I didn’t have to go far for my first job. John worked for the ‘Cheecol’ concrete slab manufacturers and a section of that firm was the ‘Permacem Paint Company’. John helped me to get a job in the paint factory and that suited us all. I had a job, Mum knew that I was only just up the road, John and I could walk up to work and back together, and I could see Crystal any time I wanted to during the evenings and weekends. It goes without saying that I finally took it upon myself to do away with the old rule of having to be indoors by seven-thirty each evening.
I arrived at the factory on my first morning and the job was explained to me. There were large drums of powdered paint, each weighing about a hundredweight, stacked up against the end wall of the packing room. Depending on whichever colour was in demand, a drum of that colour paint was placed on a stand at the start of an operating line. Then the first lad scooped the powdered paint from the drum into plastic bags that were placed on a set of scales, one at a time. Once the bags were filled to the required weight of one pound, they were passed on to the next lad who sealed the bags using a special heat-sealing machine. The bags were then passed on to another lad who flattened them and packed them into in to boxes. And the last lad in the line strapped and stacked the boxes. Dozens of these bags passed down the line each day, the speed of the operation only being set by the speed of the chap who filled the bags. There were two operating lines while I was there and the workers were all lads of about my age, except for the foreman.
It was a very dusty job, the powdered paint got everywhere and we had to wear face-masks to try and prevent ourselves from breathing it in. Everyone knew what colour paint we’d been working with each day for we’d come home covered in that colour. The dark green was the worst and it took a lot of scrubbing in the bath to get it off. People used to call us ‘Martians’ as we walked home with every part of our exposed skin looking unnatural with the green covering. Baths every night were essential and the paint, having stuck to our sweaty bodies, had to be scrubbed off.
The wages were very poor, I came home with three pounds a week. But, if I worked overtime every night, I earned myself an extra ten shillings a week. As I had to pay Mum three pounds a week for my keep, I was forced to work overtime most nights to earn a bit of spending money. But, I didn’t care, at least I had some money to spend even if it didn’t last long.
I went through all the operations of those lines, starting off as a bag filler (nobody liked that job) and ending up as a strapper and stacker. The foreman was an easy-going chap and we were left alone to get on at our own pace at first. This changed later when we got a new foreman..
The manager had been a submarine captain during world war two and the lads would shout “Dive! Dive! Dive!” as a warning that he was coming our way, then we would all work like mad until he had gone. If any of us wanted a skive, then we, like thousands of other workers, would head for the toilets where we could hide until we were missed and the foreman came looking for us. Those toilets were an absolute disgrace and nobody would put up with them now. When I first went there we had to wade through at least six inches (fifteen centimetres) of deep paint dust to get to the pan. This also changed when we got a new foreman.
As would be expected for such conditions, the turnover of employees was high. Some lads would last an hour, some a week, and very few would stay a month or two. It was hot and dusty work, the money wasn’t all that good, and a lot of time had to be spent scrubbing the ingrained paint from the body each evening.
But, there was a record player that somebody had brought in and we’d each take half a dozen records to work so that we had a bit of entertainment through the tedious working day. We never tired of listening to ‘Yakety Yak’ by the Coasters, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ by Little Richard, and ‘Slow Down’ by a group who’s name escapes me now (was it on the reverse side of ‘Yakety Yak’?). When I hear any of those three songs now, it takes me back to that first job. Marty Wilde had ‘Donna’ in the charts, along with ‘It Doesn’t Matter Any More’ by Buddy Holly, and ‘Come Softly To Me’ by the Fleetwoods.
In this dusty environment I started work, happily listening to the music and enjoying the company of the other lads. A drum of terracotta coloured paint was put on the stand beside the scales, I was given a hand scoop and away I went, filling the little plastic bags as fast as I could. At first, the other lads ragged me good-naturedly because I couldn’t fill the bags fast enough for them and I giggled with delight at the way they pulled my leg about it. But, by the time I’d been there a week or so, I was as fast as anybody else.
When my first morning tea-break came around, I was surprised to be given a free cup of tea. I hadn’t expected that. I sat down, sipped at the tea and wallowed in the new comradeship of those lads and the foreman.
One of those lads tried to cadge a cigarette off of me and I explained that I didn’t smoke. Someone else took pity on him and threw him one. The lad lit the cigarette and took the smoke gratefully into his lungs. I don’t know whether it tasted funny to him or not but he turned around to the chap who had given him the cigarette and asked what brand it was. The chap called out the name on the cigarette packet, a surprised look came on the lad’s face and he collapsed into a deep faint. The manager was called for and the lad was revived. He hadn’t known why he had fainted but the manager suggested that it was because he had smoked the cigarette too fast after not having one for a while.
All too soon it was time to get back to filling the bags. With that first memorable morning tea-break behind me, I gradually settled into the routine of the job.
It was exciting to get my first pay, but I quickly came down with a jolt as I realised that I had to give it all to Mum for my keep as I had not done any overtime. After that I made sure that I did the overtime so that I had something to spend over the weekends.
The weekends free from work was the best thing about going to the new job. It was wonderful to be able to make plans to go somewhere with my friends or Crystal and know that I’d be able to stick to those plans. Geoff worked at the paint factory as well and we would often wander the town and get up to mischief together.
It was one of our ‘games’ to go into the ‘Littlewoods’ cafeteria, unscrew the chrome lid/pourer on the sugar shakers that were on each table, and leave the pourer just sitting on the glass container. Then we’d go and sit at another table and laugh to see some unfortunate person fill their cup with sugar as the top of the shaker came off when they tried to add sugar to their tea.
Another ‘game’ we played was to ride the cable cars over Norcot Hill. These suspended buckets were on a continuous cable going from a clay quarry, over the road that ran through a cutting up the hill, and on to the brickworks on the other side of that road. It was like a real cable car system only smaller and ‘u’-shaped buckets were hanging where the cars would normally be. We’d often sneak up one of the supporting towers, hop on to a bucket as it passed and get off at the next tower over the road. Then we’d run like mad down the hill to avoid being caught. We were very lucky not to have been apprehended for it would have been an easy task to grab us once we were in the bucket. There was only one way to go and we’d have been nobbled if someone had appeared at the tower that we were heading for. But it was good fun to us at the time.
My weekday evenings were also free after I’d done my overtime. Sometimes I’d work back until nine-thirty at night, but most nights I was home by eight-thirty and would have time to see Crystal for a while before I went indoors for a good scrub and a bite to eat.
As I’ve already mentioned, the foreman over us was a decent chap. Most of the lads thought a lot of him even if some of them took advantage of his easy-going manner now and again. He used to suffer from bad hay-fever and the dusty paint would cause him to sneeze like mad. He’d start to go into a fit of sneezing, snatch his handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and bury his face in it until the sneezing had stopped.
Somebody found a dead rat a short while after I’d started working there, and it was decided to drop it into the foreman’s jacket pocket while he was being distracted by a diversion. This was managed quite easily by a couple of the lads and we all watched and waited for him to put his hand in that pocket. We were most disappointed when he left for his home without the plan working.
But, it worked better than we had expected, although only one of us saw the results. This lad used to catch the bus home with the foreman and the foreman started to sneeze on the crowded bus. His hand snatched the handkerchief from his pocket, the dead rat shot out as well and fell onto a lady that was sitting nearby. She screamed and knocked the rat onto another lady, who also panicked. For a while there was pandemonium until the conductor heaved the dead rat off the bus. We didn’t believe the lad when he told us the next day, even though the foreman backed him up. But, we all had a good laugh at the thought of such a thing happening.
That evening, the mother of one of my friends told me about the incident and said that she had been the original lady that the rat had fallen onto first. She was a big lady and I was jolly glad that I hadn’t been the one to cause the upset. A complaint was made to the manager, but I heard no more about it and it wouldn’t be the last time that we’d play a prank on the foreman either.
As the weeks went by, I became ‘one of the lads’ and joined in with the larking about and skives in the toilets. Although the larking about helped the days to pass, it was still a boring job and I longed to reach the age when I could get a licence and find a driving job.
Meanwhile, more songs were entering the charts. Elvis was high up those charts with ‘Fool Such As I’, and Cliff Richard was there with ‘Mean Streak’, along with ‘It’s Late’ by Ricky Nelson. Marty Wilde had released ‘Teenager In Love’, while Billy Fury’s ‘Margo’ had us singing as if we were sobbing our hearts out. Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Battle Of New Orleans’ jumped into the top twenty, as did ‘Take A Message To Mary’ by the Everly Brothers. Then Ricky Nelson followed ‘It’s Late’ with ‘Never Be Anyone Else But You’. Ballads, skiffle, and rock songs were being churned out by singers all around the world and we never tired of singing those songs ourselves.
Then, in June of that year (1959), I obtained my first
provisional licence. It wasn’t for a car or lorry, but a
fifty cubic centimetre motor cycle. Geoff had found out that, if
a provisional licence was obtained, L-plates were displayed on
the machine, and no unlicensed passengers were carried on the
pillion seat, we could ride a motor cycle for as long as the
provisional licenses were handed out. With no more ado, he and I
went down to the licensing office in Reading and soon had a
All that remained was to get hold of a moped or something similar.
yard - Crystal's home is exactly behind her.
Just around the corner from the paint factory was a motor cycle shop and Geoff and I wandered into this shop one lunch time. By the time that we’d wandered back out again, we were the proud owners of a 50 c.c. motor cycle each (even if they were on the hire-purchase). They were not mopeds, they had a kick-start and were, in every sense, a motor cycle except that they had such a tiny engine. They were called ‘Victoria Avanti’ and I believe that they were made in Italy. Geoff and I were happy with them and, a couple of days later, went excitedly to the shop to pick them up.
In spite of my Granddad having had a motor cycle for as long as I could remember, I’d never tried to learn about riding one or even contemplated the fact that I might own such a machine myself. The only thing that I’d been interested in driving was a lorry and there didn’t seem to be any urgency to learn for that vehicle as I was still too young at the time. Consequently, I was very backward in my knowledge of operating such a machine as the little motor cycle. My road sense was very good, but basically I had to get used to a foot-brake and gears.
The foot-brake was easy and I soon got used to that, but the gears were another matter. The man in the shop showed Geoff and I how to change gear by pulling in the clutch-lever and twisting the clutch-lever and handle-bar grip assembly. It seemed simple enough and away we went.
After a good practice around the local side streets, to get used to changing the gears up and down, we took the bull by the horns and rode out into the heavy traffic on the Oxford Road. Geoff weaved in and out of the traffic while I pottered along in a more sedate manner. It wasn’t long before Geoff was out of sight and I was on my own. With no more ado, I decided to ride to Pangbourne (about five miles away) and back so that I could test the little machine out on the open road.
As I reached Tilehurst station, about half way between Reading and Pangbourne, the engine suddenly cut out and died. No amount of kick-starting would get it going again. I pushed the motor cycle over to the local garage for help. The mechanic soon found the problem. A small piece of carbon had built up across the spark plug gap, causing the plug to short out. He told me that two-stroke engines were prone to this problem and that the piece of carbon was called a ‘whisker’ by mechanics. Soon I was on my way again with that first bit of mechanical knowledge under my belt.
Of course, if I’d taken advantage of my Grandad’s vast knowledge of mechanics and had learned a bit from him, I might have been a whiz at the subject myself. But, I learned the hard way, through problems and experience. The old ‘whisker’ continued to cause me trouble all the time I had that machine, but I became used to it.
On the way back from Pangbourne, I spied Geoff again and we joined up once more and rode up to Prospect Park.
It was a wonderful feeling to get out on the open road, feel the wind in my hair, see the miles flashing by with no effort on my part, and to know that I could ride almost anywhere that I wanted to around the country. But, my elation was tempered somewhat by the fact that Geoff’s machine fairly swooped up hills while mine pottered up and I was usually left far behind. I thought that I had a dud machine with a lot less power then Geoff’s. Finally, I took it back to the shop and complained.
The shop mechanic re-tuned the engine and took the machine for a spin up and down a few hills. He told me that the engine worked perfectly for its little size. But, I still wasn’t happy, and I was still being left behind by Geoff’s machine. I was pretty annoyed by the whole business and I felt a bit disheartened.
Then Geoff and I were riding side by side up a steep hill and I noticed that he changed down a gear then leapt away in front of me. Straight away I realised that my inexperience had been the cause of the so-called ‘loss of power’ on hills. I hadn’t been changing down the gears to get up hills and the little engine had been labouring like mad to get me over the brows. As I realised my mistake, I changed down and the motor cycle raced up behind Geoff. It was another lesson learned as I grappled for experience in this new world of sitting back and letting an engine do the work for me. The shop mechanic had a good laugh about that one and so did my Granddad and Jim.
Happy that I could handle the little machine a bit better, I took off to my grandparent’s home the following weekend. The thirty miles flashed by and my hair was blown completely out of style by the wind (there were no laws to make us wear a helmet in those days). Granddad looked at my little motor cycle out of the corner of his eye as I arrived. I must admit that, against his big ‘Panther’, my machine did look a bit puny.
Having already learned from a few mistakes, I decided that I’d carry on as I was going, rather than to rely on Granddad to help me to become more experienced where mechanics were concerned. He let me know that I could ask for any help that I might need and I was grateful. Over the years, I would learn a lot about mechanics and do all my own repairs on motor cycles, cars, and the occasional lorry. But, I never once went to Granddad for help. He, in turn, would laugh heartily as I’d relate some of the problems I had and some of the mistakes that I made in my efforts to learn, rather than to go over to him every time something went wrong.
In earlier years I had listened bewildered as he’d talk to his mates about crankshafts, differentials, regulators, steam-chests, scarifiers, universal-joints, rack and pinions, thrust bearings, manifolds, and a thousand other bits and pieces to do with the mechanics of transport. The dumb look on my face used to say it all. It wasn’t so bad when they mentioned names like Fowler, Marshall, Aveling & Porter, Burrell, Foden, Wallis & Steevens, Sentinel, Garrett, Tasker, McLaren, Foster, and Clayton & Shuttleworth, there were pictures of the steam giants made by these companies all over the house and I could quickly relate a machine to a name. But I was lost when it came to the working parts. Then gradually I began to learn about all these things as I became more involved with motor cycles, cars, and lorries and, although I couldn’t even touch him for mechanical knowledge, it wasn’t long before I could hold a conversation with him and know what he was talking about.
I well recall a trick question that he asked me that day when I arrived for the first time on the little motor cycle. It was a question that he’d been required to answer during an engineering test at the great John Fowler’s works (was it in Leeds?). As we stood there looking at my new form of transport, he asked me which was the most important nut on the motor cycle. As usual, I was lost for words and finally, after there were no more nuts to point out (as I desperately searched around the machine to try and find the answer without being told) I had to give in.
The answer was simple to my Granddad, “The most important nut on any piece of machinery,” he told me “Is the loose one.” As he chuckled to himself, I put that bit of information into my memory bank, knowing that it was a valuable tip. But, I also knew that I wouldn’t have thought of that answer in a million years.
Meanwhile, I had a wonderful day with them and it was very relaxing to know that I didn’t have to pedal like mad all the way home. Jim gave me permission to give my bike (that, it will be remembered, he gave to me) away to a friend that I knew who didn’t have one as his mother couldn’t afford such a luxury for the lad.
That same week, Mum and John bought another car. The old Standard ‘Fourteen’, relic of our Somerset days, had slowly rotted with non-use and had given up the ghost. Through her illness, Mum never went anywhere and John only went up to work or the pub, so I was amazed when the old Standard was traded in for a modern (in those days) Ford Consul Mk 1.
her 'new' car.
John took us all for a little ride in it and we were duly impressed. I decided to build a garage for this car so that we could keep it out of the weather while it was parked in the back yard. There were a lot of planks and old lengths of wood lying around the yard and I gradually built the garage, driving the car in now and again to make sure that it would fit alright. With the job finally finished, I parked the car in the garage and went to get out so that I could call Mum and John for a look at the completed job. Imagine my surprise when the door only opened a couple of centimetres and I couldn’t get out of the car. I’d forgotten that the door would have to be opened to let the driver out while the car was in the garage. I’d only allowed for the width of the car without the doors open. Everyone had a good laugh about that one and I used the garage for my motor cycle.
Mum amazed us all by saying that she wanted to go over to Chenies for a day. For more than a year she had hardly been out of the house due to her agoraphobia and it could have been that the new car was like a shot in the arm to her. We planned to go on the following Saturday and we were all very excited about her decision.
The Saturday morning arrived and we half expected that she’d change her mind, but with Val in the back, Andy Pandy (the dog) at her feet, John driving, and me on my little motor cycle, we took off towards Chenies. I was very apprehensive as I knew only too well that there was every chance that she’d get along the road, suddenly feel ill, and beg to be taken back home again straight away. But, this time it all worked out alright. John and I took it in turns to lead the way and I tried to keep Mum’s mind off her illness by waving and making faces at her each time John and I passed each other.
