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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Reminiscences, Naval-01 – ‘Journey of 16 hours’

When I joined the navy, I’d already succumbed to the writing bug, having written two spy novels (still unpublished). So it seemed logical for me to write down any impressions and events I encountered. As life and work intruded, these notes became thinner… and stopped after a couple of years; though my letters home did contain certain impressions and memories for some years afterwards.

It was October, 1965, and I was a few months over seventeen. Dressed very smartly, my parents saw me onto the train at the Newcastle upon Tyne platform, pleased to learn that I was travelling with other young men destined to join the Royal Navy at HMS Raleigh. My two fellow travellers were Michael (Mick) Siddle and Thomas (Tom) Gibbon.
Newcastle upon Tyne central railway station
We waved our good-byes as the train departed at 7:05a.m from the old Victorian station and settled down. We were so polite – would you like an apple, an orange? Sure? Would you like some chocolate? Oh, it’s melted… We buried our noses in our respective if not wholly respectable periodicals.

Even a short while afterwards, when I first jotted down these reminiscences, I found it difficult to recall the entire journey. Most of the time, for me, it seemed somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, and I always felt I was on the borderlines.

Even then, Tom was pretty tall, about 5ft 7 and he masterfully contorted himself into positions unimaginable to sleep in: legs on one side seat, body on the other, his midriff sagging in between; yet, he slept. He was about sixteen. Mick remained silent most of the journey, alternating between reading and sleeping, being on the same seat as Tom. He was seventeen and a half, a few inches taller than my 5ft 6.

We all had long haircuts. And we were thoroughly bored.

I ploughed through my book, prophetically Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, until my eyes became bleary and the words on the page floated away, far away. Then I would stretch awkwardly the length of my seat and sleep lightly, using my overcoat as a pillow.

At one station, well into the night, the train stopped. Tom and Mick left the carriage for some milk from a vending machine on the platform. I finished off my portion of Tom’s pomegranate.

Another time I was on the verge of sleep when our speed decreased, and we shunted into a station which glared out of the black night. This brightness was eye-watering to sleep-laden eyes. The place was undergoing modernisation – neon lights everywhere, cold white concrete, men’s badinage and hammering reaching our ears. Steam sifted from somewhere on the track. The train stopped there a while, then a shrill whistle and we left the raucous place behind, slid into the black night again, and the train’s motion encouraged sleep.

I felt a hand shaking my shoulder shortly after I had finished Childhood’s End, about 4:30a.m. Sluggishly, I climbed out of oblivion, reflexively but probably ineffectually chopped out at the disturbance, and checked my blow in time. Mick had awoken me as we were pulling into Bristol shortly. [In later training, all men were warned to have a care when waking someone to go on watch – many a black eye has been sustained as the sleeper jerks awake!]
At 5a.m. we alighted from the train onto a deserted station, which speedily filled up with sailors and airmen in uniform. Mail-trolley wheels rumbled, echoing. Doors banged. A porter was whistling somewhere. In the British Rail café, while we ‘partook of a light refreshment’ – I used to write like that, then – we looked about, at a couple of sailors and civilians. We must have appeared a woebegone sight, lost to our mothers if they could have seen us.
Around 5:30 we boarded the train for Penzance via Plymouth. As the train pulled out, a cock crowed and a Petty Officer in our carriage exclaimed, ‘Bloody hell!’ at realising he hadn’t returned the BR café’s cup.
A little later on, we glimpsed the red sunrise.
The second half of our journey was as tedious as the first. My stomach was in knots and I was just waiting to be sick, it seemed inevitable, but just then, as we passed through Teignmouth I was surprised to see phosphorescent breakers. The sea was angry, a brownish-blue, the cliffs coloured red. I ducked my head out the window and the wind thrashed my hair; it was exhilarating and quelled my roiling stomach.
We slept, if restively.
About forty-five minutes out of Plymouth, I glanced out to see a thick seething mist that meandered about skeletons of trees. Shortly afterwards, we pulled into Plymouth station, an ultra-modern building of glass panes and light brickwork. Outside the large glass doors, the three of us met up with a group of new recruits. It was easy to identify them; we all looked about the same, lost and all-in. Lads of all sizes, from towns and cities, from Scotland and Ireland, even Rhodesia, we gathered outside the RTO office to the left of the station entrance. A large well-built lad (we later learned his name was Mick Deering) collected the forms we’d brought with us.
Tired, in a cold station, surrounded by strangers, my first impression was resignation: I’d come this far, I wasn’t turning back now. I was blessed – or cursed – with a good imagination and it was tempting for it to go on overtime, but I decided to leave my mind open, prepared to meet anything. Those who had been in the Scouts were probably better prepared than most. Maybe my time in the Sea Scouts would serve me in good stead.
We clambered onto an RN bus which drove us down to the River Tamar, where we boarded the Torpoint Ferry, which was pulled across on chains. On the other side, we were herded into another bus, and some of us by then broke out into song, started up by Mick and Tom in typical Geordie fashion. Already, new friendships were being forged. What seemed like fifteen minutes’ later, the bus turned into the gateway of HMS Raleigh, our home for the next few weeks.
HMS Raleigh
We were in, almost beyond the point of no return. Silence fell then.
This was our journey’s end – at least as far as those who stayed were concerned.
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