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The Second World War was in full swing and my mum was giving birth to twin boys in a nursing home in Frindsbury in the county of Kent in England.
My name is Douglas and I was one of those twins. The other boy was named Peter and he died when we were both just a few months old.
My mum brought six children into the world and sadly lost two of them to illness during their young lives. We had another brother who was named Brian and he too passed away in childhood.
The birth was a difficult one and twins were not expected prior to the actual event so there was a degree of angst amongst some of those present at the scene.
My dad – William (Bill), wasn’t there at the time of the birth, but in all probability, the first thing he thought about when he got the news was, he now had 5 kids to fend and provide for. The other children Dorothy 11, Janet 4, Brian 2, were at home in the village of Higham at the small terraced cottage where they would all now have to share with us two “new arrivals” and additions to the family.
The cottage itself was in a block of six similar dwellings and the family dwelling was at the end of the block which had some structural damage to the outer-end wall. This structural damage was being "temporarily" secured by means of two steel plates running diagonally across and forming an unsightly cross which had become corroded and rusty over the years making it look hazardous.
The house had a scullery at the rear and another room at the front which had a door leading out onto the lane known as Church Street. There was a single water tap situated on a standpipe in the centre of the block at the rear.
This constituted the fresh water supply for the six households.
The sewage disposal was from a cess pit located at the end of the garden which was emptied by a sewage tanker when it became full.
The cess pit had no cover and was exposed to all passers-by and one needed to take extra care when nearby in case one fell into this horrible pit. Our lavatory was located about 3 yards from the cesspit.
In fact, I did fall into the cesspit on one occasion and luckily for me, my sister Janet was able to get hold of my hair and call for help. I could have drowned in that awful stuff. As a result of this a wooden cover was made for the pit by the farmer who was the owner of the cottage.
At the outside of each dwelling there was an outbuilding that housed the means of heating up water when required. This consisted of a brick-built structure containing an iron tub into which the cold water was carried from the outside tap and poured into.
Below the iron tub was a hearth where a fire would be lit to heat the water. This was a daily procedure and all the hot water that was needed for washing clothes and for bathing would have to be taken from this boiler by a large ladle that was nearby for this purpose. The hot water was put into buckets and carried into the scullery.
When members of the household needed to bathe, the there was a portable tin bath that would be placed on the floor of the scullery.
Each member of the family would take turns to bathe using the same water so the last one to bathe had the "joy" of a cool bath and of course the water had by this time seen better days. Obviously, we all preferred to take the first dip, but this had to be rigidly controlled by mum to see that we all had a fair shake of the whip.
When mum eventually arrived home with the two of us, we were placed in wooden drawers that we're removed from the chest drawers in mum and dad’s bedroom. This was to be our sleeping arrangements for the time being. The size of the house was suitable only for a very small family of perhaps three but now there was seven in this one, so it was a bit tight to say the least.
Anyway, that’s how things were, and we all had to manage although Peter and I were not aware of any hardships at that time as we were too young to notice. As long as we had our nappies changed and were fed and watered, I don’t suppose anything else made any difference to the way we felt.
Some of my earliest memories are of hiding under the big wooden table in the scullery during an air raid. My mum was standing at the back door and we could hear the German bombers overhead that we're on their way to bomb London docks that were about 20 miles away from our house.
We were not direct targets ourselves but sometimes bombs would fall close by and that was scary for us all.
There were barrage balloons in the sky above intended to restrict the Stuka dive bombers coming low enough to bomb the railway lines that ran not too far from our house.
These balloons were secured to their ground anchors by long cables and they seemed (to me) to be all over the sky.
I also remember the V1 rockets that were nicknamed "doodlebugs". They were very scary to us all because they seemed to be so low in the sky, unlike the bombers which seemed very high and in large numbers.
The doodlebugs would come alone, and they had a kind of phut-phut sound like a two-stroke engine. When the sound stopped, the doodlebug would start to fall to the ground and that was the time to start running for cover.
Again, these rockets would come at any time of day or night and unlike the fleets of bombers you could not hear them coming until they were almost over our heads.
At least with the bombing raids we got a warning through the air raid sirens that would wail in that awful up and down sing song noise that (to me) was as scary as the bombers themselves.
For some time, early in the war, I was looked after by William and Edith Slater who lived in a bungalow close by to the railway line. At the bottom of the garden was the railway and air raid shelter had been dug into the embankment where we would run to as soon as an air raid warning sounded off.
We could stay in the shelter all day and night if the bombing was continuous as it was quite frequently. The air raid shelter gave me a feeling of security unlike when we had to huddle under the table in the scullery at our own home.
I always felt vulnerable then and wanted my mum to come away from the door, but she wouldn't. She would be looking up into the night sky watching the anti-aircraft guns pounding away at the enemy bombers.
I could see from where I was huddled the tracer bullets tearing a pathway into the dark sky. It was exciting but scary too and in fact quite a paradoxical experience I recall.
William Slater and Edith (Uncle Bill and Nan nan) were so loving and kind to me. They had no kids of their own and I suppose they enjoyed having a youngster around the house. They had a lovely garden with so many flowers and vegetables.
We always had enough to eat and sometimes Nan-nan would make custard that we would have poured over fresh raspberries from the garden. It was heaven.
Uncle Bill taught me to read and write and by the time I was 3 years old I was able to read the time from the clock on the mantle shelf. He would sit me in the small chair in front of the log fire in the front room and he would move the hands of the clock around and get me to say what it was indicating. If I got it wrong, as I did quite often, he would patiently go over it again until it sunk in. He also taught me to read very early on.
He had loads of books and he would let me read any of them if I asked. It didn't matter what the subject was. He just encouraged me to read and read and read. I shall always be grateful to both lovely people for the love and attention they gave me in those early days of my childhood.
At 5 years of age I attended the Higham Primary School. I was so scared on the first morning when we all had to assemble in the playground that I soiled my underpants and my sister Janet was ordered to take me home to change my clothes.
I can remember having to drink the milk that was delivered to the school by the crate in small bottles.
During the cold winter, the ice would sometimes be at the top of the milk and although we didn’t like it too cold, we had to drink it.
There was Miss Nash who was fearsome and made us eat cabbage and swede and that awful powdered potato we called POM. I really disliked her but looking back she was only doing her job.
The headmaster was Mr. Nichols and he was a nice person. Very kind and caring he used to take us kids around his garden in the summer and explain about the plants and things. On a Friday if we were lucky there would be a film show using old 8mm projector. Felix the cat was my favourite.
Mrs Nichols - (his wife), was another kettle of fish though, quite the opposite to her husband. She scared the hell out of me sometimes with her shouting and bawling. Despite everything there were also happy times in those early years.
In the summer holidays, we would go to the fields with my mum and help with things like pea picking or fruit picking. Lots of other kids would also be there helping. It was great fun for us to ride on the horse drawn carts through the orchards and the fields.
In those times there was little mechanization on the farms – it was very labour intensive.
Fields were ploughed very often using a pair of Clydesdale horses. These enormous creatures were lovely animals and it’s hard to find any of them these days except for special occasions in a pageant for example.
In those days there were animals in abundance and as children we would often help the farmer herd them into pens.
Today our kids are not allowed to do many of the fun things that children of our generation were allowed to do. It’s all to do with “health and safety” so we are told. My opinion – for what it’s worth? RUBBISH.
In our childhood, mums and kids would come to the village station on the steam trains from Strood and Gravesend bringing their perambulators with babies inside.
They would spend the day on the farms working and earning as much as one pound and five shillings, eqivalent to (£1.25 today) , for a day’s hard work, and then go back on the train in the evening.
The perambulators were not just for the babies. A secondary use of these “chariots” was to hide the apples, the pears, the plums, peas, greengages, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, cauliflowers, or anything that was the harvest of the day.
The idea was to take them back to town and sell (or give) them to friends and neighbours. I remember seeing the local policeman (“Bobby Ward”) standing outside of our house with a couple of the farmers’ full time workers and searching the perambulators. (It was amazing to see how many kilos of apples for example that could be hidden beneath the baby in the perambulator).
These traditional “prams” were nothing like the modern types we see today. Most had a false bottom beneath the mattress with massive storage space for “stolen fruit”. It was hard for those women who were caught with “swag” because they would not be able to work for this farmer again.
However, there were several farmers in our village and so if one blocked them another might be willing to take them on. Occasionally a farmer might take further action against the person who was taking the swag, but this was rarely done I think.
Sometimes my mum would tell me to go home and bring back some hot tea. I would go back to our house and make some hot tea and mix the milk and sugar inside. Then pour the tea into a couple of milk bottles. I would plug the top of the bottle with newspaper to stop it spilling out and run all the way back to the field or orchard.
If the distance between house and field was too far, the tea would be just cool or even cold by the time I got back. Then I would have to find some twigs and dry grass to light a small fire. Using a Billycan I would heat up the tea from the bottles and when hot would fill the bottles again before handing to my mum. It was all fun and we learned to be a part of it all and not take everything for granted.
Later on, when I was older, Mum would give me pocket money at the end of the week. In those days, my pocket money would be “half a crown” which in today’s language is twelve and a half pence.
For this money, I could go to the cinema in the village hall and still have some of it left over. The cost would be “sixpence” (a tanner) – (or two and a half pence in old money) and still have plenty for a few sweets and other stuff from the local grocery shop.
At 11 years of age I was awarded a scholarship.
This meant I had to begin my secondary school education in the County Grammar School for Boys situated in Denton.
None of the children in my year had gone to this school and I felt so alone and out of place.
Most of the boys that joined the school at the same time as I knew at least some of the pupils already attending or maybe had a brother or cousin at the school. I was certainly alone and believe me I felt it.
As with all schools there were the bullies and the victims of the bullies. To some extent I must thank the bullies - and here's why.
During the first few days, I made friends with a lad called Roy Robinson and he became a target for one of the notorious bullies in the school, a boy who was two years senior to us both. This boy was called Perry. “Fat Perry” because of his size.
One day when I came onto the quadrangle this Perry character started to push Roy around and slapping him in the face. Although I was quite scared, I just got mad and laid into the guy. Anyway, it wasn't a happy encounter for either of us as we were separated by two of the prefects and hauled in front of the headmaster.
He gave us both a lecture and singled me out as the cause of it all. For my part, I got "six of the best" - (caned across the buttocks) and made to attend a detention class after school.
When got to the detention class that evening with all the other "school villains", I was treated with respect for having a go at the school bully. Wow!
From then on, I became a thorn in the side of the Headmaster and indeed most of my teachers. A couple of them I learned to respect but most of the others I considered snobbish and they seemed to make me feel inferior to the other boys whose parents were mostly from the middle classes.
This may not have been entirely their fault since I have accepted in later years that I can suffer from low self-esteem at times.
Today I believe I'm able to get off the pity pot quickly but in my early years I resented those who put me down because of my background. (Let me be clear. My background was as good as any, but it was my INFERIORITY COMPLEX that was the root cause of my dilemma).
One of my teachers - Mr. Light – (aka “Dimmy”), was particularly spiteful to me one morning when he called me to the front of the class and questioned me singularly on one aspect of what he had been lecturing us with.
He had previously ridiculed me in front of the others because I was not familiar with algebraic concepts.
On this particular morning, he asked me to hold up my hands to show the whole class and then chastised me for having dirty fingernails. He asked me why was it that I had such dirty fingernails?
I tried to explain that my mum worked in the fields and was still at work when I got home after school.
We all had our chores and one of mine was to prepare and light the coal fire so that we could have hot water and obviously to keep us warm in the house. It was a coal fire and I needed to clean the old ashes etcetera from the hearth before I could prepare the fire to light.
He made fun of me and most of the boys in the class were giggling. I was eleven years old, about to cry in front of the class and so I just turned and ran out of the classroom. I could hear him yelling at me to come back, but I kept on running. I cleared off home and did not go back to school for several days.
I didn’t tell my mum that I had been bunking off and when it all came to light a few days later when the school demanded a "sick note" from my parents I was again in trouble.
During much of the time I was at the Grammar school I was made to attend the detention class as punishment for one thing or another. I reached a point where I was on indefinite detention. This came about as follows.
One day I did not turn up for detention class after normal school hours. The next morning at assembly my name was called out to report to the headmaster after the assembly had finished. I went to his office and waited.
He had me called in and asked why I didn’t attend the detention class. I told him some story (can’t remember what it was but probably a lie anyway). He then gave me “six of the best” with the cane across the buttocks and another detention for not turning up the previous evening.
That evening I attended the detention class and when my name was called out I replied, "present sir".
Then after a few more names were read out mine came up again. I again replied, “present sir”, - and that was that.
The next morning at assembly my name was read out to see the headmaster.
Again, I got six of the best and another detention. The reason was that I had double detention and that was punishable with six of the best. And because of the so called “rules” about double detention, as I was not present for one of them it was carried over to the next day. And these “rules” were from the brains of those teaching us. No wonder we were confused as kids…….at least I was.
I thought to myself, this is nuts, I can't win. So, I didn't ever show up again for detention at all but got the six every morning for the rest of the school term.
The following term, as punishment for not attending any detention classes they had me coming in on Saturday morning to help the groundsman with the playing fields, like marking the lines on the rugby pitch and cutting the grass etc.
My Dad eventually found out what was going on, promised nuclear retaliation, and that was the end of it.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad at school. There were good times too. I must admit to being a bad student as I would often skimp on my homework and was almost always in the bottom 5 of the class in exams and classwork.
But I did excel a bit in Rugby and cricket and was chosen to play for the school teams in these two sports.
Academically I was not up to much except perhaps for two subjects – biology and art.
When I was about 13 years old, I had a nasty accident on a bicycle which my pal Roy Gomme had loaned me for half an hour or so.
As the result of this accident, I was hospitalised for just two days. I had to attend the hospital every day for about 5-6 weeks in order to have injections and cleaning of the wounds to my face. At first, the ambulance came for me every day, but this was only for a few days.
After that I had to travel to the hospital by bus and because I had skidded along the road on my front after coming off the bike, my face took the brunt of the impact.
The skin on the right side of my face was badly affected and resulted in a huge patch of scab tissue which made me look hideous. I was not allowed to keep it covered after a time and I was so embarrassed by my appearance and I can still remember how I hated that journey to and from the hospital where people would stare at me (or so it seemed).
When I eventually got back to school, I was so far behind in my work that I just could not keep up with things. Then came the yearly exams and of course my results were abysmal.
When I returned to school in September of that year after the long summer break, I was informed that I would have to remain in the same year of study as the previous year. This was because I was so far behind that I would not be able to cope with moving forward to the next academic year.
This of course made sense, but I was devastated. Now I would be in a classroom of boys one year my junior throughout the whole year. I felt totally humiliated.
I was ribbed by my peers and I felt alien to the whole setup. And being me, I rebelled. I just could not handle it maturely. I just kept misbehaving and playing truant became the norm for me. I did not care about the consequences.
During this time, I had begun doing a bit of amateur boxing as the result of a street fight with a rival gang.
You see, although I lived in a village, it had district boundaries. There was Lower Higham where I was raised until 6 or7 years of age, and there was Upper Higham, where we moved into a council house in 1947.
Reaching 12 years of age, I was now a firmly entrenched Upper Higham lad and the kids I must have known in my earlier days in Lower Higham now became my adversaries. (Bloody silly isn’t it).
Anyway, that was how it happened in those times, and of course, boys being boys, we had our regular fights with our rivals from Lower Higham.
It was during one of these fights, that myself and a boy from the Lower Higham gang were singled out by our local Bobby (policeman) – Mr. Joe Barker.
In those days, almost every village had a local Bobby who lived in the village (unlike todays setup). And these Bobbies would not hesitate to give us a clip round the ear if we got cheeky or otherwise disruptive. It did us no harm and we accepted it.
Parents would never make a case against a policeman for such light punishment on us kids. It was all part of the system and seemed to work OK.
As it happened, on this occasion, Joe told us to come to the Working Men’s Club along Hermitage road on the following evening.
We did as we were told.
BOYS CLUB AND BOXING
When we got there, Joe had set up a temporary boxing ring in the big hall at the side of the club. He put boxing gloves on us both and we had to fight each other.
It seems that I came off best and the other lad quit. And it was from there that we formed what became the Higham Boys Club.
Joe Barker was instrumental in this and was a wonderful guy. I have a lot to thank him for and I’m not the only one.
I used to train at the club and older fellows would spar with me. In those days, we had conscription into the armed forces for boys once we reached the age of 18 years.
Thus, there were several young men in the village who had done a bit of boxing in the Army and there was no shortage of people helping me to train.
The word got around and I came to school one day after being absent (playing truant) for a few days, only to be informed that my name had gone in to represent the school in forthcoming the ABA school boxing tournament.
I arrived at the venue and my opponent was pointed out to me in the dressing rooms. His name was Trevor Fish and he looked to me just another skinny kid like me. I thought to myself “he will be no trouble” ………..WRONG.
This skinny kid completely outclassed me in the ring. All I remember of this fight was his gloves in my face the whole time. He wasn’t hurting me as much as annoying me. I hardly landed a punch on him.
I just could not match his skill at all. The referee stopped the fight in the 3rd round to save me from further punishment.
A couple of days or so later, I was on the bus going home from school when a man spoke to me. He was a teacher at the Gordon School and was in charge of his schools boxing team. The boy who beat me Trevor Fish was one of this man’s team.
This teacher asked me if I would like to train with his boys. I agreed and this started me on to being taught the art of boxing according to the Marquess of Queensberry rules.
To be honest, I was a better street fighter than a boxer and never achieved anything of note during my short amateur career.
Trevor Fish went on to become an ABA champion later in his career and turned professional sometime after.
During the summer holidays of my 3rd year at the school I found a job in a machine shop that produced a variety of items for industry. I adapted to the work very quickly and within a few weeks I was setting up machine tools including automatic capstan lathes, boring machines and gear cutting machines.
I obviously had an aptitude for this kind of work and the owner asked me if I would like to go to work for him when I left school.
I explained that my Dad was keen on my finishing Grammar school and wanted me to try to get entry into Cambridge University. Many of the pupils from our school did go on to either Oxford or Cambridge and in those days a university education was considered a great privilege.
MY DAD (William (Bill) Boothby)
He was born in Irlam in Lancashire on 2nd March 1898. As far as I know he had just one brother who was 3 years older than my dad. Their father was a coal merchant on a small scale who supplied the local community with coal. I don’t know anything about his mother (my grandmother).
My dad developed rheumatic fever as an infant which led to a malady called St. Vitus’s Dance in early childhood. This prevented him from receiving proper schooling or formal education.
I later came to understand why it must have been hard for him as he watched one of his sons - (me), seemingly throwing away opportunities that in his eyes were invaluable.
Although he loved us all I believe that my rebellious nature became a wedge between us, and he came to favour my brother Alan rather than me.
Now let me be clear these are not “sour grapes” I make no excuse for the way I developed as a youngster.
I could be difficult to handle and gave my mum and dad more stress that all the other kids combined. That is a fact.
But my dad loved me and never once in my life did he lay a hand on me (although I certainly deserved it many times).
He would present arguments to me that were so honest and full of common down-to-earth sense that I never once won an argument against him. And I mean NEVER - no matter what. I learned so much from this wonderful man but never truly appreciated him until after he died.
At 11 years of age my dad got a job with a local butcher in the village of Irlam. My dad learned to slaughter animals such as pigs, sheep, and cattle. He was just 11 years old and did a man’s work.
On Fridays, he would be working up until 10 or 11 o’clock at night to serve the needs of the men coming out of the pubs and wanting to take meat home to their families. This was how it was in the early 1900’s. Remember, he was 11 years old when he started this.
In 1914, the First World War broke out and my dad enlisted. He took the “Kings Shilling.
It was “Kitcheners Army” and there were recruiting drives all over our country. If you were a young man in those days and were not in uniform, the propaganda against you was awful.
My dad told me that the women in the street would “boo and hiss” any man who was not in uniform if he even looked old enough to be wearing one.
At 16 and because he had matured quickly my dad looked a lot older and in fact did receive this disgusting treatment. You could say he hardly had a proper childhood.
When he joined the queue to sign up and take the “Kings Shilling” he was asked his age. When he replied “17 sir” he was told to come back when he was 18.
So, he joined another queue and told the officer he was 18. (he was in fact just 16 years old at the time)
After a very short basic training period my dad was shipped out to France and later on to the Dardanelles for the campaign against Turkey.
