PC 197 Tales From Northern Ireland (2)

December 1973 …….

It was in the Shantallow housing estate, in a follow-up to a particularly frustrating time when my soldiers’ patrols were targeted by bottles and bricks, that I recognised one particularly active participant, as he always wore the same striped sweater. We managed to pick him up and the RUC took him away for questioning. We learned later he was 11 years old! He’d be 57 now – I wonder what he became?

A Shantallow patrol. No way of knowing whether Bombardier Elrick and Gunner Foster were coming or going! Patrols always had the last soldier occasionally looking backwards! A still from a cine film

Apart from patrolling the Shantallow Estate we manned a permanent Vehicle Check Point (VCP) just short of the border and the Southern Ireland village of Muff. The road was not heavily trafficked and it was a tedious and repetitive task, checking documents and the contents of car boots. However on the weekends the youth of Londonderry made their way over the border to a popular disco; they returned before midnight, boisterous and with a confidence boosted by alcohol. One of the prime tasks of the VCP was to look for those wanted for questioning; these buses coming over the border provided a near perfect cover for trouble-makers to move into the city. Around 2330 on the top deck of a very full bus, I was looking at faces. Satisfied I couldn’t see anyone of interest, I turned on my heels to exit the bus; someone kicked me hard on the back of my leg. I looked around to see who it was, couldn’t identify the individual, so just took the nearest and marched him down between the seats to the stairs. My sergeant, a loveable competent soldier called Williams, gave me a wry grin, suggesting it wasn’t my most sensible decision. I looked behind me; everyone was up and coming off the bus!

Today if I smell cheap diesel I am immediately taken back to Londonderry, particularly to the road north out of the city to the Muff VCP.

We often drove up to Muff in a 1 ton armoured vehicle, known colloquially as a pig, with the back doors open and, as it laboured up the hill, the exhaust fumes were sucked into the back and up our noses. Yuk!

The ‘Pig’ in the background; the wit might say the foreground?

One of the most poignant memories of this tour was a particular visit by the padre; every regiment going to Northern Island had a padre attached to it for the four months. Desmond was a Baptist minister and an extremely likeable man. One evening just before Christmas he asked to visit some of my troop, and I took him up to the Muff VCP just after midnight. Around the static VCP were some sentry towers and we visited each one. It was an extremely cold night and a severe frost covered the fields. As he chatted about this and that to Gunner Batchelor, probably aged 19 or so, I could see Batchelor’s face; he couldn’t believe that someone was taking time to show him love and interest, especially at this Christmas time.

I mentioned that we had three days ‘Rest & Recuperation’(R&R) sometime after the first two months. Married soldiers flew back to Germany, single ones to somewhere in the UK; I flew to London. After landing at Heathrow I met some friends in a pub in Putney. When you are on duty or on call every day and night, your senses and emotions are sharpened, always ‘street aware’, conscious of your surroundings. It was extremely strange to sit in a pub and look at ‘normal life’ happening around me, unable immediately to relax.

Like all good soldiers we read both the more intellectual newspapers as well as the ‘red-tops’, as the Mirror and The Sun were known. One morning the PR officer, an effervescent character called Zack Freeth (Note 1), noticed that in the overnight Miss World Competition Miss UK had not been crowned. He contacted the Mecca Organisation and after some discussion, Miss UK was persuaded to come out and bring a smile to the troops. This visit was such a success that Julia Morley, the owner of the competition, did two things. Firstly, every soldier in the regiment was given a Christmas stocking, full of sweets, chocolate, cigarettes and even a Lad’s Magazine. Secondly, in January 1974, she brought the woman who had been crowned Miss World, Marjorie Wallace, (Note 2) to see the soldiers.

WO(2) Paddy Surgenor, Sergeant Williams and 19 year old Marjorie Wallace – and me!

As I write this it sounds fairly unemotional. Believe me, when you haven’t been near a woman for weeks (Note 3) this was a major morale boost. Another time Harry Secombe, a British comedian who was always supportive of Armed Forces charities, came and shared his humour with the soldiers.

Returning to Fort George after a patrol it was essential all weapons were cleared of live ammunition.

Daily routines often create a numbness and boredom can be dangerous; we were always attempting to do things better, be cleverer at identifying and defeating the terrorists.

