I was born the year that Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo for the first time, the same year that the Great Economic Crash on Wall Street took place: 1929. My father, a lifetime member of the RAF was stationed at RAF Calshot at that time, where they were staging the Schneider Trophy which was a very important air race in those days. Lawrence of Arabia was there as an airman. My mother left Wales when she was sixteen and was recruited to become a chambermaid – to a lady-in-waiting – to one of the lesser Royals. She lived in London for that time, which is where she met my father. We lived in Portsmouth, which is a great naval town. I remember the Jubilee of 1937 because the whole of the Fleet assembled at Portsmouth in the Solent, plus ships from Japan and Germany, just about every nation you can think of, and I remember walking along with my father and seeing all these sailors from all over the world. It was quite extraordinary. The old man wasn’t very well off. Times were hard and there were a lot of arguments, which are things you remember. It was poverty. We were poor. No doubt about that. People in the services were very badly paid.
Even though I was young, I was aware of the threat of war. I remember watching the Movietone News and seeing Chamberlain with his piece of paper saying: ‘Peace in our Time.’ Then it got worse. There were three of us children by this time – my brother James and my sister Marjorie – and we were issued with gas masks. We were in lodgings and I remember the landlady, Mrs B. saying: ‘Ah, the aspidistra will probably flower next year,’ and my nine-year-old brain said, ‘We won’t be here next year, we’ll all be dead.’ On the second of September, the day that Poland was invaded and the day before the war started, my brother Jim and I were scooped up, bussed to the station, and trained to Salisbury. Just about every child was evacuated. I could describe the situation in the railway station – the steam, the clamour, the children crying, the mothers crying…
We were allocated to a lady called Mrs Crawford. She had two children, and her husband was a serving Major in the army. I don’t think she really wanted us. We only lasted one day there because my brother and I hadn’t been used to such sumptuous surroundings, and the bed was fabulous, and we were trampolining on the bed, and I fell off and broke this very expensive Indian screen. We were a bit of a handful, the pair of us! So the upshot of it all was that we were separated. I was billeted with the stationmaster of Salisbury station, his wife and two daughters. They treated me just like their own son. I was so fortunate. But my brother was allocated to their son. I didn’t know what went on there, but it wasn’t a happy place. I believe it upset him for the rest of his life.
I was so well looked after. I think if you’re well fed and well looked after and you’ve got some love because I had love from Mrs Fay and her daughters, you tend to forget about your mother. You transfer your affection and your allegiances to the new family. That’s the way I saw it anyway. If I’d been beaten up and made to do bad things, then I wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic, but it worked very well for me.
A couple of things occurred whilst I was there to do with the war. You can be away from the war, but you can’t ignore the war. Firstly, you could hear the German aircraft when they’re travelling in squadrons high overhead. They make a very distinctive noise quite unlike ours. They drone and drum. Walking to school one day, we went under the railway bridge where the London to Bournemouth line ran, and as we were crossing the field about three or four minutes later, a German bomber came down the line, on fire, following the line to get to the coast. And as it went by, it sprayed the signal-box with machine-gun fire. We thought they were shooting at us, so we fell on the ground. They weren’t…they riddled this signal-box with bullets.
The other thing was, I had access to the railway station, because Mr Fay was the stationmaster. I used to go there fairly routinely to see the trains, as kids do, and one day in May 1940 I saw stretchers, and there were bods sitting with bandages and smoking and looking generally dour. They were the Dunkirk survivors. You’re pretty heartless when you’re a kid. We were going round asking if they had any French money!
After eighteen months, my father came to collect me, because my mother and Jim (who had gone back earlier) and Marjorie had been moved from Portsmouth to a place in Surrey, right in the heart of the country.
What happened there was that I fell well behind in my schooling, at Tilford C of E School. I don’t think I was a complete idiot, but I couldn’t see any point in the whole bloody thing. I didn’t really try. I didn’t have any enthusiasm for education. There were three classes in this school – five to eight, eight to eleven, and eleven to fourteen. The only thing I remember clearly was a large wall map of the world showing the British Empire in red! That was the extent of my formal education. 88% of us left school at fourteen in those days. Now that sounds terrible, but an awful lot of people have succeeded, and I mean really done well, from that era, so you really weren’t sunk by the fact that you left at fourteen.
