10. Civilian life in Germany

Leaving Britain in 1978 I had the feeling that I was doing something that had consequences, but I pushed it aside, just as I pushed aside the bad experiences that I’d had that made my decision easier. I was a romantic fool who had so much to learn, spurned on by romantic tales of life in Europe and those I had the short time I’d been living in Germany. Life seemed to be so easy and free of the continuous banter that I hated so much as a soldier. I am a strange person in that respect, always looking for a straight conversation, getting confused if the conversation was made lighter by such banter, which I regarded as a loss of focus. Monika’s friends had become my friends and I was looking forward to seeing my wife. It seemed strange then, at 22 years old, to talk about “my wife” but I couldn’t wait for the ferry to arrive in Belgium.
However, after my return, I had a difficult start. First of all, living in a very small flat with my wife’s Grandmother, I was getting into all sorts of problems. Behaviour, which is quite normal for a young newlywed couple, became difficult living virtually on top of an eighty-year-old blind lady. Locking the bathroom door was a problem, fooling about was a problem, coming home late was a problem, coming home early was a problem. Therefore the first months in Germany were dictated by this experience. Secondly, the simple confrontation with everyday life using a foreign language made me very self-conscious. I felt I had to get everything absolutely right. As a soldier, I had experienced the occasional German who ridiculed my pronunciation of German words, and there is a particular problem with the construction of a sentence in German. If you get it wrong, Germans often don’t understand what you are saying. So I was intent on getting it right and just shopping in the local supermarket became a challenge. I reluctantly rose to the occasion but succeeded more and more, which in turn gave me confidence.
I found work with a subcontractor of the local Brewery delivering beer, but I was constantly being persuaded to make trips to Britain using the larger vehicles. I wanted to take the opportunity to graduate from school. The long-distance trips were, therefore, a problem, as were the delivery jobs, which often had me working from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening and gave me the added stress of keeping my co-driver, who was always drunk, in the vehicle. He would leave me to unload and, rather than arguing, I got on with it. Afterwards, I would find him downing a glass of beer, obviously not his first, any time of the day. I needed him to show me around the place, but that became increasingly difficult, the more he drank. One day he told me we could take a short cut and guided me into a cul-de-sac, where the signpost was covered by branches of a tree. It took us two hours to get back out, reversing with a trailer. My means of transport to and from work was a bicycle. After cycling across town to get home after such a day, and there were many, I was in no state to do anything more and had to get up the next day early and bright.
We moved into our own flat during that time, but it wasn’t any closer to my workplace, but closer to Monika’s parents. We used a delivery lorry to travel all over the town at the weekend, collecting used furniture, and man-handling it through the window from the street. It was old and worn, but it was ours. The flat was situated across from the main coal-mine in Dortmund, and we could see mountains of coke across the road from our bedroom. The bedroom was on the main road, and lorries carrying cinders drove back and forth from the early hours in the morning, including Saturdays. On the first day of the weekend, we would often be woken by the vibrations of these trucks. It was the dirty part of Dortmund and the cinders left thick dust on everything if you left the window open. The whole place smelled of coal and coke as well.
I was determined to get back to school and learn a trade, which had been suggested to me by Monika’s stepfather. I started learning German by reading and translating a news magazine, Der Spiegel, which was also quite left-orientated. There were many topics written with a perspective that I wasn’t used to, but which interested me. Fortunately, a mixed group of students moved into the flat above and made it into a shared apartment. These young people found it amusing to speak with a young Englishman who was learning the language and we discussed everything I had been reading. I was able to enjoy the company of Monika’s friends, but I relished the nightly discussions with these young people. They helped me better my German like no-one else had, although Monika remains the main influence over time.
After a year and a serious accident that forced my boss to write off a truck, I changed my job. I then drove a dump truck to construction sites and transported the excavators with a trailer. Not long after starting work, I fell over on to my backside and the back of my trousers were suddenly filled with bloody pus. After consulting the doctor, it turned out to be a fistula at the coccyx, or tail-bone, which had to be operated on. I was lucky that my boss didn’t sack me, but he felt it could have been an accident at work, and so he put up with it. His stepsons complained that he was treating me better than others, but he took me back after six weeks of sick leave. I used the time to read Erich Fromm’s “Haben oder Sein” (To have or to be) and translate this into English. He too was Marxist orientated but he interested me because of his use of biblical and Buddhist examples to illustrate his thesis. I bought myself a Bible and a book on Buddhism.
After I recovered, I took the opportunity to go to evening school and take the so-called 2nd educational path. Evening school in Unna was an awakening experience. The participants were mostly mid-twenties like me and had, for whatever reason, not passed the necessary exams or achieved the necessary marks. We didn’t need any time to get to know each other and often met in cafes between classes on Saturdays. Very often I experienced being interesting just because I was an Englishman, it was no different here. I noticed how characteristics associated with my country were applied to me, which I didn’t consider typical. In fact, I had left the UK because I wasn’t really the “typical” Englishman if there is one outside of the imagination. At evening school I was surprisingly successful. German and history were of particular interest to me, but also my math teacher, Mrs Hofmann, showed me that I was not incapable, although I had been unable to grasp math in England. This new chance at education at 25 was completely different from my experience of school as a child. I was very much engaged in the classes, and my German teacher, Herr Wemhöner, seemed intent on getting me through to higher education.
After passing my exams with flying colours, much better than expected, I wanted to become a geriatric nurse, but my wife had become pregnant and we decided that I had to put these plans on ice. There was no other way as I would not have earned enough money to care for my wife and child whilst training so I looked for another job. My wife and I decided that she should go back to work after the birth, to begin with, and I would stay at home for a while since she earned more than I, and her job was stable. That meant I would have to talk to my employer about how I was to become unemployed. As it happens, he was already talking about reducing the number of drivers and so I suggested he sack me, instead of another young man who had just married. He wasn’t happy, nor were his son’s, who hadn’t been happy about my sick leave so early on, but he consented.
When our son announced his birth, Monika’s amniotic sac burst and we rushed to the hospital. We were shown into the delivery ward and Monika was prepared for the birth procedure. Unfortunately, our son wasn’t prepared to arrive and so we were left waiting for some time. Monika asked me to read something to her, but the only book I had picked up on the way out was a German edition of “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. After her initial disappointment, I started to read the story, but as our son still wasn’t ready, it began to bore her and we soon found the situation laughable. We managed to pass the time until the medical staff decided to “persuade” the child to arrive. The drama of the birth was then prolonged when the doctor asked me to leave, as he had to use forceps to pull the child out. My wife and I protested about me having to leave, also the nurses, but I found myself outside the birth room, frustrated because I wanted to be there when our son was born. Suddenly the door opened and I was ushered in “Hurry, hurry!” Our son’s cranium was just visible and he slithered out as I arrived. The standard slap opened his lungs and we thought everything was okay. The doctor thought otherwise.
The hushed conversation, probably intended to prevent us from getting worried, only amplified the seriousness of the situation. Then all was fine, the doctor came to us with a smile and we were told not to worry. Monika had a spotty face from the capillaries that had burst when she was pressing, and she was tired. We arranged to meet up later that day after we had some sleep and I had registered the birth. I shuffled off, quite exhausted by the experience, disappointed still that I hadn’t been there all the time, especially as I had felt Monika’s need for me to be there. I arrived home and fell asleep almost immediately.
Later that day, I arrived at the registry office and was told in all seriousness, that the name Marc-Ian, which we had chosen for our son, was considered to be “unusual” and I should consider the fact that he would carry this name all his life. I replied, “It’s not as though I want to call him Pumuckl or something like that!” The very conservative looking lady gave me an uncertain look and finally stamped everything and gave me the papers.
When I arrived at the hospital, I met my wife in a terrible state on the stairs to the ward. Between the tears, she told me that our son had hydrocephalus, apparently about one to two per 1,000 newborns have this condition, which is an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid, and associated with several serious illnesses. I didn’t really know what to say. During the pregnancy, I had been reading all sorts of literature about being parents, including a book on what to do if your child is disabled in any way. This book had obviously caused a discussion with Monika, who was concerned about me reading on such a subject. Now it came all rushing to my mind and I felt guilty somehow.
We had several fraught days at the incubator, and Monika was allowed to go home but they still kept our little treasure in the hospital. On one occasion the nurse made a point of saying that our son was a fighter, he had already disconnected himself a couple of times. Finally, the swelling subsided and we were allowed to take him home. However, we were told that we would have to be very careful because the neck wasn’t strong enough to carry the head, and we would probably have to go to physiotherapy with him. Another problem was that he didn’t drink so well, and was very thin. This continued to cause us problems at home.