Towards the end of the tour, in February 1974, the regimental rugby team started training in a makeshift circuit room, as we faced a crucial match soon after our return to Sennelager. Work hard play hard I guess!!

To be continued ……..

Richard 24th September 2020

Note 1 One of Zack’s sons, Ben, farmed in Zimbabwe and is in and out of the news, trying to get justice for the thousands of white farmers who had their livelihoods taken from them.

Note 2 Marjorie Wallace’s reign lasted 103 days. She had become engaged to an American Formula 1 driver Peter Revson (Ed. Good surname for a racing driver!) but was photographed kissing the Welsh singer Tom Jones on a beach in Barbados. “Tut! Tut!” said the Miss World organisation; “This violates your contract!” 

Note 3 No women served in our regiment, as this was long before gender equality and opportunity were addressed.

PC 196 Tales from Northern Ireland (1)

Northern Ireland has, for reasons which will become apparent if you read these tales, featured a number of times in my life. For those unfamiliar with how this part of the United Kingdom came into being and without writing three volumes of a book (!), the island of Ireland was partitioned in 1922 as a result of pressure to create a southern Catholic republic. Protestants who had settled mainly in the north wanted to have their own ‘province’. Part of the island became the six counties of Northern Ireland and de facto part of the United Kingdom; the south eventually became the Republic of Eire. Nationalist elements in the south agitated for a united Ireland; some still do! For a time the north was a mecca for employment and over the years many Catholics migrated there. Today the Province is evenly populated by both Protestants and Catholics. Fifty years ago the nationalists, mainly in the form of the IRA, banged the drum for change; they were resisted by various Protestant paramilitary groups.

In August 1969 the then Prime Minister of the UK, Jim Callaghan, announced that troops were to be deployed to Northern Ireland to try to calm the inter-sectarian violence that was spreading across the province. I was sailing in the Baltic; it was the summer after all and I was due to go to university the following month. My period of military service so far had been in the UK and in Germany, and rather dull; I remember thinking I might miss an opportunity for some action. Little did anyone realise the conflict would go on for almost thirty years until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998 (Note 1). It defined a large chunk of my military service, as I took part in two operational tours, 1973-74 and 1975-76, each time spending four months in the Province. When I resigned my commission in 1985, I joined Short Brothers’ London Office; its Head Office was in Belfast!

I had graduated in July 1972 and, with my Civil Engineering degree in my back pocket, returned to my Regiment in Lippstadt, Germany. A year later I got promoted and moved to a regiment, based in Sennelager near Paderborn; 39 Medium had been earmarked for a Northern Ireland tour in October that year.

We put our artillery equipment into ‘light care & preservation’ and practised infantry roles such as patrolling, dealing with unrest, intelligence gathering and searches. In mid-October 1973 450 of us flew to RAF Aldergrove to start our ‘24/7’ tour; we had three days off in four months.

Our regimental home was Fort George, an old Royal Navy Storage depot on the western bank of the River Foyle. Alongside in the river was a Royal Navy ‘depot, maintenance and repair’ ship, HMS The Rame Head. Those officers posted to her seemed to include the more incompetent, lazy, and dangerous members of Her Majesty’s Navy.

Fort George, Londonderry. A still shot from a cine film!

We were accommodated in a mixture of Nissen huts and large draughty old storage hangars, in racks of bunk beds; The Hilton it was not! Incongruously, between the huts was a caravan that sold everything you needed – cigarettes (obviously), crisps, fizzy drinks, lads’ magazines, newspapers, sweets and chocolate. Over the centuries the tradition had been established that these entrepreneurs, these Chogy Whallahs, mainly of Indian decent, would provide such a service. The Regimental Second-in-Command engaged them, agreeing a percentage of the turnover that went into regimental funds. He once remarked that these guys often knew if you were going to be deployed operationally before the Ministry of Defence told you!

Our regimental patch covered the centre of Londonderry, the grand city bisected by the River Foyle know to the Catholic population as Derry, west to the border at Buncrana and north to the border at Muff. It was a real mixture of commercial properties and shops, dense housing and countryside and included the sprawling Catholic council housing estate of Shantallow. (Our area of responsibility did not include the City’s Bogside.)

