Monthly Archives: January 2013

Nice Policeman

RAF Dodge Truck 1940

A 3-ton Dodge truck, circa 1945.

I once broke five RAF laws in five minutes. And got away with it. I was in Calcutta, waiting for repatriation orders to materialise and stationed temporarily on an RAF Maintenance Unit. I had nothing to do while I waited so, having noticed a dump truck doing nothing useful I decided it was time to teach myself to drive. I got the keys, jumped on and drove it round and round the yard.

I mastered the niceties of clutch movement, brakes and so on and, before long, someone noticed me doing it and, supposing that I was a registered driver, asked me to take some heavy gear over to a nearby RAF station airfield. They said one of the 3-ton Dodge trucks would do and gave me the key.

So, I was now a registered driver. Eventually the call came to take a crowd of men on a ‘liberty run’ into the city for an evening, and then pick them up later and bring them back.

I filled up, and the men got on board. There seemed to be a lot of them, but who was I to argue? I took off and, with the ten miles of dead straight Grand Trunk Road ahead and a lot of singing behind, I joined in and went faster. The windows were down and the effects were cooling.

Then in my mirror I saw an RAF Police jeep gaining on me and gonging.

I stopped. One of the red-capped men wandered round to the back of the truck and the other came up to my window. The conversation, with its obligatory police opening for these occasions, is inscribed on my memory.

‘O.K. Where’s the fire, Airman?’

‘Fire?’

‘You were travelling at sixty miles per hour.’ He made a note in his book of Charge Sheets. ‘You’re on a charge. Now, show me your twelve-fifty, Airman.’

My 1250 Identity Card was in the top pocket of my shirt, and my shirt was hanging over the back of a chair, and the chair was by then three miles behind me. In response, I possibly spread my hands.

‘You realise it is an offence to fail to carry your twelve-fifty at all times, Airman?’ He made a note. ‘You’re on another charge. Where is your twelve-fifty, Airman?’

I told him about the chair, and he noted it.

‘And where is your Unit, Airman?’

This I now knew to perfection and, proudly, told him. ‘325 Maintenance Unit, Bally.’

He held out his hand. ‘Your Journey Form, Airman.’

A Journey Form is the slip of paper given to a driver at the beginning of a trip, naming the home unit, destination, purpose of journey, the time and date of issue and the tachometer reading. It is signed by the NCO in charge of the unit. I remembered having it given to me when I collected the keys for the truck, but from then on my memory of it was the customary blank. I felt in my shorts pockets and looked all round the cab. No Journey Form. The fact was recorded.

‘OK. You’re on another charge, Airman.’ Then he looked pointedly at my bare chest. ‘It is also an offence to be improperly dressed on duty, Airman.’

To be properly dressed meant Air Ministry Issue clothes. When in public it was always wise to wear Air Ministry Issue clothes, or at least clothes that resembled them closely. But Air Ministry clothing was sturdy but uncomfortable. Shorts put one in mind of canvas. Socks were knee-length, woollen, dyed khaki and felt like blankets. Shoes were sensible black leather. Hats were hard sun helmets with a vent at the top, a bit like a recumbent breast with an inflated nipple. (In Burma we were given a refinement of this: a bush hat. Studying snapshots of the time I cannot decide which looked the more ridiculous.) After about six weeks in India your elders and betters advised you in matters of clothing and directed you to the dhurzi in the bazaar, who would run you up natty little numbers in cool cotton. On this morning I wore no hat, no shirt and no socks. Just a pair of shorts made by Ahmed’s Splendid Bespoke Tailors of Calcutta. I could understand the sergeant’s concern.

‘You’re on another charge, Airman.’

As he noted all this he was joined by his colleague who muttered a few words in his ear. There came a light in his eye. He must have felt he was approaching some kind of record.

‘Airman, my Corporal tells me you’re carrying fifty men in this vehicle. That is twenty men over the Air Ministry Regulations maximum quoted for this particular vehicle.’ (Don’t quote me on these statistics. The exact numbers escape me but these give you the general picture.) ‘So, another charge, Airman.’ He made a note on the Charge Sheet, which by now had reached Page Two, and took a final look round the cab. The two then moved away to talk privately.

He came back, put one foot up on the step and leaned in at the open window with the air of one who has a difficult subject to discuss and wishes for there to be no misunderstandings or hard feelings.

