Monday, 24 January 2011

Per Ardua ad Astra

No I haven't taken up Latin studies! Per Ardua ad Astra is the motto of the Royal Air Force and roughly translated means "Through Adversity to the Stars". It was as a 16 year old I "joined up" in early February 1980 and set off for my basic training at RAF Swinderby, near Lincoln.

RAF Swinderby was built just before WWII and came under the control of Bomber Command, but in 1964, the year after I was born, it turned it's attention to recruit training. It was immortalised in film in 1987 when several scenes from Full Metal Jacket were filmed there, but sadly it was closed and put up for sale in 1995. What remains now is a shadow of its former self, with nature over growing most of the buildings in the last 15 years and the rest being vandalised or broken into by people stealing whatever was left behind.

I have long asked the question: why did I join up? I was only in for the 6 weeks of basic training, the reason why I left we will get to later. As a child I had suffered, if that is the right word, at the hands of my stepfather, who would find the smallest of excuses to regularly beat me. It seemed that my world was filled with bullies at school and bullies at home. Maybe this is why I have turned my attention to writing and telling imaginary stories, as a way of creating my own safe world. However, that is another blog, for another day, perhaps. To answer the question, why did I join up, I think it is possible that as a young boy I convinced myself that the beatings were my fault and that somehow, joining the RAF would make my stepfather proud of me, as he had been in the RAF in the 50's.

Whatever the reason, on 5 February off I went by train from Edinburgh, to the nearest town to RAF Swinderby, Lincoln. From the second we arrived it felt like I was a new arrival in Shawshank, being herded from one place to another, gathering first uniforms, gym kit, bedding, then eating utensils etc etc. By mid afternoon our heads were shaved to a number 2 and we were assigned a bunk within one of the squadrons buildings. All recruits were divided into sections within the squadron, which are called flights, and I was in flight 7.

We were given two types of uniform: our regular uniforms, that we would wear on a daily basis, and our "number 1" uniform, which consisted of the very smart, almost suit-like jacket and trousers, and best of all, a peak cap. I loved this peaked cap and cherished it my entire time there.

There was one other item you were given, and on no account should you ever forget it. Each recruit was assigned a unique number that would stay with you for your entire RAF career, and beyond. 30 years later I can still remember mine: F8192112. At the same time we had received our training manuals and had to sign the Official Secrets Act.

The first period of training concentrated on fitness and was relentless, with no break for the first two weeks. At that point you were allowed home for a weekend. It was too far to travel for me and for several other recruits, so we remained on the base and would visit the local town of Lincoln. We had to wear civilian clothes as the locals were not very tolerant of us RAF types, but even in "civvys" it was very easy to spot us out of a crowd. I recall one incident when we spotted a guy with a ferocious Alsatian dog in a doorway, his owner struggling to keep it under control. Only when we passed nearby and he asked us for our ID that we realised he was Military Police and there for our protection! Our other source of entertainment was on the base at the station bar and my biggest memory from there was reaching my 17th birthday, being made tremendously drunk and Blondie's Atomic playing on the juke box.

The following weeks were filled with theory training and exams, which you had to pass at a minimum of 70% or you were discharged, and Self Loading Rifle (SLR) training. This was a formidable piece of kit and had just been introduced, firing a 7.62mm bullet. I was always uneasy carrying, loading and firing this gun as I was under no illusion it's purpose. That said, I gained a marksman ranking, the highest in my flight.

As the weeks progressed I made friends with another recruit, and to protect the innocent I'll call him John. Like me he had been bullied in his childhood, but I had come to RAF Swinderby as a young pretender, never letting on my bruised past. John however, brought it all with him and sadly, and much to the contrary of what people think of the armed forces, he was picked on by other recruits in the flight. I had an added advantage apparently, that of my Scottish accent. Our Corporal was also Scottish and immediately gave us a reputation that we lived in caves with gas light and ate raw meat every day. It's only a guess but I reckon this helped enormously and gave me a reputation, though unfounded, of being a bit of a nutter.

One weekend the bullying of John was brought to a head: he had remained behind whilst everyone else headed home for the weekend. He was deeply upset by what was happening to him and I left him crying in the bathroom one morning. This bathroom was huge, and along one wall were 30 or so hand basins. All of a sudden I heard the most tremendous crashing sounds coming from the bathroom and returned to find John had taken a fire extinguisher to virtually all the basins and smashed them. For that burst of frustration he found himself in jail for three days. But worse was to come and something no one could have foreseen.

Part of our regular fitness training was to run 10 miles. The final mile was along a runway, which always seemed far longer than it was. I had just reached the finishing line, exhausted, when I turned to see John further up the runway stop and drop onto his knees, also exhausted but not at the finish line. The PTi's (Physical Training Instructors) were a tough bunch and immediately ran to John and it appeared from my vantage that they were kicking him, forcing him onto his feet. He ran another 20 metres or so and stopped again, onto his knees. He obviously heard the footsteps of the PTi's approaching from behind and launched himself up onto his feet as fast as he could, but, he only went a few more metres and collapsed, face down, not moving. The PTi's on reaching him then ran to the field telephone and an ambulance came and took him to hospital.

During lunch an announcement was made that all recruits from every flight were to assemble outside station cinema in our number 1 uniforms. It was an impressive sight, but the smiles disappeared as the Squadron Leader announced John had died as a result of a brain hemorrhage. We were visibly angry, and for the rest of the day they drilled us hard, keeping us occupied. But they had to let us go at some point and as soon as they did it was a sight to see many young men charging round to the houses of the PTi's, that, as far as we were concerned, had caused the death of John. That, at the time, was a knee jerk reaction, of course. We were angry. I'm not saying that the PTi's treatment of him caused his demise, but he certainly panicked on hearing their approach and rose to his feet quickly enough for a weakness in his brain to rupture.