Ford Consul is behind me.
We all arrived safely at Chenies and Nan, Granddad, and Jim were thrilled that Mum had managed to do the trip. Photographs were taken to mark the occasion and we all had a wonderful day. Contentedly, we arrived back home that evening, not knowing that it would be a long time before Mum would venture out like that again.
Happy with the new-found freedom given to me by the motor cycle, I decided to go up to London for a ride the next day. My habit was always to start at the crack of dawn to get the most out of the daylight hours. This was a habit I’d got into while riding my bike as it took a lot longer to get anywhere. But, the motor cycle was different and that morning I passed Maidenhead and Slough with the sun full in my eyes, and deserted early morning streets. I wasn’t overly worried though. After a couple of hours of watching the aircraft movements at London (Heathrow) airport, I continued on up to London amid ever-thickening traffic and had a very memorable day there.
I didn’t know London all that well in those days but, by asking for directions, I eventually arrived at the Houses of Parliament. It seemed many years since I’d been in the room in that building on my way to Herne Bay with Michael Hall. I recalled how impressed we had both been to see the children, who were coming home, with their toothbrushes sticking out of the tops of their socks as a sign of experience. I walked around to the side of the River Thames where I’d threw myself into Jim’s arms because I was so glad to see him there to meet me on my way home from St. Anne’s at Herne Bay. Never in my wildest dreams, at that time, did I ever think that I would find the spot under my own steam one day.
Feeling very satisfied with myself, I rode on along the embankment beside the Thames. There was so much to see that I didn’t know which way to look. There were many boats carrying passengers up and down the river, local stalls were doing a great trade selling their wares to the Sunday visitors that crowded the pavements, the sun was shining warmly, and I felt elated to be part of the scene as I pottered along in the traffic, glancing sideways now and again in my efforts to see all I could. As I passed under a large green bridge that went over the road and river, I suddenly realised that it was the Hungerford railway bridge, the very bridge that I had walked over with the rest of the choir from the Raans Road school when we were going to the Royal Festival Hall to sing in the carol concert. A quick glance to my right and there was the hall on the other side of the river.
Excitedly, I parked my motor cycle in a side street and walked across the bridge. Memories of Alf, Mick, Mrs. Dubray, and the others in the school choir came flooding back as I happily wandered to the foyer entrance to the hall and remembered how posh it had seemed to us at the time. I sat on the south bank, in front of the hall, for a while, then wandered back over the bridge to continue my explorations.
I recalled how, a week or so after the carol concert, Geoff Angliss had kindly helped me to get my coat that I had left at the hall. It was the time that a group of us local lads from the Amersham area had been taken up by him to see Cinerama Holiday at Piccadilly. I wondered to myself if I could find Piccadilly and started working towards that spot as I asked for directions. Suddenly, there were the neon advertising displays on the sides of the buildings and the statue of Eros in the centre of the road junction. It was all passed in a flash as I moved with the traffic, but at least I had the satisfaction of having been there again.
I’d been moving with the flow of traffic and didn’t really know where I was until I saw a sign pointing to London Airport. Well, I’d had enough of the city for one day so I followed the road and it wasn’t long before I saw the familiar buildings around the airport. As I stopped for a while to watch a few planes take off and land, I knew that I’d go up to explore more of London in the future.
Back at home, Crystal told me that she was going on a fortnight’s holiday to Swanage with her Mum and Debbie on the following Friday. I knew that I’d miss her terribly and, to help pass the time, I decided to ride over and see Alf and Mick on the Saturday. While I’d been reminiscing up in London, I’d realised that I hadn’t seen them for quite a while so this would be my chance.
On the Friday evening, I was down the lane beside the railway line with June, Mavis, Rich, and a few other friends. The old wind-up record player was making the usual tinny effort to do justice to our records and two or three couples were having a dance. Sadly, I kept my eye on all the trains heading west up on the embankment above us, as Crystal, her Mum, and Debbie would be heading that way from Reading General Station to start their holiday.
Suddenly, I saw waving hands out of one of the trains, then they were gone and I felt quite empty, lost, and apprehensive. Crystal and I still hadn’t even held hands at that time and I cursed myself for being so slow. I had visions of a more gutsy lad sweeping her off her feet in a wild holiday romance. But, there was nothing that I could do at the time so I pulled myself together and tried to be happy.
The next morning, with a blanket, some spare clothes, and a bag of food, I set off to visit Alf and Mick. For a change, I decided to go over to Amersham via Henley and Marlow instead of my usual route via Knowl Hill and Marlow, and it was just as well that I did. Alf and Mick had also been thinking that they hadn’t seen me for a while. Very early that morning they had set off on their bikes and were pedalling hard towards Reading.
As I approached Shiplake, between Reading and Henley, I saw two heavily-laden cyclists coming towards me and idly thought to myself how much easier it was to travel on a motor cycle than to struggle like those two cyclists were. Still looking at them as I came abreast of the pair, I nearly came a cropper in amazement as I suddenly realised that the cyclists were Alf and Mick. I quickly stopped and called back at them. It was then their turn to be amazed. The last thing they had expected was to see me riding past on a motor cycle. Soon we were happily shouting our joy at seeing each other again, punctuating our pleasure with a few affectionate and playful sparring bouts.
Now, it turned out that we had met each other on the road right outside of the local policeman’s house. Suddenly our happiness was stopped short by a shout and we all turned to see a policeman approaching. He wasn’t very happy and told us off for using bad language in the street. I can’t remember using bad language, but I had started to swear a bit since I’d begun working at the paint factory. It was just a habit that everyone got into when they started work and I followed suit, although I wouldn’t have dreamed of swearing in front of strangers, my family, or any females.
Nevertheless, we received a dressing-down from the policeman. He gave me a ticket to remind me to show my license, certificate of insurance and log book at the Reading police station and I made a mental note to try and curb the swearing habit. A little chastened, Alf and Mick carried on towards Reading while I pottered along beside them. Soon we were all at my home.
At this time, I had two boarders sharing my bedroom. One was a young, very posh but unemployed lad who we called ‘Good Good’ (he seemed to be everything that was good, but too good to be true) and the other was a great hairy bear of a man, who was as hairy as he was mean. There wasn’t much room for us all in that bedroom, but Alf and Mick squeezed in on a couple of mattresses laid out on the floor. The hairy brute scowled his annoyance but it wasn’t my fault.
As soon as the sleeping arrangements were sorted out, we headed off down the Oxford Road so that I could get my documents checked at the police station as required by the policeman earlier. Alf and Mick were pretty tired and I suggested that I tow them down to the town. Riding alongside each other, Mick held Alf’s jacket, Alf held my jacket and I towed them along at a smart pace.
Of course, it was a dangerous stunt and we were riding three abreast, but we laughed at the thrill of it all until, once again, our happiness was cut short by the police. As we reached Reading West railway station, a loud, metallic-sounding voice screamed at us to pull over. I glance over my shoulder and saw that there was a police car right behind us.
Those boys in blue were a good pair and, after a lecture on the dangers of what we’d been doing and a warning that we wouldn’t get off so lightly if we were caught by them again, we were allowed to continue on our way. I resolved to straighten myself out a bit as I felt very guilty for being told off by the police twice in one morning.
Happily, my documents were all in good order and we left the police station, once again in great spirits. We wandered into the Forbury Gardens just across the road as a start to our little ‘holiday’ together. Crystal, Debbie, Richard, and I had often been there and I thought that it would be nice to show the place to Alf and Mick. By the time we wandered back out of the gate, Alf and Mick had a girl hanging on to their arms, and I walked beside a girl that was supposed to be mine for the day.
Like us, the three girls had been walking around the gardens for something to do. It didn’t take Alf long to convince them that we were the break that they’d been looking for (Oh! those young, carefree days!) and to talk them into going for a row on the River Thames with us.
I didn’t make any advances to ‘my’ girl and she, in turn, seemed happy to be one of the crowd. Off we went to Piper’s Island, beside Caversham Bridge, where Alf paid the hire fee and we took a boat out on the river for a couple of hours. We all spent the evening wandering around the town and Alf arranged to meet his girl the next day, but Mick and I weren’t overly keen on going out with the girls again. We wanted some fun and we couldn’t have fun with girls around. I was soon to have some ‘fun’ of a kind that I didn’t expect.
That night, we settled down in the over-crowded bedroom and chatted about old times, breaking into quiet laughter now and again as we recalled some funny event. Good Good listened to our tales and laughed along with us, but the hairy brute of a man wasn’t in a very good mood at all and soon he was threatening to thump me if I didn’t keep my mates quiet. It wasn’t very late (it was still daylight outside) and I considered that I had the right to chat to my friends for a while longer in my own bedroom. I ignored him and we quietly chatted on.
The next thing that I knew was that I was groggily sitting on the edge of my bed and the right side of my face felt as if it had been smashed by a pile-driver. I couldn’t work out what had happened, there had just been a blackness then I was in this state. It was still daylight outside and I wondered if I’d been asleep all night and fallen out of bed just before I awoke. Alf, Mick, and Good Good were lying silently as if they were fast asleep. Very confused, I laid down and all went black once more.
Then Alf was gently shaking me awake and I was instantly aware that my right eye was throbbing with pain. I recalled the curious event that I’d experienced earlier on and again wondered what had happened. My right eye was closed and the area around it had swollen alarmingly. The hairy brute had gone and Alf, Mick, and Good Good sat on my bed and told me what had happened.
The hairy brute had threatened me more and more as we chatted quietly and I ignored his threats. Suddenly, before I could even get my arms from under the bed-clothes, he sprang out of his bed and smashed his fist straight into my eye. I was completely knocked out and, as he got back into his bed, he warned the others that they’d get the same if he heard one more sound.
Too scared to move, the three of them had watched me come round a few minutes later and each of them had sighed with relief to see that I was alright. As I’d settled back down again, they’d watched out of the corner of their eyes to make sure that I was still alright until darkness had descended. Each of them had been ready to dash downstairs and get help if anything further happened. The next morning, they’d all laid quietly until the hairy brute had got up and gone downstairs.
In my first fit of fury at this, as I saw it, completely unprovoked attack, I threw on my trousers and raced downstairs to try and avenge my swollen face and closed eye. But, the brute had already gone out. Mum was shocked when she saw the state of my face and I thought that she would chuck him out. But then she told me that I must sort it out myself. I was a bit annoyed about her decision and wondered why she wasn’t taking my side. Then I suddenly had the feeling that I was just another boarder to her. Our mother/son relationship had certainly seemed to have changed since I had started work, I had other boarders up in, what had been, my own bedroom and now she was ignoring the fact that one of those boarders had attacked me. This incident seemed to highlight that change and I became aware of it all at once. It was probably just my imagination and that she was trying to keep the peace, I’d proved that I could sort things like this out myself, and I suppose she thought that the incident would blow over as they had before. I was still loyal to and respected her, but it gave me food for thought at the time.
Alf and Mick convinced me that I wouldn’t stand a chance against the brute and, with my smashed eye paining me, I began to think that they were right. Like cowards, we hid lumps of wood in our beds and resolved to beat up the brute that night. At the time I was still seething and felt very sad about Mum’s apparent rejection to do something about getting the brute out of my bedroom.
But, by the time we’d had a great day of laughs down the town (Alf didn’t bother to meet those girls), I had cooled off. I told my two mates that, if I couldn’t beat the hairy brute without a lump of wood, I wouldn’t beat him at all. When we got back home we removed the lumps of wood.
That night, Good Good, Alf, Mick, and I were all in our beds, waiting in tense expectation for the hairy brute to arrive back home and settle down in his bed for the night. I had decided that we would chatter exactly as we had done the night before, but this time I would be ready for any trouble. I felt very apprehensive and my heart jumped up in my throat each time there was a noise downstairs.
Darkness descended and there was still no sign of the brute. We all tried to keep awake, but one by one we dropped off to sleep. I stirred during the night to realise that the brute was entering the room. I listened in the blackness, ready to spring up, as he got into his bed. Soon his heavy breathing suggested that he was asleep and I relaxed a bit. Having calmed down since that morning, I couldn’t bring myself to attack him as he’d attacked me, so I settled back down and was determined to sort it out after work the next day.
There was no time to worry about the problem on the Monday morning. I had to get to work while Alf and Mick set off for a pleasant ride back to Amersham. My workmates ragged me about the yellow, black, and red eye. The story went round that my girlfriend had done it because I’d tried to taken advantage of her. They were a delightful bunch of chaps.
That evening, after staying late to do some overtime, I arrived home to find that the hairy brute had moved on. I never saw him again, so that was that. At the time I really wanted a chance to even up the score, but I’d missed my chance. It was the only time, in my first fifty years of life, that I was knocked out in a fight. I still can’t remember anything about the blow as he hit me, but I can recall the feelings, as I came round, very vividly. At least the incident and the painful eye helped me to forget the toothache that I was still putting up with.
And so we crept into another beautiful summer as July brought fine, hot weather. Crystal came home from her holiday and we took up where we’d left off. Our days were full of good, honest fun and plenty of new songs to learn and sing.
Bobby Darin had ‘Dream Lover’ in the charts. Cliff Richard was there with a hit song called ‘Living Doll’ that pleased everyone, and Anthony Newley rocketed up alongside of Cliff with a song called ‘I’ve Waited So Long’ that, if I recall rightly, was a song that he sang in a film called ‘Idle On Parade’. Our popular pastime of taking the old wind-up record player down the lane in the late evenings gave us local friends the chance to share our love for old and new songs alike in peaceful surroundings under a warm, setting sun. It was a dreamy time.
On weekends, the River Thames became our target for fun as we began getting out to take advantage of the warm summer. ‘Salter’s Steamers’, fairly large pleasure boats that could carry, I suppose, about a hundred passengers, did sightseeing trips up and down our stretch of the Thames and I recall that we spent a beautiful day on the river in one of these boats. For some reason, Crystal wasn’t with us, but I still enjoyed the ever-changing scenery.
Scours Lane Lido, on the Thames just west of Reading, was another of our fun venues. The lido was a sandy shore and playing area beside the river. There were floating poles, fixed to stakes in the water, to show the perimeter of the lido’s swimming area, but it was simple to swim under those poles and head out into the main waterway. I’d become a fairly good swimmer by then and spent hours swimming amongst the pleasure craft that plied up and down that stretch.
I recall one incident from that time that gave us a good laugh and nearly caused me to be in trouble again. Sometimes, while swimming out in the wide, busy waterway, the cry would go up from somebody or other that a boat was towing a ‘tender’. These tenders were mostly small, wooden dinghies and they fishtailed in the wake behind the parent craft. With an exciting sense of danger, us swimmers would make a bee-line for the tenders and hang on to the stern boards (transom) to get a free ride. It was amazing how many of those boat owners only stared at where they were heading rather than keeping a watchful eye all around. Occasionally, we’d be spotted and shouted at. We even had some rubbish thrown at us once, but it all added to the fun.
On the day of the incident, Brian (of the slap around the face incident), another lad, and myself were out in the waterway, dodging the boats and splashing up and down in the waves made by the wakes. Then the call went up that a craft was approaching with a tender behind. Swimming like mad and risking the dangerous thrashing propellers, we cut in at right-angles and the three of us managed to grab the back of the tender.
Barely had we started to feel the pull of the parent boat when there was a splintering crack and the three of us were left with the stern board in our hands while the parent boat carried on towing a quickly sinking dinghy.
But, turned heads and shouting from the parent boat told us that our terrible deed had been quickly discovered. As the boat slowed down, it was already turning to head us off before we reached the lido and hopeful security amongst the crowds.
Brian and I swam together like mad, both gulping in mouthfuls of water as we laughed at the thrill of the race between us and the angry boat owners coming back up-stream at us. Finally, with about three metres to go before we reached the lido perimeter, we went under water and each swam along the bottom towards one of the large stakes that held the floating perimeter poles in place. I swam around the back of my chosen stake and slow]y surfaced until my nose was just out of the water and I could breath while the stake hid my head from the approaching boat. Brian did the same at his stake. As the boat moved slowly along the front of the lido, we moved around the pole so that our heads couldn’t be seen by the people aboard. They were looking hard into the crowd of swimmers just behind us. It didn’t take long for them to realise that we could have easily been lost in that crowd and soon the tender was hauled aboard the parent boat and they continued on their way, leaving us all laughing at our narrow escape.