It was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Allied troops landed there in April 1915 and spent months on the small peninsula of land guarding the Dardanelles Straits in modern-day Turkey. The military aims of the campaign were not achieved and it was eventually called to a halt; the final Allied troops were evacuated in January 1916.
There were heavy casualties, not only from the fighting, but from the extremely unsanitary conditions. Of the estimated 213,000 British casualties, 145,000 were from illness. Surviving combatants also recalled the terrible problems with intense heat, swarms of flies, body lice, severe lack of water and insufficient supplies.
My dad looked after a mule train pulling supplies through the mud and the slush. He had a team of 12 mules to pull the wagons or the cannons through the battlefields. He loved animals even though he had slaughtered so many as a young butcher in Irlam.
One afternoon a German shell exploded in front of the mules. Some were blown to pieces and my dad received shrapnel in the legs.
He told us he was catapulted off the carriage and ended up lying in the mud.
He could hear the screams of the injured and dying animals and was able to shoot two of the mules that were badly injured.
The next thing he knew was waking up in the battlefield hospital.
He was there for a short time and after receiving treatment he was shipped back to Liverpool on a troopship, where he faced a disciplinary committee because he had lied about his age when he joined up.
He was discharged from the army but received no commendation for his courage or his patriotism. (I think this treatment of my dad and many others like him may have triggered the development of my often-cynical nature when it comes to matters related to “the establishment” or “officialdom”).
My dad used to drink a lot but was not an alcoholic. He had a tremendous capacity for beer and I once witnessed him taking up a beer drinking challenge from a contractor by the name of Sid Todd.
Now Sid, - (Toddy as he was called), was well known in the Medway area and had a reputation as a heavy drinker.
In those days, it was something of a “claim to fame” for a man to be able to consume gallons of the “amber nectar”. He was always to be found in the Working Men’s Club or the Three Crutches pub in Higham.
Anyway, my dad accepted the challenge provided that the one who gave up first would pay for all the beer consumed.
My dad won –drinking 17 pints of beer in the evening against Sid’s 16 pints. It was a talking point in the pubs and clubs for several years after.
Sid had to be taken home, but my dad walked with me at his side from the club to our house in Taylors Lane. I was so proud of my dad.
I want to make one thing clear about my dad’s drinking. He never ever kept us short because of it.
We came first and his drinking was financed by what he did “on the side”. He was a bit of a “wheeler dealer” and was very street wise.
He was also quite lucky on the slot machines. He would watch people for hours playing these machines and had a gift of predicting approximately when a jackpot was due. He would then go to the machine with a handful of “tanners”- (old six-penny pieces), and invariably would win. I saw him do this several times. He was a shrewd old guy.
One fellow I knew said to me once “How does your dad do it, he is so lucky?” I told him that it wasn’t entirely luck. He calculated the odds. He never went to a machine without first studying what was happening beforehand.
My dad always smoked a pipe – never cigarettes. His tobacco was “Condor-Twist” - a very strong tobacco. He used to let Alan and me have a puff on the pipe now and again, but it would always burn my tongue.
He did this in the hope of deterring us from smoking, but Alan and I ended up smoking cigarettes regularly from early on – about 12 or 13 years of age.
In fact, I never met anyone in my life who smoked more than I did. By the time I was about 37 old I was smoking 100 cigarettes a day.
But I was living in Kuwait at this time and a carton of 200 Benson & Hedges King size filter cigarettes cost about £2.00 at the time. Today, as I write, those 200 cigarettes would cost £116.00 (yes about eleven pounds sixteen pence for twenty)
I never realised this until June told me that she would buy for me a carton of 200 Marlborough cigarettes or 200 Benson & Hedges King size filter every 2 days. I was living in Kuwait where cigarettes were very cheap at that time and never really felt the effects of the monetary layout.
I had no idea. I just had a cigarette on all the time. I would light one cigarette from another much of the time. But that’s another story.
Anyway, I don’t know very much more about my Dad's family because I was born and raised in Kent and we never met any of his family or the family of my mum.
My dad had only 8 or 9 months of schooling in his entire life as he suffered from an illness called St Vitus Dance when he was a boy.
He had to work full time from the age of 11 and was fighting on the front-line during World War 1.
So, when one of his sons had the opportunity of a good education, he wanted me to take that opportunity.
I can understand that today but then I just thought he was being unreasonable when he said to the owner that there were better things ahead for me.
I cajoled my mum to have a go at my dad and let me go to work for the man who owned the engineering machine shop. Eventually she persuaded him, and we obtained exceptional permission from the school so that I could leave school on my 15th birthday which was the very same day that the next academic year was to commence. So in fact, I started full time work at 14.
I was over the moon with this and from then on, I became a real pain in the butt to everyone at home as I considered I was now a REAL working man.
I must be honest and say that the school authority did not object one bit even though my dad had previously agreed for me to continue at the Grammar School until I reached the age of 18. You may draw your own conclusions if you wish.
After I had been working at the machine shop for about 7 months or so my dad got me an interview with the HR section at a factory owned by the Birfield Group of companies. I was offered a student apprenticeship that was designed to groom me for an eventual management position within the group.
He was so happy when I accepted to take this offer even though the money offered was only about 30% of what I was earning at the machine shop.
I recall very clearly the personnel manager telling me that my starting wage would be one pound sixteen shillings and eleven pence three farthings per week, but....... this would increase after I signed the indentures which could only be done after my 16th birthday.
I agreed to this and after giving my current employer a weeks’ notice I started work at the Birfield Group.
It wasn't too long before I knew in my heart that I could not be doing this for the rest of my life. I was unfairly judging those good people that were working in the factory and although I never said so I thought they were on a hiding to nothing and what was good enough for them was not ever going to be good enough for me.
It's not that I had any ambition or had set any kind of target for myself, but I just knew that I could not be getting up every morning and going to the same place to work every morning and coming home every evening year in year out for the rest of my life.
As it happened my pal Tony Taylor had made some inquiries about attending a Sea Training School and then go to sea after the training was over. He was a bit nervous about it as he was told it was a tough course. When we discussed it, he suggested we both apply and go together, and we could support each other if the going got rough. This sounded like a good idea and I agreed.
After we had done the groundwork and knew the process we had to take, I told my mum about it. She didn't like the idea and said my dad would never agree to sign the necessary paperwork.
I again put on the charm with my mum and eventually my dad relented. He told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of merchant seamen, (“the scum of the earth” he called them), but I was absolutely delighted that he had agreed to sign the paperwork.
My dad passed away on 20th May 1981 in his 84th year.
Mum was born and raised in Yorkshire in a place called Redcar. She would often talk lovingly about the hills and dales of Yorkshire.
Like my father, she never lost her northern accent even though she never went back to her beloved county. She was tall and slim and quite pretty with a mop of pure white hair which made her stand out in any crowd.
In her early years she worked in the fashion industry as a “mannequin” as they called the girls who modelled the clothes in those days.
I don’t know how or when she met my dad, but I do know she was married earlier to another man who was cruel to her and she was taken away from him by my dad. That’s all I know at the time of writing or will probably ever know.
She had six of us, (4 boys -2 girls).
With the exception of my eldest sister Dorothy (who was born in Swindon), and Janet in Greenwich, the rest of us were born in Kent. Mum lost two of her children as I have explained earlier.
Most of her life she worked to keep us in shoes and clothes because the wages of my dad hardly went anywhere near to make life comfortable. In those days, it was so different from today, (not just for the Boothby’s but for most families as I remember).
She was liked by most people who knew her. She was kind natured and loved to laugh. She had a great sense of humour.
I remember the time when her false breast fell from her bra whilst she bent down in the kitchen to pick something up from the floor. The false breast was just a bag of beads really, and it plopped into the bucket of water.
I just reached into the bucket and picked up the bag and said something like “you dropped your boob mum” and we both roared with laughter. I was in fact expecting her to maybe shed a tear or two but not my mum. She just got on with things.
Sadly, mum developed a cancer and had mastectomy surgery performed when she was about 53, and in those days, it was not uncommon to face the knife.
Although my dad never laid a finger on me and just once to my brother Alan, that was not the case for my mum. She would whack us with a stick if we went too far and we often got it across the legs or the backside.
To be honest, I used to pretend it didn’t hurt just to wind her up which made her even angrier.
But all in all, it was not uncommon in those days for a parent to dish out this kind of punishment and it was common in the schools.
In my personal experience this kind of punishment did not have long lasting effects on either myself or Alan.
When we were out of order excessively, we got a clout for it if we did not pack it in.
I am not saying that I advocate child corporal punishment in the world we live in today, but I do think a lot of nonsense is provided to the media and elsewhere about the effects of it.
I am not talking about sadistic punishment but just a smack across the backside or the legs for example. But nowadays if I aired such sentiments or comments in public I risk being vilified.
I never had to smack my own son for anything in his life, but it doesn’t mean to say I would never had done so if there was no alternative.
I also will not condemn someone else for smacking (in moderation) their own children in certain circumstances. Who am I to judge others? Anyway, enough said about this…………
Because my mum worked in the fields most of the year including wintertime I would come home from school to an empty house.
My eldest sister was now married and lived in London and my sister Janet was now working.
My first job in the winter months would be to clean out the fire grate and prepare a new fire to get some warmth in the house.
These council houses were built without insulation and there was no such thing as double glazing for council dwellers in those days.
They were like “ice boxes” in fact and in the winter, ice would form on the inside of the windows. Our heating system was a coal fire in the “front room” and woe betide anyone who came in or out of the room and left the door open.
The heat would leave the room quickly and we would all huddle around the fire on very cold days and nights. And I remember that every time the door to the room opened for entry or exit, there would be a back draft from the chimney, and we would all get a taste of smoke billowing into the room if the fire was not glowing red.
Today, people bang on about pollution killing our youngsters, but our generation had so much pollution to contend with and we live to tell the tale. I’m not saying we should not take care of our environment, we most certainly should, but I do think some of our “experts” talk a lot of tripe at times.
Anyway, after getting the fire lit, the next thing to do would be to peel the potatoes and prepare the vegetables. I would place them ready for mum to prepare when she came home – usually before 6:00pm.
Then she would get dinner ready for us. My dad would not get home until about 8:30pm on each weekday but was earlier on Saturdays and Sundays.
When we were younger my brother and I would be in bed when he arrived home. He would sometimes come upstairs with a packet of Smiths crisps for us to share and we would pester him to “tell us about when you were a boy dad”.
This is how we learned things from him. Apart from the “half day weekends” we hardly saw him.
He worked 7 days a week for as long as I can remember - even up to his 70th year when he retired on pension.
My mum passed away on 13 March 1976 in her 75th year. When this happened it was as though a part of me had physically left my entire body. It was a dreaful experience that many of us suffer when we lose a loved one.
SEA TRAINING SCHOOL
After my mum had convinced dad to sign off on the paperwork for the sea training school, I then went to my pal Tony and told him I was ready to go. Only then did he drop a bombshell on me and said he'd changed his mind.
I was upset about this, but nothing was going to change my mind and so, after being accepted for training by the British Shipping Federation off I went to Sharpness in Gloucestershire to join the Vindicatrix training ship. What a shock to the system that was.
Getting off the train from London at Sharpness railway station, we were met by some lads from the training ship who were under the command of an officer in Merchant Navy uniform. The lads were attired in the pea jacket and trousers that were the standard uniform for the recruits. I was soon to be introduced to this type of clothing that to me was most unattractive.
This was in the '50's when most people of my age dressed in the Edwardian fashion. We wore long jackets, almost to our knees, trimmed with velvet collars and cuffs and skin-tight drainpipe trousers with 3inch turnups, “chucka-boots” and brightly coloured socks.
Most of us wore our hair very long and mine in those days was about shoulder length and as "black as your hat". Our music heroes were Bill Hayley, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and others of that generation.
Now we had to line up and these other boys were shouting orders at us. We were marched up the road for about a mile or so carrying our heavy kit bags which we all had to purchase before we came to this place. In the distance, near to the top of the rise, we could see a dozen or more Nissan huts within a compound surrounded by a high wire fence.
As we marched through the gates, we could see a lot of boys in various groups on the parade ground. There was a lot of shouting and cursing by the officers and it made my stomach turn.
What had I let myself in for? At one point two of the boys in the column turned around and ran back out of the gates and on down the road towards the station. Nobody tried to stop them, and they got one or two catcalls and jeers from some of the boys in the camp. None of us "New Boys" said a word. I think most of us were in slight shock. I know I was.
Now we had to line up and stand for what seemed ages.
Then a “Mr.Adegate” addressed us and told us that we had to do exactly as we were told from this moment forward. Most of us kids had not experienced anything like a regimental discipline before now.
All of us “New Boys”, (about 26 of us now), had come from different parts of UK.
There were boys from the Gorbals of Glasgow, Dingle in Liverpool, from Cardiff, Huddersfield, Aberdeen, Hartlepool, and other places that I had never heard of.
The accents were so different, and I could not always understand what they were saying. I was the only boy from SE England and felt again a bit isolated and apart.
However, before long I made pals with a boy from Huddersfield who also was the only one from Yorkshire, so I guess we had in common a sense of isolation.
We were marched off to a Nissan hut in the camp which was to be our billet for the first six weeks of our training. After we had finished the six weeks in the camp, we would be moved on-board the training-ship for the remaining period of our stay.
We were issued with pea jackets, wide bottom trousers, boots, oilskins, and other items of apparel. They were awful to our general way of thinking, but this was all part of a process.
We had to be "standardized" and our individuality was to be trimmed and moulded into a manageable group of people.
This was all part of a discipline which we all resisted at first but later, a lot later, I personally, came to recognize as necessary and was in fact a good character builder.
I would not admit this at the time but as I got a few more years under my belt I felt gratitude for the tough experiences that were meted out to us.
For example, all our huts were heated by coal burning stoves which had a steel pipe going through the roof for a chimney. The coal was delivered each week by trucks and tipped into a corner of one of the open areas in the camp. One day, I was caught fighting with a boy from Glasgow who was always giving me trouble when he had his mates around.
This day I caught him on his own and we had a scrap. Our punishment was to be ordered to whitewash pieces of coal from the heap and make a neat and orderly pile.
We were, (naturally), made fun of by other lads during this exercise, and it took several days of this activity before it was decided by the officer that we had been sufficiently punished.
I need to add that all this activity was carried out in our own time after normal training hours and we were mostly at this until we were ordered to the ablutions for washing the coal dirt from our bodies.
One word about the ablution’s huts. These were huts dedicated to washing ourselves and our clothes. They consisted of a row of lavatories at one side of the hut and a row of wash basins on the other side.
There were no showers as we know today. We had to strip and stand in line in front of one of the wash-hand-basins and splash water on our bodies and lather ourselves with a bar of soap.
If we took too long about it, one of the sadistic instructors would walk down the rows of naked lads and slap you across the bare buttocks with a slipper.
Looking back, I’m sure one or two of them did this for their own entertainment and sexual gratification.
When we finished, we dried and put on our clothes. Then it was back to the billet and 10 minutes later it was lights out.
It wasn’t much fun, but it did have the effect of drawing my adversary and myself closer together and strangely enough we became good friends after that.
Another misdemeanour led to my having to scrub the wooden 'tween deck. This would not have been so bad as we did scrub decks in various parts of the ship every day.
However, the difference here was that I was handed a pail and a small nail-brush and given an area of the deck to scrub. This again had the effect of making me rebellious and resentful towards the officers but drawing me closer to other crew members that were having similar treatment meted out to them.
The psychology of this all became clearer to me in my adult years but at the time it was quite painful. Now when I look back on it, I just chuckle at it all and it really did me no harm at all.
In fact, it almost certainly taught me that I was never going to be the centre of the universe and it was ok to be just another brick in the wall (but an individual brick with a choice to make decisions, either good or bad).
My time spent at the training ship was to change my outlook on many things.
Being raised in a village in Kent I had been sheltered from many of the facts of life and the differences in the way people treated one another.
By this I mean that for example I was considered to be “the cockney” by almost every one of those that were raised north of Watford.
If a boy was from Wales, he was Taffy, a Scot was Jock, a Liverpudlian was Scouse, a Brummy from Birmingham, a Geordie from Tyneside and so on.
Most of the boys stuck to those from their general locality. If like me there were none from your area you teamed up with others who were in a similar circumstance.
There were loads of fights amongst the boys, the serious disputes being settled in the nearby town of Berkley when the opportunity came for shore leave.
I had several encounters this way, but it was always “one-on-one”. The code of conduct was not what it has become in today’s cowardly world where gangs mercilessly beat one individual.
This of course did occasionally happen amongst the civvies, but I never saw one single instance of this with the MN recruits during my training.
Maybe it also had something to do with the fact that we could not afford any drugs or alcohol even had we wanted to indulge. We had 5 shillings (25pence) per week, to cover all our needs except our food and laundry which was taken care of for us.
We could buy tobacco for rolling a cigarette and we learned to cut the matches vertically in half with a razor-blade, to get twice as much use from one box.
The food on-board the ship was basic, and we were always hungry. If anyone was sent a food parcel from home the contents would be shared by all in the billet or dormitory. This kind of comradeship was so natural.
None of us would try to hoard and keep from any of the others. As the saying goes, we were all in the same boat.
There were no special privileges. It was all for one and one for all when it came to grub and tobacco. If you had one cigarette and your buddies had none you would pass it around, so all had perhaps one puff each. That's how it was.
I clearly remember the first meal on the mess deck the night we arrived at the camp. It was a Monday and the mess deck was arranged in such a way that there were wooden tables with a wooden bench on either side to seat 10 boys to each table. In the middle of the table there was a plate of sliced bread - 11 slices.
The extra slice was prized, and it went to the boy who drew the shortest straw from a paper bag containing ten straws. Nine were the same length but one was shorter than the rest.
At that first evening meal, we were ordered in turns by table to queue at the galley service counter taking a plate from the stack. When we offered our plate to the persons behind the counter, they dished out a measure of whatever was on the menu.
Monday night was Sea Pie, a mixture of all the leftovers from the previous day that was mixed up on dished and baked in the ovens.
We received one ladle of pie on each plate and filed back to our table. We all made very disparaging remarks about it saying we would never eat such rubbish food.
The boys on adjacent tables would call over and ask for our share, knowing that we would not eat it. We gladly gave it to them not realizing that in a space of just 7 days we would be calling out to other New Boys for their sea pie.
Believe me, Monday night was the meal we looked forward to from then on because it presented an opportunity for a double ration of sea pie if you were lucky enough to be seated near to a table full of New Boys.
As I mentioned earlier, we were always hungry, but the most amazing thing was every one of us had an increase of body weight from the time of arrival and induction to the time of departure. (Or did they use two sets of scales?) The mind boggles.
The final passing out day arrived, and we all marched to the station in our uniforms of which we had now become proud to wear. The mindset of the Teddy Boy had left me now and I felt so excited that I would soon be off to sea on my first voyage.
Arriving home was a bit of a let-down as I thought I would be treated like a hero with all my pals. Instead of that I was teased about the uniform I had become proud to wear and it was only a matter of a couple of days when the long jacket and drainpipe trousers were back on and I could fit in with my pals.
I was one of the boys again instead of a “peanut” as I had been insultingly called when wearing my sea training school uniform.
But something had changed in me. I now had a stronger desire to see the world, to find out about other things that I did not believe I could find by staying in Kent. I was ready to fly…………
MY SEA CAREER
After being at home for several days I received a telegram from the Shipping Master at the Shipping Federation. I was instructed to report with my gear to the Dock Street office in South London.
On arrival, I was given the usual medical examination and thereafter told I was to report to the master of a tanker called the British Hero.
The ship was berthed at the Isle of Grain refinery in Kent. I boarded the vessel and was amazed by the size of it. To me it was enormous and, in those days, a 16,000t vessel was considered intermediate size. The largest tankers in that period were around 32,000t.
I was shown to my cabin which was located in the stern section below decks. The cabin was spacious and had ample storage space for my things.
I was very impressed that I had this cabin to myself as I knew that many ships had cabins of similar size that were shared by 4, 6 or even 8 ratings. But that was on other types of ship such as passenger or general cargo ships. The “British Hero” was an oil tanker owned by British Petroleum (BP).
I was taken by one officer to the lower bridge deck to sign on in the presence of the Master of the ship and the Shipping Master representing the Shipping Federation.
I signed on as Deck Boy and my wage was to be eleven pounds fifteen shillings a month. (£11.75) - (YES - per month).
I was expected to work seven days a week and if I was asked to work extra time, I would be paid one shilling and eight pence an hour. (equivalent to 8 pence an hour in today’s money).
