Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Bull, Blanco and Bastards

Over the next few months I was to experience (or perhaps “endure” would be a better word) the full range of  military training and discipline designed to convert me into a fighting machine.  However successful that turned out to be, the first two weeks were meant to knock the individuality out of each conscript and reduce them collectively to a “squad” of raw recruits.  From Day One we learned to look after our kit and watch our backs.  New recruits were easy prey for more experienced trainees who had already learned how to survive by taking advantage of others when the opportunity arose.  I learned that lesson on the very first day when, after dumping my kit on the bed allocated to me, I joined the rest of the bunch to march to the cookhouse for tea.  On my return I found one of my blankets had a huge tear in it; I’d given someone a perfect opportunity to swap old for new.  Any item of issued kit, if lost or damaged, had to be paid for before replacement.  A week later, after my first pay packet, a certain sum was deducted for “blankets-grey-one”.

From now on I was army recruit Sapper GRINSELL J., serial number 22727026, which was written into my passbook/paybook and stamped to record the historic event. (The Royal Engineers have always been referred to as “sappers”).

The next few days were spent getting used to surroundings not too far removed from my idea of a German prisoner-of-war camp minus the observation towers and search-lights.  Army everyday clothes consisted of rough denim jacket and baggy trousers (to think denim was to be the fashion in the sixties and beyond!), heavy studded boots and gaiters, dark blue beret with Royal Engineers badge and a webbing belt complete with brasses.

Each group of new recruits was formed into a “troop” of about 30 and there were three troops to a “squadron”.  Each troop had a Corporal non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.) responsible for keeping order and discipline and each squadron had a Sergeant in overall control. 

It was soon clear that army routine started with what was commonly referred to as “bull” or “bullshit” to give it its full title. Bull  was designed to maintain the highest standards of personal tidiness, appearance and hygiene, taken to extreme lengths to ensure army discipline. The first priority was uniform, starting with boots which had to be buffed until you could see your own reflection in the toe-caps.  This could only be achieved by combining spit with polish, applied with a soft cloth.  All brasses - badge, buttons and buckles, had to be polished to a high shine and all webbing – belt, gaiters, pouches and rifle sling, were treated with “blanco” which came in a solid block of khaki distemper and applied with a wet brush.  Apart from the denims we were also issued with a best BD (battledress) which had to be perfectly pressed with all the seams in the right places.  Army issue shirts, made of thick rough material, were laundered together with underpants, socks, handkerchiefs, sheets and pillowcases but always had to be ironed and perfectly folded when not in use, ready for daily inspection.

Collectively occupants of each hut were responsible for keeping the inside spotlessly clean for inspection. Each recruit was responsible for his own bed space and locker where all his personal kit had to be displayed but we all had to ensure that the floor and other internal surfaces were clean and dust-free.  Also each hut had a central coke heater made of cast iron with a flue rising through he centre of the roof.  This had to be “black-leaded” using a cloth and buffed up with a brush to give it a shiny surface. There were usually two fire blankets to each hut, one filled with sand and the other with water.  These had to be painted white and were also included in the inspections.

Regular inspections were made by the Corporal in charge of the troop.  Weekly inspections were carried out by the Sergeant in charge of the squadron.  Both NCOs were soon to be referred to as “bastards” in common with their brethren in all military training camps.  As training developed over the weeks, so too did the natural hatred towards these two individuals of doubtful parentage! Put one foot wrong in front of them and you provoked a mouthful of verbal abuse known only to personnel.  Something more serious and you would be put on a charge, a form of punishment peculiar to the armed forces.  For trivial sins this meant carrying out “fatigues” like sweeping the square, cleaning the toilets or working in the kitchen washing pots or peeling spuds.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Long and the Short and the Tall

The arrival in the post of my instructions to report to Norton Camp, together with a travel warrant to Worcester, sealed my fate and with much trepidation I caught the train from Peterborough but not before receiving a full family send-off from the station platform.  Only my father would have known what I was in for but apart from a few chosen words he kept his thoughts to himself.  Mother and Betty would have been emotional.

Once on the train I had a chance to prepare myself for the experience which was, after all, one of many thousands of 18 year old inductions into the armed services that day.  There must have been a few others on the same train but if there were they were similarly deep in thought with no desire for conversation.  Arrival at Worcester station was a bit of a blur but “the long and the short and the tall” were soon handed in to the back of army trucks known as TCVs (Troop Carrying Vehicles) and whipped off to the barracks to begin two weeks basic training.

Soon after arrival we were marched to the Quartermaster’s store to be fitted out with a range of kit from underpants to greatcoats, boots to bedlinen, socks, shirts, berets and steel helmets, not to mention a sewing kit (known as a housewife), eating irons (knife, fork and spoon) and a tea mug.  All this had to fit into one standard issue kit bag.  Laden with kit, after signing for it, we were directed and escorted to our billet; a wooden hut.