I always had in my head I wanted to join the Air Force but you couldn’t join until you were seventeen and a half. So in the meantime the first job I had when I left school was shovelling coal in a railway yard, then spreading lime on the fields from the back of a truck. Then I left that and I was cutting timber for pit-props. That’s why I’ve got a strong back. If you’ve spent five or six hours a day kneeling on a wet sack pulling a saw at the age of fifteen…Nowadays you can cut them down with a power saw in about two minutes.
The social life was a bit thin down there. We had our local village hop every Saturday night and when I was fifteen or sixteen I started going to that. I also joined the army cadets. I used to put on my uniform, polish my boots and go out on a Saturday night to the dance and pick up the wenches! The uniform helped.
Somebody suggested, I think it was a next-door neighbour, that I might like to do some engineering. I jumped at the chance. I went to the local factory, where they were manufacturing a variety of things: tracks for tanks, boosters for Rolls Royce Merlin engines, and engines for the lifeboats for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. We were allowed one day off a week to go to technical college in Guildford, to do a basic engineering course. That’s where I started to realise I wasn’t an idiot or an ignorant oaf!
I got impatient and, just before I was seventeen, I went down to the recruiting office and I put my age up, so I could join the Air Force, but it didn’t work, because my old man phoned them up and said, ‘He’s not old enough yet.’ Than on St Patrick’s Day in 1947, I went into the Air Force.
I thought at the time that this was what I wanted to do for life. I think the basic thing was escape. Escape from a boring country environment, that was the first thing. The prospect of a uniform, of course. The prospect of travelling abroad. ‘Maintaining the Empire.’ I suppose I got the germ from my dad, because he was in the Air Force and he loved it. I saw it, in a way, as my vocation. I wanted an exciting life.
After joining up, I toddled off to a place called Cardington in Bedfordshire for my boot camp. It was the usual stuff, marching up and down, learning how to kill people…and to give them first aid! When I finished basic training, I was posted to the RAF Technical College, where they gave me a good grounding in engineering. In truth, I found myself to be quite a good learner. I was quite good at maths. I passed out top of the class and I was quite surprised. It meant more money, it meant I could be an Aircraftsman First Class instead of a lowly Aircraftsman Second Class. I finished my training and was sent off to what’s known as a Personnel Dispatch Centre, up near Blackpool. I sat there for about three or four weeks and then all of a sudden my name came out of a hat, and they said, ‘You’re going to Singapore.’
I was quite chuffed about this. Singapore had all sorts of exotic connotations – dancing girls, clubs. Of course, the fly in the ointment was that there were insurgents killing people regularly, just up-country in the Malay Peninsula. I ended up doing thirty days in a troop ship, sleeping in a hammock, smoking, drinking when we could, talking a lot. Going ashore for the first time in a foreign country in Port Said, Egypt, was fantastic. First time I’d been abroad. In Singapore I was posted to the maintenance base, Far East. It was fairly straightforward work maintaining aircraft. I stayed there for two years and three months doing what I had to do, staying out of mischief most of the time. I was promoted to Corporal, which was pretty good actually because I was only eighteen.
As a Corporal one has to act as Guard Commander on a local rubber plantation and one night I fell asleep on duty. I hadn’t lain down but I sat on the head of the bed reading my book and I had dozed off. At three o’clock in the morning in these climates, it’s hot and humid and you’re bloody tired. On active duty this is a criminal offence and people have been shot for it. I was petrified. I was taken up before the Station Commander and I think that since I always looked very young, they must have taken pity on me. He was Wing Commander Stanford Tuck, who was a very famous fighter pilot during the war, one of the top aces. He gave me a bollocking, and he said, ‘I’m going to give you thirty days’ loss of privileges.’ It meant that I couldn’t go off base for thirty days, had to wear uniform all the time and had to report to the Guard Room twice a day. That was my punishment and I was pleased to get it. I could have been stripped of my rank – I’d only had these stripes about four or five months. I cried with relief.
Being in the Air Force was marvellous. The work was mundane and straightforward, but the social life was brilliant. I was a Corporal, I had a few more pennies in those days, and a friend had a white sharkskin coat and a bow-tie, and I used to borrow this and go down to the Raffles Hotel. I had a good time. We used to go out partying, and to various clubs and places of that ilk.
