aim the thing, then some one stepped forward and dropped a bottle of lemonade down the barrel, pulled a lever and off went the bottle. It reached the steel sheeting, cleared it by feet and then went on to explode against a tree and start a forest fire, an eventuality no one seemed to have envisaged because it took a while to put out, especially as it was mid-summer. Indeed that was all we saw of the demonstration, we were loaded up, late in the evening and returned home. I never again saw or heard of the Northover Projector from that day.


What Goes On Beneath Our Feet Part 1

I write these two pieces to draw attention to those men working underground, in risky and filthy conditions, who are taken too much for granted. The 2nd, a story I wrote, on an occasion when I really did think I might drown, when the stanks – timber boards – holding the city’s water eased with a frightening groan, and I saw the waters rising.

Under Ground Going up pipes, down manholes, through tunnels, into dark dank corners, beneath the sea, beneath roads and ground, deep or shallow, in compressed air or in sludge and sewage, was ever the lot of the inspection engineer, and those who worked there. Fear of being faced by a cat-sized mother rat protecting her brood, was always something I was paranoid about, but there was no alternative. A steel pipe had been laid, anticipating the long planned, often shelved scheme for the sewage works before the flyover was built. Intending to extend the pipe, I had to find out for myself whether the pipe was still viable after ten years. Holes were opened to air the pipe, a trolley was made so I could push my way up, as arthritis and height made the procedure more difficult. Off I set, on my solitary journey, tied to a safety line, in total darkness illuminated by a hand-torch, anticipating the red eyes of Mama Rat facing me like the headlights of a car. There was no rat, I hadn’t really expected there would be, it didn’t make sense, there was no food, well not right inside the pipe, why would she choose to live in a big wide steel pipe? – nice and cosy, with room to manoeuvre, room to escape danger? – Ah! – Just a thought. A Bricklayer I worked with was badly burned by steam in a sewer when the steam exhaust, from a reciprocating steam engine, was leaked by mistake into the sewer.


What Goes On Beneath Out Feet Part 2

I, a bricklayer have 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!

Northern Ireland

The Royal Marines

The number of ironic stories attributable to the heightened atmosphere of the ‘Troubles’ are legion, this is just another. 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, and if I had been needed at the time of Suez I would have held the temporary rank of Commander.

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 am sure that the stories I had heard about the proclivities of the Royal Marines, when I was a sailor, were totally apocryphal, slanderous in the extreme, and Marines are really loveable, almost to the degree of being cuddly – but – as I was on my own with no witnesses to confirm what I had started out with, just to be on the safe side, 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 first soldier 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. The officious Marine, I thought of as ‘Chummy’, 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 my beloved wife come 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!


A New Industry

This is a plea for sanity. The promulgation of theories on Environmental-Whatever, Global Warming, Ecology etc., you name it, is a new industry, rapidly being built and for no sane reason – its only product is a bandwagon upon which all the politician are scrambling for fear of being thought uncaring of the state of the Earth, at election time. Scientists have been warning them for many decades, and it is only now the flavour of the month. Hundreds must be beavering away at statistics, theories, slogans, advertising, speeches, spending taxes and going to meetings, but none seem to have looked into the logic of their platform, especially No 10.

We represent 0,67% of the world population of 9 Billion, we have lost all our heavy engineering to the very countries not too worried about global warming, but we still buy from them. In spite of the goading we are receiving, we are steadily improving pollution and waste and the message has got home here, if not in those huge countries with the huge populations including the USA. But the thing I found most absurd was the latest publicity, which probably cost a bomb, energy saving by switching off standby systems. Some systems use almost nothing, others from 1 to 5 watts, some can’t be switched off without inconvenience – rechargeable phones and satellite TV, (the TV itself should be off for safety,) but they are low anyway and are at night, when more electricity is being generated than used. Weigh this sort of saving against the School Run – but of course, revenue comes from petrol, the sale and resale of cars, taxes etc – a rethink on Public Transport would not match up. In the 40’s and early 50’s, we couldn’t afford a car, we travelled everywhere by an efficient, readily available public system – Progress??