‘Now,’ he said, and actually smiling, ‘the thing is this. When I stopped you I was running my Corporal into the city. And,’ he looked at his watch, ‘I’ve got to get back to the Unit now, so -’

He paused, and scratched his chin in the manner of one who is waiting for some recognition of his likely intentions. In its absence he made up his mind, and winked.

‘Give him a lift, would you?’

My stare of pained disbelief must have impressed him. He looked at his corporal, his book of charge sheets and back at me. He shrugged, opened the book, tore out the two pages of charges he had just filled in and, with the carbon copies, tore them up, rolled them into a ball and threw them into the trees.

‘Now will you take him?’ he said.

I took him, and all fifty-two of us sang all the way to Chowringhee.

Dr Alan Ridout and cantata ‘Samuel!’

 L MacDonald

 Lake MacDonald, Quebec

 

It was 1994. I was in a small apartment on a mountainside in the Laurentians. I was taking a bath. I knew I had plenty of time to soak before doing my talk to the assembled masses. The water was hot, wonderfully soothing after a gruelling transatlantic flight, London to Montreal.

I stirred the glorious water around me and shut my eyes. The local time was early evening but brain and body were way ahead of that, ready for bed and sweet dreams. The boy who had escorted me up the track said he would come later on and give me a knock when the assembled boys’ choir was ready for me.

I was at ‘Cammac’. Or, as it appears in the literature, CAMMAC. It’s been there, on the edge of Lake MacDonald, for sixty years.

CAMMAC stands for Canadian Amateur Musicians Musiciens Amateurs Canadiens. It welcomes groups, adults or children, interested in learning from highly experienced, bilingual instructors how to get the most out of their musical skills. The guests who had arrived for this week were choristers and leaders from the MBCC – the Montreal Boys’ Choir Course. This is sponsored by the Anglican Diocese of Montreal and affiliated with the US Branch of the Royal School of Church Music.

I had been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write the libretto for a cantata, which the choir would perform in the enormous cathedral-like church of St George, Montreal. After consultation with choir and composer I chose the story of Samuel. The story: the boy Samuel and the strange voice he heard in the night. And now the time had come to listen to a choir of boys and men rehearsing it. In a week’s time, we would be listening to its first performance in the huge St George’s.

Dr Alan Ridout, was the composer. Throughout this week, Alan and I would be sitting somewhere at the back of the rehearsal room listening intently, he ready to offer musical advice should the conductor ask for it, and I to make any small changes to the words should they find bits that needed editing in order to make them sound better when sung.

Now, as I lay in my bath, eyes closed and sleep taking over, the choir and staff would be finishing their evening meal and starting to prepare for the preliminaries, which included an introductory speech from me. But, sleep having won, I was unaware of everything.

I was woken by a repeated knocking at the door. I sat up.

‘Hello? Yes?’

‘We’re ready for you now, Mr Wigmore.’

‘What? Already? But -’

‘Just as soon as you can. Thanks. See you down there.’

I leaped out of the bath, hit my knee on something very hard and fell over. I only half-dried myself and you may know yourself how very difficult dressing is when you’re damp.

I looked for my notes; they ought to have been in my case, but weren’t. I found them in my flight bag. I ran out of the house and down through pine trees, tripping over a root. (I should say here that I am speaking of 1994. The setting is now still in the same place but completely re-styled.)

I entered the room just as the choirmaster was saying, ‘He ought to be here by now’ and, as I panted my way to the front, everyone began clapping.

After some fun, telling them what had just happened, I told them the story of Samuel. The 12-year-old boy who was in the protection of Eli the priest, and who one night was woken by the sound of someone calling him. He scrambled to his feet and ran to Eli, for he thought it was Eli who had called. Eli said he had not called and told him to go back to his bed. Again he was woken by the voice. Again he ran to Eli. ‘No, I did nor call you, Samuel. Now go back to your bed and sleep.’ But after some minutes had passed the voice came again. ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ He ran to Eli and said, ‘Master, you did call me!’ Eli then knew that something very important was happening. It was God who called the boy. He told him gently to go back to his bed and, when the call came again, to reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears you.’ And Samuel obeyed. The message God had for him was the beginning of a life he had never expected.