6. Barnstaple

When we arrived in Devon again, we moved into Pilton Abbey in Barnstaple, a huge old building that had a kitchen with a massive breakfast table in the adjoining room as well as large rooms with big burgundy drapes. The walls and the window ledges inside were about three feet deep, and the kitchen had old-fashioned lead window panes with criss-cross patterns. Outside a Robin often turned up for the crumbs we threw out. I also remember Colin and I once polishing the floor with dusters tied to our feet and hands and sliding about – rather ineffectively I assume. In a room that seemed to be an endless expanse to us children, with an old Christian painting above the fireplace, we had our beds in a corner. This large painting depicted the death of the martyrs in the Roman arena. At night I had the feeling that the curtains were bending threateningly over us and that the moon brightened the death scene, making it appear life-size. I was finally moved to a smaller room with no paintings on the walls, where I dreamt less of such cruel scenes.

The surrounding estate was substantial as well and had tennis courts that hadn’t been used for a while, an orchard and lots of gooseberry bushes. I discovered all sorts of underground chambers and climbed into or up everything I could find, especially after we discovered a tree den in the large oak tree opposite the house, complete with metal rungs hammered into the tree. My brother, Colin, always imitating me, got stuck in a large poplar tree, and froze after looking down. I had to climb up to him and help him come down again whilst my father looked on. He said the tree wouldn’t take his weight, and besides, it was my fault for encouraging him. Once we played on a huge red clay vase full of earth in the garden, but it tipped over and broke into many pieces. I was in trouble for that as well, since the vase had fallen onto Colin and knocked the wind out of him. Mum thought he was dead at first and was panic-stricken. We got into trouble for going down into the mysterious and dark cellar that was full of spider-webs. We children didn’t go down without some lights on, because we couldn’t find our way back without crashing into a wall or pulling spiderwebs onto oneself. It wasn’t hard to catch someone down there and turn the lights off, but it was terrible to be on the receiving end. The people on the other side of the house had a huge winding stairway and many more rooms, which gave us an idea of how big the whole house was.

