JOINING UP

‘I joined the Navy 

To See the World……

…..and what did I see?

I saw the sea.’

(Author’s note:  All this happened a long time ago.  What happened actually happened , but some of the details and timings could well be muddled)

It was my future brother-in-law’s fault.  He was still in the dating stage with my sister. We shared a bedroom when the family went on holiday to San Remo.  He was doing his National Service and had already made it to Sub-Lieutenant.  For a couple of weeks, when everyone had gone to bed, we sat around smoking his blue liners (Navy issue cigarettes with a blue line on them. 4p per pack!) while he told this ‘innocent’ all his eye-widening stories about life in the Navy.  In a nutshell, they all boiled down to this: all girls love a sailor.  It took me two years to find it out for myself: they absolutely don’t.  In fact they all run a mile.

The other decision factor was this.  At Haileybury, we all had a Combined Cadet Corps; and we had to do cadet training.  It was mainly about marching around, ‘judging distance’, and ‘presenting arms’ on Wednesday afternoons; but it was different on Field Day.  While the army cadets crept around, and did leopard crawl, in the mud & field ditches and in the rain, shooting blanks (and occasionally their foot), the navy cadets caught a bus to London to visit HMS President, built when ‘the ships were wood and the men were steel’ and ‘parked’ on the Thames.  After a bit of nosing round the gun decks and canons in the dry, there was usually time for a couple of pints before we set off back.  Game, set and match.  I signed on.

Inevitably the day of reckoning came.  I graduated from school, dug a few ditches for the toilet system for the London Bible College which was then in build.

(I must add a note here about Harry.  Harry was an Irishman who dug ditches.  In those days, we would all have a laugh about Irish ditch diggers who we always saw leaning around on their spades.  Well, let me assure you, Harry taught me what you see was not what you get.  He gave me the choice, dig the ditch or push the barrow.  If I dug the ditch, I had to keep up with the speed with which Harry took his barrow over the boards to empty it and to return for the barrow I was filling.  Or, if I did the barrow, I had to get my barrow back quickly enough over the slithery, slidey boards before the barrow he was filling became too heavy.  Whatever whichway I did it, and try as I may, I just couldn’t keep up with him; the easiest, most amusing day’s work Harry probably had ever done too).

The ‘Queen requests and requires…’ letter arrived.  I was a GUZ rating which means my home port was Devonport, as a probationary writer actually, clerical not seaman branch as I wore glasses.  I can’t quite remember where I signed on, Portsmouth, or Pompey as it is known, or Devonport; but I do remember vividly the gates of the Portsmouth Barracks ,with the huge crest above them, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ or, as they say, ‘Evil is he who evil thinks’.  I cleared my mind of any bad thoughts, shrugged my shoulders and walked in, ‘prison’ for two, whole years starts now.

So initation at Pompey barracks was all about togging up to look like a sailor, marching around (I had become good at that), sloping arms and presenting arms; and settling into one of the huge dormitories. The dormitories were split into four sections, with double bunk beds in two rows facing each other, and a passageway through the middle.  Metal lockers in between and at the end of each bed.  Maybe, 15 beds in a row which meant 60 men in a section and 240 in the dormitory.

The toilets were at one end, of the modern flushing variety, OK until payday when half the place got Mozart (and Liszt or pissed) and continued to throw up in the stand ups which would go on flushing until we had a flood running out into the corridor and down the stairs.  Next day, broke, they would go round bumming pennies until they could afford two pints of scrumpy (high alcohol rough cider).  Then they could be back in the toilet again doing the same thing the next night.  Most sailors spent everything they were paid on outings; and moderation was not their forte.  As National Service men, I seem to remember we were paid 21 shillings and 6 pence (£1.075) each week from which we had two or three shillings taken out for social security!  This was 1957.  So it didn’t leave much to do anything with.

We had our inoculations at Pompey.  We lined up in a row and were injected.  I think it was smallpox that they dabbed on the top arm and gave us a little metal thing to pummel away at the spot.  Presumably the blood would rise up and take the antibodies into the body through the skin.  The trouble was they didn’t wipe the arm clean afterwards.  So we put on our heavy naval sweaters again and those with sensitive skins inoculated themselves again.  One guy even put his sweater on the other way round the next day and managed to inoculate himself a third time.  I think they called it double & triple vaccine poisoning.

Crabs and bedbugs were a bit of an issue.  The sailors cure for crabs, they say, is to cut a parting in the pubic hair with a razor, rub in plenty of alcohol and then some sand in the hope that the little critters would get pissed, start fighting and stone each other to death.  One hirsute leading seaman would come in to the barracks on his duty nights and be given a regular issue grey navy blanket.  Time and again he caught crabs in his body hair.  I can’t imagine what he used to tell his wife.

One of the first pieces of advice came from a Petty Officer.  There were only three things in the Navy that could really get you into trouble: rum, bum and ‘baccy (tobacco).

Sailors in these times would get a tot of rum every day.  It went back into naval history when a squadron of British fighting ships had saved a West Indian island.  In thanks, the islanders  had bequeathed the navy a supply of their heavy dark rum in perpetuity, either freely or for a peppercorn payment.  This meant every day, as we lined up along the hot plates to collect our lunch, we would pass a tray with these tumblers of rum on them, one part rum, two parts water.  After drinking it, you could feel your shoulders ache a little as a haze of relaxation came over you.  A sailor one day sat on the stainless steel food counter to drink his rum.  “Hoy” bawled a chef, “Gerroff.  This is for rissoles not arseholes”

You could get into a lot of trouble passing your rum around; but a wonderful subculture had developed around it.  Sippers (a monitored sip only) meant someone would do you a favour, gulpers (a monitored gulp) would probably get you off a night’s duty while, with the whole tot, you would probably never have a duty to do again.

At this stage, the navy hadn’t got its head around gay sailors or mixed sex ships.  These days they both are accepted.  But in my time there was always a fear that ‘love’ affairs springing up could affect the ship’s wellbeing and fighting capability.  Then, bum was a sackable offence.

Going back to bum and bedbugs, at one point I had a real issue with a bedbug.  Night after night, I would check out the bed before I got into it; and day after day I would wake up with patches of bites on me.  So this night, I went to bed with no pyjamas.  I woke up, in that half light you get around 2.00am near the sea, to see someone at the end of my bed going through my pockets, looking for my wallet.  “Oy” I shouted and off he fled with me, naked and in hot pursuit, yelling at the top of my voice “Stop that man”.  Down one side of the dormitory, up the other.  Heads popping out above the bedclothes.  Anyhow, to  cut the story short, someone else took up the chase, pursued him out into the parade ground where the guy was apprehended as I sloped back to bed.  The upshot was, he was brought forward for questioning.  Fortunately the ‘tribunal’ accepted my reasons for pursuing him through the dormitory naked, late at night.

‘Baccy’ was the blue liner cigarettes again.  The monthly issue was 200 at 4p per pack.  If you drank as a group, no-one missed their round of cigarettes either.  Knowing what we know now, it would be interesting to see an estimate of how many lives this privilege cost.  Buying someone else’s ration was strictly verboten.

But enough.  We were kitted out and ready to begin our Navy career.  Next stop HMS CERES (to follow 7/11)