Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Rowing at Cambridge - the bumps and the stunts.

Rowing at Cambridge
The college and its activities formed the focus of my life. Because of my school interest in rowing I made a bee-line for the Boat Club at Emmanuel which was to be the centre of my interests for the next three years. Rowing, although demanding in time, was the perfect antidote for the architecture course which required many hours of studio work. Of all the sports in Cambridge, rowing attracted a wide variety of people: it was the focus of college pride and the social calendar of the university.

Each term produced events on the river which attracted the crowds. The first term, known as Michaelmas, produced the Fairbairn's Cup, named after Nicholas Fairbairn, a legendary oarsman who pioneered a style of rowing which challenged the established technique and influenced all later styles. It was a timed race involving a procession of boats starting from the college boathouses and finishing over 2 miles downstream from Cambridge.

The river is not wide enough to row side by side, so a form of race was devised many years ago known as the 'Bumps'. These are held in the second and third terms (Lent Races and May Races) and each college enters a number of crews competing in a number of divisions. The Bumps are rowed in the opposite direction to the Fairbairn's - boats have to paddle down from their boathouses to be positioned along the river bank, a few yards apart. On a given signal each boat is pushed out into the centre of the river and at the starting pistol as many as 15 crews set off in pursuit of the boat in front (although it's technically behind, as you row backwards!) The object of the exercise is to literally bump the next boat. When that happens the two boats involved stop rowing. There are four days of racing so the following day the two boats involved in the 'bump' swap places in the division.

rowing shield, 1957, Cambridge

Any crew which records four consecutive bumps is said to have 'gained their oars'. The prize for each rower is a full-size oar which he can keep: the blade would be decorated with the names of the full crew in gold lettering on the college colours. The cox of the winning crew is given a decorated rudder and the coach receives a wooden shield with a mock-up of the bow end of the boat. In my final year at university I coached a crew which gained its oars and the shield is one of my prized possessions.

During the summer term the Boat Club attracted many other people who wanted to row in the May Races for fun. The rugby and soccer clubs had a boat, also the medics. There was also a 'Gentleman's' boat which consisted of boat club members who couldn't afford the time to train regularly, particularly in their final year.

At the end of each term there was a special Boat Club dinner called a Bump Supper. These were always well attended and rather rowdy. We always drank far too much and often people would nip out of college into town later in the evening to perform some kind of prank. I was once bold enough to join such a group and was nearly caught by the Proctor and the police trying to push a large cable roller through the town back to college. Other stunts involved capturing one of the swans from the pond and depositing it in someone's room, changing the position of furniture in a room before filling it full of scrunched-up newspaper and a university golf player chipping golf balls from the rear garden over the Sir Christopher Wren designed chapel roof.

On another occasion a friend of mine, who is now a famous QC, somehow climbed up the front of the cinema which was across the road from Emmanuel and removed a huge cardboard cut-out of Elizabeth Taylor. He took this back to his room. The film, rather appropriately, was called 'Giant'.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Cambridge in the 1950s - Religion and Politics.

Cambridge in the 1950s was a hot-bed of social change. Apart from the traditional rivalry between 'town and gown' the post war years encompassed much religious and political activity challenging the establishment.  Evangelism was sweeping the academic world and religious groups were keen to recruit young, open-minded students together with more mature ex-national servicemen with strong anti-war principles, often conscientious objectors.

In my first few weeks as a student at Cambridge I was, like everyone else, bombarded with all manner of information about clubs and societies all wanting to me to join them. Fresher's week was the same in the 1950s as it is now. Each student had his own pigeon-hole adjacent to the Porter's Lodge where he could pick up messages and invitations from sports clubs, obscure religious groups and political activists. I remember once being invited to tea by a third year student and, arriving in my sports gear, was confronted with a small group reading extracts from The Bible. It was all very intense and really not for me. I found the traditional church litany far more comfortable, as represented by the College Chapel.

However Evangelism was not just confined to the non-conformist churches. The vicar of the University Church, Great St Mary's, was, at that time, Dr Mervyn Stockwood who represented the 'left wing' of the Church of England. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Billy Graham, American Christian evangelist, was invited to preach in St Mary's. The church was packed to capacity and I, like many others, religious or not, wanted to witness it.  He had a commanding personality and had the ability to impress a largely academic audience. There were certainly converts to Christianity after his visit, amongst an undergraduate population keen to get involved in new ideas.

