autobiography of Leonard George Irving

A Once Fine Boaster of Barleydom
and true adventures of a
two gallon spring water jug carrier

an autobiography by
Leonard George Irving
1924 - 2016

Chapter One

When I was small I used to play a game to keep from crying. Crouching under the kitchen table with my hands over my ears to close out the sound I threw my head back and stared at the underside of the table. My vision bored, like a carpenter’s bit, through the wood and I emerged into a ring of drunken, red and contorted faces. The circle of faces bawled and gabbled over a table littered with glistening and foam-flecked glasses, squat-shouldered beer flagons, square whisky bottles and sometimes fluted and slender-necked wine bottles with strange labels and whose shapes made me think of the fine long necks on greyhounds and swans. Sometimes a bottle toppled over and rolled off the edge of the table to drop silently to the floor where my other self awaited the crash without curiosity. A strange state of soundlessness seemed to hold me suspended in a remote state beyond space and time.

I have wondered about that game. Did it really take place or was it all a childhood nightmare that must ever remain untranslatable? How old was I? Three? Seven? Did my age really matter? Other than that I apparently desired to trace the game down in terms of my age. Despite age or comprehension the dream was terrifying.… Sometimes, not always. The memory of the game could be comforting, but when I was frightened it filled me with terror. I associated the dream, or self-induced vision, with my father.

I thought my finding out might help unlock or decipher many mysteries and secrets embedded in the forgotten layers of my childhood life; I tried even, with no success, to abandon intellect and give myself over to that purer but much more difficult to translate field of intuition and divination but eventually I tired of playing unresolvable games and worried about it no longer, except that later in life in drunken disregard and sardonic amusement I suggested my movement through the table into the noisy nest of faces was my emergence from the cosy cave of the womb into the hectic and disorderly, rough and tumbling brawl we call life, and, as the ancient jocular remark suggests, a place I have indeed been trying to return to ever since.

I mention this incident because it is one of the earliest recollections I have of my life, and in relation to my later excessive drinking, I simply state that I became aware of the drink and of some of the peculiar effects of the drink before I was aware even of conscious thought.

From my earliest beginnings I knew I must escape from the tiny Scottish village of Dundrennan into some larger place. I burned with a desire to voyage abroad, wander great distances, discover strange harbours and delight. Pursue odd paths through lonely forests and travel for no other reason than movement itself. Jingle in my pockets, Mexican Eagles, doubloons, pieces of eight. Move toward destinations not bounderied by map or stars, far beyond known time and charted distance.

I am of the Scottish race. We are considered to be a dour and sardonic race of people. I not only possessed these two characteristics in full measure but I was born with an obsession; more than anything else in life I wanted to sail upon, become a part of, the sea. Harboured deep within me was this elemental drive toward the sea like some strange species of two-legged lemming. And ironically, I was born in a cottage above a cliff overlooking an immensity of sea, the Solway Firth. The sea was under my nose but the coast was so rocky that fishing boats avoided it and swimmers swam elsewhere. So there I was, almost surrounded by sea, yet in truth I was landlocked. No doubt even in childhood I took a somewhat jaundiced regard of this fate-stacked and frustrating circumstance so early in my life and I am convinced this did much in forming me into the man I am today.

Once a year we children were rounded up, herded into an old charabanc and driven to a desolate cove, worn into the cliffs and called Sandy Hills. It was the big event of the summer. Sandy Hills is a cold and draughty place with barely enough sand to build a sandcastle and our buckets and spades remained in near virginal condition. Stern warnings were given us about the dangers of drowning, of wading out too far or clambering about on the rocks. We must not lose our footing on the treacherous seaweed or gather cockles and whelks. After a game of hide-and-seek the grown-ups counted us to make sure no one was lost or drowned, but soon the orders were forgotten and despite adults we ran and chased after balls, waded and splashed each other and yelled at the tops of our voices. Dreamed too, I am sure, as we acted out heroic suture roles we hoped one day to assume in real life. We gobbled down strange-tasting, sand-sprinkled sandwiches and swallowed lemonade; raced mightily in running games for small prises. The big event ended all too soon and we started out for home tired out and teeth beginning to chatter with the cool approach of evening.

I lived in a cottage near the village graveyard and my father and older brother Dick would take me walking with them on a Sunday evening. Two Yew trees at the entrance gate bent so low towards the land you had to walk around them and the old headstones were worn smooth by the wind and the flanks of cows.

Gazing out to sea from our lovely lonely rocky shore my mind clouded with wonder. The smoke from ships on the horizon and even beyond the horizon consumed my very being with a mysterious surge of excitement and wonder; beyond sight, taste, smell and even touch and that seemed to flow through the very pores of my skin and being.

My father served in the Royal Navy in World War One. I pestered him constantly to tell me stories about the sea and the strange men who sailed on ships; sailed forever perhaps and embarked upon voyages into unknown places, yet-to-be-discovered Gardens of Eden, teeming with gaudy plumaged birds, and fields aglow with waving banks of orange and yellow sunflowers. Once I was old enough I promised myself to run away to sea, and sail not simply around the world buy beyond earth and sea into uncharted places the other side of beyond where time, space and distance contained no earthly meaning.

At school I hungered after voices and language, words and poetry, and memorised the first stanzas of, I wandered Lonely as a Cloud, The Brook, and many other poems.

I loved my Auntie Jennie, by mother’s younger sister. She worked as a house servant in England and always brought sweets and other presents with her wen each year she spent her week’s holiday with us. One day she took me on the bus to Dumfries where we visited Robbie Burns grave. An old man at the mausoleum asked me if I knew any of Burns poetry.

“Recite Tae a Moos for the man!” Auntie Jennie proudly ordered.

I recited the first stanza correctly,

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie!
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty!
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin and’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle!

When I was finished the man gave me half a crown which was a large sum of money for a boy in those days.

I later discovered I spoke with a local dialect. Even in school our English is not the same English as is spoken in England. To us, a house is a hoos, a mouse is a moos, a church is a kirk, a cow is a coo, and coos are kye. Children are bairns and girls are lassies. Odd shaped words like topsy-turvy and blabbermouth have been somehow transmuted into tapsel-tearie and blether-skyte, or perhaps we gave these words to the language. We love with devotion the letter R, and revel in running it around the roof of our mouths pleasurably before relinquishing it up to the world at large in all its verbal resonance and reverberations.

So there we all were, virile voiced, our cheeks red and hair tousled under bright bonnets, daydreaming over Robert the Bruce, Willie Wallace and the old Scottish clans and warriors. Charging through the heather to the wild chanter and skirl of the pipes. Kilted, sporraned, breast-plated, bucklered and targed, tartan banners flapping gaily in the wind, with claymore upraised we were ready to defend whatever was being threatened with our very lives.

I visualised myself wearing bell-bottomed trousers and a navy-blue and white striped jersey; playing a concertina, dancing a hornpipe and with a squalling parrot roosting on my shoulder and thick gold ring in one ear I would swagger about and wear an evil expression.

With near dread I recall the stern, sober Sundays when all laughter died. We were led to church services in the morning, afternoon and evening. The remainder of the day was spent sitting long-faced about the house in uncomfortable Sunday clothes. A strange, Sunday hush pervaded the air. Did lovers and newly weds go to bed and make love? I later wondered. High spirits and youth collapsed through interminable and paralysing Sabbaths of utter boredom.

To this day my memory remains infested with the biblical figures of preachers. Long legged and raving, white bearded and prophet-like, their lives were tireless penance-serving ordeals and grim-faced preparations for the joys to come in the next life. Flashing-eyed fanatical ministers and bombasted we poor defenceless parishioners children in attempt to break through and form beachhead of hope in our sin-drenched resistance and we were given baleful, last-chance warnings of the ever encroaching fires of hell.

This dog collared breed of zealots were not all Presbetarian; we were graced, if not blessed, with Methodists, Baptists, Wesleyans, Seven Day Adventists, The Plymouth Brethren and various other unbelievably tedious and insensitive gospeleers. There were too, it was rumoured, some few papists sneaking about in our midst in vain effort to subvert us. I early suspected that when the roll was called up yonder a good many of us were not likely to be there.

Bible-ridden, joy-lorn yet psalm rich and hymn happy, the singing was the single wonderful release of the sweep of the song from the church appeared truly blessed. I recollect the Bible most vividly. The leather binding, the peculiar odour, the fine, white rustling paper and black print, the redness of the page edges, the embossed slim gold cross on the black cover and the comfort it seemed to bring some people on Sundays. Perhaps too, it enticed a not yet quite awakened realisation of the sheer magic of imagery and language, the self nourishing joy of reading and later perhaps writing.

The illustrations were exciting. The miracle of the loaves and fishes. Daniel in the lion’s den, and the coat of many colours. Who could have dreamed that some of these prodigal sons of our own would later develop such prodigious thirsts. Schoolbooks too were illustrated, and in colour, with coats of arms, fox hunts with chestnut mares hurdling fences, surrounded by snuffling hounds, sad-faced polar bears marooned daintily on tiny ice floes and herds of buffalo each with the vacant stare of a Presbyterian preacher.

A text always hung over our mantelpiece….

Christ is the Head of this house
The unseen Guest at every meal
The silent Listener to every conversation.

Did he really listen? I wondered, if so, we were more important than I yet realised. Not only did he miss many meals but his ears mush have burned, hard and often.

A far merrier memory was the happy recall of the drinkers weaving and swaying along on their wobbly homeward path on Saturday night after too much drink in The Thistle, The Bluebell, or The Douglas Arms. Hollering… hesitating… shouting… weeping… losing their balance… calling out for help… fighting… cursing mightily and singing old bawdy army songs. Little did I know then that twenty, twenty-five years ahead I would be cursed with the terrible passion for the drink.

And all this taking place in a grey, thistled, gloomy, dark, damp and peat coloured land bereft of bright tropical colours. All was infused with the tinge of heather and ling. Overhead, ragged grey clouds scurried bleakly across an even greyer sky. The light rain pattering, splattering in fast build-up to a steady battering downpour until the land was sodden as drenched clothing and when you walked in the country the ground would squelch and softly take the imprint of your shoe as does newly fallen snow. Local legend claims, if you can see the hills it is going to rain, if you can’t, it’s raining.

We possessed, or were possessed by, lean cats and lazy, barking dogs who would never be trained to fetch a flung stick. Stolid sheep were everywhere about, their heavy fleece stinging in the rain, and as the rain was interminable, they stank incessantly. Slow moving and gentle cows grazed about and lowed around milking time; surely not the same breed as the long-horned stampeding monsters of pampas and prairie? Tame bulls with rings in their noses and chained loosely to posts, snorted, grumbled and pawed vainly in efforts to kick noise from the wet ground. A banana was exotic, imported from Africa or other foreign place. A carnation exploding into blossom a near miracle. A tomato, some exotic import from not-quite-to-be-trusted England, that alien place south of the border.

My Father and Mother were close yet remote, tending to mute brooding. Restrained, guarded, often an initial hesitance to be friendly. Reticent, yet contradictory too. Capable of the most spontaneous of emotion, gesture and remark and frequently confounding themselves. Sparing of talk, yet sometimes in drink the men loosed a verbal stampede of language hardly able to restrain its own squandering.

Noise buffeted us about. I listened against telephone poles to the hum of strange messages. Bells tolled and clattered unmusically from old stone church towers reminding us of Sunday. Frail motor cars with drivers dressed like pilots drove through the village and panted and grappled up the low hill outside. Local daredevils crouched over he handlebars of roaring motorbikes blasted through the village like the hammers of hell, awakening sleepers and animals and sending shoals of pigeons into the air. Boys ran outside to stare up at aeroplanes.

For breakfast we invariably had porridge. Thick and tasteless, laced with salt rather than sugar we emptied our bowls obediently, swallowing it all because we were constantly reminded it was good for us. Occasional thick sticks of liquorice were ravished and devoured, the sticky blackness spreading from mouth to hands and engulfing shirtfront and pockets.

The sunniest of summer days were the colour of the earth; of the likens on the rocks and the ancient stone dikes; the colour of the seaweed, the peat, the few trees and the moor land, the colours that do not face. Or perhaps the colours that have faded until within them there is no more fading and the colour they have become will remain forever.

Thunder boomed through hills and cloud, lightening snickered down the sky. Large beech trees moved slowly in the wind. The sea and the wind never permitted a complete silence and I am sure this too affected me.