Whilst in the abbey I had started to go to a small primary school in Pilton next to the church, which was just across the road that wound through the buildings. My skin colour was darker than usual when we arrived, but it faded quickly. A young girl of colour felt an affinity for me, and I sat next to her. She was disappointed, however, when it turned out that my skin colour was not permanent. At that time I also started to read much more. Just the usual children’s books about a schoolboy named Jeremy, but it revived my imagination. During this time I had to do my „Eleven-Plus“ test and the result meant that I was not accepted into grammar school, which was apparently the goal. Instead, I had to go to Secondary School, which was quite a lot further than primary school, but on the way there I would experience many different adventures, most of them in my mind.

It wasn’t long before we moved into a bungalow a few miles away. I don’t know if these events had anything to do with it, but my mother was relieved. However, one of my school friends was the pastor’s son, Guy. He had resources I didn’t have and got me into all sorts of nonsense. Once we made a bomb that was heard all over the town and Guy and I were thrown off our feet when it exploded. The tree we wanted to blow up did not fall – thank God we had no knowledge of explosives! It would have buried us under it. But there were also all kinds of places to experience adventures, including haystacks, apple orchards, ruins and old buildings. We even managed to be chased by a herd of cows, which, in reality, they were being called for milking. We also used our bikes to imitate the American Evil Knievel, whose stunts were on TV at the time. It led to me taking my bike home in two parts and my parents telling me that I had to walk to school from then on.

The bungalow was set behind a wall and a number of Hortensia bushes decorated the entrance. Out the back, behind a glasshouse, which was built on to the house, there was a small lawn, a vegetable garden and behind the shed at the bottom an orchard. The orchard was “off-bounds”, but the apples didn’t taste good anyway. Colin and I often played on the lawn with plastic soldiers and a fort that my father had made that had quite some detail. He had spent hours building it and we were elated when we had it given to us one Christmas. Later on, he was devastated when he found that in our games had started trying to create “realistic” scenes and we had set fire to the fort. I think that seeing how my father was affected by the damage I had done was the first experience of empathy, and I realised how much I had hurt him. I only then saw what effort he had put in to provide for us, and what it had meant to him. For him it was wanton vandalism, for us it was in one way the beginning of consumerism – when it’s broken you get a new one. We underestimated the emotional value this piece of artistry had for him.

During our time in Barnstaple, it must have been before or during 1965, I was sent to a Christian Endeavour camp in the south of Wales in Pembrokeshire. We crossed the Bristol Channel from Ilfracombe to Mumbles, near Swansea, and took the bus to a place near Fishguard. It was quite a fun time of raft building and playing, but also of reading the Bible. I had problems at that time and was under observation because I was very often a brooding loner. I have good memories of that time, even if I had difficulties. The greatest moment of all was on my way home. We had gathered at the Mumbles Pier and the sky was already dark when we boarded the small ferry. The children and staff looked worried as we boarded, and it wasn’t long before the sky turned dark brown and the lightning brightened the sky. The boat was hurled back and forth between the waves and I could hardly tell the difference between water and sky. Almost the whole group was hanging sick over the railing. When I entered the small deck where the drinks had been served, I noticed that I was not feeling so well inside. So I took shelter in the stairs leading to the engine room, but the rain and seawater sprayed over the deck and everyone got wet. At a moment when the sky flashed with lightning, everything seemed to stop for a moment, and the scene remained in my memory as if it would tell me something that words could not say. Having read the Bible in Fishguard during the week, I connected this experience with God even though I couldn’t explain myself.

When we reached the pier in Ilfracombe, my father was waiting for me among other parents who were very worried at the sight of their seasick children. I was full of the experience and as we got into the car I excitedly told him what had happened. My father was even calmer than usual, although he asked me how I felt. I assured him that I was well and he told me that my brother Colin had fallen off his bike while I was away and was in the hospital. Somehow I linked this information to an accusation, as if it were my fault, be it because I wasn’t there, be it because I had given him the idea to go down the hill at breakneck speed. He was unlucky that his tire burst and he was thrown off his bike. He suffered a concussion and a nasty cut on his chin, which is still visible today as a scar, along with many abrasions. This was in addition to the injuries he had already sustained when he climbed trees with me and fell. He had hit almost every big branch on the way down and injured his back. I had been guilty then, too, so I felt guilty again because of his new injuries.