Shantallow Estate shops A still shot from a cine film!

Sadly the time when the British Army had been seen as a force for good, coming between the Protestants and Catholics, each with their own years of deep-rooted bigotry and hatred, had long past; Bloody Sunday in January 1972 was the pivot on which it turned. Suffice to say as we patrolled the streets, either on foot or in Land Rovers, looking for trouble-makers and those out to bomb, kill and maim, we became the target of hate, suspicion and loathing. I recalled the ‘Internal Security’ training during my time at Sandhurst. In the films, the ‘rioters’ in some outpost of Empire were always led by a red T-shirted chap; the colour of their skin also made them stand out. Not so in Northern Island where everyone looked like everyone else!

I guess I had lived a very privileged life up to this point and had little experience of those living at the bottom of the societal heap. That all changed when my soldiers got to know Shantallow. Sometimes we searched these houses, acting on an intelligence tip-off that ‘someone of interest’ (Note 2) would be there. Sometimes we were lucky and were able to hand over an individual to the RUC (Note 3). During our tour we found weapons stuffed in garden sheds and a small amount of Semtex, the explosive of choice of the IRA; sometimes hundreds and hundreds of hours of effort produced scant results.

Hidden in a garden shed in Shantallow

On one early morning house visit I realised there were no beds in evidence, just piles of dirty clothes and coats on top of mattresses on the floor. In four months I only saw one bed and was ashamed to see this level of deprivation in the United Kingdom.

To be continued ……

Richard 17th September 2020

Note 1: Incidentally, John Hulme, a Northern Ireland politician who was largely responsible for keeping the search for peace on track, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, died on 3rd August 2020 aged 83.

Note 2: One of the ‘people of interest’ was a Martin McGuiness, who denounced violence after the Peace Accord and became the Deputy First Minister, alongside his bête noire, Dr Ian Paisley.

Note 3 The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was seen as a Protestant police organisation and therefore another target for the bombers and stone-throwers

PC 195 Snippets …….

The title of this PC is already open to debate and criticism according to a number of articles about the modern trends in punctuation or indeed non-punctuation as every punctuation mark be it a colon semi colon or full stop is coming under the magnifying glass of those who text and twit. Note that there was no punctuation in this sentence; did the sense of what I have written come across? So what did I mean when I wrote ‘Snippet’ with five stops? Indicating perhaps that  the title has no end, that I couldn’t think of the right word to add to ‘snippets’ or that I was just lazy and believed that my readers would read and understand it in whatever way they wanted to ….. and that that might depend on their age. ‘Snippets’ is often used to pull together a number of ‘new items’ that don’t in themselves merit a whole essay – the dictionary saying “a small part, piece, or thing; a brief quotable passage.”

Maybe the common theme in this PC is “…..ation” – punctuation and education.

I hope most of you have read Lynne Truss’ ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ (see PC 26) about punctuation where the addition of a comma after Eats changes the whole meaning of the title; particularly when a Panda is concerned. (Note 1)

Susie Dent, writing in The Times last month, suggests ‘kids are killing the full stop’. By way of illustration, Dent offers a text response to a friend who’s had a pay rise: “great” or “great!” or “great.” “Most of us would choose the second, the first being a little muted and the third hints either at envy or absolute indifference.” Despite my pedantic view on punctuation, I begrudgingly admit she and those she’s observing have a point (aka full stop?). 

One morning in 2010 I was in The Institute of Directors on London’s Pall Mall, heavily engaged in a leadership and business coaching session with Frank Fletcher. Frank is the CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, a charity that provides wonderful sailing opportunities to teenagers recovering from cancer. En passant, Frank asked whether I had seen the RSA animation of Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms.

I hadn’t and we spent the next twelve minutes watching this delightful representation of Robinson’s view on modern education from his 2010 TED talk. Having a pictorial preference to learning, I found the cartoon brought a hugely important message to life. Subsequently I watched the TED talk and bought his book ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’ and devoured it as if it was the first book I had read which really resonated with my inner emotions.