The way those boys listened was rewarding. Serious faces were practically motionless all the way through the story. They were the perfect audience. And, after all, they were a hard-working one. I had already attended other RSCM events and knew the high standards insisted upon.

2Inspiration
1Concentration
3

Culmination

(These three b/w pictures from the 1999 Course by courtesy of MCCB)

 

The week seemed to fly past. In the well-timed breaks for relaxation the boys kicked footballs, flew kites, messed about and enjoyed themselves. On the final morning Alan and I sat side by side as usual, listening. Every now and then he would nudge me and whisper ‘Perfect!’ or ‘Ah, that was so good’ and I could see he was beginning to relax. It was going to be good.

And then, to crown what had been a wonderful week, I had an unforgettable surprise. As they sang I was aware of a door opening at the top end of the long room. The Secretary emerged. I watched as she moved quietly out and stood, trying to catch the conductor’s eye without actually interfering.

Eventually he spotted her and stopped the choir. She went up to him and said something quietly. He turned to face the room.

‘Is Paul here?’ he called, then, ‘Ah, Paul! You’re wanted on the phone.’

I could feel my throat going dry as I walked to the secretary’s office. Was it bad news? Some accident to my wife, Barbara? Our kids? The Secretary closed the door behind me. I picked up the phone. It was Barbara calling from England.

’Congratulations!’ she said, ‘you’re a Grandfather!’ The rest of the conversation was blurred by my astonishment – not that I didn’t know the great day was getting close.

I came out of the office trying to get my head round the fact that I had a granddaughter and found Alan standing by the door, looking anxious.

‘Everything all right, Paul?’ he said. And I told him, hardly hearing my own voice. He gave me a hug then turned and called to the conductor and the whole room.

‘I say! Paul’s a grandfather!’

The applause from the singers finished me off. The lump in the throat came and, so far as I can remember, I simply raised a hand in appreciation and stumbled back to my seat, with Alan in tow.

It was a week of sheer heaven; I was immersed in fine music and excellent company and I enjoyed myself utterly, thanks to the commission from the RSCM.

The birth of our first granddaughter, Eleanor, crowned it all. I dedicated the cantata to her.

 

 

Beach Landing

 

Beach Landing

During the fifteen or so years I was art director for the Kodak Calendar I discovered that ‘recce trips’, the much-envied excursions with the selected photographer to the ideal locations for the calendar theme, provided more terrors than pleasures. Colleagues, of course, could not agree. They considered them a very convenient excuse for having the whale of a spree.

My first move would be to make a date with the relevant Tourist office in London.  The Icelandic office was wonderful. They listened carefully to Jack Oakley, the photographer chosen for the job, and caught on to the whole idea instantly. Dozens of photographs of locations were spread out for me. I told them we wanted black beaches and fields of wild flowers, with a smallish hotel as close as possible to that sort of setting. They said there were hundreds of places like that.

The date was fixed, the day arrived and we found ourselves drinking a morning coffee in the lounge of a Reykjavik hotel. I had decided that a good look round from the air would be a good idea, and on arrival we had booked our pilot. Now he drank coffee with us. An hour later we climbed aboard a Piper. All was right in this best of possible worlds.

We told the pilot we wanted to land near a beach somewhere. Just to get the feel of the place. In our four-seater Piper it was quiet and smooth. A few minutes after take-off the pilot pointed down to a long, thin, black beach in the shadow of a vertical cliff. He said he would land there. It looked about the width of our front garden path. We thought he was winding us up. He was not. He went down. And of course the width of the beach increased considerably. But just as the wheels were about to hit the wet sand he had second thoughts, opened the throttle and we surged upwards and curved sickeningly away over the sea. He said, ‘Let’s do that again.’

Jack said it didn’t really matter. He shrugged and said he often landed there as an air ambulance and it was tricky but possible, and we said again no, no, really, it didn’t really matter. We tried to swallow and failed, saw we were going down again, sinking lower. We cringed in our seats and then hit a water-filled hole in the beach and bounced, to the accompaniment of what felt like an explosion. The plane, having leaped, slithered down again and rolled to a stop.

A happy group of children ran to us from nowhere and watched us unstick ourselves from our seats and climb down. My knees were in shock and I have to confess that it did nothing to soothe them to watch the pilot walking to the rear of the aircraft and examining the tailwheel rather too carefully for my liking.