My Father poached salmon and trout to sell or to be eaten at home. They were grey and smooth and very tasty with salt. I early knew streams and small rivers better than my Father and could bring him a trout for breakfast any time he asked. Birds were trapped and shot, then plucked, cleaned, dropped into the pot to be cooked and eaten. No Poaching signs inspired my Father and some few other men at darkness to set forth on furtive journeys into the wood or along the river bank. Muffled and silent as the Last of the Mohicans, they stalked off with nets and ferrets, copper-wire gins and wooden pegs and returned with odd-shaped sacks. Sometimes, though not always, the following day the kitchen was redolent with the near aching odour of rich rabbit pie or hare.

After summer, in the mornings, my Mother wiped my face and sent me off to school and when school was over for the day we were free. We ran barefoot… climbed trees… skited flat stones across still water… fell down sometimes and skinned our kneecaps. Managed to get thorns in our hands that our Dads clumsily tried to remove with needles. We gathered wild blackberries and crab apples; searched out birds nests and exchanged locations with special friends, we did not take the eggs. By now we handled ferrets and knew how to find a netted rabbit on a dark night and kill him soundlessly; also how to skin and dress him. We were not allowed into the kitchen to acquire skills in cooking. That place was not for men and boys.

Was I rapturous? Was I happy? I do not know and I’m sure I did not care. And what about the dreams? Wishful thinkings? Forlorn wonderings… fantasies… desires and longings in those memory-drugged, gone-away days when we played the eternal childhood game of ‘What will I be when I grow up?’ All changed now. All beyond recovery.

And the frightening dreads, premonitions and forebodings? Nightmares my mind has wiped away. The imagined slither of adders in long grass. Passing a graveyard at night. The sounds in old houses of the wind. The soft drones of older people’s voices pondering strange happenings before dying fires.

And there I was both laughing and crying from my heart’s core. Staring out from clear blue eyes in all my essential innocence. Curious! Shy! Daring, too! Time enough yet before I bellowed out to pour the wine that would make us feel like gods.

Once we are grown it is never again possible to return to that strange land where we were born and lived in for a little while. In memory it was another boy, laughing and crying, voicing his pains and hiding his joy. It was the throb of a different pulse beating through a lost boy and all taking place throughout that once innocent pasture of childhood that seems to fade, to reappear, only to face again forever like some faintly remembered dream.

Chapter Two

My father was a gardener. He had trouble finding a steady job. Times were hard, employers harsh, opportunities scarce and we moved from place to place. Too young to know how difficult life was then, it is only in retrospect that I came to realise the terrible struggles suffered by my parents.

We seemed constantly on the move; it was called flitting and a midnight flit was a silent moving out to avoid paying the rent. We flitted from the Kirk Row, where I was born to other cottages in and around Dundrennan Village where the nearby sea continued to entrance my days and haunt and flaunt my wild and dream-filled nights.

Once, we moved to Castle Douglas, a real town and inland from the sea, where I lived until I was thirteen. Then came the biggest move of our lives. We moved across the border and down the length of England into Somerset, where, through correspondence, my father had gotten a job as a gardener on a small estate.

There was my father, my mother, my older brother Dick and myself. Actually there were five of us. We had somehow come into ownership of a black cat named John, and a gaunt, claw-scarred and ragged tomcat who, on heated village nights, scoured across slates and tiles, howling with the ferocity of a wolf.

The countryside around Banwell Village in Somerset in south-west England is warm and gently green, and in no way resembles the stony barren ground around Dundrennan. We lived in the end house of a row of three cottages on the small estate of Banwell Castle. Next door lived one of the oldest men I had ever seen, Ernie Starks, with his son Jim. Ernie, as he insisted even we children address him, had worked all his life on the estate farm as a farm labourer and, was finally forced to retire being crippled with rheumatism. He played the concertina and kept always a small keg of cider in his kitchen. Not a good musician and further handicapped by his rheumatism, he nevertheless managed to squeeze out a tune and accompanied himself with the most wonderful and unselfconscious merriment. He was one of those unusual men who seemingly become merrier as they age and live their lives as if all events, even serious ones, are essentially very funny. When he played he became so carried away with the combination of many cups of cider and his own music, song and pleasure that he somehow hauled himself to his feet and attempted to dance. Clapping his hands, one foot stationary on the floor, he stamped and pounded with his other foot until dust swirled up from the floor and started us sneezing. Ernie, and my father, who owned a melodeon and was a lively player, were immediate friends.

In winter, Ernie heated the cider and added gobs of ginger, cayenne pepper, cloves and other spices and created a drink that he guaranteed to cure even the most desperate of fevers. Sitting by the fireplace, drinking cups of hot cider and listening to the music, we soon pulled our jackets and jerseys off as the sweat rolled down our cheeks. Ernie’s favorite song was,

When I was young I had no sense,
I bought a fiddle for eighteen pence,
The only tune that I could play,
Was over the hills and far away.
So early in the morning
So early in the morning
So early in the morning
Before the break of day.

How merry and lustily we joined in the chorus.

I was thirteen years old. Dick, my elder by two years, left school in Scotland at fourteen and was now working in the garden helping my father. I again must undergo the joylessness of entering another school alone. It must have taken place fairly easily, as I retain no bad memories except for the games part. For the first time in my life I became exposed to team sports and was expected to play soccer, the national sport. The Scottish village schools were too small to field a team and in Castle Douglas no one played unless their parents were able to provide soccer boots and uniform, something not financially possible for working people. The Banwell schoolboys considered it an honour to play in the school team. I knew nothing about the game, not even being aware of the various positions on the field. During play I rarely received the ball, so when I did I refused to pass it to anyone. This caused both confusion and ill-feelings. When captains picked sides, I remained among the unselected players, and eventually we were counted into either team to make an even head count.

I loathed sports, and did badly. Nor did I ever manage to swim well, despite long seasons spent by the shore and no fear of the water. To swim across a normal-sized swimming pool I am forced to expand all the energy of a well-hooked and bucking tarpon.

At fourteen I left school and went to work for a local baker, confectioner and caterer as delivery boy. Part of our duties, before going out on our rounds with van and driver, were helping to prepare trays of doughnuts, chocolate eclairs, cream slices and fruit tarts. Seven or eight boys worked there, and during his first week each newcomer was told that he had permission to eat all the pastries he could gobble down in what had become an unofficial initiation ceremony. Actually we were challenged by tales of the prodigious feats and records set by previous small Falstaffs and Friar Tucks, whose capacities, if we were to believe the stories, were legendary. After mighty effort I failed entirely, and suffered the further shame of throwing up. This laid me open to the utter contempt of my young co-workers. Never again did I recapture a fondness for pastry.

I rather sensed than was fully aware that I was living out a small part of a long and fading tradition. Perhaps it was the preplastic age. Most of the large estates were broken up. The machine age was certainly long in existence, although some of its more negative consequences had not yet gotten onto our backs as they appear to have done today.

In the country much of the work was still done by hand, but there were tractors, reapers, binders and milking machines. A quiet domesticated-animal pace still existed among the farm workers, although it is certain that in the factories of the industrialised Midlands and down the coal mines the pace was frantic. Carpenters planed by hand, navies dug ditches with pick and shovel. Scythes and sickles, wooden hayrakes and long-tined pitchforks were in common use. Farm workers stopped from time to time to straighten up and discuss matters. Blacksmiths, coopers, wheelwrights, coachbuilders, dikers, thatchers complained about the encroach of mechanisation and that their trades and skills were dying out or no longer needed. Yet they managed to earn a living. Hand powered tools were rarely seen even in house building. New construction was heard not only by the hammering, but by the rhythmic rasp and softer purr of handsaws. Plumbers cut thread onto pipe with hand-operated stocks and dies.

I am glad I grew up in the country and experienced the easy, natural pace of the land and of the farm animals. I have seen so much misery among children born and raised in cities. The terrible boxed-in childhoods appear to worsen rather than improve; in part because the price of real estate has gotten to mean more than a bank of grass or clump of flowers. We seem unable to even fashion a pleasing fence around a playground or a sandpit that does not resemble the exercise yard in a prison. We are paying already a high price for these mutilations of the human spirit, but this is nothing compared to the terrible cost that ultimately will be demanded for subverting the love of nature into a desire for manufactured products, and holding money profit and gain above human need and simple pleasure.

Grown men were not all kindly advisors or helpful in imparting knowledge and some fruits of their experience. Some of them made me feel raw, inexperienced, clumsy and even stupid. The past played great importance in their lives, as it has now in my own life. They related with great pride and detail certain events of their youth: How they were forced to live on next to nothing and were happy or unhappy. How cheap beer was then, and cider. Bread too. Tobacco cost such a small amount and they gave away a free clay pipe with each ounce of tobacco. We youngsters were smugly assured that no matter how badly we might suffer in the years to come, we were born too late to experience any real deprivation or pain.

Being young was painful too, and sometimes hurt deeply. How did one acquire experience and build defences against hurts? Be able to remain calm and composed in maddening situations? Older people treated you as they would a child, and if you happened to possess an easy inborn talent in the use of tools as my brother Did had, certain carpenters were nasty and bore grudges. Refusing to share their craft and skills, they sent him off for nails or turned their backs when they were about to commence some skilled work, such as building a staircase or laying out a roof.

I remember milkmaids carrying their milk pails from wooden yoke.

In those quiet valleys between greenly covered limestone hills there were numerous apple orchards. It was cider country. A part of England where to this day are unearthed the bones of sabre-toothed tiger, Roman coins, shards of ancient pottery. Rich in history, it teems with remembrances of the past. The Mendip Hills were mined for lead long before the Romans came. Bowmen tramped this way, and men with pikes on their shoulders. Monks carrying plans and seeking the best site for Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. Cadbury was close by—reputedly the possible site of King Arthur’s Avalon. Along these old paths native Britons stared at Roman soldiers in their legioned formations and listened curiously to the strange-sounding language. And earlier yet, Druids performed rites and ceremonials with rowan branches and mistletoe. Before the wheel, before the age of bronze, before the horse and perhaps even before the stone axe.

chapter three

Early in my life I became acquainted with cider and cider houses. In Somerset it is called scrumpy and there are two kinds: rough cider and sweet cider. Sweet cider is considered by serious drinkers as fit only for women and children. Old Ernie Starks in the cottage next door would no more have considered sweet cider in his private keg were it given away for nothing. Rough cider is harsh to the taste and with a sour-shivering edge to it. Once given the taste for it nothing will ever again quench your thirst quite as well.

Around Banwell Village farmers make their own cider. There are numerous orchards and when the apples are gathered in and run through the cider presses it is time to sample the new cider. You can smell it from fields away, the air being as heavily odour-laden and redolent as with pollen and for the drinker much more inviting. Frequently cows, their thirst for the new cider as powerful as our own, break through fences or a befuddled drinker leaves a gate open and they feed on the apple mash left over from the cider-making and spread under the trees for fertiliser. After grazing through it they start staggering about the orchard, bumping and lurching against trees in a disordered stupor of baleful and appealing mooing. We thought it all very funny as they fell to their knees, attempted to rise only to tumble over their wobbly forefeet and finally onto their sides. Lying under the trees with feet sticking up into the air their heavy snores seemed an odd mixture of dismay and contentment. For the next few days the milk had a distinct cidery taste.

Tramps, Ne’er-do-wells and well known and local cider lushes, knowing when the cider was ready, happenstanced along and allowed themselves to be lured into cider houses to sample the new batch. Sometimes the host farmer filled the cup of the unwary with certain parts and after a few swallows the poor sampler was forced to race madly out the door and into the bushes outside, struggling to get his trousers down before the unhappy results of the supercharged purgative overcame him entirely. Except for the outraged victim who always somehow managed to drop his trousers in time this was even funnier than watching the pie-eyed cows. Pleasure was all about, happenings took on a comic aspect. Soft country chuckles expanded easily from laughter into mighty bellowings.

Inside the cider houses the farmer still drew the cider from the barrel (from the wood, it is called) into a large two-handled china mug. He held it up, took the first sip and passed it to his neighbour or new arrival who took it by the other handle thus not being required to drink from the same side. This too was ritual and claimed to be passed down from ancient times to guarantee it was pure and good, and no wish existed about being discourteous and expecting the guest to drink from the same side of the cup. The cups, many of them chipped and glaze-cracked, were very old and some were quite beautiful. Mostly of a thick blue-and-white delft, they carried various country designs; crossed hayrake and pitchfork, mattocks, bee skips, harrows, as well as ships, anchors and mermaids; these perhaps to celebrate the traveller? They were mostly inscribed above or beneath with moralistic mottoes and homilies such as, God Speed the Plough.