Our brains need to be activated – a bit like applying an activation code to some new App on my iPhone – and that brain switch-on is often achieved through education. Yet Robinson suggests that our current educational structure actually crushes creative thought, so pure in the young. Ken illustrates his book with some interesting vignettes, such as the one of a child who normally paid little attention in class. In art one day the teacher asked her what she was drawing.

“A picture of God.”

“But no one knows what God looks like!”

To which the girl replied: “They will in a minute.”

In his book he described meeting Dame Gillian Lynne, the choreographer behind Cats and Phantom of The Opera. Lynne had been a disruptive child in school and in desperation her parents took her to see a specialist. After chatting to her for a while, the psychologist said that he wanted to talk to her parents alone outside the room and, as they left, he turned on the radio. Through the little glass panel in the door they saw that Lynne immediately got up and danced. Rather than medication to calm her behaviour, she was sent to a dance school, igniting her creativity.

In PC 72 I told of a little shopping expedition to buy a light bulb and, as it seemed appropriate, wrote of my experiences a little in the style of James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces’. His prose was continuous, with little punctuation. Initially I didn’t like it and looked for the colons and semi-colons, not to mention the paragraphs! Now I admit it works well …. occasionally!! And on punctuation, if you have ever looked at some legal document, maybe your will, you will realise that legalise is not a fan of punctuation, anywhere.

Robinson describes creativity as the process of having original ideas that add value. “Creativity is putting your imagination to work.”  When I am at my most creative, I sense I am extremely focused, in my zone, ignoring the outside world and consciously concentrating (back to Pooh: “My brain hurts.”)

Snippets can be musical of course and often one hears a few bars, chords or semi-quavers and think “Oh! That’s Ed Sheeran or that slow movement from Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto.” Recently in a novel I read of Bach’s Crab Canon used as a mobile ringtone – and immediately found it on YouTube. I never knew!

Robinson banged the drum to have creativity of equal importance as numeracy and literacy in our education system, but the idea failed to gain mainstream traction. He died aged 70 of cancer late last month, still using his metaphorical drumsticks. I will miss his contributions to our lives.

Sir Ken Robinson 4th March 1950 – 21st August 2020

My scribbles, started six years ago, have challenged my own ability to write something that people might want to read. In that process I find myself using a number of full stops as ……. to suggest my mind is catching up with my typing fingers.

What really concerns me is the current assault on the full stop. Note I have naturally put one at the end of the sentence. Lauren Fonteyn, a linguistics expert has suggested that not using a full stop is ‘neutral’, but using one adds a sense of ‘being peeved … or that you’ve done texting’. Really? Are we so concerned of slighting someone that we can’t even put a full stop at the end of a sentence? God help us! Dent on punctuation again: “The TV listing once included the actor Peter Ustinov interviewing ‘Nelson Mandela, an 800 year old demigod and a dildo collector’. The right punctuation can save a certain embarrassment!

If you only text or twit, writing in an abbreviated language that is understood by your recipients, that’s all well and good. But it’s unlikely you will understand the breath, richness, depths and grammatical constructs that make English one of the most glorious languages on the planet. If that’s still OK, that’s OK; I sincerely hope it’s not.

Richard 10th September 2020

Note 1 The original, seen by Truss, was a notice on a Panda paddock. It should have read ‘eats shoots (ie green bamboo) and leaves’; someone had added capital letters and a coma after Eats which changed the meaning – almost ‘Gun Fight at the OK Corral’ Panda-style?

PC 194 Waiting for …….

The wonderful lines “What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” from the poet William Davies remind me why, in observing life with all its complexities, nuances and interactions, we need to engage our brain; as Pooh would say: “sometimes my brain hurts.” Of course often you are waiting for …….

PC 194 1

I have never seen the play ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1953) by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Apparently two men chat on the stage, exchanging ideas about this and that, and admit they are waiting for Godot, whoever he is. A slave and his master enter …… and exit. Godot sends a message that he won’t be coming today – maybe tomorrow? By the end of the play Godot has not made an appearance and the two men have waited and waited, hoping for enlightenment from Godot. For whatever reason, the phrase ‘Waiting for Godot’ has lodged itself in my psyche although I am in no hurry to watch the play; just doesn’t appeal.

