Proper Little Soldiers

After an exceedingly good childhood up to the age of about nine where my brother (Stuart) and I lived at our Grandparents house in Wandsworth and always shared a room, I remember quite vividly a bedroom that I shared in another part of London with my brother, as this was really the last bedroom that we ever shared together. Our childhood had been lived somewhat decadently as our Mother and Grandmother both worked in a theatre, so shows were seen regularly and our Grandfather, a postman, used to insist on buying Stuart and me a toy each, every weekend, there being three wages coming into that house each week, from grandparents and our Mother. This situation had arisen because the man that my mother had been married to at an early age turned out not to be so nice after all and she moved back to her parents house in London, kids and all (me and Stuart were too young to remember this). So when our mother remarried several years later, it was a bit of a culture shock to say the least, although we did enjoy being able to change our surname from Foot to Peters, but children can be very easily pleased sometimes! We briefly shared a room in Basingstoke when the family moved from London, but this was very short lived as Ray our bullying stepfather decided that he could not stand the bickering and fighting between two siblings anymore and forced us to have separate bedrooms, even though my brother still had to share his with our younger sister, the room being split by a couple of wardrobes and a large curtain down the middle.
The bedroom in Clapham South though was pretty cool as far as ten and nine year olds go in nineteen seventies London, as this was our space; this was somewhere we could go and just be children as well as ourselves. The room was longer than it was wide (about fifteen feet by six) with our beds alongside each other, a gap between them, at the opposite end to the door end. Funnily enough I make these guesses as an adult now and it seems a small room, but things always seem so much bigger as a child don’t they? There was a couple of smallish bookshelves at the foot of each bed as we were both into books, (a trait from our mother, our stepfather could not read for toffee except for a couple of violent Sven Hassel novels) which contained a pretty varied selection of children’s books, the titles of which escape me right now, although there would often be a Steven King or James Herbert novel there borrowed from our mother as we were always progressing with our reading. There were several books on birds from the R.S.P.B. and a pile of Victor comics on my brother’s side; a pile of Cheeky comics next to two or three encyclopaedias about animals on my side. I always knew from an early age that I seemed to love animals more than humans! There was also an assortment of story books too like Grimm’s fairy tales and similar titles, which we would have shared as every penny needed to be counted, our stepfather being frequently out of work, this being the first time in our young lives that we had ever heard of social security. This was certainly a far cry from our younger and more decadent childhood days.
Our stepfather did come home with a brand new radio one day though. He did try being a father figure, but it seemed to happen in fits and starts. This radio lived on a smallish second hand table (probably jumble sale fodder but it did not matter what it looked like as it always had plenty of our kid’s essentials on it!) that sat between the head of our beds housing all the important, current, up to date stuff that all kids seem to have, like Football ’78 stickers to fill up the Football ’78 album showing all our much admired footballing stars in full colour! The radio helped for listening to some of these teams and stars in games we could not afford to get to, plus we were beginning to be interested in music. I can remember listening to a lot of Capital Radio and we were astounded when we could no longer receive it later on in Basingstoke, we thought the whole country listened to what London did!
There were two piles of what were known as “swaps” too and for some reason my brother’s pile was always bigger (I did have more in my money box though, shame I don’t in adulthood!). I had several assorted jokes next to these, forever ready to play on the next victim! You may well know the old faithfuls, the plastic dog poo (called something else in my brother’s and pal’s company and in the playground!), the good old faithful itching powder, which I stopped doing when somebody managed to get me with some funnily enough! One of my all time favourites was sugar lumps with a plastic fly in the middle of them! A memory comes to mind of one of the few times that I felt brave enough to play a gag on my stepfather. It was when we lived in Basingstoke and I even offered to get up and make the tea and coffee for everybody so as to make myself look helpful and not raise suspicions of prankish behaviour! The look on his face when he did pick up his coffee for a mouthful was absolutely priceless, you could see written on his face ‘Cheeky bloody fly.’ Needless to say the way the rest of us laughed upon realisation of the prank pulled and him discovering that it was actually a plastic fly floating on the surface of his coffee, probably helped considerably in his not going off his rocker and instead seeing the funny side! This seemed to be an activity I engaged in to try and find my own identity as often at home all of us were too scared to make any ructions for fear of getting on the wrong side of Ray.
