Thailand, the Comfort of Strangers and Friends

The lovely, warm and smiley anesthesiologist talked calmly and put the mask over my face asking me to breathe deeply. I dreamed but woke to a circle of concerned faces looking down on me calling my name. ‘Dawid, Dawid, are you alright?’ I couldn’t breathe, try as I might, my lungs didn’t work, when I tried to suck in air, nothing happened.

American Football, the LA Experience

It’s been a lot of years but the memories are still vivid although they are abstract sounds and colours of flashing tangents and collisions at high speed. I did not enter football as an ex-rugby player but as an ex-soldier and athlete. I began helping with the conditioning of a small team in the UK and graduated to plating for better and better teams. My time in America was mostly spent in Los Angeles, California where I covertly tried to ‘make it’ in football. I say covertly because I was ostensibly there for more practical, sensible reasons; transferred from the UK with a financial giant, C.I.C.A. Over a period of about 5 years I spent about 3 of them in L.A. After playing in the UK for a big team I went on tour to Australia and the USA with the British team and met the current Raiders team in the Red Onion Bar in Hermosa Beach at a joint press and publicity function. Those guys encouraged me to get a contract with the Raiders franchise, even if I never played, ‘think of the money’, they said. The British team coach arranged for John Johnson the Rams scout to take a look at me and consequently I spent the pre-season with  the Raiders on his recommendation. No contract yet, no money either but I was rubbing shoulders with the ‘greats’. Every day I worked out alongside Howie Long and Steve Smith. I was never approaching good enough but i was heartened to know that I was able to run the 40 in 4.8 secs. That’s probably pretty slow today...

Soldier X | Part 10, Walking Tall

    Walking Tall     It is hard now to remember what life was like back then I believed them when they told me I was alone in the world and that this place and time were invincible. They left us to walk those troubled streets as strangers But the stories we were told about ourselves and our place in the world stopped making sense and so we walked . . . but we listened to other voices, the voices of our cult.         The names of roads and pubs that bisect estates and shopfronts have become a shorthand for memories. The Linnet and  Cpl. M telling us to move forward, his face, menacingly ebullient as was his way. We were told that anyone giving us lip or anyone who so much as spoke to soldiers was to be arrested. We carried a round in the breach at all times and usually we would wait until we got out into the street to cock our weapons as the noise let everyone nearby know we meant business. On some estates we never went in the road, we kept to the back gardens, hard-targets. They would often dump shopping trollies and barbed wire in their gardens to make life difficult for us. Of all the people in Belfast it’s difficult to find anyone more anti-British than those living on some estates. Huge gun battles raged there. Many houses have had their roofs virtually ripped off by machine-gun fire and the schools even have bullet holes in their front doors. There is always one particular place on a...

Soldier X | Part 9, Berlin

  Berlin     He adjusts his jacket, sits and adjusts his trouser legs, tics, opens his book, pause. Stillness for a few moments. Speaks After the war, I was in Berlin and an extra duty we had was train guard. This meant going to Magdeburg in the Russian Zone, picking up about 3000 German prisoners and taking them to Munster about 300 miles away. Not long you may think, especially by train. It used to take us about a week for the return trip. No priority for POW’s on the railway then. The trains were made up of three pack wagons like guard vans and the rest were coal trucks. The wagons that carried the prisoners were terrible with no heating at all, some died. Later the ‘powers that be’ decided to put a small stove in each of the pack wagons and it was ok. It was a mad rush at Magdeburg picking up the POW’s and getting them all packed into the trucks. Then we issued them with a loaf of bread and a tin of bully beef this was to last them for the 3 or 4 day journey but it was all gone in the first half an hour. Poor sods were starving. Unfortunately they all had dysentery so every time the train stopped on the way a lot would jump out and crouch by the track. We had the job of shoving them back into the wagons and then getting into our own because the driver never waited. When the winter got too bad we never bothered to get them back in the...

Soldier X | Part 8, Belfast

  Belfast   I was sitting there watching Smithy smoke a joint as he lay on his pit. I got the dope from a girl back home. She sent me dope and my father sent me the local newspaper. ‘Leisure centre hosts flower arranging debacle’ that kind of thing. We even used to read it sometimes. I suppose it was comforting to know that the world, however meaningless, carried on, even if we weren’t in it! The smoke was drifting and curling and we philosophised as the night wore on. We ain’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too, But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you; An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints, Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;   In the weeks before we went to Belfast we had lost three soldiers to accidents, suicide and stupidity. Archer had stolen a land-rover and driven it into a lake when he was drunk, another lad whose name I cannot remember was found dead at the bottom of some backstreet steps in the city and a lad named Brooker when coming home drunk one night decided he wanted a snack. That’s what killed him, not the snack but his attempt to get one. He climbed down the stainless steel flue of a little food stand that sold burgers and hot dogs. When he got inside and turned on the gas he found he had no matches so climbed out again and asked a passer-by for a light. He climbed back inside, lit the match and blew the whole...

