Royal Navy 1971 – 1981
RN 1971-1978 RNR 1978-1981
H.M.S. RALEIGH. BASIC TRAINING
HMS RALEIGH 1971
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (1)
Somewhere around teatime on the 27th September 1971, I arrived at H.M.S. Raleigh, tired, hungry and disorientated, but before being allowed to attend to these basic needs, I (and all of the other new arrivals) had to first of all attend to the needs of the Navy; something which before long, we would all accept as par for the course… as a matter of course.
A collection of tables had been set up in the gym and each boy was ushered from one to the other in turn, answering questions, being photographed, and of course signing to say that he had arrived of his own free will. At the final table, a five pound note was issued to each boy as an advance of pay, which was of course signed for.
1971 Passport Photo
From the preliminaries in the gym, we were all then ushered on again, this time to the Bedding Store where we each signed for a set of bedding comprising: blankets (itchy) 2 in number, Sheets (white cotton) x 3, Pillows (feathered) x 1, Pillow slips (white cotton) x 3, and finally a blue and white counterpane embroidered with Royal Naval insignia. With our full sets of bedding piled high above our heads we then set off, walking side wards (to see where we were going); finally being directed into the barrack hut where we would spend the next six weeks.
In total I think there were about 30 or 40 barrack huts (mess decks), all in rows, all made of wood, with each one containing about 30 metal sprung beds (15 down each side). At one end of the mess deck were communal toilet and bathroom facilities, and a utility area for washing and ironing, and at the other was a notice board. In the centre was a social area with a couple of writing tables. Each billet came with a bed, a locker and a bedside cabinet all made out of grey metal.
As we arrived in the mess we each just dumped our heavy load of bedding onto the first vacant bed we passed which then became our billet, by default. Mine was somewhere up the middle on the left, or as I would soon be re-educated into thinking ‘port side, mid-ships’.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (2)
In leaving the mess deck to walk to the dining room, I got my first opportunity to see the barracks as a whole, which seemed to have been built on a slope. At the top of the slope was the main entrance which had guarded gates and which was the domain of the Master at Arms (Naval Police) and his staff.
To one side of the gate a very imposing building (which may have been Georgian on account of its many windows), faced down the slope towards the parade ground. This turned out to be the Officer’s quarters (wardroom), and the house next door turned out to be the Captain’s.
Outside the wardroom a very well clipped lawn was the home of the ‘ship’s’ Flag Pole, which twice a day became the focal point of all personnel in the barracks; in the morning when the flag was raised, and in the evening when the flag was lowered. On both occasions a whistle was blown over the tannoy commanding everyone to stop and stand still, until a second whistle allowed us all to carry on.
One of the first lessons given to young matelots is that whistling is banned in the Navy as it is used a way of conveying orders. A second lesson could be learned if one was caught not standing still during flag ceremonies, although at this point in my career I had no understanding of why.
On the other side of the gate were training facilities including a gym, swimming pool, various classrooms, store rooms, the dining room and kitchen (galley). There was also a shop and a Post Office complete with a public telephone box.
Looking down the slope, the trainee’s barracks were to the left of the parade ground and there was a drill hall to the right. The parade ground overlooked the sea.
After finally having had a good neb at my new surroundings, I arrived at the dining room with some forty odd others where we were all served with something which escapes my memory, but which I do recall was disgusting. After dinner we returned to the mess deck where we were greeted by our very own N.C.O. who advised us that lights out would be at 9pm and that he would be the first face we would see every morning.
In the dark after lights out some of the boys chatted about both their excitements and their concerns, although I didn’t really feel confident enough to join in and so I just lay back and listened. Much of what was said was what we were all thinking; a sort of cross between ‘I’m glad I’m here because everyone will be proud of me’ and ‘Oh my God what have I done? Where are my family? I want to go home. I feel sick’. Eventually we all began falling off to sleep. Some of the boys cried.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (3)
……It was evening time as I arrived home, and so it was quite dark as I stood on our threshold and knocked on the door.
Dressed in the romantic square rig of a sailor, with blue collar, white front, lanyard and silk, I stood waiting for me Mam to turn on the light and open the door. In my hand was the special present I had brought her back from the Far East. I took a long breath in to inflate my chest, and then waited. Just then, the light came on……
“Wakey, wakey!! Rise and shine!! Hands off cocks and on with socks; you’re in the Naaaavy now!”.
The light had indeed come on, but not the one I had expected. It was the light of the mess deck being turned on with delight by our new N.C.O., at the same time he delivered his rendition of ‘Good morning’ to us all. What I had thought of as a reality turned out to be nothing more than a dream. I wouldn’t have minded so much if I had at least gotten to see me Mam, but his billowing voice woke me up before I got to that bit.
In a split second the entire mess deck looked as though it was full of dogs trying to bite fleas off their tails. Thirty odd boys had jumped out of their ‘pits’ and were frantically turning round in circles trying to find something to put on, at the same time that they were wondering where on earth they were.
Our first day in the Royal Navy had begun.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (4)
I’m not sure how we managed it but somehow everyone in our mess deck had sh*t, shaved, showered and dressed, and were mustered outside the barrack hut within about 15 minutes of coming round from deep sleeps, semi-comas and trips round Noddyland, ready to start their very first day in the service of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 2; looking like ‘F’ Troop.
The face of our N.C.O. was a picture although there was no doubt he’d been here many times before. Using all of the persuasive charm at his disposal, he did (at length) manage to get us looking something like a squad; dressed by the right in ranks of three; shortest in the centre, tallest at the flanks. For those of us who struggled to understand his commands he was kind enough to put his requests into plain English; i.e. “I want you to f***ing well ‘Fall In’, and for those f****ing thick b***ards among you, that means one-behind-the-other-twice!!…And IF we ever get round to marching I don’t want to see you looking like a herd of f***ing windmills”. Pure poetry.
We then marched off for breakfast looking like a herd of windmills.
To summarise my recollections of our first day would be to say that any of us who previously felt like a ‘nobody’ was now a ‘somebody’. He had become the property of Her Majesty (having been issued with an Identity Card and Pay book), and would remain so at Her pleasure until his time had expired; or until he was given (spare me that) a dishonourable discharge.
Those boys who had enlisted with long hair, no longer had long hair; and those who thought they had enlisted with short hair, now really did have short hair.
For those who had concerns about picking up diseases in the tropics such as Smallpox, Yellow Fever, Cholera, Typhoid, Diphtheria or whatever, their fears had now been relieved having been adequately inoculated at the rate of two jabs at a time (one in each arm). Those boys who had not expressed any such fears about picking up diseases were also inoculated.
Although the day had begun with all of us dressed in a variety of civilian clothes and marching like a herd of windmills, it had ended with us all wearing Number 8 working clothes (having been issued with a complete kit), all looking exactly the same, and all…still marching like a herd of windmills.
Our final task of the day was to somehow stow away our entire kit into a locker which seemed only to allow storage for about a third of what we had been issued with, and then leave the door open so that the N.C.O. could inspect it in the morning. Leaving the door open was the easy bit since no one could get their door closed anyway. The tough bit was that it was well into the early hours of the morning before most of us gave up trying.