Geoff had started going out with one of Crystal’s friends and Crystal and I often made up a foursome with Geoff and this young lady (whose name I cannot now recall). One evening at this time, we were over on some new roads that had been built for a new housing estate in the west corner of the Bath and Burghfield Roads. Geoff and I had our little motor cycles and the girls had their bikes. I don’t know how it started but we were soon giving the girls rides around the new roads on the back of our motor cycles. The girls thought it was great and us boys were getting a laugh. There wasn’t a house, car, or person within a mile of us, and our motor cycles were very quiet. But someone called the police.
We had been sitting down beside one of the roads, having a chatter about all the places we were going to visit after Geoff and I had passed our tests, when a police car came onto the new roads and stopped beside us. A policeman got out and asked if we’d been giving the girls rides on the back of our motor cycles. With a sinking heart, I admitted that I had, and Geoff answered the same. The policeman asked us if we knew the law regarding the carrying of unlicensed passengers while on L-plates, and we told him that we did. He then asked us if we’d taken the girls out for rides on the other, established, roads and we told him that we hadn’t as we knew the law and had only given the girls a ride on these roads because there were no houses, cars, or people around to be a danger to. He was a decent chap and explained to us that we were still in a public area and that the law must be obeyed there. He told us that we had been near enough to some nosey-parker to be seen and reported (roughly his words) and we could only agree with him.
Then, to our surprise, he got back into his car, told us not to be caught again and, with a wave and a laugh he drove off. Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief at a narrow escape and never carried an unlicensed passenger on a motor cycle while on L-plates again.
But, I did let one other person ride that motor cycle, and that person was none other than the famous pop singer, Cliff Richard.
He was booked to sing at the Palace Theatre, in Reading, that summer and we had all saved our money to go and see this pop hero and his group, who’s name had just been changed from their original name of ‘The Drifters’ to their new name of ‘The Shadows’. Val, Crystal, Debbie, and myself were in the car park at the rear of the theatre. I’d just parked up and met the girls, who had caught the bus down. We were about to go and join the queue around the front of the theatre when I heard Val gasp and I looked up to see the singer standing there. We were all very surprised when he came over and said hello.
The thing that impressed me the most was his good manners. Up to that time I’d thought that he was a bit of a loud-mouthed, mad rock ‘n’ roll singer, and I wasn’t at all prepared for his rather posh English accent and his quiet mannerisms. He was very good to the girls, signing their autograph books and posing for some photographs that Val took of him. Then his attention turned to my motor cycle.
He asked me all about the little machine and explained that he’d been thinking of getting one for himself. Now, I hadn’t let anyone on my motor cycle, but he seemed such a decent chap that I offered him a chance to ride it around the car park. Much to my amazement he was delighted by my offer and, after I’d explained the gear change in more detail, he hopped on and we watched him ride the machine half a dozen times around the car park as if he’d been riding it all his life.
Finally, he stopped beside us, asked a few more questions, and thanked me very much for letting him have a go on the motor cycle. Then he asked if there was anyone who didn’t have a ticket for his show. We all assured him that we had tickets, so he thanked us once again for being good sports and was gone.
I hated him the first time that I saw him on the television’s ‘Oh Boy’ show. He was singing up there on a stage where I wanted to be. In truth, I was jealous of his rise to fame as a rock ‘n’ roll singer. Even so, I had sang all his songs to myself with great gusto and his singing had become part of my life. It was just the man that I didn’t like - until that memorable afternoon when he walked out into the Palace car park and rode my motor cycle. There were no ‘airs and graces’, he was just a very well-mannered, friendly chap who came out for five minutes of quiet fun with a gang of kids. The girls were thrilled and I bragged about the incident to my mates for days after.
The month of July was very hot that year and the powdered paint clung to us workers as we poured with sweat while doing our job. There was no air-conditioning in the building and it was like standing in an oven. The sweat dribbled off our noses and chins, and ran into our eyes, and our overalls would be soaked before the midday break. In an effort to try and stay a bit cleaner, we’d wrap rags around the exposed parts of our bodies and make hoods for our heads, with little holes so that we could see what we were doing. Under the hoods we wore a face-mask to filter the dust as we breathed. All this helped us to stay a bit cleaner, but also caused us to sweat buckets. Then I did something that ended up in the company sacking me.
We used two inch, transparent, adhesive tape to help seal the bags and boxes. At the end of the roll, the tape reel always stripped and we’d have a long ‘pig’s tail’ of paper. Bored with working and the oppressive heat, one of the lads stuck a ‘tail’ to the back of the foreman’s overalls after pretending to bump into him. This had us all laughing and we forgot about the hot day for a while.
Five minutes later one of the smokers had just lit a cigarette and, as the foreman was standing nearby, with his back to him, the smoker reached out with the still lighted match and pretended to light the tail. But, he was too keen and his prank back-fired as the tail burst into flames.
Within seconds we’d all panicked. Someone shouted for the fire-extinguisher and, as I was the nearest, I snatched it off the wall, got it working and, spraying water everywhere, I raced over to the foreman and all but drowned him before the extinguisher was finally exhausted (it was one of the old type that kept spraying until it was empty). It was a real ‘Keystone Cops’ affair. Within seconds of the manager arriving, after being called down from the office, I was sacked. I wasn’t even given a chance to explain what had happened, even if I’d been willing to split on the smoker, which I wouldn’t have done.
In a real rebellious mood, I mooched around for the next couple of weeks and didn’t even bother to try and get another job. In the end, I had to make an effort as the money, that I owed Mum for my keep, was beginning to mount up.
Then, unexpectedly, I received a message to go up to the paint factory and report to the manager. He told me that the smoker had left the job and the true story of the events, that had led up to me being sacked, had been revealed. With a sigh of relief, I started back to work and was soon, once again, sweating with my mates.
But, things had changed since I’d been away. We had a new foreman, the old one had chucked the job in, and the new one was younger and a lot keener. There were no more skives in the toilet (we were actually timed) and the larking about stopped. The operational lines were streamlined and a bonus system was introduced where each line earned a penny for each completed box that came off the rollers over the normal day’s work. As the normal day’s work had been upped to a near impossible quota, we didn’t see much bonus at first. But, when competition was introduced between the two lines by the foreman, we passed the norm and sometimes made a shilling each through the bonus system. Protective rags and overalls were flung off as we sweated more than ever and gave up on trying to keep clean. Often we’d work in just a pair of shorts and have to spend hours in the bath each evening, scrubbing at our bodies to get the paint off. But, the competition was keen and nobody wanted to be the one to let his gang down. The foreman would go off for ages but we’d carry on working like maniacs. The record player still blared out the latest music and I remember that Elvis Presley had ‘Big Hunk Of Love’ in the charts, and both Anthony Newley and Lloyd Price went neck and neck up the hit parade with their versions of a song called ‘Personality’.
I’d been for many rides on my little motor cycle by that time, including a couple of day trips down to the south coast, taking in Portsmouth, Southsea, Bognor, Littlehampton, and Brighton. The summer was so beautiful that I decided to go down to the coast for a whole weekend. I planned to leave straight after work on the Friday afternoon. With a bit of money saved for food and petrol, a rolled-up blanket, and a change of clothes, I excitedly looked forward to the trip.
On the Thursday evening, I started to check the little motor cycle out and found that I couldn’t get the lights to work. I couldn’t afford to take it to the garage and still go on the trip (I found later that it was only a broken earth wire). I was very disappointed until I thought to myself that, as I had the whole weekend in which to do the trip, I could still go if I could borrow a pedal cycle. I’d already given my bike to a young lad who’s Mum couldn’t afford to buy him one, so I had to set about frantically trying to borrow another. Finally, a friend came to my rescue, telling me that I could borrow his old one that he didn’t use anymore.
His ‘old one’ turned out to be a decent machine. After adjusting the three speed, oiling the chain and brake cables, checking the tyre pressures, and giving it the once over, I was ready to go. But, four months of sitting down and letting an engine do the work would prove my undoing and really open my eyes as to how lazy we can become in this modern day and age.
In great joy and happiness, I left work on the Friday afternoon, had a bath, got changed and set off on the cycle with gear hanging on all sides in bags. Head down and backside up, I hurtled up to the Bath Road and turned west towards Newbury, seventeen miles away. By the time I’d reached that town, I was very tired and my legs were aching. I had realised what the problem had been and promised myself that I’d ride a pedal cycle more often. Meanwhile, I was determined to get down to the coast for my weekend of freedom.
Turning south, I reached Whitchurch with screaming legs and sawing breath. My water bottle was long empty and I called at a house to get it refilled. Then I struggled on down through Winchester to Southampton where I had half an hours rest while I gazed excitedly at the passenger liners berthed beside the docks. With that rest behind me, I caught the old ‘Floating bridge’ across the River Itchen (The floating bridge was a car ferry that was pulled across the river by a chain. There is a proper road bridge at the spot now) and headed east towards Portsmouth with the setting sun at my back. By the time I had reached Fareham, I could hardly push the pedals.
It grew dark and I started to walk along the road and ride alternately. As the distant lights of Portsmouth drew closer, I began looking for a secluded spot where I could sleep for the night. A dark road to my left looked very inviting to my tired body and I set off at a walking pace up that road. Soon I was struggling up a long, steep hill with houses along each side of the road. I had just decided to give up and go back down again, when the houses ended and I could see the lights of Portsmouth far below. Another one hundred metres brought me to a large bush where I flung the bike down and threw myself beside it in pure exhaustion. I’d ridden seventy miles that evening.
After a while, I rallied round a bit, hid the bike under the bush, and laid my blanket out in the long grass nearby. As I munched my supper, I watched the cars and trains pass to and from Portsmouth far below, and could see lighted boats and ferries on the Solent over the other side of that city. Finally, with the quiet roar of the cars and trains in my ears, a couple of dogs barking nearby, and somebody laughing as they played a late-night game just down the road that I had struggled up earlier, I rolled up in my blanket and dropped into a deep sleep.
I awoke to a beautiful dawn and an agonised body. Sitting up slowly, I peered over the tops of the long grass and could see the whole of Portsmouth, the Solent, and the north coast of the Isle of Wight as if I was flying over the area in an aeroplane. The scene did look a bit drab in the light of day after seeing it all lit up the night before.
I knew the hill that I was on. Auntie Eun had pointed Portsdown Hill out to me when we had passed through Portsmouth once and I’d marvelled at the great forts that were perched on the top. Uncle Bob had told me that the Normandy landings, during World War Two, had been directed from those forts by the allied commanders. Little did any of us know then that I would actually sleep in the grass just below one of those forts a few years later.
And so I got painfully to my feet, rolled up my blanket, and blessed the fact that I was going to have a free ride down the long hill into Portsmouth. I’d made up my mind to ride as little as possible through that day as I wanted to save as much energy as I could for the trip home the next day.
With a feeling of satisfaction, I swooped down the hill and on along to Portsmouth Harbour. It was still very early and there wasn’t much traffic around. Soon I was enjoying myself as I sat and looked at the Naval and civil boats scattered around the docks. I watched a ferry depart for the Isle of Wight and wished that I’d had enough money to take a trip over there. Finally, as the streets came alive with cars and people I hopped on the bike and creaked along to Southsea, having to stand up most of the way because of my saddle-sore buttocks.
There was an Isle of Wight ferry berthed at Clarence Pier, the sea-front fair had just opened for the day, and quite a few holiday-makers were already on the beach, walking along the piers, or swimming in the sea. Within minutes, I was splashing out in the waves and getting rid of the sweaty dust that I’d acquired on the trip down the day before.
After a couple of hours, I decided to go along to Hayling Island. I rode through Eastney and caught the little passenger ferry that plied between Portsea Island and Hayling Island. There was a wireless on board and I listened to Elvis Presley singing ‘My Wish Came True’ that was being played on the wireless as I crossed. I recall that I was mildly thirsty as I leaned against the rail beside a stack of bikes. The water was hissing from the stern, the holiday spirit had a few passengers laughing and joking, and in the background I could hear that song. It was a beautiful day, not too hot, with the typical morning haze that seemed to diffuse the sun and make everything look soft and warm. Now, thirty five years later as I write of my life, that song still reminds me of the ferry trip, and I still have the original record of that song amongst my old Elvis ‘greats’.
I explored Hayling Island, spent an hour watching the little steam trains pass over the old wooden bridge to and from the mainland, then went back to Southsea. The rest of my day was spent looking around the gift shops and piers.
As it started to get dark, I began to think about somewhere to sleep. Not wanting to leave until the next early afternoon, and definitely not wanting to ride all the way up onto Portsdown Hill again, I cast my eye around for somewhere closer to spend the night.
On the sea front were some large, wooden shelters with glassed-in sides above the seat rests, the sort of place one would head for on a stormy day if there was nowhere else to go. I’d noticed one at Southsea and one at Eastney, and now I wondered to myself if I could use one of them for a bedroom.
There were still people sitting in the Southsea shelter so I rode on along the front until I reached the one at Eastney. This one was empty and, rolled up in my blanket on the wooden seat, with the bike leaning against the seat in front of me, I prepared for a good night’s sleep.
Just as I was dropping off, two young couples came in, sat in a dark corner each down at the far end of the shelter and I finally dropped off to the sound of their quiet laughter and squeals of delight mingled with the muffled roar of the breaking waves nearby. The next thing I knew, I was being shaken awake and a torch flashed in my face. The two couples had gone and I realised that a policeman was standing beside my ‘bed’. He asked me my name and address, why I was there, was the bike mine, and some other questions that I can’t recall now. I answered all the questions, then he asked me if I’d seen the two couples there earlier. I said that I had and he told me to describe the girls to him. I had to confess that it had been too dark to see their faces and he seemed a bit disappointed. He went on to explain that the two girls were prostitutes and he was after them. Well, I knew nothing about prostitutes, nor their trade. I couldn’t help him so he left me to go back to sleep with a warning to be very careful when sleeping out as I was. I thanked him, promised to be careful and he was gone. It didn’t take me long to go back to sleep.
A few years later, I’d have a visit from the police in that same shelter, one very cold winter’s night, but for a different reason..
I awoke on the Sunday morning with the sun up and my muscles stiff and sore. A few weeks earlier, someone had told me about a German submarine that was beached and rusting in the back-waters of Portsmouth Harbour, just near Cosham. Apparently, it had crept up the harbour during World War Two intent on blowing up allied shipping. But the submarine had been discovered and the crew were forced to beach and abandon it. Having been told that the submarine was still there, quite near the road and easily accessible, I decided to try and find it before heading home. Happily, I hopped on the bike and, with a groan as my muscles sent pains through the whole of my body, I set course for Portsmouth and the mystery submarine. I knew that my muscles would loosen up as soon as I’d been a couple of miles. But, I didn’t get that far.
As I built up speed and changed into top gear, my foot slipped off the pedal. It was one of those unlucky accidents, my inside ankle bone scraped down the outside of the pedal and, as the foot twisted and hit the road, all my weight was on it. The next thing that I knew was that I was sitting on the kerb, with a painful ankle swelling up alarmingly.
Forgetting about the submarine (I would hear about it again from a different source, but never see it), I took stock of this new development. I didn’t really know what to do. There was no chance of riding the bike up and down the big hills for the sixty odd miles (if I missed Southampton) back home. I didn’t know anybody in Portsmouth who would help me, and I considered going to the police. As I sat there and idly thought that they would probably send me home on the train, it came to me that, if I had enough money, I could get myself home on the train anyway.
Checking my pockets, I found that I had a one pound note and a few coppers left. I decided to go to Portsmouth station and enquire how much it would cost to get myself and the bike back to Reading. Limping along as I pushed the cycle beside me, I reached the station and was relieved to find that I had enough money for the fare. I would have no money left for the rest of the week, but I was used to that.
Although I love train journeys and can recall most of those that I’ve made, the ride back from Portsmouth that day is very vague. I can only remember being at Guildford station (did I have to change trains there?). Then I was limping into Little John’s Lane, and the first person that I saw was Crystal. To see the happiness on her face at my return was the perfect ending to an exciting weekend of freedom to wander at will.
The little motor cycle didn’t get much use after that trip. I lost interest in having it easy for a while and the machine was soon a rusting hulk just like the submarine was said to be. At the time, I was very disappointed that I’d allowed myself to become so unfit, although I hadn’t realised what was happening to my body while I was enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to pedal any more. But, I’d been proud of the sustained speeds that I could keep up on my old bike and resolved to get fit again. I bought another bike for that reason, but in another few years I’d find a better way to keep fit.
And so, the summer passed as we headed into a beautiful autumn. My happy-go-lucky life was only marred by the raging toothache that I was still putting up with due to my cowardice where dentists were concerned.