Royal Navy

That 1st Day In The Navy

The Chameleon Theory Seven years old, now inured to Africa, I adopted a chameleon. We watched one another, daily, although it mostly watched insects – as dinner – from a bush beside the front door. I was enthralled by the stillness of this ugly creature, its strange jerky movements, and the speed of the rapier-like thrust of its long tongue. It was probably there because the door had an insect screen and at night fall the light from inside attracted insects, an electric larder. My father kept repeating that old clich?. “Do you want to know how to drive a chameleon mad? Set it on a tartan rug’. I spent some part of every day watching the mostly motionless, bulky body supported on its spindly legs, change hue as the sun moved round, wondering if it really could assume the pattern of a tartan. Years later I devised the Chameleon Theory which states that an individual, in the presence of strangers and acquaintances, changes his identity by an amount
proportional to his degree of insecurity. The ‘telephone voice’ is a common example. where the accent changes as soon as the instrument is lifted.
The theory was formulated on that horrendous ‘first day’ as a sailor. I was instructed to report to the recruiting office and there joined about five other sheepish youngsters with a general air of quiet trepidation and no idea what awaited them. I remember we hung about quite a lot, a foretaste of long periods of hanging about to come. We did some form filling, were sworn in, given travel warrants and some documentation, and then were sent on our way to Skegness via Victoria. The change in one of our number as soon as we were clear of the recruiting office was amazing. Another chap and I chatted quietly. One man was quiet to the point of being stolid and kept himself to himself, but there was one, Smith, who made the trip a real event. The further the train went the further from home we all were, which seemed irrelevant to the rest of us, but it was having a marked effect on the man in question. I would guess he had a Chameleon Factor of about 90%. He started by making a great play of offering cigarettes and lighting up with a great flourish. This he followed with expletives interspersed with bawdy comments and by the time we reached Victoria, no real distance, his language was appalling, and he was beginning to assume what he believed were the attributes of Jolly Jack Tar, I had the impression that even his gait had a roll to it, but that was only the curtain raiser.

We crossed London to Liverpool Street Station and a long delay. Smith insisted we should all adjourn to the Salvation Army canteen supplying tea and food on one of the platforms, for servicemen passing through, Smith by now was convinced he was a sailor through and through even in civvies. Servicemen rarely wore civvies in early 1941, they would have been excess baggage we could all do without, our issued kit was more than enough when it included a hammock and bedding. We were stupid enough, or too reticent to object when this idiot over-ruled us. We felt extremely self-conscious at presenting ourselves for free meals when we still thought of ourselves as civilians. We wanted to go to the buffet but apathy and his persistence won the day. I can still feel the embarrassment as this idiot sat shouting his bragging, implying we were all well seasoned sailors on leave, fooling no one but himself, but including us by implication in his shoddy fantasy world. Even when later he was in uniform and went ‘ashore’, (the Navy’s name for leave from any base be it afloat or concrete) he implied he was always just back off convoy with tales of derring-do. No one believed him as the people of Skegness would know he was from the Butlin’s camp, Life in the services, and especially the Navy is a very intimate experience and tolerance is paramount for the general good


Belfast Shipyard Part 2

Shipbuilding is probably the most complicated and detailed engineering exercise, outside aeroplane design. The size of a ship, various hull designs, its use, all give multitudes of options from the thickness of the plates, to the design of door handles. All the equipment has to be installed which involves designing the positioning, the fixings and the power. Multiply this throughout the ship and the complexity of design is mind boggling, and is transferred to construction on the day the contract is signed It is therefore no wonder that in 1943, Belfast shipyard, Harland and Wolf, among others in Britain was working flat out with an enormous workforce.

Drafted in, in ’43, I joined the Port Wireless Officer’s Staff. We had a small office, a shed, on the edge of the largest dry-dock in the shipyard, the Thompson Dock. From there we telephoned our headquarters, Belfast Castle, and reported to the Port Wireless Officer, (the PWO), everything was going well even if not, and enquired his pleasure. The Castle had been the property of Lord Shaftsbury, and prior to the war, used for public functions. The HQ of the navy in Belfast, was HMS Caroline, a concrete bottomed WW1 warship. The Castle had already been taken over, divided into small offices. Ours, in the old ballroom was one of the nicest, with a view over Belfast Lough. In a tower at the East end was a large signalling lamp, which Wrens used for asking ships coming up Belfast Lough to identify themselves. The shed on the dry-dock had a couch doubling as a bed, the usual office equipment, plus our tools and spares for the radio sets we fixed. Our job was to inspect all the radio wiring and installations, make sure the equipment was in order, sail on the first trial and approve the work, – ships as large as the cruiser The Black Prince, and as small as landing craft. Sometimes I would also have to go to places like Greencastle, County Down, to repair sets for the Coastguard.