Once again I had a story to tell people, this time there were more people who would believe me. The idea of an epiphany subsided with time and new imaginations were colouring parts of the story in as I saw fit. Moving on to Secondary school gave me more to include in my stories because we had a history teacher who could draw incredible sketches of medieval life and an English teacher, Mr. Ford, who encouraged us to put the literature we read into practice in the classroom and on stage. He was part of the local theatre association and we went to a Greek comedy by the Classical comedic playwright Aristophanes, in which he played Mars. At school, we worked on school plays, talking about how, for example, Aristophanes used his comedies to dramatise many politicised ideas and draw attention to specific individuals in society. I don’t think we all realised how important this was, but these details made the play come to life. We also played out spontaneous choreographies to classical music. With the latter, we even took part in a drama competition that took place at colleges around Devon. But not everything was successful. I was so taken in by this activity that I was often envious of those who could play roles on the stage, whereas I was put on the wind machine. I was too emotional to be able to concentrate on my lines and got carried away. I was also not recommended for the school choir because, as the teacher told me carefully, I was „a solo singer and not suitable for a choir“.

I took this experience with me, however, and my father was concerned at one stage that his son was being turned into an effeminate dancer. Of course, it soon wore off and I became enthralled by the next new discovery, but the importance of writing and conveying thoughts, and the ability to hint at things without blurting them out, became a real challenge for me. I started writing and filling up notebooks with plagiarised versions of what I had heard or seen somewhere, and tried to find ways of expressing what I struggled to convey verbally. It was then that puberty was taking place and I struggled with feelings that my parents didn’t want to talk about. Wet dreams and uncontrolled emotional outbursts left me a very confused boy. At this stage, my mother suddenly stopped bathing me with my brothers and I had to take a bath on my own. I heard from school mates that they knew all about sex and even the first accounts of sexual encounters were being passed about. I smiled or laughed as though I knew what they meant, but I didn’t. All I knew was that I had another problem that I couldn’t deal with. My fathers “Men’s magazines” suddenly left something stirring in my groin, which hadn’t had that effect before, so I told stories like those I had read to other boys in an attempt to belong to the crowd. I found that I had the knack of telling stories and went on to tell more of them. Unfortunately, my stories became my reality and I had difficulty for a while to differentiate between fact and fiction. Sometimes they were extremely childish, but I relished the interest I awoke.

Belonging to the crowd didn’t last long. My father had been growing deaf and had attempted to get compensation on leaving the Army, but it couldn’t be proved that his deafness had been caused by anything he had experienced in the service. I can imagine that this was a serious issue for him since his plans to serve 22 years and leave with a pension had been thwarted. In the end, it frustrated him and after we had moved to Swindon once again, and he stayed in Devon to clear up, hand over the quarter and leave the service. The marital struggles returned again after my mother found out that my father had been seeing a younger woman, who had been a neighbour and a friend of hers, during the weeks he was alone in Devon. He told me nothing had happened, but that he had just run across her and spent some time with her. My mother was furious, and it became quite clear to the rest of the family that this issue was being blown out of context. I just saw it as another cause of confusion, and I discovered that I had become quite efficient at saying good-bye to people, although making new friends was another thing altogether.