I was still sticking lumps of bread into the jagged gaps and broken teeth that were the result of taking Arnold’s gang on. At the time I was proud of my ‘war wounds’, and thought that new teeth would grow when the smashed stumps fell out. I probably wouldn’t have worried if I had have known that I’d already used up all my teeth (as was the case), I was young and carefree. Such things as getting old and dentures only happened to someone else. Who cared about the future?
It seemed to me, that late summer and autumn, that rock ‘n’ roll paused for breath and a string of ballads were churned out, the exception being Freddie Cannon’s ‘Tallahassee lassie’ (which I thought was a great song). ‘Lipstick On Your Collar’ by Connie Francis was fairly racy but, the pace was slowed down by Paul Anka’s ‘Lonely Boy’, ‘Only Sixteen’ by Craig Douglas, Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’, ‘Travelling Light’ by Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde’s ‘Sea of Love’, and ‘Sweeter Than You’ by Ricky Nelson. We sang these latest songs and danced to them down the lane as the faithful old wind-up record player struggled to keep going and the trains passed by on the embankment just above. With all these romantic songs to give us a nudge, one would think that Crystal and I would have found it very easy to, at least, hold hands. But we didn’t find it easy, and in the end we were given a bit of help.
A gang of us were happily sitting in Val’s bedroom, playing records and chatting as teenagers do. Crystal had borrowed a record belonging to one of her sisters. This record was Cliff Richard’s first album, and I remember that we could hear screaming fans on the record between each song. The screaming sounded like special effects and we used to laugh about that. Then Val and our other friends wanted to go down the lane, and Crysta1 and I decided to wait until the record had finished then catch them up later. We were both sitting on the edge of Val’s bed, the others had gone and Val had reached the door. Then she turned back, grabbed my arm, put it around Crystal’s neck, and told us that everyone thought that it was about time we got out of our rut. With that she went out and closed the door.
Crystal looked into my eyes. She radiated loveliness and my heart thumped like mad. I felt her arm slip around my waist, and my heart beat harder. Slowly, our faces moved towards each other, then our lips met in the most tender of kisses, and my heart soared to new heights. It was so beautiful and I felt sick with pure love for this young girl.
It wasn’t a passionate kiss, that first one. Her lips were better than I ever imagined they would be, soft, moist, and cool. The pressure was just there as we lingered for a while, not wanting to part our lips and break the spell. The only diversion I had was a fleeting thought that Cliff Richard was singing a song on the album called ‘Apron Strings’. That song, which I still have in my own collection., has always reminded me of the first time that Crystal and I kissed.
Although I felt a bit uncomfortable about having needed a nudge, I was sure that our love for each other would have eventually sorted things out when the time was right. Nevertheless, it had worked out anyway, and I was grateful to Val for her interest and help.
Crystal and I didn’t go mad. There was only the one lingering kiss, then we went hand in hand to catch up with our friends. They seemed very happy for us. Crystal and I were quite shy and embarrassed about the whole affair, but joined in the fun and put up with their ribbing quite happily.
‘Red River Rock’ by Johnny and the Hurricanes’ seemed to break the hold that ballads had on the music scene, and a new singer hit the charts with a song called ‘What Do You Want?”. The first time that I saw Adam Faith on the ‘Oh Boy’ show, I thought that he looked like an escaped convict. His short, fair hair, high cheek bones, and square jaw were bad enough to me, but with the spot-light shining down on him from almost directly above, he looked terrible. Nevertheless, he became very popular with us, we were all soon singing his songs in the funny way that he sang them, and getting a great laugh out of our mimicry.
November the fifth loomed near and some of us local lads decided to try our luck at what we called ‘a penny for the guy’. We’d make up an old dummy out of straw-filled sacks and cast-off clothes, push it down the town in a pram, and try to raise some money for fireworks from the shoppers that passed by our display. All we had to do was stand beside the pram and shout “Penny for the guy”.
Young David (of the bullying cyclist incident) had, unfortunately, a very ugly face, but as with a lot of people so afflicted, he was a wonderful, happy, and obliging person. I joked with him that he would make a super guy and, to my astonishment, he begged for the job. I tried to laugh it off, but he was so insistent that I finally agreed.
Giggling like mad, David, dressed in old clothes, lay in the pram with his legs and arms hanging over the sides. Three or four of us pushed him, giggling as well, down to the town and took up station outside one of the shops. In the light from the shops and street lamps, he looked like a real guy with bits of straw sticking out of his sleeves and trouser-bottoms (hiding his hands and feet). Only his eyes gave us away when he was forced to blink.
We collected a few bob, then for some reason I had to leave my mates for a while. When I returned to the spot, the scene was like a battle-ground, with my mates sprawled everywhere and a crowd of people gathered around. Finally, as I helped to attend to them as best I could, I got the full story.
Just after I’d left, a gang of bullies had wandered up the street. Seeing the young boys with their guy, they’d decided to have some fun and kick the guy to bits all over the pavement. Poor David lay there quivering with fright as the other boys tried to stop the bullies. Each of my gallant mates were bashed to the ground by those cowards, then they grabbed the speechless David from the pram and started kicking him. Suddenly, David’s anguish overcame his fear and he jumped up with a yell. By that time people were coming from all directions to help my friends. Some were still there when I arrived back, chuckling at the way the bullies had fled in amazed fear when the ‘guy’ had come alive and reared up in front of them, yelling terrible curses at their souls.
My mates were soon none the worse for their experience and happily laughing about the outcome. But I burned in pure fury and, although I spent weeks searching, listening, and asking around, I never found out who the bullies were so that I could see justice done. But then, maybe justice had already been done in a way. It reminded me of how, when I was younger, we used to build piles of leaves around posts and large stones so that the bullies would hurt themselves when they spitefully went to kick our piles down. It was always worth a clout around the ear after the event.
My seventeenth birthday passed by with no memories but, on the ninth of December that year, I got my second license and bought a B.S.A. Bantam for five pounds. The need to get around a bit faster, as my life suddenly sped up, had caused me to reconsider my decision to keep off of motorised transport and, although I still did short journeys on a bike, I purchased the second motor cycle as a necessity. The B.S.A. was more gutsy than my, now rusty, first little motor cycle. It was easy to slip over to Amersham and spend a day with my old mates there.
By this time, Alf and Mick also had motor cycles. Over the years, we would all go through an assortment of B.S.A.s, Triumphs, Ariels, Nortons, Velocettes, Vincents, and others. Alf had a Velocette at this time and we’d ride around like a chapter of ‘Hell’s Angels’ (well - maybe a verse!!). Alf always had to be at the front of the gang and he’d get very annoyed if any of us tried to overtake him or take the lead. I recall one occasion when this got him into trouble with the police.
He was leading the group of motor cyclists along White Lion Road, between Amersham and Little Chalfont, when a policeman, also on a motor cycle, started to overtake the group. As the policeman slowly passed each machine, he looked hard as if searching for defects. There was a thirty mile an hour speed limit so he had plenty of time. Now, when any of us, especially me, had the devil in him, we’d try and pass Alf just to relieve some of our pent-up spirit, and Alf would race ahead to keep in front. This is just what happened as Alf caught sight of the policeman’s front wheel out of the corner of his eye.
The thoughts going through Alf’s mind, and the chain of events, can well be imagined. He opened his throttle, thinking that the front wheel belonged to one of the group. The wheel vanished from his sight but, before he could turn and shout at the ‘offender’ (as he usually did), the wheel was there again. With parked cars and pedestrians around (he was then passing the spot where he’d seen me knocked down by a car some years earlier), he couldn’t take his eyes off the road ahead as he opened up a bit more. Of course, the policeman opened up more which caused Alf to twist his throttle even further. The policeman hung on and the pair of them were soon out of sight. The rest of the group carried on at the correct speed limit, cracking up with laughter.
A mile or so farther on, at the bottom of Stanley Hill, a red-faced Alf stood by his machine at the side of the road, having the book thrown at him by an angry policeman. He finished up with, if I recall right, forty nine offences. Illegal items were found such as, no licence, no insurance, the wrong engine in the wrong frame, no working headlight, worn tyres, and a host of other things. The policeman went over Alf and his motor cycle with a fine tooth comb and, of course, there was the speeding offence as well.
I suppose that, with our young spirits, we all got into trouble at some time or other. And so it was with me when, just before Christmas that year, I once again lost my job. But, this time I asked for it.
Now that the cold days of winter were upon us, conditions had turned completely opposite at work and we were freezing in that drafty building, although the pace hadn’t slackened off at all. The only exception was the foreman who, we used to think, spent most of the day up in the warm offices. I went into work one morning and soon wanted to go to the toilet. At that time, there was a small oil stove in the toilet (to stop the pipes from freezing, we were told). It was a good place to have a quick hand-warm as well as doing the necessary things one normally goes to the toilet for. As the foreman wasn’t around, I thought I’d have a warm skive as well.
For half an hour, I kept giving the toilet door a gentle push and each time I’d find that the door was locked. I didn’t even bother to check and see who was missing, I just took it for granted that the person in the toilet was somebody from the other gang, and having a bit of a skive himself. Finally, I got fed up with whoever was taking advantage of the foreman’s absence and thought it was about time they gave someone else a go. Grabbing Geoff to help me, I whispered to my gang that I was going to do something about getting the skiver out and, as I walked away they hissed over at the other gang and told them of my plans.
In the early days of my employment there, we used to have to paddle through a carpet of thick powdered paint to reach the toilet but, since the new foreman had been in charge, a hose had been purchased and the floors were washed each night. My plan was to ‘flush’ the person out of the toilet with the hose.
With all the lads following me, I picked up the hose, crept up to the door, and silently held the nozzle over the top. The nozzle was set at heavy spray and I nodded at Geoff to turn the tap on. Within seconds, there was a spluttering yell, and everybody in the building collapsed with laughter. It was then that I thought to look over and see who was missing. To my astonishment, I could see that all the boys were there. I remember realising how stupid I’d been for not checking the other gang, to make sure that it was one of them in the toilet, before I did the deed.
I was sure that the person I’d just half-drowned wouldn’t have been the foreman. He was too conscientious to skive in the toilet like the ordinary workers. He was always talking about ‘setting an example’. Then I had thought to myself, if it wasn’t the foreman or any of us, who was it?
The door burst open and a drenched figure, holding a soggy book in one hand, fell out into the passage-way followed by a spray of water. In spite of wondering who it could be, we roared with laughter anew and all work had ceased as we watched the spectacle. My mates were delighted with the show that I’d put on for them. But, I knew that I was now in real trouble, no matter who the person was.
The figure staggered down the dimly-lit passage-way towards us, shaking water off and rubbing its eyes. Then, the head came up and we all saw that it was the foreman, and his face was twisted in rage. Through the strands of wet hair that covered his eyes, he looked at us one by one. Then he spied me and walked my way. How did he know that I had been the culprit? I was the only one who wasn’t laughing any more.
He stood over me shivering, I suspect, with fury as much as the cold. He didn’t speak, he didn’t have to say anything, I knew. I took off my overalls, collected my coat, and was escorted to the door by the silent foreman. He told me later that, if he had said anything, he would have probably burst out laughing himself at the sight of my face in my discomfort.
I’d barely arrived home when one of the lads was at the door to tell me that I was ‘forgiven’, and to return to work. I was given a lecture by the foreman, but I never did find out why I’d been reinstated. Was it because the foreman was really a skiver himself? He always seemed to be up at the offices, but was he? Then, of course, there was the book in his hand. Did he sneak off to secret places for a read to pass the time? Had it got so cold in those other places that he was now using the warm toilet occasionally?
No, I think the main reason that I’d been taken back was the fact that young workers were hard to hold on to in such working conditions and, even one who played a prank now and again was better than having to train up new lads, only to have them leave after a few days.
But, for me, the writing was on the wall. I suddenly realised how fed up I was with the job, the long hours, and the wasted time spent trying to get the paint off my body in the evenings. I knew that there must be better jobs around, if only I could get time off to go out and look for one. I’d felt such a relief, that morning, as I walked out of the factory gates after the incident. It had made me realise how discontented I’d become with the job. I thought about the situation through the early afternoon and finally decided to finish up that night. I gave my notice to the foreman and I remember him saying that he’d had enough of my jokes for one day. After convincing him that I was serious, the manager was called down and he tried to talk me into staying. But, I’d made my mind up and that was that.
The very next day, I got a job with T. W. Wards, the ironfounders. They had a scrap metal and iron depot in Reading and it became my job to help load and unload scrap iron. A couple of old, three-wheeled, Scammell ‘Mechanical Horses’ were used to pull the trailers, loaded with the scrap iron, around to the railway yard. These Scammells must have been the original forerunners of the Mechanical Horse range, they were that old. Both of them had wooden, coach-built cabs, cable brakes, and the typical old Scammell coupling for the trailers. What with the defective brakes, bad steering problems, and no clutch, where they’d been let go into disrepair, it was taking one’s life into one’s hands to ride in them with Cliff, the driver. With a crunch of gears, a terrific jolt, and me hanging on for dear life, we’d roar out of the yard in a cloud of blue smoke, cross two or three streets, somehow manage to stop at Caversham Road, then jolt off again when the traffic was clear, and swoop into the Vastern Road railway yard, usually with bits of iron falling off the trailer, making a clanging noise that could be heard even over the noisy engine. I thought it was great fun.
Cliff was a good driver. He’d obviously been driving the old Scammells for a long time and knew every idiosyncrasy of them both. He was an extremely good-natured, good-fun bloke and I almost came to hero-worship him. It was Cliff that took me on my first working trip in a ‘lorry’.
Cliff also drove the mobile crane that belonged to the Reading depot of T. W. Wards. It was a Coles ‘Mark Seven’ crane on a six-wheeled Thornycroft chassis. I went into work one morning, after I’d been there for a few days, to be told by the foreman that Cliff had asked for me as his ‘lorry-driver’s mate’ and that we’d be going on a trip that day. Of course, I was delighted and was soon up on the long bonnet of the Thornycroft to clean the windscreen. As I was cleaning the side-windows and rear-vision mirrors, Cliff arrived, gave me a friendly punch on one of my biceps for being, as he called me, a ‘keen, young b***er’ and shortly after we were off.
It was a wonderful day and I enjoyed every minute of the trip, what was more, I was being paid to enjoy it. We went down to the gas-works at Blackwater, loaded some heavy iron onto a lorry, then went over to the Thornycroft works, in Basingstoke, to have something done to the chassis of the crane (I can’t recall what the problem had been).
Over the next two or three weeks, under Cliff’s guiding hand, I soon learned what was expected of me, and even found things to do that were not (like cleaning the windscreen, windows, and mirrors, sweeping out the cab, etc.) Cliff, in turn, treated me well and even let me have a go on the crane a couple of times.
Meanwhile, Christmas came and went without any memories and we slipped into the new year of 1960.
The new year had barely started when I again changed my job. Alf had told me about a logging firm that were looking for workers in the Amersham area. F. Honour’s were a well-known company in that part of the country, and they had a fleet of Unipower lorry tractors for their log-hauling contracts. I wasn’t getting out on the open road enough with Cliff and I wanted to do it every day (even if I was only a mate).
Crystal and I had talked about the future a bit, and I’d realised that I was never going to save any money unless I shopped around, found the best-paid job, and tried to live a bit cheaper. She agreed that I give the Honour’s job a go.
Uncle Frank was away from home at the time and Auntie Joyce said that I could go and lodge at their place. The money for my keep would be ten shillings less a week than I had to pay Mum, and I’d been told that the wages were more than I’d been getting so far. It didn’t take me long to pack in the job at T. W. Wards, and move to Amersham.
Through the help of another friend, I was able to get a start with Honour’s and my first working week consisted of clearing land along the side of a road. There were no rides in lorries, but I resolved to be a bit patient and hoped for the best.
In the meantime, I enjoyed myself out with my old mates in the evenings. We rode around on our motor cycles, singing the latest songs (and a lot of old ones) to ourselves and I was as happy as I could be. Emil Ford had ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For’ in the charts at that time, along with ‘Seven Little Girls Sitting In The Back Seat’ by the Avons. Although I missed Crystal, it was good to be on the loose with my old pals. Of course, Alf provided the usual entertainment.
This time a group of us were sitting on our motor cycles just inside the entrance to the ‘Pheasant’ public house car park in Plantation Road. A couple of days earlier, Mick had bought a brand new ‘Francis Barnett’ (I think) motor cycle. We called them ‘Franny Barnetts’. Knowing that I was very careful on motor cycles, he offered me a go on that new machine. I declined his offer as I knew that I would never forgive myself if I did accidentally drop or damage it. Alf was very annoyed that Mick had offered me a go and not him. After a bit of an argument, Mick reluctantly gave in and agreed to let Alf try the new machine out.
