Sunday, 28 June 2009

Fastest 15 Years of Life - Very Taxing

I could spend yonks detailing my Customs and Excise years. Instead I'll compress it into this one posting.

OK, OK, don't overdo the cheering and applause! I'm still bound by the Official Secrets Act of 1911, as amended, which prevents me from spilling the beans about my work in HM Customs & Excise.

What I can say is that it taught me a lot about accounting, programming (in COBOL), management (of time and staff), and human nature.

After a year working on the remnants of the old purchase tax I moved into Value Added Tax which went "live" on April Fools Day, 1973. I was involved initially in educating "traders" in the ins and outs of VAT. A "trader" being anybody running a business that was subject to the new tax.

I moved about the country during those fifteen years. Sometimes as a VAT control officer, or as a trainer, or as a programmer. I worked in London, Southend on Sea, Ipswich, Norwich, Derby, Liverpool, Swansea, and various places in between.

At times it was hectic and frequently stressful. By 1985 I was feeling the strain more and more. I did not realise how hard I pushed myself. I gained promotion to Higher Executive Officer. This was, I suppose, a reward for hard work. I must have achieved some pretty good annual reports from my superiors.

This "success" came at a cost. By 1987 I was dreading going to work. Anxiety and depression were my constant companions. Little blue pills were prescribed. They seemed to give me nightmares. I would wake up in the dead of night flailing my arms to shoo the huge black moth that was zooming down on me.

Sweat on my forehead and in the palms of my hands. I had to get out of bed and sit downstairs with a glass of water to calm down. It had to end. At times I hoped that tomorrow would never come.

For the sake of my sanity and my family I had to "retire hurt" from this mad world I'd made for myself.

When this decision was reached a glimmer of light and a touch of serenity eased mental pain. Soon I was feeling relaxed and in control again. How many of us go through such crises in life? Far more than is ever admitted, of that I'm sure.

There is a stigma, a taboo about mental breakdown. I think it can be seen more clearly by those around us than by the one who is so afflicted.

If you have experienced such suffering then I hope you came through it as I did. You have my understanding and sympathy. If your work is causing you too much stress then you have to ask is it worth it? In my case the answer was a definite NO. Life does not end if you ditch a job that has become unbearable. Life may end if you don't change course.

I know we have to work; we are not owed a living. But we are entitled to life - and if work is killing you then change your work. You know it makes sense!

Until next time, take care - and let the sunshine in.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Wanted by the Police - A Shock Phone Call

Soon after the start of my new job the police rang me. Just looking forward to my first cup of tea (well, I am a civil servant now!)when my phone rang. It was the police, phoning from Guildford.

The policeman asked me to confirm my full name and address. Satisfied with my reply he said: "I'm sorry to have to say this but your brother, John, is in custody. He has given your name as next of kin."

At first I didn't understand what I'd just heard. John has been arrested? Must be some mistake. John, about six years younger than I, was a colour sergeant in the Queens Own Regiment. Married with five young children, John joined the army as a boy entrant at age 16. He'd steadily worked his way up the ranks to his present position. No, definitely a big mistake by the police.

"What's this all about officer?" I asked.

"Well sir, your brother shot and killed his wife last night. He walked into the police station and gave himself up. He wants you to come to the station please."

After a few seconds I recovered my senses enough to say that I'd get there as soon as I could. I had no car; I get to work by train from Norfolk to London so I had to get to Guildford by train. My department boss said I could go immediately. What a terrible start to my first few days in the new job!

I'll keep this tragic tale as concise as I can.

John was an armoury instructor. His regiment was based in Guildford, where he lived in married quarters. He was posted to Northern Ireland during "the troubles" and did a six-month tour.

On return to Guildford he heard that his wife, Doreen, had been having an affair. He went to the armoury, took out an automatic rifle and six rounds of ammunition. Went back to his house and fired the six bullets, killing Doreen instantly.

I visited him in the cells at Guildford. He seemed strangely calm. He simply told me what he'd done. His children had been taken into care. He was alone in this cell and it all seemed unreal, a dream ... a nightmare.

There was little I could do. He was remanded in custody, in Brixton prison, until his trial at the Old Bailey in London.

Social Services asked me if I could look after the two young sons of John until other arrangements could be made. My wife and I agreed. One lad, Geoffrey, was 7 and his younger brother, Stephen, was 5. We had seen them infrequently in the past as we had moved about a lot. They came to live with us in Norfolk.

I visited John on remand in Brixton a few times. On my final visit he said he wanted me to adopt his two boys. I said no. Out of the question. I had children of my own and more were planned. John angrily condemned me for refusing. He told me he didn't want to see me again. I felt hurt, but had to make allowances for his state of mind. However, he was adamant and refused to see me when I applied to visit him again.

His trial opened. I did not attend. A member of the Queen's Own Regiment told me that the judge accepted a lesser plea than murder. The judge said that the army had taught John how to kill; that was true. John served under two years in prison. He was automatically dismissed from the army. What had been a successful career, with good pension prospects, was quashed.

Geoffrey and Stephen were taken back into care; they were fostered but we lost track of them. John's three daughters were similarly fostered. One of the girls is now married and living in America. That's all I know about this tragic affair.

This was a difficult phase in life for me and my family. It was not a good start to a new career but needs must when the devil drives. We are all driven to make a living - well, almost all of us. And that means work.

Whom was the wit who said "If work was so bloody marvellous then the gentry would have snapped it all up years ago!"

