TTGU, Ep. 2, Ch. 23 – Lots To Do
As soon as I was pronounced fit, my memory tells me that several things happened in quick succession.
I went on my second Queen’s Birthday Parade. It was at – if I remember rightly – The Selangor Club in KL. This was a bit of Britain– well, England– which seemed to have been shipped over all in one piece and deposited where it would impress the natives. It was frequented by officers, and had a big club-house and a massive green space around it. Rugby – sorry, “Rugger” – was played there (but not the working-class game of Soccer). And polo seemed to be going on every time I went near the place. The jolly officers rode astride their horses (imported from Blighty) and managed not to hit each other with the mallets they carried. But they did fall off occasionally.
The field was certainly big enough to contain the Parade. As with the one back home, this Parade had soldiers from every unit in the Federation, including Aussies, Kiwis and Scotsmen in kilts. The C. in C. Far East stood on a dais near the club-house and took the salute as lots of hot, steaming soldiers tried to march past in step on the springy turf.
I do not know what the indigenous population made of the ceremony, especially the three-cheers for Her Majesty The Queen who was clearly absent from the Parade.
Then, Johnny Warren – one of the people in the camp Theatre Group – noticed in the Malaya Mail newspaper a notice about its forthcoming “Big Walk”. It was a publicity stunt for the paper and funds raised from competitors fees and sponsorship would go to some local charity or other.
With his big grin and his sergeant’s tapes much in evidence, Johnny approached lads who he deemed fit enough to participate in this sixteen-mile event. Sixteen miles on melting tarmac round humid Kuala Lumpur– an ideal day out! But Johnny had a winning manner and, as he was going to do the Walk himself, I volunteered to join him.
We had to train, of course. There were ten of us who’d put our names down for the event. Johnny insisted on regular training and managed to wangle time off duties for us. We would walk, in step, from the camp gates to a kampong about four miles away and back. Because one of our number had short legs, we used his stride measurement so that we would look smart to the locals.
I cannot describe the amounts of sweat which dribbled onto the tarmac every time we did those eight miles. Gradually, the lads dropped out and went back to normal duties, sore feet and/or total fatigue being their reason. One of them was a chap called David Palmer, a tall, blonde-haired body-builder who was very fond of himself and thought he was God’s gift to girls – all of whom tried to avoid him. He was thoroughly ribbed by the other squaddies on his inability to take the training.
Johnny, Chris Moulds and I were the only three remaining. It came at the time when Johnny decided we needed to up our mileage to bring it closer (and closer) to the full sixteen miles. I was daft enough to accept his decision. Then we had a stroke of luck.
It was reported that a tiger had been seen in the nearby jungle. How true the report was, we did not know, but we kept an eye open for it on our marches to the kampong and back. A day or two later, we were forbidden to leave the camp on foot “just in case”. So our training was cut down appreciably to strolls round the camp perimeter.
During those strolls, I told Johnny what I thought was wrong with our manner of walking. He was shorter than I and, though the Army insisted on “a full thirty-inch pace” when squads were marching, his pace and mine differed a little. So, I said, perhaps we shouldn’t march in step when we trained. He said we’d try it. But, he having been a Regular for many a year, he found it difficult at first not to try walking in step.
The tiger-ban was soon lifted and, with the Big Walk nearly upon us, we walked and walked and walked (out of step) to make sure we had the stamina and daftness to do the entire sixteen-mile course. Then the day was at hand.
Lots of people crowded KL that day, and there were a fair few contestants. Most contestants were British troops, but there were some Chinese, Indian and stocky little Malays. We were boiling hot before the start. The Starting Line was choc-a-bloc and Johnny, Chris and I were well back in the melee. Somebody fired a starting-pistol and most of the British Tommies shouted “Commies!” and pretended to duck for cover as that word meant terrorists were firing at us. And away we went, some nasty contestants purposely treading on other contestants feet or tripping them up. None of the British stood for that . . .
Sixteen miles in the blazing sun and sweaty humidity is a long way to go. There were small plastic cups filled with water offered to us along the way. Though we didn’t trust the quality of that water, we gulped it down, anyway.
The field began for thin out and I lost sight of Johnny Warren and Chris Moulds. So I just kept going. The course took a very long time to complete and many walkers fell by the wayside, some banging hard on the tarmac as they fainted from the heat.
As each one of us crossed the line, a great cheer went up from the crowd. I took off my jungle-hat – worn to keep the sun off my head – and made mock bows to the onlookers. Proper fresh orange-juice was laid on by the newspaper at the Finishing Post. I drank about a gallon of it!
Then, Chris Moulds came in. We embraced and I poured orange—juice over him. We waited a long time before the bouncing-gaited Johnny Warren came into view. Coming over to us (and the orange-juice) he said: “Sorry I’m late – I had a sit-down on the way”.
The winner of the Men’s Section was an erk from the RAF. That narked us. A Brylcreem Boy had beaten all us trained jungle-fighters. We’d settle his hash if we saw him in KL tonight. The RAF could, we knew, drop our supplies when we were in the jungle with amazing accuracy. “Put a tanner down and they’ll land the packs smack on it,” we said happily. But off duty, we would pick fights with the RAF softies when we saw them in KL and beat ‘em up. All a part of service ethics.