Soldier X | Part 7, Germany 1945

Germany 1945   He is in an armchair and takes off his reading glasses, tics, lays his book in his lap; Bronowski’s, ‘The Ascent of Man’, and tells me about Germany 1945. There sit I, his luckless double, and listen again to the silence between his nonchalance. I was on my way back to the regiment and when we got as far as Soltau we stopped for lunch on rising ground and watched a British unit about 5 miles away mopping up some SS Hitler Youth troops who were in a small wood. They were doing it with crocodile tanks that have flame throwers – didn’t half bring the buggers out of the wood a bit sharpish. There was a railway line nearby with some burnt out wagons on it. I went for a leak and had a look into one of them and saw a British sixpenny piece inside. Then I saw a line of stakes going into the woods. Following them I came upon a big circle marked out in more wooden stakes, it was about 10yards across. The soil was fairly loose over the circle and all of a sudden I noticed a boot with a foot inside sticking out and then I found another. I yelled out and some of the others came over, among them a RSM. I told him about the sixpenny piece and we went and found it. The RSM got on the wireless to the camp at Venlo on the Dutch border. An SIB (Army detectives) unit caught up with us at the next place we stopped. They took statements from...

Soldier X | Part Six, Normandy

Normandy This is where I began; after my father died. It’s a beautiful part of France and the beaches that stretch along the coastline as you pass through the towns of Ouistreham, Luc-sur-Mer, Lyon-sur-Mer, Arromanches, Colleville, Veirville and Le Madeleine are clean and inviting. I rode a motorcycle, got wet and hot in equal measure. Took my time. The beach at Arromanche and the remains of the Mulberry’ harbour in the bay I swam at some of the beaches especially Sword beach, venue of the British attacks at a place called Lyon-sur-Mer and listened to the Garry Owen playing on my heaphones. My dad was a cavalryman and it seemed an appropriately memorable and comic piece of music to play at his funeral as the coffin descended. I felt that he would have approved somehow. So I stood in the sea looking towards the town of Lyon-sur-Mer which is in the area designated as Sword Beach and I thought about what it was like, advancing up the beach. I imagined the whistle of shells followed by explosions. The tranquillity was now only disturbed by early morning joggers, walkers, cyclists, gulls and me, the solitary swimmer. My father was due to land with the 11th Hussars on D-Day + 9 but on 6th June, as the Allies were landing in France he was helping to pull the pontoons of a floating bridge out of the ground when one came loose a bit quicker than expected and broke his leg. He spent the next few weeks recovering which is when he met my mother so but for that stroke of fate, I may...

Soldier X | Part Five, Meat Wagons & Memorials

  Meat Wagons & Memorials   Because we were involved in covert soldiering in Northern Ireland we were transported from Aldergrove Airport, Belfast to the Special Forces Training centre, Ballykinla, a journey of several hours, in an articulated lorry normally used for transporting frozen meat. This place does not show up on maps and you will not get any hits by googling it either but it exists on a particularly windswept and gorse-clad part of the coastline. The vehicle was empty when we got in still wearing civilian clothes, jeans, t-shirts, a few people had coats. Even though, of course, the freezer plant in the meat-wagon was not on, it was still very, very cold. We were sealed up inside the lorry in a darkness so complete that it was impossible to see a hand in front of your face. To avoid being thrown all over the place we sat and lay on the filthy floor of the container and after the jokes and banter wore off we began to pray for the journey to end. I remember thinking about my sisters, trying to give myself courage to not complain about the dark and cold. I repeated their names to myself in a kind of mantra. It was so cold that we held each other on the floor of that truck with no embarrassment or hesitation. After a couple of hours someone began crying. No-one told him to shut up. I never found out who it was and no-one ever asked. It could have been any of us.  A voice with a Lancashire accent said, ‘I’ve got to piss’....

