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Used to work for AVIVA offshoring IT to India.  Now retired through ill health, writing my life story as a series of blogs chronologically from birth to current time.  At www.jw-alifeofsurprises.blogspot.com

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Is that a Rifle I see Before Me? - 1980

About a week after Dad had passed away it was back to school. My friends were great and I began to settle back into my teenage ways of going about things. I was heavily into girls by this time and was going from one girl to another in fairly quick succession, nothing too heavy, mainly kissing and amateur fumbling. My Dad had introduced me to a new friend called Alan Hamilton, whose father was disabled after suffering a stroke; he had been in the American Air force and was a tremendously spirited person and his wife had taken a job as my Dad’s PA. I was also friends with a chap named Richard Gordon; he came from Regina in Canada and was living with his grandparents just down the road. His Grandparents often took Richard and me out at weekends to the coast and his grandmother was very old fashioned in her ways. We once went to Great Yarmouth and paraded up and down the seafront looking for somewhere to have lunch. His Grandmother finally settled upon the Europa Restaurant (it’s still there!) as it looked “clean”. I love that, how the older generation use terms in that way. Richard recently found me again on Facebook, so I look forward to re-acquainting myself with him. At school I was studying English (which I really loved), Maths, Geography, Geology, Woodwork, Domestic Science (Cookery) and Local History and to be fair, I was not the sharpest tool in the woodshed. I really had no idea what I wanted to do for a career and was really in need of some guidance, but Dad was gone and Mum was not in a position to notice, which though harsh was true.

That summer (1979) I went on my School Cruise, around the Mediterranean. A few of my school friends were on the cruise as well, including Nigel Pritty, who was the school goalkeeper much to my chagrin! He was very good though and unless he was injured, you had no chance of getting his place in the team. Mum took me up to the school on the day of departure and we clambered aboard the coach to Southampton. We arrived at the docks, to find the SS Uganda waiting for us. I was to have a relationship with the ship to some extent, as 5 years later; I sailed back from my tour of the Falkland Islands on her as far as the Ascension Islands, but more of that to follow in future blogs. We were given berths in the Magellan dormitory and then all scrambled around the ship finding out where the galley and the heads (toilets) were. We also found out where we were not allowed to go; anywhere near the bridge and the bow and the top decks forward of the funnels. We lined the deck as she eased away from the key side and set sail for Cadiz in Spain. Ports of call were Cadiz (with an excursion to Seville), Sardinia, Crete, Santorini, Istanbul and Athens. We were to see some wonderful sights, including Tharros, Knossos and the Parthenon. Nigel and I stuck together and we met another kid called Phil, whose nickname was Wolfie, who I thought was the coolest bloke I had ever met and we became firm friends. Phil was from Thetford in Norfolk and we did see one another for sometime after we got back from the cruise, more or less until I joined up. We spent most of the time when at sea, chatting up girls in the disco and generally trying to look as cool as possible, which was not easy considering we wore bell bottoms trousers with 4 buttons at the waist, tight sweaters and had shoulder length hair! There was also a trend to wear very wide soled shoes that were platforms as well; goodness knows how we managed to stay upright! It was a great experience though and a highlight of my youth.

As 1979 progressed, I began to spend more time with another of my friends at school; Dean Daynes. I do not know how we came about to hear of it, but we turned up at party in Blofield, a village just outside of Norwich. It was at a teacher’s house and the place had very little furniture. I distinctly remember people smoking cannabis and being offered some, but in typical Bill Clinton fashion, if I did smoke I never inhaled!! During the night, I heard a song by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), called Messages. I remember asking for it to be played over and over again along with another single called Electricity. I was blown away by their sound and became a fan. Over the forthcoming years, I bought every 7” single, 12” single, Album and video. I still have my collection and there are some very rare pieces among it and they are probably worth a few pounds these days. So with OMD forming the soundtrack to my life, I set about failing in my education. I do not think I intentionally failed to study; I just did not have a father figure to sort me out. The real disappointment was English, the one class I did try hard in. My course work was up to date and I was really enjoying the work, especially as we were reading John Steinbeck. My folder contained all my work and was to be submitted, as it formed part of the overall mark for the exam. Somehow it went missing from the locker in the classroom. Upsettingly, the teacher appeared not to give care, so I never sat the exam and subsequently failed all the others. I left school with not one result higher than a “C”. I had no idea what I wanted to do and no one offering any advice either. Meanwhile Dean and I were getting into all sorts of scrapes, truanting from school and trying to drink as much Cider as possible.

The pub across the road from our house, “The Volunteer” did a fine line in Dry Blackthorn Cider. Dean and I aged 15, would go into the Off Licence and buy 2 litre bottles and go back to my bedroom. There we’d consume as much as possible, before the room invariably started to spin. I was also going to the YMCA youth club every Tuesday evening and on the way, I would buy as packet of 10 “Number 6” cigarettes and a box of matches for 17 pence. I was an ignorant little bugger as one evening they showed us tearaways a video about the effects of smoking on the body. We all sat there, sucking down the smoke as we watched, pathetic really. I also spent a lot of time with my sister Helen and David, riding my bike across town to see her and my nieces. I cycled everywhere and was once knocked off my bike whilst hurtling down Earlham Road. The lady driver in front was indicating to turn right, but pulled into the left, exactly where I was passing her. Trapped between her car and the kerb, I left my bike and flew over her car and onto the pavement. The woman was aghast and in shock, I thought I had broken my leg and was carted off to hospital for x-rays. Mum was cleaning (she had a cleaning job at a Hospital Consultants) and had to get a lift to the hospital. I was ok, no broken bones fortunately. A few weeks later, Julian and I were cycling down the same road, me ahead of him, when he called out. He had spotted a £10 note and stopped to pick it up. We went straight down to the Pool Club in Anglian Square and proceeded to spend it on video games and on the pool tables. Julian had also become a very talented Skateboarder, Dad had bought him all the gear and he was a regular at the indoor skate park, owned by the father of a school friend of mine, Garry Welsh.