At the time, Alf thought I was a bit weak because I was worried about damaging the motor cycle. He eagerly threw his leg over the seat and revved the engine like mad, determined to show us all how the machine should be handled. I glanced over at Mick who had a very worried look on his face, but he knew that he couldn’t go back on his word and tell Alf to get off.
As usual, it was like a planned scene from a movie set. Still revving the engine like mad, Alf let the clutch lever go. It was much more spectacular than even Alf could have imagined. He wasn’t used to such immediate power from such a small machine. He should have had a quiet ride around to get the feeling of it before trying to show off. It didn’t take many seconds for him to learn from his mistake.
The bike shot forward like a rocket, the front wheel left the ground and the headlight was almost pointing up into the sky. Taken by surprise, Alf’s legs slipped off the pegs and, as he hung on for dear life, his feet were dragged along the ground behind. He’d completely lost control and, for a few seconds, was unable to twist the throttle shut. It was the first ‘wheelie’ I ever saw.
Suddenly he managed to slam the throttle shut and the front wheel crashed back down onto the ground. But the force of the jolt knocked his hands down off the handle bars. Laying along the tank and seat, legs and arms flailing in all directions, and the initial high revs having given the machine enough force to keep going for a while longer, Alf careered into the car park in his uncontrolled headlong dash.
Murphy’s law would have placed a tree or telegraph pole slap bang in the path of the runaway motor cycle, but Alf went one better, he headed straight for the pub. But even then he was lucky, for he was aiming at the pub door and it was open. We all watched in sheer amazement as our mate shot into the doorway and crunched half in and half out of the opening. As usual, we laughed, unable to stop ourselves, as we ran up to the scene of the accident. It was certainly one of the funniest sights I’d ever seen. But, at the same time we were very worried about how Alf was.
We needn’t have worried too much. Most of the speed had gone out of the machine by the time Alf reached the building. He had a few cuts and bruises, the bike had a couple of dents and scratches and, after removing it from the pub doorway, we were relieved to find that there was hardly any damage to the door frame. It was a real lucky escape and the incident gave us all a good laugh. I never saw Mick give Alf a go on any of his motor cycles after that.
I’d only gone out in the big Unipowers twice and they were only on short journeys. A couple of weeks after I started with the firm I found myself, one morning, riding in a car with a bulldozer driver. We were heading up to Upper Brailes, near Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, where it would be our job to drag felled trees, from a wood on Brailes Hill, down to a loading point. The journey of sixty odd miles took about an hour each way. There was some snow about and the weather was still very cold, but I thought that the work would keep me fairly warm.
The work-site was on the side of the hill in a large hollow. The bulldozer was already there and the driver warmed up the engine as he explained what he wanted me to do. My job was to loop the wire cable from the bulldozer winch, around the end of a log and shackle it tight so that the log could be dragged down to the flat area chosen for loading the lorries. There I’d unshackle the log, we’d load it onto one of the trailers, then go back up for another one.
Loading the logs onto the trailers was, to me, a neat trick in itself. We had no hydraulic forks to lift the whole log up and onto the trailer in those days, but the bulldozer driver’s method did the job just as effectively even if it did take a little longer than the modern method.
The trailer chassis consisted of a heavy steel pipe running down the centre above the wheels. Five or six cross members had been fitted across the pipe to form an open deck the width of the trailer. Heavy upright pipes could be inserted into each end of the cross members to support the side of the load and stop the logs from rolling off.
The logs were dragged down one side of the trailer where the upright supports had been removed from the chassis on that side and heavy wooden posts had been placed, leaning from the ground to the chassis to form a long ramp down the side of the trailer. The bulldozer was taken around the other side of the trailer where the winch cable was passed over the open deck (or logs that were already loaded), over the log on the ground and back under that log where the end of the cable was shackled to the trailer chassis. As the bulldozer driver winched his end of the cable in (or drove away from his side of the trailer) the log was rolled up the make-shift ramp and onto the deck where it was held in place by the up-right on the bulldozer side of the trailer or the logs already there. As the deck filled up shorter, then longer uprights were inserted on the ramp side of the trailer to prevent the logs from falling back off that side as more logs were loaded above them.
The drivers of the lorries could also employ this same method by dropping their trailer and using the winch on their tractors (prime movers) to put on their own loads. Once loaded, the trailer would be hitched back onto the tractor and the load of logs were taken to the timber mills. But in our case the bulldozer driver and I did all the hard work, and the lorry drivers didn’t have to drop their trailers or do any work themselves.
The lower area was easy, I soon warmed up as I dragged the cable about and shackled the logs on and off. But, as the job progressed and I had to start pulling that heavy cable up the very steep slopes where the bulldozer couldn’t (or the driver wouldn’t) go, the sweat flowed freely only to freeze on my body each time I followed the bulldozer and log down to the loading area. I also thought that it was very dangerous to climb up the steep slopes and tie a hawser around those logs that only seemed to need the slightest tug to send them rolling down in a thunder of noise and ground vibrations towards the bulldozer where I’d climbed up a few minutes before. I quickly learned to pick a way up those slopes where there were no logs above me, but I couldn’t avoid laying on the slope below each log while I pushed the cable end under it so that I could pull the cable through from the other side and shackle it around the log.
At first, by the end of each day, my body would be an agony of pain and exhaustion. That cable was heavy and, by the time it was dragged up-hill for twenty or thirty metres it seemed to weigh a ton. But each morning I’d be ready to start again and the work seemed to get easier as I got used to it.
There were two or three lorries carting from us while we did the clearing of that area and it seemed that no sooner had we almost finished loading one lorry then there was another waiting to take its place. I well recall an incident that could have been avoided if the driver, whose lorry we were loading at the time, had only listened to the next driver in line and the bulldozer driver (I, of course, wasn’t experienced enough at the time to comment on the matter).
I suppose the driver was trying to make a good impression or show the skill and experience he’d gained over his lorry-driving years, and he urged the bulldozer driver and I to keep loading the logs well above the height taken on previous loads. The bulldozer driver and the waiting next driver in line both told him that he had too many logs piled too high up on his trailer, and the driver laughed, telling us to load the logs on until he was satisfied that he had a ‘real man’s load’, whereupon, he threw a couple of chains over it and raced off.
The waiting driver suggested that the bulldozer driver and I stay in the clearing for a minute and watch. I was glad of any excuse for a rest and the three of us stood there expectantly.
Being still fairly high up on the side of the hill, although on level ground, we were able to look out over a large expanse of the surrounding countryside below. Our eyes followed the heavily loaded lorry as it wound along the narrow, twisting lane and onto a barely wider, twisting road about half a mile away. The lorry didn’t seem to be going very fast down there but, as it went round a slight bend the other two beside me became very excited and the lorry driver shouted out that she was going. Sure enough, as I stared down, not wanting to blink in case I missed something, the lorry slowly turned over and the lot skidded through some road-side bushes and out into a field.
We all raced down there in the car to find, much to my relief, that the driver was unhurt and that only the trailer had overturned, spilling the load. I thought that we would have to reload the trailer, but the other two drivers left him to load his own lorry with his own tractor which, luckily, wasn’t too damaged. That driver didn’t ask for a large ‘man-sized’ load again after that while I was there.
But, once more, I became discontent with my lot. Riding around with my old mates had lost its novelty, I was spending money in cafes and going places rather than saving anything, and I missed Crystal very much. I decided to return home and knuckle down to any job I could find as long as I could save something for the future.
And so I packed in the job and moved back home. Within a couple of days I had a nice little job, had settled down again, and was enjoying the evenings and weekends with Crystal once more.
It was only the month of February and already I seemed to have done so much that year. While I’d been away a few new songs had been released into the charts although I hadn’t had time to take any notice of them until I returned home.
Cliff Richard had ‘Voice In The Wilderness’ up there, ‘Bad Boy’ by Marty Wilde was close on Cliff’s heels, Neil Sedaka was there as well with ‘Oh Carol’, and Tommy Steele had a funny song out called ‘Little White Bull’. Tommy’s song was from a film he starred in called ‘Tommy The Toreador’ and a gang of us went to see this film when it was showing at one of the local cinemas. Everyone was pleased to have me back, especially Mum. I still had the feeling that she couldn’t bear not having me around. It wasn’t that she said anything, the looks I seemed to get said it all, and I felt very guilty sometimes. But I had to have a bit of freedom to try and gain some experience in life. I was still looking for something to keep me more occupied in my spare time, something like a sport or hobby that I could put my young, eager energy to. At the time I only had two aims for the future. One was being able to support and settle down with Crystal, and the other was to drive lorries for a living. Meanwhile, the new job would keep my weekdays busy and a wage coming in.
A. S. Duran & Co. was an electrical wholesalers situated in Kings Road, just near the Reading town centre. I became their Storeman/Packer and a jolly good job it was too for a lad of my age. I was virtually in charge of a warehouse full of such things as electric fires, oil-filled radiators, irons, refrigerators, washing machines, electric razors, and a thousand other items that are used in the electrical trade that I hadn’t even knew existed. But, with heaps of encouragement from Clayton, the transport manager (another person I came to almost hero-worship), I soon knew most of what there was to know. Before long, I could do my job and still find time to serve at the counter efficiently.
The company had a couple of one-ton Morris vans and each morning I’d help the drivers to get their loads, to be delivered to retail shops around the area, ready and loaded. After they had gone, I’d spend the day unloading any goods that came in, packing the parcel post or serving in the shop.
There was a lift shaft between the four floors, just large square holes with no lift, nor gates. All the heavy goods, like refrigerators and washing machines, stayed on the ground floor, but everything else had to be hauled up to the upper floors using a block and tackle. Clayton (Clay) gave me permission to organise everything my way and soon the store became neat and tidy as I took a bit of pride in my job. I had my own little office and packing room, and invented dozens of things to make the job easier. Everyone there was very impressed and my chest swelled (so, probably, did my head). The store became my kingdom, so to speak, and woe betide anyone who so much as dropped a bit of cigarette ash on the floors.
The two drivers were at loggerheads and didn’t speak to each other at all, but they were both good to me. One was a retired RAF man named Jack who was short, dark, and good fun. The other was very good-looking in a Latin sort of way, but I cannot recall his name. Jack called him ‘Lord Nuffield’ because he came to work in a pin-striped suit, changed into his old working clothes, and hung the suit up in my office cupboard ready to change back into before he went home. I was tickled pink the first time Jack told me why he called the other driver by that name and, ever since, I’ve used that nick-name for that sort of eccentric-type persons I’ve met over the years. Later, two more larger vans were added to the fleet. Dick and George would then be taken on to drive the two Morris’ while Jack and ‘Lord Nuffield’ took over the new Fords. There were secretaries whose names I cannot recall now and a couple of shop assistants, Mike, and old Harry. Under the guidance of the manager (I cannot recall his name either) we were a very happy lot.
My first ‘invention’ was a safety necessity after I nearly killed myself. I was on the top floor and had just put a load of goods away. As I walked back to the lift shaft, I tripped and fell head-first towards the ground floor. As I plunged through the opening I instinctively reached for and managed to grab the hauling rope of the block and tackle system. It only took a split second, but again I remember it all very well.
The lower block, with no weight, shot up to the fixed block just above it. There was a bang and the rope stopped with a jolt. I’d only managed to get one hand onto the rope but, in sheer desperation I hung on, using all my young strength. As the rope jerked to a stop, my body came upright and the force of my momentum carried me on down the shaft as the rope burned agonisingly through my hand. Just when I thought I’d have to let go because of the pain, I hit the bottom of the shaft with a heavy thud, and crumpled to the floor.
Probably what saved my life more than anything was that the ground floor was made of old, springy floorboards and not concrete. I landed in a heap on the boards with no worse injuries than a few bruises, a badly burned hand, caused by the friction of the rope as it ran through the hand in my downward fall, and shaken nerves. I sat down for a minute to recover my composure then went to the office where my hand was attended to and I was told that I had had a very narrow escape. I didn’t really need telling.
Large blisters formed on the palm and fingers of my right hand and they reminded me of the time, back in 1950, when Granddad had burned the palms and fingers of both his hands when bending a hot, sand-filled pipe while making a new exhaust system for his old B. S. A. ‘Sloper’ motor cycle. I was luckier than he was, I’d only burned one of my hands, he’d burned both of his and had still gone to work.
The rear of Duran’s store backed onto the tow-path beside the River Kennet, just by Duke Street bridge. Beside the tow-path at the rear of another building was an old pile of scaffolding, almost hidden by weeds. I’d noticed this pile as I’d arrived for work a few mornings before. It didn’t take me long to ‘borrow’ some lengths and build ‘gates’ across the entrance to the lift shaft on each floor. I didn’t want to chance falling down the lift shaft again.
Another example of my ‘inventions’ was the ‘doorbell’. My little office was a long way from the loading bay and across an outside passage-way. Every few minutes I had to leave my work and check to see if there was anyone waiting to unload at the bay. I got fed up with this and decided to rig up a bell from the loading bay door to my office. I could have gone to the manager and asked for a proper, battery-operated bell, but I still hadn't realised that some things could be given free if for the benefit of the company, so I decided to do it my way as cheaply as possible.
Out of a spare piece of metal, I made a handle and tied it to one end of a long length of string (normally used for tying parcels). I threaded the other end of the string through a hole in the wall from outside the loading bay, over the beams above the ground floor, through two more holes in the passage walls, and into my office, where I rigged up some bits of pipe (like a wind chime) and fitted them to that end of the string. With a notice on the loading bay door, telling the delivery men to ‘Pull the handle for service’ I could relax and get on with other work until some goods needed to be unloaded and the bell was rung. It worked a charm.
Other ‘inventions’ were racks for my balls of string and wrapping paper, a filing system, a map of each floor (showing where all the goods were stacked) on the ground floor wall, a rack on each floor for brooms and cleaning utensils (everything had to be kept dusted and cleaned), room made on the ground floor for the more popular items (such as irons, toasters, electric blankets, etc.) to save the shop assistants from dashing up to the upper floors in search of them and wasting time and energy, and a dozen other labour-saving ideas.
Probably in return for my efforts, I was allowed to take my record-player into work and I happily played music while parcelling up goods and doing the stores office work. Mr. Duran would come down from London (I think he lived in London) now and again, and he never failed to sit in my little office and chat to me a bit while listening to a few hits of the day. He was a very nice old gentleman.
To me, a person is a person, I don’t distinguish between white or black, Jew or Gentile. Now, as I look back, I realise that Mr. Duran was probably a Jew. I can easily recall his face with its Jewish features, the dark clothes and black homburg that he wore. He was good to us all and I never got into trouble while I worked there, probably because they all showed me a bit of respect, from Mr. Duran right down to the cleaning lady.
Occasionally I’d go out in one of the vans to help the driver unload a large refrigerator or washing machine (especially at private houses where there was no help). I’d be so excited at the thought of the coming ride that I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before. For some reason I just loved to get out on the open road and longed for the day when I would pass my test and get a driving job. Mr. Duran had already promised me that I would be transferred to one of his vans as soon as I had a licence.
Meanwhile, I had to get that licence. I couldn’t afford driving lessons on the wages that I was getting and I didn’t know anyone who would help me. Then, just at the end of February, Geoff told me about the Territorial Army (the T. A.).
Apparently, if I could join up with the group, they would teach me to drive and put me through the test. The T. A. hall was in St. Mary’s Butts and I signed on at their very next evening meet. I tried to use the Territorial Army expressly for the purpose of getting a driving licence. I wasn’t really interested in square-bashing, shooting, or wars. But, I did enjoy a couple of good camps.
I hadn’t been behind the wheel of a lorry, but I’d done some of the square-bashing and done well in the shooting gallery on some of the evening meets. Then we were told that there was a weekend camp and I was asked to attend. With the promise of plenty of driving, half a dozen of us new lads, dressed in our ill-fitting army clothes, were bundled into the back of one of the three-tonners belonging to the unit and we set off in convoy to spend the weekend in some bushland near Frimley, in Surrey. I recall that ‘Delaware’ and ‘Running Bear’ was being sung by the other lads as, laying under a scrim-net to try and keep warm, we roared along. I didn’t like these two songs personally, I was too wrapped up in other songs that were in the charts at the time, like Tony Newley’s ‘Why’, ‘Too Good’ by Little Tony, ‘Dance with Me’ by The Drifters, and ‘Johnny Rocco’ by Marty Wilde. But, I joined in just the same and the excited spirits of us new boys rose up a notch.
Looking ahead through the flapping canvas above the cab of our lorry, I could see the big AEC Matador leading the convoy. It was carrying all our stores for the weekend. How I had wished that I could have got behind the steering wheel of that beautiful lorry, I envied the driver for his skill and position. To be fair, he had probably had his turn of riding in the back of a three-ton, long-nosed Commer as I was at the time and had surely worked hard to get up where he was.