I made arrangements for 5 pounds each month to be deducted from my wage and sent to my mum.
She had to work in the fields for me to help pay for my training which although was free, had other associated costs that had to be paid for by the trainees.
Even our 5 shillings a week pocket money was from our parents - not from the Federation.
After getting back to my cabin a sailor came to take me to meet my new boss.
He was a stocky Aberdonian named Alan Scott and he was the ships boatswain ('bosun').
From our first meeting, I knew that there would be no messing with this tough little character.
He exuded an air of absolute authority and called a spade a spade.
He took me to the sailor’s Messroom and explained my duties related to that room.
Then on to the sailor’s Bathrooms and Toilets where he explained what I had to do there.
Then he showed me the Recreation room and explained my related duties.
Then it was on to the Petty Officers Messroom and the same thing there.
Then the Petty Officers Bathrooms and Toilets.
Then on to the Alleyways and Companionways (Staircases) which all came under my sphere of responsibilities. ALL these areas had to be cleaned properly every morning before 11:00 am. And I mean ALL.
He then explained that I would also need to collect the food from the galley which would be prepared in kits and these were to be placed in the Bain Marie's in each of the mess rooms.
Then I had to make sure that there was adequate supply of freshly made coffee and tea in both mess rooms.
This item was to be done 7 times a day: at 7 bells in the morning watch, at 08:00, at 10:30, at 12:00 at 14:30 at 17:00 and lastly at 20:00 when I could rest.
In between these times all the other jobs had to be completed.
At first it seemed impossible for me to do all this alone, so I assumed I was going to get two or three helpers - at least.
I was dreaming. It was for me and me alone to do and I had to learn how to manage.
Of course, it meant that I was working the whole of the day.
I woke at 4:00 am and after showering and dressing I set to it. In the first few weeks I hardly had a minute to myself. I never ever sat down to eat my food with others during those first weeks and months.
I would dish out a plate of food for the Bain Marie and between running out on the poop deck and to and from the mess rooms I would take mouthfuls of food.
I am writing this now and it would be totally impossible for me now to accomplish even a fraction of this today but then I did, and even more.
But the amazing thing is, that I really loved it.
I rarely ever felt I was being exploited by an unfair system and took all the abuse I got at first as part of the learning curve.
The name I was given by all other crew members and petty officers was Peggy. This was not because I showed effeminate tendencies or indeed had any.
The name Peggy derived from the days of the sailing ships when sometimes because of an injury or disease, a man might have a leg amputated below the knee. He was fitted out with a Peg-Leg by the ships carpenter - hence Peggy.
Now it became impossible for him to climb the rigging or take part in general deck work. He was relegated to the mess room where he would tend to the needs of the sailors when they came off the deck for food.
I had no problem with being a Peggy and in fact I gained a lot of respect from most of the crew who appreciated my work on their behalf.
As can be seen my working week was long - usually from 4:15 in the morning until 8:30 at night. If we hit bad weather during the nighttime and all hands had to turn out then I was expected to be up and active just like the rest of the crew.
In spite of all this which may seem hard to some, I loved it.
The only thing I hated was bad weather. I was sea-sick every time we hit heavy seas or a storm.
Here’s how I overcame my seasickness:
The “British Hero” was plying mainly between East African Ports and Arabian Gulf ports, which meant that we were mostly sailing the Indian Ocean. In certain months of the year this massive ocean is subjected to Monsoons.
These Monsoons could (and did on many occasions) turn the sea into a fury. The ship would be tossed around like a piece of cork.
One second we were picked up on a huge wave (some of these being over 100 feet high – 30 metres) and the next we were plunging down and down and down into the trough.
It was dreadful and I was so sick. A bad bout of seasickness is as bad an experience I have ever suffered from. It makes your head so dizzy and you cannot get your balance.
Your heart races and it’s like having a dose of the flu too. Your bones ache and you feel very weak. I would hang on to anything that would support me.
I would vomit all over the place uncontrollably. I was unable to do my work properly. I often wanted only to lay down and die in the very bad storms. Literally.
Although most of the crew were sympathetic towards me, the Bo ‘sun Mr. Alan Scott from Aberdeen was not.
He would literally drag me from my bunk if he found me lying down and scream at me to get on the upper deck and face it.
He said I would never get over it if I didn’t face it. Despite all his bullying it did not work.
I would stand at the rail on the upper deck and try looking at the horizon. One second the horizon was way above my head and the next I was looking down at it.
I smile at it all today, but I can never ever forget those dreadful experiences.
The point of change came one Sunday morning.
Every Sunday (as was the custom and practice on all merchant ships in those days) the Master, accompanied by the Chief Officer, the Chief Engineer and the Bo ‘sun would come around the accommodation areas of the ship for the “Captains Sunday Inspection”.
One of my tasks was to ensure clean and tidy accommodation and ablution areas of the crew quarters. This included the mess rooms and the pantries of course.
On this particular Sunday, the Master asked me if I was ill. I replied “no-sir I am fine today thanks”. He said to me you have lost a lot of weight. The Bo ‘sun piped up and told him it was because I was regularly being seasick and could not keep any food in my stomach.
The Master said, “are you ok today”? I said I was, and I was because there was only a moderate swell. I could handle these conditions moderately well but could not function in heavy weather.
The following week on the inspection the Master complained about the bain-marie in the Sailors Pantry being unclean.
He used to wear a white glove on one hand for the inspection each week and would sometimes slide it over certain areas during his inspection. He turned to the Chief Officer and rebuked him – not me.
Of course, the Bo ‘sun later got it in the neck from the Chief. After the inspection, the Bo ‘sun came and found me. He yelled at me that he was going to see about getting a replacement.
He was always yelling at somebody. I said ok but was scared that he meant it.
That evening one of the midshipmen came to me and told me to report to the Master (The Captain) right away.
I thought I was in for trouble over the white glove incident and expected to be punished. (For “dereliction of duty” he had the right to stop money out of my pay in accordance with the 1896 Merchant Shipping Act).
I knocked on the door and called out for me to come in. To my surprise, he was not at all stern and he told me that he was arranging to pay me off in Cape Town where we were now en-route for. I was very upset by this as I really loved this life despite the things that were troubling me.
He could see I was near to tears (I was 16 years old). He went on to say it was not because of the inspection as he had very good reports about my standard of work from both the Chief Officer and much to my surprise from the Bo ‘sun too.
He went on that he was concerned for my health. The worse thing of all, he kindly said to me something like, “not everyone gets over seasickness and maybe God has other plans for you son”.
I left his office on the lower bridge deck absolutely in tears. I could not imagine a life without the sea. It was unthinkable to me then.
The following Sunday we hit some really bad weather. We had been in the monsoon for a couple of days.
I had prepared as usual for the Captains’ Inspection and unbelievably was not badly affected by the terrible weather conditions. The Captain noticed that I was (seemingly) quite OK.
The Captain asked me if this bad weather was troubling me and I told him I had not been sea-sick since he told me he was going to pay me off (when we reached Cape Town).
To cut a long story short, he did not pay me off and I was never sea-sick again to the extent I had previously been.
It would be untrue to say NEVER was I sick again, because I was, – on other ships. But I never again experienced the horrors of really bad seasickness for the duration of my sea service.
I have often wondered if it was FEAR that caused this to happen or perhaps something else. It matters not but I wanted to share this with you.
As time went by, I became better at it and after several months I persuaded the bosun to allow me to spend time on deck for about one hour during the afternoons so that I could develop my skills in that area.
I would also get one of the AB's to let me steer the ship in his place. It was so thrilling for me to do that at 16 years old and I loved it.
I would also volunteer for lookout duty on the fo’castle head. I would often turn in around 21:00 for a couple of hours and then get out of my bunk and go to the fo’castle and relive the person on duty.
I loved the solitude and the quietness away from the throb of the ship’s machinery situated in the other end of the ship.
I would watch the porpoises in the bow wash and marvel at the phosphorescence in the bow wave. These amazing creatures perhaps knew they were being observed from above and I sometimes imagined they were put on a show especially for me but of course they were just taking advantage of the situation.
It seems that 4- or 5-hours’ sleep was enough for me in those years but now? Well that's another story, isn’t it?
About 9.5 months later, and after many interesting ports of call, we docked in South Shields on the Tyne.
We were paid our dues for the voyage. My total pay for the whole voyage of 9 months and 17 days came to 171.14.2 (One hundred seventy-one pounds, fourteen shillings and two pence).
This included my leave pay of 37.5 days paid leave. After deductions were taken out (£112.2.8) I was left with fifty-nine pounds eleven shillings and six pence. (£59.60)
I have never looked at this previously and I still have the original pay-off slip in my files. When I now examine this and do a calculation it works out as follows:
Voyage was total of 287 days’ work which gave me just under 172 pounds. Deduct the leave pay: (37.5 x 0.6 = £22.75). This equates to 52 pence a day.
I was on duty an average 15 hours a day.
Given that this total included the overtime pay for the whole trip (27.11) - (Twenty-seven pounds eleven shillings) it actually equates to 52/15 = 3.4 pence an hour.
Yes, under four pence an hour. Hard to believe but this is TRUE.
Today, as I am writing this down, I hear on the Sky News that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to increase the minimum hourly rate (in the budget tomorrow - 18th March) by 20 pence.
This will bring it to 7.70 per hr. Now, shall I put this on my Facebook page????? I might do that for a laugh. Whatever happened to real values?
I paid off the ship, I caught got the train from Newcastle to London and then on to Kent.
It was exciting to be home, but my money was soon spent, and I was looking for another ship in a matter of days.
As I explained before, my final pay was that I took home at the end of that voyage was 59 pounds eleven shillings and sixpence.
This included the grand sum of 27 pounds and eleven shillings for the overtime I had worked.
Of course, I had been promised that all those extra hours that I had worked would be paid but in fact I was cheated terribly. I had not kept a log of my hours on that ship, but it was a lesson hard earned. In fact, I was averaging about 15 hours work each day. (7 days a week).
As my (basic) working week was 56 hours it could be said that I was entitled to around 50 hours a week in overtime. At that rate I should have been paid for about 2,750 hours for the voyage in overtime pay.
In fact, the amount I did receive at the rate of one shilling and eight pence an hour equated being paid for just 330 of those 2750 hours that I had laboured.
I discovered years later that the Master of the British Hero would have been severely punished if it had come to light that he was working a boy rating such long hours.
It was illegal to do so but I was not to know at that time. I can laugh at it now especially when I see how pampered some workers are in today's world.
I don't condone this type of exploitation but at the same time it really did me no harm. On reflection, the only real resentment I had was towards the Chief Officer who had told me at the beginning that I would get paid for all overtime.
I continued sailing on a variety of ships over the next few years.
I recall being on a ship called Varicella at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
In those days, we did not have wall to wall news available with CNN and BBC etc.
Our news of the world came via short wave radio and from other slower sources like ship to ship communications on short wave radio or even Morse-code via the Aldis Lamp.
Anyway, during this period the ship was trading in general area of the Caribbean Sea and that was where the Russian ships carrying rockets were ploughing on in the hope of reaching Cuba with their cargoes.
President Jack Kennedy and his administration had other ideas and threatened to blast these convoys out of the water.
We all waited nervously for the Russians to turn around, but they kept on coming.
Nikita Krushev who was the Russian President at the time, threatened nuclear war if the Americans fired on the Russian ships. It was a very tense period for everyone.
Eventually we sailed out of the area and headed for Europe. I was very anxious to get home as I was still afraid of the potential threat of a nuclear war. And so, I jumped ship.
But unfortunately, the “temporary girlfriend” I had in Rotterdam shopped me to the cops.
They came for me and I was hauled off to the cells.
The police and immigration authorities contacted the ship and told me that if I agreed to go back on-board the Master was willing to pay me off. This sounded ok and I agreed.
When I got on-board it was another story completely. The Master refused to pay me off and had me locked up in the ship’s hospital under guard. He was mad with me and told me he would have me charged with desertion when we got to UK.
He was on this occasion a man of his word and the cops came on-board when we reached the berth in South Shields.
I was taken to the ships office and the captain started ranting off at me in front of the police and the shipping master. He had obviously been on the juice again and this paradoxically worked in my favour.
After some discussions, heated at times, it was decided that I could not be charged with any civilian offense, but the Master had the prerogative to get me punished under the Merchant Shipping Act and to issue me with an unfavourable discharge report in my seaman’s book.
At the end of a very long and protracted discussion with police and shipping master I was escorted from the ship unceremoniously. The wise men decided that all my pay was to be forfeited - (as it could be under those articles that I signed).
Incidentally, those articles that we were all bound by were the same ones as those that were promulgated under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906.
All they gave me was a railway warrant which entitled me travel to London.
I was lucky enough to have a decent crew of good people and they had a whip round and took me to the pub before making sure I got on the train with a few pounds to go home with.
I arrived home “wide eyed and leg-less”.
Within days I was on my way to West Africa on a Palm Line ship.
I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel now but as the old saying goes- beggars cannot be choosers. I would never save any real money and thought only of having a good time.
I considered bank accounts were for boring people who didn't know how to live life to the full.
During these years, I took to drinking heavily and this often led to me getting into trouble. Sometimes it was with the police and sometimes it was employers, family, friends and strangers. My relationships with the ladies were not infrequent but invariably short lived.
It’s not possible at this time to relate all the escapades but to be honest, I really enjoyed my time in the Merchant Navy.
Most of my employers regarded me as a good employee EXCEPT for those times when I took a drink or two. And then, the drink would take over and I would often take off. So even in my early days, alcohol became a taker.
It took away girlfriends, driving licences, jobs, freedom, self-respect, friendships, and a lot more. But despite all this, I continued to drink, each time believing that I would “be okay this time”. I did not realise then that I had drunk myself into alcoholism at an early age.
THE HOD CARRIER
During the time I was going to sea, I would sometimes pay off the ship and come home to mum. After my money was spent, I would go and get another ship to sail.
It was easy enough in those days and there were not the restrictive practices that are found in today’s world.
One time during 1960 I came home and met a girl I really liked. Her name was Maureen. I told my mum I had met a girl and said I think I will stay ashore for a while.
She was so pleased and told me that they were looking for workers on the new house building site just across the road from our house in Taylors Lane, Higham.
And so, I walked onto the site and asked a worker where I could find the foreman. He told me to go to the hut up the road and ask for Fred Pinney.
When I found Fred Pinney, he said he was looking for Hod-Carriers. I had no idea even what a hod-carrier was, let alone what they did, but promptly told him I was indeed a hod-carrier.
“Can you start right away” he asked. I said “Yes, tomorrow morning”. And I went away happy. On the way back to our house, I again spoke to the man who had told me where to find the foreman.
He was about my age and I asked him “What is a HOD CARRIER?”He pointed to a fellow not far from us who was climbing a ladder with a metal box on his shoulder which had a short wooden staff attached to it. The hod was filled with bricks.
I thought to myself, well it’s not rocket science and I can surely do that.
And so, the next morning I was introduced to Paddy, the man I was going to work alongside. He handed me a hod.
He knew immediately that I had no experience as a hod-carrier. But Paddy was a decent fellow and covered for me while I got the hang of it.
I got home the first day absolutely shattered and my right shoulder was blistered and bruised. My fingers were blistered and bleeding with picking up the bricks all day and placing them in the hod.
Then I would sometimes pinch the tips of my fingers when placing the bricks after delivering them on the scaffold.
My mum wanted me to give it up right away, but I was determined to overcome the pain. I knew it would take time, but I was hungry for the job and I needed the money.
This went on for about 7 or 8 days and I eventually worked through the pain and became somewhat better than when I started.
After about 3-4 weeks I was able to keep up with ANY of the others and in fact could DO MORE than any of them when I was racing.
It became a challenge for me to beat the best hoddie on the site. And in about 6 weeks there was not one hoddie on the site who could stay with me.
With my long legs I could place the ladder at an angle that would allow me to run up the ladder two rungs at a time - sometimes 3 rungs at a time depending on the situation.
Then instead of using the rungs on the descent, I would place my feet on the sides of the ladder and slide all the way down. This enabled me to load out between three thousand six hundred and four thousand bricks per day.
In those days, if a man became a good hoddie, the word got around the industry because it was all about money. The more a brick and mortar a hoddie could supply the brickie’s, the bigger the bonus.
And so, the word got around about the “hoddie from Higham” and a man from Gravesend came to the site one day and challenged me to a competition.
This man was from the district known as “Rats Island” near Denton Wharf. It was a tough area and many of the people who lived there were travellers.
His name was Peter Ives and he had a formidable reputation as a scrapper and a hod-carrier.
Peter was much shorter than me but very powerfully built, and his reputation went before him. Many of the building workers on the site knew of him.
The challenge was accepted by me and the site foreman allowed us to compete on his site.
The basis of the challenge entailed both of us working side by side loading out houses on the top lift.
This meant we each loaded our hods from the same stack on the ground and used the same ladder to climb to the top scaffold which was about 30cm below gutter height on a block of houses - (about 20 feet above ground level).
We began at 7:00 am and it was established that the winner would be the first one who landed 5 hods more that his opponent.
We ran and ran and ran up and down those ladders until about 4 in the afternoon without a break except by mutual agreement for a smoke periodically.
But at 4:00 pm we were both very tired and Peter just looked at me and put out his hand. At this time, I was 4 hods ahead of him. He said he’d had enough and could do no more and congratulated me.
But to be the winner, I had to continue take a final hod of bricks to the top which of course I did.
There were lots of congratulations from many of the workers on the site who had been watching on and off our competition.
I know there were many side bets amongst the workforce, and I found out later that my foreman (Fred Pinney), had won more than a week’s wages because he had bet on me beating Peter. I didn’t know at the time, but he had previously worked with Peter Ives on another job and knew his abilities.
From that day on, I never had to ask for work - (as a hoddie that is).
It always came through people offering me work as a hod-carrier/scaffolder.
I would leave a job in the middle of the week if someone offered me an extra sixpence an hour to go and work for them. It probably sounds disloyal to those who have not experienced those years but that is the way it was.
Many of us worked “on the lump” as it was known in those days. There was a construction boom going on and we would earn good money. I could earn more in just two days than my dad could earn in seven.
But although I paid my bills and was paying my way, apart from that I didn’t save very much.
The girl that I had met - (Maureen), whom had been the reason for me becoming a hoddie, was a lovely girl from Herne Bay. Her dad was a friend of Edward Heath who later became Prime Minister.
But the yearning to get back to sea was too strong for me and one day I just packed in the job I was on and got another ship.
I didn’t realise how much this upset the poor girl until later and my mum was mad at me. She really liked this lassie and so did I but I was just so thoughtless. I just wanted my freedom and like I often would do I just ran away from responsibility.
And this was somewhat of a pattern with me for a while. I would go away for a few months on a ship. Come home, “fall in love” for a while and then clear off again.
I know today that I was always looking for something in those years but did not really know what it was I was looking for.
After paying off a ship in the sixties, I took my mum and dad to Margate for a day out.
Whilst walking around in the funfair known as DREAMLAND, I got into conversation with a fellow called Jack Jenkins who was working on one of the sideshows.
Jack had previously served in the Merchant Navy and we hit it off swapping our seafaring adventures. He asked me if I would like to work on the stall with him as he needed another hand. It seemed like a great idea to me at the time and I agreed.
I took mum and dad back home and the following day went off to Margate.
I met up with Jack and got myself some digs (bed and breakfast). The place I stayed was run by a nice lady and as I planned to stay for the whole season. she rented me a nice clean room at a very reasonable rate.
I quickly fell into the way of things at the job and enjoyed it very much. I was still in my late teens and there were plenty of girls visiting the park and I made a number of new friends.
We would work the stall until 11:00pm and then close. The park would then close until the following morning. After we closed the flash, we went to night-clubs and this was our primary leisure time. We had one day off each week. It was great.
One day Jack proposed to me a scheme where we could set up a small nappy exchange business.
The idea was that we would convert the garage to his house in Margate and install some washing machines and dryers in there. Then we would have a couple of people to collect soiled nappies from the many households and immediately exchange them for freshly laundered ones. The soiled ones would be washed dried and ready for the next distribution.
At first, I was enthusiastic as there was no other such service in Margate. But I began to have my doubts after doing a bit of research and some calculations and as it would mean that I would be committed to a loan from somewhere to set the operation up, I pulled out of the proposed deal.
Jack was disappointed in me and this led to some friction between us.
Now Jack was someone you did not get on the wrong side of as I learned not just by his reputation but by seeing him in action.
