TTGU, Ep. 1, Ch. 7: Changes
I have forgotten almost everything about that first leave. It didn’t seem to last long and I didn’t meet up with any of the lads who’d played in The Stomping Stevedores. They were at work or at college or something. My cousin, Johnny Muir, would chat with me a little about service life when he was home from work, but we seemed to have grown apart. I went to visit Stafford Road Factory – in my Army BD – but the people there, though friendly, were not really interested in where I’d been or what I’d done. And I’d only been away for about four weeks.
I think I felt that I was in some sort of No-Man’s-Land which, indeed, I was.
Soon, I was back on a train with my few belongings – and my trumpet! The journey was the same as any other rail trip I was to take back to the Training Depot. I noted, as I would always note on those journeys, the windmill on the hill above Fenny Compton and then I was back at Paddington Station. From there on, I would be in the company of soldiers returning from their own leaves and heading for places near Aldershot (“The Home of the British Army”).
I felt so much a part of that khaki-clad crowd.
Then I was back at the gates of the Camp. I showed my ID Card to the Regimental Policeman on duty. The RPs were recruited from each regiment to police day-to-day happenings within that regiment. They differed from the Military Police (“Redcaps”) inasmuch as they were a lot more brutal in their speech and in their manner. The word was that none of them were very clever and had been made RPs because even the Army couldn’t teach them anything.
The RP looked from my ID Card to me and back a few times while I stood obediently to attention. Then he wrote the letters ‘SPD’ beside my name in the register and nodded for me to proceed to my billet. SPD = Sober and Properly Dressed. One button unfastened would have meant a rousting from the RP and no ‘SPD’ by my name until I had buttoned it!
We – E6 Squad – reassembled as lads returned right up until dusk. We swapped tales of what we’d done, and it was obvious that we were all glad to be back in what had very quickly become our normality. Next morning, Roy Barham announced that Lance-Corporal Lennie Keogh had appointed him as his deputy and that Private Barham was to keep platoon discipline when the Lance-Corporal wasn’t around.
He was in his best strutting mood.
“Barham,” I said.
“You’d make a good RP, you know.”
He preened himself. “Would I, Jazzer?”
“Yeah – you can give orders . . . and you’re thick.”
And that was the end of his strutting.
The Scottish lads were among the last to get back. Ian Forbes, who was the last to arrive, would make his mark in our memories later on by thumbing lifts all the way to his home in Aberdeen and back on a 48-hour pass!
Next day, we were back to the now-old routine. Making our uniforms beautiful, cleaning the billet, marching up and down on the drill-square and spending any free time we had in the NAAFI.
Yet I had been moved by my leave at home. I had been confused by the changes which I saw there. I did not realise that those changes had been within me.
Occasionally, I would stand alone outside our billet and stare Northwards. Our company-lines were on a ridge above the main camp and from my viewpoint I looked over the rolling fields of Hampshire to the horizon. That direction was, more or less, towards Wolverhampton. My mind roamed there and to the life I had once lived.
Sometimes, too, The Brotherhood would sneak out from our camp via the boundary fence which ran a few hundred yards behind our company-lines. We went to have a walk and a talk across the farmland and into the woods beyond. It was, I suppose now, a way of escaping from the Army life and from the National Service that most of us did not particularly want to do.
From those woods it was a short stroll along the lane to The North Horns, a cosy little pub well frequented by locals and soldiers. Most of those soldiers seemed to be Royal Artillery for some reason. We went there, had a pint (Southern beer – nothing like the real stuff back home!), and talked about everything unmilitary.
Soon after our return from that first leave, Lenny Keogh, our lance-jack, was replaced. He had become increasingly unpopular – a bit of a euphemism – and would, I’m sure, have been sorted by one or two of the lads given the chance.
He was replaced by Johnny Stephens, another Lance-Corporal, who was a pleasant Brummie who we all accepted and played the Army’s game with: we did what he told us as if he was our superior. We enjoyed chatting with him when off-duty.
Johnny offered to keep any valuables we had with us in his bunk – a little, private room just off the top of our communal billet. There, we reckoned, they would be safer than in our lockers. My Uncle Fred – Auntie Rene’s husband – has warned me never to trust anyone while in the Army, not even my mates.
I don’t know what sort of valuables my mates in our billet stored with Johnny. All I had of value was eleven shillings which was the remainder of the pound-note Mom had given me just before I returned from leave. That money must have been a big sacrifice for her in those days.
Early one morning, a week or so after Johnny had stored our stuff, he came into our billet accompanied by a couple of RPs. He’d been out all night down at the Corporals’ Mess or somewhere.
“Lads,” he said, “I’m so sorry – my bunk’s been broken into in the night. All your stuff has been stolen.”
We were shocked. The RPs told us that they were investigating the break-in and that we should all open our personal lockers. We all did so. They searched each locker, Johnny following them down the billet.