I didn’t hear any crying that night. In fact I didn’t hear any snoring either. The first thing I heard after closing my eyes was “Wakey, wakey….Hands off cocks, on with socks!”
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (5)
And so it was that my life in the Royal Navy had finally begun with that gentle process of being nurtured into the new routines of a completely different lifestyle, along with everyone else, and with the added dimension of us all being complete strangers to one another.
On the one hand it was quite unreal, and yet on the other hand it was very exciting. Boys from all walks of life were represented in our shoddy little group; rich kids, poor kids, Jocks, Taff’s, Paddy’s, Geordies; all of whom, over the coming weeks, would have their Achilles heels exposed, their feathers ruffled, their egos deflated and their pride trampled on. Which was no difficult task for our N.C.O., given that these were the days before political correctness had gone completely mad. It was of little consequence as to whether one was overweight, underweight, forgetful, a smart arse, sloppy, precious, smelly, gobby, quiet, a mammy’s boy, or even the perfect training cadet. In the eyes of the Navy, at that point in our lives, we were as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.
I think our N.C.O’s welcome speech probably hit the nail on the head. “You’re a f***ing shambles. Nothing but a load of selfish little b***ards who couldn’t give two-pence for anyone else. But by the time I’ve finished with you, you’ll fight for each other; you’ll die for each other. You’ll even kill for each other. Because if you wouldn’t, I’d top you myself in case I ever ended up on the same warship as you further on up the road”.
Romance aside, the reality of what we were doing finally began hitting home. We had joined the armed forces and ultimately the day may come when we had to go to war. In preparation for that, the Navy were systematically stripping us down and putting us back together in such a way that we bonded with our ‘ship mates’. United we stand, divided we fall; it wasn’t rocket science.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (6)
Loosely speaking, after having had our horoscopes read, our first week of Naval training centred around getting us all to look ‘something like’, and to ‘behave something like’, neither of which came naturally to any of us.
The art of ‘looking something like’ required us to turn out immaculately at all times in whichever of our numerous uniforms happened to be rig-of-the-day. Within the training environment this could be either Number 1’s (Ceremonials), Number 2’s (Duty) or Number 8’s (Working); it could also be one of a myriad of hybrid rigs depending on the weather, or the task in hand (i.e. overalls, sea jerseys, white fronts etc). It’s probably nearer the truth to say that there was a requirement on us to ensure that every stitch we owned was kept immaculately stowed away in our lockers and that our bed linen was in the same condition. If my memory serves me right we were allowed to have 3 items in our dhobi (laundry) bag at any one time.
On a day-to-day basis normal working rig was our Number 8’s which consisted of a light blue denim shirt with a white name tag above the left hand breast pocket, a branch badge on the right arm and dark blue combat trousers. A number 2 hat, belt, boots and gators completed the attire. Everything on one’s body was either pressed like a razor blade or polished to the point of the obscene; obscene being the reflection of our N.C.O.’s face in our buckles and boots. At the end of the working day, we’d all change into (relaxed) Number 2 uniform (no jacket or blue sailor’s collar (with shoes) for dinner and recreation; unless of course we were on duty when we would be required to wear full Number 2’s.
Very rarely did a day go by when we weren’t reminded that as members of Her Majesty’s armed forces we were being paid 24 hours a day/7 days a week; and with that in mind exemplary behaviour was a mandatory expectation. The Queen’s uniform could be brought into disrespect in a million and one ways by young sailors committing serious offences, such as having hands in pockets, or whistling. Those caught would find themselves swiftly on Captain’s Defaulters, removing their cap before ‘He-who-must-be-obeyed’ and being granted an appropriate punishment. A typical example of such proceedings might see a sailor being given 7 days Number 9 punishment for slovenly behaviour which basically meant that he was given extra unpleasant duties during not only his own free time but also during the unsociable hours of dawn and dusk. I’m not alone in saying that I had the pleasure of many such punishments during my career. In fact if I remember rightly there was a word for those who had never had the pleasure of the experience; fortunately I forget what it was.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (7)
Steeped in tradition, nothing about the Royal Navy is accidental, including a sailors rig. Prior to joining, I had always thought the uniform was far more fascinating than that of the Army or the Air Force. Seeing a sailor home on leave filled me with absolute wonder; leaving me conjuring up images of far away places he’d seen, other peoples, their languages, their cultures. I so wanted that. There was also something quite mystical about the way people always touched his collar for good luck. Even more appealing to me was the way he bore the name of his ship on his cap tally (H.M.S. Ark Royal, H.M.S. Fearless). He belonged. And was proud to tell the world exactly where he belonged. Through the course of my own career I would eventually earn 9 cap tallies.
For now, however, I bore the cap tally of H.M.S. Raleigh, and would do so for the next six weeks as I underwent what was affectionately termed as basic training in the Senior Service; so called, if I remember rightly, because the Navy not only had it’s own soldiers – Marines – it also had it’s own flight. There was also something of a connection to the fact that many members of the Royal Family were Naval, which may or may not have galvanised the claim.
From the head to the toe, every item of uniform was pristine. At the top of course was the white cap which was scrubbed regularly often gently with a toothbrush, and having the cap tally tied by a bow above the left ear. The ship’s name was central above the forehead. The white front (sailor’s shirt) was starched with a crease running vertically down the centre from the neck. When dressing, the next item put on would be the blue denim collar which went on top of the white front and underneath the jacket. The blue collar was also starched and pressed a bit like a concertina with two creases up and one crease down; or as our N.C.O. would bawl at us “Two tits and a fanny, NOT two fannies and a tit!”.
Sailor’s bell-bottomed trousers were pressed flat inside out and so had inward creases up both the outside and the inside of the leg. In addition, they were also ironed with 7 (or for shorter men 5) horizontal creases, pay book width all the way up the leg; the seven seas. Completing the outfit was the black jacket over which the blue denim collar was worn. On the right arm of the jacket a man wore a gold embroidered badge denoting his branch; in my case a star with the initials S.A. within it. On the left arm he would wear badges of rank and/or long service. Around the neck a white lanyard and black silk were worn tied with a bow at the base of the ribs, the tails of which would not exceed 4 inches. Black shoes, burn polished using a second toothbrush to get polish into the stitching protected one’s pinkies. No doubt tooth brush retailers in the Plymouth area made a comfortable living.
As previously mentioned, there were hybrids to this rig for example in winter the white front would be substituted with an itchy sea jersey which was to be worn without a vest next to the skin. Our biggest enemy when wearing these was rain. Another example would be the addition of white canvas belt and gators with hobnail boots on ceremonial occasions.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (8)
Looking after our uniform was almost a career in itself; Number 1 rig, Number 2 rig, two sets of Number 8’s, gym kit, overalls, shoes, boots, plimsolls, hats and more – all demanding to be washed, ironed, polished or whitened.
There was also a discipline in the making of our beds, in particular the rotation of the sheets; as the bottom one is laundered, the top one is put down onto the mattress then a clean one goes on top thus using both sides of the sheet.
