Right Time, Right Place?

It was Valencia, summer 1972: my first time in Spain (it now seems odd that I had already sat my Spanish A Level). I was on a three-week language course organised by Liverpool Poly, as it then was, and there were school students from all across the UK. One was at Eton, another was from Ilford; they were both equally exotic to me. Spain was a very different country back in the day: patrolled by armed police and rather poor and backward in my eyes. Despite Valencia being a major city you had the impression you were the first foreigner they’d ever come across. Exciting but scary.

I’d been there all of two days before I fell for a Northern Irish girl. I noticed a pretty blonde during our morning breaks at the university, but couldn’t think up an excuse to start a conservation. One night at a fiesta, I and the other lads I was with ran into a bevy of girls we recognised as fellow students on the course and, under the pressure of the moment, I came out with “Would you like to join our group?” It was excruciating, even at the time, but I had learned from experience that if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get. The Irish girls came over to say hello, and I started talking to Jan before anyone else could get in.

Audentes fortuna iuvat

A couple of days later we invited them over to the university residence we boys were billeted in. Jan and I saw each other every day (since we were in the same class) and in the evenings we talked about our different lives, which made me realise that I probably knew more about what was going on in Spain than in Ireland.

All too soon we were on the plane back to Blighty. When we arrived at Heathrow her boyfriend Ronnie (who had long hair and a moustache, and was obviously older than me) was waiting to collect her, and off they went on holiday. I knew I would never go to see her. I couldn’t afford it, and in any case my parents would not have let me. Belfast was on the news every night, and what was happening was invariably frightening.

Jan and I corresponded for about 18 months. I went to Oxford and she went to Trinity College Dublin to study French and English. Her letters were very articulate and entertaining, and she was mature for her age – unlike me. She struck me as being tough and resilient; above all, she was a realist. She was from a Catholic family – in the course of writing one letter she heard that an acquaintance had been shot dead: “There will certainly be reprisals. It’s obviously not safe to go out any more.” What a thing for a 17-year-old girl to put in a letter. Yet for many young people all over the world (including parts of our own country even today) that is reality. Sadly, I now think, we lost touch… because I stopped writing. I can’t even remember her surname or address, apart from the fact that she lived in Holywood, Co. Down. I have one very bad photo of her, taken at Valencia Airport. Stylish, but note the stubbed out fag-end.

***

As a middle-aged Cambodian gentleman said to Anne and me exactly a year ago, “You were born at the right time in the right place, but for me it was just the opposite”. That he survived the Khmer Rouge is almost miraculous. Jan was unlucky to grow up at the height of the Troubles, but on the plus side she attended a good school and had two loving parents who were obviously well off. I had it much easier; as long as you avoided being beaten senseless by a gang of skinheads from the Woodchurch Estate, nothing terrible was going to happen to you in Birkenhead. Almost everybody from my school went on to university, and that was in the early 70s when less than 6% of school-leavers did! Life was set out before me on a plate.

With all the teen stabbings going on in London and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I was as child. It’s easy to congratulate yourself on your achievements or – even worse – look down on those who haven’t done so well in life, as if it were all their fault. A little bit of humility is no bad thing but here, as so often, I rarely practise what I preach.

The Microclimate of Staffordshire

Thursday afternoons at Birkenhead School were for playing at soldiers. Everyone was more or less obliged to join the Combined Cadet Force. We were fortunate, or perhaps unfortunate, to have a genuine, high-ranking ex-soldier as our CO: Lt. Col. Arthur N. Green (AKA The Ang).

Dad’s Army was one of the most popular programmes at the time. Walking to and from school dressed like a squaddie, when you clearly weren’t one, was almost as embarrassing as wearing a school cap the rest of the week. There were compensations: we got the opportunity to handle and fire weapons. There was an indoor rifle range across the road at the Chetwynd TA Centre, where we were taught one end of a Lee-Enfield from the other by Sergeant Major McLaughlin, known to all as “Fang” for his distinctive dentition. “Strip a rifle? You lot couldn’t strip a woman!” A little harsh on 16-year-olds… while demonstrating a rather old-fashioned attitude to the fair sex.

Every year there was a CCF summer camp. You had to give up a week of your holidays. I was under no illusions that it would be enjoyable. But if you got certain activities out of the way, you wouldn’t have to do them in term-time; plus, you got privileges in the Cadre – most obviously, a red beret and a uniform that almost fitted. If you had a girlfriend, real or imaginary, who might see you on your way home, such things had a value.

So it was off by coach to Blackshaw Moor (near Leek). It was late June, but you could have fooled me. It seemed like a godforsaken place at any season of the year. There were 30 of us, enough to make up two platoons and occupy two huts. There was no-one in my hut in whose company I would have chosen to spend longer than five minutes. There was blanket-boxing, Blanco and Brasso, square-bashing and PT, rifle-stripping and machine-gun practice, and field-craft and orienteering. 

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

One of the more demanding tasks we were set was a “night op”. This necessitated crawling across a field by moonlight, and labouring uphill through a wood to a hurricane lamp where two “NCOs” would be waiting. They were to give each of us upon our arrival (theoretically in pairs) a scrap of paper. These fragments, when assembled, were supposed to form a map or password… or something like that, I forget the details. We were taken to recce the site in the afternoon; the field was generously carpeted with cowpats, which I looked forward to leopard-crawling through in the dark. 