The large, dim-lit barns had the air and rough architecture of ancient rough-hewn small cathedrals. Men sat about and talked on wooden benches inside the shady wooden barns whose sides were lines with large barrels. The cups were filled and passed along, the quality of the cider commented upon, usually praised, along with the generosity of the farmer. The various skills involved in cider making were noted, as were the sites of particularly good orchards, even the weight of the crop on certain trees. These comments were made in languid country tones, in the soft deliberate un-emphasis of knowing. Plugs of tobacco were pulled from the waistcoat pockets to be pared off with pocket knives, shredded in the palms of rough hands to be tapped into pipes with all the seriousness of a minister preparing the alter candles. Remarks were made on the terrible weather . . . the heavy fruitage of the present apple crop . . . bumper harvests of the past and dimly remembered doleful seasons of severe droughts longer ago than anyone cared to remember.

The event contained all the essentials of a crude and delicate ceremony, a non-religious harvest thanksgiving. The farmer taking down the two handled mugs from the hooks and nails along the barn wall. The calm and patient filling and unhurried passing around of replenished cups. The welcoming first sip shared with the farmer. The agreeable voices and nods from those already seated to the new arrivals. The complimentary murmurs. The sipping approvingly leading slowly to the later swigging. Hunks of bread and cheeses were unwrapped from newspapers, and any ill will vanished. There was everywhere a general air of well-being, suggesting perhaps that although the farmer remained the farmer and the farmworker, the worker, there existed a goodness and a high quality of good feeling in the sharing of the fruits of the earth. The land was rich and good and retained the fruitfulness if well cared for to provide heavy future harvests and that men were still able to experience contentment and sometimes even joy.

Many years later, on a biking-walking journey around the coast of the West England, carrying only a sleeping bag and black-crusted pot to boil water for tea, one late afternoon I met an Irishman resting by the roadside. I stopped, we talked and I found him to be a man much like myself. He was escaping for a time the desperation of the factory and the city. Surprisingly he had almost a full bottle of whisky but we had nothing to drink from until he pulled two eggs from his bundle. We each cracked an egg and swallowed the yoke. Then we proceeded to drink whisky from the eggshells and there was again a certain fine, even delicate ceremonial about the whole affair; a rover’s communion, a wanderer’s praise making and taking two fleeting souls, strangers really, touching each other for a fleet moment in time and opposite flight, two men of the country taking to the road to breathe the air and hear the birdsong. We laughed that day, talked a great deal and later staggered. Sang, too’ not as nightingale or linnet but loudly and well for all of that. And we vowed more than once there was no other race of people on earth to compare with the Scottish and the Irish. We each from respect named the other’s country first.

Why do these experiences remain in the deposits of memory with so vivid an intensity? Is it because the drink altered not only our behaviour but also our vision, our receptivity, our interpretation of the recording of the event? Might it all have been as vivid or even remembered at all had we been sober? These are unanswerable questions. The sober memories are of different experiences.

The barrels possessed great character, as did the drinking utensils; the pewter pots, the china cups and the various other drinking mugs. The bottles were moulded into great variety in regard to length of neck, girth and colour, and these qualities etched upon my mind, deep, lasting and unexplainable impressions. The tastes and smells and the varied and peculiar effects of alcohol were in my belief even then of a quality truly magical. The drink flowed through the veins like fire, as nothing else did or ever would, as if some strangely exotic magic carpet whisked me off on unearthly flights and where later, in bed, I needed to rest one foot on the bedroom floor simply to smooth out—not to stop—the flying bed of a carpet in all its coiling, swaying journey through immensities of space.

Local legend claims when you drink too much cider you are able to walk better backwards than in normal forward strides. Heroic drinkers swear to having turned their backs when starting out for home and arriving there in half the normal time. I early was absorbed in all sorts of drinking experimentation and did indeed attempt to prove or disprove these interesting and drink-related affairs. I proved to myself that this walking better backwards was not necessarily the case though there were reasons for doubt. After a great deal of trial and error experience while under the cider influence as to whether it was faster walking backwards than forwards to arrive at a certain point, I never knew exactly if I was coming or going, moving backwards, forwards or sideways and at times seemingly stumbled into myself, departing from rather than toward my intended destination. After a skinful of cider I once brought along a small mirror to assist me in my walking backwards path, that I might the better see where I was going, but after travelling a considerable distance I abandoned the glass because of a stiff neck; and not to mention other dangers continually confronting the poor cider drinker on his homeward path such as tumbling into stagnant duckponds and smelly ditches.

Another locally held belief is that if you drink a pint of beer by sucking it through a straw you become intoxicated almost immediately. Again ready to sacrifice myself in noble experiment and acting as my own less than trustworthy guinea pig I discovered this to be an other old wives tale; although I admit to being less than sober when arriving at my conclusions. I could walk however so I was definitely not under the influence, as the saying goes.

I worked as a delivery boy on a bread ban. The driver was a short, bull-chested man called Butcher Weston. He acquired the nickname Butcher from his father who once owned a large butcher’s shop but lost it through drink and gambling. Butcher was very popular on his route. Although not a heavy drinker, every day he stopped for lunch at a certain country pub where he invariably drank cider and ordered lemonade for me. After a year on the job he ordered cider for me too. I loved the lunches there; a hunk of cottage bread sliced roughly or torn from the loaf and a big slice of sharp, white, crumbly cheddar cheese and washed down with cider. The village of Cheddar, seven miles away, made one of the greatest cheeses on earth, no comparison to the anaemic stuff produced by that multibillion dollar Wisconsin dairy industry. A jar of pickled onions was set out with the bread and cheese and we helped ourselves. Sometimes, even now, when I am really hungry I experience a desperate craving for just such a feed, as if only bread, cheese, pickled onions and cider could satisfy my hunger, my thirst, my needs and my longings, my unfulfillments, quench my gloom and recharge my fires.

I took to the cider with a passion and my thirst was unquenchable; nor did I manage to remain sober in my efforts to quench the thirst. When I recovered, the thirst remained as demanding to be satisfied as ever.

In a very short time or perhaps from the very beginning I drank anything containing alcohol. Sometimes I remembered what had happened the next day but usually I blacked out. When I did not black out my memory of events was hazy and I was never able to remember what had happened with any exactitude, and probably felt quite happy to forget the whole affair and let someone else do the worrying. Drink was always easily available in the country, regardless of age. I soon discovered I drank more than most boys my age and older though there always were a few boys who easily outdrank me without apparent effort. I guzzled much more than my older brother Dick, or so I thought then, but I realise now that this was not the case. Dick simply drank as most other normal drinkers drank and stopped when he wished; no amount of dares or challenges made him change his mind.

For no other apparent reason than a desire to drink I set my sights, without conscious thought, toward keeping up and perhaps one day surpassing the really heavy drinkers; the ones with a truly great capacity. Outside drinking I believe I accepted people largely as I found them and whatever evaluative powers I possessed were used exclusively in rating and admiring the many categories and feats of drinkers. Quiet sippers and people who spent all evening over two glasses of beer were not my company.

I wanted to perhaps not get drunk but not be sober either. I desired to be under the influence . . . happily half-bombed . . . aglow . . . floating through cloud . . . warming sozzled inside my head and suffering a pleasant lightheadedness; all care vanished, good humoured, mind seemingly a-twinkle, gabbling nonsensically, jovial, effusive, the drink taken to not only let spirits soar but endorse our passports with a visa into euphoria. Spirits soar but endorse our passports with a visa into euphoria. Spirits to heighten the hilarity, nourish and puff ablaze the mental bonfire. Oh, what a gas it all was then!

We were in the process of growing up. Our fathers told us they left school at twelve years of age and even ten; and I am sure as we entered adulthood that we considered drink and drinking to be essential parts of the growing up affair.

I never really drank socially, although I once thought I did. I hardly ever drank one drink or several drinks to create or enhance an enjoyable time and never in my life except when I was drunk beyond the cliff-edge of the thinking mind did I leave drink in a glass. The brake on my drinking was finances and the lack of them. Whenever I drank I continued to drink. After more than several drinks I began to lose control and after many drinks I seemingly moved as lazily as actors in a movie in slow motion. I remember once trying to ride a bicycle with too much to drink. I threw my leg over and began to pedal but I gained no speed and began falling. Clearly aware I would never be able to get a hand out in time to arrest or cushion my fall I watched the ground come up and bump me gently. After picking myself and bicycle up and knowing I could ride a bicycle (didn’t I use one to go to work and home every day?) I tried many more times. Eventually I gave up and lying on my side in the road I tucked an arm under my head and fell asleep. Later friends woke me and for weeks after though it a huge joke.

Later in life there would be other infinitely more painful experiences. Waking in my room in the night to go to the toilet and on the way back to bed, falling down, I heard the remote thump which I realised was my landing on the floor followed by distant and impersonal bumps and drumming on my door. These were calls and inquiries from neighbours which I never answered. I had no with to be bothered by anyone or anything; nor desire to contemplate the next morning before it arrived when with head throbbing and vision almost too bleary to peer into the mirror I saw the black-purple evidence of another long bruise about the eyes or side of the head that never permitted concealment or ease behind dark glasses.

I feel some parts of my life resemble rough cider; sharp, almost to aching, and even beyond aching into heart-break itself. Possessor of an early-gotten thirst far beyond any futile hope of being able to slake its own quenching. Owner of a throat always anticipating a drink like a need in the rover’s heart for the long journey; or the terrible condition of certain sailors who become invested with a profound inner maladjustment and can never be happy, at peace, on land, yet when they sail again to sea they long and weary for the drunken bars, the frothed glass, anything but the terrible and monotonous circle of impelling ocean. Eventually only the threat of death gave me strength to put up a struggle against alcoholism. For many years I passed beyond a simple desire for alcohol into a craving for it, an obsession, yet lacking the self-awareness to realise my sickness. And years away was any strong desire to try and lay the monster to rest or temporary sleep. The bottle was an uneasy companion to live with but also brought great joy.

The heyday of my drinking was all wild times and a perpetual crying out for more. A huge bundle of potential excitement that even when it did not transpire might still be sufficient reason to induce some sort of fun and pleasure. I hungered for harper, bard, troubadour, poet; nor concerned about price. The piper? Pay him whatever he asked . . . was that not the way it was done? Were we in any way different than a thousand ancestors? Or with to be? Drink up, Man! And hearty. Always room for one more. Here is the price, and we will pay in whatever coin is demanded. Squander it in tears, regrets, in blood too.

Not yet sneak-thieving for the drink. Not yet reduced to begging. Nor jail. Not soiled numerous nests of hospitality. Fleeing creditors until nothing left of any value; neither tools, clothes, books, scrawled lines of poetry, self respect nor anything at all. Everything sold, pawned, bartered, forsaken for drink. And plenty of possessions of others not nailed down also gone, until, abandoned by all but some other alcoholic brethren in as bad or worse shape than ourselves, we were right back again to where we always started, in that terrible rat-hole of alcoholism.

No length was too far to travel for the drink, and trying every conceivable way to gain more drink when a man already had far more than he needed and already taken a great deal more than he could handle, nevertheless convinced we must have it and nothing sufficed but another bobble at the jug. And all this to fulfil a need beyond sleep, sex, shelter, code of honour, decency, job, standing in the community, principles, camaraderie, brotherhood, sisterhood or anything else in life this side of thinking. Beg, borrow, steal, in total disregard of anything other than the next drink; and when the next drink was secured, working on the drink after that. Then, if such a plenitude of ready drinks existed, working on securing the next bottle, the next barrel; it was a full-time occupation. And if you owned a distillery, that in no way alleviated one particle of the problem nor wound inheriting a brewery or a winery ease the awful cloud of misery when you woke in the morning penniless and no drink in sight; because simply and truthfully, for the next drink you would eat shit, swallow piss by the bucket. For the price of a Mickey, hoping, mind you, they did not ask, you were willing to suffer any indignity or humiliation. Demean oneself. Who gave a damn about these trivialities; we could flatter, lick arse anywhere, at any time, under any conditions. High noon in the middle of Union Square if we were desperate enough. Order us to kneel down, balls naked and beg for it, Man we can even force a smile. Pass over the kneepads, buddy. In no time at all we will have us a Mickey, and once we have the Mickey we’ll have a long drink and once we have the long swallow of it inside us the world will seem warm and wild and almost wonderful again for a little while.

chapter four

Somerset is a pastoral county of orchards, small farms, trim hedges, green fields, woods and streams—reans they are called—the stream banks lined with pollarded willows. The gypsies trim the willows and make baskets and clothes pegs from the cuttings.

We kept a few hens, fed them on scraps, and provided a few eggs. In those days my parents never dreamed of killing a hen until its laying days were over but when the hen did finally meet her fate she was tough as old leather even after being boiled for days. Over the years I have conversed with Poles, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Swiss, Burmese, Chicanos and many other nationalities of the older generation and they will mention, sometimes with near reverence, the motherly or grandmotherly skills going into the preparation of a magical chicken soup; and how it was brought over for an invalid on their sick bed. Child-bearing, dandruff, ingrowing toenails, a broken leg or broken heart, hangover, someone suffering a stroke or a severe sunburn and a bowl of chicken soup unfailingly effected a miraculous cure.

