In 1952 it was decided to call up some ex wartime soldiers, who were technically still on reserve, for refresher training. They held a ballot and I was unlucky and I had to go to Yorkshire for two weeks “training” that was mostly a waste of time. We sent in our measurements in advance. When we arrived there was a kitbag with identical uniforms to the ones we had been wearing 6 years previously. Before then there was the sight of a captain carrying a private’s suitcase from the station. Since the war the private had become the head of a large textile firm and the captain worked for a firm that tried to sell him machinery. I found the first few hours an uncanny experience. It was as if you’d never left. Within minutes you were wearing the same uniform, thinking the same thoughts, using the same language and making the same jokes. Who called the cook a cunt? Who called the cunt a cook?
On the first morning we were standing around looking glum. A photographer from the local paper took a photo. I have a copy. A few moments later a sergeant, instead of issuing an order to a lesser soldier to get off the tables he was sitting upon asked him politely if he wouldn’t mind. This struck us as funny. There was another click and the photo that appeared in the paper showed these wartime soldiers happy to be serving their country again.
We all had had several years previous service and they were a pretty good lot. I thought I knew all the lurks but I learned a new one. The traditional way of dodging being put on odd jobs (fatigues) was to walk around with a bit of paper in your hand as if on an important errand. A better way was to wear your oldest work clothes and carry a bucket. You were obviously on a worse and dirtier job than any others around and you were left alone. If you came to a quiet corner you could invert the bucket, sit on it and have a fag.
I saw a parked truck with a man who looked as if he was the driver standing smartly beside the cabin. But I knew he wasn’t a driver. Of course nobody looking for slave labourers would have taken a perceived driver away from his duty. Brilliant! Incidentally I dodged fatigues as a matter of principle only. I was pleased to find that after six years away I was still good at it. Once I had successfully evaded the chore I used to pick my moment and then go and join in unloading a truck or whatever it was.
For two or three days of our “training” we went on a sort of manouevre that was an even bigger waste of time than the rest of the fortnight. In advance they had planted wooden, painted signs showing where the various trucks should park. When it came time to pack up an officer was concerned that two of the signs were missing. He asked around but nobody knew anything. Out of curiosity I made my own enquiries. It seems the first truck in had accidentally run over the signs and smashed them beyond repair. Less experienced soldiers would have reported the incident, there'd have been an official enquiry, forms to fill in, all sorts of fuss. These old hands knew a better way. They grabbed a shovel, dug a hole and buried them. That saved a great deal of trouble for everybody.
Looking back I realise that I missed a change of job. A friend recommended me to an old established family firm operating in the lace trade. They now used the very large lace machines to make hairnets. Since they’d switched to nylon the nets had blended in better with the hair and they were known as invisible hairnets. They also manufactured interlock underwear and string vests for mountaineers, explorers etc. I did a little bit of work trying to drum up sales for the string vests but was primarily concerned with the hairnets, covering a large part of England. Another sideline was embroidered face veils for corpses. When the regular man who dealt with that was missing for some reason I called on a wholesale undertaker in Birmingham. He checked his stock and said “You’d better send me another gross of the children’s size.” I found that a chilling thought. Inevitably 144 children in that area were going to die.
Because they were friends of a friend I told them straight away that I was planning to give up work at some future date, perhaps in another couple of years. The boss said that people who worked for them didn’t usually leave and I might change my mind. Fair enough. I took the job.
As part of my promotion for the charity I found that one of our fund raising events was on oak apple day. I went into the library in Liverpool, did some research, linked it with the historic hall and wrote it up for a paper. This was the evening paper and it had a daily gossip column that had a main item of about 500 words and a number of shorter paragraphs. I usually went for the shorter length but this time I did the full 500 words. I enclosed a letter saying that I wasn’t trying to take over his column but had done it for practice. He would find that a 200 word piece would cut out of it. He published it in full and asked me to come in and see him. He told me that he had to do the entire column himself, six days a week. Other reporters were supposed to make contributions but they rarely did. Would I like to write the main piece one day a week?
Around this time I nearly had enough money to give up work. It’s strange how things coincide in life. I think you set up lines of fate and if you’re lucky they intercept. I ended work on a Friday and my first paid bit of journalism was published the next day. They paid me tuppence (two pence) a line which added up to fourteen shillings and tenpence. In today’s money that would be a bit less than two dollars.
When I gave up regular work after so many years I found it a big adjustment. I used to go for long walks. I also had my thing to do for the newspaper. I had to think of a subject, clear it with the journo, arrange interviews, do the interviews, write it up etc. That took most of the week. But after the first week or so I settled down to doing original writing. The most accessible market seemed to be short stories for women’s magazines. I had very little hope of being published but I knew that I had to do the work in order to improve. I told myself that I would have to do a lot of tripewriting before becoming good enough to earn a living at it. In fact I felt that I made more progress in the first six weeks than I’d done in the previous six years. I got to the point of an encouraging letter from an editor before something else intervened. next