I was ambitious and always prepared to take on responsibility. But the one thing I did lack – although I’ve covered it up most of my life – is confidence. You know, if you put a guy in a public school, tell him he’s of the best and build up his ego; even though he’s a prat, he can appear confident. But when you lack schooling you never feel confident. There’s no doubt about it: education and social background are a tremendous fuel for getting you to do things. Having said that, I may have lacked confidence in many respects, but over the years I learnt how to cover it up. I always presented well – I suited uniform. And whilst my stomach was churning, I always appeared confident. People have always said to me, ‘How do you manage to stay so cool?’ And I think, ‘What you don’t know is I’m crapping myself!’
In some ways I was not ambitious enough because what I should have been doing, instead of all the sporty things I did, was to spend more time in a classroom improving my education. I could have done it, but I never did. If I’d done that, I know I could have done a lot better in the RAF. You see, they saw me as a potential officer. I was on the Potential Officer list for years. Every year they used to come and ask me, ‘Have you done this, that and the other?’ And I’d never done anything to improve my education, though I got a couple of O-Levels. I’ve got a feeling, in honesty, that I was frightened to do it, because I was frightened that if I had become an officer, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do what they wanted me to do.
I thought the officers, the educated people, were a Master Race! I suppose when you’re brought up to be an obedient soul and to knuckle your forehead to authority – I lived on an estate when I was evacuated and you were taught to know your place – you feel inferior to people who are deemed to be of a higher order. I found it very difficult to ditch that attitude. But eventually when I went to teach at the RAF College, I realised that they were just ordinary bods like everyone else!
I did get a bit ambitious and applied for Air Crew. I ought to have known that I didn’t have what it took to get what I wanted and be a pilot. I actually got through Air Crew Selection. Of the twenty-four in our group, one guy got Navigator and I got Signaller. But I didn’t really want to be an Air Signaller. Eventually I started my training. I did about six weeks but I just showed no interest really and wrapped it up. It was boring and I didn’t really want it. So that was the end of that little escapde.
After the Air Crew thing, I was sent off to Egypt, to a dispatch centre on the Canal Zone. One morning they called my name out and said, ‘Right, you’re gong to Malta,’ which I was really pleased about. The job I was given was in the Aeronautical Inspection Service. We were refurbishing aero-engines, and my job was to do with the testing of them. I used to go to Libya and do work over there, down to Egypt two or three times a year. I’d been to just about every RAF station in the Middle East at that time. It was a good social life there, and I enjoyed my work. I enjoyed my boss and it was two and a half years of real pleasure.
I’d had one or two girlfriends in Malta and I sallied off one night to Valetta to a Service Club and that’s where I met my future wife. Eve was a WREN in the Navy, a telegraphist on Commander-in-Chief’s staff; at that time it was Mountbatten. We met on May 21st, 1954 and we were married on 17th October 1954, so it was a very short courtship. We’ve been married over fifty years. I suppose there are a variety of reasons why one falls in love…Eve complemented me. I’m not a great thinker, I’m certainly not a philosopher. I’m a doer, a warrior. That’s my state in life. I could carry a spear very well. She doesn’t actually think for me, but she assists me in my thought processes, and more or less runs things for me. She’s a real thinker. She’s more of a philosopher and a moralist than me. One of the great things about my life is that I was very fortunate to meet and marry a very talented woman, who has supported me in everything we do. We have had three talented children who have given us six beautiful grandchildren.
After Julie was conceived, we were posted back to the UK. All our three kids were born in Wales. I’d been promoted by this time to a Senior Technician which is about the same as an Army Sergeant. I was posted up to Anglesey on an experimental base. I was detached to the Army, the Royal Artillery, and we were developing Weapons of Destruction! They were ground-to-air missiles. Big ones. My job was on the technical side, putting anything right. We never thought about the moral issues. No ethics, no morality. You were just doing your job. That’s what the people at Buchenwald said, isn’t it? ‘I’m doing my job.’ But it was on a different scale. We perceived a threat from the Russians or whoever, and if they sent a Bison aircraft across, a Thunderbird missile would blast it out of the sky. That’s it, it’s that simple. As far as I was concerned, we were making a defensive weapon. And really, in truth, that’s about all it could be used for – a defensive weapon.