John, our black cat, finally died. He had grown fat if not soft, in that warm corner of Somerset far from his laconic birthplace. We buried him under a cherry tree that never again bore fruit. John was replaced with a Scotch terrier named Jock who did not thrive. Perhaps life was too comfortable . . . his coat too heavy for the mild climate. He grew sickly and was given away. My father acquired a hive of bees and talked a good deal about becoming a honey farmer. He considered the single hive to be the cornerstone of an extensive bee-keeping operation embracing most of the west of England. The bees died that winter when he failed to feed them.

We ate more salads now and other vegetables; lettuce, radishes, scallions, shallots, celery. Tomatoes ripened outdoors in a good summer and were a treat. My mother made chutney with the green, unripened ones. When it was my mother’s turn to invite her women friends from the local church for Sunday afternoon tea, she now served small watercress sandwiches cut triangular-shaped and with all crusts sheared off.

Above the mantelpiece in the living room was our religious motto, Christ is the Head of this House . . . On each side of the motto hung two pictures belonging to my father and depicting the Battle of Jutland, the Day Battle, and the Night Battle. A ship in the foreground of the night battle was surrounded by shot and shell and columns of waterspouts. Obviously in grave distress and listing badly my father claimed it to be the destroyer, Goshawk, on which he served during the battle. I once seriously wondered if given a very powerful magnifying glass I might see him furiously loading guns or hanging on frantically to the steering wheel.

There was nowhere in Banwell a single reminder of the sea. No rusting weather vane of a sailing ship nor anchor nor dolphin carved into headstones in the tidy little cemetery. No sea horizon to brood over as in the reproduction of the painting. The boyhood of Sir Walter Raleigh, hanging in some forgotten schoolroom. No rumbling roar of storm under cliffs nor lonely cry of loon or gull shrieking down the wind. Actually we were quite close to the sea. The British Isles being small, no-one is ever far from the sea. Weston-Super-Mare, a seaside resort town was only five miles away but for some reason the water there, the Bristol Channel, appeared too smooth and altogether too tame to be considered the sea. The tide ebbed out for miles and stayed out for hours—some tourists claimed all summer—leaving a muddy, foul-smelling and uninteresting beach. On clear days the coastline of South Wales and the reek from the mines and factories there was brought clearly to view.

About a year after I started work, war was declared and my father who was on the reserves was called up into the army, for the only time in memory a certain financial security existed in our home. My father had quit the gardening job on the estate and was hiring himself out by the day as a jobbing gardener. There were advantages to this such as not having to work for a regular boss but he lost time when it rained. Possibly the war may have been the happiest and the best time for my father; not that he preferred army life but he had always been forced to live so precariously as a civilian and with never enough money. So much of his state and condition had been not merely keeping the wolf from the door but holding at bay three or four of those wolves already halfway through the window and restrained only by his holding the window down upon them before they were inside altogether. Nor should I make light of my mother’s difficult and permanent condition of always trying to make do with never sufficient resources.

Once war was declared, newspapers and radio began brainwashing us about how patriotic it was to join the army, wear a uniform, fight for king and country. They feed you, clothe you, provide shelter, even pay a little beer and cigarette money and all it costs I your life if or when required. That there is no unemployment problem in a country at war is a particularly cruel truth. The unemployed workers are trained as soldiers; no previous experience necessary, and the younger, the healthier you are the more they like you. No matter how bankrupt the country is, funds are always found and made available. Only in times of peace is there large scale unemployment, depressions and never enough money.

About this time there was a serious threat of invasion and the L.D.V., the Local Defence Volunteers, was formed; a volunteer civilian force to aid and assist the regular army if needed. Later the name was changed to The Home Guard. I was sixteen or seventeen and volunteered at once.

The Home Guard, in its initial stages, was not quite to be believed and our local Banwell branch was no exception. Had the averse war situation been less serious and Gilbert and Sullivan more contemporary our local Home Guard unit might well have inspired some truly fine comic opera.

At first there were no uniforms and to distinguish ourselves we wore armbands on our civilian jackets and army forage caps at a rakish angle on the sides of our heads. When we did receive an issue it was of army denim fatigues and must have been rejected by the army for reasons of mis-shapedness and poor quality workmanship. The blouses had the waist for a Shetland pony and the neck for a swan; in some not exceptional cases the seat of the trousers sagged almost to the knees.

In the early days we did not parade in public, probably to avoid panic amidst the civilian population should we be called upon to defend them against Stuka divebombers, parachute troops and panzer divisions. Several of us were expected to share rifles that were so old they must have been outdated in the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War. Sooner or later in Great Britain everything is eventually brought up in parliament. The Home Guard was no exception, particularly the almost total lack of effective weapons. One member of parliament suggested we be issued pikes! Perhaps if they dug down deeply enough into the old colonial armoury they might discover government surplus bows and arrows left over from Agincourt, or captured knobkerries from the war against the Zulu.

Our commanding officer was a retired Indian Army officer, too old to be recalled into the armed forces. Short and rotund with cheery-red cheeks he was a living advertisement for Beefeater Gin. A large moustache jutted stiffly out from both sides of his red face and I felt you could have lifted him by it. He immediately lectured us on the good old days in India when they wore the red tunics and white buff gear. He attempted at first to insert steel into our easy natured country backbones with tales of The Khyber, Poonah, and the various terrors of life in the Punjab. Anyone not English was a ‘damned savage.’ The Road to Mandaley, in his most emphatic opinion, was easily recognisable by the glittering trail of emptied gin and quinine water bottles.

Regularly on Sunday mornings we engaged, somewhat self-consciously, in obscure, often misunderstood and usually mis-directed manoeuvres and training, attempting to acquire the military skills necessary to repel an airborne invasion and conduct successful counter attacks. During one such exercise, after much marching, retreating, attempting to find on maps parts of the country everyone knew intimately; advancing across fields and before final charges into hedgerows vainly attempting bloodthirsty yells that none of us were able to take quite seriously, our Commanding Officer suffered an apparent heart attack. Unable to continue his mis-directions he promoted to temporary C.O., Jack Barber, a local farmer with a head as thick as a tree stump and ordered us ever onwards with exhortations about the, Bulldog Breed, Hearts of Oak, and, Rule Britannia. Before we charged off he apparently recovered from the attack but decided to stay behind to consult his maps and charts and set up what he called an operations centre in the rear.

Bringing up the tail-end of our platoon I noticed we were approaching marshy ground and not wishing to wander about all day in wet boots I slipped away from the end of the platoon and waited silently until they disappeared. I limped slightly in case anyone was spying on us and crept down the side of the hedge. After a short reconnoitre I spotted our C.O. sitting down with his back against a tree. He was taking his boots off as if he was getting ready to lie down for a snooze. I watched him peer all around, then he casually pulled a flask from the inside pocket of his tunic, unscrewed the top, raised it to his lips and had himself a swallow. Off my mark, fleet as a racing deer, in a flash I was standing before him all a-panting and saluting before he had time to return the flask to his pocket. “Sir!” I cried, “The referee says we are being badly mauled. Two men are dead and I am sorely wounded getting through with this message.” I continued panting and slathering like a heated bulldog on a stifling day and all the time staring at the flask. He cursed the referee, called him a, “Damned savage.” and wished him badly afflicted with colourful and dire humiliations on his person. When he looked up at me again my eyes were still on the flask.

“Go easy on it,” he said passing it reluctantly over.

It was gin. I had never tasted raw gin before; only watery gin and limes with no kick to them at all. I had heard of some of the effects of gin and that it was flavoured with juniper berries, whatever they were. Several boys at school bragged of drinking gin and claimed it made them wild for women; the same as raw oysters and Spanish fly. Boy, wasn’t I going to be having the wild old time of it when I grew up with a fistful of money in my pocket I would lay in great piles of all that kind of stuff.

Tilting the bottle back and trying to appear casual I made a silent toast to myself, ‘First Today.’ I remember thinking idly that now I would find out to my satisfaction the taste of juniper berries. Without regard of tomorrow I swallowed a mouthful so big it almost emptied the flask. I was entirely paralysed for many seconds and unable to move. The C.O. retrieved the flask from my lifeless hand, gave it a sour look, emptied it and returned it to the inside pocket of his tunic. He was displeased but said nothing to me. I had extreme difficulty breathing as if I was lying down and a horse was sitting on my chest. Then I fell down and turned over on my side. Lying on the ground I stared at the C.O. as he yawned, then he pulled a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, lit one and began to smoke, not even offering me one. The large jolt of gin seemed to have frozen my brain and I was unable to do anything but watch the C.O. I tried to make a casual, man-of-the-worldish remark but all I heard from my lips was a faint gurgle. I was desirous of telling the C.O. how greedy and thoughtless he was not bringing another flask. After all, wasn’t he, the C.O. of my platoon? What about all that, ‘Share and Share Alike,’ he so often lectured us about? Or offer me a cigarette? Again I tried to speak but my long tongue remained completely hog-tied. Why did he ignore me entirely? Why did he not bring me a water chaser? Surely he was not going to allow me to lie like this without even raising a canteen of water to my lips and tip it back to let me sip as they do in war movies. Then I fell asleep.

Next thing I remember, the C.O. was shaking me awake and telling me to stop snoring; to straighten myself up, to try to pull myself together, get to my feet and button my fly. Our unit was returning from the manoeuvres with wet feet and frayed tempers and despite our efforts to remain hidden they flushed us out.

We were brought up on charges of dereliction of duties and at a hearing some weeks later the C.O. was reduced to the ranks and promptly retired whilst I received a stern reprimand and was warned to improve my behaviour if I wished to remain in the Home Guard. The more serious charge of being under the influence of alcohol whilst on duty was fortunately not mentioned. At the hearing I adopted a whipped dog attitude. I seemed to possess a natural aptitude for appearing properly chastised and without effort was able to insinuate by meek expression and humble appearance that next time I would do better, try harder, give more of myself and really attempt to get my teeth into things.

I soon discovered that when I was in trouble in the Home Guard, and later in the Royal Marines, that if higher-ups were in any way involved, matters were quickly and quietly hushed up and forgotten. Should an officer be implicated, the higher his rank the faster everything was forgotten. We would be verbally lashed with stern and ominous lectures and warnings but you usually walked away Scot free if an officer was involved in any way.

The army presents an excellent profile of innocent, clean-cut, high and religiously minded bonny soldier lads. Public spirited, of high moral principle, reliable, sober, deeply respectful of the opposite sex and always above reproach. Stout defenders of King and Queen, of country, of democracy, of Ma’s apple pie, draught Worthington, fish and chips and the Good Ship Lollipop. Certainly never a breath about such degenerate activity as homosexuality, incest, bestiary, buggery and masturbation. This fine image is essential in order to conceal the huge mountain range of total and utter incompetency, imbecility and chaos. The ineptitude, waste and confusion going on under the name of national security is appalling.

Part of my punishment was actually a holiday. I was not permitted to go out on further exercises but after a time I was re-instated but placed into a different platoon, that I be under more mature influence. The Home Guard duties had changed. Now we patrolled in parties of four, marching up and down village streets and country roads checking on motor car and bicycle headlights to see they were properly masked and making sure blackout regulations were being enforced.

Our four man patrol consisted of a farmer’s son, Roy Day, a farm labourer, Bob Staffinch, Selby Davies, a Welsh emigrant who worked with me at the bakery, and myself. During the length of our patrol we stopped for frequent breaks at Roy’s father’s farm and generously refreshed ourselves in the cider house. The night patrols began to claim less and less of our wavering dedication to the cause and more time was spent in the cosy comfort of the cider house. One night, gobbling at our cider cups heavier than usual, Roy and Bob, both experienced cider drinkers, bet Selby and me that we could not raise a full mug of cider to our lips and drain it in one swallow. Well, but Be Damned if we were going to permit such a dare to pass us bye without challenge! Selby and I up with our full cups and scoffed them down. Roy and Bob did likewise. Then we bet each other who could drink a full cupful the fastest, who could drink one right after the other; who could best drink and blow cigarette smoke down their nose at the same time. Once Selby laid down on his back on a bench with head hanging over one and upside down and swallowed a cupful I carefully fed him and managing in the process to defy the laws of gravity. None of the other two were able to match that feat.