Oxford and Cambridge, because they had produced statesmen and eminent politicians over the centuries, always attracted budding political activists. Emmanuel College already had a reputation for being left-wing although this was never evident in terms of producing extreme socialist views of political activity. In fact I found it was more apolitical, at least within my social circle. However the College debating society produced its own political thinkers, some of whom subsequently emerged as national figures. During my time there Cecil Parkinson was a student and Labour supporter but ended up as a senior figure in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Tom King was also at Emmanuel at this time and became Defence Secretary in John Major's government during the Gulf War.

For anyone with political aspirations, membership of the Cambridge Union was a must and, invariably, leading lights were being groomed by the main political parties.  Even the College Debating Society was a showcase for good public speakers. I was always envious of people who could stand up and ad-lib on any subject. I remember once attending a debate on the motion "That Marks and Spencer has done more for civilisation than either Marx or Spenser". Following the main speakers, the debate was open to the floor. In walked one of my contemporaries, fresh from the Cambridge Union, and entered into the debate without knowing what the motion was. He was hugely entertaining, though slightly drunk. His name was Michael Frayn and he was later to become a very successful playwright and author.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Studying Architecture at Cambridge

Outside Emmanuel College
Once I had become familiarised with college routines I had to turn my attention to the School of Architecture based at 1-3, Scroope Terrace: three Georgian houses at the top of Trumpington Street in Cambridge. It consisted of three floors of studios, lecture rooms, library and staff accommodation. There was also a small shop where you could purchase equipment, including second-hand drawing boards. Standard architectural equipment in those days consisted of drawing board, T-square, set-square, pencils, drawing pens, rubbers and watercolour paints.

The number of architectural students in the whole University was no more than about 20 so you can imagine there weren't many in each college. The only other student from my college was a dependent of the founder of the college itself, Sir Walter Mildmay. He was also called Walter and the two of us shared the next three years within the college, the department and even in the Boat Club.

My tutor in the department was Mr Alex Hardy who saw me through three years of study. The School of Architecture was not, at that time, fully recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). After three years its students had to gain entry into another architectural school for the final two years of study. Cambridge was more academically minded with History of Architecture more prominent than innovative design. By the time I had completed the course things had changed dramatically. A new Professor had been installed, Leslie Martin, who had achieved fame as the designer of the Royal Festival Hall.

My final two years were spent at Durham University's School of Architecture, based in Newcastle. My tutor, Alex Hardy, suggested I apply. I am very grateful to him because it was during those two years in Newcastle that I met my future wife, Eileen.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Starting University: Emmanuel College, Cambridge

My National Service complete, I had only two days at home before I began the academic life I had been waiting for during the last two years. I was ready to face a totally new experience. Fortunately it took only an hour to transport me and my luggage by car to Cambridge from Peterborough. My mother had spent the last few days furiously packing for me and Father I think must have been relieved I was finally to start my University career.

Unlike most universities, students at Cambridge were, and still are, first and foremost a member of their college rather than the faculty. Whilst I was studying for a degree in architecture I was mixing with a broad range of students within Emmanuel who were studying other subjects. The colleges in the 1950s and 60s were all single sex. Emmanuel eventually admitted women in 1979, just before my own daughter was a student there in 1982.

My first year was to be spent in rooms outside the college (41 Maid's Causeway: about 10 minutes walk from Emmanuel). This was common practice in those days as there were many more students than college rooms. Usually only one year of the three was spent within the college. However the collegiate system encouraged students to participate in a variety of societies and clubs to ensure students were not isolated.  We had to come into formal dinner at least five evenings a week, invariably followed by visits to the Junior Common Room (the bar).

The impression of an institution steeped in tradition was immediately apparent, from the college academics in their long flowing gowns, to the Head Porter in morning suit and bowler hat. Undergraduates were required to wear their shorter gown when they were out of the college to distinguish them from Cambridge residents and visitors; hence the phrase 'town and gown'.  Some university dons paid little attention to their appearance so wearing a long gown added necessary respectability. This certainly applied to the Master of Emmanuel at that time, Edward Welbourne.  He had interviewed me in 1951 when he was the Senior Tutor and I remember clearly this rather dishevelled man wearing carpet slippers. I was told that soon after he became Master, a schoolboy interviewee, walking around the college grounds, engaged him in conversation thinking he was the college gardener.