My memory of this camp, a Royal Engineers’ Training Camp which specialised in certain skills loosely connected with Engineering, was repeated in subsequent establishments over the next two years.  It was practice to build military camps on a standard format and layout since WW1 and many buildings dated back to that period.  Living quarters were usually built in timber, grouped around a central “ablutions block”.  It was known as a spider because it had a central core with six legs.  Operational buildings were built of brick with corrugated asbestos sheet roofing.  The focal point of all camps was the parade ground (square) surrounded by the Guard Room and Reception building, administration block, drill shed, QM stores (including the armoury) and main cook-house.  Further back were the medical block, Sergeants Mess, Officers Mess and the inevitable NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute).  Each camp would also contain a military vehicle compound “Motor Transport Depot”.  Beyond that, on the perimeter of the camp, were various open areas used for military training.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Bonny Baby

Apologies for this being out of sequence but I found this newspaper clipping recently and as it features my dad, I wanted to share it with you. If you click on it, you can see the detail a little clearer.

The article is from 1985 and features a baby contest from the Ely Allotment Show, 1935. The newspaper had been lent the photograph by a Mrs Millie Morris (sitting third from the right). Her son had been runner-up in the contest.  Mrs Morris said the winner of the contest was John Grinsell, seated with his mother on the extreme right of the picture.

There he is, my dad, the blue-eyed, blond-haired, bonny baby!


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

National Service looming...

Before I took my A levels I received notification from Emmanuel College that I had been accepted (conditional on A levels) to start in October 1954 after National Service.  I could now see forward to the next five years providing I got the necessary grades.  In the meantime life seemed to revolve around school work (and homework) as results were all important to me now.  From time to time, however, certain outside events intruded into the normal routines.  It was 1951 that our history master came into class one afternoon to announce that “Phillip has managed to hitch himself to the Royal payroll”, (Princess Elizabeth’s engagement).  By February 1952 King George VI had died and Elizabeth II began her long reign as Queen.

The Korean War, which had started in 1950, was destined to continue until July 1953 and involved American, British and Commonwealth troops. With National Service looming up the prospect of me fighting in another war must have been a real worry to Father and Mother although I must confess I didn’t think about it much at the time.  I can’t remember the actual sequence of events but I made the choice to go into the Army (preferably the Royal Engineers). I attended a preliminary medical before receiving call-up papers in the autumn.  All of this, of course, was going on during the run-up to the taking and awaiting the results of the important A levels. 

The art examination held no fear for me, even the written work.  There were only two of us taking the subject and, as my father loved to point out, I came second!  However I still got the “A” grade.  I used to enjoy geography, particularly physical geography although economic and political aspects of the subject were more hard work.  I finished up with a “B”.  When it came to history this was a disaster.  The period of history was the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but separated into British and European history.  We had two history teachers over the two years and it is worthwhile recording that this led not only to me failing to make an A level grade but the failure of the whole class.  Both teachers seemed to concentrate on British history with the result that European history was never properly covered.  One paper was therefore easy to cope with and the other was a nightmare. 

With only two A levels I consider myself lucky that Emmanuel was still prepared to take me.  So here I was with a few precious weeks to go before joining the Army.  Most of my pals had managed to get deferred because of entry into further education straight from school but I was about to experience a major shock to the system as, wet behind the ears, I reported on 4 October 1952 to the Royal Engineers training camp in Worcester.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Girls, boats and cars

My Cambridge interview over, it was back to school to concentrate on A level studies.  Not that this prevented me from enjoying myself.  By this time, in my late teens, there were plenty of distractions of a social nature.  There were, of course, girls to consider.  In the fifties there were few places where young people could meet outside the home.  Coffee bars were non-existent prior to the late fifties.  Places of entertainment were limited to youth clubs, the cinema and the occasional dances where no alcohol was available.  Occasionally one could sit in a girl’s house under the watchful eyes of her parents, listening to records with the prospect of a cuddle on the sofa if you were lucky.  

Having an older sister, you would have thought I would have picked up a few ideas from one of her boyfriends but she wasn’t exactly encouraged to bring them home by Father, particularly late in the evening.  Mother was much more sympathetic towards any friends, male of female; in those days she always made people feel welcome.  I remember one occasion, however, late one night, I decided to raid the sideboard where the sweets were kept and interrupted a snogging session taking place on the sofa! The boyfriend in question was a Pilot Officer in the RAF so I was quite impressed by him, particularly since he flew in a Gloster Meteor Fighter Squadron based in Lossiemouth, Scotland. Unfortunately for me that relationship didn’t last long!