It was noon time the following day when we were roughly shaken awake. Local search parties had been seeking us for hours. We had slid off the benches and fallen asleep on the dirt floor of the barn and were in somewhat less than spick and span condition, even for the Home Guard. We all had thrown up over each other and all but Roy had shit his trousers. Despite stares, glares and angry remarks from fellow Home Guarders we tried to clean up. We stripped and washed our clothing but no sooner had we spread it out to dry when it started to rain. Forced to trudge home in drenched clothes I at first thought this was a disguised blessing and none would be any wiser but that was too much to hope for.

The news had long been bush-telegraphed from one end of the parish to the other. Everybody for miles around knew all about the drunken Home Guard patrol long before we even arrived home. My mother would have beat me but I was too big now but she did rage and tirade for hours about the disgrace I had brought upon them all. I was glad my father was away in the army because there was a time he would have whipped me with his leather shaving strop.

For weeks after we were a laughing stock but this experience in no way suggested that I should perhaps not drink quite as much or that if I did continue to drink that I try to drink as a gentleman does, whatever that meant. Our Home Guard unit was relegated to the bottom of the working-efficiency list, quite an accomplishment in itself, and for punishment, when we were issued rifles and taken out to the firing range for target practice, we four were not permitted along.

Thirteen years ago—I would be forty years old—I returned to Banwell on a vacation. I ran into Ken Jackson, a school acquaintance in the village street. After exchanging, How Are You’s, we ran out of anything to say. All at once he gazed at me as if the chink of recall was at that moment standing him treat to happy memory. He stared long and lingeringly before speaking in his drawling country voice, “Wasn’t it you and Selby Davies and two other chaps who got awful drunk on cider once when the war was on and everybody in the army or the Home Guard?”

“Cider? What cider?” I innocently asked, “What Home Guard?”

“Yes. I have it now. Had us up half the night searching for you and we found you in Roy Day’s father’s cider house, drunk as deacons, all of you.”

“Whose cider house are you talking about?” I wondered aloud.

“Yes. There were four of you. You, Selby Davies, Bob Staffinch and Roy Day. I remember it real well now. You drank cider all night and when we found you, you had all shit your trousers and stunk worse than a pigsty.” He wrinkled his nose at thought of the smell.

“Selby Davies? Do I know him?” I asked.

“Yes, you were one of them,” he chuckled and pointed a long accusing forefinger at me.

“One of who?” I demanded in loud voice before swinging around, tossing my head in the air and striding on down the street, creating, I hoped, a fine warming picture of a man with a terribly violated and outraged innocence.

chapter five

At sixteen my job as delivery boy ended and I went to work as a navvy, pick and shovelling on an air force base, and began to earn considerable money. Saturday nights I dressed up and began to frequent the local village dances. Whenever I looked in the mirror to comb my hair or knot my tie I was unable to see, staring back at me, a darkly handsome, suave and smooth-mannered Celtic Casanova. My morale lay wrecked about me in despair that anyone, the likes of myself, apparently possessed so few qualities to attract and transfix good looking girls. I was shy around girls except in the country dance halls, and after numerous times when imperious fifteen-year-olds refused to dance with me, I began to develop a hide as tough as armour plate on a navy minesweeper. One smart-mouthed wee biddy with long auburn hair and an impertinent snicker pointed me out to her girlfriends and gabbled mockingly whenever I passed close to her, and me all the time heated up inside with the long and secret ache to take her off somewhere and lay wild kisses upon her. She near destroyed me once after my asking her for a dance by saying very loudly, “Why don’t you learn to walk properly first!” This set off a gale of laughter and I stormed out of the dance in complete embarrassment, swearing to never go dancing again but I was dancing again the following week.

I suffered deeply trough live affairs tragic, marvellous, and mostly without possible hope of consummation; these affairs nonetheless laid me open and bare to the emotional bone. I was overwhelmed with torments of anguish and agony and my love live was a lovelorn, girl-less disaster.

During once short-lived romance a pal and myself were taking out tow sisters. All four of us were sixteen but the sisters had a younger brother who always tagged along. We tried different ways but were unable to get rid of him. One day, to show what a fine young buck I was, I pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered them around. When we were all puffing and smoking I held the lighted end to the young bother’s ear and he ran off home. Half an hour later the boy and his father came storming after us and my pal and I had to race like whippets to protect ourselves. After that the sisters refused to speak to us. This did not do very much for my man-about-town ambitions, nor help refine my technique as a great lover.

Girls behaviour confused and puzzled me entirely. After walking a girl home from a dance and making a date, the next time she saw me she strolled casually past as if I was invisible. By being so ignored my aplomb was demolished and heart and soul absorbed a beating far beyond any ordinary emotional punch-drunkenness. To think a fragile-eyed lassie with long solemn cheeks and green eyes was able to turn a tough nut like me into a scarred and lacerated sufferer of pain and chagrin was altogether too much to bear. The very idea of a scornful lip-curling and snot-nosed female bludgeoning and mutilating my soul filled my young life to overflowing with all the sufferings of an old martyr lashed to the stake and thrashed with brambles. Even today, though for other reasons, one of them is able to get the better of me in the simplest things, like being inveigled into painting her house for next to nothing or clearing out from a small basement, ten trailer-truckloads of less than quaint debris. I am not complaining about love; only saying that when love scuds onto your horizon, then hitch up your belt and open your arms widely in greeting because when love reenters your life, except to be ready to accept wholeheartedly something a great deal larger than any of us are equipped to bear.

My father gave me excellent advice when he left home on the outbreak of war, “When you leave home and make your own way, the only advice I can give you is this: Be nice to the ladies, Lenart. Treat them with great consideration; even pay attention to what they say once in a while, treat them well always and yours will be the rare old life. But treat them badly and they’ll give you the dog’s life.” Before very long I came to realise that my father was not a stupid man.

So with my accumulated experience and former young life behind me, not at all dismayed about the terrible state of the world or those living in it, and with the strong flow of a desire to begin living my days with all the power of a river, I quit my job, took the bus to Bristol intending to enlist in the navy but the navy recruiter was out to lunch and being very impatient I joined the Royal Marines instead; the offices were next door to each other.

After the turbulent and brawling, birth-bed-bloody entry into this world we undergo an ongoing and continuous growth from one stage of life into another with never possibility of return. Once that first wild earthward leap from the womb is over we are already undergoing change and growth; and regardless of whether we wish to stay or retire we must go on.

Never again will we recapture life within that enchanted preserve of childhood. No matter how excellent or precise our recollection of events we can never regain the experience of the undeveloped mind; the frights, the discovering joys and our initial reactions to all things happening to and all about us. We may mentally wrestle and fret, express desire, disguise truth from ourselves, take great license translating the bag of tricks pulled from childhood’s memory-ridded hat but once childhood is over it takes us some time to realise we have forsaken that green, warm, sunny garden for ever.

A friend best described a small part of her particular realisation that she was growing up by becoming strangely aware of growing taller and more remote from grass and flowers, puddles, dogs, toys and all things living or scattered on the ground. Without conscious effort she was becoming farther removed from immediate, living, earth things, yet not being in any way compensated by growing closer or more intimate with remote and distant treetops, birds, kites, clouds or stars.

Memory is a cheat; which is fine if the lies and cheating are not malicious. Much pleasure might have been lost in my life had I demanded authentically or even simple two-and-two-is-four truths from story-tellers. A performer needs room to swing his imagination as well as his body. The depth of human experience is available for quarrying by anyone who chooses to drive in his pick; and his interpretations are his own.

Memory is too flirtatious to transport us with any accuracy from today, black through the quick-sands, ambushes, forays, false reminiscences, denials of obvious truths, into the lost land of childhood.

We crawl into the arena on all fours and from the start it is largely a case of hit or miss. Without preparation or at best ill-prepared for the role we will play in a near-vain effort to achieve ultimate fullness, if not fulfilment, in this everyday human comedy known as life. And to be played usually in obscure corners before indifferent spectators—perhaps more intrinsically dramatic because of the obscurity—and continuing despite no music from non-existing orchestra before neglected stage.

Poor staging, without proper lighting, and if by a good fortune a costume be provided this ill-fitting, tattered, patched and darned and not at all the magnificent uniform we might have chosen. Perhaps as onlookers three small boys along with the village idiot and local drunk, and this audience by no means an attentive one; neither watching closely nor even listening, yawning without concealment, unhearing of a particularly fine line delivered in rare voice to empty air. No one demanding anything from us really but ourselves and whatever it is we hope or expect to be inspired by; a tiny flutter of applause, the magical and deep, electrically charged, bated, unbearable tension of silence when the audience rests in the hollow of your hand.

Despite galling inattention, chagrined intrusion by unwitting janitor slopping water and mop around, scene-stealing outrageously and gaining more applause for doing his job than we for performing. Carrying on despite fire alarm across the street, some damned fool suffers an apparent heart attack but not unfortunately from the power of our performance; disregarding thrown fruit, boos, cat-calls, caustic retort, and worst of all snores. Refusing to admit to more than a bad year, a bad back, a bad season, bad house, the bad luck of being born at the wrong time. Proclaim all things excellent but for the atrocious play; criminal casting, catastrophic lighting, yet lousy as it appears to be we continue to play the unwatched role and try to play it well.

Then perhaps one fine, green-growing, sun-stroked joy of a morning after a particularly fine performance in the art of living day to day in the humdrum everyday dull and despairingly boring serious of days that seem to tiresomely sludge along week to week, month to month, year to year and frequently as long as minute to hour we find we have nourished and helped develop the smallest sprinkle of tiny seed in the art of living and a good deal less than skimpy slice in the art of loving too.

We bow before exiting from empty state in house where no tickets were sold; bow in utter and bearable silence trying not to be afraid. Try very hard to master our stage-fright or life-fright or fright of deep involvements and terror of falling in love. We will however make commitments to ourselves. We will perform. We will care. Care? Yes, and often. Then, genuinely applaud ourselves; take a self-mocking bow to the empty spaces before returning to the dressing room, removing the cosmetic mask of make-us and hopefully, though this not guaranteed, find among the other wrinkles some few small laughter lines remaining at mouth edges. And surely that alone reason enough to return each morning and evening to the raising of threadbare, moth-eaten curtain; flapping at cobwebs, attempting to gain more light both inside and out. Keeping on as we have always tried to do and hope to so continue. on to the unlit our dim spotlighted centre of the bull’s-eyed middle of whatever world it is we are performing inside; creating unnoticed the dream and drama that is each of our lives; attempting a living and a loving far beyond our own strength or ability to sustain ourselves ore others, yet not declining the challenge of further experience; grasping and pressing in a morass of tedium for the richer, fuller, more vital life. Ever trying, accepting, and lying too. Wailing, complaining, failing badly, cursing, being cursed and accused falsely, swearing to do better, forgetting our lines but not giving up.

Often not knowing how to chart a path through dense thickets of the legend of our vague, unvoiced motives but caring and continuing to attempt the utterly impossible. Desiring to fly. Attempting to soar through space in mental fight on those rare times when we not only accomplish our role creditably but well, not simply well but perform incomparably despite the cruel truth of no-one’s having noticed. Our critical faculties bastardised, intuition ravished by intellect, intellect belted badly about the mouth by the negative critical appraisal of others, sensory powers undermined, thinking processes torpedoed yet, though listing badly, remaining afloat and in indeterminate condition, and we hope not cauterised. Never really knowing for sure our true worth; believing the flattery of lies, denying or disregarding sound advice, spending enormous amounts of wasted time in the anxious and apprehensive state of not knowing and wondering, will we ever know?

And if someone we knew well performed a similar role to greater applause hoping to be able to join in the applause, and as has been stated so many times before, that what gives it true value and meaning is the participation; the doing; the assuming full responsibility for our lives. Not the appraisal, important as that might be, nor the disapproval nor the rating of the acts of others but simply the self involvement. The taking part, the living of our live, the loving, ecstatic and heart-breaking effort and struggle of it all. The long, good march, the testing ground, the inevitable bitternesses, the job, the dancing not merely to the famous tune but keeping time to the pulse beat of our own faintly-heard but vital rhythms. Better a worn coin with face and tail worn off than in mint condition from never having left the silver press.

And in all life this youth to manhood role perhaps the maddest, wildest, most ungovernable part; that huge wide section of our life strata between childhood and adulthood, wilder than childhood, madder than manhood, when we discover drink, love, women, never as many or as often as our wildest desires longed for but more than a sufficiency. And at times unable to restrain our singing too, alone down the storm. Crying on lonely nights across sea edges; whispering, more gentle than breath and softer than butterfly’s fluttering journey, secrets to the soft hair behind a girl’s ear and she only half listening, and gain usually not even joy but a tiny, transient satisfaction from the results of all our efforts and that perhaps a great deal more than we expected or even desired.

chapter six

So there I was, large as life, ignorant, innocent, arrogant, adventure hungry, almost eighteen and very concerned that I was born too late for true adventure, and a huge amount of time and my life continued to flash swiftly by and next to nothing accomplished. The boys in stories who ran away to sea as cabin boys were almost veterans with much voyaging under their belts and me only now setting forth.