They were gone. Everything. Furniture, belongings, cars, you name it. Unless we had gone to the wrong location, but we were pretty sure.

I for one was furious, and decided right there and then that I could not belong to such an organisation that could covered up such a tragedy. We weren't even allowed to write about it in letters home or, worst still, we were not allowed to go to the funeral. And so I left on 14 March 1980, discharged with an "exemplary" character.

30 years on and I still remember him. When I think of all that I have achieved in the last thirty years. Years that he never had.

I should always remember his story each time I'm facing adversity. I may not reach the stars but at least I still have a chance.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Are we nearly there yet

"You can see the future adult in the child". So agreed Camille and Anne Fontaine, writers of the 2009 film Coco Before Channel, starring Audrey Tautou.

I've been rummaging through the few photographs I have of myself as a child, and it brought back some vivid memories. Take the photo here of me with a horse riding hat on. On the face of it you would be forgiven for thinking I was some sort of child equestrian, but I'm afraid not. This was me coming in 2nd in the donkey derby at Butlins in Ayr in 1976, aged just 13.

Just to the side you can see my blog photograph and I suppose you can see the adult in this young face, albeit better looking in 1976.
Regular readers will notice that my main blog photograph has now been updated. The previous picture was 9 years out of date so I thought it was best to be honest.

Like all small children I had a sweet tooth and the highlight of my day would be morning break at school when we could visit the tuck shop. Highland toffee, in the form of penny chews, was a definite favourite. Then there were love hearts, refreshers, mojos, cola bottles and a miracle of sweet making, curly wurly.

But a very early memory stays with me to this day, and yes, it does involve food. I was in primary school and it was just before the change over to the decimal coin system we all have today in the late sixties. Every lunchtime a bakers van would arrive at the bottom of the playground selling what to me were the worlds greatest Scotch pies. I would only have a shilling for spending money for the week, equivalent now to a 5p (though the size of the current 10p). This was divided into 12 twelve pennies and divided again into halfpennies (pronounced hape-nies) and these were once more divided into farthings. Twenty four to one shilling. Imagine dividing the current 5p into 24 parts and being able to buy something with each! Another coin was the thrupeny bit, equal to three pennies, a quarter of my weeks pocket money, and this was the price of a Scotch pie. A fortune to a boy of 7, as I was at the time. So I would only indulge in this treat twice a week and the fact I can still remember that gastronomic delight just goes to show how wonderful that pie must have been.

The other thing I noticed from these old photographs was just how curly my hair was. Here I am in 1972 aged 9. I hated my curly hair, though my mother adored it of course. It's a constant puzzle why people with curly hair desire straight hair and vice versa. Now my hair is very short and mostly grey and receding. I'd settle for that mop of hair straight or curly now!

It is remarkable when looking at these photographs just how recent the events seem. Here's one of me aged just 4 playing on my first bicycle in Loch Lomond caravan sire just north of Tarbet, a site my step father ran. Now at 47 years old I can actually remember this photograph being taken, yet some days I can't remember what I did yesterday!

This is one of the first photographs of me after leaving school at 17 when I enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Sadly it was not to be and I decided to leave after just two months, but the experience was one I will never forget, especially the bond that grew quickly between everyone on the same flight, as teams of us were called.

Though I would hope that I am wiser now I am certainly older. When I look in the mirror some mornings I hardly recognise the person looking back. Looking at the photographs gives me a real sense of how fast time passes by, and makes me glad that I have taken the risks in life that have given me great memories of great adventures around the world.

I may not be any wealthier relatively now than that wee boy buying his Scotch pie, but I am most definitely richer for the experiences the intervening years have brought me and the great friends that I have shared those times with.

Friday, 7 January 2011


I think the recession must be biting down hard on old Osama and his subsidiaries as it's been quite some time since he has hit the headlines.

Though that in part could be due to the increased efficiency of western nations in their counter-terrorism efforts and increased preemptive attempts at averting any possible situation.

Take for example a recent US visa application: As you would expect these days the initial application is made online and contains the usual raft of questions in relation to why you would like to visit the US; family questions; education and work questions; and of course the means to fund your visit.

What you will find surprising is that the site also encompasses questions in relation to terrorism. For example:
1/ Have you ever been involved in terrorism?
2/ Have you ever been involved in terrorist activities at home or abroad?
3/ Are you a member of any terrorist organisation?

I kid you not! It goes on like this for about 20 questions with an option to say yes or no! Now I'm no expert in these matters but it strikes me that an answer 'yes' to any of these questions would result in you not being able to visit DisneyLand, New York or the Grand Canyon and would most likely result in an all expenses paid one way trip to Guantanamo Bay!

If this is the level of prevention toward a would be terrorist then I think we should be very afraid. Could it be a result of the recession and cutbacks? I hadn't considered that. I wonder if they assemble everyone in a room at some point and ask all terrorists to raise their right hand. Though it could be an attempt by the US at irony, which is great as it's long been believed that they don't get irony. Then again maybe they don't and that's why those questions are in there? Who knows.

It will be interesting to see how 2011 develops. Here in the UK we are approaching a period of vast cutbacks and layoffs in the public sector, an area which has needed streamlining for some time it has to be said. How this affects other areas of business and commerce within the UK remains to be seen as we are all connected in some way or another.

Maybe Osama has had the same considerations and already introduced a series of redundancies?

Let's hope.