The camp was all sleeping in draughty tents, washing and shaving in cold water, and eating stews cooked in large, black, greasy pots. Us new boys had to do the washing up and, as everyone knows, cooks never bother how black and greasy their pots get as long as they don’t have to wash them up. It was a miserable, although typical chore of that unit that didn’t please me one little bit. Nevertheless, I did have a bit of fun while on that camp even if I didn’t get in any driving.
On the Saturday we were all awakened in the middle of the night and told that we had to get dressed and ‘capture’ a nearby cadet’s camp. Well, I didn’t mind playing at wars and I joined a group of lads who were following a corporal into the misty darkness towards the other camp. We had no weapons. ‘Killing’ was getting a hand over any sentry’s mouth and pretending to stab him before he could warn his mates. Then we were supposed to pretend to shoot up the cadets from their tent entrances as they lay asleep. I didn’t have much idea of what I was supposed to do, but my excited apprehension can well be imagined.
Not far from the ‘enemy’ camp we were told to spread out and creep forward in the blackness until we came to an ‘enemy’ sentry where we were to dispose of him quietly or do ‘jankers’ for the next year. I didn’t know what ‘jankers’ was, but it didn’t sound too good and I was determined to use tooth and nail on any sentry I came across to prevent any noise. With this in mind, I set up my best John Wayne creeping stance and very silently moved off into the black night towards the ‘enemy’s’ sentry line.
I was a bit scared. What if the sentry was a big brute and silenced me instead? How would he do it? This ‘jankers’ business had me worried and I wondered if it was some nasty playful punishment to be performed in front of my mates as a type of ridicule. Every bush or clump of grass was the expected sentry and my heart thumped as I crept ever forward. Finally, I was crawling like a snake, I could see the blacker outlines of bushes and trees better from that position.
I thought of the many times that I’d played ‘wars’ like this with my friends when I was a young boy. There had never been any real threat and I always knew who I was up against. It had nearly always been easy to get past my mates and take them from the rear. But this was more towards the real thing and needed to be taken a lot more seriously. In the end I was just moving one knee or elbow at a time as I slowly made silent headway.
Then a pure pyramid of blackness loomed up just ahead. I wriggled silently forward and found myself laying beside one of the ‘enemy’s’ tents. I wondered what had happened to the sentry. I’d heard no quiet scuffles from left or right. Then I began to worry that the raid might have been called off and I hadn’t heard the order. It was one thing to try and crawl through the enemy lines when you know that your mates are all around, but I didn’t fancy trying to crawl back through that sentry line knowing that I was on my own. As I lay in the deep blackness beside the tent, I tried to make up my mind whether I should wait where I was or try and get back to my own camp. Then something happened that had me cringing in horror.
As I strained my eyes at the relatively lighter area of the campsite, almost willing my mates to appear, there was a slight noise and a black figure detached itself from a nearby tent and started coming my way. I’d been told to lie still in such situations, but talking about it and actually being in that position were two completely different ball games. I felt very vulnerable as I watched the ever-towering black form of the person against the lighter blackness of the night sky. It was just as if he knew that I was skulking there and I got ready to spring up and defend myself.
As the black figure came closer, I suddenly realised that it was veering away a bit to my left. Cringing in the deep shadows, I watched as he came to a stop at the edge of the clearing, where I’d recently crawled from, with his back to me. All at once there was the sound of running water and I sighed with relief as I realised that the person had only got up to go to the toilet. Then, to my surprise, somebody hissed a loud whisper from the deep blackness of the bushes surrounding the clearing in front of the standing figure. The figure whispered something back and I gathered that he was talking to a sentry. That sentry must have been asleep earlier for he wasn’t all that far from where I’d crawled through. Now I had two of the ‘enemy’ between myself and my escape route.
But the ‘phantom urinater’ obviously wanted to get back to his warm bed and, with a last hissing whisper, he turned and walked back towards his tent. As he passed me, things suddenly started to happen.
I heard a muffled shout from the direction of where the sentry had been whispering to his mate. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the black form of the figure had stopped, as if he was wondering what the noise had been. As he hesitated, I realised that the ‘attack’ was still on and that I’d have to try and silence him. Feeling very scared about what I had to do and the outcome, I coiled myself into a crouching position and prepared to spring out of the shadows at the figure a few metres in front of me.
But I’d been too slow. Without warning, another black figure came silently from the other side of the tent that I’d been laying beside and swiftly brought my intended victim to the ground without a sound. Within seconds the black forms of my mates were racing out of the bushes and quietly fumbling with the flap ties of the group of tents. All at once I was a brave soldier again and I joined a small group of mates who were about to shoot up one of the nearby tents. With my mates around me I was back at playing games once more. Some soldier I’d make!!!
It didn’t take long to ‘massacre’ those defenceless cadets and my mates were soon strutting around in their triumph. Although I felt good because I’d crawled through the ‘enemy’ sentry line without being seen or heard, I knew that I hadn’t contributed anything to the outcome of the action, so I kept in the background, not feeling that I deserved any of the congratulations when it was handed out to us. Nevertheless, when the cadets ‘rose from the dead’ and put the tea-billy on, I lined up for my ‘cuppa’ along with all the other ‘victors’.
The attack on the cadet’s camp served its purpose well for our guards were doubly cautious while on sentry duty after seeing how easy a sentry could be disposed of.
The promised driving lessons didn’t eventuate and us new boys stooged about the camp doing the chores while the established drivers went out on convoys. I found out that the fearful ‘jankers’ was none other than what I was doing anyway, doing all the dirty work around the camp while everyone else got on with soldiering and driving. Of course, I realise now that I should have been a bit more patient and not expected to rise up the ladder without starting at the bottom. But, at the time, I remember thinking that, if it hadn’t been for the ‘attack’ on the cadet camp, the weekend would have been a washout.
The thought had also crossed my mind that, first I’m a ‘scullery maid’ for Mum, then I’m the same for the T. A. I had a feeling that I’d never get behind the steering wheel of a lorry. Although a bit downhearted, I still sang with the other new lads, none of whom had been given a chance to drive that weekend either, as we travelled back to Reading.
Then, the following Saturday it happened. I reported to the unit after my morning’s work and was allotted a driving instructor. With a shock of excitement, I climbed up into the passenger seat of an old Fordson three-tonner (see this page for a picture) and was taken up to Tilehurst village with the instructor telling me all about gear changes, signals, braking, use of mirrors, etc. on the way. At Tilehurst village it was my turn and I finally sat behind the steering wheel of a lorry that I was actually going to drive along the road.
I was determined to learn all I could and try to do well. My instructor was a decent chap who’s name, unfortunately, escapes me now. He was quiet but firm and his attitude helped me no end. It wasn’t long before we’d gone through the start-up procedure and I was off.
I never realised what a strain it would be learning to drive in a lorry. After riding bikes and motor cycles, the Fordson seemed so wide and I hit the kerb a couple of times in my efforts to try and steer clear of oncoming traffic. The instructor suggested that I use the white line, in the middle of the road, as a guide, keeping it in a certain spot at the bottom of the windscreen. This idea worked and I soon got used to it.
I’d changed gear quite easily under his instructions as we gathered speed but, when it was time to change down as we approached Calcot hill, I crunched the gears like mad. With the instructor talking to me quietly and explaining how I must get the revs right before I could change into a lower gear, I clumsily got things under control again. We reached Calcot and turned left onto the Bath Road back towards Reading.
With the wider, more open road I was soon purring along and it felt wonderful. At last, I had thought, I’m driving a lorry along the open road. It was so exhilarating and my heart sang. But, it wasn’t long before I was brought down with a bump as we reached the outskirts of Reading and the signals, gear changing, and brakes came into play once more. I handled everything pretty well and arrived back at the depot to be told by the instructor that I’d be no trouble to get through the test after a few more lessons.
Suddenly, things were going so wonderful. I felt thrilled that I’d actually managed to drive a lorry with so little trouble. The only thing that spoilt my happiness was the terrible pain I was suffering from my broken teeth. I still carted lumps of bread around with me for sticking into the cavities and had worn out dozens of toothbrushes in my efforts to keep the remaining teeth healthy. but, those teeth were in such a bad state that I knew something would have to be done about them before I was driven mad.
Still feeling good about that first drive, I used my elation as a prop and went to the dentist one afternoon during the following week. It was a ‘spur of the moment’ decision, I’d begged the afternoon off work and was luckily squeezed in by the dentist, after I’d told him of my suffering. I knew that I wouldn’t have gone if I’d had to wait for an appointment. That was the end of my teeth. The dentist told me that I had pyorrhoea, an infection of the gums around the teeth, and that my teeth were rotten. He suggested that I have them all out and I told him to go ahead.
There was no pain this time. I was put to sleep by gas and when I awoke all my top teeth were gone. I had the bottom ones pulled out a couple of weeks later. As I walked out of the surgery after the second visit, without a tooth in my head, I felt as if a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I had spent so long suffering from those broken teeth and now it was all over with hardly any pain at all. I wondered how I could have been such a coward. I’d certainly paid the price for being big and taking on more than I could handle as I had done with Arnold’s gang. Still, I thought I was doing the right thing at the time.
And as for Crystal, the reason why I’d had the brawls in the first place. Well, I went home after I’d had my top teeth out and told her that I didn’t want to see her anymore. I gave her no excuse, I just told her then walked indoors.
The truth was that I was probably too proud. I loved her so much and I couldn’t bear the thought of such a lovely young woman (as she was by then) being laughed at because her boyfriend had no teeth. That’s all there was to it. Of course, I didn’t tell anyone else the reason, but there were a lot of surprised eyebrows raised because we’d split up. I banned all my mates from even mentioning her name and some thought that was going a bit far. But only I knew how my heart was being torn to pieces, and yet I stubbornly stood by my decision. Chances are that I was being the big hero but it didn’t register at the time.
I lost myself in my efforts to please my employers at work and the desire to do anything to get that licence. The lads at the T. A. unit had given me the nick name of ‘gummy’ and, all at once I became an individual there instead of a figure in uniform. My instructor called me ‘the tooth-less wonder’ as I began to get used to the lorry and we went out on the larger circuit through Pangbourne and Theale.
Then I was told that I would have to attend a fortnight’s camp with the T. A. It was promised that I would get plenty of driving in and that I could be sure of passing the test while I was on the camp. I was very excited and, with permission to have the fortnight off from work, I made the necessary preparations. Then the start of the fortnight arrived and we were off.
None of us lower ranks knew where we were going which made it all very mysterious. Under the canvas in the back of a three tonner, half a dozen of us watched Reading vanish from our view and were soon chatting or dozing. As the sun was setting, we arrived at an old deserted army camp on the top of some windswept downs. The convoy came to a halt outside of a large building and we were all ordered out.
The large building turned out to be the mess hall and supper was waiting for us. That was more like it, everything laid on and no waiting or preparations as at the other camp. Us new lads began to think that, at last, we were about to step up onto the first rung of the ladder to the top.
After supper, we were shown to our bunks then told to report back to the mess hall. A convoy would be assembled immediately to transport supplies to another camp somewhere up north. The non-drivers mingled with the drivers (among them a new friend named Ben) in the hope that we would be going as well.
But, we were finally told to stand to one side and all the established drivers set off. The rumour shot round our little group that some of the instructors had stayed behind with a couple of lorries so that we could continue our lessons. When the last lorry swept out of the gate, us remaining lads were led into a side room and there, much to our disgust, was a mountain of dirty plates, mugs, knives and forks, dishes and the big cooking pots. It all had to be spotless before we turned in. Groans went up but we had no choice and that night we crashed on our bunks feeling quite tired and demoralised, each of us hoping that we’d get some driving practice in while we were there.
But, we hoped in vain that first week. We were at a camp near a village called Ogbourne St. George, situated between Swindon and Marlborough in Wiltshire. It wasn’t so bad once us non-drivers were sorted out into two teams, each team being free to roam while the other team did the spud bashing, washing up, serving, cleaning, etc. The cooks were very good to us and I recall that we had the pick of the food that was left after serving everybody.
But, on our days off we were virtually free to do as we pleased and there was a regular leave lorry to take us into Swindon each day. I can’t recall who I went into Swindon with on my first day there, but we latched on to a couple of young ladies straight away, much to my amazement due to my toothless mouth. She probably didn’t realise that I had no teeth at first because I laughed behind my hand and puffed a bit of air in behind my cheeks when my mouth was closed so that my lower face looked more full.
My girl’s name was Betty and I saw her whenever I could get into Swindon that first week. On the last night, the whole unit went there for the evening and the question on everybody’s lips was, “How could Gummy get a nice little blond with his looks?” I was ribbed left, right, and centre. But Betty and I knew the score. She wanted a bit of fun and money spent on her, I wanted a bit of uncomplicated company. I suspected that, by the time she’d noticed my toothless mouth she knew that I wasn’t interested in being ‘paid’ for giving her a few good days. Since starting work, I’d learned a lot about the dangers of loose girls, and besides, I was still deeply in love with Crystal. When Betty and I went our separate ways, she gave me a kiss on the cheek as thanks, we swapped addresses and I’d been grateful for her company and good fun nature.
A hive of activity erupted at the end of the first week as we loaded the lorries in preparation for a move to another camp. Again we didn’t know where we were going.
Early the next morning we were paraded and us non-drivers were told that we would be used as navigators for some of the drivers as there were not enough navigators for each lorry. By a great stroke of luck, I found myself navigating for Ben. Amid great excitement and laughter, Ben and I climbed into the cab of the long nosed Commer (was it a ‘Q4’ three ton Commer?) and I studied a sheaf of papers that gave me the details of our route.
Each navigator had been given a sheaf of papers with the same details as were written on my set of papers and we all had to follow the directions even though we were moving in convoy. There were no towns or villages mentioned on the pages, only road numbers, mileage, turn left at this road number or right at that one. As I studied the instructions, I realised that I had quite a responsible job in getting Ben and myself to the mystery destination. By the look of the mileage written down on the sheets of paper, I could see that it would be a long journey and I was my usual, excited self, although very apprehensive, worried that I’d make a mistake and let Ben and myself down.
I was lucky and already had some practice in navigating for John on the old Somerset trips. I knew a bit about road numbers and how to look for them on road signs. I’d studied our old yellow ‘Automobile Association’ road book, and the bit of knowledge I’d learned had helped me on my bike and motor cycle rides. Now that knowledge would help Ben and I, but would cause me to arrive at the destination with a different driver and ringing ears.
Ecstatic with the thrill of it all, Ben and I went out of the camp gates and turned south towards Marlborough. We were following half a dozen lorries and there was a trail of them behind us. Each lorry had a white painted circle on the back of the rear differential casing (that made following the vehicle easier at night) and there were a row of white dots in front of us each time we went round a bend, like decoration lights strung along a pier. The lorries, being painted green, blended in pretty well with the landscape.
Right from the start I diligently did my job of navigating although it would have been easy to sit back and let the leading lorry do all the work. The countryside was beautiful and I didn’t want to miss one second of seeing new pastures, but I was also enjoying the responsibility of being the navigator of our lorry. Still in the convoy, I navigated to our instructions and Ben obeyed my directions as we passed through Marlborough and on to Devizes. It was in Devizes that we lost the convoy.
As we approached the centre of that town, I directed Ben to branch left onto the A 560 (road number). I was looking down at the instructions and, with a very worried voice, Ben said that the convoy was going straight on. With seconds to spare before the junction, I checked the papers again to confirm the instructions and shouted to Ben that I was right. With no more arguments, Ben swung the wheel over to the left and we watched the front part of the convoy go out of sight as we went our different ways.
Expecting the lorries that were behind us to branch left as well, I glanced through the rear-vision mirror on my side and was horrified to see them following the front section of the convoy. We had been the only lorry to turn left at that road junction and strong doubts quickly crept into both our minds. Ben was soon ribbing me for getting us lost but I went over the instructions again and, according to our orders, we were on the right road. This was confirmed when we passed another road junction a while later that fitted in with those instructions. Ben was good enough to apologise (not that I wanted him to) and with great relief we carried on alone. We both came to the conclusion that the navigator in the leading lorry of the convoy knew his way around and had taken a short cut. Ben and I were quite happy to do things as instructed and he didn’t question my directions after that.
Upon turning to the second page of our instructions, I was delighted to notice that we’d be travelling on the A 303, a good part of our old Somerset trips route. From those instructions I realised that we’d be going well past Ilminster. I told Ben about the old trips with Mum, Val, and John, how I knew the road so well as far as Horton Cross, and we relaxed. At Winterbourne Stoke we turned on to the A 303 and settled back to enjoy the ever changing scenery. I was thrilled to see ‘our road’ (as my family and I had come to call it) again and I couldn’t resist telling Ben of some of the adventures we’d had down its length.