His wife was a lovely girl called Tina and she was very attractive. But Jack was playing around with other women and she tried to make him jealous by allowing a guy who was a professional snooker player to hang around and flirt with her.
This came to the attention of Jack who made it known that nobody flirts with his woman and gets away with it.
I was in the club one night when Jack came in and went over to the snooker table where this guy was playing.
I watched Jack hit the fellow on the back of the head with a snooker ball. The guy fell onto the table and Jack took his snooker cue, broke it in two pieces over his knee and smashed the fingers of the snooker player with the broken cue.
The poor fellow was in agony as Jack took his other hand and smashed the cue over the other fingers.
No-one tried to stop him, and I found out later that this had put an end to the snooker players career.
So, when I say it was not a good idea to get on the wrong side of Jack Jenkins then perhaps you can see why.
As it was coming to the end of the season, I decided to disappear from the scene and left Margate without telling anyone and shipped out again.
I never saw Jack again and thought it wise not to go down to Margate for a while in case I ran into him or his brother.
It was Christmas Eve in 1961 and I was working on a building site in Cliffe. My boss was Ralph Dray, a bear of a man about 18 stone with hands like shovels.
Ralph was a subcontractor for mainly brickworks, and this was one of his projects. I was his hoddie and there were 3 other bricklayers in the gang.
At lunchtime we decided to go to The Bells - a pub in the village. We all agreed to just have a Christmas drink together - (just a couple of pints each), and then return to the site and finish the work.
Well, we have all heard about the best laid plans of mice and men have we not?
And after we were beginning to enjoy ourselves a fellow came into the pub and told us he had a lorryload of fletton bricks for us.I went outside and sure enough there was the lorry with 2500 bricks.
In my slightly drunk condition, I thought it would be a great joke to offload the bricks at the kerbside around the corner from the pub.
And that's what I started to do until I was rudely interrupted by the lorry driver and Ralph who certainly didn't see the funny side of it, and they became very angry with me.
Ralph went for me and we started fighting in the street. Anyway, I caught him a beauty and he ended up with a broken nose.
This all led to me being fired and I went back into the pub whilst the bricks were loaded back into the lorry, and Ralph was taken to the hospital to get his nose straightened out.
I eventually got home to my mum's house later and went for a nap.
When I woke up, I went downstairs, and my mum asked me where my working bag was with my vacuum flask.
I had left them at the site and she understandably began to chastise me. (In those days vacuum flasks were not cheap like today). With that I decided to return to the site and bring my bag and flask back home.
Because I didn’t have my own transport it meant catching a bus from Lower Higham which was about a mile and a half away from our house.
But then I noticed my brother Alan's motorcycle parked outside the front gate.
And so, without any thought of the consequences, I callously jump-started his lovely motorcycle and off I went.
It was dark by now and I put on the headlights.
As I approached the Cliffe village I came to a curve in the road. I was going too fast and lost control.
The next thing I knew was being wheeled into Gravesend General Hospital on a trolley with nurses and others around me.
I was x-rayed and given injections and treatment for my injuries, which included several stitches in and around my mouth, a cut over the eye, three cracked ribs, few scratches on my face and a sprained wrist.
Some of my bottom teeth were loosened in the accident and the doctor was going to remove them. But I would have none of that and despite them wanting to keep me in hospital I discharged myself.
It was about 10:30 in the evening and all I could think of was getting a drink before closing time at 11.00. And so, the first thing I did when I got out of there was to go to The Railway Tavern, - my favourite pub in Gravesend.
I remember a couple of girls who I knew quite well, shying away from me when I walked through the door. In fact, I heard someone scream when I pushed my way through the crowd to the bar.
I couldn't blame them as I must have looked a bit like "Frankenstein's Monster". I had one arm in a sling, a bandaged head and stiches in my face. My right eye was closed and bruised, and my clothes were damaged and torn and covered in my blood.
And despite all this, all I wanted was another drink.
Not once at that point, did I think about my poor brother who would be devastated that his lovely pride and joy Triumph Bonneville motorcycle was now wrecked and laying in an orchard on the outskirts of Cliffe village.
Not once did I think of my mum or dad or the rest of my family about how this would all affect their Christmas. No. All I could think of was me, me, me.
I still cannot remember getting home afterwards and what it was like. I believe my brain has a mechanism for shutting out some of my most shameful memories.
What I learned later was that despite all this, I’d had a lucky escape from perhaps a far more serious condition.
As it happened, just a second or two before crashing through the fence and into the orchard, I saw the headlights of a car in the distance. This road had very little traffic under normal conditions and sometimes there would be no activity at all for periods 10 or 15 minutes at a time, especially on a holiday period like now.
Miraculously, the occupants of the car were in fact my best friend Nobby Medhurst, who was driving, and his girlfriend - (and future wife), Jackie Payne.
He told me later that when they reached the site of the accident, I was jerking around in the road "like an injured rabbit" were the words he used.
I was covered in blood and they both managed to get me into his car and took me straight to the hospital in Gravesend. (To this day I have absolutely no recollection of this - probably because I was concussed at the time.).
Over the years, I have had several "moments" that could have been life threatening. But something or someone has always been there to get me through.
Today I believe that to be the God of my understanding. I will just leave it there for now as this cannot be adequately described.
Then one day I met a girl whom I could not get out of my head and who was eventually to be my wife. She was in fact someone my brother Alan was going out with before I came on the scene.
I first saw her when she called for him at mum’s place. I was home on leave from the sea and as soon as I saw her, I was immediately attracted to her.
It must have been about 3 years after that when I first took Maggie on a date.
At the time, my drinking was considered to be “heavy” by some but “normal” to me. That about sums it up.
In fact, looking back in all honesty I can say that I managed to convince her that my drinking was under control and marriage would anyway change everything.
It did to some extent, but I still drank excessively working now onshore and working as a labourer/ hod carrier /scaffolder on building sites.
And so, we agreed to be married and I asked Maggie to tell her Dad that I would like to have a chat with him. It was arranged for the following Sunday afternoon.
It was apparent that her mum and dad did not really approve of me, but I was determined that we should marry. Maggie and I had already made a date for the marriage. It was to be - June 19th 1965, the day after her birthday.
But first I had to try for mum and dad’s approval. And so, Mervyn (her dad) and I went into the living room. I was nervous as I knew he was not very keen on me but came straight to the point. I just said something like Mr. Hodges, “I’m going to marry Margaret and would like your approval for her sake”
He looked at me and we sat there just staring at each other. He then said something like “I don’t suppose it will make any difference to you if I refused”.
I replied something like “No it wouldn’t. We’re determined to get married, but It would make such a difference for her if you gave your blessing”
“What are your ambitions for the future?” he asked.
“Just to make her happy” was my reply. However, I think he expected me to say something about my career rather than the answer I gave. He then stood up, put his hand out and we both shook hands.
I got to really like and respect Mervyn, but I did not trust his wife Eva.
She was all smiles and “nicey-nicey” to me every time we met, but I could sense her underlying dislike of me.
Having said this, I should mention that they both were outwardly very helpful to us both in our marriage and they certainly made it possible for us to purchase our house in Gordon Road Strood.
They provided some of the basic furniture and Mervyn was guarantor for the Building society who granted us the loan to buy the house.
The house was a 3-bedroom terraced house built around 1919. We had a small front garden and the back garden was about 12 metres in length.
On entering the front door, a passage led to the staircase with a door to the left giving access to the “living room”. Continuing along the passage, another door on the left led into the “dining room”. Through the dining room was the kitchen and the bathroom at the very rear of the building.
After moving in, we decided that the house would be better for us if we combined the living room with the dining room.
This would entail making a suitable opening by knocking down the wall dividing the two rooms.
I made my investigations into the space available below the floor and concluded that there was enough room for the rubble that would ensue in the demolition of the wall.
I would have to place a lintel to support the joists above so checked with a local timber merchant for a suitable hardwood lintel.
I estimated it would take me two full days to carry out the bulk of the work, so I planned for a weekend.
About 4.00am on the Saturday morning I moved the furniture and covered it all with protective sheets.
Then I stripped the wallpaper and plaster on both sides of the wall.
hen I punched two holes through the wall and inserted two “needles”. These were pieces of timber about 100mmx100mm. Then I placed two Acrow Props on either side of each “needle” and tensioned them in readiness to take the load of the joists above for when I demolished the wall.
Then came the main demolition.
This I completed by late morning and then went to the timber merchant for my pre-selected hardwood lintel.
The lintel was about 9ft long and 4” thick and 8” deep. It was hardwood and weighed about 45kg. The vendor at the timber merchant asked me where my truck was. I pointed to my right shoulder.
The helped me balance the lintel onto my shoulder and I walked the one mile to Gordon Road from Rochester Bridge. Even though I was very fit in those days, it was quite an arduous task as it was mostly up-hill.
When I got home I rested for a few minutes and then got on with it.
Before I could insert the lintel, I had to remove the bricks from the place where the lintel would rest. It was a bit of a struggle on my own but I eventually managed it.
Then I had to mark out the area of the wall that had to be demolished.
Now I could remove the Acrow Props and the “needles”.
Using hammer and chisel, I carefully scored the wall from top to bottom before beginning the actual demolition.
The dust was pretty awful, and I had to keep spraying water on the wall throughout the process.
I removed some of the floorboards so that I could discard the bricks and mortar that were being demolished. I levelled the rubble as I went along pushing it further under the living room flooring.
By about 9.30pm I had finished the demolition and trimmed the opening. I now had an opening about 2.0m wide and almost the height of the room - except for the lintel.
I was quite exhausted having worked almost nonstop since early morning, but I was very happy with the result.
Now I would take a shower, drink a few beers and get some rest. Tomorrow was going to be another long day.
Early next morning, I prepared the timber frame for the opening and fixed it into place.
Then I mixed some plaster and began to plaster the exposed brickwork on either side of the opening and to the lintel above. This of course had to be done on both sides of the opening.
By late afternoon the plaster had dried enough for me to apply the first coat of seraphite over the rough plaster. The second coat followed and all that was left was to paint and decorate.
I had previously purchased my paint and wallpaper and it took just a few hours more to complete the work.
Because I knew it would be like a bomb site after I began the work, Maggie and I agreed it would be best that she stayed with her mum and dad over the weekend.
On the Sunday evening, I called her and told her the work had been accomplished.
When she came down with her dad (Mervyn), he could not believe what I had accomplished on my own. He thought I had several others helping me. I must admit it was an achievement to be proud of and that is why I mention it in this story.
My next-door neighbour at the time was a man called Peter. He was a jobbing builder and he told me that if he had taken on this work as a project, he would have required 4-5 days to do what I did in two. Mind you, in those days, I was driven by a strong determination, plus the energy to go with it. Today I could not do this work in a couple of weeks even if was fool enough to take it on alone.
I was very fit, a hard worker, and was always chasing the “big shilling” as we called it.
I did in fact enrol at the local Medway College of Technology for a course in Quantity Surveying. I would attend the college one full day a week plus several evenings per week.
At this time, I had myself become a sub-contractor in the building trade. I had a contract in Sittingbourne for Parhams the builders. I employed 4 bricklayers and one hod-carrier, and we split the weekly take equally between us. I would collect the cheque on a Friday from the site office, go the bank and draw the cash and on Saturday lunchtime we all went to the pub where I doled out the earnings.
It could not be sustained, and I found that I was losing out on the deal. I was taking one day off for the college and not drawing a day’s pay from the weekly take. Such was my stupidity. No other sub-contractor split the whole take equally like I did. Just not cut out for business I suppose.
I was buying our home through a mortgage and we had a daughter born to us in 1967. We named her Karen Margaret, but sadly, by the time this child had reached 18 months of age, her mother and I separated. We were divorced sometime later.
It’s a fact that the divorce was awarded to me for Maggie’s adultery with another man, but that does not mean to say that I was blameless.
I could have been a better husband and a more responsible father but that's how it was.
In fact, this divorce devastated me, and I went on a spree of drinking and quite reckless behaviour. Anyway, I was truly heartbroken by all of this and I think I went to pieces.
I had always liked a drink and often drank too much (for some people) but now my drinking took on another dimension. I became unreliable and lost job after job for a while. We sold the house in Gordon Road very cheaply and divided the meagre proceeds.
After all the legal formalities were completed, I went to work in the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands.
JERSEY AND ITALY
I would work for a few days, earn some decent money, and then stop and go on the booze. Work a few days more and stop again. And so, it went on, almost ad-infinitum.
I had no ambitions. I just wanted to try to get my life together as best I could but was lacking direction. I still loved Margaret despite everything, but although she had asked before we sold the house if we could make another go of it, I knew there would be no reconciliation, - ever. That chapter of my life was now over.
I really missed Karen but had been advised by the children’s welfare officer (at a meeting we had before Margaret and her new love Ernie Theobald were to be married), that it would best for Karen if I stayed away and allowed her to have a normal upbringing with her mother (and soon to be step-father).
When I explained to my mum the outcome of this meeting and what the welfare person had advised the three of us, my mum and my sister too, was very upset.
They both tried to convince me not to allow this, but I truly believed the welfare people knew best. After all, they had told me this was in their experience with so many other cases the best course to take.
But also, I was so confused and unhappy about everything that I knew I could not cope with the events of recent months and just wanted to run-run-run from everything. This is the sad truth; however wrong and spineless it may have been of me.
Sadly, I had not the courage or the strength to do anything else at the time. My mum told me I would regret this later in life and she was so right. I have regretted this all my life but cannot change anything in the past.
I went for a while to Italy, a place outside of Rome called Lido di Ostia. At first, I stayed with a British couple who were touring with a small caravan and they let me sleep in their provisions tent.
When they left Ostia, I started living on the beach with a bunch of Romanian gypsies. We used to buy coconuts from the market and cut them in slices. Then we would sell them to holiday makers on the beach.
This was the time of the Vietnam war that America was losing, and many young men of conscription age left America for Europe to avoid being called up and sent to Vietnam.
I got friendly with several of these guys and one of them is worth a mention. His name was Paul. His father was a serving Colonel in the United States army.
His father had prior knowledge that the President was to introduce conscription, and Paul persuaded his dad to allow him to study in a college in Rome.
Because of all this, we used to party on the beach with others including some guys from Australia who were also dodging conscription in their own country.
Compared to many of us, Paul was wealthy in as much as he owned an 8mm movie camera and we had loads of fun dressing up on the beach making movies.
Paul was Director, Producer, Script Writer, Cameraman etc.etc.
We had to do everything the way he dictated but it was all a lot of fun.
I then met a German girl who was doing her world tour thing after graduating from University in Cologne.
Her name was Anna and she could speak 5 or 6 languages.
She was so clever, and I often wonder if she ever completed her world tour. Her next stop was to be Sicily and we lost touch after she left Ostia.
BACK TO JERSEY
I can’t remember exactly when or why I left Italy, but I went back to Jersey after some time.
In Jersey I made friends with a fellow called John McColl – (we called him Cash for some unknown reason as he was always broke).
Cash was the son of a successful builder in Leigh, Lancashire, and was married to a lovely girl who he had left in Lancashire while he was gallivanting around in Jersey, playing the field with all the holidaymakers who visited the island.
Although I didn’t like how he treated his wife, he was good company and we had a load of laughs.
Another acquaintance was Peter from Middlesbrough. He was a bricklayer by trade and great company.
I managed to get accommodation with a family. They had a huge house. The mother (Nan) was a Jersey girl and her husband (Davy) was from Glasgow. I had a large room to myself and the bathroom was en-suite.
Event 1. Davy went searching the pubs for the culprits. Davy picked up a drink and got drunk.
Event 2. Davey went home and concealed a sawn-off shotgun in his overcoat and went looking for the culprits.
Event 3. He believed the culprits would be at a certain bookmaker shop opposite the hospital and went there waiting for them.
Event 4. He discharged the shotgun at the bookmakers and shattered the windows.
Event 5. He was overpowered and arrested.
A few days later he was in court and sentenced to 2 years in prison. This of course had a devastating effect on Nan and the children.
I will never know, but perhaps Davy was like me, - someone who would take just one drink and be unable to stop once he started. Perhaps that is why he did not drink up until the events that led him to pick one up.
It wasn’t too long after this tragic event that I left Jersey for the mainland. This is how it came about:
One morning Peter and Cash came over and told me about something that had happened the day before.
Cash had a fight with a fellow and knocked him down some stairs in the apartment block where he was living at the time.
The fellow was in hospital and the police were looking for Cash.
None of us had money to buy tickets and so I had arranged with one on the crew of the ferry to meet us in the dock and he would arrange for us to slip onboard without checks.
Everything went according to plan and we sailed for Weymouth that evening.
During the trip, Peter got drunk somehow, even though the three of us were broke, and in his drunken state let out the pet dogs of passengers which were held in pens on the upper deck for the voyage.
It was hilarious to see crewmembers chasing these dogs to get them back into the pens. Sadly, one of the dogs fell over the side and was lost at sea.
On arrival at Weymouth, we sneaked onboard the London train. During the journey we manged to evade the ticket inspector and alighted at Paddington station.
Then we repeated the same scam and took the Manchester train from Euston station.
Arriving at Manchester without getting caught we waited for a mate of Cash to meet us at the station with a van. Then we drove to Leigh where Cash came from.
Cash manged to borrow some money from his father or mother, not sure which, and we went to the pub. In the pub I met a guy called Alan Hall whose parents had died and left him the tenancy of a council house.
Ali, as he was known, was broke as usual, but when I told him I needed a place to doss for a while he had no hesitation offering me shelter in his home.
He had no furniture in the house to speak of as he had either sold it or used the timber for firewood.
I slept on the floor in his kitchen for a while. It was a concrete floor with lino covering and absolutely freezing.
After a few days I managed to get a job in the new town being constructed at Runcorn in Cheshire. The first thing I did was to get a “sub” on my wages and buy a bag of coal, so that we had some heat in that freezing-cold house of Ali’s.
He was a good-natured guy but on reflection he was chronically alcoholic. He had broken the wooden furniture in his house to put on the fire prior to my living there. He had nothing…and I mean nothing.
There were no beds or even a table. They had all gone into the fire. Unbelievable. He would go stealing lead off the roofs of buildings and had been caught doing this several times.
The local police knew him well and often just locked him up for the night in the cells so he could at least be warm.
It was during this time that I met Georgie Fame who was a very popular singer and pianist of the day. He would often be on TV shows such as “Ready Steady Go”. He was a local lad who had grown up in Leigh and was very down to earth despite his international popularity.
He would come into the pub we used whenever he was visiting his family in Leigh and most of the people knew him quite well. I got to know him slightly and liked the fellow. Just an ordinary guy.
He later married the former Marchioness of Londonderry who years later committed suicide by jumping of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Leigh was typical of towns in the North of England in those days. Everyone seemed to know everyone and there was always good-humoured banter wherever you went.
Even early in the morning when people were hurrying off to catch the bus to get to their work, they would call to each other from across the street and perhaps make brief arrangement to meet in the pub later that evening. It was so different to the South of England culture.
After about 3 weeks at the Runcorn project I managed to get some sub-contract work from another sub-contractor. This made it possible for me to earn some decent money and I was able to employ a few others (bricklayers, scaffolders etc.).
I eventually came to know about a well-paid project in the London area and came down South again. This time I had two subcontracts – one in Lewisham and another at Orpington.
I spent a lot of time in Bayswater area in the clubs and the pubs. I met one or two female companions but nothing serious. I was just not interested in getting involved again - with anyone, - ever. That was how I felt then.
I then decided to go back to sea and did a few trips here and there.
One day, I found out my mum was having health problems and came back to Kent to see her. This led me to live again with my mum and dad for a while.
I would work on a variety of places and go out at night to clubs and pubs. I thought nothing of coming home from work, having a meal my mum had prepared, going off to the pub, then going off to a night club (staying till the early hours) and getting home about 3 in the morning. Then I’d sleep for 3 hours, get ready and go do a day’s work wherever that might be at the time.
I never gave a second thought that my poor dear mum (dad too) was worried sick about my lifestyle. They both would have liked me to settle down again, but I would have none of it.
One day I met a man whose wife used to be a teacher at the primary school in Higham. He knew I had been going to sea previously and introduced me to a man who was the personnel manager for Westminster Dredging Company.
I was offered a job as a deckhand on a barge. The money was good, and I got some promotion after a while.
I worked for them for a while on different projects around the UK. I finally came to be working on a dredging project at Weymouth in Dorset. The dredger was a grab unit called the “Tilbury Toiler”
The job was progressing quite well until the local Agent for the company informed us we were not entitled to have a cook.