4. Malaya

The trip to Singapore with BAOC Airways lasted two days and went via Istanbul and Bombay. I thought it was all a big adventure and even helped to give sick bags to people when the turbulence overwhelmed them. Jeff was still a baby and Colin was not healthy at that time. He got sick in the car and later when flying, as did my mother, so travelling must have been a rather traumatic experience for her. At some point, the flight attendant said I was the only passenger who wasn’t ill. That made me very proud. Istanbul and Bombay seem shrouded in darkness and it may have been nighttime when we arrived there and still sleepy got off the plane for a walk around. I never had the chance to realise what cultural differences there were to be seen in those countries, although we did comment that people dressed “funny” in those places. We seem to have been cut off from any civilian travellers.
When we arrived in Singapore, we had to take the train to Ipoh in order to get to Malacca, which I found fascinating looking at the people at the station, who of course, were very different from us. I was absorbed by the journey in another country with a different culture, although my mother was completely worried. After we were bundled sleepily from the station into a waiting Landrover, the adventure continued. We drove through the night, speeding down narrow roads covered in strange foliage, the whole experience was foreign to me, but I was keen to stay awake. When we reached Terendak Camp and we drove over a bump, it almost threw me out of the vehicle. I was told that we had just driven over a python on the road.
The time in Malaya was an exciting time and we children discovered so many things. Playing outside regularly eight years old, running on the beach that had palm and coconut trees lining it, being warned of stingrays, jellyfish, and scorpions. The excitement grew when actually encountering such things, we were lucky that nothing unfavourable happened to us. My imagination was untamed back then and we played out our ideas with great enthusiasm – much to the horror of our parents. Once we ran naked through the bush, mimicking the dark children on the beach, when a soldier caught one of the group, leaving the rest of us to hurriedly climb into our den to put our clothes back on. Once one of the group fell into a swamp, which traumatised me quite a bit, as I had seen movies in which people had died terribly this way, and I ran away in a panic. In fact, choking or drowning became my biggest fear and I regularly had nightmares in which I choked. Once I was hit by an “arrow” made out of thin wooden slivers, and which had to be carefully removed and treated with iodine. I also dreamed of flying through our house at night, which seemed so real to me that I excitedly told my mother. She looked at me in surprise and probably didn’t believe me, but it must have had her thinking.
When visiting Kuala Lumpur, we went on an outing to the Batu Caves, seven miles (13 km) north of the capital of Malaysia and set in a small hill that seemed to me like a mountain. In a field below we saw a five-legged cow. The poor beast was born with an added leg on its back and was said to be considered holy because of this. In fact, it was just an attraction for visitors. The caves are one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions and are a place of pilgrimage for Tamil Hindus. The true attraction, however, after climbing a curving stairway with 272 steps, was a cave with a multitude of bats, that hung from the ceiling. We could only enter in complete silence if we didn’t want to wake them. The other reason we visited those caves was that it was the site of a tragic battle against Japanese invaders. When trapped in the complex of limestone grottoes, a number of soldiers tried to dig their way out but died as their tunnel collapsed. This story left such an impression on me as a nine-year-old that I have claustrophobic nightmares to this day.
My nightmares might have also had something to do with how I learned to swim. Namely, being thrown into the pool where I couldn’t stand and breathe at the same time. After I had overcome my fears, which was especially important because my father was a master swimmer in the army, I finally learned to swim and although I fell from a high diving board, I learned to jump off it with no problems. My father and I even swam in the sea, where the current was hard to manage. We seemed to swim miles, but it probably wasn’t. I was bound to secrecy because my mother had enough fears. She didn’t have to imagine that I was stung by a jellyfish. The danger of jellyfish wasn’t to be taken lightly. One day my brother and I had spent nearly 3 hours playing with a log in the sea, as we had done very often. We were just getting dry watching another child play with the log when he screamed and had to be taken out of the water. He had a long red mark across his body and was rushed to the hospital. We heard reports that he was in a critical condition for days and overheard a conversation by unwitting adults who said we had lured the jellyfish but were out of the water before they came, I felt guilty for some time.
Fishing with my father on a long beach with soft sand also had its dangers. We had to cast our hook and weights far out, and my father was very skilled at it. Of course, I tried to follow suit. Several times we caught catfish, once a baby shark and very often stingrays, which we had to spear into the ground with a makeshift fork in order to release our hook and get our tackle back. Sometimes, when it was too difficult, my father cut the line and waited for the catch to die. Sometimes we were disappointed because they seemed to come back to life and managed to get into the water and swim away. My father told me that I should remember what was living in the sea, not far offshore, and be careful when swimming.
Whilst we were in Malaya, there were rumblings in Sumatra, an elongated landmass spanning a diagonal northwest-southeast axis close to Malaya across the Straits of Malacca. These “disturbances” were portrayed as the struggle with communism in western newspapers. Some independent authors have said that this is a wrong portrayal of the upheaval that led to half a million deaths, and that it was really the struggle of an underdeveloped country against the rising globalisation of markets. However you see this bloody dispute, it was a cause of worry for the Malayan Government and the British Army that was posted there for protection.
When, one day, I had strayed southwards from our Scout house down the beach with a friend, we stumbled across a large tree with what looked like the remains of a treehouse in its branches. We started playing around and almost forgot the time. When we felt that it was about time to go home, guessing by the sun and our shadows, like we had been taught at the Boy Scout Cubs, we were stood together when an explosion blew earth, dead palm leaves, and sand into the air. First of all, we froze as the rubble came down on us, but then we thought we were under attack and ran as fast as we could back up the beach. Only then did we realise how far we had roamed but we didn’t stop running until we reached the quarters and blurted out what we had experienced. We didn’t know where it had come from, but very soon afterward we found the trees that grew up to the beach were full of soldiers with pieces of artillery. That set my imagination going and soon I was telling everyone that we had nearly been blown up by communists. Only far later as an adult did I consider the fact that, if we had wandered into a shooting range, the explosion could have been caused by our own side. We never wandered that far down the beach again.
Nevertheless, it was more or less a carefree life we had as children, which ignored the stress the soldiers were struggling with. The Vietnam War was going on in the north of the country and my father and his comrades were not spared the confrontation with the dangers of the jungle or the danger of communist guerrillas reaching the Malaysian kingdom. Although they were transport soldiers, they had to go on patrols in the jungle, where the vegetation alone could cause extensive wounds. There were tales of shots fired and communist guerrillas killed, but also of casualties in their own ranks.
As part of their attempt to play down the situation, there were parties in the quarters that kept us children awake because the soldiers played bowling with the beer cans they stacked. The stress told on some, and parties sometimes grew loud or even violent. There was a reason why this posting was only for three years. In the mornings I often found half-full beer cans and sometimes I sipped on them trying to figure out what they thought was so good. Of course, stale beer doesn’t taste good and it takes more than a few sips to understand why the soldiers were so keen on it. Although I’m aware that these soldiers were doing their best under the circumstances, they were transport soldiers, not crack combat troops. Later in life, I had a similar experience and saw what happened when young men like my father came into a combat situation. Even if such situations had awoken just a fraction of the fear that war installs into people, it should be clear that people change under the duress, and this explains their behaviour sometimes.
But our time also had good times, like when we travelled to the “Cameron Highlands” which was further north. We seemed to be circling a huge hill as the bus struggled up and we could see Malayan life much as it was. Everything seemed to take place on the roads and we saw people selling unknown foods, as well as chickens and goats. One stall had huge beetles on display that looked the size of footballs to us children. One evening we were told that nobody was allowed on the streets because a hungry tiger was close. Colin and I stood at the windows, listening to the evening sounds and imagining what was transpiring just a short distance away. We did witness a death though when we watched the cook of the restaurant in the hotel cut the head off of a chicken and chase the carcass around the area below our window.
At one time, we were told that ants were marching towards Terendak camp and if they should get close, we would be evacuated. After that, as soon as we discovered ant-hills we ran home to tell our parents. The only emergency we did experience that came from the jungle was a hoard of monkeys that terrorised us until the soldiers came. We were all safe within the houses, but monkeys had never seemed so dangerous. This was accentuated on the day that a young lady, who was posing with a monkey, was suddenly attacked by the animal that started pulling her blouse and hair until blood ran. These experiences fuelled my nightmares, but I seldom told anyone.
As children, it was all part of the great adventure we had and we didn’t think about returning to the rain and snow of Britain one day. But the clock was ticking.