Given the limited number of resources in terms of sinks and irons etc, planning became paramount – getting your name down on the list to use the utilities – if washing clothes at two o’clock in the morning was to be avoided.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (9)
As one day went into two, and two days went into three, it wasn’t long before the house rules became absorbed into our psyche and we embraced the required routines; many of which would remain a part of my life for the next ten years.
The call of ‘Wakey, wakey’ would see 30 naked young men kick back their bedding and sit upright on their beds with their feet on the deck. From there, the first port of call would be to the toilet (the ‘heads’), followed closely by the shower, both of which enjoyed generous queues. It was at this point that I realised that I had never been totally naked in front of so many people before in my life; apart from at school in the sports changing rooms where, partly because of my shyness (and partly because of feeling inadequate when viewing the ‘members’ of other young men). I had developed ways of making myself almost invisible when changing. To combat the phobia now, I reasoned that if I appeared nonchalantly confident, then no one would take the slightest interest in me. The tactic worked for my entire Naval career, even though the shyness never left me and still remains to this day. I suppose one lesson I learned from this scenario however, very early in life, was that ‘you are what people see’; a knowledge which has given me immense strength during some of the toughest times in my life.
With beds made and everyone dressed immaculately, the class would ‘fall in’ outside the mess, dress by the right, and march off to breakfast. Thinking back to the day I arrived when the food was dreadful, I had come to the conclusion that serving such a meal was deliberate, (although I couldn’t say why), because the food in general turned out to be fantastic. I remembered my cousin Paul saying that building up the physique was a major part of basic training and four hot meals a day was part of the programme. It wasn’t long before I looked forward to mealtimes. Paul had also said that me Mam wouldn’t recognise me when I went home; I began seeing the logic of that given that we were not allowed home leave during the first six weeks.
In the meantime, my training having finally begun, I found my days to be absolutely packed full. Marching drill on the parade ground (or in the drill hall during foul weather) was staple diet, reinforcing teamwork whilst at the same time building the pride. Rifle drill had a similar effect but with the added dimension of sharpening hand/eye coordination during target practice on the rifle range.
Physical exercise was also high on the list of priorities and occurred in a variety of ways. Probably the most excruciating of these was the workouts in the gym which included push-ups, pull-ups, weights and all other manner of similar things which these days I go out of my way to avoid. The most pleasant indoor activity from my point of view was swimming and life saving; but then I already had a proven track record in this area having achieved a bronze medallion with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Outdoor keep-fit pursuits included the dreaded assault courses, yomping (running with back packs and rifles) and of course cross country running which I took to like a duck to water; so much so that I am able to brag that I ran for the Royal Navy on a of couple occasions. I must add the footnote, however, that I didn’t win anything; but there was something about it that I found liberating.
And so it came to pass that while being systematically force fed like Christmas turkeys, we were also slowly but surely being encouraged to ensure that all of the extra weight we had been gratuitously given, was turned into muscle at the first opportunity. But that was only half of the story; there was still the brain to attend to.
In addressing mental stimulation, education played a major role. First and foremost was the basic requirement of having an above average command of both maths and English. Not achieving the required standard in these subjects would result in a trainee being back classed, even discharged if he was felt to be a hopeless case; failure to achieve the required standard at swimming or up keeping one’s kit also carried the same fate. Other classroom work included Ship’s Husbandry, Naval History, Traditions, Language, Knots, N.B.C.D. (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical defence), and even sexual education, with particular emphasis paid to venereal diseases. To this day I can still recall some scenes of the harrowing films we were shown to reinforce this teaching.
At the end of a typical working day, everyone would shower and change into relaxed number 2 rig before going off for the evening meal which was served around five o’clock, after which the rest of the evening was our own; providing we were not on duty, under punishment, required for extra curriculum education or behind with our laundry. If we were lucky we might get time to add to the letters we had been trying to write for several days; in my case there were only two. One to me Mam, the other to Annie; and as important though they were, even they came second to that far more treasured commodity, sleep.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (10)
‘March past’ was a weekly event which involved all trainees attending ceremonial parade to be personally inspected by the man himself (the Captain) before marching past him as he received our salute; and woe betide big time anyone who was picked up on the slightest thing. To have a piece of fluff dusted from the shoulder, or to have one’s chin raised further into the air, was to expect a kit muster in the least (a full inspection of everything one owned).
The minimum expectation at these events, apart from being absolutely pristine, was that the chest remained fully inflated and that the eyes looked straight ahead; horizontally down the nose. (Try it; for a couple of hours). Keeping this stance often proved a trial for new recruits and it wasn’t unusual to see someone ‘flake-out’ spread eagle on the deck where they would remain until an order was given to assist them. I was certainly one who hit the deck on at least one occasion and brought round by the N.C.O. bawling at me for not having eaten enough breakfast. Perhaps there was something in what he said because I made a point of stuffing myself before future parades, and don’t ever recall it happening again.
At a rough guess, judging by the number of squads on parade, I would say there were about 20 classes of 30 trainees at H.M.S. Raleigh at any one time, all at different stages in training, and each week one or two classes would ‘pass out’ with their families present. New recruits would arrive to take their places. Those passing out would march past first; new recruits would ‘windmill’ past last, and everyone else would march past in their pecking order of seniority. As each week went by classes would move nearer to the front.
Moving nearer to the front on parade was a double edged sword in a way. On the one hand, the squad enjoyed a certain cred in the eyes of newer recruits and were able to lord it over them a little bit. On the other hand it was expected that longer servers to show a good, positive and responsible example to the new boys; the failure of which fell into the ‘you should know better’ category, and carried the appropriate punishment.
As time went on I began to realise that a change was happening inside me over which I had no control, and which often caused me to panic. With each new day, I learned more and more about myself, which for some reason distanced me further from my family and my home; even though I missed them so. Learning so many new things, and having the feeling of finally belonging somewhere didn’t take away the panic of ‘letting go’ the only thing I had ever trusted; and deep inside I still had the burden of managing privately my inherent shyness.
Although I made many friends throughout my career, I don’t recall a single person during my training at H.M.S. Raleigh I could put that label on to. In retrospect, I was lonely and frightened; because I was finally becoming myself.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (11)
So many things define life in the ‘Pusser’ (the R.N.) in particular the very unique language used by sailors; some of which I have already illustrated in my story, and because I feel it is both interesting and important to the script, will continue to do so where appropriate. It’s a strange thing really but I thought I had largely forgotten much of a matelot’s terminology, but the more I reflect on my service life, the more I recall the language. I’m inclined to think that most ex-sailors experience the same thing.
As previously noted, our days revolved around an early-to-bed, early-to-rise regime, which at length seemed to give us all far more energy; which was just as well given that we needed far more energy to survive the new regime.
Communication was excellent in that both ‘daily orders’ and ‘weekly orders’ were posted well in advance on mess deck notice boards, and as might be expected it was an offence not to read them. Pedantic though this seems, it wasn’t until I returned to civvy street that I began to appreciate the importance of sharing information. So many people I come across today seem to have a desire to with hold knowledge for reasons best known to them selves, which is frustrating in the least and unproductive at best. There’s no doubt there are more heart attacks, strokes and breakdowns in civvy street than there are in the forces.