We had a locally employed cook who came daily to the dredge and prepared our food.
The Agent told us we would have to use one of the existing crew to do this job.
He summarily fired the cook, paid him off, and went ashore leaving us to get on with our work.
Our senior Dredge master was a long-term employee named Ken Gillet. The brother of Ken was also an employee of Westminster Dredging Company at head office in Gravesend.
Ken Gillet called all the crew together and we had a meeting onboard. The outcome was to stop the work until the cook was reinstated.
It took about half a day to disengage the operation and bring the dredger alongside one of the jetties in the river. When we were done, we sent for the Agent.
He arrived and pompously ordered us to get the operation going again. We refused to follow this instruction and he was on and off the phone to the head office for several hours.
Eventually, he came back to us and had the local cook with him. The cook had been drinking all day long and was quite drunk but that didn’t matter to us. We had won the day. Then we broke out the dredge and all other equipment, got back on station and continued with the project.
But our stoppage was not only costly to Westminster Dredging Company, it was unprecedented. This sort of thing would not, could not be allowed to be repeated either by our crew or any other in the fleet. We had crossed a line.
The following day, a completely new crew arrived in Weymouth. The smug Agent was as pleased as punch when he summoned us all and told us to report to the office in Gravesend. We were finished on this project. These were the instructions from the Head Office.
I phoned the Gravesend office and was told to report on Monday morning to a motorised split barge named the “Borough Deep” which was operating on the River Thames.
I did so and halfway through the morning I was summoned by the master of the vessel. He told me there was a message from the Gravesend office for me to report there, with my kit, to the Personnel Manager.
Arriving at the HEAD office I was shown into his office. The Personnel Manager - Mr. Paul Anoot, was very courteous and asked me what had happened at Weymouth. I told him the truth without making any excuse for my part.
He fired me there and then.
And that was the end of my experience with the company. I was blacklisted with Westminster Dredging company.
The Senior Dredge-master (Ken Gillet) was reprimanded and downgraded in position. Two other long-term employees were suspended from duty for two months.
And the rest? Well, like me, they were all sacked.
But life goes on, vacancies are there if you look for them and shortly after I was offered a job in dredging at Felixstowe where a new dock was to be built.
This was around 1971-72. I started as deckhand (again) and after a few weeks I was promoted.
Again, after a few more weeks, I was put on permanent night shift in charge of a new C.S.D. (Cutter Suction Dredger). We worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off 7 days a week. I was back to back with the senior dredge-master – Nick Carter, a fellow with a lot of dredging experience
This job was very well paid, and we would work 3 weeks on and one (long) weekend off. It suited me fine.
In November ‘72, there was a very bad storm. I came on duty early morning as it was my turn on dayshift for that week. This was just when the weather started to get bad.
The dredging superintendent called me on the v.h.f. to batten the dredger down and leave it on storm anchors and bring everyone ashore. This was happening all over the project with other offshore equipment. This storm was predicted to be a bad one.
I told him that if we left it to the mercy of the storm it might sink. He insisted that I followed his instructions.
As I was now the master of this (small) dredger I decided unilaterally that I was not going to abandon the vessel. I thought that if some of us stayed on-board there was little chance of the vessel floundering.
Together we got cracking to do the needful, lashing everything down and battening hatches and doors etc. We had a tugboat standing by on the lee side ready to take us ashore.
Again, the call from the superintendent came for me to get everyone onshore right away.
But I asked first for three volunteers to stay on-board with me and we would ride out the impending storm. Only one man would stay, and he was the newest and least experienced man.
In my heart, I was very critical of the more experienced crewmembers. Some of them had been much longer in this dredging industry than I had but I had to allow them to go ashore if it was their choice. And they had the backing of the Marine Superintendent.
And so, the crew went ashore leaving me and the new-recruit on-board the vessel.
As the storm built up in intensity it was apparent it was going to be a bad one. (And it was – the worst storm on the East coast since 1953).
During the night as the seas got bigger and the wind got stronger, I could hear distress calls going out on the v.h.f. from vessels in the area.
“May-Day May-Day” was all we could hear and to be honest I was quite scared. I thought at that time that I had made another very bad decision and we both should have left with the others.
But it was too late now. There was not a single vessel that could now approach to rescue us. It was far too late for that to happen as the sea state was horrendous by now.
But I could not expose my fear to this new guy, or he might panic. Apart from that, I knew that if I did not focus on one thing only (staying afloat) we would not see tomorrow - either of us. And the poor fellow was obviously already regretting that he had volunteered to stay with me.
I had to try to make out that all was well on our vessel that our anchors were good that our vessel was new, was properly secured, and was watertight. We would get through this I kept telling him.
We worked like dogs for most of that awful night using our winches to always try to keep our head into the direction of the seas. But sometime during the night he came onto the bridge as white as a ghost. He was in panic.
I said what’s the matter with you. It will be ok. Don’t worry.
He told me that one of the glass sight panels on the engine room bulkhead had been caved in. These panels were about 1 metre long by about 30 cm high and were situated in the bulkhead of the engine room to provide light. (The same function as a skylight only on a vertical bulkhead).
The glass was about 25mm thick and normally any sea hitting it would not damage it. They were supposed to be storm proof, so I assumed it must have been hit by a heavy piece of flotsam that was all over the sea by now.
Anyway, I told him to stay on the bridge and man the radio and the winches whilst I had a look below. When I reached a safe zone to assess the damage, I could see water pouring into the engine room each time a wave surged over the main deck.
Already I could see the water had reached the engine room deck plates meaning the bilges were already filling up.
Under normal circumstances if water reaches a certain level the bilge pumps would kick in automatically. And of course, they had done so.
But in this case, the bilge pumps were incapable of handling the volume. I had to do something I had never tried before. I went into the pump room and disconnected a pipe on the suction side of the dredge pump itself.
I arranged a flexible suction hose about 30cm in diameter to be submerged in the rising waters. This must have taken about half an hour and the water in the pump room was around my knees by the time I’d finished. I made my way back to the bridge and started the Main Engine.
I then engaged the dredge pump coupling and watched the instruments to see if I would get enough suction pressure.
Nothing happened, and the fear hit me. It would not prime like this. If the pump could not prime it could note create pressure (i.e. suction). I rushed back down to the Engine room and saw the water had now reached the lower part of the auxiliary engine.
If the water got into the oil sump it was all over. The engine would stop and immediately after that, the main engine would stop.
The vessel would sink, and I knew we would never be able to survive in those seas. To be honest I though “this is it, this is my last day”.
I then heard a noise from the pump room and rushed through the compartment. There I could see the flexible suction hose threshing around in the sump and I knew the pump had now primed itself and had begun to remove the water from the bilges.
I worked my way back onto the bridge. The man there was as white as a ghost. I went over to him and said something. I can’t remember what it was I said to him but whatever it was it seemed to calm him…….
Now dawn was breaking, and this made a huge difference. Although the seas were still raging at least we could get a better perspective. When it’s dark in those conditions it can be quite scary because everything appears to be hugely exaggerated. By that I mean the wind seems stronger, the seas higher and the noise louder. All this adds to the fear factor, believe me.
Now we could see things that we hadn’t been able to see during the darkness of the night. There were small boats and sailing vessels just thrown up on the shoreline as if they were toys.
We could see our floating pipeline that transported our dredging spoil from dredger to reclaim area just smashed up and sections of it lodged and trapped underneath the jetty to the West of us. This was over 800 linear metres of 550mm diameter steel pipes with a 15mm wall thickness just twisted and torn apart like plastic.
This was a methane jetty and if those methane pipes had been ruptured the whole place could have exploded. But it didn’t. We were so lucky.
There were several other things that happened. We had to face another night of terror before the seas subsided enough for a tugboat to eventually come to us and put a relief crew on board our vessel. This was around mid-day.
It had been over 40 hours since we two came on-board and we were quite exhausted. Today I could not take 20% of what we had to endure – it would kill me.
Everyone made a fuss of me, but I insisted the real hero was the new fellow. If he had not stayed, then perhaps we might have sunk.
In fact, two other dredgers on the same project did sink and it was later concluded that had a crew been onboard they may have been prevented from sinking.
I could never have managed alone what needed to be done over those hours. But it’s something we shall never know.
I do know one thing. That fellow NEVER came back to our vessel. In fact, he didn’t even come back to the office to collect the money he was due. I guess he made up his mind that it was not the kind of work he was looking for eh? The worst thing of all is I have no record or memory of his name.
The company made a fuss of me and I received a quite generous ex-gratia payment. I got my picture in the papers etc. and they blew the story out of proportion. It didn’t do me any harm though. Or did it?
Self-esteem is good in a balanced measure, but it can also lead to unwarranted self-importance if the balance is out of kilter. Perhaps it did do me harm in a way I only saw much later in my life.
Now I was being feted by people I’d never previously set eyes on, and it must have gone to my head. There was always a pint waiting for me in the bars I frequented in Felixstowe, left by somebody or another. I was treated - (for a short period), like a celebrity.
I was living in a nice 6 berth caravan on the Felixstowe Park which was a short walk to the docks. I would walk to work (10mins) and get the boat out to where my dredger was operating.
JUNE (the love of my life)
One evening during the summer of 1973 I got back to my caravan and went off for a shower in the shower block nearby.
When I got back, I noticed an attractive blonde woman outside of a rental holiday caravan nearby. She asked me if I could help as she’d locked herself out. Anyway, this led to me speaking to her friend June and I was immediately attracted to her.
And so, I asked her if she’d like to come out with me on a date and she agreed.
We got on well from the start and I think I took her out several times in the week she was on holiday,
By the time she was leaving, we arranged to meet up again in London. We met at Trafalgar Square and spent the weekend in a B&B in Barnet.
This led to us agreeing to set up home together and I rented a lovely apartment at the area called Undercliff.
It had beautiful views over the beaches and out to sea. It was perfect. I knew June would love it. She was expected to bring her stuff in a couple of weeks, and we had plans to make a life together.
All seemed well. But we all know what Rabbie Burns said about the best laid plans of mice and men……
I found I was drinking more and more and even taking booze to work. One night, I decided to go to the pub because I needed a drink and there was none onboard.
I just stopped the whole operation and took a boat ashore. My plan was to come back later and start up again.
I knew my productivity rate was the highest in the company and I would make up for the hour or so I intended to be onshore.
I did come back and started up again as if nothing I had done was wrong. I have since learned that a drunken idea is not amongst our best, most reliable or sensible ideas. The very next morning I was sacked. This was totally justified, and I knew it.
QUESTION: What did I learn from this lesson?
ANSWER: Don’t get too big for your boots. No-one and I mean NO-ONE is indispensable.
A costly lesson for me but one that I would stupidly repeat several times more in my career before it really sunk into my thick skull.
Now June came to Felixstowe and our lovely apartment. She was very happy. Then I dropped the bombshell about losing my job. She didn’t think it was too important. She just said she would get a job and we would get by until I was able to get placed again.
She did get a job in a hairdresser salon and later in a café called “Nuts and Honey”. My mum and dad paid us a visit during this time during a very cold period with ice everywhere.
A few days after she arrived, I was in the pub (as usual) and met Alan Reeves who was the Dredging Superintendent in another company on the project. He heard I was looking for work and offered to arrange an interview for me with a guy called Mike Stone.
At that time, Mike Stone was UK manager for a Dutch dredging company called Cunis-Delta-Bouow. They traded under the name of Land Salvage in UK.
Anyway, I travelled down to Essex by train to meet Mike Stone in his office.
He asked me why I left my previous job and I told him I got the sack and the reason why. He asked me if I had a drinking problem. Who…? me?
I promptly denied it and told him that it was a one-off mistake and I promised him it would never happen again.
He said he “knew all about” it and I wanted to see if I was honest. “You have a job if you want it” he said. I asked what the job was.
He told me there was a channel being dredged in the North of Scotland for an oil rig facility and it was behind schedule.
He wanted me to try to get it back on target as it was costing the company money.
I asked what kind of authority I would be granted to achieve the target.
He told me that I would have full authority over all offshore activities and would report only to the Project Manager, a Mr. Frank Borthwick.
I would have a free hand in most things.
The important thing was to get the team motivated, plan the operations in such a way as to increase our productivity, turn the job around sufficiently to make profitable.
This prospect excited me, and I was flattered that he had this much faith in my abilities. I was determined not to let him down.
He also warned me to watch my drinking. “You are going to mix with a few heavy drinkers up there” he said.
With that he sent me to the secretary who provided a plane ticket voucher and some petty cash for expenses etc.
I signed a contract of employment which I hardly read through in detail as I was so keen to take the job and did not want to find any “small print” that would deter me.
Getting off the plane (A Dan Air Dakota DC8) at Dalcross Airport in Ardersier, I was met by a driver for the company called “Fergie”.
He took me to a small town about 4 miles away called Nairn.
I checked into the Royal Hotel, - ( a real dive), and he told me he would come for me in the morning to take me to meet Frank Borthwick.
Mindful that I needed to be careful about how much I drank I just had a pint in the hotel bar before going out to explore the town. What a dump it was. It was so depressing.
The people seemed to be talking a foreign language. The buildings were drab. And the worst thing of all (for me at least) was the shock of finding out that pubs in Scotland closed at 9:00pm.
How I would be able to survive in this ‘back of beyond” place I could not imagine.
The next morning Fergie showed up and took me to the site in the company vehicle.
Here I met Angus (Angie) who was employed to look after the canteen on the site. He made the best bacon rolls I had ever tasted and was a nice chap. Everyone liked old Angie.
Frank Borthwick came in around 9:00 am and I was introduced to him. He then introduced me to his sidekick, Bob Grimond. I liked Bob right away but I he was a bit wary of me at first.
Frank explained that they had two small dredgers working on the project.
The scope of work was dredging an access channel for barges to come alongside a wharf that was under construction.
It was a very straightforward project and the substrata was lightly dense sand.
The main problem the company was facing was low productivity of the dredging operations.
The resulting delays were leading to liquidated damages being threatened by the main contractor.
Now Frank stressed to me that my job was to intervene in the operations in the role of dredging supervisor and solve the problems being faced.
I was ok with that and told him to make clear to all the employees what my role was and to stress to them all that I needed their full cooperation.
I had been around long enough to know that there were bound to be some people already in the company that would resent a newcomer being in authority over them.
I told Frank very clearly that if I encountered any resistance at all to my proposals, I would send them ashore and they would not be coming back. I expected him to back me on this when it happens.
He was ok with that and I then began moving onto the floating and shore-based units to meet the crews and others in the workforce.
One of the first things I discovered was that there were enormous amounts of kelp on the seabed. This kelp had the effect of clogging up the suction mouths of each dredger and these obstructions had a direct effect on the rate of productivity.
And so, I introduced a clearing operation of the seabed to minimise the quantity of kelp when we dredged. To do this I hired a piece of equipment from a local farmer which acted as a rake.
We prepared a towing bridle for the rake and it was towed by one of our workboats over the pre-dredged area. This operation continued until enough kelp had been removed to allow clearer access to the seabed itself. Only then were the cutter suction dredgers deployed in the previously cleared area.
After a few weeks we were making significant increases to our productivity and progress on the job gained momentum. Increased productivity was the reason I had been appointed and I now began to feel comfortable in my position.
I had taken on several new employees and although none had previous experience in dredging works, they were very adaptable and did what was asked of them and more.
Two of these new guys were brothers and they were quite notorious in the area for their drinking and fighting. These were Jockie and Donald – (Dondie) Williams.
These two young fellows would argue with the stones in the road and fight anyone at the drop of a hat, but they were fearless of the sea.
And on this project, that was an asset as we often faced bad weather conditions.
However, they would do everything I asked of them and never once did they give me any trouble - (personally). I was proud to have them on the team.
We often encountered bad weather conditions in the Moray Firth, and I could always rely on these two if I needed volunteers for some dangerous or unusually risky work.
They would always be there with me where other more experienced men would back off citing that is was too risky.
I won't go into details but some of the work was very risky. However, that is the nature of dredging in hostile waters, it's just a part of the job.
I was traveling up and down to Felixstowe every two or three weeks to see my June. We had set up our home in the apartment at Undercliff Apartments.
It was a lovely place and we enjoyed being there but when I had to fly back to Scotland after 4 days at home it was awful - for both of us. One day I came home, and June had packed all her stuff. She made it clear that she was coming back with me to Scotland.
And so, we vacated the apartment and packed all our worldly belongings into 3 suitcases. It was almost Christmas and the company had agreed that the English personnel would have the Christmas period off, and the Scots personnel would have the New Year (Hogmanay) period off. The project would just have mainly maintenance coverage in these two holiday breaks.
In view of this, June and I were going to say with Junes mum and dad in Redbourn over Christmas.
And so, we caught a train with all our possessions in our 3 suitcases and some bags to Ipswich then piled onto a Greenline bus from Ipswich to Redbourn.
June’s brother-in-law Bryan, took some of the stuff in his car and we sent this as freight to Inverness railway depot by train to be collected later.
We had a lovely family Christmas and on or around 28th December we took the Dan Air flight from Heathrow to Dalcross airport.
We arrived at Inverness airport on a very cold evening with snow on the ground.
June was as white as a ghost and I could hardly see her against the backdrop of the snow. She blended in perfectly………hahaha
We checked in at the lodging house which we nicknamed “Kinky Cottage”. We were taken there by my pal Mike Harding.
Mike was part of the English crowd who were on the project and who travelled up from England, and also stayed at “Kinky Cottage” whilst in Scotland.
The landlady was an English person and she was “as tight as the proverbial “ducks’ arse”.
There was never enough hot water and we often had to bathe on tepid water after a long hard day’s work.
No matter how much we all complained about it, things never improved. The food was poor quality and never enough on the plate. Even the cat turned its nose up at some of the fish she served us.
After several days of this I knew that changes had to be made. It was quite an awful place to live. And so, after much searching, I managed to find a caravan that I could rent. It cost about 7 pounds a week, was quite tiny, but it made such a difference.
We were very happy in that tiny little caravan. It had a bathroom and the bath itself was about the size of old-fashioned kitchen sink. But at least the water was HOT.
One day I came home from work and June was beaming all over her face. She told me she was pregnant. We were over the moon about this and promptly went off to celebrate.
After living in the caravan for several months we were lucky enough to be allocated a council house in the village of Ardersier. This happened for two reasons.
1. I was considered a Key Worker in the new oil industry
2. June was carrying a child and the caravan was damp and deemed to be unsuitable under these new circumstances.
It was wonderful news.
The house we had been offered was in Station Road, Ardersier. It had two bedrooms, a garden back and front and a full-sized bath in the separate bathroom. Absolute PARADISE to us.
We spent some cash and over a period we furnished it nicely and to our liking. It was lovely.
The main entertainment sources in the village were the 4 village pubs.
My favourite was the Alma owned by Ian and Margaret Annal. They were such a fun couple and we had many great evenings in that place.
In those days the pubs closed at 9:00pm and we would rush home from work and straight into the pub after a clean-up and a quick bite to eat prepared by June.
Sometimes I would get home after the pub closed and then have my supper. It was hard on June but she took it all on-board.
Our son was born in May 1975 and we gave him the name Scott after the son one of our dear friends.
As it happened, we did turn the job around, and I was given a really nice bonus from Mike Stone.
It was in an envelope and equivalent to 2 months wages. In those days we were paid by the hour and I was working a minimum 84 hours a week –sometimes 96 hours.
Eventually the project completed and the client - McDermott Company (USA), bought the dredgers and the marine craft from Land Salvage.
I was one of these taken on by McDermott and my pay jumped again. Now I was earning a good wage for those days.
I was still drinking heavily but it seemed to me, (and maybe it was ONLY me), that it was under control.
One day however a friend who was a marine engineer working with me offshore decided to move to Malta in the Mediterranean.
This called for some kind of celebration and a bottle of whisky magically appeared from nowhere.
We were at work and of course alcohol was totally forbidden on site under company rules.
Rules had never been a strong deterrent to me up to now and of course with my attitude as it was in those days, it required minimal encouragement for me to take a drink or two.
What I would never acknowledge in those days was that when I took a drink the drink took me.
One bottle became two and several of us then had a few nips apiece.
Someone mentioned to my boss that I was tippling, and I was called to his office.
My boss was a very decent guy. His name was Harry Troop and I had a lot of respect for him.
He asked me point blank, "Dougie, I was told you've been drinking on the job, but I don't believe it, but I have to ask you anyway".