I was happy to leave home. My mother suffered greatly in her life and was harsh and embittered. I am sure she needed much forgiving, something I found myself unable to do at that time. Not for me the struggle to depart that many others suffered. I was glad, even exultant, to be on my way at last, already wondering why my departure had taken me such a long time.

My entering into the Royal Marines at Stonehouse Barracks, Plymouth remains a truly horrendous experience. To this day the thought of it is enough to send a shiver through me, I never did get used to the life; the regimentation, the brutalisation, the dullness. I wish that Shakespeare, Sean O’Casey, Gorki, Brecht or other great writers had served in the ranks as a common soldier and told it as he saw it in all its awesome waste and devastation; I am not talking about material but of men’s lives; materials can always be replaced, particularly in this country and particularly if they are war materials.

The routine in the Royal Marines had changed very little since Waterloo and the Crimea. World War Two appeared largely incidental and merely an annoyance in disturbing the even pace and peacetime routine of barrack-room life.

Life was a tedium of honing and polishing boots until they really sparkled, then on field training we were forced to charge through muddy fields in never clearly understood manoeuvres. We shined brass cap badges and pieces of equipment and treated our webbing gear with blanco. We tried, not always with success, to retain a sharp crease in our best battledress trousers for Sunday morning church parade when we were bullied about, open-order-march, or inspected and when even the most unsatisfactory of we recruits were passed as fit for inspection seemingly form nowhere the marvellous division band would march soft-footedly onto the barracks square and after more drill sergeants bawling and bullying and moving us around the band begin to play and we moved off in columns under the large barracks arch and marched through the streets of Plymouth. Drums thumping, brass instruments slam and battering, as we charged along in lilting step everything again seemed all right.

Ours were interminable days of pointless and futile marching up and down, back and forth across the barrack square, obeying without question blithering and idiotic drill sergeants to right turn, right wheel, left turn, about turn, and, as you were, over, over, and over again’ sloping arms, presenting arms, on the march and in the position of, Attention. Square-bashing was our total occupation all day and for more days and weeks than I now care to try to remember; and if we did not give it of our best on the parade ground we were punished by being given extra drill in the evening. As with all things despicable we were told it was good for us.

After several weeks of training in Stonehouse Barracks we moved out to Cornwall to sleep under canvas and undergo field training. Our Commanding Officer was another retired and recalled Indian Army officer. An undaunted bore, immune to everything except complete triviality. A boaster of the past and the god old days; an ex-Baluchistan Walla and hounder of the cunning Pathan, full of “Rah . . . rah’s!” that were far beyond reasonable belief even in the days of Clive’s capture of India. These fatuous and ego swollen types were somehow flushed out from every dark, boring and insensitive corning of home and empire to plague us and make our young lives miserable.

Meanwhile I was not simply muddling along; without great effort or particular concern I was already with modest pride acquiring some small reputation as a mayhem maker and taking pride in this accomplishment.

One day six of us were detailed off for fire piquet duty. There numerous piquet and guard duties were the field training equivalent of square-bashing and were devised to keep our idle hands busily involved in meaningless activity and attempt to contain our lives in another unbelievable quicksand of boredom. The duties of the fire piquet were to range about the camp and watch out for fires. In the event of an incendiary attack we were expected to be first on the scene and immediately douse the bombs. As far as I was personally concerned the best thing that might have happened to that miserable camp, and a thousand others like it, was that it burn down to the ground.

This particular officer, in his efforts to keep us on our toes, set afire some hay at the edge of the camp. After waiting until it was well ablaze he sounded the fire alarm. No-one heard the alarm and the blazing hay spread rapidly into the camp. Several of the huts caught fire and soon the corner of a huge, rambling wooden wreck of a building we used as gymnasium and squatted beside the camp like an enormous geometric mammoth was burning so fiercely that when we arrived with buckets and hand extinguishers it was already out of our control so we assumed the role of spectators. A message was sent to the local fire brigade and the C.O. attempted to organise us into a bucket line but was unable to find sufficient buckets so we trotted back and forth trying to look riddled with concern and when the roof crashed down inside the fiery mess we were unable to restrain a loud cheer. Another Marine, Paddy Canning and myself were so charged up that when no one was looking we set fire to the company store and once it was well ablaze ran back with the news. The local fire brigade arrived on the scene; several men in shirt sleeves and farm workers clothes looking angrily and bad temperedly about and complaining about having to desert the harvesting. They were not at all disappointed about finding the gymnasium burned to the ground. They walked over the inspect the smoking ashes, spat on the ground and remounting their fire engines drove away. Given a little more time, Paddy Canning and I might have destroyed the entire camp but someone snitched on us and we were placed under close arrest. We were brought before the Commanding Officer of a different camp but we kept to our decision to lie outrageously and admit to nothing. After our C.O. admitted to setting the original fire it was disclosed that we were detailed to fire duty without proper training or instruction and that no fire fighting manual existed in the camp. They tried to scare us into some sort of confession but we stuck to our stories and the charges were dropped. Some few times while under close arrest I remember lying alone in my cell and breaking out into wonderfully uncomplicated and probably near hysterical laughter at the whole proceedings and wondered how the war would ever be won, or lost, without the like of chaps like myself. One officer wanted me sent off for psychiatric examination but nothing came of this; I must have been much too tiny a spanner in the enormous apparatus of the massive military works. Despite our very tinyness we no doubt helped keep many an officer if not, awake of nights, certainly tossing restlessly about in troubled sleep and a knowledge of inheriting this particular role was of some importance in helping boys in uniform retain their identities and other various human qualities.

Another time we were stationed at Sandwich, in Kent, in Southeast England. According to the history books Sandwich is famous, among other things, because the Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich. Apparently he was a compulsive gambler and could not bear to tear himself away from the gaming and card tables for means so he ordered some meat be placed between bread and brought to him that he might eat and not be distracted from his gaming.

At this time a great beer shortage existed in Britain; in a fact a series of continuing beer famines. But in Sandwich, one paynight, we discovered the reverse situation. The newly supplied pubs held an excellent stock of beer but there were not enough glasses for the numerous drinkers. Tipplers were drinking from jam jars, pots, bowls, even army mess tines. I was wandering about this night with Maudwyn Morgan, a Welsh friend who we called Maudlin Morgan because of his drunk behaviour every payday, and who claimed to play the harp and the mouth organ simultaneously. We were never able to find both instruments together and challenge him. Surely we were two of the most frustrated drinkers alive walking around jarless that night; all the beer you could pay for and nothing to drink from, and camp was two miles away.

We wandered morosely around suffering great misery and in the course of our dejected meanderings found ourselves outside a cemetery. We glanced over the wall and spotted among old dusty wreaths and faded artificial flowers a pair of coarse, china vases, shaped like cornucopia or large, green ice-cream cornets. Before the days of plastic they were in common use to hold flowers and other offerings from the living to the dead. Slipping over the wall we secured one each, emptied out the old flowers and wiped them clean. Returning swiftly to one of the pubs the publican accepted our containers without tinge of surprise; filling them from the beer pump and passing them back with a big head of foam frothing over the edge. Establishing ourselves at the end of the bar with our large, china, beer-filled and re-filled cones, we no doubt presented a fine image of small Fallstaffians and soon, other drinkers wanted to know where we had gotten the big, green, drinking horns.

Marines and soldiers soon began appearing with large china vessels and very quickly the cemeteries were looted. The style spread rapidly through Kent and South-eastern England, perhaps as far as London and graveyards were scoured clean. The fashion or fad lasted several weeks and years later in a friend’s house in Penzance, in Cornwall, seeing one of the unusual containers on the mantle piece, I asked as to its significance. My friend’s mother told me her oldest son brought it home during the war. Did she remember from where? I inquired.

“Yes. From Ramsgate,” she remembered.

Ramsgate was only a few miles from Sandwich. It was quite possible he was drinking in Sandwich the same night we inadvertently introduced a new style in drinking receptacles.

“Where is your son now?” I inquired.

“He is dead. He was drowned in the war.”

There was one other drink-related incident that happened in Sandwich which I do not remember clearly as I was in a blackout part of the time but several friends sear to its authenticity. One morning after payday when we were all a bit groggy from drinking the night before something curious happened. On the way to the dining hall we passed in front of the company office. Chained to a stake outside the office was one of the meanest and most saving-looking dogs I have ever seen; some godforsaken mixture of wolf with wild boar and at times I expected to see the beginnings of a dorsal fin thrusting fiercely up through its back. The animal had scraped and ploughed up the ground inside the circle of his long, chain-length and as we passed to and from the messhall he snarled and sulked, growled and furiously rattled his chain. His mouth was a gash of hungry sharks teeth and a perpetual groan rippled in his throat. When anyone passed his fur bristled with rage and chained frustration. He actually hurled himself off the ground, against the restraining collar, and was brought to a halt in the mid-air of his charge by reaching the end of his chain.

This morning we were late and running and me not quite wide-awake shortcut a path across the ploughed circle of turn without the dog making a charge at me. Sitting down to breakfast someone pointed this out and when we finished eating and were on our way back to the hut we stopped by the dog. Bill Marshall, a companion from drinking the night before said, “Walk inside . . . Go on, walk around inside. Let them all see who is master. After last night there is nothing to fear.”

“After last night?” What happened last night I wondered but thought it better not to ask.

Very tentatively I placed one foot inside the circle. The dog ambled over, sniffed my boot and my ankle and waked off. I brought my other foot into the circle and began walking back and forth. I soon gained complete confidence and began to swagger by calling the brute over and scratched his ears. Then I turned my back on him quickly to let them see I was not afraid. I felt like kicking the dog in a friendly manner but scratched his back instead and he started wagging a tail an thick and stiff as a rope.

“Com on in, chaps!” I invited.

One marine started to enter the circle but the dog charged him with such fury I hard the whang of the iron stake when he had charged out its full length. The adventurer turned white and none of the others seemed inclined to take chances. I gave the dog another rough and affectionate which across the shoulders and rejoined my friends,

“Funny,” I said to Bill Marshall, “How dogs take to certain people!”

“Funny?” he replied. “Nothing funny about it. Don’t you remember last night?”

“Last night?” I repeated, and hoped I appeared casual, “Of course I remember last night. What was so special about last night?”

He shook his head in remembered amazement. “You should have seen yourself last night; down on your hands and knees staring it out with that dog. That was really funny.”

“Well, I grew up in the country. I have a way with dogs,” I remarked. I never did find out if he was lying, telling the truth or pulling my leg. Nor did I press the point.

Eventually I became so impatient with the life in the Royal Marines that I deserted; it was not in the face of the enemy and I am sure it was entirely due to boredom and rebellion against an exuberance quickly becoming throttled. I was probably a good soldier. Even in desertion I pursued an opposite path. Another marine and myself took off across the English Channel, hitchhiked through Northern France and managed to enter Paris days after the city was liberated. We enjoyed marvellous times and were treated as liberating heroes. After three weeks we decided to give ourselves up before we were gone too long but no one was interested in us, eventually we must return to England as we departed, illegally, and turn ourselves in to the authorities. We were sentenced to serve time and I did lots of other time for infractions of the navel and military code. You spend the first few days on bread and water and must pick a pound of oakum before getting your hard tack. Oakum is tarry rope that you pull apart strand by strand and your thumbs and forefingers get sore and it piles up and up. Finally when you are done you call a guard who examines it and if he is not satisfied, if you left two strands together, you are forced to go through it again.

One good thing about the Royal Marines though, or what I thought was good then, every day at eleven o’clock the bosun piped, Up Spirits, and we were issued a rum ration. A large tot of Jamaica Rum. It seems that away back in history when Nelson captured Jamaica, from whom I don’t remember though I am sure it was not from the Jamaicans, he forced them to sign an agreement to supply the British Navy with rum for something like a thousand years. It was good rum. Some fellows saved their rum; bottled it and sold it ashore for quite a bit of money. Liquor and tobacco brought an excellent price during the war. Britain had nothing then. The shops were empty, the cupboard was bare. I don’t know why many of them stayed open, there was nothing inside but empty shelves and spiderwebs. Everything was rationed; one egg a month and don’t eat it all at once, make it last.

When the GI’s began arriving before the invasion of France the prices went skyhigh. American troops were plunging around waving fistfuls of money like millionaires. They were ready to pay any price for rum.