One thread that ran through my Service career was sport. I played rugby for the Service and for a local club in Wales for many years, until I was about thirty-eight. I played rugby for North Wales against South Wales. I was also minor country standard in athletics. I’ve always been an athlete. Not running about but I’ve thrown the hammer, the discus, and put the shot. I was, additionally, champion of shooting – I was a good shot with a revolver and a light machine-gun. I got a lot of my kudos in the Service through sport. My wife wasn’t over-enamoured of me being away for ten days shooting at Bisley and so farther, but she was very tolerant.
I was promoted to Chief Technician, which was about as high as I was going to get as an NCO. I was sent down to RAF Henlow, in Bedfordshire. When I got down there I got involved in one or two little projects and then my boss told me about a problem he was having with stretching and rolling wires into reels to be used as devices for listening to the Russians. He said, ‘We can’t work because of the weather and we need to get these aerials done within six months.’ I suggested using the big hangars over at Cardington. So I got lumbered but the job was done. I was recommended for an honour but I didn’t get it. I got the next best thing, a diploma from the Air Officer Commander-in-Chief. I think I deserved it because we did a good job and it’s nice to bask in a little adulation occasionally. They must have appreciated my ability and knowledge because they invited me to go to the RAF College at Cranwell to teach basic engineering principles and engineering management, which I did pretty efficiently for two and a half years.
By then I was forty years of age and I could have signed on for another fifteen years. But I decided I wanted another career. I couldn’t see myself getting commissioned, and there was nowhere else for me to go so I thought, well, I’ll cut my losses. I’ve reached this plateau of promotion so I’ll get out. So I retired, with a pension, from the RAF.
When you’re in the Service, you’re married to the Service, you do what they tell you to do, and you don’t dream of doing otherwise. You just go. I never really questioned authority when I was in the Service. I was a very compliant bod. If they put you on the list to be an Officer, you had to be totally compliant, and you had to be prepared to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. One day the boss said, ‘If you look out of that window, there are sixty men out there. And on that table, there’s an Air Force publication, the 8.80. Take that, and go and teach them Funeral Drill.’ You see, they were testing me. So I took a rifle with me and practised all this Funeral Drill, and eventually, I kicked them into shape. They were being trained for Winston Churchill’s funeral and we’re talking about two weeks before he died!
I think that most servicemen are strict with their children. I was. In fact, I never regret anything that I didn’t do but I regret that I was so strict. I was sort of like the Big Bad Wolf! My wife was fairly firm as well but she came from a more ‘schoolteacher’ direction. They were getting fed this obedience thing from both directions. They didn’t react against this, they were like me – quite compliant. And my wife has been quite compliant as well, all her life. I don’t think we did them any harm, because all three children have been successful in what they’ve done, in disciplined professions. And the fact of the matter is that having done what I did or didn’t do to my own children, they are extremely good parents. If I’m brutally honest, I think my children learned not to be like I was! Not to be overbearing, not to be the disciplinarian. There are other ways, and they had the intelligence to know what they were. It’s a bit late now, but I wish that I’d been different. I can think of no end of instances now where I should have acted in a different way. But I always gave them compliments and credit when they achieved things. That, though, is like the typical Service way as well – ‘good chap!’ I show much more affection with them now than when they were kids.
If they brought back National Service now I reckon most of the guys would say, ‘I’m not doing it.’ And I would be totally against trying to dragoon people into the Services, even though most of the Services are short of people. It should only be for those who want it. It shouldn’t be used as a punishment, or a place to try to change society.
It’s quite extraordinary but I was more confident about achieving something outside the Services. I must have felt kind of handicapped by the Service…not by the Service but by my own lack of confidence, which I never really got rid of in the Service. Once I’d left the RAF I seemed to gain confidence. I applied for a lot of jobs and I got a couple of them. I got a job as a lecturer in an agricultural college and at Raleigh Cycles but I ended up in the Technical Branch of the Civil Service. The Civil Service was where I really blossomed. It did my confidence good. It was like a metamorphosis really. The uniform went off like an old skin and the suit and the tie came on.