The way he spoke and acted indicated that he was sending me a clear message to me TO DENY that I had been drinking.
But, instead of that I said “Well yes Harry, I've had a few nips at site because one of my mates is leaving. Sorry for letting you down.”
He raised his eyebrows in disbelief that I had admitted this to him in front of two witnesses and had no alternative but to send me to the site doctor right away for assessment.
The doctor was my own GP who was an excellent man and a very good doctor.
He breathalysed me and took a blood sample which showed a very high level of alcohol in my blood, (recorded as 255mg per ml.) - something like 3 times the legal limit permitted for driving a vehicle on the road in those days. Today the bench mark is lower than it was then.
I was tested for alcohol and found positive - well over the top. I was immediately suspended from duty.
After an inquiry myself and another man who had also been caught drinking on the job, were found guilty of gross misconduct and sacked.
I was offered another job with Mike Stone in Dorset but by now June had joined me, we were married, had a son and a house so we were settled.
The locals had agreed to “adopt us Sassenachs” according to Fergie and we were having a nice life. Why fix something that was working we thought.
I was a bit remorseful for a day or two but then I found another job and just put it all down to experience.
As I had been fired from my last job, I was not entitled to any state benefits and I quickly found myself a job as Bargemaster with The British Waterways Board.
My place of work was at the depot at Muirtown Lochs at the Eastern section of the Caledonian Canal.
The job was poorly paid and boring, but it paid the rent for the time being until I could get something better.
One day the Canal Superintendent -John Boyce, approached me and asked me if I could take over temporarily as skipper of the Scott II. This was a small passenger vessel that plied the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness during the tourist season taking tourists on short cruises of about 4 hours.
I agreed, and because this was slightly better paid and a bit less boring.
One of the perks was that we had a bar onboard, and although my contract prohibited me - (as skipper), from drinking on duty, I could hardly refuse a dram or two from gracious tourists, could I? That would have been bad PR on my part would it not?
This small vessel was also classed as a registered ice breaker, as sometimes the fresh water canal freezes over in the winter and this little lady allowed vessels to move freely in those conditions.
I had a Polish Engineer who had been employed on this vessel for 35 years or more. He was a pain in the arse sometimes, especially when he went on about having seen the Loch Ness Monster (Nessie), not once, but on several occasions.
One day, Mr. Boyce asked me to go to Lock Darroch and tow back the gate lifting barge that was moored up there for a job in Muirtown Locks.
I took the Scott II down to Lock Darroch and moored behind the gate lifter barge. I checked the water depth and each of the vessels dimensions and decided to turn the barge in the canal at this point.
I instructed the crew on the towing procedure to follow and the Polish engineer came rushing onto the bridge demanding to know what I was doing.
I explained the plan to him, and he almost went ballistic saying it had never been done this way before and all the other skippers previously had towed the barge through the locks and into the Loch Ness. Then they turned it around and came back through the locks and back into the canal.
I explained that this would add 4-5 hours to a simple job of work, and we were going to do it the way I have planned.
He began to protest, and I had no choice but to tell him in no uncertain terms to get off the bridge.
The operation went exactly to plan, and we were back at Muirtown with the barge by late afternoon.
The Superintendent Mr. Boyce was very surprised when we came alongside at Muirtown as he was not expecting us to arrive until late in the evening or the early hours of the next morning.
He asked me how I had managed to do it so quickly, but I just patted my nose to indicate it was my secret.
Sadly, this type of restrictive practice that the Polish engineer was trying to perpetuate was rife in UK workplaces in the 60’s and 70’s but I think there is less of it today.
Most people have now woken up to the fact that restrictive practices are a primary cause that can lead to companies going bust, and that doesn’t help anyone.
One very cold and wintry morning I was on the bridge of the Scott II doing a bit of paperwork when a man shouted to me from the jetty. I went out to see what he wanted, and he told me that something, a vehicle had gone into the canal.
I went along with him to where there were tyre marks leading from the slip road, over the grassed verge, down the slope and disappeared into the waters of the canal.
The water as usual was dark and murky and I could see nothing below the surface. So, I ran back to the Muirtown Lock office and called the emergency services.
Then I called the yard British Waterways Yard at Clachnaharry where I knew our three divers could be found.
I spoke to the foreman and requested the divers be sent with full kit to Muirtown Lock offices.
They arrived within 20 minutes or so and I showed them where the vehicle had entered the canal.
By now we had the police presence and the fire brigade also came.
Our divers went into the water and after a few minutes one of them surfaced indicating to me that there was a van down there and he could see a body inside.
Then he went down again and as he did so the other diver in the water surfaced and held up two fingers indicating two bodies.
Then the other one broke the surface once more holding up three fingers. Sadly, we really did have a disaster here. Three bodies inside a van had now to be recovered.
We arranged with the fire brigade to bring a mobile crane to the location.
Our divers arranged the slings from a spreader beam and by late afternoon we had lifted the van out of the water.
The three bodies were removed and taken away. There were two women and one man.
We learned later that the man was bringing an outboard engine from Fort William to the boat yard near to Muirtown Locks. His wife and her sister thought they would take the opportunity to come along with him and then they would do some shopping in Inverness before going back to Fort William. A sad ending to their plans for a day out.
Not too long after this, I found a better paid job. This time I became a scaffolder on a construction site in Inverness. The company was Holst North West.
I stayed with them for a while but as ever I was looking for better pay. It was always the bigger shilling I chased.Then I was put in touch with someone who was working on a new project in Kishorn.
Times were tough in the Highlands of Scotland in the '70's. Here’s an example of why I say this.
I started working in Kishorn on the master platform that was under construction for the Ninian Oil field in the North Sea.
I became one of those people who are stull to this day referred to as “The Kishorn Commandos”.
The original Kishorn Yard was developed as a manufacturing and fabrication yard for oil platforms in the 1970’s.
The yard was a joint venture owned by Howard Doris Ltd and operated from 1975 to 1987.
In 1974/5, work began on the North side of Loch Kishorn to develop a substantial acreage in order to build the Ninian Central Platform.
This was by far the largest project undertaken at the site and the construction of the 150 metre diameter dry dock to house the first layer of the Ninian Central as it was ‘set down’ as a concrete structure.
At its peak point there were over 3,000 people working at the yard. Owing to planning and travel constraints the yard was to be considered as an island and all materials and people were to be brought in by sea or air.
Two retired cruise liners were moored in the Loch for workers accommodation; they were the Rangatira and the Odysseus.
As the Ninian project continued it was floated out into Loch Kishorn, at that time it weighed close to 150,000 tonnes.
The wet dock in Loch Kishorn has an almost unlimited depth for construction purposes at 80 metres.
Upon completion the 600,000-tonne concrete platform was towed by seven tugs to its North Sea location. At that time this was the largest man-made moveable object.
The client was Chevron, and I was working for a sub-contractor- one of many at the site.
The construction site was located on the NW coast of Scotland near a place called Loch Carron.
From the day I arrived it rained. And I mean it rained stair-rods. And it rained for seven solid weeks. Honestly, 7 weeks.
The initial construction process for this massive structure took place in a hole that had been dug close to the Loch. The water of the loch was held back by a cofferdam and the plan was to construct part of the rig and then flood this hole.
After flooding the cofferdam would be removed to allow for the structure would be floated. The structure was then to be towed into the deeper waters of the loch where the remainder of the work would be carried out.
At this point in time I was sleeping in a tacky old caravan that was leaking and it was damp and uncomfortable.
I knew it was a temporary measure and so I stuck it out. We worked 12 hour shifts 7 days a week. Overtime was always available. This was primarily because although the money was good the labour force turnover was about 70% in the early days.
This was mainly due to the very harsh conditions not just the weather but also the fact that the bottom of the hole was always covered in at least 30-40cm of water and all of us had to wade through this all day long. And I mean ALL DAY LONG.
Sometimes you may step on a piece of steel that had dropped into the water and there were many injuries. There was trade union representation of sorts, but the construction was under the management of a company notorious in those days for not recognizing most unions except those they had in their pocket.
This today may sound a bit far-fetched but believe me that's how things were.
In fact, at one point there was some industrial dispute at the site and the old man himself - (Sir John Howard no less), flew in by helicopter from Dalcross Airport.
Within one hour of being on-site he gave orders for EVERY man on strike, - without exception, to be instantly paid off.
He brought in fresh labour from his other sites all over the country and even though the gate had pickets in place for several weeks he never relented.
Eventually the dispute was settled and a few of those previously dismissed were re-employed - but only a few.
As I mentioned previously, times were tough in the Highlands of Scotland in the '70's.
On Thursday 11th March 1976 I was lying in bed with pneumonia in a damp caravan that I was living in whilst working in Kishorn on the West Coast of Scotland. Someone came to the caravan and told me there was an urgent message from my wife.
I had to leave my bed and was taken to the office where there was a telephone.
I called June in Ardersier where we were living, and she passed on the news that my mum was critically ill in hospital.
I had not told June that I was sick, but just told her to get Scott and herself ready, I would be there in a couple of hours. I got in my car and drove from Kishorn to Ardersier.
Then the three of us got into the car and I drove all night reaching the hospice in Rochester about 12 hours later.
We were able to see my mum and I spoke her before she died later the following morning, Saturday 13 March 1976.
When she died it was as though a part of me had been taken literally from my soul. I shall never forget that feeling of emptiness.
Arrangements were made for mum’s funeral, and on the day before, my dad went into hospital and he could not attend mum’s funeral. Dad was obviously broken by mum’s death.
I could not bear the thought of my dad being left on his own especially as it was the first time in my life that I had seen him so vulnerable. He had always been a rock.
My sister lived up the road and I thought she would take care of him as she was bringing up her own family in the village. But she could not.
My brother in Northfleet could not take care of him either for similar reason.
Dad may have been OK on his own, but I was not happy about this at all. I discussed it with June, and we agreed that we would give up our home in Ardersier, and my job at Kishorn, and come to Kent to live with Dad and take care of him.
When he came out of hospital and I suggested that we could come down to Higham to live with him. He was very happy with this idea.
Then we left Kent and drove back to Scotland promising Dad we would be back shortly.
Now back in Scotland, I called the company I was working for and told them I was not coming back. They were furious and told me that I should at least work my notice or they would take action against me.. But I just ignored their threats, and never returned to that awful place.
I rented a truck... June and myself loaded all our furniture and belonging, and the 3 of us travelled down to Kent.
June an I offloaded the truck. After having a sleep, I then started off for the 12-hour drive to Ardersier.
On arrival at Ardersier, I then rested for a few hours before returning the truck to the rental company.
I then collected my car, popped the house keys through the letter box, called the council office to tell them I was leaving and drove back down to Kent.
On the way down there were torrential rains all over the country and I was lucky to get out of Pitlochry with just minutes-to-spare before it was cut off by the floods.
That section of the A9 was cut off for the next 3 days. I was lucky to get through with just minutes to spare.
But then I should not be surprised because God has always been there for me so many many times and I didn't know it in those days.
It's funny how when I look back on some of the escapes, I've had from difficult situations I could never on my own have achieved the result.
That was our Scotland experience over – or was it?
4 TAYLORS LANE
Now it was 1976. We four, June, Scott, Dad and I were at the council house that was built by German POW's at no 4 Taylors Lane.
My parents had been allocated this brand-new house 29 years earlier in 1947 and I lived in that house during much of my childhood.
These 14 pairs of houses were located between two roads, School Lane and Taylors Lane.
The scheme had the grand name of Mountbatten Estate in honour of Earl Mountbatten who had previously been Viceroy of India.
Our house had 3 bedrooms and a proper bathroom. There was also a downstairs toilet in the attached lobby opposite the coal bunker.
The heating was by a coal fire in the front living room and in the biggest of the 3 bedrooms.
After the small cottage at Lower Higham this was like Buckingham Palace to us.
We had a huge garden that was never properly cultivated, and Dad grew what I believed to be the world’s tastiest tomatoes.
These with cucumber we gathered from the green house that he had built himself.
June and I set about decorating the house which had been a bit neglected because my parents were not able to do much of that sort of thing at their time if life.
We got rid of some of the old furniture and replaced it with our newer stuff and bought a few extra bits and pieces.
We did this with the right spirit thinking it was the correct thing to do. But one thing we did not consider sufficiently was how my dad felt about the changes. I learned a lot from assuming that what I thought was good for the goose, the gander might have other ideas.
After all, this was his house, not ours and our tastes in many things were not necessarily his. As I have got to the age I am today I can see how wrong I was to assume such things. But the intentions were good, and I have since forgiven myself for my arrogance.
Howere, in the beginning, all went well, and I applied for and secured a job as a scaffolder at Littlebrook D power station.
There were many labour strikes at the plant, and this always affected our take home pay.
Things got very tight and this is where we developed our expression "living out of the tin".
This meant that on each pay day I would come home from work and we would get out the old biscuit tin from the cupboard. There were no biscuits but if we were lucky there would be a few coins left over from last week.
In this tin were several envelopes each with its own label;
Dinner Money. Etc.
This was how we lived then and there wasn't much for anything else really.
We might manage to go out perhaps on a Saturday evening to the working men's club or somewhere, but money was very tight.
We scraped through though, and our son Scott, always came first. We made sure he never wanted for nourishment and most important our love and attention.
We had nothing in the bank and lived from pay day to pay day.
I even had to by-pass the electricity meter so we could keep the bills to a minimum. This of course was without the knowledge of my dad who would have been really upset had he known of it. But as I said, things were tight, and I had to take these risks to keep my family warm.
June collected her family allowance for the baby (Scott) and there were times when this was all there was coming into the household from us 3 when the power station project was on strike.
My dad of course contributed what he could from his small pension, but we had little to spare.
June and me together had dug up and cultivated that huge garden and we grew loads of vegetables.
We had wonderful crops of runner beans, cabbage, potatoes, and a few other vegetables.
We had no joy with onions, and we had lots of laughs at ourselves in our endeavours trying to grow them. Our neighbours were so kind and helpful, and we were very happy there.
However, tensions within the house emerged between Dad and June at first and later I too became a player in the saga.
It reached a point where I was almost violent with my Dad and I knew at that point that we could not continue like this.
We had to find somewhere else to live. And we did.
My brother and sister had their own lives to live and I quietly resented them. They had their own valid reasons, but I could only see that they were not understanding the tense situation that had developed. And so, I did not confide in them anything about our intentions.
Our move to the Isle of Grain was not a very happy experience.
We told no one in the family of our plans until the day arrived for moving out of Taylor's Lane.
My relationship with my brother had reached a low point as he had taken the side of our dad in the family trauma.
I don't blame him for that but if he had known the true facts, he may have seen things very differently.
Anyway, we flitted one morning and that was that. I rented a truck and we moved ourselves. I had done the same before and moved my home 600 miles so moving my home around 20 miles away was like a walk in the park.
But having said that, it was a painful experience, and not the way I had hoped for when we moved everything from Scotland to Kent.
But now we were at our new home, for which we had somehow obtained a mortgage. I just had to be sure that my income was adequate and regular enough to sustain the payments.
The power station job was very much hit and miss for regular money because of the strikes. I was getting fed up with these strikes that we're in fact working against us all. We were the losers and most of the men knew that in their heart of hearts.
But when a meeting was called to decide upon action to take, hardly anyone ever stood up to challenge the argument put forward by those calling for strike action. Just like lambs we followed the Judas sheep every time.
The irony of it was this.
Those agitating for strike action could never be found on the picket lines. I discovered that many of them were away doing “private works” that they had already lined up for themselves before the strikes.
One of these fellows was a man in my own scaffolding unit. His name was Terry Bender. Terry was a bone-idle fellow who my colleagues and myself had protected many times before by covering up for his absences and his lack of effort. He was a great talker and that’s all he seemed to do………talk, talk, talk. His uncle was a notorious gangster who worked with the Kray Twins who dominated the London underworld in the sixties. Terry lived on the reputaion of his uncle.
And so, one day he was sacked for being unreliable and unproductive. In fact, it was a fair punishment and, should have been done long ago.
But as usual, he made a fuss of it all and a meeting was called. The result of the meeting was strike action.
We were outside the gate for about 3 weeks. I was on that picket line day after day. In fact, it was me now acting like a sheep. I mistook my sheepishness for loyalty.
Terry, meanwhile, and all through this strike, never once appeared on the picket line. I discovered he had a job in Stepney with “money in the hand”. Meanwhile, my family was going without because we had no money coming in.
The irony was, that Terry got reinstated, and he was paid 3 weeks loss of pay for unlawful dismissal. The rest of us? Well, we were strikers, so we got NOTHING.
And so, one day when yet another call for strike action was being made, I was so fed up with this carry on, that went forward and took the microphone and challenged the agitators that were calling for strike action. (I had done a similar thing on another occasion when I first went there but I was shouted down and called names by a lot of people in the crowd.)
I was nervous that the same would happen again, but I had decided enough was enough. (There were over 3,000 men at the site at the height of construction.)
To my surprise many of the crowd supported me loudly. I don’t recall if any decision on this occasion on strike action but shortly after the meeting I was approached by one of the shop stewards that I had a lot of respect for.
His name was Jack Fawbert, and he asked me if he could put my name forward as a steward. I point blank refused saying I was totally fed up with the way things were and was considering leaving the job.
Although Jack was a paid-up member of the Communist Party, he was not an agitator, and he struck me as a very decent man who sacrificed his time fighting for justice and fair play. I had a lot of respect for him and his moderate views.
After some discussion with Jack and several other moderate stewards they encouraged me to agree to allow myself to be put forward for election.
After the formalities were done through a couple of meetings of the work force, I was nominated and elected as shop steward for the scaffolding section of Gleeson workers.
Soon after I began my duties as steward, I was asked to be bonus-steward and took this on-board too. This was the turning point.
As bonus-steward, I met on a weekly basis with the company representatives consisting of the bonus Quantity Surveyor, the payroll manager, project engineer and a couple of others.
At the very first meeting, I detected that the Gleeson management were steamrolling their way through the discussions, trying to avoid details of how the bonus scheme was administered by them.
Undeterred, I asked a lot of questions about the bonus scheme. After all, this scheme determined the size our pay at the end of each week.
Because I had previously done a little studying in QS activities I could tell when they were giving us a load of b.s.
Additionally, and by doing some research in the public library during the evenings I quickly discovered that this bonus scheme was in fact illegal under the existing labour law at that time.
Slowly but surely, I raised this with top management and eventually the scheme was changed.
Our hourly rate rose significantly. When I started as bonus clerk the hourly bonus rate never exceeded 5 shillings an hour. (25 pence in today’s money)
When I eventually left the company, we were earning an average of 12 times that amount even occasionally up to 4 pounds an hour bonus.
The hourly rate for my job then was something like 88 pence. The amazing thing was the company was happy because strikes became a thing of the past and the power station was getting built, targets were being met and the workforce was putting money in the bank for the first time.
I eventually decided to leave the company as I had got a job offer in Kuwait.
I gave in my notice and on my last day at the company two things happened that have remained clear in my memory.
This was the time of the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and of one of the ministers in her government was Mr. Norman Lamont, who later became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government of John Major.
Anyway, the project manager at the site was Norman Lamont’s brother Iain Lamont, and he sent someone down to the site and I was summoned to his office.
I went to his office and he surprised me by saying he was sorry to see me leaving. This is spite of the fact that my tenacious actions towards the bonus scheme had been costing him a lot more money.
I had never actually sat down with this man before and I was quite flabbergasted at his very civil attitude towards me.
He further went on to say that if things didn't work out for me in Kuwait, he would be happy to give me a job. “But”, he said, “this time you'll come to my side of the firm”.
I was totally surprised but also flattered by this, but I’d had more than enough of the restrictive practices in UK that I thought stifled the growth of many individuals that were quite capable of more.
But the conservatism of the system in UK at that time was not conducive to changes.
That was to become different later – initiated in the main part by Margaret Thatcher’s policies gravitating towards the so called “free market economy”. But I’d better stop here, or I’ll rant on forever.
The other thing that happened that same day was that a meeting was held during the lunch break and quite a lot of the lads came forward to shake my hand and wish me well on my new job. I was given three cheers which was a bit o.t.t. as I had only been doing my job as steward after all.
Then Jack Fawbert who was now the senior convener steward for the whole of the project handed me a large envelope saying it was a token of appreciation from the lads.
The envelope was crammed full of money. I was near to tears and in fact even remembering this as I write makes me feel a bit emotional.