As night fell we returned to the field of action in two Bedford three-tonners. I began crawling through the cowpats, then ghost-walked successfully to the hurricane lamp in the wood. Not too bad; now for the return leg. Having lost my other half, I worked out a laborious way of returning via the dry-stone walls and fences of the field boundaries. It would take ages, but at least I’d eventually be heading in the right direction. I was cold, despite my long-johns, and it was starting to rain. I gave up trying to move stealthily; it took far too long. The “officers” tossed thunder-flashes at us to simulate artillery bombardment; it was genuinely scary.

Predictable, the exercise soon degenerated into a shambles. Some lads lost their sense of direction and headed away from the target, rather than towards it. When I eventually made it back to the Bedford I was surprised to see that I was only the fifth or sixth from our platoon to complete the task. Come midnight, whistles and flares signalled the end of the farce. Boys emerged from the gloom, limping. One had a broken arm, another a sprained ankle, others cuts to their heads, like extras from The Longest Day. Those of us who didn’t have to make a visit to North Staffs Royal Infirmary got a mug of cocoa and a lie-in. 

* * *

Two years passed… My mate Paul and I had read in the NME about the inaugural Buxton Rock Festival, which had hosted Steppenwolf, Wishbone Ash, Vinegar Joe and Family. Curved Air were also on the bill – but Sonja Kristina didn’t fancy singing in the freezing cold at 3am. Buxton was the North’s premier festival (in fact, it was the only one north of Reading). We decided to go to the second festival, so one Saturday morning in July 1973, together with Ray who worked at NatWest and owned an MG 1300, we set off full of enthusiasm.

What genius had decided to hold an open-air event in the area with the highest rainfall in England? We should have known what to expect from that CCF summer camp (as the two sites were only about 15 miles apart). The moorland site was exposed and cold, and it began to rain as soon as we got there. I remember seeing Canned Heat (we should have brought some), Edgar Broughton, Medicine Head and Alex Harvey, who gave a stirring rendition of “Saint Anthony”. 

Oh the temptations, oh the sensations

One band I was looking forward to seeing was the Groundhogs – but they refused to perform, as did Roy Wood. The entire audience, and some of the acts, were intimidated by a gang of Hell’s Angels who wandered about demanding money with menaces. Chuck Berry was headlining; we caught glimpses of him through the polythene sheet under which we were all huddling.

We spent almost as long trying to free the car from the mud as we did watching the bands. John Peel, MC on the day, wrote later that campaign medals should have been struck. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


Armistice Centenary

There will never be another Armistice Centenary. On Sunday 11 November 2018 at 11am – exactly 100 years after the guns fell silent and the slaughter stopped – local people and visitors gathered for a brief commemoration at our Sunday market.

For more than 12 months I’ve been leading a Heritage Lottery-funded project to identify all of Herne Hill’s First World War fatalities. It has been hard work and pretty depressing. How could it fail to be?

Remembering Herne Hill 1914-18 – station exhibition

I’d taken it upon myself to organise a two-minute silence – as far as anyone knew, it had never been done here before – and I had been worrying about it for days. Despite Pat Roberts and I pestering local shopkeepers to take and display our flyers, would anyone come? Would it pour with rain? Would the market traders and station staff stop serving customers and respect the silence? Would our teenage musician even show up? And what about the crucial timing? If we were holding a two-minute silence at precisely 11am, and if it were to be preceded by The Last Post, how long was it going to take Walter the Trumpeter to play it…  and so, counting back, when should I start to address the growing crowd? Our Town Crier, James Castle, rang his bell. I began to say a few words at 10:56 into my borrowed megaphone… with one eye on the clock display on my iPhone. I am no orator, nor have any desire to be one, so I would not be tempted to overrun…

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It must have been beginner’s luck because it went according to plan. In fact it was much better than that. It was genuinely emotional – perhaps because Walter (who played so well) is no older than so many of Herne Hill’s hundreds of First World War casualties.

“That was lovely…”

This community event was politically and religiously secular and relatively spontaneous. No speeches from mayors or MPs or generals or priests, “exhortations” or all-too-familiar – and almost compulsory, it seems – lines of poetry. It was a simple coming-together to show respect for the sacrifice of others, and it was essentially a democratic and unstaged occasion. I overheard a well-known local figure say to his wife, “that was lovely”. I could feel the emotion in the crowd. It was an authentic and moving experience. Some people, myself included, were close to tears.

Read Antonia Senior’s blog about the Herne Hill commemoration

* * *

I was honoured to receive an invitation to the Armistice Centenary service in Westminster Abbey that same evening. We Brits really know how to put on a show: The Queen, The Prince of Wales, the PM, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the glamorous young Royals also in attendance.

wa-invite

Maybe I was just a little tired and overwrought but, if truth be told, I was not greatly uplifted. The music and the staging were superb, but I’m not too sure about the readings: Beatrice Webb, and Winston Churchill of all people? It was, of course, designed by a distinguished committee and immaculately executed. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that earlier on the same day I’d had a deeper personal connection with the Centenary event.