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Friday, 18 October 2013

Years before, the mast! - how I became a Writer

Today, October 19, marks forty-eight years to the day since I joined the Royal Navy. I served for twenty-four years. Before signing on, I’d written two (unpublished) novels and felt I needed to see the world – nowadays, you’re more likely to see the sea rather than much of the world, since the navy has shrunk and its commitments haven’t.

My parents waved goodbye to me at Newcastle upon Tyne’s railway station, tears in Mum’s eyes. I was sharing a carriage with two other fellow Geordie* lads, Tom and Mick, who were also travelling to Plymouth to join the Andrew. It was a long and tedious journey in those days, changing trains en route; it lasted about fourteen hours. Intermittently, I read a novel – Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.
The final part of our journey entailed crossing the river Tamar on a chain-link ferry. I joined at HMS Raleigh, Torpoint, Cornwall where we went through a six week course of basic training – learning to march, fire weapons, tie knots, wash and iron our kit, use polishing machines (!) and generally adapt to teamwork.
First section of my Service Certificate

From there we split up to go to our various specialist establishments – HMS Collingwood for electrical training, for example. I joined HMS Pembroke, Chatham, Kent to learn the trade of Writer – handling ship’s correspondence, personnel records and pay.[Chatham barracks closed in 1984.]

Me - at Plymouth
Christmas occurred in the middle of this training, so I went on leave, carrying my enormous heavy kitbag, travelling in uniform. My proud parents welcomed me home for a too brief sojourn.
After about four months, I passed out as a Junior Writer and was drafted to HMS St Vincent, Gosport, Hants as ship’s company. St Vincent was a boys’ naval training establishment; it closed in 1968. Initially, I worked in the Captain’s Office, handling correspondence; later, I’d move into the Cash Office to deal with the trainees’ and ship’s company’s pay. Then, payment was almost entirely in cash, fortnightly, dispensed in a small brown packet at pay parade. The recipient marched to the pay table, removed his cap, and the pay packet was put into the hat. In retrospect, a lot of time was wasted on the pay routine.

While in training, I was not permitted to go ashore (termed such even when serving in a brick ship, a training establishment) in civilian clothing, only uniform. One Saturday, I travelled on the train from Chatham to London in uniform to see two movies – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and then Thunderball. While walking from one cinema to the other, I was accosted by a posh gent in his swish car; I declined his offer of a lift and went on to watch James Bond’s fourth escapade. I still managed to catch the return train to get back to base in time.
Now, as ship’s company, I could wear civvies when not working. Problem – I had none; they were posted home when we joined Raleigh. With my post office savings in my pocket, I caught the bus into Gosport and bought an entire wardrobe of jacket, trousers, shoes, shirts, socks and tie; that was quite a good feeling.

One Sunday afternoon, I approached the Officer of the Day of St Vincent and got permission to climb the mast at St Vincent to take photographs. I don’t know if anyone in civvies had ever done this before; he couldn’t see any regulations against it, so I started to climb the mast. Unlike the much younger recruits, who joined at HMS Ganges, Ipswich, I had never manned a mast. This was my first time. Close up, the ropes are quite thick. And, thankfully, firm, with only a slight bounce. I clung on and took my photos; I could only afford black and white film in those days.

My feet up the mast
Eventually, I climbed up to the crow’s nest. I wasn’t going to attempt the acme, the button, no, thanks. I did wonder if the net below would save me or make chips out of me...
In civvies up the mast
While there, I noticed a trainee in uniform climbing up. We got chatting; he couldn't understand why I'd willingly climb up, since I didn't have to. He was practising as he would soon have to man the mast with his mates. As it happened, he was a fellow Geordie. Small world.
Fellow Geordie up the mast
This is not the only occasion when I’ve met a Geordie in an unusual place – but that’s another tale.
*Geordie is someone who hails from the northeast of England, though purists might say Newcastle. In the wide world, northeast seems just fine to me!


Jan Warburton said...

Enjoyed reading this, Nik. Quite an amusing insight into your somewhat unusual naval career.

Nik said...

Thanks, Jan. It has had its moments, that's for sure!

Jack Owen said...

Ha! A few flashbacks there. Was on the Commodore's staff (1st residential building on the left after passing the guardroom/gate at HMS Pembroke - before the NAAFIE, en route to the barracks and wardroom.) Mountbatten visited circa 1955'ish
Transferred to Portsmouth and (1958'ish) was drafted to HMS St. Vincent, ships company, working the wardroom bar when Montgomery showed up. For about 5 minutes he and I were the only two in the room, chit-chatting non-consequential stuff while he sipped a tomato juice.
The mast did NOT beckon me - but I did "borrow" the captain's gig (aka trainees boat) to tootle around Pompey harbor, on a dare...

Nik said...

Hi, Jack. It is indeed a small world. Fascinating reminiscences, thanks!