Some few of us never did sell the rum. We always drank it or shared it with each other and were all the time bartering and negotiating to acquire more. I developed a great fondness for the rum; not the clear, anaemic-looking Bacardi rum; the thick, brown, robust, Demerara rum that you could near slice it with a knife was the one I liked. I became so attached to it I could lap it up like a kitten laps up cream or a turkey into the brandied gooseberries.

I landed on Normandy. I saw them dispose of the dead. They pile them up, throw petrol over them and set it afire, in a reasonably secluded place of course. It did not take me long to realise how vulnerable we all are, how fragile and precarious is the quality of all our lives.

I am sure the five years I served in the Royal Marines did hemp mould my character. It probably destroyed much of my drive and ambition, assuming I owned my fair share of these qualities in the beginning. Just as some people claim prisons make criminals and often lead complete innocents into paths of crime so, I believe, did my experience in the Royal Marines tend to make me lazy, irresponsible, shiftless, undependable, and expert evader of onerous duties by means of devious manoeuvres, and, too, perhaps helped develop and hone a certain resourcefulness. Whether or not it helped subscribe to my becoming a drunkard I am unable to say with any sure knowledge. The nearest civilian equivalent, and this from friends and observation rather than experience, is probably working in the Post Office, or the Civil Service, those last two refuges for the totally incompetent. Dull, pointless, emotionally unrewarding work and completely unrelated to anything alive; largely purposeless tasks yet viewed with great seriousness and considered indispensable. Blunders concealed; no-one ever fired for incompetence, in fact often the greater the ineptitude the better the opportunity for advancement; promotion even guaranteed through necessary length of service and seniority.

One good friend in the Post Office and present Alcoholics Anonymous member confided that he worked twenty-eight years for the Post Office and for twenty-seven of those years he was so drunk he never found out what he was supposed to be doing. And when he retired he was replaced by two men. My brilliant service career lay somewhere in that general area, and today, looking back, I wonder how we managed to win the war. Probably because the enemy with hall his myth of praiseworthy efficiency, supposed excellent fighting reputation plus great ability in maintaining supply lines and keeping them running smoothly nevertheless lost the war either by an over-extension of his resources but probably because he committed greater errors, blunders and monstrosities of incompetence than ourselves. Time and again I saw tragic blunders and expensive bungling covered over and at times retranslated into unexpected gains. As to some elements in the officers ranks I only state that many of the ones I served under apparently managed to grow from adolescence into premature senility with no normal middle-ground in between.

chapter seven

After the war there was a time I choose to call my St. Bernard period. I finally got the uniform off my back and I felt as free as a bird. I took to the roads. I chased a desire to move around and get the restlessness out of my system though as it turned out I was only to foster a desire for further wandering and looking back across bast distances it seems to be my single accomplishment.

I worked in Bristol, Carlisle, London, Coventry, Gravesend, Nottingham, Southampton and many other cities. Picked tomatoes in Guernsey in the Channel Islands and drifted around with neither strong aim nor destination.

Those were years when the drink was flowing freely and despite sharp but short-lived hangovers in the morning it would soon be opening time in the evening, the drink would flow freely, the company would be sparkling, the music would play, the moon would shine forever and morning would never come. And I remember after a heavy night of the boozing once, on the way home to some lodging house, it had been snowing and after losing my balance as one does sometimes I was resting in the snow. Half asleep, half entranced I clearly remember this wonderful vision. I was somewhere in the frozen north, or the tundra, or perhaps it was high on Kilimanjara, I was a great reader too, the wind and the wolves had stopped howling, all was white and still virginal and quiet as a snowflake when in the distance I heard the baying of a hound. Looking up I saw it was a great St. Bernard shambling through the drifts towards me. He approached and began licking the icicle off the end of my nose with a tongue the size of a washcloth. While he was bringing the cholesterol red back to my nose I unhitched the small keg of brandy from under his chin, took a good belter from it and shook it to make sure there was plenty left. Then I slapped the faithful beast on the flank and sent him back to where he came from figuring to myself that there would be enough to last me until such times as he returned with another. In other words all I am saying is that there never was enough; regardless of circumstances or favours done or received or money or the lack of money or any other thing in life there never was enough, never had been enough and tragically never would be enough, never, never, never, not in a thousand years.

Then, as they say, we keep on marching. Memory believes before knowing remembers. Knowing not grieving remembers a thousand savage and lonely streets, and at the end of each street a bottle, a jug, a six pack. The whiskey died away, was renewed, died away again but the hunger for it remained and it was a long time before I came to realise that it was not the loneliness I was trying to escape but myself.

But in the good early times, overwhelming all else was my youth and that truly wonderful carelessness of youth. When you feel your life burning inside you and you can be or do anything you desire. A simple wish would impel your destiny in any direction you would choose, or, even better, refusing to choose, wishing its course to remain haphazard and unchosen, only that it soar, brightly shining, exultant and all aflame as a shooting star. In those wonderful moments of pondering the future the magic wand would flash across a slice of time and, Hey Presto, out of the space magician’s large black cloud of a hat would be pulled not a white rabbit or a stream of fluttering turtle doves but my wriggling self, a bit bigger than before in body if not in brain, deeper voiced, louder, stronger, more than eager to seek out folly, and on the very threshold of adulthood.

To be young is the good time, the best time, perhaps the only time. And you have nothing but the thirst for adventure, the searching eye and the good health that you take absolutely for granted. I had already knocked about a good deal. I had recently finished five long interminable often unendurable years in the Royal Marines and despite tremendous pressure and stress I had managed to retain much of my sanity. The enemy had been destroyed and forced into unconditional surrender and I felt like a punchdrunk fighter still on his feet, coming out of a blackout with his arm being raised in victory and seeing his opponent lying unconscious on the canvas, knocked out by some freak punch we had pulled out from nowhere and would never be able to duplicate again. So I might be permitted a slight smirk of satisfaction as I sneaked home wearing my ill fitting demobilisation suit to be turned loose into a society I already felt ill-fitted to deal with. So there I was returning to a world at peace or so we were told.

I suffered through the job routine; builder’s labourer, factory worker, worked on the railway, navvying, house-painter and shipped out too. Going to sea was a terrible disappointment. I was, I still am, consumed with a wild and romantic dream of the sea; of the movement of waves and the pull of sail. Raising the anchor by hand . . . singing chanteys . . . rounding ‘The Horn’, scrambling up the rigging to the crow’s next and when you spotted the spurt of a whale hollering, ‘Thar she blows’. Disregarding hardships, welcoming them even as a part of youth and the apprenticeship one must pass through on his way to manhood.

Proud, confident, unafraid; everything a great adventure. The excitement of pure wandering and uncaring about your destiny; not at all concerned about money. All that was needed was the strong beat of the heart, the sparkle in the eye and one would seem to go on forever. You could read and write books about it without ever even approaching its very essence.

I remember once I was shipping out from the old country and I had missed a ship and was on the beach in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. A lovely group of islands. I’m sure today the tourists brochures now claim them as their very own newly discovered paradise. Beautiful beaches, marvellous climate. Indeed it was a paradise and I truly had the time of my life because I was young then. I was feeling my oats. I had finally managed to escape that dank, damp, dreary, gloomy and grey British climate and emerge at last into the sun. It was like a second birth. The first birth I arrived into this world in an explosion of muffled sound, the second birth I emerged into a particular part of the world flooded with sunlight and it was love at first sight. I needed no coaxing, no convincing . . . I saw the sun, I fell in love and that particular love has never left me. Gone, forever I hoped, those sodden thistled Scottish highlands and moorland. Grey Glasgow and Gloomy Edinburgh with their rain-washed mackintosh-muffled streets and refrigerated bedrooms with goose-pimpled wallpaper falling away from the walls because of the damp. I was as exultant as a bird trying his wings; swooping, diving, soaring, holding his flight. Since that day I have never really left the sun.

And I was in my powers. I did not give one damn about the world or anyone or anything in it; I did not wish anyone any harm either. I teamed up with two other seamen and they too had missed their ships. Like myself they were not growing careworn and haggard about missing an old ship. We had fallen in love with the island, the climate, the drink, the girls, with life itself.

By missing that first ship—it was not to be my last—I was already what is called a D.B.S., a distressed British seaman. They stamp a big black mark in your seaman’s book and if you become D.B.S. three times you can no longer ship out on a British vessel. However I was at that stage in life where I did not worry about such trifles. Who in their right mind would be wanting to bang away with a chipping hammer on a rusty old ship’s side and slap on that red lead when the sun was shining and all was right with the world.

We lived in a make-shift tent made of poles and canvas that one of the seamen, a Welshman named Norman, had inherited from some former beachcomber. When a merchant ship docked we would go aboard and eat. The seamen are great and why should they not be? After all they are our brothers. Sometimes we even raised money for the wine.

We also became friends with some local fishermen. Any fish left over from their catch they would give to us. Despite something of a language barrier we got to know them very well. Often we depended on them. They must have figured we were a wee bit different and probably realised that our aim and purpose in life was not to wear a suit and collar and tie and work in a bank or laboratory and certainly not a factory. We were not particularly inclined to industry of any kind. We were children of working class parents and none of our fathers had any great praise for hard world except to keep the wolf from the door. School was over at fourteen, and if you had asked us about our education I am sure we would have told you we did not even miss it.

Ah it was a great life all right, a great life. I’m sure we suffered our aches and pains, nevertheless it was what you might call a poor man’s idyllic existence.

We literally lived on fish. Clams for breakfast with a banana. Fish for dinner. Many a time there would be a big fish on the plate and nothing else. No salad, no baked Idaho, no tartar sauce or melted butter garnish, no sprig of parsley and certainly no silver fish knives. We had fried fish, boiled fish, fish cooked in a home-made steamer, grilled fish, fish cooked on a spit over a flame, fish in a chowder. I ate so much fish my stomach used to rise and fall with the tide.

Norman, our Welsh comrade, had been on the island a long time and was drinking heavily. He was in the DT’s a good deal of the time. In his worse periods he would rant on and on about the terrible creatures planning to encircle him. He described them as a mixture of huge red-and-black feathered spiders with luminous eyes and sharp-clawed, swarming octopi with the flesh-devouring teeth of piranha fish.

One evening the fishermen gave us a lobster with the fish and we had raised enough for a gallon of wine. When we returned Norman was staring wild-eyed into space and howling like a dog. We gave him a big swallow of the wine and he laid down and almost instantly fell asleep. Were drinking and preparing supper and for a laugh we laid the lobster on his bare chest. After supper we wandered along the beach to lie around and take our ease when we heard this terrible scream. Then in the moonlight we saw the Welshman. He was streaking across the sands like a wild man; leaping and flailing the air with his arms and throwing his knees high. He raced past without even seeing us and was carrying what looked to be a long-necked chicken. On his return we saw it was the lobster. Every few steps he leaped into the air like a hurdler or a male ballet dancer, throwing his front foot horizontal to the ground and making you think he might sprout wings, hold his flight and sail away into the horizon. We finally brought him down with a rugby tackle and had to sit on him to keep him quiet. The sweat was lashing out of him and he was still clutching the lobster. He gradually calmed down enough to talk but even then it was with the voice of a man who had narrowly escaped drowning, “I kept telling you bastards about those monsters I was seeing. Well you’ll have to believe me now for I’ve caught one.”

He was in such a state of agitation we had to hold the jug to his mouth and after a few gurgles he quieted down.

Somewhere in that time period was a year spent in the Falkland Islands, a small group of bleak islands in the South Atlantic a thousand miles from Cape Horn. They were aptly described by Charles Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle as one of the most desolate places he had ever observed. There were two industries on the islands, sealing and sheep rearing. We were sent there on a construction job to build a freezer, the idea being they would store lamb and mutton and ship it back to market in Great Britain.

Of the two thousand population the men outnumbered the women by something like six to one. That was in Fort Stanley, the only town and we were out at a desolate inlet called Ajax Bay where there were no women at all. Never having been a philanderer though oft in my Walter Middy daydreamings I have been possessed of truly mighty prowess I made little progress on the feminine scene; which reminds me of a short four line poem by that great Irishman Patrick Kavanaugh,

To be a poet and know the trade
To be a lover and repel women
Twin ironies by which great saints are made
The agonising pincer jaws of Heaven.

The one thing to do on the islands was drink. Rum mostly. They still served it from those huge wooden barrels which are called rumbullions. There was an enormous amount of drinking and never one to be backward about coming forward where drink was concerned my drinking career picked up considerable speed and began careening along on its willy-nilly, haphazard, headlong, headstrong, staggering, fumbling, directionless and certainly less than exemplary way.