The winner of the Women’s Section was a pretty little WRAC (Women’s Royal Army Corps) girl. There were a few from her regiment out there, mainly doing office-work.
And only one local man got a mention for doing well on the Walk. He was a big Sikh and it annoyed the Malays that, in “their” country, none of their own got placed.
Johnny, Chris and me had the next couple of days “excused duties” to recover from our efforts.
Then, almost immediately after our recovery, Johnny and I went straight into preparing three one-act plays with the Theatre Group. One of them was “The Monkey’s Paw”, memories of which stay with me. It was a superbly creepy production and it took the audience a few moments of pensive quietness before they gave it a hearty round of applause.
I do not remember what the other two plays were.
But duty called, too. Sometimes, I was one of the lads who did a one-man overnight sleeping-duty based in the Company Office. There, the duty NCO – me or a colleague – would send and receive messages from other units or the Area HQ. In truth, it was a dull duty and one slept pretty well all night.
When sending or receiving a signal, we signed on and off with our initials, or the phone-etic equivalents thereof. The Phone-etic Alphabet as it was called made spelling over the air easier – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etcetera. It’s still used by the Police in Britain, I believe, and no doubt the armed services still use it, too.
Billy Gould would send a message to me, for instance, and sign off by saying “This is Bravo Golf.” “Thank you, Bravo,” I’d respond. “Thank you . . . (a little giggly pause) – Juliet” the chap the other end would say. I had chosen Jazzer Stevenson as my signalling name: Juliet Sierra.
The bedding for the overnight duty was kept in a small shed attached to the Company Office. Here were shelves stacked with documents going back to the time of King Alfred for all we knew. Our bedding – a tatty mattress and a sleeping-bag which was rolled up by the NCO who’d been on duty the previous night – was stacked on the top shelf.
One night, a big Yorkshireman called Brian Something had gone into the hut, dragged down his roll of bedding, let it land on the floor – and stood transfixed as a cobra slithered out of it! He only stood for a moment before diving out of the door and slamming it behind him. His shouting alerted the men in the guard-room who rushed to his aid.
When he told them what was in the hut, they did not barge in. It took them a little time to contact an Indian chap who called himself “Shammigan”. I think it was originally a nickname given to him by an Irish regiment. Anyway, Shammigan was a well-known snake-hunter.
He entered the hut in a quite matter-of-fact manner, I was told later, grabbed the snake with a large pair of metal tongs, dropped it into a sack and carted it away. Shammigan told us later that it was a spitting-cobra which could spit its venom some ten feet with amazing accuracy right into somebody’s eye. They would be dead, he said, within minutes. Brian nearly fainted when he heard that and was excused the overnight signalling duty for the rest of his Army career.
In between all these happenings, I managed to go on leave to Penang a couple of times with a bunch of pals. There was Laurie Dunn, a little Lankie who was everybody’s friend; Ron “Porky” Wharton, a Londoner who suffered a lot of home-sickness and missed his girl-friend enormously; and Bombardier Ken Gibson, RA, a Regular who had a calming effect whatever the situation. Lance-Corporal David Griffiths (National Service) came with us. He was of East Anglian gentleman stock, or so he tried to make us believe. He once told me off for calling him “Griff” whilst on duty and made me stand to attention while he lectured me. We all called him Griff – it must have been an off-day for him. When I outranked him, I did not remind him of that time.
Then, quite suddenly, it was my second Christmas in Malaya. The first one had been a bit odd. We’d had a special Christmas Dinner laid on in the NAAFI. Pint bottles were taken from the refrigerator and laid out beside our plates as we stood awaiting the CO’s “Happy Christmas” speech. We stood to attention for many minutes, sweating buckets in the noonday humidity, listening to him drone on about the importance of our work. Then he extended the waiting time by handing over to the camp padre to say the grace. That seemed to go on quite a bit, too.
At last, our Sergeant-Major was given permission to dismiss us and let us lay into the roast turkey with all the trimmings. In a moment, we were seated at table, opening the beer which had become very warm during the formalities of the CO’s speech and the padre’s benediction. The beer burst from its bottles, frothing over the table and the turkey. So we enjoyed splashing it over each other, too.
For most of that Christmas Day, though, I – like many other National Servicemen away from home for the first Festive Season – spent a lot of time remembering Christmasses long ago and missing my Family.
This, my second Christmas Out East, was a lot different. Mac and I had done our stint in the radio-studio on Christmas Eve. Draz and Ken had visited us, bringing with them a bottle of Hennessy Five-Star brandy. It went down like velvet fire. After a couple of rounds, we left the studio, went to the NAAFI where someone had managed to acquire a couple of bottles of Gurkha free-issue rum – so strong you had to cut it off in slices – and a huge party erupted.
So Christmas Dinner, 1960, was less of a formal affair than my first one out there. Somehow, we broke all Army rules by lifting the CO onto our shoulders and carrying him all over the camp. He still retained his Colonel Blimp look, but we knew he enjoyed it immensely.
Returning him to the NAAFI, we put him down and, without the padre’s blessing, someone shouted “Lay into it, lads!” and Dinner was served.
A few days later began the year in which I was to be demobbed. Time had flown and much of that time had been happily spent.
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