3. Swindon

In 1963 my father received a posting abroad and we were to travel to Malaya via Swindon and London Airport. There was a lot of excitement because my father had to go before us and then we’d follow him. Meeting my maternal Grandparents, Grandfather a voice behind the Swindon Advertiser, and Grandmother a stern lady who told us off far more often than our mother did, was an experience that I disliked. There was something in the air that disturbed me, and it wasn’t just fearing doing something wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. There was, of course, the tension when my father was gone. I sensed it in my mother. She was always someone who hoped that everything would be harmonious and people would get along. She often warned me, even later on, about saying too much and getting myself into trouble, which seemed to be her method of getting through life. Now everything was in turmoil. I can imagine how she felt about having to cope with the situation with three boys at our ages.
As far as I can remember we were split up and I lived with my paternal grandparents whereas my two brothers lived with our maternal grandparents. Grandpa Brewer was a right character and kept pigeons, so I help to feed them and clean up the loft. His face seemed a bit screwed up and his hair was curly and silver in places, not like Grandma at all. He was always annoying Grandma for some reasons and was continually being sent off somewhere. I think he was still working, it was probably at the Great Western Railway workshops, which were the biggest employer then. There is a photograph of Gran, Dad, Colin and me with our cousins, Linda, who is a year younger than me and Karen in front of a pigeon loft before dad left for Malaya. At that time we were just kids getting to know each other but we got to know each other better later.
My uncle Geoff still lived at home and was a young, lean curly-haired young man who seemed to smile all the time and had a loud voice. The big event then was when he let me ride his adult size bicycle with derailleur gears although I was quite small then. It was quite an achievement and I often showed off in front of other children. However, I borrowed the bicycle without permission and managed to break it somehow, which Geoff always reminded me of – even at my father’s funeral.
My Grandparents had a piano in the front room on which I pounded away until I got on everyone’s nerves. I never did have the knack of playing, even though I like to listen. At the end of the street there was a small garden with two or three apple trees, and I remember that I got into trouble for “scrumping” but my memory of this time is interwoven with the time when we returned from Malaya, so I’m not sure when exactly things happened. I have some memories of buying things at the corner shop at Hythe Road which also had a post office, which was before we went to Malaya, so I couldn’t have spent all the time in Rodbourne.
Swindon was only a small town then and our stay there was relatively short before we started on our journey, but I remember looking through a hole in a wall, finding a gang of boys in the back streets that didn’t want anything to do with me, sitting in outside closets with lots of newspapers to read and playing with children in the streets. It is all so long ago and when I drove down the main road there 40 or more years later, I could see how much it had changed on the surface. But there were still buildings standing that hadn’t changed over the years. The street where Gran and Gramp lived was demolished in between, which said a lot about the standard of housing they had put up with. My main expectations about Swindon, considering the changes I’ve experienced over the years living in Germany, was that the same degree of development would happen in the UK, but it didn’t. The town just became larger. At the same time, I think that people weren’t unhappy with their lot and just accepted it as the way it was.

2. Bideford

I think the furthest back I can remember was when we lived at 3 Seattle Terrace in Northam, Bideford, after moving there when my father had been sent to his first unit after joining the army. He was in a unit with amphibian vehicles (DUKW) at Fremington, just outside Bideford. We lived there between 1957 and 1963, and I reached infants and then primary school there.

The world was changing, commercial television aired its first broadcast, People were talking about the ‘Cambridge Spies’ who had finally surfaced after disappearing in 1951. The Clean Air Act was passed in response to the severe London smog in 1952. Nuclear power was available via Calder Hall Power Station, the British tested its first Hydrogen Bomb and teamed up with France to invade Egypt to secure passage via the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and beyond. Politicians came and went, but there was something in the air. Prime Minister Harold McMillan spoke of the “Wind of Change”.

Of course, I wasn’t bothered about what was going on in the world. For nearly four years I was the only child, and consequently, I had imaginary friends with whom I fittingly conversed, as many children do. I had such a vivid imagination I often saw figures walking across the plastered wall. The faint shadows began to move and form into people, animals or trees on the rough surface in the low light at night. Occasionally I would try to dream on keeping those figures in mind, slipping into a nocturnal world of fantasy and imagination. One particular instance comes to mind when I had a fever and that unquiet dream turned gruesome. I awoke with fright and sweat with mother and father looking down at me.