I still have the list of those men that donated towards this. There are 126 names on the paper. I don't have a record of the exact amount of cash in the envelope but it was over £300.00.
My plan was to work in Kuwait for one year and try to pay off the mortgage in that time. Then I planned to return to UK and “LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER”. But not all plans work out the way we think.
Arriving at Kuwait airport I was expecting someone from the company to be there to meet me but there was no-one.
The office was closed at the time I arrived, and I took a taxi and booked into the Hilton Hotel.
The construction of the Kuwait Towers had recently been finished and my room overlooked them. These towers were later to become an icon for Kuwait after the invasion of 1990 by Iraqi forces.
On arrival, I was needing a drink and when I opened the mini bar in the room, guess what?...........Like old mother Hubbard and her cupboard, the mini bar was bare (of alcoholic beverages that is).
Undaunted, I called for room service. In a couple of minutes there was a gentle knock on the door. I opened it and politely requested the man to bring me a bottle of whisky. He (also politely) told me that alcohol was "haram" in Kuwait, even in the hotels.
I was shattered. I needed a drink and could not get to sleep without one for most of that night.
Next morning a car arrived at the hotel to take me to the office where I met the General Manager who welcomed me to The Company. I was a bit shaky and needed a drink but could not get anything. I don’t think I created a very good first impression at all.
After meeting several other members of the staff, I was taken to Shuaiba Port to join the dredger I was to work on for the next several years.
The name of this dredge was MUBARAK. It was named after one of the early Sheiks of the ruling Al-Sabah family.
At that time, this was one of the most powerful cutter suction dredgers in the world. It had a full crew of around 65 people consisting of Master, Chief Engineer, dredge masters, engineers, welders, mechanics, divers, deckhands, skippers, surveyors etc. The captain and Chief Engineer plus other senior crew members were primarily from Holland.
From the start, some of these Dutch people made it difficult for me. The primary reason can be explained as follows.
The company was tri-partite formation comprising two Kuwaiti partners and one Dutch partner.
The idea behind it all was that the Kuwait government of the day wanted to establish a Kuwaiti dredging company.
To do this they enabled two local Kuwaiti companies to partner up and invited a Dutch company with international expertise in dredging and marine construction activities, to participate.
Each partner would hold one third of the shares in The Company.
All equipment and personnel would be sourced from overseas and the management of the company would initially be led from the front by the Dutch entity with the Kuwaiti partnership “shadowing”.
The initial manning would be done using very experienced Dutch dredging personnel supported by experienced dredging personnel recruited from Singapore.
Part of the planning was for the senior positions held by the Dutch to be replaced by the newly recruited Brits. I was one just of those.
The Dutch had their own agenda and made sure that the transition would take as long as possible.
To facilitate this, they would place obstacles in the way of the Brits. Therefore, the transition period was substantially increased thereby providing the Dutch partners with continued control over the whole operations.
In other words, they had outwitted the Kuwaitis when it came to the terms of the partnership.
One advantage (amongst others) would be for the purchasing of very expensive spare parts through The Company.
The Kuwaiti entity within The Company would pay for the parts and the Dutch entity would profit as the seller. It was a pretty good set up for the Dutch and no wonder they wanted to extend this arrangement for as long as possible. Who wouldn’t?
Anyway, all good things do come to an end at some time and that time came for the Dutch partnership around 1981. When the Dutch senior personnel left, I was made Captain of the vessel and things worked out better - (for me at least).
We undertook several very profitable projects and although we had our share of setbacks, we managed quite well overall.
In 1983 we had no work on the horizon and we mothballed our fleet. I along with others was asked to go on long leave until we were able to get other projects.
I refused to do this without pay. I was told quite snottily by the personnel manager that all others were going to comply. I said to him that what others did was none of my business. The company either paid my salary or paid me off. I was uncompromising on this score.
So, much to the dismay of the personnel manager I was paid off with full indemnities.
Two months later they called me back. I was happy they called me back but when they offered me the same terms and conditions I refused. In truth I wanted to return, but having learned a bit more about how things work with Arab masters, I knew that I would have to risk negotiating a deal.
I knew it was a gamble and they might offer the position to someone else, but I had to try to negotiate a better deal. In honesty, I knew I would be the loser if they refused as I could not now accept their offer. But I kept my nerve and opened negotiations with the management.
And luck was on my side once more and I negotiated a better deal. Only then did I return to Kuwait.
The other senior members of staff were unhappy that I had not only received my indemnities from the previous years of service but had returned on a higher salary and increased benefits.
This is where I discovered the evil thread of jealousy that can run through a group of supposedly adult men.
I have never been jealous of anyone to my knowledge and it was a shock to me to find that instead of (some) of my colleagues being happy for me to secure an increase in salary etc. they were in fact working behind my back to undermine me.
It went as far this;
One day I was called to the office to meet with the Personnel Manager only to be told that the car that the company provided me with had to be exchanged for a lesser grade model. I was astonished as I had negotiated into my contract that the company would provide me with a new minimum 2.8 litre automatic etc. Now they wanted me to downgrade to a 2.0 litre.
When I asked the reason, I was told that even the (Dutch) Chief Engineer in the company and the (Dutch) Senior Dredge-master were provided only with 2.0 litre vehicles and it was causing them discomfort when they saw the company was providing me with a 2.8 litre vehicle.
My response to all this nonsense was to remind the Personnel Manager (a Kuwaiti) that my contract was not negotiable and if The Company (i.e. the Personnel Manager himself) wished to appease these characters - by raising their standards, then I had no objection.
However, I would in no way lower my standards to theirs. They negotiated their contracts and they were happy enough with what they ended up with. I negotiated mine and that was that as far as I was concerned.
The guy was flabbergasted at my refusal as he expected me to comply. Now he was between Scylla and Charybdis and was very upset with me for not going along with it.
This was another incident that tested and stretched my already uncomfortable relationship with the Personnel Manager - Mr. Abdul Ridha Jumah.
FAST FORWARD TO 1987
I was still working in Kuwait for the same company. I was now the Marine Superintendent and we had just a few small projects under way.
One of these was the refurbishment of a small man-made island that had been created in the early 1950’s. It was located about 800 metres offshore in shallow waters close to the Kuwait Ports communications tower close to the Seif Palace.
The function of this island was to preserve and denote the location of a well head presumed to be the very first offshore oil well in Kuwait waters.
Medina Island as it was known, was under the care and control of the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), and they had invited tenders for the restoration and refurbishment of the island and its facilities.
The Company was lowest bidder and we were awarded the contract. I was appointed Project Manager. (To be a part of things in GDC I had to wear several hats at the same time. No restrictive practices here).
The scope of work covered demolition, concrete platform construction, landing stage construction for small boats, construction of two small buildings, (one for a rectifier room and the other to house a feeder pillar) to supply electric power for lighting on the island. In addition, an 800m trench had to be dredged from the island to the shore feeder pillar building, a power cable laid in the trench, and then the trench to be backfilled.
All in all, it was straightforward. The only drawback was our price for the job.
It was far too low, and it seemed that we took it on for prestige reasons rather than for commercial ones.
One day in April, my Managing Director came to the site and wanted me to arrange for him to go offshore look at the progress on the island itself.
As it happened, he arrived at an inconvenient time because of the security situation.
I should explain that the onshore location of this project was only metres away from where an assassination attempt had been made on the life of Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the ruler, just months before.
From that time on, at around noon, the security in the area was on high alert because this was the time when his motorcade always went from the Seif Palace to his residence in Dasman.
As such, and on this occasion, I was unable to secure permission from the Coast Guard to move my small boat from the project to the island.
When I explained this to the MD he started ranting and behaving arrogantly towards me. I told him in no uncertain terms that I had no control ove the security forces and cheekily pointed out that in spite of his power , neither did he.
He became threatening toward me and a line was crossed. I stood that for so long and then walked away from his presence.
After about 10 minutes I received a call on my VHF that the coastguard had finally granted us permission. I called the boat in and it came over to the shore.
The MD walked towards the boat and turned around to me beckoning me to join him. I calmly told him he could go alone, and I was going home and that he would get my resignation the next morning. I truly had had enough of this character.
I went to my car and drove home. I explained to June what had happened.
I got my typewriter and typed my resignation letter and signed it.
The company accepted my resignation and after I had served out my notice period of 2 months, they paid my indemnities. We sold everything of course, except for a few things we shipped back to UK, and we left Kuwait.
In all honesty I didn't really want to leave Kuwait but I had made a stand and had no choice now but to go with it.
BACK IN UK
Arriving back in UK I convinced June that I was going to start a business in Scotland.
But first I knew that I needed to acquire some I.T skills and so I enrolled for a course at the Inverness College of technology.
On the first day of the course I was up early and readied myself. I left the house neat and tidy and June waved me off as I went down the road to the bus stop.
I turned up at the classroom on first morning with my little briefcase and was introduced to the course materials.
I was by far the eldest of all the students and even the tutor was about 15 years my junior. After about one hour I made an excuse and left the classroom. I was craving a drink and knew that the bars would be open just down the road from the college. In those days the pubs opened at 9:00 am
I hurried to the nearest bar and slugged down a couple of large ones. Then I bought a half bottle of vodka and scurried back to the classroom.
Nobody said anything to me, and I would slip out of the classroom from time to time - (to the toilet), just to have a slug from the bottle.
I had no idea what was going on. I just knew I did not feel right in the classroom and the old feelings of inadequacy and inferiority were overwhelming at times. I was reminded of my unhappy school years and wanted to bury myself in self-pity and remorse. I was not a happy camper.
And so, the inevitable happened. I turned up at the college for the next couple of days and followed a similar routine from day one, - sliding in and out of the classroom to top up with booze.
All this did was to enhance my guilt and disgust with myself for being this way. But I could not stop. It was awful.
I had money enough to finance my boozing without having to keep June short of money, but this fact did not eliminate my feeling of guilt.
After a few days I did not even bother going to the college. Instead I would leave the house as usual each morning and get the bus into town.
Then I would go into one of the bars (they opened at 09:00) and stay all day drinking before getting the bus back in the late afternoon.
I came in one afternoon the worse for wear and June knew I must have been drinking much of the day by my condition.
We had a row and I told her the truth at last. Well, it was my idea of truth. In fact, just another lie. I told her that the course had finished, and I celebrated with other students, hence my condition.
Again, I was feeling so guilty about my constant lying to my dear June. The lies and deceit became a huge burden, but I carried on doing it. I would never admit to the amount of alcohol I was consuming.
In fact, looking back I doubt if I knew the amount myself. But it was far too much, and I could never be classed as a just a heavy drinker.
I had gone past that point long ago. My drinking was totally out of control, and so was I for much of the time.
I got into several scrapes in pubs and clubs and hotel bars. I was arrested several times and taken to the cells to sober up.
I was charged and convicted with being drunk and disorderly on more than one occasion. I was just a pest to others and a poor husband and father. I just could not go on like this.
Then one day I was offered a good job in Abu Dhabi. The only condition was to turn up for an interview with the General Manager of the company.
This guy was Don Rai who was a British citizen. The arrangement was for me to go to Brighton in S.E. England for the interview.
The person who arranged all this for me was a friend called Mike Harding and he told me something like this;
“The job is yours Dougie, but for Christ sake don’t take a drink before you go there. That’s all”.
Mike and I were old drinking buddies and he knew what I was like once I went on the booze, I simply could not stop. So, I did not drink for three days prior to traveling down by train to London.
I must point out here that for me to stay away from the booze for a while required that I drank so much that I made myself ill. I would then shake and rattle for a day or two and only then would I be able to stop for a few days. But the build up to make myself ill was essential or I would simply drink as usual.
Sounds crazy I know, but for me that is how it was.
The plan was this: I would book a sleeper on the Caledonian Express from Inverness to London. I would then go down to Kent and stay with my friend Nobby and his family over the weekend.
On the Monday morning I was to get the train to Brighton and arrive in time for the interview.
Then after the interview, I would get the train back to London and then the overnight train, arriving back home on Tuesday morning.
A perfect plan? Well, you will know by now how some of my best plans often turned out don’t you?
And, there was just one problem. After leaving my home in a taxi on that Friday evening in September 1987 I had one of my “brilliant ideas”.
I told the driver to pull over at the licenced grocer in Telford Street. I went in and bought two half bottles of whisky. I thought that this would help sustain me on the 11hour train journey to London.
After all, I deserved a little refreshment as I had been teetotal for three days. This was quite unusual for me - (to not drink at all for more than one or two days), so I felt I deserved a reward.
Arriving at the railway station the London train was waiting at the platform. There was still about 20 minutes before departure so after putting my bags in the sleeper compartment, I asked the cabin attendant to keep an eye on things whilst I went to find a toilet. (Another lie; I was going to the station bar).
After downing a few glasses, I returned to the train and it shortly thereafter departed the station on the way to London.
As it was going to be a 11-hour journey I knew I would need a few extra drinks as the two half bottles I had purchased earlier were not going to be enough. So, I persuaded the car attendant to part with most of the miniatures he had on the trolley. He protested that there would not be much left for other customers.
Full of the “old patter” I had the nerve to tell him everyone would be sleeping, and they would not want anything.
Anyway, after much cajoling and humouring the guy I managed to secure about 11 or 12 miniatures from him, and he put them all in a bag for me.
I had to promise him not to cause any problems and of course I gave my solemn word.
I did not use the sleeper cabin at all except to park my bag. Instead I was sitting in the lounge with other travellers and we had a bit of a party.
I suppose I was boring everyone to death with my usual solutions for every problem on the planet, but that was typical of me when in full flow. (Or was it more like being in full flight from reality?)
I got off the train in the morning at Euston Station feeling tired, hung over, and more than a bit rough. All the booze had gone, and I badly needed a “livener”.
So, I got a cab to Covent Garden market and managed to get a porter to purchase a half bottle of whisky for me. I then went over to London Bridge station and caught the train to Gravesend in Kent.
Instead of calling my pal Nobby to pick me up and take me to his house, I went to a club that I used to frequent many years before. It was basically just a drinking and gambling den. A real dump.
Anyway, I booked into a room and slept for a while with the help of some more booze.
Later in the early evening I woke up and continued drinking. To cut a long story short, my pal Nobby had made a few inquiries and discovered where I was. He came over to the club and told me that June had called him and because I had not shown up to meet him as arranged, she was worried sick.
Eventually I did call her and tried to assure her I would be ok and would be back home on Tuesday morning as arranged. First, I would be at the interview on Monday, secure the job and all would be well. Nothing to worry about I told her.
I can’t remember arriving in Brighton on the train, I was still heavily under the influence. I did get to the interview and remember being bullish, cocky and arrogant to those around me.
When I left, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I had blown it. I remember sitting on the stony beach at Brighton feeling so ashamed and so sorry for myself. Several people came to me and asked if I was OK.
I don’t really know what happened over the next few days. Where I went, whom I saw remains a mystery. Another one of my many alcoholic blackouts.
I remember being on Kings Cross Station in London. It was night-time and I was laying on the pavement in the station. I remember the police moving me on.
The next thing I know for sure is I was at my home in Inverness. It was Friday 11th September and not Tuesday 8th as planned. I had arrived in a cab from the station and my June had to pay for it. I was totally broke.
I’d lost my bag, and my grey suit was filthy. I looked like a tramp. June was bewildered. She looked at me as though I was a stranger.
She just could not imagine how on earth I had left the house six days before, sober, clean, smartly dressed, confident, hopeful. I had now returned home in this condition.
How had this happened?
She was as bewildered as I was, and I was gripped with a fear so awful that it bordered on terror. I knew that I had to do something about my drinking but what that was I just didn’t know.
June mentioned AA and somehow, I managed to call the help line. At least I think it was me that called. It may have been June.
The next morning (Saturday 12th September 1987), someone came to my house and “12 stepped” me. His name was Billy and he drove a Taxi for a living. He told me he had taken me to the airport once or twice in the past and never had me down as someone who had a drink problem.
He had the impression that I was a successful businessman or something like that. He never ever saw me the worse for drink.
Anyway, after listening to me for just a few minutes he said, “oh yes, you sound very much like you are one of us”.
I later learned that he meant I was an “alcoholic” just like him and millions of others who have found a lifeline and a recovery programme in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
That was the beginning of a new way of life for me that has continued up to the present day.
He took me to a meeting that night which was being held at the local psychiatric hospital – Craig Dunain.
I remember people being so kind and caring towards me, people I had never seen before.
I was offered coffee and someone wisely half-filled the cup so that my shaky hands would not spill it everywhere and embarrass me.
I don’t remember much about the meeting as I was still partly under the influence although I had only drunk a small amount during the day to “settle my shakes”. At the end of the meeting I remember people offering to take me home in their cars, but I refused, telling them I lived just a few minutes’ walk away.
That was basically true, but the underlying reason was something else which I only learned about later when I began to live soberly. The main reason I did not accept the offers of a lift was that I did not want to “obligate myself to anyone” in case I might have to give something back.
I never wanted people to get too close to me. It might lead to me having to make a commitment to someone and I liked my independence too much.
I got back home from the meeting and was gasping for a drink. They had begged me at the meeting not to drink just for the rest of the day, but I could not. I had a 18 years old bottle of The McCallan a rare single malt whisky. I was told recently that if I still had that same bottle of whisky, I could sell it for £3,500.00 at today’s prices as it is a collector’s item. Anyway, up until today, that was my last drink of alcohol.
Only much later, when I started to work the recovery programme, and to go through the steps, did it become clear to me that this was pure selfishness on my part. But that’s a long story that might become clearer later.
Anyway, from that day forward I attended these AA meetings every day for one year. I never missed a day without going to a meeting. I made new friends amongst these people and going to a meeting became the highlight of my day.
I was now not ready to apply for full time work and I made an application for a Private Hire Cab Licence with the Highland Regional Council. I succeeded, and I was able then to earn a little money and at the same time choose the hours I worked so it did not interfere with me getting to my AA meetings.
I was encouraged to look at the programme of recovery available to all of us in the fellowship. It was pointed out to me that staying away from just one drink for one day at a time was fundamental.
But to do this for a long period of time I would need something to satisfy me at least as much as drinking did - (at one time anyway).
During those early days of recovery, I experienced what is often termed as a “Pink Cloud Experience”. This was a sensation that everything in the world was almost perfect and I was free at last from being chained to my alcohol “friend” who had evolved into becoming my “jailer”.
I can remember clearly that day in my early weeks of sobriety when I was walking over Ness Bridge in the town and realised that I was holding my head up high and was able to look at people in the street and in the buses and cars passing by.
I could look at them all in the eye without averting my eyes away as in the past.
I was no longer ashamed of being myself. I was truly set free from my past. What a wonderful gift this was.
There is a saying in the fellowship, and it has proven itself to me and countless others.
That saying is “Face Everything and Recover - The Truth Will Set You Free”
I was soon to be drawn close to several members of AA and used to make it a priority to meet with some of them every day.
Then one day I had an offer of a job in Kent with a dredging company. I mentioned this to a friend of mine in A.A. and told him it was a good job offer but I was reluctant to take it. He knew why. He told me it was because I had become to feel so safe and secure in my current environment and did not want anything to change that lovely feeling.
He was right, and I agreed with him.
But then he said something that I shall always remember and thank him for. He just said this
“Dougie. God didn’t get you sober to keep you chained to driving Private Hire Cabs. You have other things to do. Go and do them. It’s what you are cut out for.”
And he was dead right on this too. And so, I accepted the job offer.
NASH DREDGING & KAREN
The position entailed looking after the operation of a pumping plant and the fill area for Nash Dredging Company in the village of Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey.
As with most dredging jobs, it paid well, and I could go home for a week R&R after each two-week stint on the job. It was great.
One day I had a telephone call from my sister who told me my daughter Karen had been to her house and was asking if she could see me.
I should explain that I had not seen Karen since she was a baby and I was so happy to have the opportunity to meet again. She was now 21 years old.
Our first meeting was at the place where I worked in Queenborough and she arrived in her car to take me out. We started to get to know each other.
Karen was a lovely young woman. Intelligent, with a clear determination and a strong mind of her own. On a day when she was to come down to see me at the workplace, I had a call on the AA help line. Someone was reaching out for help and I needed to go to them without delay.
I asked my engineer on board to ask my daughter if she would wait for me and headed to my car to find the person who needed help.
As I reached the car Karen showed up. I quickly explained to her what I had to do, and she agreed to come with me to see this fellow in distress.
Up to this point in time, I had not explained to Karen that I was a recovering alkie, but she knew that I was not drinking and little else.