Among the many items included in the ‘daily orders’ were, of course, the duty rotas which saw each individual detailed-off every fourth day and every fourth weekend. Duty men in general were responsible for the security and cleanliness of the establishment; plus any other issues which ensured the base functioned at its premium (e.g. tackling fires and floods). A typical uneventful duty would include cleaning the mess deck for ’rounds’ (Duty Officer’s inspection) at 7.30pm, and then cleaning it again if it failed. Weekend duties saw trainees deployed by the duty N.C.O. wherever required around the base, which could be anywhere from the kitchens (galley) to the main gate (quarterdeck).
Trainees who had achieved several successful weeks of input were eventually granted limited shore leave which meant that they could leave the barracks and go into town; maybe to the cinema, the bowling alley or somewhere similar, but with a strict curfew at midnight. Drinking establishments were out of bounds to those under eighteen, most of which were located on Union Street (affectionately known as the Straza) which was exactly where the Naval Patrols would find all of the under eighteen year olds – usually hiding under the tables. Those who were caught under-age drinking quickly found out after a night in the cells that whatever the Navy gave (in this case shore leave) could just as easily be taken away.
Those out looking for the pleasure of female company usually returned wondering where they had gone wrong; unaware at this point that the barracks tea, as well as containing copious amounts of sugar, condensed milk and several dozen teabags, had also been laced with bromide. Publicly of course, to the lads who had been on duty, they had ‘given her one for them too’.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (12)
One of the perks pertinent to the Navy, but not to the other armed forces is an entitlement to duty free cigarettes. While serving ashore in barracks, Jack (a sailor) would be entitled to 300 snouts a month, known as ‘blue liners’ since they had an indelible blue line running down the length of each cigarette, and were embossed with the words ‘R.N. Personnel only’. When serving aboard a warship, Jack became entitled to 600 snouts a month, which were king sized commercial brands.
The process was that each man was given his cigarette coupons (6 or 3 depending on whether he served at sea or ashore) on payday (which was fortnightly on Thursdays). Each coupon could be exchanged with 50 pence for 100 cigarettes, and there was a choice of either tipped or plain. I must just say at this point that blue liners are not for the faint hearted; rumour had it that they were created from the tobacco waste found on the floors of all the major factories, and I’d probably go with that. As a young smoker at the time I found that one drag on a blue liner would often lift my feet off the floor, but then on the other hand there was nothing more welcoming after a heavy day of outdoor training in the rain. In my case, they were also a very welcome friend at times I got the blues.
To be a non-smoker in the Navy is a very advantageous place to be, because cigarette coupons then became quite a valuable commodity, a sort of currency; particularly at times when one wanted shore leave on days when one was on duty, for example. Needless to say, as a smoker, I did a few extra duties from time to time, and although over the course of my life I have abstained (sometimes for a couple of years at a time), I am still someone who enjoys a cigarette.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (13)
I think I’m right in saying that most young trainees were basically from Christian backgrounds, either Catholic, Protestant or Methodist etc; although there may have been others with more of an ethnic background, I honestly don’t recall. One thing was for sure though, regardless of whichever God an individual worshiped on high, downstairs in the real world we were all collectively in awe of a second ‘god’ nearer to home. The Captain.
Broadly speaking, apart from at the most obvious times, for example ceremonial parades, there were only three reasons that one would have an audience with the Captain. Either you had done something right, and were to be acknowledged for it; or you had done something wrong and were to be punished for it; or it may be that you wanted to request permission for something, for example special leave to get married or attend a funeral.
The process of having an audience with the great man, or attending ‘Captain’s Request-men and Defaulters’ was a formal one. Those men/boys seeing the Captain for positive reasons would be called in first in rank order. A Petty Officer who had passed all his relevant exams and who was entitled to be promoted (made-up) to Chief Petty Officer would march smartly into the Skipper’s cabin, salute, give his name, rank and number, then stand to attention as his departmental officer would present his case, requesting his promotion. On being granted his request, the new Chief P.O. would then salute the Captain again, say thank you, and march smartly back out of the cabin. After all promotional prospects had been seen (and not all were granted – especially if there had been any recent disciplinary issues on a man’s record), the Captain would then see the remaining request-men who would also march in, salute, and state their wish.
As already noted, requests were usually for the likes of special leave etc, but in order to give an example of the importance of tradition in the Navy it may be of interest if I recall the process of ‘requesting to discontinue shaving’ (growing a beard). On making this request, the Captain would determine whether the man/boy could actually grow a full beard, as some were clearly not hairy enough (known to their colleagues as ‘skin’ and referred to them as such). These people were denied their request. Those with the potential to grow a beard were granted a ‘discontinue shaving’ order for 14 days, after which they were summoned to reappear before the Captain who would determine whether or not to grant a final week, or to order the man to ‘shave-off’. Once a man had grown a beard with the approval of the Captain, he had a duty to keep it well groomed and was not allowed to shave it off without first requesting formally…..to re-continue shaving!
Finally, the Captain would see the default-men, again in rank order. Default-men would march into the Captain’s cabin, remove their cap, give their Name, rank and number then stand to attention as the Master-at-Arms read out the charge(s). The accused would then be asked to plead guilty or not guilty, and then be given the opportunity to speak up in his defence. After hearing the accused, the Captain would hear any evidence supporting guilt from the Master-at-Arms and others, followed by any statements from others supporting the man’s defence. Mitigating circumstances where appropriate from the man’s senior officer, were also submitted. Typical scenarios revolved around a man being picked up drunk and stroppy ashore by the Naval Patrol and being accommodated in cells overnight for his own safety and the safety of others. In clear cut cases like this a man would plead guilty, probably be grounded for 14 days and given a dose of number 9 punishment. To plead innocent in a case like this is futile and would only prove to increase the punishment. Very serious charges, regardless of the plea were referred for Courts Martial.
Through the length of my career, I had many a trip to the Skipper’s cabin as a default-man although thankfully only for petty issues. On several occasions, I also had the pleasure of being accommodated in the cells overnight. I did, however, also enjoy the privilege of being a request-man on several occasions too, which as with the naughty issues I will talk about in detail when I get to those points in my story.
For now, though, I’m still a trainee sailor at H.M.S. Raleigh and, probably through awe or fright, was almost an ideal cadet, because the only time I saw the Skipper was at ceremonial parades. That suited me fine.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (14)
There’s little doubt that the copious amount of physical activity and exercise had begun to make a difference in us all in that our clothes began to become far tighter on our developing bodies; and the more weight (muscle) we piled on, the bigger our appetites became. The four hot meals a day we were once force-fed became a necessity to stop our bellies rumbling (especially on parade), and these were usually subsidized by regular trips to the NAAFI (Naval, Army and Air Force Institute) shop for chocolate.
For me, my most favourite meal was ‘nine-o’clockers’ (supper) especially when Pot Mess was served. Pot Mess was a delicacy individual to the chef onboard who basically threw the days leftovers into an urn, and served it with a ladle. The contents could contain anything from ‘babies heads’ (individual steak and kidney puddings) to fried eggs or spaghetti and the finished dish was guaranteed not only to raise a cheer from the lads but also ensured everyone slept like logs.