My job was in the Manpower Services Commission and the Employment Services Agency, which was under the Ministry of Labour. It was concerned with the rehabilitation of disabled people and training of Youth Opportunity people. They gave me a job down in London in a rehabilitation centre. Although I was an engineer, I was required as a reserve instructor, to run carpentry, gardening, clerical work, all sorts of things. You had to be very versatile. I very quickly became Chief Instructor and then within eighteen months, I was manager of one of these centres myself, running one at Coventry and latterly in Plymouth. I really felt, ‘This is for me.’ I honestly thought this was where I could make my mark and when you go into a thing with that kind of positive attitude, it works, doesn’t it? I didn’t feel that I could fail, somehow. It was weird. As I’ve said, I was always prepared to take on responsibility. That’s one of my strong points. The other motivation is, of course, your family. You’ve got three kids and you want to feed them and you want to give them the best things there are, so you work for them, not only for yourself.
I worked in the Civil Service for nineteen years; I retired at fifty-nine. I went through the ranks, I became Manager, which I enjoyed for the first five or six years very much indeed, because I had a centre to build. I had a staff of about twenty-five people and about a hundred disabled people. I also worked in Coventry, and I went to take over a place in Plymouth which was really run down, so I spent three years building it up. But what happened was I was given accelerated promotion. I was jumped up two grades, and then I had to mark time until I went through the various panels to consolidate each grade as I went up. That took fourteen years. In the meantime I couldn’t move anywhere because I was stuck in that slot. That was pretty annoying really, because as I say I loved it, but you should not stay in a job too long. There is a kind of optimum time to get into the job, to get it right, to build on it, consolidate it and then get out. I really should have been moved on.
Shortly after I left, the government – a Labour government – closed all the rehab centres, and there was one of our centres in every city in the land. They privatised the Government Training Centres, the Skills Centres. Youth Opportunity died in that form. Why? Because they said they weren’t cost-effective. Now, I know for a fact that from my own perspective, the rehab centres were very effective. Whether they were cost-effective, I don’t know, but just about every bod who came through our rehab centres, whether they had physical disabilities or psychological problems, they benefited from it and almost invariably we got them back into work. They earned money. We could do with those places now. Today we can’t get enough craftsmen, people to do plumbing or carpentry. Several thousand people have come from Poland, for example, to fill these gaps. The training and rehab centres wouldn’t fill the gap completely, but they’d take a jolly good lump out of it and out of unemployment. No doubt about that at all.
I saw my time through in the Civil Service. I could have stayed there longer but I decided I never wanted to work after sixty, so I quit. I went on my way rejoicing, to retirement in Devon. I didn’t like Devon. It’s a beautiful place for your holidays but it’s too quiet. We enjoyed a year or two of relative doing-nothing-ness. And then my wife said, ‘I don’t like it here. We’ll move up nearer the family.’ And, of course, Julie’s lived here in Oxford ever since she was a student, and my other son, Nick, lived here for about ten or twelve years. I’ve never regretted the move, because there’s so much to do.
Retirement is all you make it to be. I’ve heard of people who’ve retired, and they don’t know what to do with themselves, and they’ve bloody died in a couple of years. When I retired, I took on a variety of voluntary work, Riding for the Disabled – I was chairman of that. We’d take disabled children riding. It’s quite extraordinary how they react to it. Kid who can barely walk or crawl, once you put them on a horse, they get a kind of life from the horse. I was a Parish Councillor for four years and I did some years on the Board of Visitors at Bullingdon prison. They’re not nice places to be in. There’s bullying, the food is bloody awful. They don’t all have television sets, contrary to public opinion. The fact that they’ve lost their freedom, they’re physically confined, is punishment enough without any other overlays on it. We were watchdogs, you’d sort out problems for the prisoners, often stuff that should have been done by the prison officers themselves. Each month at the board meeting, I had to report and say what was right and what was wrong. If there was anything wrong, then our Board Chairman had to go and see the Warden and sort it out. So we did a lot of good.
I like to travel. I’m a great traveller. I counted up the countries I’ve visited, both me and my wife for many of them, and there’s about thirty-six countries. And I want to continue to travel. I don't go and sit on beaches. We’ve been to China, India, to Nepal…I loved Nepal. It’s not just the beauty of the country, the mountains; but the people. They’re so gentle. How did the Ghurkas come out of that?!