From Winterbourne Stoke we plodded on over the Salisbury Plain. Wylie, Mere, and Wincanton were passed. I recalled the first trip to Somerset, in the old Ford eight, when we’d had battery problems. There was the large lay-by on the left just past Sparkford, and the farm up on the hill to the right just before Ilchester. Then I pointed out the garage where the owner had lent us a battery so that we could get to Donyatt safely. Ben listened to my ravings dutifully and I was enjoying the ride and reminiscences so much.
It didn’t seem long before we reached Ilminster and I basked in the old familiar sights of that town. My eyes looked longingly over the roof-tops towards Herne Hill. I would have loved to have taken a walk up to the copse, that crowned its summit, and lingered a while in the quiet, mysterious stillness that I’d come to enjoy so much when we’d lived in Donyatt. But, it wasn’t to be and I turned my attention back to the road and the navigating as we passed the Horlick’s factory, where John had worked until he was sacked for being late.
From Horton Cross, where we used to turn left for Donyatt, I didn’t know the A 303 all that well and had to follow the instructions once more. Soon we reached the junction at the western end of the A 303 and continued our journey on the A 30. The road numbers and directions were still conforming to the written instructions. We passed through Honiton (myself little realising that I would spend three months there a couple of years later) and a short time later we were in thick traffic as we crawled around the Exeter by-pass.
Roads to the west in those days, from all over the country, met at Exeter and, although the town had a good by-pass, it couldn’t cope with the commercial and holiday traffic. I’d know times when a cup of tea and a picnic could be enjoyed on the verge of that by-pass as holiday-makers and lorry drivers waited for traffic jams to clear. It was a real headache spot in the days before the motorway. But, on the day with Ben, there wasn’t too much traffic and finally we left Exeter behind and plodded out into the unknown.
We were still on the A 30 heading west when, not far past Exeter, the countryside began to change dramatically. Ahead of us we could see dark, purple hills, they looked very foreboding and wild. I remember that I had a strong feeling that we shouldn’t be entering those forbidding-looking moorlands. Ominous, low, black clouds had come from nowhere, seemingly to almost touch the higher grounds and I glanced over at Ben to see if he looked at all worried. But he was a steady chap who took things in his stride and I relaxed a bit when I saw him sitting there calm and confident. He was a very good and capable driver and I couldn’t have thought of anyone better than Ben to have for a companion as we plodded out onto those lonely moors on our own. A sign beside the road informed us that we were entering the northern area of Dartmoor.
My apprehension had soon vanished as I’d thrilled at the sights of the dark rolling hills and moorlands all around us. The layer of black/grey clouds hung above as if someone had suspended a great army blanket over the land, and now and again veils of grey mist was blown down on to the tops by the wind. It may have been nothing to anybody else to cross that gaunt land but, to me at the time, it was the adventure of adventures. Everything looked so wild, desolate, and exciting.
But it wasn’t too long before the sky cleared and we drove back into a more civilised environment as we approached the town of Oakhampton. I’d drive across Dartmoor countless times and eventually spend many happy hours walking in the area, but it would never look and feel as mysterious and exciting as it did that day. And so, a bit deflated that we were out of that dark, forbidding region so soon, Ben and I roared on our way wondering what new sights lay ahead. Little did we know that our partnership was about to end for that trip.
We’d gone through Oakhampton and, still on the A 30, were heading towards Launceston when, as we approached a large cafe on the right, we noticed an officer waving us into the cafe car park. Ben pulled into the car park and stopped. The officer, seeing that we were on our own came over and asked where the rest of the convoy were. We explained what had happened at Devizes and the officer seemed most annoyed with the efforts of the other navigators. He ordered Ben into the cafe for refreshments (that had been laid on for us) and told me to go and stand on the other side of the road and direct the convoy into the cafe car park when they arrived. Soon I was being tooted to, and waved at, as families passed in their cars on the way to their holidays (a couple of days later, I would meet one of the young lady passengers that had waved and given me a wolf-whistle as she passed with her family).
The officer kept coming out to the road, looking at his watch and shaking his head before going back inside the cafe. A couple of times he shouted across to me and asked if I was sure that I hadn’t let the convoy pass. What I mumbled under my breath isn’t repeatable. I’d hardly taken my eyes off the road that Ben and I had come down earlier. I was tired and very hungry. The ground behind me sloped down to the verge and the thick bushes that clung to the slope were forcing me to hang on for dear life lest I be pushed out into the road. Each time a large lorry flashed by I had to pull myself back in amongst the branches and leaves so as not to be sucked out under the wheels. But the second that the road was clear near me I would lean out and rivet my eyes on the spot where the road appeared in the distance. A fly couldn’t have got passed my aching eyes. No, what I mumbled isn’t repeatable, but I snapped to attention each time and assured him that the convoy had not passed me while I had been there.
Over four hours after Ben and I had stopped at the cafe I spied the leading lorry of the convoy as it appeared from around the bend up the road. I shouted across at the cafe and stood out in the road to hold the traffic up while I directed the convoy over the road and into the cafe car park. I was very relieved.
But that relief didn’t last for long. There were only half a dozen lorries in that first batch and I was ordered to stay at my post until the whole convoy had arrived. Still with no food and really fed up by this time, I went back over the road where I directed the lorries into the cafe car park as they arrived in dribs and drabs. I watched Ben drive away with another navigator from the first half a dozen lorries, and as each crew were fed they were allowed to drive off on their journey.
After hours of standing at my post there were only a couple of lorries left in the car park along with the officer’s Landrover. Nobody had relieved me and I didn’t know if there were any more lorries to wait for. I didn’t even know what had happened to cause the convoy to be so broken up and late. (I later learned that the whole convoy had got lost, then broken up, and had been scattered over half of southern England.)
Suddenly, the two lorries and the Landrover started up and began to move out of the car park leaving it empty. I wondered if I should run down and see if I was being left behind, but just then the officer in the Landrover looked along my way and spied me. With an impatient shout he called me over and told me to get in the last lorry quickly or I’d be left behind. I was furious at the way he’d spoken to me. I didn’t feel that I deserved being addressed so nastily, especially after my navigating had got Ben and I to the cafe at the correct time, I’d stayed at my post to direct the rest of the convoy in as they arrived, and I’d missed out on lunch and a rest. I climbed up into the cab and raged to myself, barely bothering to look out at the passing countryside at all.
I finished that journey in a noisy QL. Bedford (‘Screamers’ we used to call them). I didn’t speak much to the driver, who I didn’t know, as we passed through Launceston, over Bodmin Moor, on down to Indian Queen to turn right onto the A 392 towards Newquay and, after a few lefts and rights, we stopped at an army camp just as it got dark.
With ringing ears, caused by the screaming noise of the Bedford’s engine, I followed the driver into the mess where I got something to eat at last. My kit was still in Ben’s lorry but I couldn’t see him anywhere.
After I’d eaten my supper, I was just about to get up and go hunting for Ben or my kit when that same officer came up and told me that, seeing as how I’d been sitting on my backside doing nothing all day, I could make myself useful in the kitchen. I suppose that, as I was dressed in the same uniform as all the other lowly privates, the officer didn’t recognise me as the lad who had stood beside the road all the afternoon and half the evening just so he could relax and know that his precious convoy would be directed to the right place when it arrived. My smouldering rage returned and I almost threw myself at this man who had been riding about in a Landrover and sitting around in the cafe for most of the day himself. But then I thought of the promised licence that would be mine by the end of that week. The promise had been reinforced that very morning before the start of our journey. And so I went into the kitchen and helped a couple of other non-drivers to wade through a mountain of plates, cups, knives and forks, dishes, and a mound of cooking pots.
Meanwhile, Ben had been searching the camp for me. When he was told that some of the non-drivers were doing fatigues in the kitchen, he guessed that I’d be one of them and finally found me up to my elbows in greasy washing up water. I recall that he couldn’t stop laughing when I complained about myself always seeming to be tied to a kitchen sink while everyone else lazed around or got plenty of driving in. It was a fair bit of time before he was able to tell me where he was sleeping and that my kit was on the bed next to his.
At last the work was done and I made my way to the barrack where I gratefully climbed into bed. Ben was still awake and we chatted quietly about the day’s journey for a while with Ben going into fits of giggles every time I complained about those rotten fatigues. Then I finally drifted off to sleep, thinking about that licence and how wonderful it would be to drive back over Dartmoor and along the A 303 with that licence in my pocket.
But the promised licence didn’t eventuate, in fact, I didn’t even get behind the wheel of one lorry. It was the Ogbourne St. George week all over again only in different surroundings. Us non-drivers were just too convenient as lackeys to be wasted on driving lessons. It seemed to me that when any dirty work needed doing it was far easier to get us non-drivers to do it rather than try and find someone else.
And so it was that early the next morning I found myself once more in the kitchen (had I really been asleep since I was there the night before?) helping to get the breakfasts, serving and helping with another mountain of washing up. After a snatched breakfast us non-drivers thought that we would be free and speculated as to whether or not we’d get some driving practice in. But no such luck. No sooner were the last non-driver’s plates washed and put away than we were led into a small room to be confronted by a great mound of potatoes which we were ordered to peel.
There was a stunned silence until the door was closed as we were left to get on with it, then the swearing and grumbling came fast and furious from us all. Up until then I seemed to be the only one to have any complaints and it made me feel a lot better to know that these other lads were cheesed off with their lot as well. I suspect that before then they’d been happy to just grin and bear it, but that enormous heap of potatoes must have been the last straw.
Still, there was the promised licence to consider and we all knew that the potatoes wouldn’t peel themselves. If I remember rightly, there were about six of us ordered to do the job and none of the other lads had peeled a potato in his life. I was no stranger to potato peeling and, by the time the job was done, with a few pointers from me to help them, neither were my companions. We all agreed that, not having had to peel any potatoes at the Ogbourne St. George kitchens, it had seemed more like a holiday camp.
But, apart from the fatigues, this place was more like a holiday camp and well worth the effort of a few hours kitchen duties and spud bashing.
Thankfully we were freed from the chores and wandered out into the camp to be told that we could do as we pleased until tea-time as everyone else had gone on a training convoy.
I learned that we were in a camp at Penhale Point, just south of Newquay in Cornwall. This camp was on top of wild cliffs with its own sheltered cove nearby. Four or five of us tidied up and took a walk down to the cove. The descent path was quite steep and rocky as I recall, but eventually we were lazing on the golden sands surrounded by steep, dark cliffs on three sides and the crashing waves of the sea in front of us.
Over the roar of the sea could be heard the cry of hundreds of sea birds echoing from those huge cliffs. This wild coastline made the coasts of the Isle of Wight and south Somerset (which was all I had for comparison at the time) seem very tame. It wasn’t long before I was exploring the cliffs, rock pools, and caves in that area.
In spite of the promised licence not forthcoming, I thoroughly enjoyed that week near Newquay. As it turned out, there was very little kitchen work to do because the lorries and most of the army personnel went off on a three or four day trip up north somewhere leaving us non-drivers and a skeleton crew behind. With no orders being thrown around in the almost deserted camp we were virtually free to come and go as we pleased and it was very easy to beg a lift into Newquay and back.
Most of my days there were spent exploring the cliffs, coves, beaches, caves, and tourist attractions. The sands were warm and golden, the weather was quite hot, and a balmy breeze blew in from the sea each night. Newquay was a good fun place in the evenings for us youngsters. We wandered Crantock, Fistral, and Towan Beaches, went around the fair, or lazed about in one of the cafes.
As at Swindon my toothless mouth didn’t stop me from enjoying myself and I soon latched on to some female company under the same conditions as with Betty. We met on Crantock Beach and it didn’t take her long to realise that I was the ‘soldier’ that she had waved and whistled at on the journey down. I think that was the only thing we had in common other than wanting a bit of a laugh. We saw each other whenever I could get away, exchanged our stories and happily relaxed to enjoy ourselves without any complications. She would be another of those persons who popped in and out of my life leaving me with memories but no name.
Towards the end of the week the convoy arrived back and things around the camp became hectic once more. Us non-drivers became excited again as we clung to the hope of the promised driving lessons at last, and bemoaned our fate as we were ordered to the kitchens again instead. Most of the drivers raved on about what a good trip it had been. But, there was one driver who didn’t come back at all - he’d been caught selling off some of the load from the back of his lorry, which happened to be Jerry cans of petrol. It was rumoured that he would be spending a lot more time in a different kind of holiday camp.
On our last night in Cornwall the whole camp went into Newquay. I collected the young lady and again there were the comments of “How does Gummy do it?” We headed along to the fair where most of my comrades were gathered, many of them with a young lady hanging from their arm like me.
It was a wild night as far as an evening at the fair went. We’d all been paid for our second week at camp and had money to burn. We rode the amusements until we were almost sick with dizziness, had fish and chips, then did it all over again. We laughed and screamed as we raced to beat each other to the rides and turned elsewhere when we were beaten to it. The music blared out every current popular song from Jack Scott’s ‘What In The Worlds Come Over You’, through ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ by Lonnie Donegan, to Brenda Lee’s ‘Sweet Nothings’. At one time the fair folk said it was time to close down for the night, but we refused to let them and, as I suppose they were making a small fortune from us boys who had only just been paid, they kept the rides open.
Finally, in the early hours of the morning, we were having a great ‘war’ on the Bumper Cars when we were told that the fair just had to close due to the lateness of the hour. We’d had a good run for our money and, in the comparative quietness of the dim streets, I took the young lady back to her family where I received a peck on the cheek (who’d want to kiss a toothless bloke anyway?) and we went our different ways. I was just lucky to catch the last leave lorry back to the camp.
Barely was I settled in bed and dropped off to sleep when I was told to get up and make my way to the kitchens to help with the preparations for breakfast and that’s how the hardest day of that ‘holiday’ began.
Us non-drivers were at the beck and call of everybody that day. Not only did the meals for the whole camp have to be prepared and the kitchens left spotless after each meal, but the lorries had to be loaded with gear and the camp had to be left as clean as we found it. On top of that a small group of us were landed with another great mountain of potatoes to peel. It was a day of being called to do this, load that, help with something else, run here, run there. I became very rebellious and couldn’t wait to get away and head home towards normal. I felt that the moment to leave would never come.
But it did come. There was one last burst of activity as us non-drivers helped prepare and serve tea, one last mound of washing up, one last scrubbing session to ensure that the kitchens were left spotless, then a frantic dash out onto the parade ground to find everybody ready to go and the officer pacing up and down looking at his watch. With an impatient wave of his arm he shouted at us to climb up into the back of a three ton lorry and, as we struggled to pull the last chap over the tail-gate, the convoy moved off.
The sun was setting as I watched first Penhale then Newquay disappear behind us through the opening at the rear of the canvas awning over the back of our lorry. But, the night before had been rather hectic at the Newquay fair and we’d been called early that day for breakfast fatigues, one by one we all fell asleep as we lay sprawled over a large camouflage scrim net that had been thrown on to the deck of the lorry for our comfort.
There were no navigators in the cabs of the lorries this time, the whole convoy was being led by the officer and his advisers. I slept soundly as the Landrover, with the long snake of the convoy trailing behind, left Cornwall and headed east up the A 30, presumably to follow the same route home as we had come down a week earlier.
It was very dark when I awoke to find that the convoy had stopped at the side of a lonely road that seemed to be miles from anywhere. I shook off the sleep, scrambled down from the back of the lorry and wandered up to the front of the convoy with the rest of my group. The headlights of all the lorries were on and the whole stretch of road was lit up in the yellow glare. For some reason that I couldn’t, at first, explain, I felt very relaxed and at home on this stretch of road. It was hard to put my finger on but I just felt so sure of myself and wasn’t at all worried when somebody coming back down the line of the lorries told us that we were lost on that lonely road.
It was just as we were nearing the group of leaders, that were all gathered around a map spread over the bonnet of the Landrover, that I suddenly realised why I’d felt as I had. I peered up and down the road, but there was no mistaking it, we were on the Chard road just south of Donyatt. I’d gone along that bit of road too many times, when we’d lived at Donyatt, to be wrong. I was about to rush over to the Landrover and tell of my discovery when I saw the map spread out on the bonnet and an idea sprang into my mind that, I hoped, would enable me to get a bit of revenge back for all the slaving us non-drivers had done.
Slowing down to a dawdle, I wandered up to the group and peered over the shoulders at the map that was being well lit up by torches. After a bit of hard eye-straining I found Chard and the red line north that represented the road we were lost on.