Soldier X | Part Four, Cadiz

Cadiz   Auntie Elsie married Uncle Charlie; they had a son Arthur and a daughter Monica. Arthur was about my age. Charlie was a lovely man and a solicitor so they were “posh” and lived in Wandsworth by Wimbledon common. He had been a prisoner of war during the 1914/18 War and was very poorly for a long time after he returned. Father, a ship! A child lies on floor looking out from a window. His father says: ‘Yes Charlie, my son, a ship. Look Charlie, she’s tacking. One day Charlie you may go to sea and have great adventures in the service of the king. The boy leaps up and runs around pretending to be an aeroplane, finally falling and lying still by his father. A foreign voice calls and is lost in a whisper. Father says, ‘Charlie, now you must put away childish things and become a man’ The boy says, ‘I need more time; it’s too hard, father, dad, daddy’.   A mother’s voice from downstairs sings to the boy, Charlie Bourne, Charlie Bourne Wondered just why he was born Eat his tea in the sea . . . A foreign voice calls and is lost . . . like the voice of a ghost. In Cadiz! The city lights shine up through the opaque, green ocean. Cadiz; a drowned world! The voice calls and is lost again. On that lonely swim In that cold place, we let it all slide While we swam with the fish, The world turned, we became, cold The daily victories mocked our silent prayer Oh, admit it! We drowned out...

Soldier X | Part Three, Munich

  Munich   There were dances almost every night in village halls, church halls, the Palais. Another pal was a bit like your Uncle Ken; quiet and nervous. He was keen on building himself up and was doing a Charles Atlas Body Building course. The rest used to tease him but it definitely made a difference. He was in the T.A. and went for summer camp in 1939 and never came back. Most of those chaps in the T.A. went for what was supposed to be a two-week long camp but they were sent to Narvick in Norway and were killed or taken prisoner. I cannot remember his name. Ebe also went to night school with me. He was mad on electricity and Morse code. He used to listen to the late night wireless. His ambition was to be an operator for Reuters. I did hear some years after that he had become a telegraph operator. I suppose he finished up in the forces. I never heard of him again. A crowd of us, about 8 chaps and 8 girls used to go out as a gang. Girls always got taken right home in those days. They were great times. No heavy situations at all. We used to drink around Queen’s Park ‘The Falcon’ on Kilburn High Road, the ‘Rifle Volunteer’ the ‘Black Bear’, and a lot of others I cannot remember, there must have been 20 public houses along that mile stretch, also at Willesden Lane area ‘The William IV’, Big and Little Lamb, the ‘Grey Horse’ was a favourite. They were good friends whom I lost sight...

Soldier X | Part Two, London

      London   I went into a public-house to get a pint o’ beer, The publican ‘e up an’ says, “We serve no red-coats here.” The girls behind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die, I out’s into the street again an’ to myself says I: O its Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”; But its “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play, The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play, O its “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play. My dad and I liked Kipling and even when he was quite old I saw him read Kim again, probably for the third or fourth time. He also wrote a journal: We moved from Queen’s Park just before I was 8 years old. My Dad, your Granddad got a job in a school with a caretaker’s cottage, Lower Place School; a right rough area by the Grand Union Canal. Only housing there was us and a gypsy encampment. Harlesden was the nearest station. There were a lot of minor villains there, blokes always in and out of borstal or prison. Families on benefit, kids with no shoes or trousers, the teachers had a box of old clothes and shoes in the cupboard. Eddie Stevens was my friend, a nice lad, locally born, his father had died. Like me he also passed the 11+ but could not go on to a grammar school as they were too poor. He was a quiet lad and a very good artist; he later joined the RAF...

Soldier X | Part One, Home

      Home   I am Soldier X. I am the backbone, the spine upon which the flabby meat of civilisation hangs. There absolutely is evil in the world and soldiers stand at the border where civilisation meets savagery Because I do this, you don’t have to. I do it because I am orphaned from a thousand homes I do it for adventure and to confront the place where I end and darkness begins       I was saying goodbye to my Father. He was standing on the doorstep as I was leaving, going home after a visit. My sisters and stepmother were watching through the lounge window like a tragic chorus. The pressure was immense. He was about to have surgery to remove a cancer. The operation could kill him. If he survived that the cancer was going to kill him anyway, everyone knew that. He was 86. He and I, we both knew that this moment could be it for us, until the next world.   Suddenly on that very ordinary porch I was drowning in the memories that swam up and swallowed me whole and I wanted to tell him that I forgave him for making me cry when he was carrying me past the shops and I leaned out towards the window and he was rough and angry and that I forgave him for calling me a ‘big girl’s blouse’ in front of my friends. I wanted to tell him how much I would miss his belief in me and I remembered how he always sat with me on every childhood hospital visit....