My brother Richard had joined the Metropolitan Police and my younger brother Julian was to become quite a handful as he drifted into his mid-teens. Helen was busy with 2 young daughters and Mark had Jason, Michelle and Ben to look after. Mum was trying her best, but I honestly believe that beyond the day to day running of the house she was not “there”. I had a number of girlfriends but was always on the outside of the “cool” group at school. There were a couple of characters who bullied me to a degree and one particular family who had a qualification in bullying I think. I do not know why I became a target, but I was “mugged” of my football, boots and money on the way home from the park by one of the brothers, with a broken Coke bottle. My Mum went round to see their mother, who was actually a nice woman; she just had no idea how to control her kids. The great thing about that was when I was working in the Pickwick Pub some 12 years later, the bully came in and was served by another girl who worked there. I worked out who he was and when he came up to the bar for a refill, I took his glass and told him to sod off, as he was barred. He went ballistic and threatened all sorts of violence. He then asked why I would not serve him (by this time Jerry Steer the owner had joined me behind the bar) and I said that many years before he had mugged me as a kid, that he was a wanker and that he should go forth and multiply. He kicked off again, saying that was not a reason to bar him, but he did not get served and it felt great to get the bastard back, a minor victory.

The months rolled by and soon it was time for Mum and I to attend a school careers evening in May 1980. I had “decided” that I wanted to be a Painter and Decorator. Why? Well, because my friend Julian Wiseman wanted to be one. (Again, pretty pathetic and reflective of where my life had ended up with no one to guide me). All my contemporaries were taking entrance exams at the CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) and I thought I may as well join them. I failed the exam. So, the careers evening was where I ended up and Mum and I wandered around it, with very little idea of what I was trying to achieve. The prospective employers were arranged around the school hall, behind desks, many local companies were represented and a number formed a row down the centre of the room. At the very end, sitting behind his desk, in full Number 2 Dress (smart) was a Sergeant from the Army Recruitment Office in Norwich. I wandered up to him and he asked me if I wanted to join the Army. Now if you knew me back then, I was very likely the last person you would expect to be soldier material as I was very immature for my age with very little common sense (I hear cries of no change there then JW). I told the Sergeant that “no, I had my heart set on becoming a Painter and Decorator but had failed the entrance exam”. “You can do your apprenticeship in the Army”, he said, “The Army has a Regiment with all the building trades within it and a dedicated college where you take your apprenticeship, based near Chepstow, in Wales”. A synapse obviously fired within my brain, (well it more than likely went “phut”) and the next thing I knew, I was signing a document, which meant I was to turn up at the Army Careers Office, for a medical the following week. Mum and I left and sure enough the next week, I was lined up, in a grubby room, top floor of the office in Magdalen Street, having my nuts felt by a doctor and being told to cough. “Fine” said the medic, and with that, it was pants up, downstairs and sign here. I had joined the British Army, Royal Engineers Regiment.

I was given a card with my next assignment on it, which was to take a train to Camberley in Surrey, for a 2 day fitness and aptitude test to see if my brain cell had the capability to grasp how to hold a paintbrush in one hand and a 7.62mm Self Loading Rifle in the other. As I was pretty fit and healthy, I walked the fitness tests, which included circuit training evaluations, (press ups, squat thrusts, star jumps, pull ups, sit ups) and a run through the woods, up hills and through bogs etc. When it came to the aptitude tests, it was a different kettle of fish. All it consisted of was multiple choice questions and was probably fairly easy. I failed, again. However, they must have been desperate, as they accepted me as “A Potential Apprentice”, not as “An Apprentice”. This meant I would have to complete additional schooling at Chepstow, (Maths mainly) whilst I was doing the apprenticeship, but we started 3 months after the intake of Apprentice Soldiers. Still, I was in the Army and had until November 1980 before I left home, so needed to fill the period between June and November. Dean and I got jobs picking lettuces, we lasted a week. I would have lasted longer, but Dean told the farmer to f’off, over something such as the crap wages we were being paid and so, in a show of solidarity, I joined him in the walk out. I then got a job as a butcher’s lad, and was pretty good at making sausages and burgers, and John, the butcher, even showed me how to bone a hind quarter, (take all the meat of a cows leg, leaving only the bone and wasting nothing of use). Dean meanwhile started his Carpenters apprenticeship at Bush Builders.

Richard had, as I have said, joined the Metropolitan Police. He had done well at school, so I can’t blame all my failures on Mum and having no Dad, and went off to Hendon Police College. Reflecting upon his joining the Police and me the Army, one might say we were running away from home? I cannot speak for Richard, and actually he has always been so strong mentally and physically, that he was very likely just doing what he wanted to do, but I think I was so “lost” (is that the right word?); I just did not have a clue. Plus there was the immaturity, which was to play a major part in my disciplinary record at Chepstow, and I was primed for a long, drawn out 2 years at Chepstow. I turned 16 on the 17th June 1980, within 4 months I would be staring into the mouth of a drill sergeant, getting beasted (bullied) by the Trained Soldiers Cadre (the group leaving to join their regiments after completing their apprenticeships but who then had to complete 3 months of hell called Combat Engineer Training), breaking all sorts of records for misbehaviour and generally being a prat and very nearly walking out 3 months in. More of that to come thanks for reading!

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