I found the address I was given and knocked on the door of a terraced house in Queenborough.
A woman opened the door and said it was her husband who needed help. I asked if Karen could also come inside and the woman agreed.
We sat down in the lounge and the man came in and sat down.
I asked him how I might help him, and he started to tell me that he needed to stop drinking as it was ruining his whole life.
He told me he had tried everything to cut down and stop altogether but could not make it work.
He was tearful, and his wife was also interjecting with her own version of how his drinking was destroying their lives and those of their two children.
They were both in their early thirties and were both under a lot of stress.
Now it became my turn to share with these people what alcohol had done to me and how it had become a dominant force in my life. I knew it was important that this man knew I genuinely wanted to help him and the best way to do this was for me to be totally honest with him.
Karen sat there silently as I shared things about how my drinking played a part in the breakup of my marriage – (with her mother), and how she became an innocent victim. I had to share this without showing too much emotion which was not easy for me.
After some more conversation we left, and I promised the man (Tom) that I would come and collect him the next evening and take him to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The following evening, I took Tom to a meeting in Maidstone and introduced him to others in recovery.
I did this for several evenings, each time taking him to a different meeting so that he could widen his contacts base with others in recovery.
This was how people helped me and it was my opportunity to pass it on.
I lost touch with Tom on a regular basis but heard several years later that he was still sober and getting on with his life.
BACK TO KUWAIT IN 1989
It was about this time when I was contacted by the personnel manager of my old company in Kuwait. He asked me if I would be willing to return to Kuwait to get involved in a new project that the company had recently been awarded by the government.
I was delighted to be given the opportunity as I really missed Kuwait but could not let him think I was that keen.
So, I played the cat and mouse game to secure a contract for myself that I would be happy with.
It took several weeks of negotiating and my wife June thought I was taking it a bit close to the wire and the company would look elsewhere. On this occasion, I had more leverage to negotiate a better deal as I was in a good job in UK with long term prospects.
But it paid off and I was able to put in my notice with the company in UK (Nash Dredging) and headed for Kuwait in June 1989.
On arrival, I was made very welcome by the senior management and briefed on the details of the project a power station intake at Al-Zour.
I had negotiated a good deal with 3 business class air tickets per year and 3 months paid leave. (I got home every 90 days for one-month vacation). My salary and other fringe benefits were very good so all in all I was a happy camper.
After arriving in Kuwait, the first thing I had to do was to contact another recovering alkie. I had obtained a single telephone number from the World Service office in New York.
I had also heard that there was an AA meeting at the Holy Mother Cathedral in Kuwait City. And so, on one Friday afternoon, I went to see for myself.
Arriving at the church facility I wandered around trying to contact someone in AA. After some time, I got tired of this and walked down to the Sheraton Hotel and had some tea.
Leaving there I thought I’d give it another try and whilst wandering around in the church compound I came across Joe. Now Joe was from Goa in India and he was a member of AA.
I was so happy to have met another AA member. He took me over to the palm tree where standing there was another person there. Her name was Simone and she was from France.
She had been in recovery for about 2 years. Sometime later, another person came to join us. His name was Fritz and he was from Holland. It was wonderful.
We had nowhere to sit and the only shelter from the sun was the palm tree. We had no preamble or any structure that I had been used to in UK but there was a spiritual connection between us four people. We were no longer alone.
We were no longer strangers in a strange land. We were fellows in recovery together. It was quite amazing.
Our meeting lasted about 30 minutes and we basically just exchanged chit chat but there was a singleness of purpose to it all. Our recovery from alcoholism.
Every Friday we gathered there - sometimes just two of us sometimes three and sometimes four. But we were there every Friday. It became the highlight of my week.
We spoke to the Bishop Micalleff and explained to him why we came to the church compound and what our primary purpose was.
He was truly a very understanding gentleman and allowed us the use of a small room on a Friday afternoon.
We purchased a window type A/C unit and made ourselves more comfortable.
Later in the year we were joined by another two members, Bassam from Kuwait, and Jean from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
With the help of Bassam, we introduced the AA recovery programme to the local psychiatric hospital in Sulaibikhat.
At that time (1989) cell phones were a rarity and mostly we communicated by land line telephones. I had a pager which was useful if one of the other group members wanted to contact me.
We carried on like this until August 1990. That was when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait and overran the country in 36 hours. Then EVERYTHING changed.
INVASION OF KUWAIT
It was Wednesday 1st August 1990, and I was as usual having my evening meal in the Sultan Centre restaurant in Salmiya. Because I used this place quite frequently, I had got to know several of the regular customers. One of these was a Kuwaiti fellow - (Ahmed), in his early 20’s, who was a soldier in the Kuwait Army.
On this evening, he approached my table and asked if he could join me. I agreed, and we got chatting. He told me that there was a massing of Iraqi troops at the border with Kuwait.
I had no prior knowledge of this and tried to assure him that it was probably just a scare tactic by Saddam Hussein to encourage the Kuwait leadership to toe his line.
I also told him that the British Government would not tolerate any kind of military incursion into Kuwait by Iraq or anyone else.
He seemed quite happy with my explanation and we continued chatting whilst we ate our meal.
The next morning at around 04:30, I got out of my bed and went to the bathroom as usual. After showering I was getting my things together to go to my work when I heard an unusual noise from outside in the street.
It sounded as though planks of wood like scaffold boards were falling from the new building next door which was under construction.
My (studio) apartment was on the 6th floor of the building and overlooked the big roundabout opposite the gate of the Sief Palace. This palace is where the Emir of Kuwait spent most of his time during the week.
On this morning, looking from my window, I saw a Kuwait Transport Company (KTC) bus parked right across the main road.
My impression was that there might be a VIP coming to visit the Emir and the police had blocked the road with the bus the control the traffic……….. WRONG.
Whilst looking out I heard the unusual noise again only this time louder. It was gunfire. Then I saw a soldier carrying a backpack with radio and long antenna, running across the parking lot opposite. This was where the Kuwait State Security Building was located.
My thoughts then were “it’s a Coup d'état by the Kuwait army. They are going to raid the palace and capture the Emir”. WRONG AGAIN…………..
I quickly picked up my briefcase and took the elevator to the lobby.
One of the Philippine house-girls was at the reception counter and told me not to go outside. “DANGER” she yelled.
Being my usual self, I thanked her and went through the door to go to my car which was parked about 20 metres from the building.
After going down the few steps at the front of the building, I was overwhelmed by the sound of heavy machine gun fire very close by. With this, I turned 180 degrees and scurried back inside the building as fast as my legs would carry me.
I threw myself behind the reception desk where I discovered two of the house girls and another guest. This was my wake-up call….. DON’T LEAVE THE BUILDING.
Directly opposite from where I was living was the State Security Building and this was obviously of interest to the soldiers who were attacking the building.
By 06:00 the residents in our building (awakened by the noise) were up and about - many of them gathering in the public areas on the ground floor.
At about this time I managed to get a line to UK and woke June up to let her know what was happening. She was upset but I told her not to worry as it would sort itself out. At that time, I still thought it might be a Coup d'état
I spoke to a man that I had not seen before and asked him what he thought was happening. I knew it was a serious event but was not sure if it was a Coup d'état or invasion by outside forces.
I asked him if he thought these were Kuwaiti soldiers running around outside. Anyway, this gentleman with the “Saddam Moustache” just laughed.
He mocked Kuwaiti soldiers saying something like; “These Kuwaitis are like girls and our guard will eat them. Now Kuwait is ours”.
With that he just walked out of the building towards an armoured vehicle parked close by and spoke to some of the soldiers.
He was in civilian clothing but must have been a ranking officer in the Iraqi army judging by the reception he received from the soldiers. I never saw him again.
By about 10:00 am the noise of helicopters got my attention. I went out onto the roof and was shocked at what I was seeing.
As far as the eye could see, the sky was filled with helicopters. Some were gunships, others smaller. But there were many hundreds of them at various altitudes in the morning sky, I can’t be sure of numbers but there were hundreds of them.
It was like looking at a war movie. It was totally surreal. It brought the hair on the back of my neck to attention I can tell you.
It was hard to accept I was not dreaming all this. I have never seen anything like it before or since.
In about another 45 minutes the sky had cleared substantially but there were still a few dozen choppers buzzing around all over the place. I assumed that many of these choppers had landed in various places to discharge the soldiers and others had gone further South.
At about 11:30 I decided to try my luck at making my way to the Corniche to see what was going on over there. I went outside and started my car waiting a little while to see if anyone would stop me. There were soldiers and tanks everywhere along the street, but no-one took any notice of me. So far so good I thought.
Then I drove along and turned right which took me into the coast road.
As I drove along, I could see that a few r.p.g.’s had been fired at the famous Kuwait Towers landmark, but the damage was superficial with the main structures intact.
There were more soldiers in groups all along the Corniche and several tanks and armoured personnel carriers. The place was a real mess with paving stones having been ripped up where the tanks tracks had run over them.
The asphalt was damaged, and I needed to drive very slowly to avoid the debris.
I’d not gone too far, maybe 2 kilometres when I was flagged down by some soldiers.
I rolled down my window and tried to be cool. There was one soldier – a major who just looked at me without saying anything at first.
He came very close to my face and asked me who I was and where I was going.
I told him I was a British national working here and lived just along the road opposite the Sief palace. This man made me feel more than just a bit nervous. He was scary.
I guess he was about 28 years old but looking at his eyes he was going on for 90 years of age.
They were the eyes of someone who had seen everything, and it was quite a chilling experience to be near to him.
He was chewing on a toothpick in the corner of his mouth and he said very quietly in perfect English. “British, just turn your car around. Go back home and do not come here again”.
I gave him some kind of salute and said “OK. You’re the boss” and did exactly what he told me to do.
Lucky for me no-one else stopped me on the way back and I parked up and went inside my building.
Sometime during the morning of that first day I witnessed something I’ll never forget.
As I mentioned, the State Security building was opposite our building and from my room I had a clear view of the area. I looked out and saw two huge helicopters hovering above the parking area adjacent to the State Security building.
I saw paratroopers from the Iraqi forces abseiling down from the choppers and surrounding the building.
From where I was situated, I could see over the compound wall and noticed some men stripping off their uniforms and putting on civilian clothes.
These were not Iraqi soldiers.
These were the security forces of Kuwait that were supposed to be guarding the State Security Building.
One Iraqi soldier was approaching a hole in the wall where a tank had fired a shot making an opening in the perimeter wall.
As he got quite close there was some shouting from inside the compound and three of the State Security people (these ones had on their military uniforms) came through the hole in the wall putting their hands on their heads in surrender.
Not once did any of the security personnel I saw make any attempt to resist the invaders.
It seemed to justify the comment made earlier by the man with the Saddam moustache “These Kuwaitis are like girls. Our guards will eat them……”
I didn’t try to leave the building for the rest of that first day as the face of the Iraqi major was a vivid reminder that I was lucky not to have been taken prisoner and sent to Iraq.
During the first few days I could move around somewhat using my rental car but had to be careful at intersections where the Iraqi’s had checkpoints.
Being a British citizen, I was soon high on the list of expatriates that the Iraqi’s wanted in their custody.
This was mainly due to our prime minister of the day - (Margaret Thatcher), doing what she had to do and encouraging other world leaders to support the initiative she had started with George Bush Snr. on the very same day of the invasion to rally around together and kick Saddam and his army out of Kuwait.
After a few more days I was unable to move around and was confined to my lodgings and keeping out of sight. Even if I had been able to go out on the street, I would be restricted because someone stole my car.
The other people in my building consisted mainly of Asians and me being a white skinned Englishman I stood out like a sore thumb.
The Iraqi’s were, at this time, threatening anyone harbouring or hiding British citizens with severe punishment if caught.
In fact, they did execute a man in Sharq and hung his body high up on the hook of a mobile crane for all to see.
The other residents in my building were very nervous of this and so afraid I would be caught, and they might be accused of harbouring me.
One man from Bahrain who worked for Kuwait Television pleaded with me not to go outside in case I was spotted.
Shortly after, I went to another nearby building to see if I could contact other Brits or Americans. The building was about 16 storeys and there were British families housed there.
I spoke to a man who was in the reception area and he was a Brit named Bob Byatt. He was a team leader of a group of people from UK who were responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Doha East Power Station.
He invited me upstairs to meet some of the others. There were families and children amongst this group. They were planning a gathering in one of these large apartments for that same evening and I was invited. I thanked them and returned later that evening.
We had turkey and all the trimmings. It was just lovely. They had some wine and I had to use my old favourite excuse for not taking any alcohol - (“thanks for the offer but I’m allergic to alcohol.”)
When it was time for me to go over to my own building I was advised to stay where I was as the Iraqi’s were patrolling outside in the area of our buildings.
And so, I was given the keys to a fully equipped 4-bedroom apartment which was rented to one of the technicians who currently was on leave in UK. He would of course not be coming back owing to these circumstances.
I could not move out of the building for about 6 days I think it was,
When I did get back to my apartment in the other building I was in for a shock. The building was now completely empty of people.
There was no power at all and of course the elevators could not work. I had to walk up 6 floors to my little studio apartment.
When I got to my room the door was open. The place had been thoroughly trashed.
All my stuff had gone. Only thousands of cockroaches were crawling everywhere it was disgusting.
It was astonishing that in just those six days the building where I had been living comfortably had been transformed into a filthy, cockroach-infested slum. I now had no choice but to move to the other building.
We managed to get some food and pooled our resources. We were helped in this respect by some wonderful Indian friends who could move around freely. They risked their own safety to help us.
I recall the time when I was in hiding and noticed there was blood in my urine. I developed a high temperature and needed medical support. But although the Amiri hospital was within walking distance I was afraid to go there in case I was captured.
One of these Indian friends risked bringing me antibiotics and additional medication from the hospital and I recovered. And again, when I was able to contact the British Embassy for help, the negativity from the staff was appalling. They were just clueless.
These Indian friends of our community are the people who should have been honoured after the liberation of Kuwait. They took enormous risks to help us.
Instead, honours were bestowed on people like the British ambassador (Michael Weston), and the likes who were in fact a total disgrace in the way they behaved towards the trapped British community. They did absolutely nothing to help us.
I remember taking a friend of mine and Armenian gentleman to the Embassy during the crisis. I sought help for him, but the senior embassy staff were nowhere to be found.
Instead, everything was left to junior staff to muddle through and they lacked the necessary qualifications and authority to decide. It was another disgraceful example of an incompetent Foreign Office.
All we ever got from the Embassy when we managed to get through on the phone was a recorded message advising us to stay in hiding. It was something like, “stay where you are and listen to the BBC for advice from the Foreign Office”
The Canadian embassy on the other hand was so helpful.
We all agreed (those of us in hiding) that if we ever got out of Kuwait, we would take this issue up to the highest authorities.
But of course, when the ambassador and some of the others were later publicly acknowledged to be heroes of some sort or another, our chances of the truth being told was flattened.
On 4th September 1990 (my birthday), the Iraqi’s allowed our women and children to leave. It was sad to see them go but also a relief to know that they would be safe in UK in a day or two. It was just about the best birthday present I could have had – (under the circumstances).
Each day we would meet and discuss our situation. It was impossible for us to move far as the whole country was under the control of the Iraqi forces.
Some days we would have to hide when the Mahabharata were around. These were the “secret police” of the Saddam regime.
Some of us would hide away in the air conditioning ducting when these raids took place. Others might hide on the roof in empty freshwater storage tanks.
Everyone was really scared of these people. They were a law unto themselves.
A Mahabharata could summarily kill a citizen without any reason and could not be punished. Such was their power.
One day in September, a lot of noise emanating from several floors below got my attention. As we were always wary of being seen, I quietly made my way down the stairwell to investigate.
On reaching the ground floor I was confronted by several young Palestinian men who were carrying furniture and other property from various apartments and loading it all onto a large 12 metre flatbed outside the building.
One of these guys was lounging on one of the armchairs in the foyer and I went over to him. I greeted him in the traditional Arabic ways and then asked him what was going on.
He told me they were taking the furniture and belongings of “friends”.
I knew this to be complete lie, as almost all of this building had been let out to British employees of the company looking after the power stations in the country. And so, I politely challenged him about it.
He was quite adamant at first it was the property of “friends” but when I pushed it further, he admitted they were looting the place because most of the residents had fled the country. I told him that these people had not left but were in fact on annual leave or contractual leave.
He said they would now never return and so they could take anything left.
I asked him where his father was. (he was about 22 years old I guess). He told me his father was in Hawally – a district in Kuwait where about 400,000 Palestinians lived at that time.
I asked him if his father knew what he was doing. He answered yes.
I asked him where he had received his education. He said in Kuwait. I asked him where he was born. He said Kuwait.
I challenged him that if Kuwait had been his home and had provided him with an education and security, why was he behaving like this in such a callous way.
He said that Kuwait is going to be the 19th province of Iraq and that Saddam Hussein has promised Yasser Arafat that the Palestinian people would be the number one citizens of Kuwait and that the Kuwaitis would become second class citizens.
I pointed out to him that the rest of the world would not allow Kuwait to be occupied for too long and already measures were being taken by UN to gather support for kicking the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
He just got angry and told me that would never happen, and Kuwait was now a part of Iraq forever.
I wondered at this point if it was this fellow and his gang of thieves who’d ransacked my building and stolen all my possessions including my car. But it could also have been others as there were many groups doing the same things.
Unfortunately, this was the attitude of many Palestinians who had lived and worked in Kuwait for many years.
Even Yasser Arafat, the (then) leader of the PLO - (Palestine Liberation Organisation), was educated in Kuwait and in fact worked there for many years as an electrical engineer, before becoming a fugitive and rising through the ranks of the PLO.
But not all the looting was done by the Palestinians. There were trucks coming into Kuwait from Iraq daily, and returning to Iraq loaded with goods and booty.
The gold souk was looted, and the gold bullion reserves held by Kuwait Banks were also stolen by the Iraqi Army and sent to Iraq.
During the period I was hiding we all found various places within the building where we would hide away from the Iraqi soldiers that would often enter the building and snoop around.
On 4th October, two of our people in hiding were caught. They were taken away by the Iraqis. That evening we had a phone call from one of those that were captured.
He said that one of the secret police officer had let slip that the Kuwaiti resistance were going to kill some of the brits in hiding and blame it on the Iraqis. In this way, the Kuwaitis figured that the UK government would be more inclined to take action to liberate the country.
Of course, we were all shocked at this statement and held an urgent meeting amongst ourselves to decide how we would react. There was plausibility in the threat as we knew how the resistance were so frustrated that the UN was against military action at that point in time.
As our meeting progressed, a couple of the men said it would be better to give ourselves up to the Iraqis. Another group advocated moving to a different building. And so, our discussions went on for most of that night.
My own opinion was not to move as I reasoned that although they had caught two of our group, the rest of us had remained free. My view was that the Iraqis were bluffing by making up a story about the Kuwait resistance and wanted us to turn ourselves in.
But by a majority, a decision was made to move to a safe house about 6 miles away. I said I was not going, and another guy said he would also stay put.
The remaining group planned to move out on the 7th October.
On 6th October our building was raided by the Mukhabarat. I was able to hide for a while but then they found me. In fact, they found all of us.
We were all taken to the Hyatt Regency hotel and given some good food, the best we had eaten for weeks. The Hyatt was the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, and they had the best of everything.
We were kept there for one night only and then put on a bus the next day and taken on the long road journey to Baghdad.
When we reached there, we were put up at the Mansour Melia Hotel overnight and the next evening I was placed in a blacked out Toyota 4wd and driven for about 2 hours to an unknown destination.
I later learned that I was now in Fallujah in Iraq and kept as a “Guest” of Saddam Hussein’s government.
My new “home” was a factory that we came to understand was for the manufacture of chlorine, bleach and other products. At least that is what we are told. The strange thing was that below ground there was a nuclear bomb shelter.
This was amazing, because it had (almost) everything needed to house many people for an indefinite period.
There were power generators, sophisticated air filtering systems, water storage tanks, even a reverse osmosis plant. It was huge and the entrance to it was through a massive steel door of circular design like those we see in space movies.
All this was built by East German engineers who (during the construction) had been housed in a purpose built compound adjacent to the factory itself.
Our sleeping arrangements were bunk beds in the administrative office building of the factory.
We were not allowed outside but we did have free access (at first) to the underground nuclear bomb shelter.
Later, this freedom was denied us when we began to make comments on how the maintenance of the shelter needed to be done on a regular basis. There were 12 of us held as hostages (guests) in this facility: