So the time had come. We were off to HMS Ceres to earn our gold star Writer’s badge. Sounded hopeful too. Ceres: the Greek Goddess of Fertility no less (or was it TV Programmes?). HMS Ceres was a brick battleship, the type that doesn’t float but doesn’t sink.
HMS Ceres was in Wetherby in Yorkshire. It’s a lovely part of the world. Near Harrogate, near York and its magnificently Gothic Cathedral, near Ripon Cathedral, with its Saxon Crypt, and Fountains Abbey, the beautifully preserved but ruined Cistercian Abbey; and, indeed, near Wetherby Race Track. We even took expeditions into the Yorkshire Dales, hopping from rock to rock as the streams gurgled beside us. In fact one chap fell over on the rocks and ignited a box of Swan matches in his trouser pocket. For a while he did a bit more hopping about than the rest of us. The downside was Wetherby was very cold in winter, at least for those sailors who hailed from ‘south of the Thames’.
The camp itself was charming too, all low level buildings, pathways running between them with little green verges and rose beds bounded by diagonally-set bricks. If people weren’t walking around in uniform, we might of thought we were somewhere else. It was all very relaxed.
One day two of us were walking with the rubbish bin between us having just emptied it. A trainee chef with a beaming smile decided it was such a lovely day he would run up from behind and jump over it. Would we mind? No, we said. What skills he had in cooking evidently did not rely on logic. He hadn’t worked out that, from the moment he took off, we would have walked on a couple of steps while he was in the air. Sure enough, up he galloped, took off and landed right in the middle of the empty bin, the whole lot going head over heels. We were shaking with laughter as we walked on while he sat on the path rubbing away at the bruised bits.
As you walked in the gates of HMS Ceres, generally speaking the billets or dormitories were to the left. To the immediate right was a huge parade ground, facing inwards with the large flag pole centre edge and, behind it, a low level brick building, with a small rectangular water tower in the centre of the roof. The officers would step out with this building behind them in full uniform and address the morning parade facing them. The guard would present arms. The Union Jack would be unfolded and raised on the pole. The parson would hold prayers. We would all sing a hymn or two to a small mobile organ which had been pushed out and opened ready. Then we would march past stiffly with the officers returning the salute. Something like that anyway.
The dormitories were like Nissen huts, quite comfortable with double bunking beds end-to-end down each side and a double row of steel lockers facing outwards down the middle. Toilet and wash facilities were the other side of the entry door at one end. I chose the upper bunk as near to the door on the left side as I could. I had already learned, when right handed people walked into a room like that, they tended to turn right; and most people are right handed. This gave me a few seconds more in bed most mornings.
The biggest problem with the dormitories was we had to share them with the trainees chefs who were also trained at HMS Ceres. Chefs tended to be rather more basic than us Writers and, when they got drunk, occasionally chose to piss in their own lockers rather waste sleep time staggering off to the toilets. If you were unlucky, they mistook your locker for theirs.
We hadn’t been to Ceres long before our Chief Petty Officer (CPO) gave us our welcome and our warning. There was a local young lady, he said, who couldn’t wait till evening leave time came to earn her pennies. She had taken to offering herself through the surrounding chain linked fence. Our CPO gave his advice with these succinct words.
” She’s got it, you want it. She’s got it, you’ll get it”.
For our group, that was advice enough.
Our group was a nice bunch, mostly quite well educated and from all over the country. There were 12 of us. We would all take of evening ‘shore’ leave together. That meant 12 pints of beer which was pretty inebriating; and you had to be careful. You had to be able to walk back through the gate and check in unaided.
On one of this outings, one of the guys became desperate for a crap. He dived behind a hedge. We were well in the country. He came out smiling and off we all walked together back to the camp. Suddenly, after about 300 yards, he discovered he had left his belt behind, a pretty difficult thing to do. Navy belts are wide bits of webbing which go round your waist to be locked in place by the front flap of the trousers. Anyway, back we all went. He dived back behind the hedge and had some difficulty finding it. Oops. There it is. Underneath. He carried it back to the camp very gingerly. I am not quite sure how we navigated it past the guard house.
Even now, after all these years, I remember those nights waking up, freezing cold, sitting on the toilet.
So life went on. We were all given duties outside our training sessions. Mine was cleaning up the kitchen vessels after meals in the camp cook house. Those huge steel vats. Not long, everything began to stink of rotten cabbage, you, your hair, your clothes. You took them off at night. They stunk at the end of your bed. And you put them on in the morning. You just couldn’t get away from it.