I think I’ve become more tolerant over the years. For example, when I was in the Service, I was a Conservative. But over the years since I’ve been a civilian, I have gone totally the other way. I’ve always said that if I got religion, I would become a Salvationist, as in the Salvation Army; but that’s not likely. I’m an atheist. Totally a confirmed atheist. I was churched, I was baptised, confirmed, I went to Sunday school. Religion is something you have to believe, blindly. I don’t know why I’m not religious. I’m not even sure why people are. It always surprises me that highly intelligent people are ardently religious. The Church has wonderful music and that sort of thing but it all developed in its early days, I think, out of fear. The Church was used to scare the crap out of people, to keep them in line. The Church is so screwed up itself, over homosexuality, and women preachers and all the rest of it, that I think if I were a religious person, things like that would drive me away from the Church. While I have no inclination towards homosexuality, it is a fact of life. And whether it’s in the Church or wherever else, it’s got to be accepted and not to be a thing to be prohibited.
Two years ago I went to Ruskin College, and I did my Certificate of Higher Education. I did Creative Writing as a core subject and all sorts of others like the History of the English Language. I wrote poetry. Bad poetry. The first poem I ever wrote, which was before going to Ruskin, was when I came back from Poland after visiting Auschwitz. I’m not a terribly emotional person, but the one thing I remember wasn’t the ovens and the gas chambers, and all those things you think of. That was all bad enough; but what really upset me were the piles of children’s clothes and children’s shoes. There were other things, like piles of suitcases with names on them. One had the name of a child, I can’t remember the name now, and it had ‘orphan’ written on it in German. The following was my first raw poem, quite heartfelt, written on my return.
The sad frightened people are herded by yell.
Uprooted from living, to journey to Hell.
Clutching their bundles, each other, they flow
Obeying the orders of jack-booted crow.
The hiss of the engine and barking of hounds,
Shrill cries from the children and mothers’ concern.
Much clanking of coaches and metallic sounds
A prelude to travel; no hope of return.
The loading, the crowding in inhuman grace
The smell and gasping and fighting for space
Make room for the children; no water no food.
A slow journey Eastwards; so cold on bare wood.
Arrival through archway; unloading; despair.
Selection and parting. That’s Mozart I hear!
The strings are uplifting and dispel some care.
‘A shower’ they say which lessens the fear.
The Jew and the Gypsy, the Mongol and Pole
Step lively, quite naked, down into the hole.
What happened soon after must not be denied.
The consummate evil of Hun genocide.
If you’re away from your family, it’s bad enough, but if you lose your family and you’re an orphan…It upset me tremendously, because I consider myself to be a kind of phlegmatic soul that doesn’t flap easily and doesn’t get excited. It was just so bloody awful. There are a lots of cruel people around, aren’t there, doing dreadful things to other people. Whether it be Germany in those years, the Hutus, Bosnia in ’96, Iraq…you can go on, can’t you?
Whatever you say about life, you get pushed around by circumstance. You have to take what you get. I suppose I would have liked to have been a doctor or a lawyer or some professional, but the problem with that is you’re in a total rut, aren’t you? You’ve got to remain being a doctor, or a lawyer, whereas as I once said to somebody, ‘I’ve never been handicapped by education!’ I was joking, but in a way, I haven’t. It’s allowed me to follow different routes, to be versatile and to try new things. Recently, I found Ruskin College where I received my first formal learning experience, during which I penned other pieces, inspired by Alastair Wisker, my tutor, sadly now deceased, including…
I’m glad I had those carefree days, when all the roads were free.
My oily noisy motor-bike, my pride and joy, my steed
would take me flying far and wide, begoggled, tweed and capped,
For I was still a single man, a-roving to be trapped.
Melita’s dusty roads in Austin green we drove
In purring ringing steamy ‘Min’; beside me was my love.
We threesome hied to secret place for basking and to be.
’Twas there that nature told us both, ’twas for eternity.
Old Ruby knew the long A5 and hummed her way to Mona.
By ’58 we two were four and filled her up to quota.
She was a small, sedate and upright little lady
but had to go to gentler home, when came another baby!
As time passed by, they came and went, the Minis and the Minors.
Children grew and left to spawn their triumph and disaster.
We, back to two, drive sleepy dogs and carry our recliners
and time, like motors, tho’ not ours, goes faster, faster, faster.