I found out years later that there was more alcohol consumed per head of population on the Falkland Islands than anywhere else in the British Empire and whatever you might think of the Jolly Old Empire nobody ever claimed it to be a prissy and well-sheltered little rose garden peopled with prim and proper Sunday school teachers and droning and long-winded, fatuous and wooden headed Presbyterian preachers, or priests either for that matter.

Then there was a wedding on the islands. One of our workmates and a local girl fell in love and everyone was invited to the wedding. On the morning of the ceremony I was in one of the bars drinking and I ran into this friend of mine Ernie Baker whereupon we commenced to have a few together. He bought a round and I bought a round and he bought a round and I bought a round and he bought a round and then another round and I had to buy two rounds twice to be even and we had several more several times. All at once he peered up at the clock and lurched off in the direction of the door.

“Where are you off to then, Ernie?” I asked.

“I’m best man at the wedding.” he replied jocularly.

On our arrival at the church, wobbly and a bit breathless but in excellent shape I could not help but notice a look of great relief on the faces of an older couple who, as it turned out, were the parents of the bride. Some of our workmates were grinning broadly. I wondered why.

Once inside the church things were gotten under way and everything was moving along good style. When the bride appeared and walked down the aisle she looked radiant and we saw right away it was what in the Old Country we call a vestry job, so close was she to delivery. Her parents and the minister simply wanted the ring on the bride’s finger and the blessing of the church all in readiness for the imminent christening. Everyone looked somewhat harassed except the bride and perhaps Ernie Baker.

The ceremony was moving along, the tension had dispersed and the ritual was almost complete when the minister asked Ernie for the ring. There was a lot of pocket searching and through the aisles a certain restiveness sprang up as people began to whisper and stare toward Ernie who continued to fumble through his pockets. The bride’s parents stepped from their pew to help but as they were approaching, Ernie found it and dug it out of his hip pocket. He was so pleased he held it up to the light like a prospector who has just found a big gold nugget. Much to the minister’s consternation he flicked it like a coin into the air but he missed it coming down and it rolled away under the pews. As soon as he saw the people on hands and knees searching for the ring he dashed out of the church to relieve himself and on his return everyone had miraculously recovered their composure. The remainder of the ceremony went off beautifully and no doubt bride and groom lived happily forever afterwards.

chapter eight

Then we grow older. We become cynical or sceptical. We have been saddened by the years; disappointed. Marriages have broken down. We have trouble understanding our children, or the young. They seem different than we were. The elemental urge and surge of sexual desire begins to wane. The drink is taken to ease the pin rather than to extend the good times. The good times are less and less frequent and little is pleasurable any more. One morning looking in the mirror you notice almost with surprise that your hair is turning white and now there are more wrinkles around your eyes. The hangovers last longer and are infinitely more painful. It is not easy to surmount a certain embitterment. What was taken in youth’s stride becomes harder and harder to bear. Our cynicism deepens . . . ships become just ships . . . places are only places . . . and that is tragic . . .

If a ship was going to America she was going and you did not care any more, if she was going to Valparaiso or Shanghai she was going and that was all. You did not think always but you worked but you walked. Your purpose was your own. The ship was not yours, nor the sea, nor any singly star nor any small moment of time until you tied up again in dock. You would have a few shillings, a few dollars, in your pocket, the gin-mill doors were always open and inviting and the smile and flash of teeth on any girl was like the taste of strong wine. A few days, away again. No star invited, no purpose called. The poetic rage of wind and wild water touched no chord in your being. The work must be done, the bunk is warm after toil, and soon you will be home again.

And what is home? Some men among us did not throw their money to the wind like the rain; married, raised families, built homes. Prospered despite the travel and long intervals of separation. Good marriages too, substantial relationships; more substantial perhaps because of the separations. But for the types like myself, the dark, dock bars. The bumming around, the running into guys broke and on the beach and before you knew it you were in the same shape they were. The working routine of your life breaks down. Your prospects are limited and what few skills you once possessed, diminish. Ambition evaporates. The sea is given up as a lost cause and you take to kicking around ashore. One town is much like another; any old place will do. Before you realise what is happening you have become a drifter. You fall into the way of life easily. Soon you are looking for handouts, lining up for a bed, sitting interminable hours in run-down missions, unlistening to dreary religious sermons, waiting for a bowl of watery soup or simply to be somewhere out of the cold.

Fortunately there were still plenty of good, rich, language-ridden, drinking days remaining when, murky mornings you will see us hanging about the end of the street or tavern door, tongue lolling out, all a’panting and slathering at the mouth with a thirst deeper than the bottom of a Calvinist minister’s sin-bag. Able to pick up a day’s work randomly to gain the entrance fee, manage even to hold down a steady job until such times as we have enough folding money to travel somewhere else.

I emigrated to this country twenty-five years ago and all I clearly remember of my departure from the British Isles is standing on the deck of a boat regarding the rain sluicing down and my swearing heartily as we pulled out of Liverpool to never return. No, Godamnit, not if I came to a bad end and the electric chair or gas chamber should I live to a hundred and eventually drown in San Francisco when the San Andreas Fault finally broke off from the mainland that form of death was infinitely superior even if the only logical reason was that it took place in a warm and friendly ocean.

Here too I travelled extensively; back and forth restlessly from coast to coast many times, foraying into Canada in the north and México to the south. I appeared to be acquiring suitable credentials for the back of a book jacket without the necessary desire to write the book or particular need to express, other than verbally, my views, my findings and opinions. Perhaps gathering grist for some creaking future mill.

In the United States I did the usual things; mostly for small pay. Washed dishes, night watchman in a resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains, railroad brakeman, labourer, elevator operator, museum guard, messenger, worked on construction. Toiled obscurely in a furniture factory in New Orleans and a small shipyard in Georgia, Worked for interior decorators, picked fruit, sold ice cream. I managed to get myself arrested sometimes for being drunk in a public place and various and several disorderly and disturbance of the peace charges.

I would later wonder without true curiosity what was important then? What good or unlucky path taken? What had I done right? Or more usually, what had I done wrong? The course of my life never seriously troubled me and such being my nature I had no interest even in its scrutiny.

There are many deeds I did not do in my life, have not yet done, may never do, yet as long as I breathe potentially there remains a chance that I still may accomplish some of them. The past is over. The message, if there happened to be a message, is either lost, ignored or tossed extravagantly aside. There are deeds I am certainly capable of doing and indeed do still intend to accomplish. And what are those deeds you well might ask? And what are those deeds you well might not ask. Well, I am going to tell them anyway. I will plant the seed of both a redwood and a beech tree. Challenge Shakespeare and write a love sonnet. Whistle a tune of my own composing. Attempt the impossible too. Walk in a wood, call out a yet unknown name and have a wild bird fly down and light on my head or shoulder; then I know I am living in tune with nature.

And I have a dream . . . I have a wild dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream but my dream is neither as inspiring, as unselfish or as noble as Mr. King’s dream. Not that you can compare dreams; dreams are an entity unto themselves. Let me tell you my wild dream. I wish to experience in reality the fantastic, good daydream of returning to that wild, Scottish and Dundrennan Village in Kirkcudbrightshire, where I was born, and on the Witches Sabbath of a Saturday night with the banshees wailing, the dogs snarling, the owls howling, the cats squalling and general bedlam in all directions, and every other man but myself drunk beyond the bloodshot, goggling eyeballs; to the helter-skelter of drunken pipers and harum-scarum, whiskey-inspired fluters manage single handedly to dance sober some semblance of a floor tottering, drunken hornpipe that many times in the past I danced drunk and unremembered. And that single deed alone may make all the remaining days of my life worth their own spending.

I wish to coax out, cajole, entice, wheedle, foster and nourish the desire to do something with no meaning for me. To charm from a mouth organ never heard before, strange-sounding tunes and rhythm patters that may make coils of rope take life and dance and dangle in the air. Had I sons in cradles or grown up—which I have not; me being the only child in my family—I’d tell them to attempt to create. At times, even with the arse out the creative trousers, and, as the blind, Irish poet Rafftery once said in ending a poem, ‘. . . Hark to me now with me back to the wall playing to empty pockets . . .’ Hammer out of a stone a form that may abide, and if it does not abide that is all right too. Enter the breast of a stork, take flight and set the earth on its saucer-shaped edge in the course of our long-winged, silent gliding: To try to satisfy this strange, insatiable urge inside myself I will stride outdoors on a story night and attempt to fashion a statue out of the falling rain.

I sometimes burn with hatred too. About what politicians, and generals and industry has pressed down on our shoulders and with what we have overburdened ourselves. It is difficult not to scream in blind, futile and what someone will no doubt prove is illogical rage, but maybe we must scream anyway. Damn the assembly line . . . A curse on plastic. Dismantle the factories . . . Destroy the automobile . . . Return to us horses that we might caress their necks and feed them apples, fertilise the land with their dung. Let us sniff flowers, tie ribbons in girls hair, compose poems with a stick in wet sand and try to again be in tune to the living world we inherited from our remote, caved ancestors, otherwise this strange, dependence upon mechanical rather than living objects may yet demand a terrible price from our humanity.

Deep into the odyssey of my life I worked once in Schlitz’s Brewery in Brooklyn, New York City. As if at the end of all my marching, here existed my ultimate destiny, a job in a brewery, a drinker’s paradise; the only better job for a tippler might be working in a distillery, but I am sure in a distillery the place is infested and seething with security guards and everything drinkable under lock and key. Anyway I finished up in a brewery. All the beer you could drink, the lunch-room refrigerator always stacked full and a keg on tap for those who preferred the draught. But it was again the old story of there never being enough so lunch time we headed down to the All Inn for a few shots and we always had booze in the changing room.

Despite a No Strike clause in the union contract we pulled a ‘wildcat strike’ and another fellow and myself who were on the bottom rung of the seniority ladder were laid off. Perhaps it was just as well otherwise there is a very good chance that I might not be around anymore braying and whinnying along with the rest. Nor did this brewery job in any way increase my eagerness to embrace the sober life.

My last job or, as the forms demand, the last time I was gainfully employed was at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. I worked there nearly two years and was fired in 1972 for absenteeism; which is a polite way of expressing it, need I divulge the true reason. The job was building maintenance, the pay was good and I then lived on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan so that a few minutes on the subway brought me to and from work.

The job was fascinating in many ways; the theatre being as large beyond the curtain as in the seating area and backstage was infinitely more interesting. Besides the movie there was always a stage show and for this was provided a full orchestra, organists, modern dance group and always special talent such as jugglers, aerialists, singers, dancers, comedians, clowns and choirs; you name it and sooner or later it was booked. And there were the Rockettes, a row of lithe and lovely, long-legged chorus girls dancing back and forth across the full length of the stage. I soon knew a good many of the employees, including several alcoholics, and in a big While Rose Bar on Sixth Avenue around 46th Street, we met before, during and after working hours.

I always like the bars and with the exception of the eye-opener in the morning I never did the solitary drinking bit, which is strange because I have lived largely as a loner, or perhaps a maverick is a truer description and even in cheap rooming house searched out company. A situation of everybody babbling and nobody listening was infinitely superior to drinking alone. I suppose I still regarded drinking as socially acceptable even after the cheering stopped. It is indeed strange because for a long period in my life I buried myself in books and did for about a ten year span consider myself a writer although I never sold or published anything; nor to mention Francesca and what was one of the great romances of the century but that is material for another time and water under a different bridge.

I worked the four to twelve afternoon shift and on Saturdays and Sundays I was on my own. It was a Sunday evening in winter and I brought along a pint of blackberry brandy; a wise, old bartender suggested it did you more good when you had the cold then Seagram Seven. I was backstage and the Rockettes were preparing to link arms and dance onstage. Believe it or not but I fancied my chances as a bit of a Bengal Lancer; and there is another family saga about a great-grandfather, not the one who so fatally fell from the haystack, this one purportedly died dancing but when you asked, ‘How?’ The smug answer was that he was dancing on the end of a rope. Not intending to be outdone by any dammed forefather, when the Rockettes danced onstage I grabbed the one on the end and made my stage appearance. Several things happened simultaneously: The crowd applauded; they probably thought it all part of the act, as did several stagehands backstage, but the stage manager tried to haul me off with a big pole like a shepherd’s crook. I was certainly not having any of that. I pushed him in the chest and he fell over backwards among a crash of falling sets. A couple of the stagehands began laughing and the damage was done right there, not that he was injured. Finally, I was wrestled offstage and the rest is history; dismissal. Actually everyone treated me very nicely and I was told then about Alcoholics Anonymous but my reaction at that time was that AA must be a horde of sermonising ex-drunks and those were the last types of people I wished to see whether I was drunk or sober. This dismissal happened in October, 1972. I never worked again.