The other side of it was the long waits between meals and washing duties. We used this time playing draughts. Endlessly. Draughts. After a month or so, everything I saw became draughts. I’d stand talking to people and, before long, my mind was moving them around on a draughts board; and, when I slept, the same games were played over and over again. It took months afterwards to get it out of my head.
When I was relieved these duties, I became one of the camp gaolers. I had to sit in the cells and make sure everyone had what they needed!! The camp had quite a big, residential contingent just to keep the place running. Inevitably, some of these transgressed and some got locked up. Most of them had tattoos; and most of the tattoos were pierced hearts or scrolls with the mother’s or girl friend’s name; or vertical swords and banners with things like Death before Dishonour written on them. It was here I discover how unbelievably hard some of these kind of guys are. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that would make them change their mind – no insult, no hardship, no bribe. They were resolute.
Some of the guys in the cells were there, trying to work their ticket, trying to get out of the Navy. In those day, there was a 12 Continuous Service contract. They would sign on at the age of 16 as a boy seaman. You see them in those old photos standing on the top of the mast. But the contract didn’t begin until they were 18. By 19, they hated the place and wanted to get out. But there was no way out. They couldn’t usually buy their way out, even if they could find the money. So the choice was to do things where the penalty was detention for 13 weeks. Three of these and you could be chucked out. So some of them would go out and pick fights with shore patrols, do their three months, take a rest, have a few beers; and then set about a valuable bit of Naval property, like a kitchen with a fire axe.
Another way was to piss in your bed. As we know, some people have this problem they can’t help. The Navy couldn’t have people in a mess at sea pissing in their hammocks, then trussing them closed for storage. Clearly it would be a health hazard, even if you could cope with the flies. So the brighter ones would have a good night’s sleep, then piss in their bed before they got up in the morning. One of my ‘cell’ jobs was to go round every hour through the night, wake them up and ask “Want a piss?” It was then a question who would give in first.
As we know, all good things must come to an end. We had passed our exams. In the next few days we would graduate. The question then was what could we do to be remembered at Ceres forever. We formed discussion groups. Over and over it we went. Suggestions came and went. Ho ho ho, we said. That won’t work, we said. We could put a live chicken in the organ. We could fill the flag with confetti so it would blow all over the parade ground. That’s nothing, we said, That’s be done before, we said. Then my friend Jerry Guiton came up his his idea. Ho, ho, ho, we said. That’s impossible, we said.
But not for Jerry. It was possible; and he had worked out the timings. He must have been an engineer. I helped him. We crept out in the dead of night. We gathered bricks from the garden and built a low, false wall in front of the water tower on that low flat roofed building by the parade ground. A mattress cover cut open made a 12 foot (3.7m) banner. Jerry found 2 x12 foot sticks to attach to keep it open. He found a ball of strong twine and a good number of vine eye hooks to run the twine through. He was ready. The night before our graduation day Jerry was up on the roof for the final touches.
We did not have to attend the parade on the day of graduation because we were meeting the Camp Commander directly afterwards. We waited at the back of the long, low building, in fact just where the end of the piece of twine was hanging. We heard the parade set up and we saw the officers step out. This was the moment. Jerry pulled on the twine. Amazingly it worked. Slowly a banner rose up in front of the assembled sailors. Of course the officers couldn’t see it. It was behind them. Beautifully scripted the words said
GOOD MORNING CAMPERS!
Well you are not meant to laugh on parade or even smile. You’re certainly not meant to laugh out-loud. The guard of honour fell about about. Arms didn’t present. The morning service collapsed and, of course, those marching past marched past the banner, and those saluting saluted the banner. Tears were running down the faces. It was chaotic. I think the march past was made to run again.
Jerry. You were a star and still a very fond memory. And I have to hand it to the Camp Commander too. We could have been in real trouble, maybe even cell dwellers. But the Commander took it in good heart. I suppose it is one of those thing, if you do it well enough, you’ll get forgiven. He merely stated his suspicion we were involved, advised us that, if it was us, we would be better not to do something like this again, and formally handed us our golden Writer star. We saluted, about turned and marched out. Goodbye HMS Ceres. You’re a fond memory too.
We we off for our first assignment, for me HMS Victory in Portsmouth. (To be continued 9/11)