Sleep continued to be a cherished part of the day partly through exhaustion but also because by now everyone was becoming homesick and missed their families. In dreams, we could be anywhere we wanted to be and with whomever we chose; doing whatever we wanted. I valued that.
On nights when insomnia just would not go away there was always letters from home that could be read over and over again; in terms of comfort, mail had no equal – more so later in my career when I was very far away from home for months on end.
As time went on, I began to quite enjoy the hard, physical side of training because as well as developing physically, I was also growing more confident in my abilities to carry out related tasks both individually, and as part of a team; and began gaining respect from peers and instructors.
The Navy was very good at cultivating a culture of praise when individuals did well, which in turn impacted on everyone’s self esteem, and though it was no antidote for missing home it gave us all a very strong sense of belonging; and of wanting to continue to do well – and to continue being praised; something we were all naturally reluctant to lose. But there was a condition to this utopia. Men serving in the armed forces were expected to be apolitical, and although I was unaware my personal leanings then, it was only a matter of time before I felt compromised.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (15)
Broadly speaking the development of young sailors undergoing basic training falls into two areas; physical and mental. In general, it’s usually only the physical side of things that ordinary folk would know about such as rifle drill, assault courses or even the hallowed ‘field gun crew’ competitions which are still highly revered today featuring the Navy’s physical elite.
In contrast, much of the mental side of the training remains something of a mystery to average people in the street partly because on joining the forces it is mandatory that new recruits sign the official secrets act which tends to limit conversation about anything other than the stereo typical and although it is many years since my own discharge I am still bound by the act (as all ex servicemen are), and would always carefully consider anything I put into the public domain. Two thoughts spring to mind at this point, one being that I don’t think I was ever privy to anything ‘secret’ in my entire career; the other being that even if I was, and I inadvertently mentioned it in my ramblings, it would be so out of date by now that it would have whiskers on it!
With that said I hope my memoirs give a true an interesting account of naval life without bringing embarrassment on either my queen or my country; or a charge of treason on me!
Within the classroom environment many different subjects were taught, all of which we had to pass by examination to a very high standard. In fact there were so many that it was almost like being back in a comprehensive school.
Examples of our classroom work (most of which I loved) included naval history and traditions, ships husbandry, knots, world geography and more, all of which I found I had an insatiable appetite for. Reinforcing skills in mathematics and English language were also a very high priority, which was understandable, given the importance of communication etc, though far less interesting to me.
Among other subjects on the agenda designed to educate but which did not require a formal examination was sex education, with particular emphasis placed upon sexually transmitted diseases. For young testosterone fuelled men travelling to foreign climes after long periods at sea, the Navy naturally felt a responsibility to ensure that ships crews remained healthy and to this end showed us all graphic films of people suffering with the likes of syphilis, gonorrhea and Vietnam rose. Very sobering.
Once in a while, our NCO Instructors would go off on a tangent and give us reflections of episodes from their own careers, usually in the form of anecdotes, which I absolutely loved. ‘When I was on the ‘Ark’ out in the med back in 65……’. . Such stories brought a realism into our virtual world, and having always loved stories of far-flung places I thrived on these tales. To me they reminded me of the romance and excitement I felt when my cousin Paul would talk about his travels, which was essentially the reason I joined up in the first place.
But in reality the real world was, at that time, a very worrying place far removed from my own idea of it; much of it I was totally oblivious to. Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot and Nelson Mandela were all people I had heard of but which didn’t particularly impact on me in any specific way. But they would.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (16)
The ability to swim was, of course, a fundamental requirement in the navy although that isn’t where the story ended. The ability to swim long distances in turbulent sea whilst at the same time dragging an unconscious comrade was basically the navy’s aim for everyone; albeit in simulated conditions. Being unable to make the required grade almost certainly saw a trainee back-classed or even discharged.
Following training, individuals were strapped into a mocked up helicopter with a dummy in the pilot’s seat and the chopper was then turned upside down in the water. As the chopper filled with water the ‘pilot’ had to be ‘saved’ which required us to un-strap both ourselves and the dummy, open a door, then swim to the surface with dummy in tow finally finishing up at the side of the pool (fully dressed). Having a natural love of water, this wasn’t an exercise I found too difficult although I do remember the odd panic holding my breath.
A similar exercise was designed to test our fire fighting skills whereby a metal building with several floors had been built to simulate a warship. The idea was that a fire was lit on the ground floor which we had to extinguish, but we first of all had to get to it from an access point on the third floor; dressed in a Fearnought suit and breathing apparatus.
As we entered the building the door was closed behind us and it was pitch dark. From the top floor we then had to descend two sets of ladders to the ground floor (the rungs of which became hotter as we neared the fire), and then operate hoses. Complicating the issue, we had two oxygen tanks on our backs, one of which was designed to run out of air during the exercise which meant we had to ‘equalize’ them (turn a dial to allow air to move from the full tank to the empty one). When the fire was finally extinguished, the doors were opened on the ground floor and we were able to just walk out.
Between the heat, the dark, the need to equalize my air, and the enclosure of the suit and mask, there is no doubt what-so-ever I ‘bricked’ myself, and I still don’t know how I met the grade. Claustrophobic isn’t a word I would use to describe myself, but even today in ordinary situations I subtly check out every environment I find myself in, and always make sure I’m comfortable with where I am; usually not far from the door!
Within the same vein of training, one other unpleasant experience which springs to mind which I think is worth a mention is the method used to test one’s gas mask. In a nutshell, we were all herded into an enclosed space which my memory tells me was similar to a cave with one fairly long tunnel serving as its entrance and exit. Within the cave we all sat around in a circle as the NCO placed an empty soft drink can on the floor, onto which he put a small pill. The pill was set on fire and began billowing smoke around the cave. “This exercise is simple lads” he would say, “All you have to do is take off your gas mask in your own time, and walk out of the cave”.
It was a while before someone took the plunge but eventually someone did. Off came his mask and within seconds he ran out of the cave. Others followed. Eventually I decided to go for it and to run as the others had, although I still wasn’t sure why there was a need to run. Until I took my own mask off. My eyes immediately filled with water and my nose and throat felt as though they were on fire. Run, I did, and now knew why that tunnel was as long as it was. There’s no doubt that we were all expected to have a good sniff of the old CS gas so that we would know it if it came along again in the future.
Outside on the grass, breakfasts were being coughed up, and unusually after an exercise, no one wanted a fag.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (17)
As our basic training came nearer to the end, and we had become cadets worthy (in the eyes of our N.C.O.) of being seen by the
real Navy, we were treated to a trip to Devonport dockyard to visit one of the many warships that were docked at that time.
Walking through the dockyard I literally drooled at the mouth as we walked past ship after ship all gleaming grey in the morning sun of October with their white ensigns fluttering; getting ready to go off to the tropics, or to the Med, or the Far East.
I was just so near achieving my dream that I could almost taste it. Watching the sailors as they formed a line from the quayside up the gangway, and then down into the vessel as they stored ship brought reality into my world. Boxes of beans, bags of spuds, medicines and clothing were thrown from man to man with nothing short of the nautical precision I would have expected to see, given the training I had undergone myself.