A Stupid Ritual, A Near Disaster
It was just before the Italian landings that several Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) were brought into Belfast to be fitted out as Landing Craft Guns (LCG’S). They were in several of the dry-docks, and the work was so urgent all the trades were working together, so there was controlled chaos, which meant that I had to work at night when thing had quietened down. The modifications to the LCGs consisted of making living quarters in the centre of the ships which would house the gun crews of Royal Marines and would also act as the support for the 4 inch guns they proposed to use for shelling the shore before the landings. To enter the dry-dock one passed through huge wrought iron gates, at least twelve feet high, supported on Gargantuan pillars. The gates were most impressive and were opened every morning and closed and locked every night. When I had finished work at two one morning, I found the gates were closed. It was dark, and no street lights due to the blackout. With a torch I managed to see enough to tie all my tools, meters and equipment, together with a length of flex. Wrapping the flex round my wrist I climbed to the top of the gate, hauled the gear up one side and down the other, and finally clambered down the gate, safe and sound – just – it had been a hazardous experience. The jolt came later. As I was walking back to the hut I found the walls on either side of the gate had been blasted away in the Blitz – I could have walked round the pillars and out of the dry-dock. I was l told the unions insisted the gate keeper was an essential part of security and he was to be retained. to continue opening and locking the gates morning and night. Such are the rocks of precedent upon which our war effort was built.

When I arrived back at the hut I was too tired to put up the blackout, instead I put on the electric fire and crashed out on the couch. After a while I woke thinking I was taking the flu, coughed, turned over and went to sleep again. I awoke twice more, but on the third occasion I lifted mytorch to see the time only to find the beam of the torch was no longer than two feet, the room was filled with a white choking smoke. Immediately I went to the door, I was both sick and dizzy. It transpired that someone had leaned a coil of rubber-covered telcathene cable against the fire and it was burning. I am convinced if I had gone to sleep just once more I would never have awakened.


First Boiler Clean & Kissing

At intervals the Hunt destroyer had to go into dock to have the boiler tubes cleaned as they became choked with salts from the water used to make steam. Part of the crew not on watch was allowed on leave for the four days it took. I decided to go to London to see my Mother and friends. My family, like many at that time, while not unique were still living as if Victoria was still on the throne. We didn’t show emotion, and sentiment was laid on like gold leaf. Kissing was certainly a rarity.

On board the night train from Edinburgh to Euston, I was to learn the rules of the game of Brag, a version taught by stokers, Those night trains were an experience. Almost totally blacked out, masks had been placed over the corridor and carriage lights, illuminating a narrow strip of light in stops and starts along the gangway and across the knees of the seated passengers in the carriages, so they could read. People were just vague figures with illuminated laps in the case of women, generally in rough khaki or navy-blue serge, with brown or black lisle stockings emerging from a short skirt. I found a seat in a compartment where a naval great-coat covered the knees and Brag was being played. . From the start it was totally loaded against me because by the time I had learned what few rules there were and mastered the rudiments I had lost every penny I had on boarding the train, which amounted to about two months pay. Having borrowed the tram fare, I left Euston, deflated and depressed. As I got closer to home my spirits rose, after all I was a sailor home from the sea, and proud of it. I envisaged big hugs of joy because I was still in one piece. I had forgotten Queen Vicky! As I walked down the hall I saw my mother working in the kitchen, ‘Hello!’ she said, turning her head. ‘Put the kettle on I’ll be with you in a minute’, and that was that, it was as if I had only come home from the office. I should have remembered.

So it is not surprising that I find the current practice of hugging and kissing on meeting, even between casual acquaintanceships, bizarre to say the least and embarrassing in my own case. For me kissing is a significant expression of love and reserved for my special few. Some years ago I used doggerel to vent my views. I am incapable of posting doggerel on the Blog as it is normally writ- read it at your peril!


They’re kissing air, kissing past my face, never hitting base. Kissing everywhere, Kissing into space. Am I unclean, just a bit malodorous? Maybe not – perhaps just too presumptuous. Kissing me, would Beauty find preposterous? Maybe else, cosmetically disastrous. I find it strange, this current craze, of course I know, it’s just a phase, started by the Arty, worried what they’d catch at a party. When I was young you kissed your Mum, and Aunts with plenty of lolly. When I was older and bolder, it was all just fun and folly. Then came the bit where kissing meant something more, a sentiment, not taken in jest, not lightly, the meaning clear and unlikely to be confused, misunderstood. From then there was no likelihood that kissing was a social grace, an empty gesture with no place for subtle nuances of love, paternal, filial, and above else sexual connotation, not for general misquotation. So please forgive me if you find, I’m not a kisser, the kind so prevalent today I find, I’m really not at all inclined