At “Scrubber” Green’s locker, the search stopped. There they discovered a couple of small boxes in which someone had put their valuables. Scrubber, standing to attention beside his bed, admitted his guilt straight away. He was marched off to the guard-room. I do not know what happened to him there, but when they brought him back he was a lot quieter than we’d ever seen him.
“Not going to charge this **** this time,” said the senior RP, “He’s not worth it. We’ll leave you blokes to tell him what you think about him. Here’s your stuff.” He put a few bits on the table which we used for an ironing-board and a card-table. “That’s all.”
The RPs left. Johnny told us to take what was ours from the table. My money was not among the goods. Everyone looked at Scrubber. He apologised profusely and promised to pay me back. He knew he was under threat.
Though never carried out, the threat remained over him for several weeks. One morning, though, Scrubber approached me. I felt he was being quite genuine when he said for my ears only: “I’m ever so sorry, Jazzer. I didn’t know it was your money. You’re a good bloke and a mate. I’ll pay you back, really I will. I promise.”
I’d kept him in fags when he was broke, and bought him the occasional packet of crisps. He actually liked me. And he paid me back, bit by bit, as soon as he was able.
After this incident, Staff Sergeant Pete Redmond, our QM, sent for me. Wondering what I’d done or what special chore he wanted me to do, I went to the Company Office. When we first came to the camp, it had been Pete’s job to register us, taking down in a ledger the details which the Army needed. He had crossed out the word “Religion” at the top of one of the columns and substituted “Instrument”.
“You play trumpet,” he said with a grin. “Jazz, I guess – they call you ‘Jazzer”
“I play drums,” he told me. “Fancy starting a band?”
He didn’t need to ask! I was his first recruit.
We became The Black Flash New Orleans Feetwarmers. Billy Heeps played tenor-sax, a chap called Jimmy Abercrombie – a one-time member of the revered Clyde Valley Stompers – was on trombone, Keith Goddard made grunting noises on the tuba and Pete Redmond himself was at the drums. Oh, and I was the trumpet-player. Just before I was called up, I’d saved my pennies and bought a trumpet-cornet, a sort of cross between those two instruments. It was beautiful, and it had improved my playing tremendously.
We practiced anywhere we could. The other recruits were delighted to hear the noise we made. Then Pete broke the news that he’d got a booking for us – at the regular Friday night Regimental Dance. The regimental band played polite dance-music at the weekly event. We were to do our stuff in the interval.
My only experience of those dances happened soon after we started our basic-training. I just went along to see what it was like. I followed what my mates were doing and just and went up to a young lady – a local civvie girl imported for the occasion – and asked her to dance with me.
Somehow, I found myself on the dance floor with her. The compere announced a quickstep, a dance which I’d never learned.
“I don’t know how to do a quickstep,” I told her, “but I’ll learn if you teach me.”
We sort of drifted apart at that moment and I went back to join some of my mates in sampling the local beer. Then, just before the interval, Pete Redmond rounded up his Black Flash New Orleans Feetwarmers in a true military manner and, without having a chance to warm up, we were more or less marched onto the stage as the regimental band left it, our instruments in hand.
Pete said the traditional words: “A-one, two, three . . .” and, where he would have said “four” we correctly went into the anthem of the Trad Jazz Revival Movement “When The Saints Go Marching In”. There was silence from the audience when we stopped (all at the same time as it happened).
Then the cheering started! They loved us. We had broken the stranglehold of the pretty-pretty dance music of the regimental band and delighted the crowd. They shouted for more!
I can’t remember what numbers we played from there on but, as we swung (?) into the second tune, first one couple then another got up and started jiving. One lad started doing some sort of forerunner of break-dancing all on his own right at the front of the stage.
The Regimental Bandmaster came onto the stage after a few more numbers and told us to leave. We did so – and the Bandmaster got booed. It was to be the first of several successful appearances we made at Regimental Dances. Each session we played went on longer and longer. The regimental band didn’t half get upset!
One of their number even asked to sit in after a couple of our performances. His name was Mick and he played clarinet and told us he could play jazz. He couldn’t, but he did no harm.
And guess which Feetwarmer got the biggest accolade and had much praise lavished upon him? But I didn’t let it go to my head.
When word got round the camp, Sgt-Major Ampleford took me, Billy and Keith Goddard on one side along with our instruments. “Better get them things bulled up proper – I shall be watching you . . .” Ampie was not a music-fan.
There were other gigs we played away from the camp. They were in pubs and clubs and I remember them all through a haze of free beer.
The only one of which I have any vague recollection was in a Hampshire village-pub when Johnny Stephens, who always went with us to see that we behaved with full military discipline, said to me: “What are you drinking?” and I said “A pork pie”. We laughed so much . . . though it seems quite unfunny in the telling.
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