Further round the dockyard we passed by the pride of the Fleet, H.M.S. Ark Royal, in dry dock undergoing a refit, and paused in awe. Gazing up from the quayside I could barely believe something so massive (and top heavy looking) didn’t topple over, let alone sail all around the world, but equally impressive was the attention being lavished upon her by both the crew and the dockyard workers. As the sound of drills tended to her structural needs, the site of those using paint brushes to give the old girl a face lift left me feeling that there was a genuine sense of care and pride towards her; this was not just a lump of metal. H.M.S. Ark Royal was a beautiful, living part of everyone connected to her. As, I would come to realize, was every warship in the fleet.
Standing in wonder with my thoughts in a dream, the sound of a Bosun’s call (naval whistle) rang through the air. A ship was sailing; leaving harbour. As I looked over to the water, a Leander Class Frigate, decked out in flags, and with the crew lining the upper deck in number one rig, was slowly making her way out towards the open sea, saluting as she left. Further along the quay the families of the crew had come to wave off their men. Wives, Parents, children and pets lined the hillside until the ship was literally out of site; a paradox of cheers and tears – and the occasional ‘woof’.
That would be me soon.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (18)
The busy environment that was Devonport dockyard had a bit if an air of Narnia about it, or that city in the Wizard of Oz. Walking through it left me feeling like I was already abroad or if not that at least in a foreign land.
People were like ants. They were everywhere all going from A-to-B carrying everything from lumps of wood and tins of paint to a bulging briefcase full of important papers; a sort of cross between Alice in Wonderland and the Seven Dwarfs.
And the smells were very distinctive. Diesel oil, fortnight tea, and of course the sea. There was also a smell of freshly made cobs wafting around from coming from a seller’s stall which was well subscribed to.
At length we were finally taken aboard (and given a tour of) the warship which I think my have been H.M.S. Diomede, a Leander Class frigate which I found thrilling. On the upper deck we saw the mortars to the stern the 4.5 inch guns up for’d, and were shown around the hanger which housed the Wasp helicopter. Up on the bridge we got a Skippers-eye view of the foc’sle which had my imagination running wild. I could almost envisage the ship cutting through the surf at 30 knots, and decided the bridge was where I would spend my leisure hours when I finally got to sea. Below decks we toured the boiler room, the engine room, the wheelhouse, and the galley diner all of which satisfied my curiosity.
But it was the family photos above the bunks in the mess decks that reinforced the romantic image that had dwelled within me for years.
Suddenly the thought of home came crashing into my head. The site of the photographs had left me anxious and with a pit in my stomach. I couldn’t remember when I had last written home; or telephoned. A sense of urgency came over me. How was me Mam and Dad? And Christine? And Annie?
In panic I tried to mitigate and console myself. I only had another week or so to go to complete my basic training which had, after all, been quite intense; after which I would be able to go home for the weekend. Assuming I even passed out. The thought of not passing out made me sick. And would any of my family be able to come to the parade? I doubted it. It was such a long way and an expensive journey on top of which me Mam wasn’t in the best of health.
With home beckoning and my emotions upside down I entered my final days at HMS Raleigh facing exams, tests, kit musters, drill inspections. But I had to pass out. The idea of being back classed was not an option. I wanted to go home. I needed to go home.
Above all I wanted me Mam.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (19)
Our final days of basic training comprised a multitude of inspections, examinations, tests and assessments, with no stone being left unturned; and not one trainee took it for granted that he would pass out at the end of the week. Looking back it felt a bit like being on one of those current Reality TV shows; not knowing if you were going or staying.
Of course we all had our weak spots which we were convinced would see us back classed; that feeling of not being picked for a school sports team springs to mind when you are left embarrassed sitting on the bench.
The strange thing was that I thought I was the only one to have convinced myself that I wouldn’t make the grade and lived in a permanent state of worry all week. Although I could swim like a fish and had ‘cut the mustard’ with Maths and English, my knots were a bit iffy especially my bowline and there were definitely times when I had two left feet on the parade ground.
Many years later I learned that nearly all of us thought the same thing even though everyone else looked so confident and good at what they did and far better than ourselves.
But no one failed and no one was back classed and it was with absolute pride that we finally took our well earned place as the leading squad on the parade ground to salute the skipper for the last time and pass out as sailors. It was the point in every man’s career which never leaves his memory.
To the music of the marine band, immaculate and dressed by the right, we marched around the parade ground and passed the Dias with ‘eyes right’ as the skipper returned our salute. Behind the Dias were all the families (of our squad) and it wasn’t until after the parade that we were able to see who had come to share our big moment.
Searching the crowds was just so nerve racking (especially after the week I’d had) that I thought I was going to literally ‘pass out’. It’s strange to say but I have no recollection of anyone coming to my parade; certainly my Mam and Dad couldn’t come as me Mam’s health wasn’t good. But at the end of the day that wasn’t the important thing.
I was going home. And that’s all that mattered.
MY FIRST HOME LEAVE
With me Mam on me first home leave Oct 1971
(P1) H.M.S Raleigh (20) First Home Leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
Coming home on my first leave was very emotional. Seeing my family again was just so good it was almost abstract. As might be expected the first thing we all did was to hug, snog and shake hands because that was a custom in our house. It’s what we did (very tactile lot). In fact throughout my life with Katie I had never left home without kissing her on the cheek and had never come back without doing the same thing; even if I was just running messages to the shop. I don’t know why. I’m still like that today with all of my family, and most of my friends.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (21) First home leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
Sitting in the living room of our end terrace seemed so small compared to the big halls, mess decks and gyms I had become used to during my initial training and yet it was bliss.
A cottage suite (you know that sort of settee and chairs with wooden elbow rests and rubber straps under the seats that kept the seat cushions on) was the main furniture in the room; all facing the telly that had a 50p slot meter on the back of it. Years later my Wife Carol and I had a similar couch which I recall was forever snapping the rubbers sending the bum south. Eventually I ended up bunging wooden boards under the seats.
Also in the room was the red Formica fold down table with its 4 wooden chairs that me Mam bought with the money she earned working briefly at a local textile factory. The table is the only thing I still own which belonged to my Mother.
The main focus of the room was still the lovely welcoming old fashioned range with its roaring fire which (as I sat on the settee with me shoes off on that first night home) was pure magic. Perhaps at this point I should say thank you to a fellow myspace user who’s profile Strap-line springs to mind when I think about this scene; ‘You can’t teach old socks new feet’. I wish Id thought of that.
As the evening wore on it occurred to me just how lovely it was to be home, and with my family again who were as pleased to see me as I was them. A few hot cups of tea and lots of compliments going both ways saw the evening close with us all tripping off to bed. And oh, the bed! I don’t think there is anyone anywhere who doesn’t love coming back to their own bed, even when they’ve been away on some paradise holiday. As I hit the pillow with it’s flannelette cover, and listened to the October rain hitting the window I snuggled down into what was my very own paradise.
(p1) H.M.S. Raleigh (22) First Home Leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
One of the best things in life is waking up in your own bed; especially when you don’t have to get out of it in a rush.