Image: Stevecadman/Flickr

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Coming to the end of National Service

Although I still had the pin and plate in my fractured leg there was no real need for me to be in hospital but the army was keen to get me back to physical fitness.  I was transferred from Catterick to a rehabilitation unit in Chester where specialist staff were employed in physical training, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and dietetics. Apart from injured soldiers there was a regular intake of new recruits who were considered underweight after their initial call-up and therefore needed building-up. It was very evident that in post-war Britain some young people were seriously undernourished.

I was able to make use of the specialist attention and very good food.  I was also given the job of librarian which gave me the opportunity to read the daily papers and a few books.  In an army unit the library was not a facility that was well-used so for most of the time I had the place to myself. Because of my interest in photography I was also given a special task of printing small copies of X-rays.  I had an old 'plate' camera which was used as an enlarger/reducer so small prints could be attached to files held by the Chief Medical Officer.

In due course I had to return to Catterick Hospital to have the ironmongery taken out of my leg.  This stay in hospital was far shorter and I was soon sent back to my original unit in Elgin, supposedly pronounced fit.  By this time, of course, I was well into my second year, still a Private with only de-mob to look forward to.  I was given a desk job in administration. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky as there was an incident in Farnborough, at the NCO course I should have been on. An exercise covering demolition and explosives had gone badly wrong and a group of soldiers, including people I had known, were killed in an explosion.

After a few weeks I was posted to Ripon where the Royal Engineers had an Army Emergency Reserve Unit ( AER).  One of the conditions of National Service was a further three years being part of the Territorial Army or three weeks per year in the AER.

I have one more lasting memory of National Service: the regimental parade and an open weekend in the camp.  The Regimental Band of the Royal Engineers came up from London.  To parade with a full military band was quite an experience. The band proved their versatility as they became the dance band for the Saturday night party and a full orchestra for a classical concert on the Sunday afternoon. They even had a piano soloist who played Schumann's Piano Concerto.

My time in the army was now drawing to a close and I was looking forward to my university course in Cambridge. I recall standing on Ripon Station waiting for the train home and wondering about the last two years.  What would have happened if I had just deferred National Service and gone straight to university two years earlier? Would my leg still have fractured? Had it been a wasted period with lost opportunities? Looking back now it is obvious I have vivid memories of this very short time and I tasted a side of life which was quite unique.

National Service was scrapped in 1956. I did return to Ripon for one more summer camp in 1955 in the AER before I finally hung up my boots.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

Catterick Military Hospital had its own brand of discipline.  Ward rounds were like any other military inspection so much so you had to lie to attention. The majority of patients had orthopaedic injuries so there was a lively atmosphere in the ward. As a young man of 18 I rather enjoyed all the fuss from the nurses and made the most of it, rather than worry about my curtailed army career.

The nurses and sisters all wore their own version of military uniform, the sisters having bright red short cloaks which bore their officer rank and any medals awarded during their service career. The general routine was no different from a civil hospital but I think the food was better and, to help build up our strength, we regularly received a bottle of stout to drink.

It was while I was here that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on 2 June 1953. In order to give injured servicemen the opportunity to attend, a number of us were allowed leave to watch the procession. Luckily for me, my name was pulled out of the hat. We were driven by ambulance to the North London Barracks medical centre where we met up with about 30 other injured soldiers. Some of the top brass came to see us before we boarded a special bus to take us to a point on the route near Hyde Park.

The weather was appalling on the day and we waited for hours for the royal procession. My clearest memory, however, was not of the Queen but a trip many of us had to make to the nearby public toilet in the park. This motley crew of walking wounded limped across the sodden grass to do the necessary but, as we returned to the bus, I noticed that clearly displayed on the front was a large placard which read, "EX KOREAN WAR VETERANS". The fact that I had broken my leg during National Service in Scotland, and that the injury was a repeat of an old fracture caused by a bicycle accident when I was 12......well, I kept that to myself.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Second Fracture

The full sixteen weeks training eventually came to an end and I became a Field Engineer Grade B3, with an increase in wages. The pass-out parade was rather special with the Regimental Pipe Band in attendance. I had hoped to pursue a commission but my earlier broken leg meant that I couldn't be considered on medical grounds. I was given my posting to Farnborough, Hampshire although this was not immediate.

