School Days in the 1950s : Part 3

It is about three years since I wrote Part 2 of School Days, and this edition is long overdue.My school was Churcher’s College in Petersfield, Hants, a school founded in the c18 by one Richard Churcher, an East India Company man. The original intent was to train 10 boys in mathematics and navigation before they entered the company. The original building is in the town, and is still there with the name over the door. The present building on Rams Hill dates from the c19, and is still there, although much changed as you might imagine. They have a sixth form college now for example, which of course takes girls. Just imagine

But to go back to the benighted times of the fifties, and 1958 in particular, by which time I was fifteen, one could choose to enlist in the school CCF, the combined cadet force. The three services were represented, and I chose to go into the army section. Just deviating slightly, I wondered if schools still had CCFs today and it appears they do, something like 500 around the country. Much more sophisticated now though with what is available such as specialised training for different regiments, such as REME for example. The Royal Marines are represented now too alongside the other three services.

Anyway, I went into the army, and we were issued with uniforms. One set of battle dress, WW2 style, and this we kept for special occasions when we were on parade, and one set of denims for everyday use which was most of the time. The shirt made from some coarse material which itched like the proverbial hair shirt, was common to both BD and denims. We had to provide our own boots. My parsimonious parents bought me a secondhand pair, of which I was bitterly ashamed. As some waggish NCO put it, they looked as though they had once belonged to a Malayan bandit. Embarrassment like that marks you for life, or maybe hardens you against all that was to come.

My weekends were spent cleaning my kit. We had webbing belts and gaiters, which had to be blancoed. Ours was a sort of khaki green colour and had to be applied with a small stiff brush. I should have said that the old stuff from the previous week had to be scrubbed off first, so an unenviable task. Complaints from my parents about the mess and smell were not helpful. Considering my father had been a regular for sixteen years, I would have expected more encouragement, but I noticed from his photographs that, in the Artillery, he had a polished brown leather belt which must have been a doddle to clean, compared with what I had to work with. That was not all. Brass buckles and other fittings had to be removed and polished with duraglit. Reassembly invariably meant getting some brass polish on to the webbing or vice versa. Something of a nightmare, and yet I stuck at it for two years, until I left school.

However there was an upside, in fact several. We were issued on the day with Lee Enfield 303 Rifles, real ones which fired real bullets, still standard WW2 issue. Naturally they were collected afterwards. My mother would have freaked if I kept one of those in the wardrobe. Drill sergeants came down from the nearby camp at Longmoor to inspect us and to drill us ad nauseam. By the time they had finished with us we were reasonably proficient in rifle drill, and could march quite smartly. i found drill quite satisfying for some strange reason. We also had that lovely gun,the Bren at our disposal. I never did fire it, although some of my colleagues did. We all had to strip it down and reassemble in seconds as I remember. You hoped it didn’t jam when firing as it then had to have the barrel removed whilst hot. You needed a nearby water supply for cooling and sometimes had to improvise.

The RAF section had their own glider. Watching them trying to get it airborne was always amusing. Attached to the glider were two elasticated tow ropes, and each one was pulled by a large number of air force cadets. The spectacle looked like something out of Biblical Egypt. When the ropes were stretched to their limit, the plane was released. Sadly it never even cleared the next hedge. It must have been a heartbreaking exercise, and when you see gliders today being launched by tow truck or even another plane, you can understand that these poor lads never had a prayer. Still, they kept at it, to their eternal credit.

The highlight of each term was to go on a field day. We went to nearby Longmoor Camp for a day of manoeuvres, which meant charging around the pine forests with our rifles together with a handful of blank cartridges each. Today Health and Safety would be horrified. We were, in fairness, given a demonstration of how much damage a blank cartridge can do, which is more than you think. Nevertheless, it was glorified warfare all day long. The army resisted the temptation of firing live rounds over our heads, but there was one officer, who I always felt was unhinged, who threw firecrackers at us for amusement. Firecrackers, if you don’t know, are the size of a stick of dynamite with a fuse which is lit. If they go off near your feet, they make your ears ring. They certainly got us going, but it was fun nonetheless

I omitted to mention that the Army had their own railway with saddle tank steam engines, which ran into a side line at Petersfield station. We all piled into that to be transported to Longmoor Camp. Petersfield is on the old A3, the London to Portsmouth road, and Longmoor is a few miles north of that. I sometimes pass the camp or what is left of it, in the car. There are still some buildings standing but largely inactive. Longmoor was the start of Army country, stretching up to Aldershot, the well known garrison town, with little or nothing going on any more. The infamous Deepcut Camp nearby was completely razed to the ground and a housing estate built over it

I had quite a feeling for the military at the time, but was persuaded to go into the family business when I was 16, which turned out to be a big mistake. After several more bad decisions, I returned to college to study international sales and marketing, which became my lifetime career. I missed conscription by a few years, or call-up as it was known. I remember being annoyed at the time, as it would have meant compulsory release from the family firm. The fact that it was dangerous, was lost on me. This wasn’t too long after the Korean War. Many years later, when I was older and wiser, I read about the Glorious Gloucesters and the Battle of Imjin River. They were national servicemen or conscripts, and heroically resisted superior Chinese forces until they were overrun. The survivors, I remember were very badly treated. Perhaps missing call-up hadn’t been such a bad thing

I think I will stop here

Lucca in Tuscany, looking at the Town Square

The town square in Lucca, Tuscany

I have just started looking at this picture with a view to producing a painting from it. We were here some years ago now. Lucca was one stop on a railway tour that we did of Tuscany. We were staying in Montecatini at the time which was lovely. All the towns we wanted to visit were on the same railway line which was very convenient

Florence, Pisa, Siena and Lucca were all very accessible. We combined a short visit to Lucca with a visit to Pisa. I would have liked more time in Lucca but as you can imagine Pisa with its cathedral and leaning tower was more demanding. This photograph of the old square reminded me that I wanted to paint it one day. Some years back I did paint another view of the square, and sold it last year to someone in Portugal, which sounds strange, but not really as so many buy my pictures as a souvenir of a happy visit.

I have started sketching in some of the larger features of the picture. The trees dominate. They are amazingly tall, dwarfing the buildings let alone the people. I am not sure what type of tree it is, maybe lime or plane. The bark colouring is distinctive, a sort of greenish gold which will be interesting to replicate. An empty restaurant doesn’t inspire, and cries out for a few diners and maybe a waiter.

It will be interesting to see what I can make of it