As my eyes plinked open on my first morning at home there was an almost unreal quality about my awaking. The silence was so nice. There was no shouting, or banging on the end of my bed. There wasn’t 30 other semi naked men rushing about making a racket.
There was just me sunk into a well molded and familiar mattress, tucked up in me flannelette sheets and candlewick eiderdown looking around a room full of all things familiar. In particular a red plastic airplane perched on an old fashioned chest of drawers.
Through a gap in the curtains a beam of light came through the window onto the bedspread highlighting its risen corrugated design bringing back childhood memories of how I would run my finger around the grooves in the pattern pretending I was driving a car. If I could have had any wish I wanted at that moment it would have been to hold back time.
As the mania began to die down a weird pregnant pause took its place; an almost disbelief that we were all really back together again (after thinking about nothing else for weeks). But it wasn’t an anti climax at all.
Between the love and delight oozing out of us all was a sort of polite embarrassment; a bit like that feeling you get on a first date; no one really knew what to say next. I smile now at the thought that the silence was eventually broken by all of us saying ‘shall I put the kettle on?’ at the same time. (Oh, did we all cringe?).
But then did we laugh! Between the laughter someone asked the second question ‘when are you going back?’ to which someone else replied indignantly ‘divent ask the bairn that he’s ownly jus cum yame’ – instigating the type of pseudo family row you see in a good sit-com; and which reduced me to tears rolling in pain, laughing. The Clampets (Beverley Hillbillies) spring to mind!
Being home, reunited with my family, and seeing them all laughing together was just the therapy I needed after what I felt had been a very isolating time for me. And seeing the pride in their faces at what they felt was a huge achievement for me, was priceless.
Over time the phrase ‘when are you going back?’ became the stat family welcome every time I came home before I’d even walked through the door (mainly in the hope that my leave was a long one but also because it was our own ‘in joke’) and I always found it hilarious and a pleasure to my ears.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (23) First home leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
Three gentle taps on my bedroom door brought me back from the past to the present. “Are y’awake hinny? I’ve got yer a cup o tea”. The voice was croaky but I knew it was Katie; and I knew I needed to reply quickly otherwise she would get embarrassed about not being heard or understood. “Aye, Mam, how-way in man” I shouted, then quickly sat up in the bed so she wouldn’t think she’d woken me up.
The door opened and me Mam came in and put the tea on me bedside cabinet, then sat on the side of the bed. “Eee av mist yer bonnie lad, and yull never naah hoo much. But it’s grand t’ hay yer back y’ame agyen even if it is just forra few days”.
Hearing her strong Geordie accent was bliss to me; just for a moment I’d forgotten all about the Navy and was living at home again. There was a feeling of safety that I don’t think I’d ever experienced before, not even when I did live at home. For the first time in my life I was in the home I loved, with the one person I loved more than anyone else in the world, on bona fide leave from the Navy, and most of all safe from being taken away by Elsie.
I gave me Mam a hug. “I love ya Mam, an’ it’s great to be home; am here for three days. Gan an’ get yer bag ready an’ we’ll hav a walk up the shops when I get up”. She was almost beside herself. After giving me a kiss on the cheek she headed quickly for the door chomping “We’ll caal in at the Stennet’s and Eagleton’s on the way roond. They can hav a good look at my lad”. Just as she got to the door I shouted “Mam…”. She stopped and turned round. “We’ll dee the Bingo th’neet as well”.
Joy is a very difficult word to describe properly but you know it when you see it. It’s a sort of tap-dance on the spot with the mouth open and the eyes crossed. Eventually she had the last word. “I’ll ha me hair ‘set’ this after-neeyun”.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (24) First home leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
Seeing such pride in me Mam as we walked through the village was just the most amazing thing I had ever experienced. I had always known she loved me but this was something else. Taking a seven year old out of the kid’s home at the age of 44 was no mean feat for a woman having never had experience of children – let alone emotionally damaged ones – and I’d always been aware of that on one level. But for me to see the pride she felt in me was wonderful. In a way I felt as though I had finally been able to give something back.
Just to diversify for a minute I remember becoming 44 myself, (yes I know…8 years ago!), and reflecting back in awe at the magnitude of what Katie did for me, the sacrifices she must have made, and her continuing commitment to me throughout her life. And although I adore children and love spending time with them I know I could never have done what she did. Her greatest achievement became my greatest blessing.
As the day progressed our journey around Ollerton had taken us up the Main Street (Forest Road) to ensure we had been seen by as many people as possible; down Briar Road (calling in at the Stennet’s); on to Breck Bank (to see the Eagleton’s) before finally finishing up at the Boughon Co-op (Mam’s local grocery) to see my ex employers and any other Tom, Dick or Harry that happened to ne in there.
Walking home arm in arm, down Newark Road, I could sense the grin on her face without even looking at her. As we got to our house I opened the gate and held it for her as she walked through. Cupping my face in her hands she said ‘Eee yur a good lad wor Alan. Aah’ll mek us a bit o tea afore we gyan to the Bingo hinny’.
Going into the house she continued, ‘Yu mite be a hansome sailor….but yer still my bairn, bonny lad’.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (25) First Home Leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
On the Sunday morning I got up and went downstairs to be greeted by me Dad. “Divent meeyek nee plans the day lad; yer gannin oot with me”.
It’s a sad thing to say but my first reaction wasn’t delight. I had grown to love my Dad, partly because I had begun to understand where he was coming from, although not in the same way, or to the same degree as me Mam. Being quite selfish at that point in my life I had rather hoped to catch up with old friends; and also spend some time with the young lads down at the sea cadets, but when I thought about it I decided that I could do that later in the day. After all, I conceded, I had spent almost all of Saturday with me Mam, and so to refuse to go out with me Dad (I decided) may have caused bad feeling. “Great, Dad. Where are we gannin?” I enthused.
“Am tekkin ye to the Welfare to show ye off” he said.
Hearing his reply Katie was quick to jump in “Divent ye be givin that lad nee drink Billy Dixon or yell ha’ me to deal with when ye get yame”.
“He’ll hav a Shandy man, there’s noot wrang with that” he replied, then turning me he said “Get ye uniform on lad while aa gan an’ hav a shave. We’re away oot at quaatah to twelve”. Then he went upstairs to the bathroom.
Katie’s concerns about Billy taking me to the Welfare for a drink were based on the years of negative experiences she had endured which basically boiled down to two things. After having a pint, he had to have another, then another, then another; he wasn’t a man who knew when to stop. When he did eventually stop he was a very unpleasant drunk. To reassure her I said “Divent worry Mam. He just wants to tek us oot to buy us a Shandy and show us off tiv his mates. Aah’ll keep an eye on him and we’ll be back for dinner at two”. Giving me a hug she said “That’s reet Hinny. I divent want ye getting a taste for it like him”.
Walking up Whinney Lane to the Welfare I got quite excited that me Dad was taking me into a bit of his world that I had never been in before, and that he wanted to buy me my first drink. It was an excitement however that was to be short lived when about half way there he asked me to ‘lend’ him a fiver. That did something to me.