I remember buying some stink bombs once, a couple of years after this when I was at secondary school in Basingstoke, as I considered my experience with pranks and jokes fairly good by now (remember sneezing powder?) and how a class had to be evacuated because of the stench! So diligent I was at placing the stink bomb under the chair leg at the teacher’s desk and I still cannot figure why only my buddy saw me and not anyone else! Sometimes the best way to hide is to be bold and right in front of people I guess. I can still hear the crack of the phial as the teacher sat down to this day (and so did my mate!), as it sounded so loud in the hush before the teacher began the lesson and yet no one else seemed to be able to hear it. Personally, it sounded like a cannon going off to me. I never actually owned up to this crime though and am eternally grateful to my mate at the time who knew it was me, but also did not grass me up!
Back in our London flat bedroom though, we had a bit of a bonus as far as kid’s areas go. Our stepfather on one of his good days had decided to make use of an old saucepan rack that needed recycling (we could not afford to throw much away). He adorned it with a spare kettle and other coffee and tea making ingredients, which were sitting in the cupboards, his reasoning being that when we brought friends back, we would be able to make them a drink in our room, rather than bothering him and mum, leaving the rest of the flat to them. Funny really, as my brother and I never actually took that many friends back home, as we did not want them to see what he could be like; we never knew for sure what kind of mood he would be in until we got there. We were never entirely sure if our stepfather ever actually noticed this though, perhaps this was something he dreamed up in order to not acknowledge that we did not bring people back, his way of denying that his bullying ways had any detrimental effect on the family’s habits, let alone our confidence. There was one set of twins that we befriended in London that we did take back though, we even made use of these facilities. They were definitely chuffed to be offered a cuppa in our own space but never actually came back to the flat again despite the fact that we were thick as thieves whilst at school and at their house. This would definitely be a habit that Stuart and I kept up as we did not take many friends back to any of the houses we lived in whilst mum was still married to Ray and as far as I recall this was the only time that we ever used those facilities.
In a picture that I remember quite vividly, I am fourteen years old, in my cadet uniform and I am virtually positive that it was taken just as my brother, Stuart and I had just arrived back home from an Easter camp and we were on our own, as we just would not have taken any cadet comrades back home, as far as I recollect we never did. It must have been one of the better ones, as one of the camps I came back from I had been demoted from lance corporal to cadet! Very stupidly myself and another lance corporal decided that we would give somebody the bumps for his birthday and when my fellow N.C.O. Collins dropped one of his legs he somehow managed to trip and stand on the poor lad’s knee, seriously injuring the ligaments. It did not help that he wore ammo boots (one’s with big metal studs on the bottom) and of course just being in the same company as him, this silly incident was enough to see Collins and myself watch the stripes come off our brassards very quickly, as this was definitely not the sort of example that we should be setting!
In this picture my stepfather, Ray, has positioned me (he did the same kind of thing for Stuart) in a pose, facing slightly off centre, in order to show clearly my right arm. Worn over the top of the jumper or shirt, attached just below the shoulder pad is where the Brassard is displayed, which is where you find displayed my rank, detachment insignia, star level obtained and various other merit badges (although sometimes things would not have been sent in the post leaving you waiting for some!). The star levels show training and exams taken to achieve certain levels in numerous subjects from field craft to shooting for example. As I had a rank of lance corporal, depicted by one stripe; that meant that I had to teach lessons to other cadets up to the star level that I had achieved. Clearly seen are the berets on our heads with the regimental badge of the Royal Hampshire’s.
Ray had found photography to be a hobby that he was actually particularly good at and having a family at his disposal obviously meant that the we would often be treated as unpaid models, and I recall this picture (and Stuart’s) being set up for taking after his comment of, “Look at them two! Just like a couple of proper little soldiers,” as we approached the back gate arriving home from camp. I guess that the only thing missing really would have been the rifles, as we were dressed in full webbing gear as well as full uniform, and shooting was definitely carried out under extremely strict and safe conditions because you obviously cannot have school children running around with live firing weapons in their possession. When we did go to the ranges though, I am able to boast of being quite a marksman as at fourteen I had just shot five rounds from a Lee Enfield rifle over a distance of two hundred yards putting all five rounds into a half inch diameter; to anyone not understanding shooting terminology, that is approximately the size of a one pence piece! Funnily enough this was one of the badges that I was waiting for to be sent from head office, so it is not on my brassard.