Life then is full of dim memories of cockle-collecting with a bucket and spade, the wind-swept Northam Burrows, and kissing the neighbours daughter, who was as young as I. “You Romeo!” they said to a young boy with no idea who that tragic figure was. They probably didn’t know the full story either. We were “working class” as they used to say, which meant that my parents hadn’t had the opportunity to gain a higher education. The UK had been slow to introduce compulsory education almost a century before and after the war, the class system was still very much intact with compulsory schooling by law only until the age of 10. The Eleven Plus test gave pupils in the 6th class the chance to rise in society by being educated in Grammar schools from 1944 onwards. I was fortunate to go to school but remained blissfully ignorant for several years whilst there. I was far more concerned with discovering the world of my imagination. 

Soon my brother, Colin James, was born. He seems to have been a friendly bundle that only occasionally made noises that disturbed the peace. I frequently found him wrapped up on the sofa and later crawling on the floor. I can’t remember registering him more than that until one day when my father told me hurriedly that I had to look all over for the three-year-old Colin, who’d gone missing. My mother wasn’t at home. I presume that she was then pregnant with Jeff, and I must have been approaching seven. Colin hardly moved much at that age and my father said as much, but we were to search for him. He was quite frantic, I thought. He even ran outside and called the neighbours out to search, to no avail. In the end, Colin himself gave his hiding place away by crying from behind a door that had the whole time been wide open and hid the sleeping sibling behind it. It might have started as a game, but when nobody came looking he fell asleep.

There are memories of meeting various members of the family, but I can’t say where it was. I remember travelling in a VW bus between the mattresses, small pieces of furniture and suitcases, and meeting my paternal Grandfather, who was always having a joke at other peoples expense, and he told me about how he used to treat his mules when they had colic. My mother had told him that I had suffered colon colic in that year. Gramp was very graphic in his description of how he would have treated me. Long afterwards I was hoping that it never happened again and feared the bar of soap that Gramp said he used to treat his mules with.

On reaching 6 years of age, I had entered primary school, which I did with the normal morbid anticipation I always had when having to socialise with other people. Colin was only 2 years old and took up my place at home. Once I knew what was expected of me I warmed to the idea and, as usual, I even got overexcited and fell on a low wall, causing a hernia. It taught me a lesson for a short while, but soon I was back climbing the walls with fellow pupils, showing off to the girls and being told off by the teachers. I can’t recall anything about the primary school, except the capers that got us into trouble. I didn’t really know what I was doing there, I think. This seemed to follow me for some time and at least gave me the childhood that many would have cherished and I took for granted.

The hernia treatment was postponed first of all, but I was soon back in trouble after the traumatic event of being hit by a car whilst crossing the road without looking. As it happened, the driver was a Doctor on his way to patients and I came to consciousness in his car. I had managed to fade cars out of my thoughts when crossing the streets, unfortunately, they are quite solid. After a check-up, the “lucky boy” was sent home to lick his wounds.

Life then seemed so relaxed and open. People used to knock on doors but they weren’t locked. There was a kind of natural reservedness about people that made sure that they didn’t impose on your privacy but they looked out for you. The remarks made about children weren’t taken to heart, but everybody knew that a child had to have a certain respect for adults, and do as they were told. Of course there were those teenagers who didn’t feel understood by their parents, but that was a result of the normal transition into adulthood. People knew about these problems having been through them themselves. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked and people knew that life could be a lot worse, especially if they had experienced the war years that only ended ten to fifteen years before.

When we look at our lives today, with all of the complications of just making a living, we don’t have more problems, just different ones in comparison to people back then. The modern complexity of society can make us more confused and worried because of the more information we have. We are told about every catastrophe in the world that could draw an audience, and the selection of the newsworthy reflects the attitude of the people in media, not the news kept in proportion to the news in general. Of course, the BBC in the 1950’s and 1960’s also selected newsworthy articles, but there was less of it. That made us more provincial in our outlook, but people were also more present. They took the time of day from the church bell, read the newspaper from beginning to end, with an occasional re-reading on the WC.

I haven’t found any articles on the accident with the amphibious tanks that my father was involved with. He lost his crew on that day and only survived by being a strong swimmer. Essentially it was a faulty design. The tank floated in the water like an iceberg with the top only a foot or so above water. It must have been a wave that caught them unawares and the tank sank. My father, never a religious man, was at odds with every pastor that came offering support, as well as with pastors throughout the years. He had an issue against God, if there was one, he said. It was also an issue that I took too little into account when I became a Christian years later. At his funeral I was asked to offer prayers and I asked for forgiveness, “because he was just one of us” who also sought reconciliation. “He was one of the best we had to offer”, I said, and consequently, if we had any hope, then he should have too.

I think that accident had more to do with who my father was than I took into account for in years we were apart. I was upset because he refused to be the father I wanted him to be, but he could only be the one he was, and he always gave the best he had. It’s strange that we come to realise these things when it is too late, when we can’t correct anything. In later years I sometimes saw my father in my own reflection, shining through so to speak, as though he was making me aware of how much I had benefited from being his son. 

1. Beginnings

13th July 1955, Swindon, England

The winds howled and the rain hit the windows with a never-ending torrent. Severe thunderstorms rumbled across the sky of southern England and seemed to build up to a resounding crash as a bolt of lightning struck the chimney top at Kingshill maternity hospital. Down below a child’s cry was heard, a little boy was born.