Throughout the session, we stood at the bar where he drank bitter ale faster than I believed any man could drink, as I sipped on a couple of half Shandies, ignoring his constant invitations to leave the lemonade out of my drink; invitations which became increasingly offensive. There was no other conversation whatsoever between us during the entire time. The only times he spoke were when someone came to the bar to replenish his glass when he would then tell them loudly that I was his son who was in the Navy. I noted that no one stayed longer than a minute at the most.
It took me quite a lot of persuasion (including a refusal to lend him more money) to get him to leave the bar and come home for dinner, arguing that Mam would have the meal ready on the table. The walk home was a collection of insults along the lines of “Yer a f***in Mammy’s boy” combined with deathly silences.
Arriving home to the whispered tones of (“Caals heesell a Sailor; the bloody mamby”) I could see the relief in me Mam’s eyes that even though me Dad was smashed, I was still stone cold sober, and that was all that mattered to her. It’s an enormous relief to me that she didn’t live to see me as an alcoholic less than three years later.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (26) First Home Leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
Sunday dinner at home was one of my most favourite times. I loved the smell wafting around the house so much that it used to literally make my mouth water. Katie made full use of the coal fired range (only using her electric cooker if she had to) which seemed to have a magical effect on her Yorkshire puddings. On rare special occasions she would also make a Spotty Dick for pudding which would be wrapped in an old cloth and be bubbling away in a pot on the coals.
After dinner Dad, traditionally, would fall asleep in his chair while the rest of us washed up and cleared away before settling down in front of the telly to watch the black and white film; in line with family custom we would all then fall asleep half way through the film. I don’t think we ever got to see the end of one. Come to that, to this day there’s nothing more I love than to be able to fall asleep half way through a black and white movie on a Sunday afternoon; especially Laurel and Hardy – I loved them! Old habits die hard.
When we finally woke somewhere around teatime we would eat whatever was left of the meat joint lathered in salt (in white bread sandwiches) washed down with sugared tea (check THAT out Gordon Ramsey). Cor we knew how to live we did.
After tea I finally managed to catch up with my mates for a few hours and, although we were all underage, there was a pub in a nearby village that let us in out of the cold to play darts and chatter, provided we only drank pop.
Most of my friends had taken a job at the local pit and were financially far better off than me because I was still on training wages, and so I was treated to coke-a-plenty. It was great to see everyone again although I knew it was short lived and my time was running out; I had to return to the Navy in the morning.
Part of me really envied them, particularly as we walked home and they were discussing what they were all going to be doing in the week to come. My working life was so structured that having choices over what to do were extremely rare, but I consoled myself that things could only get better when I’d finished my training. Years and years later many of my friends confessed to envying me at that time and that their joviality was not exactly how they felt but merely a way of hiding the envy. I got to understand why, when after my Naval career was over, I ended up working in the pit myself for 8 years; but that’s another story.
In those days there wasn’t really anywhere for teenagers to congregate – come to that there still isn’t – which is probably why gangs of them end up standing on street corners. I wouldn’t normally voice an opinion but to me I think if that issue were addressed properly Britain would get back many of the values it has lost.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (27) First Home leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
After tea and a scrub up I eventually walked me Mam up to the Bingo Hall. It was a cherished activity of hers partly because the Bingo at that time was the social hub for women of her age group, and also because there was a chance she might win a bob or two. The North East had a very big Bingo community and so part of her love was habitual. Later of course, with progress, many Bingo Halls eventually became Cinemas which must have had a depressing effect on the folk who loved the game, and who depended on that outlet to relieve some of life’s miseries, but for now this was her favourite night out.
As we walked up Poplar Street towards Rufford Avenue it suddenly occurred to me that either I had sprouted into a lamp post or me Mam was shorter than I thought she was, but either way I decided not to comment. Something about it concerned me because all of a sudden I saw her as being quite vulnerable. My worries weren’t helped by her need to periodically stop to catch her breath although I passed off these pauses in a way which didn’t embarrass her. I knew in my heart that as her voice continued to deteriorate her cancer was advancing.
Arriving at the Bingo I took the initiative. ‘Diven’t worry if ye get a hoose Mam cos aahh’ll sshoot oot fer ya an’ they’ winnet miss me caallin’.
I don’t remember if she won or not but I do remember the pleasure and pride she took from the evening, in particular because ‘her lad had taken her oot’. By the end of the day there were few people left in the village who hadn’t seen Katie Dixon oot with her lad’. To me that was priceless.
Out of interest, Bingo has become quite fashionable again and I must admit to enjoying a few games myself. A new club opened near where I now live and I decided to have a go. After a few weeks I won a Link game of £1000 and promptly took my Wife Carol to Crete for a holiday! In my current occupation as a stressed out Social Worker of 21 years standing I’ve discovered it’s one of the best ‘switch-off therapies’ I’ve ever come across short of meditation. Their home cooked meals are also a serious attraction for me.
There’s also a little bit of it that reminds me of those cherished outings with me Mam too; and I love that.
(P1) H.M.S. Raleigh (28) First Home Leave October 1971 (Boughton, Nottinghamshire)
It was an early night out really because I was home around nine; the lads knew I wanted to spend some time with my family before I left in the morning. We all had a bit of a man hug outside my house promising to get together again at Christmas when I got a real leave, and with that they left and I went into the house.
Dad was out at the Welfare but Mam was really glad I’d come home fairly early. “Eeee, aah’ll get the kettle on bonnie lad and we can hav a sit doon for an ‘oor afore ye gan te bed”. We sat on the cottage settee drinking tea and watching the Black and white Minstrel Show, occasionally breaking into brief conversations, albeit non-emotive. We were both acutely aware that when I left in the morning the second separation would be far longer than the first, and so it wasn’t, therefore, a subject we needed or wanted to discuss. In the adverts I made a second brew.
The evening was a lovely evening, and very tactile. Partly because the cottage settee sunk in the middle which seemed to throw us together, but also because that was the way we wanted it. Under pinning everything for me was knowing that Mam’s cancer was beginning to progress and so I wanted to make the most of things physically as well as mentally. If I’m honest I believe it was the same for her too.
Eventually, we kissed goodnight and as I lay awake in bed, staring out of the window, I heard my Dad stumble through the door about an hour later. Katie was swiftly down the stairs to challenge him “You wake that bairn up and I’ll clock ye one. He’s got a long day the morn. Noo off to bed wi’ ye”.
I didn’t want breakfast but forced it down somehow so me Mam wouldn’t be upset, but knowing her ways I knew she was upset anyway because I was leaving; I could recognise the signs. She talked a lot. “Av washed an ironed aa’ll ye clothes hinny and (with a whisper) av put a five poond note in ye pocket. And divent argue!”.
Finally, I left home for the second time with a lump the size of an apple in my throat. For me it was worse than the first time. In fact it was so bad I couldn’t bring myself to look back, even though I knew me Mam would be looking through the letterbox. Standing on the platform at Newark railway station I felt as though my world had collapsed. My insides felt like liquid. I just froze in animation and cried.
I’ll never know how I got to London, and then on to Chatham; and I have no recollection whatever of walking through the gates of H.M.S. Pembroke to begin my stage two training. But I did. And it was there that I found out what a Junior Assistant Stores Accountant was.
To be continued…….