In the meantime we were sent on a special task force to the west coast of Scotland to help a fishing fleet based in Ullapool who had been affected by the huge storms of 1953. Many of their boats had been tossed inland from the edge of the loch and required special hauling equipment to refloat them. We carried out these operations every day for a week in all kinds of weather. On one day we were also asked to look for a man who had been reported missing. I found his body washed up on the beach. He had apparently committed suicide following a car accident where all the other occupants had died.

During this week I began to experience pain in my leg. Thankfully we were relieved by another squad and I had a weekend leave pass. By the time I returned home to Peterborough I knew something was wrong but still cycled to the family doctor and then, with an X-ray appointment, cycled to the hospital. Unfortunately I had developed a 'fatigue fracture' at the top of the femur, just above the point where I had broken my leg six years earlier. I was devastated by the news.

The surgeon explained to my parents and me that cracks were appearing in the top of the bone into the ball-joint, requiring surgery to insert a metal joint, known as a Smith-Petersen Pin and Plate. It consisted of a long bolt attached to a plate with four screws: the bolt went into the ball joint and the plate was screwed to the top of the femur. It would have to remain for a full year, beginning with several weeks of being confined to bed.

After surgery I was allowed home, however it wasn't long before the army reclaimed me, sending a basic army ambulance down from Catterick Military Hospital to pick me up. It took a few hours to be driven up to North Yorkshire, hitting every conceivable bump on the A1.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Peeling spuds in Elgin

After the first six weeks training there was a 'passing out' parade when the whole squadron went through all the drill routines in formal dress, complete with rifles. The Regimental Sergeant Major and the Commanding Officer headed the parade, together with the junior officers, some of whom were National Servicemen themselves. Taking part and achieving a fairly high standard of drill was an elevating experience.

Following this, we were now entitled to our first 48 hour leave pass.  The journey home by train started at 2.30pm in Elgin, a change of trains at Aberdeen, before reaching home, in Peterborough, at 5.30am. The return  journey back to Scotland was even worse, starting at a similar time but involving changes at Perth and Aviemore. I arrived back in Elgin at 6.30am and had a two-mile walk back to camp.  While at home I think I spent most of the weekend in bed!

The next ten weeks required a high level of fitness to survive a whole range of activities including weapon training with live ammunition, assault courses, mines and demolitions, knots and lashes, bridge-building and watermanship. Apart from the 303 rifle, weapon training included the Bren Gun which was the main rapid fire gun used by the infantry.  It was full of springs and could be stripped down and set-up in a matter of seconds.

There were still the usual routines of drill, kit inspections, physical training and general duties including cookhouse fatigues.  I still have memories of peeling a mountain of spuds, scrubbing floors and washing pots and pans. Preparing meals for hundreds of soldiers was a large scale operation. One memory I have is setting out two slices of bread together with a  dollop of margarine and jam for each man; the last meal of the day. Can you imagine the state of the bread by the time they came to eat it?

For one week's training in bailey bridging and watermanship, we moved to a basic camp by the sea at Findhorn. We lived in Nissen huts, long tunnels of corrugated iron, dating back to the the first world war.  They had no insulation against the cold winds which swept in from the sea. That week proved to be the hardest week of the whole 16 weeks, lifting heavy steel beams and rowing large boats in the sea.

Although trainees, we could still be called upon to take part in military exercises.  Once we were called out in the middle of the night to help beat out a moorland fire several miles away, armed with carefully chosen branches from available trees.  In true military style we were lead by an officer who, much to our amusement, fell into a stream trying to jump over it.

On another occasion we took part in an exercise involving other regiments; the Black Watch Scottish Infantry Regiment acting as the enemy.  We had to defend our camp from the enemy who didn't, in the end, materialise. We did, however, have to guard our own huts and to test us out an officer on his rounds expected to be challenged when he approached. I overheard this exchange:
'Halt! Who goes there?'
'Advance and be recognised'
'Lieutenant Jones'
'All right....F**k Off!'

Needless to say the Sapper involved was put on a charge there and then for insubordination.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Comradeship in camp

I remember NCO language was often very extreme with plenty of F-words thrown in. I was familiar with the words but not as adjectives to describe everything and anything in general conversation! A limited vocabulary with constant swearing was a fact of life in the Armed Service.  The secret to survival was to mould into the environment and keep your head down even when the nature of the conversation was an eye-opener.