Some things worth waiting for are outside of our control, like the weather. Waiting for the rain to stop before walking the dog/hanging out the washing/gardening is literally in the lap of the gods  ….. and no end of pacing and getting anxious is going to change that. In my last PC I recounted our experience stuck in the apartment lift – waiting for help!

PC 194 2

I love classical music and particularly that composed by Jean Sibelius (see PC 109). Heavily scored for the brass section his Symphony Number 4 is a wonderful romp through some Finish landscape until it reaches a crescendo and pauses ….. waiting …. and different conductors stretch the waiting seconds ….. for ever. If like me you want to faux-conduct and you have raised your arms in anticipation, getting it right is ….. well …. waiting!

My dear mother stayed in a nursing home for the last year or so of her life, for some reason reading, inter alia, ‘To War with Whittaker’ over and over again (Note 1). To visit her I would work my way through multi-cultural, mixed-ethnicity of Clapham Junction and take the two-hour-plus train to Sherborne in Dorset; I arrived on another planet where ‘ethnic diversity’ was something they read about or saw on television. At home one evening, I got a call from the staff to say they thought my mother was fading. I said I would take the first train in the morning. I walked up Sherborne High Street, picking up a bunch of flowers as I did so, and headed into the nursing home. My mother’s room was on the first floor. As I walked down the corridor a nurse popped her head out of an office to say that, sadly, my mother had died a couple of minutes previously. I walked into my mother’s room, now still and lifeless, and before I thought about grief and sadness, I couldn’t help saying out loud: “You could have waited a few more minutes, Ma!”

That experience came to my mind here in Estoril where someone is dying of cancer, too young. The prognosis is a matter of months rather than years. An extrovert, larger-than-life character, they have been hugely philosophical about their various treatments and diagnoses of the last twelve months. Now it seems the end is in sight, although there is huge denial that that will happen. I was struck the other afternoon when I saw them, in their silk pyjamas, opening the shutters of windows that overlook the pool …….. where life was going on as normal ……. whereas they were waiting …….. I am sure we all feel an unspoken sadness and helplessness, only able to offer love, prayers and lots of gin.

TAP Portugal aircraft at Lisbon Airport

One of the many modern afflictions is waiting for some call centre to answer. For instance, I had been on the telephone to TAP Portugal for over two hours before Andrea was able to do what I wanted. Initially the system doesn’t seem to acknowledge anyone is waiting until you have been listening to the musak for 22 minutes. Fortunately the ‘speaker option’ on your ‘phone allows you to leave it on the table, playing the musak to itself while you get on with other things – providing you stay within reach. Then Katrine answered, working from home, God knows where. It didn’t matter; could she solve my problem? In these circumstances the worst words you can hear are: “Let me put you on hold”. Later, having taken me off hold, she asked if it was OK if she transferred me to another department. What can you say: “No!” – as that would have resulted in the continuous tone, one’s disbelief that after 55 minutes the call has ‘dropped out’ – either accidentally or on purpose! Then Bruno took all my details, again, and put me on hold ……. I waited, read more of my digital Times newspaper, made myself another coffee ….. until Bruno came back ……. and then the call dropped out. Ninety minutes and counting. Another attempt, another requisite 22 minutes before Andrea answered. By now I had a ‘Case Number’ that comprised so many numbers another minute went by just speaking them. And so it went ….. more waiting …… more ‘on hold’ ……. but eventually after close to two hours and a half ……. the waiting ended and I heard those most lovely of words: “We will send you an email confirming everything! Have a nice day.” Easily pleased huh?

And lastly we British have a reputation for queuing patiently. We don’t acknowledge many saints in England apart from our patron St George although the phrase ‘having the patience of a saint’ comes to mind …. waiting for …….?


Richard 3rd September 2020

PS My chum David Morley, who has a beautiful mansion in south west France (see PC 18), has solved the puzzle of the street numbers (see PC 193). They are measured from the start of the street, in metres. No 240, the old No14, should be 240m from the bottom, No16 is another 52m up the street. So I used my calibrated ‘pace’ and walked the street; ‘tis true!

Note 1 ‘To War With Whitaker’ was the title of the wartime diaries of Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly. My aunt’s colleague Peggy (see PC 114) read Jane Austin’s Northhanger Abbey at least once every year for her last twenty years. Must be something in the water?