Girls apart, my life was full of outside activities.  By taking up rowing at school I became involved in practice sessions both before and after school during term time and this continued into the holidays with competitive rowing at events both in Peterborough and other local venues.  I also joined a Youth Club and was a member of the school art club which I attended one or twice a week.  I once entered a poster competition advertising an arts festival and won 1st prize (the only first I ever got!)  I even had to go to the Town Hall to be presented with my prize by the Mayor no less.  The prize was a large box of watercolours which I used for a number of years afterwards. 

During that last year at school I also learned to drive.  Dad was good enough to teach me despite the fact that a few years previously he had been through the experience with Betty.  It was to his credit that he was prepared to risk himself and his car in the process and we both passed first time.  However it was not without its upsets.  One Sunday we had been to Hunstanton for the day and I was allowed to drive all the way back.  Everything went well until I turned into the drive and took half the gatepost with me...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Interview for Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Emmanuel College
John Grinsell, 1999.
Studying Art at 'A' level helped me develop a keener interest in Architecture so I was encouraged to apply to study Architecture at university.  I received information from a number of Schools of Architecture and one of Betty's earlier boyfriends was an architect who had studied at Birmingham University so he brought all his student work round for me to see.

The most significant help I received came from my school's Headmaster who, as an academic, had good contacts with a number of universities.  He was a tall, imposing man who had previously taught in New Zealand and, like many teachers in those days, had served in the armed forces during the war.  The advice he gave me and my father was against the trend in attitude towards further education.  Most people aspiring to achieve a place at Oxford or Cambridge were channelled through the official entrance examination system. He suggested the more modern 'conditional entry' system as more appropriate; being interviewed before taking 'A' levels and hopefully receiving an offer on the condition that certain levels are met.

My Headmaster had some contacts in Cambridge so suggested Emmanuel College. Cambridge, Oxford and Durham Universities are run on a collegiate system rather than the departmental system.  This means the intake of students into departments is based on allocations given to the colleges.  Emmanuel had an allocation of two Architecture students per year but the School of Architecture at Cambridge did not attract a large number of students as it only ran a three year degree course whereas the larger schools of architecture (e.g. Liverpool, Sheffield and Manchester) were recognised for the full five year qualification to become a practising architect.  So competition was likely to be far less than if I were hoping to study law or medicine.

It came about therefore that I attended interview at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, when I was 17.  It only took an hour by car to get there and although I can’t remember what took place before or after the interview I have a clear memory of the encounter with the Senior Tutor, who at the time was Edward Welbourne (he later became Master of Emmanuel).  He was a large, shambling man with heavy, jowled features.  He looked unkempt, wore shabby clothes and appeared to me like the proverbial absent-minded professor.  Our discussion about architecture seemed to centre on a book of country houses and guessing the dates when they were built.  I also recall he sent me out to look around the college while he spoke to my father, who never did tell me much about what was said.  When I came back he asked me directly the date of the college chapel.  I knew it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and gave it my best shot.  In reply he pointed out that the date was carved in stone just above the clock face!  I don’t remember anything else except that I thought I had blown it.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Festival of Britain memories

Perhaps the most important event during my school days took place in 1951; the Festival of Britain exhibition held on the South Bank of the Thames in London.  It is ironic to note that the centrepiece of the exhibition was the Dome of Discovery, almost a small replica of the Millennium Dome which caused such a furore nearly 50 years later.  The dome has been the most spectacular structural form developed over centuries. The first domes appeared in Roman times, the most perfectly preserved being the Pantheon in Rome.

The Festival of Britain site included a number of exhibition halls and a vertical feature called the Skylon, supported by thin tensioned cables which gave the impression that it was suspended in space.  The only building which remains is the Royal Festival Hall which is now surrounded by other buildings including the National Theatre.

The Festival of Britain was significant to me as it was my first opportunity to see examples of modern architectural design. Until then architecture had not aroused in me any particular interest as a career, although my father had a great interest in medieval church architecture, of which there is an abundance in the East Midlands.

My father also developed a passion for photography, which I shared, including developing and printing. I remember we started off using the bathroom, which didn't go down too well with Mother, before taking over the back store room of Betty's shop: by that time she had opened her own business in Dogsthorpe, Peterborough.

By 1951 it was necessary for me to look towards the future. Even though the war had been over for six years, there was still tension in Europe with the Cold War between the new Soviet Union and the Western Alliance countries. The communist world was rapidly becoming the new enemy and open conflict had already broken out in Korea between North (backed by the Soviet Union) and South (backed by the West and the United States). With all this unrest, conscription into the armed forces was a reality for all young men aged 18 unless they were able to be deferred because of further education.

Postscript 6/11/11 - I learned last night from my mum that her mother, Winifred Brennan, performed at the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. She was part of a ladies choir in Newcastle and they travelled to London to be part of the event. How lovely that my dad should be so enraptured with the Festival of Britain, unaware that his future mother-in-law was also a part of it.