Comradeship was very important in dealing with the intense pressure of weeks of training.  Weaker ones were supported by stronger ones. We were all conscripts, none had chosen this way of life and therefore we supported each other. Friendships were forged with the most unlikely people. 

After the first six weeks confined to camp, we were allowed into town at weekends in ‘civvies’.  Pay day was Thursday and by Sunday, after cinema trips and drinking sessions, there was no money left. It was common practice to borrow money from mates and as I was not a big spender I was often a lender, though everyone always repaid their debts.  However if you repaid your debt on a Thursday there was nothing left for the weekend hence many a night was spent in the hut cleaning kit, playing cards, reading dirty books and listening to the radio. 

The BBC radio programmes were known as the Home Service (serious), Light Programmes (light music) and the Third Programme (very serious).  What I hadn’t bargained for was Radio Luxembourg, the first broadcasting station devoted to pop music and advertisements, long before the days of UK based commercial radio. I remember listening to Leslie Welch, the memory man, and Horace Batchelor, who advertised a method of predicting the results of football matches; his spelling out of Keynsham, made the town famous.

Every recruit soon learned to press his uniform. Each hut had an electric iron and you had to wait your turn to put strong, sharp creases into your battledress top and trousers. The best way was to use brown paper dowsed with water but it was very easy to singe the material, or worse, burn a hole in it.  In my case it was also dangerous.  While adjusting the brown paper with the left hand I lifted the iron in my right and because the handle was loose, it swung round and hit me on the wrist, giving me a nasty burn. I had it treated by the MO but a couple of weeks later, while doing rifle drill, I caught the scab and blood oozed down the butt of the rifle until I realised it had become very sticky. The drill sergeant noticed it and ordered me right across the square to report to the MO, marching of course.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A posting to Elgin, Scotland.

After two long weeks we were ready for our new postings. One contingent was shipped off to Egypt, an important base for British Forces protecting our interests in the Suez Canal and the Middle East.  As for me, I had to wait another two weeks for a posting. Our group were not allowed to go outside the camp but with no more training we were instead given numerous jobs including catering, gardening and other ‘fatigues’.  It felt like being in an open prison for a fortnight.

However the next time round I knew my fate – No 8 Training Regiment at Elgin, North of Scotland. We had to pack all our belongings into the kit bag, not an easy task. I discovered later the chap in the next bed had thrown some of his gear into my bag by mistake and I was piling mine on top. He must have had to fork out replacements when he got to his destination. 

Dressed in best battle dress and armed with full kit and helmet, I was transported to the local railway station with a handful of other recruits to travel the 600 miles north, a trip with two connections and lasting several hours.

Elgin Camp was even more basic than Worcester with individual wooden huts and separate ablutions blocks. Approaching winter it was bitterly cold and windy due to the exposed North Sea coast.  It was supposed to have its compensations because it did not have a reputation for excessive ‘bull’ associated with some other military establishments.  As a centre for Field Engineering Elgin trained in harsher conditions, preparing soldiers for active service where conditions were likely to be severe.  The main function of the Royal Engineers was to prepare the way for advancing armies with roads and bridges and to clear up afterwards with bomb disposal, demolitions and general mobilisation support.  The Sappers were also expected to fight alongside the artillery and infantry as part of the mobile forces.

We were issued with 303mm rifles which added to the drill routines and maintenance of equipment.  The rifle had to be kept meticulously clean and well-oiled.  We were issued with a ‘pull-through’ and lubricating oil to keep the barrel and breach clean and free from rust, together with a bayonet kept in a sheath attached to our belts.  A Sapper also had a knife, similar to a Swiss Army knife, attached to a lanyard around the waist.  If any of these metal parts were rusty you would be put on a charge straight away.

I often recall a classic confrontation between an NCO and a recruit on parade when the recruit had mistakenly referred to his ‘gun’.  “Remember laddie, this is your rifle, this is your gun: this is for fighting and this is for fun” he shouted, pointing at the young lad’s privates on the words 'gun' and 'fun'.

The NCO then shouted to everyone , “A soldier’s best friend is his rifle” before turning to another man and quickly asking him, “Who’s your best friend?” The reply came back, “Me mother, Corporal”.