What a dramatic entry into the world you might say, but like most dramas, there is only a certain amount of truth to the account. First of all, I wasn’t that “little”. To tell the truth, giving birth to me was probably a harrowing experience for the young nineteen-year-old Audrey June, my mother, but it left no impression on the world.

When I was born, my proud father, Basil James (called Jim), gave me the name Robert Stephen, which was quite common at the time of my birth, and he was probably asking himself what the best solution was to the problem of feeding us. My father was that kind of pragmatist and born in 1932, he was a lorry-driver when my birth certificate was issued. He then went on to join the RASC, which was quite common for people looking for a rise in status. I remember him as a serious type of person who had to push himself to be easy going. He seemed very pragmatic in many issues and it seemed even being sociable was a problem to be solved. His upbringing was steered at being reliable, not like his father, who had disappeared when abroad as a soldier and turned up when everybody thought he was dead. My paternal Grandmother had learnt a handwork to see the family through and had been quite an active person, although when I met her, she already had several health issues. There was a large picture of her in their house showing her as a beautiful young lady. All of the children had her looks, my father and his brother Geoffrey were good lookers, my aunt Muriel was a spitting image of her mother and only Eve, the oldest of the children, had a bit of her father in her appearance. But Eve, in particular, was very critical of “Gramp”, she told me that it annoyed her that he was liked a lot by people who didn’t know him. She had experienced the worries of her mother, and they both had to see to it that the younger children got through the difficult times. Eve was always proud of my Dad, although I doubt that she had a bad word to say about anyone – except Gramp. When I was living with her, she was always talking about how my father had done his part to help the family.

My father was also a source of science fiction paperbacks that I read later on in life, but also of “men’s magazines”, though they hinted mostly rather than the kind available today. He sometimes left them lying under the bed, which his inquisitive son soon discovered. He had taken up swimming early on and had a broad back and strong arms, but he was mostly gentle with his children. When he pretended to use the belt to discipline us, he used to cry afterwards. I’m sure he thought this was the only way to make us boys become sensible adults, but I vowed not to use the same measures on my children. I don’t think I gave my father enough credit for what he did for me. He warned me of many things that came to be because I ignored or forgot them. He tried to interest me in his interests, like engines and mechanics but soon noticed that I was interested in other things.

My mother, Audrey June, (born 1936) was a bright-eyed girl with a broad laugh. She was the more sociable of the two and came from a large family that seemed full of contradictions to me as a child. Grandmother, Clara Maud M came from a Methodist lay preachers family of eleven and married Alfred George William P, originally came from Wales, who in the war had worked on the railways as a carriage painter. After they married, they had my mother, three sons, Walter, the twins John and Brian and a daughter, Brenda. Later on, Grandad was a manager of a working man’s club, but Gran did most of the work, which may have influenced the way I saw her.

Her sister, my Great Aunt Sis was a very mild mannered lady and an ardent Churchgoer. She always seemed to have the gentleness that I was missing with Grandmother, but it would be unfair to forget the fact that her husband spent a lot of time behind his newspaper and that she had worked during the war looking after “mums with new babies” as my mother put it, despite Grandmother having such a large family herself. My mother also found herself allotted to this work, which probably explained why, occasionally, I would find myself sleeping with my brothers because a young woman was staying overnight. My mother was also an auxiliary nurse for a while, which echoed in my life later on.

I had the feeling that my maternal uncles and aunts acted in a strange way towards me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, I thought that perhaps it was me that was different. At some time, Brenda’s husband, Pete, manhandled us boys in a way that we weren’t used to and I remember giving him a punch on the chin. It didn’t hurt him, he was far larger and stronger than I but it appeared to have an effect, if only to make him a bit cautious.

Of my cousins, with whom I only had a brief relationship with any of them, the most time I remember spending in Swindon was with my cousin Linda, followed by Karen. We liked each other and I remember how both my mother and hers constantly warned us that we weren’t “kissing cousins”. Linda was full of energy, had a cute smile and insisted on wearing the tiniest of minis. Muriel, her mother, constantly told her, “I can see your knickers, girl!” To me, Linda was one of those people with whom I got on well with, and later in life, I would constantly find that I could manage women better than men. Karen was also a soul with whom I resonated and I was deeply saddened when I heard that she had died. They were two members of the family with whom I had shared secrets from the adults. Diane, their sister, was a sprightly young girl who always wanted to be in on the secrets, and complained that we were mean because we wouldn’t let her in.

But many of the people I have mentioned came into my life later, or at least that is my memory. To begin with, my mother and father were my family, then later came Colin. According to my mother, I was “Thursday’s child” who had “far to go” according to the children’s poem „Monday’s Child“. It is one of many fortune-telling songs, popular at the time, that supposes that a child’s character or future is based on the day of birth and additionally helps young children remember the seven days of the week.  Although, in fact, according to the almanacs, I was “Wednesday’s child, full of woe”! Probably my mother, always concerned for the well-being of others, didn’t want me to be full of woe. I was, however, a child that was very much alone with himself, no matter how many people were around.