I’d lost all respect for that group of leaders, I didn’t stand to attention or ask for permission to speak. They might have known a million things more than I did, they might have their licenses, and they might be able to boss me around while I’m under their charge. But, at that particular moment I knew something that they obviously didn’t and I was going to enjoy letting them know.
With this in mind, I pushed my arm between two of the group, pointed to the spot on the map and told them that it was where we were.
There were sneers from some of the group, but the officer was at least decent enough to ask me how I knew. Having had that small response of interest from him, I wasn’t going to spoil things by telling the group how I knew where we were if I could help it. Without answering, I leaned over the map again and told them to follow the road up to the ‘Y’ junction, take the right fork, and carry on a couple of miles until they reached Ilminster, where they could turn right onto the A 303 towards home. After some more sneers and a scornful shout or two, I shrugged my shoulders and started to walk away. But the officer called me back and demanded to know how I knew our position. I was trapped and knew that I’d have to tell him this time.
But fate took a hand in the shape of one non-driver, who had been riding in the back of the lorry with us. He was a real sneaky type and I called him ‘The Creep’. He’d listened to the exchange between the group and myself. As the officer asked me to explain how I knew our position, this lad came up, stood ramrod-straight to attention, gave one of the best salutes that ever graced an officer’s eyes, and informed that officer that I couldn’t know where we were as I’d been asleep up until the convoy had stopped. The officer suddenly seemed to lose interest and impatiently waved both of us away. But, I noticed as I stepped away, that his finger was tracing the red line up to Ilminster as he turned his attention back to the map again.
All at once the convoy was ready to move off again and we had to run back down to our lorry. My companions were all laughing at the way (as they put it) ‘I’d dared to try and confuse the group around the Landrover’. But I’d noticed that the convoy was going on up the road instead of turning around and suggested that we wait and see if I was right. This had The Creep sneering and leaning around the side of the awning looking for a ‘Y’ junction that he didn’t expect to be there.
But, a couple of minutes later, the junction was there and I was very satisfied to note that the convoy had taken the right fork. My mates quietened down a bit but were still a bit wary that it hadn’t been a coincidence. By the time we’d reached Ilminster and turned onto the A 303 even The Creep was looking at me with awe in his eyes.
I never told The Creep how I knew where we were that night. But I let my other companions in on the secret and we all had a good laugh at the way one of us had got a bit of our own back. We chortled at the thought of how the leading group must have realised that I’d been right and had known where we were all along.
Of course, it might not have been like that at all. The convoy couldn’t really have turned around in that narrow road so the officer probably had no choice but to carry on until they could find some pin--point that was recognisable on the map. It could even be that, when they arrived at Ilminster, they didn’t connect the town’s name with the name of the town I’d mentioned. Nevertheless, nobody in that group ever mentioned the incident at all. But, I did notice, over the next couple of weeks, that I was treated a lot better and got a lot of driving in.
I soon settled back at home and work. Everyone had expected that I would have had that licence, but I told them the woeful story of the bungling during the camp, and the endless fatigues instead of the driving lessons, and I got plenty of sympathy. But that sympathy was quickly withdrawn after I’d mentioned about the fun nights out and the blissful walks along the Cornish coast.
One of the first things I learned on my return to Reading was that Eddie Cochran had been killed in a car accident on the Bath Road near Chippenham in Wiltshire. He’d been one of my favourite singers with songs such as ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘Twenty Flight Rock’, and ‘Com’n Everybody’. According to an album that I have, that was released after his death, he died on 17th. April 1960.
Meanwhile, ‘Cathy’s Clown’ by the Everly Brothers, ‘Stuck On You’ by Elvis Presley, and ‘Handyman’ by Jimmy Jones were now up in the charts. While I’d been away at the camp a letter had arrived through the post for me. Mum had put it by and gave it to me when I returned home. We had a telephone in the house by then so I was quite surprised that someone had written to me rather than ring me up. I was even more surprised when I opened the letter to find that it wasn’t a letter, it was a love poem.
And that was the start of a series of love poems that I received through the post over the next year or so. The poems were most sincere and somebody must have taken a long time to write them. A full page for each poem and not one line the same over the months was quite a feat and, although I never found out who they were from, I kept them all until a jealous girlfriend burned the lot a couple of years later. The only clue I had as to the sender’s identity was the letter ‘A’ signed at the bottom of each poem. I knew a young lady by the name of Anna but she said she knew nothing about any poems, so they have remained a mystery to me ever since.
For the next couple of weekends I got plenty of lorry driving in under the guidance of my instructor and my flagging spirits rose once more. With increasing confidence I began to relax behind the wheels of the Fordson and Commer lorries as I drove around the Pangbourne and Theale circuit. Then an incident occurred that caused me to give up on that avenue of obtaining my licence.
For some reason or other I was given another instructor. This new instructor was a Corporal and I think that being a Corporal was his only triumph in life as he used that stripe to bully anyone that he could. (I’d learn later that there is always one like that in every unit). This lad was tubby and had a round face just like a cat, and so I used to call him ‘The Cat’ (behind his back). The Cat had been in the group around the Landrover, that dark night near Chard, and had been one of the sneerers when I’d put my tuppence worth in.
Straight away The Cat started shouting as I drove the lorry along the Oxford Road and turned up Norcot Hill. Half way up that hill he screamed at me to stop and do a hill start. I was getting really annoyed at the way he was shouting, but I kept my calm and did a good hill start. Immediately he shouted at me to stop and do another one, which I did. A third time he shouted at me to stop and do another hill start. This time I rolled back a fraction and juddered the clutch as I took off. I think that was all he needed. Once again he shouted at me to stop. But this time he screeched about how useless I was at driving and everything else I tried to do. He hollered that I wouldn’t get my licence in a month of Sundays, he’d see to that.
I looked at his twisted face. I’d seen him look at other lads like that when they’d been trying to do their best and I’d felt sorry for them. To our way of thinking, he was a bully that we had to put up with. But the more he shouted, the more my rage mounted and the less I wanted to put up with his nastiness. I felt that there was no need to treat us lower ranks like it, especially as we were doing our best. As he leaned across the engine cover and yelled at me, my blood began to boil. But, although I didn’t have much respect for the unit anymore, I didn’t want to get into any trouble. With that thought in mind I decided to leave him to it and catch a bus back down to the unit headquarters.
As I opened the door, he jumped out on his side. In his finest parade ground voice he ordered me to get back up into the lorry. I refused and again he ordered me to get up into the lorry. The more he shouted, the more I could feel my rage trying to get the better of me and I knew that, if I didn’t get away quickly, I would smash his fat, sneering face to pulp. With him screeching that I’d ‘had it now’, I turned, walked back down to the Oxford Road and caught the bus back to the unit headquarters.
The Cat had taken the lorry straight back to the unit headquarters and reported my insubordination to the officer there. This officer was a decent chap and we all called him ‘Dad’ (behind his back). No sooner had I arrived back when I was ordered in front of ‘Dad’ to explain myself. I told him exactly what had happened, with the Corporal butting in, denying and scoffing until he was ordered to keep quiet. After I’d related my side of the story, I was told that I could go, but to behave myself in the future. As I closed the door, I could hear ‘Dad’ shouting at the Corporal. I didn’t stay outside to listen, I’d had enough of the unit so I walked out of the gate and never went back there again.
Suddenly the summer was upon us once more. ‘Three Steps To Heaven’ by Eddie Cochran went up into the charts, along with ‘Good Timing’ by Jimmy Jones. I can’t recall whether Eddie’s song had already been released before and had become popular because of his death or whether he’d recorded and released it just before he died.
It must have been about this time that I came another full circle regarding my dwindling fear of water, because I had Jimmy’s latest song on my mind at the time. As the weather warmed up and the days became longer, groups of us took to wandering along the River Thames again in our spare moments. On most of these trips we’d have a splash about in the water before lazing around on the river bank until it was time to go home. On this particular occasion we were beside the river, immediately upstream of Reading Bridge. Behind us was a park, but I can’t recall the name of it now (was it Hill’s Meadow?). Reading Bridge, it may be remembered, was the bridge I’d stood by a couple of days after we’d arrived in Reading from Somerset, when I’d looked into the dirty water and shuddered at the thought of falling in which had resulted in my determination to learn to swim in the old swimming baths that were right behind me at the time.
By that summer of 196O the old swimming baths had long been demolished. But the river was still there, so was the bridge and, as I larked about in the river with my friends, I saw a chap dive off that bridge into the river. Suddenly, I thought to myself that, if he could do it, then so could I. And I did. With my friends cheering me on, I raced up onto the bridge, took a stance on the ornate parapet and dived off. I recall that there was a moment’s panic as I plunged down through the dirty green depths, then I was swimming towards the bank with that wonderful feeling of doing something that I thought I’d never be able to do.
But, when I look back from the mid-1990’s, I realise that probably being a real teenage show-off helped me to overcome a lot of my fears. I wanted to be popular with everybody. I don’t think I had to go out of my way to be friendly, I feel that was in my nature. But, it was also in my nature to be nasty if I was crossed, although I could sometimes forgive and forget very quickly.
I didn’t always go out of my way to be noticed. A lot of the incidents were just luck or being at the right place at the right time (as in the navigating and Chard Road incidents). But, sometimes I’d take the bull by the horns, do something and, if there was someone around to watch, well so much the better. This showing-off attitude would almost vanish a few years later when I’d find, from a new pastime, that no matter how good you think you are, there is always somebody that can do just as well or better. But, by that time, I’d be old enough to know that as long as I was happy and not hurting anyone else, it didn’t matter who was better than I was.
Even so, I feel that, if encouraged, most humans will show off at any age in life. Teenagers are at that wonderful time in life when they still have youth on their side, are old enough to enjoy it, are almost oblivious to older or younger eyes, and have plenty of interest from the prime target that their showing off is aimed at - the opposite sex. And that’s just how I was in that summer as I struggled through my wonderful, but frustrating teenage years. I felt that, as well as that licence, I needed something else. I wanted something that would help me to open up and release all my pent up emotions and frustrations. What I needed was to move on and find more outgoing friends. One of these type of friends wasn’t far away but, meanwhile, I’d slip back a bit first.
The start of that summer also saw me with my first set of dentures. I hadn’t had a hard time from anybody because of my toothless mouth. I feel that this was probably because I wasn’t going to let it worry me or spoil my fun, apart from letting Crystal go. It had given me an identity at the T. A. unit and it hadn’t stopped me from getting a bit of female company. Now I had this mouth full of ‘pearly whites’, the world was at my feet and I was ready to kill.
Did I bother to take advantage of this new start? No, by the end of the week I had Crystal back again and things were just as they had been before I’d lost my real teeth. She had told me how stupid I’d been to pack her up over such a small detail as having no teeth (after I had explained the reason). She said that it wouldn’t have made any difference to her what people would or wouldn’t have said. Happily, we settled down again, but I still felt justified in the actions that I’d taken over her and my missing teeth.
While all this was going on, Mum had won some money on the pools. Not a lot but enough to make her happy and want to buy each of us children a present. My other cycle was a bit worse for wear and she offered to buy me a new one. Off I went, down to the local cycle shop where I saw a beautiful Dawe’s Dominate. It was black in colour, had ten speeds and, being all aluminium, was as light as a feather. The price of that bike was twelve pounds new. I raced back, told Mum and, before the day was out, that bike was mine. Once again I gave my old bike to one of my less fortunate mates, and once more my latest motorcycle was tossed aside to rust as I decided to use the new cycle to get really fit again.
The first ride I went for on that Dawe’s cycle was over to my Nan and Granddad at Chenies. Granddad and Jim were in the middle of building another model steam ploughing engine and it was great to be able to know a bit about, and take a better interest in, this second, larger engine. The Dawe’s Dominate fairly raced along with hardly any effort on my part, the ten speeds saw to that and it wasn’t long before I was back home with another ‘Chenies trip’ under my belt.
I recall that I scratched away a part of the ‘W’ from the Dawe’s transfer on the frame of this bike and turned the ‘Dawe’s’ into ‘Dave’s’. It wasn’t long before everyone knew ‘Dave’s Dominate’.
It was probably during the following week that I had another narrow escape because I remember thinking that I could have wrecked my brand new bike.
As already mentioned, I was allowed to take my record player into work. But, I also wanted the record player at home in the evenings and on weekends, so I carried it daily to work and back. With records, in a brown carrier bag, under my right arm and the record player being held by the handle in my right hand, I only had the other hand left for controlling the bike. I couldn’t change gear so I stayed in a high gear and only had the rear brake for stopping.
On the particular morning of the incident, I was riding in this fashion down the Oxford Road towards the St. Mary’s Butts/West Street traffic lights, hoping for a clear run straight over into Broad Street. I’d almost reached the Cheapside junction and my eyes were looking well forward as I tried to work out if I’d have to stop at the traffic lights. The traffic was slowing down but I was riding down the inside of the queue with parked cars on my left.
Suddenly a car door opened right in front of me. With the traffic on my right I had no chance of swerving out and my left hand clamped hard on the brake. Of course, the rear wheel locked up. With squealing tyre, the record player, records, bike, and I headed for disaster. The whole incident was over in a flash but, as usual, I seem to see it in slow motion all these years later.
A face and leg appeared out of the car as someone was about to step out. Fortunately the chap took a look back before actually getting out and his eyes widened as he saw me, helplessly bearing down upon the open door with no escape. Face and leg vanished as an arm snatched out and slammed the door - just as I whistled by. I didn’t look back but my legs turned to jelly and I was still shaking when I got to work.
The Dawe’s Dominate became my pride and joy. I was out riding it every spare minute. I wasn’t really one to sit at home watching such serials on the television as ‘Cheyenne’, ‘Rawhide’, ‘Wagon Train’, or ‘Coronation Street’. I was either out with Crystal, our friends, or out riding on my own. I did a couple of weekend trips down to the coast and a few day trips over to Chenies. But I was just as happy to join in anything when the occasion arose and, on one of these occasions I landed up in trouble with the police again.
Derek, Val’s boyfriend, and I had wandered out into Little John’s Lane, the side street that ran down beside our house, where a street soccer match was in progress. It was the afternoon of the 6 th. July 1960 (I still have the official court papers). Soon the pair of us had joined in and were having a great game.
Suddenly, someone kicked the ball hard, it flew up the street and bounced out of sight along the main Oxford Road. Dick (not his real name and who will come into this story again later) ran up to get the ball and, as it had vanished out of sight along the main road, he disappeared around the top end of our house while we waited in the side street for his return.
Dick seemed to be gone for ages, then all at once he reappeared back around the corner with the ball under his arm. But he wasn’t alone, a policeman had him by the scruff of his neck and was leading him back down to our group. Like a flash, Derek vanished through our side gate. But I knew that I wouldn’t get to it without being noticed so I waited for the expected lecture.
Not only did we all get a lecture on the dangers of playing soccer in the street (quite rightly so) but each of us were fined one pound the following week (15 th. July). To add insult to injury, I was the only one of the group who bothered to pay this fine and the others heard no more about the incident.
Derek thought it was hilarious. I was lucky not to have seen him making faces at us through the window behind the policeman’s back, for I would have surely cracked up with laughter myself and been in worse trouble.
Meanwhile, A. S. Duran, my employers, had decided to go modern. The old stores were to be pulled down and a brand new building would rise from the rubble. The pile-drivers were at work even before the old buildings were touched and it was very hectic trying to work with all the noise and comings and goings of the builders. Finally, it was decided to move all the goods, lock, stock, and barrel, to some very old buildings just along the road. Using the firm’s vans (we had four vans by then) we managed to move the lot in one weekend. Everything was put into the old buildings willy-nilly and an assistant was taken on to help me sort out our stock and get it all neat again.
This young assistant was Johnny, the brother of George, one of our new drivers. Curiously enough Johnny had taken Crystal out after I’d abandoned her due to myself having no teeth. Nevertheless, Johnny and I became good workmates. ‘Shaking All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates was in the charts at the time and the pair of us nearly drove our other workmates mad as we sang that latest Rock ‘n’ Roll song while we worked amongst the old buildings.
But, once again I was getting fed up. I still wasn’t able to save any money and I still couldn’t afford to get that licence. I realised that I could have saved the money from the fortnight’s T. A. camp, that would have probably paid for enough lessons. But, I’d been so assured that the T. A. would get me through the test that I didn’t bother and had spent the money having fun instead. It was my own fault and I knew it. I also knew, at the time, that I’d tried to use the T. A. just for the purpose of obtaining the licence (although that was the main bait that our unit used to attract recruits and many young lads had taken advantage of it) so, I couldn’t really complain about the outcome. Now I was back to square one. Finally, I decided to quit A. S. Duran’s as I’d been told that there were plenty of well paid jobs going at the Vandervell’s factory in Maidenhead.
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