Ray on his good days always had plenty of encouragement towards Stuart and me as far as cadets were involved; often saying to us that after our school days a career in any of the services would be a very shrewd and wise move. He mentioned to us that he had been in the RAF himself, but the few tales that he did recount to us always seemed to be about getting very drunk and various fights that he had had, so Stu and I in our teenage way figured that his eighteen months of RAF service was quite probably ended with him being thrown out as there is only so much bad behaviour that most organizations will take. It seemed to be the logical conclusion with what we knew about him and his temper! We did not want to ask him outright to his face in case we upset him.
Probably seeing us being successful doing something that he had failed at would no doubt have been hugely inspirational for him to want to take these pictures (and a good many others of the whole family after accomplishments) as often as possible. We the family were not always very willing models though, as often his attitude was that he has a really good idea for a photo whether we wanted one to be taken or not.
A couple of other pictures spring to mind here, one of our sister at two and a half where try as hard as Ray did, there was just no way that our younger sibling was going to smile. Yet she was normally the easiest model for Ray, as our sister only had to see the camera usually and she was already getting in a pose. There is obviously quite a lot of Ray’s personality in our sister though; Ray being her biological Dad. Thankfully though, she never grew up to be a bully; although woe betide anyone that upsets her!!
The other picture was when Ray suddenly decided that it would be a great idea to get a shot of Stu and me in our karate suits, in poses of his choosing. We actually wanted to go out and play footie at the time and so the expression on our faces says it all! The conversation we had when we did go out was that Ray just did not understand that we were not studying karate; it was a style called Ki Aikido, a form of self defence nowhere near as physical and even looked a little bit like dancing. Neither of us liked violence (we saw enough of that at home) so this was a good style for us; you used the opponent’s strength against them so it was purely self defence, no attacking involved.
In the posed picture though, we are very willing participants as I am sure that any service men (or other cadets) would probably agree, because upon returning from camp/postings there is a immensely proud feeling that kind of elevates you, making you actually want others to know of what has been achieved and how you look, the uniform becomes very important. I think that it is something to do with working as a group, discipline, camaraderie and just being exceptionally smart that does it and we were extremely happy during this particular photo session, allowing Ray to have his head in order to obtain the perfect picture, after all on his good days he could be something of a perfectionist himself, you just did not want to be anywhere near him if things were not going to plan.
Funnily enough, the first twenty years or so of my adult life after leaving school saw me growing my hair long (middle of my back), wearing jeans with more holes than ever coupled with big black Doctor Marten boots (still polished, just not bulled up!) and loads of heavy metal regalia from studded belts to studs all over my denim and leather jackets. T – shirts would often depict a favourite band of the current time and as the young hate to admit to being cold these would be on prominent display, jackets could not be done up! Music does seem to be a massive image deal when we are in our younger years.
Even though this picture was such a thought provoking photo for the whole family and ingrained in all of our memories it had actually been lost to the annals of time. Whilst we were still in Basingstoke it lived (with Stu’s picture) on top of the front room units being rather pride of place, showing not only accomplishments of Stu and I but a rather good family memento taken by Ray as well. Years later in Norfolk, when Ray had finally left, our sister then aged about ten had somewhat of a liberation exercise whereupon a lot of photos containing Ray were burnt, or his picture cut away. I do not think that this picture went in this way but somehow it was probably lost or misplaced during this episode. To prove that some things are meant to be though this picture turned up in one of my sister’s numerous memory boxes whilst I was writing this account! Thanks to the marvellous technology available to us in the modern day and age she was able to email me a copy and I have my own copy to keep alive the memory of that particular return from camp and the fact that Ray did have his good points. It is instances like these that help to blot out the bad stuff that went on and this particular photograph helps me to remember that there was quite a lot of good memories too as well as the massive change from childhood to teenage years and the tale of the “Flying Basset hound”. But that one definitely is for another day!

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