HMS VICTORY (Renamed HMS Nelson with Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory now reposing in Portsmouth Dockyard)
So it was back to Pompey Barracks to practice my new skills as a Writer. I began in the Supply Office, me, a manager and a couple of Wrens. A dark, Dickensian place. There I learned one important lesson about the Royal Navy. I was the young firebrand. I want everything to change. There must be better ways. But the fact was that most of everything had been going on since Nelson was a boy; and it just wasn’t going to change now for me.
After a while, I was moved to the Pay Office. The PO in charge, I believe Petty Officer Chalk aka Chalky, specialised in making alcohol out of just about anything. Bread and rhubarb, I remember. And all of it was made in his bath at home. His pallid complexion suggested he succeeded as a distiller though what he used instead of a bath I never found out. There was a young, shy Wren working with us. She had just taken up with a bandsman. Every morning, when she came in, Chalky asked her how her lessons were coming on learning to play the one-eyed piccolo.
It was lovely walking across the parade on a nice summer’s day. Surprisingly very calming. Perhaps, once in a while, a group of guys from Detention Quarters (DQs) would jog by in line doing so many circuits, rifles above their heads; or they could be doing press-ups. Made a nice change from sitting in their cells picking oakum strand by strand (‘a loose, dusty hemp or jute fibre used chiefly for caulking seams in wooden ships and packing pipe joints’). This wasn’t used for anything except to be a complete and utter waste of time. Just mixed up and put back in the sack afterwards. They had to do so much of it a day or they wouldn’t get their smoke. This meant lining up in a row. A Petty Officer would walk down giving each of them a cigarette, then he would to the top again and go down lighting them. Then back to the top and walk down chucking them in a bucket. The Navy wasn’t going to give in. A punishment was a punishment.
It was about this time I was interviewed to see if I could be officer material. Nothing came of it. The sub-plot was the Navy didn’t want National Servicemen in the first place and took as few as they could get away with. This obviously reduced the number of National Servicemen they made up to officer. Whether I would have made it anyway is another question. Some time later, an officer friend read me the report of this interview. It appeared I had upset the lady Lieutenant Commander interviewer. No doubt I thought I was being fascinating at the time. Story of my life really.
I started playing rugby for the Barracks, moving from full back to fly-half as my eyesight got worse. It was a bit off and on. The officer players liked to play on duty weekends but not on free weekends. The lower decks made up the numbers. I remember one weekend I had a really severe, cricked neck. The medics told me they knew the answer. One of them grabbed my feet, the other one my neck. The neck medic drew my head and neck back and wrenched it sharply to the left. The pain was extraordinary. But I played the game; with a severely cricked and wrenched neck.
The other thing I remember was borrowing someone’s spare jockstrap. I’d managed to leave mine behind. It is always a mistake to borrow someone’s jockstrap. This one gave me an itch, you know that itch in-between, which went on so long I can’t remember when it stopped.
(An aside – Let me tell go about this itch. At times it drove me crazy. I had it even when I left the Navy. I had had a polio injection and didn’t feel good. My mother called the doctor. Just a mild reaction, he said. Then he saw the tube of tineafax cream (treatment of tinea cruris – jock itch) on the bedside table. We all used it. ‘What’s this for?’ he said. I told him. Instantaneously the bedclothes were flung back and my legs were in the air. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, he said. ‘It’s all in the head.’
Some time later, I was off to be a student in America. America at the time insisted I get a doctor to sign off that I didn’t have VD. Girls too had to sign off they weren’t going to be whores. Nothing much has changed. Anyway, while I was in there, I reminded him about the itch; and this is how the conversation went
Me: ‘I’m off to America. I still have the itch and, whether it is in my head or not, I should appreciate your help in getting rid of it.’
Dr: ‘What’s the problem with it?’
Me: ‘Well, for example, today I was in the barber’s and had this terrible urge to scratch myself.’
Dr: ‘No-one minds you scratching yourself in the barbers”
Me: ‘I know. But sometimes I can be in mixed company.’
Dr: ‘So, are you saying you get this itch when you’re with girls?’
Me: ‘No. But the other night I was at the theatre with a girl and, while we were having a drink at the interval, I got this itch again.’
Dr: ‘Well the thing to do is to get up very close to her, look her directly in the eyes, and have a jolly good scratch. She’ll never know.’
My father had just bought me an old car. Remember the Flying Standard with its flared mudguards and its stand-up-and-beg headlights. More like a Flying Deathtrap to my mind. The flared wings had rusted and the headlights turned in. The brakes only just worked. I spent weekend after weekend haring up the A3 for the joys of London; and down again the next day. Most of it was like driving in a black-out, the twisted lights occasionally catching the cats eyes or a white line to guide me on my way.
I also met a girl called Molly. Some local nurses wanted a few sailors to dance with at their party. So I danced with Molly. She was an assistant nurse. She had a small flat in Southsea. She was a sweetheart. I wasn’t very good at these things. I had spent most of my time as a teenager improving my golf handicap. Molly taught me that there are better things in life than a low score. “Do I have to send you a telegram” she had said.
One evening I was driving through Southsea when I was stopped by the police. ‘Do you mind asking your young lady if she would mind sitting in her own seat while you are driving?” he said.
These were my halcyon days in the Navy. Duties were light. Occasionally we did a march past and occasionally one of the team would lead the contingent. On my day, there I was leading the continent, barking out the commands like a good one: quick march, eyes left, this kind of thing. Went off like clockwork. ‘Sounds a bit sergeant majorish’ said a snotty nosed subby (sub-lieutenant) to his colleague. Surely that is what it is all about, I thought.
They were a bit like that, these midshipmen. We had a kit inspection competition. Mine was perfect. His mother must have done it, said the midshipman. So what, I thought. Mind you, there was only one thing worse that a recently graduated boy midshipman; and that was one made up from the lower deck. They were just a pain in the arse.
We would get our own back on these Middies. Kim, a mate of mine, and I joined a small club in Southsea, The Golden nugget would you believe. It was an Officers’ Club. We must have sounded right. There we could have beers, talk to some pretty girls and do a little dancing all in a nice environment with nice people and dimmed lights. The evening’s sport would be to find a likely sub-lieutenant, who was making the Navy his life, and ask him what it was like to be a sub-lieutenant making the Navy his life. Well. This was wonderful (wow) and that was marvellous (geewizz) and so it went on for a week or two. Then the time would come for our turn. What about this? How do you cope with that? And what would you do if this happened? By the time we were finished, he would be totally deflated, maybe even considering resigning his commission.
It was pretty safe walking around Portsmouth at night too. If the local thugs picked on someone, they would have it coming back to them. When he got back to barracks, the shore patrol would set off looking for them and, when they found them, set about them. It was standard for many these leading seaman apparently, when they had done their time with the Navy, to join the Police Force.
And, as the months rolled by, I had all the guard house sorted. Whether it was ‘sippers’ or ‘gulpers’, I would roll up in the Flying Standard, they would open the gate for me, sign me in while I parked the car and strolled off to the dormitory. After I had learned the ropes, very few weekends too were ruined by tiresome things like duty responsibilities.
But, as we know, all good things must come to an end. Life must move on to pastures new. And let’s face it, what is a sailor if he doesn’t have a ship, one that floats? And what is a sailor if he doesn’t go to sea. That was my next assignment, HMS VIGILANT. To hell with wearing glasses! (To be continued 11/11)