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Defecting to the Enemy - Vodka and Tonic

When I left school at the tender age of 14 the "careers" chap asked me what I wanted to do. No idea said I. He pressed me for an answer. OK, I wouldn't mind your job I said. He chuckled and then gave up. I had a succesion of jobs, including apprentice plumber for 6 months. Laundry worker, 6 weeks. Van boy, potato selling. Working as a car number plate maker for the White Metal Company, Croydon (a one man band).

Actually, this was quite an interesting job, using dampish sand and white hot metal. I would press the template letters and numbers in the sand mould and pour the molten metal in. Quite liked this experience other than having to get to work at 7 a.m. to get all the coke fires going!

Moved on to working in West Croydon Railway station booking office, mainly in the left luggage department. When posted to a lonely spot at Redhill, doing a boring rolling stock returns job, I jacked that in. Went to work in an office of a brewery firm (Charringtons) and then into the RAF.

Next it was the bookie business and a bit of selling. Not a marvellous CV as I'll guess you'd agree. So where to next?

Who was "the enemy" of the title of this post? The taxman is the answer. Yes, I had plenty of dealings with HM Customs and Excise during my bookie years. We had the betting levy and betting tax to pay and the Customs were the collectors of the betting tax. I got to know our "collection officer" during his inspection visits. In fact I think I taught him all about bookmakers and their various shennanigans in those days.

I thought he had quite a decent sort of job. He said he was virtually his own boss. He went into his office maybe once a week, otherwise he worked from home. Not bad I thought. Wouldn't mind that way of life.

In 1972 Customs and Excise were recruiting executive officers in readiness for the dreaded VAT, due to be launched on 1st April 1973. Yes, April Fool's Day no less! I applied, ignoring the fact that I had no GCSEs of any description.

Called to a mass civil service examination in Whitehall. Large room crammed with desks - about 60 or more. Sat down at 10 a.m. with a scary-looking female and assistants glowering at us from the front desk.

Scary-face then said: "Before we start are there any objections to smoking during the exam?" Not a murmur in the hushed room. Slowly a lone hand was raised. Just one solitary objector, a young lady. A brave young lady I'd have to say!

"Right then" boomed scary-face, smiling faintly, "No smoking!" She seemed quite pleased with that single objection to smoking. "You may now turn over your paper and begin."

After the first exam, (English), we were told we could have a ten minute comfort break. On resumption of the exams there were quite a few empty desks. Either the exams had defeated the examinee or the no-smoking had!

After a few weeks I was informed that I had passed all the exams which were said to be of GCE standard. I was then invited to interview, again in London. This was to be somewhat more difficult than the actual exams.

The interview board comprised five senior people, with a mature-looking lady in the centre whom I assumed was the principal interviewer. I fielded their questions as well as I could; some easier than others.

On the far left of the interview board sat a rather ruddy-faced mustachioed chap. An ex-military type I guessed. He seemed to take a dislike to me for some reason. Maybe he didn't like bookie types; maybe my accent wasn't plummy enough. He seemed to snort disgruntedly at my replies to his questions.

The other board members seemed very friendly, especially the chair-lady. She smiled encouragingly whenever I looked at her. She brought the interview to a close by saying: "Thank you very much Mr. Harfleet. May I say that I think you handled your fences very well. We shall write to you soon."

She might have been either a lover of racing or of horses. I smiled back at her, saying "Thank you" and left the room. Her reference to "handling your fences ..." gave me encourgement. Eventually I was offered the post of Executive Officer, to work in Adelaide House on London Bridge. Not in the VAT department but in the remains of the old Purchase Tax department!

There were two things wrong with this offer. Firstly, I wanted to get in on the ground floor of this new tax system; secondly I was living in near Diss, in Norfolk!

I rang the personnel department and asked if I could have a posting nearing to Norwich. The answer was a firm NO. Take the offer or decline it. There are no other options.

The distance from Diss to London was around 100 miles. The train journey would take about two hours or so - that is, four hours travelling a day. And this is if there were no holdups or breakdowns on the railway.

Oh well, take it or leave it. I took it.

Bought an annual season ticket from Diss to Liverpool Street station and began my new career in Her Majesty's Customs and Excise - the oldest and proudest of the tax gatherers.

My daily schedule started by driving to Diss railway station (a lovely little station in 1972) and boarding the 6.40 a.m. train to London. Breakfast on the train, and very nice it was too. Fortunately the civil service operated a flexi-time system which enabled me to get into the office at any time before 10 a.m. and to leave after the required 7.5 hours later. I usually caught the 18.40 train from Liverpool Street station, sometimes waiting for it in "Dirty Dick's" bar close to the station.

Dirty Dick's bar was supposedly owned many decades earlier by a man who was jilted by his love. He vowed never to clean the floor of the bar until she returned to him, (or something like that). In keeping with this legend, sawdust is strewn on the floor and there were a few other less-than-pristine effects. Must try to visit this place again before shuffling off this mortal coil.

So that's how I became an E.O. in HM Customs & Excise. The bookies would call me a renegade I guess. Never mind, somebody has to do the job.

Enough for now ...

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Filling in the Gaps - 1956 to 1972

This "bio-blog" of mine has been rather rushed through. I guess it's all been work, work, work - and that makes Phil a dull boy. But there were plenty of good times. Some very good times and some not so good.

One reader, in a comment, asked me: "What happened to Joan?" She was my girl-friend in Hereford during my RAF days. Lovely girl, but I drifted away from her when I was demobbed. I don't recall exactly how we split up; it just seemed to happen. The main reason was that I met other girls in the Croydon area as I resumed my ballroom dancing.

One evening I went into the Lonsdale Ballroom, next to the Savoy cinema in Broad Green Croydon. I was alone and just hoped I'd get a dance or two. I got more than I dreamed of: Patricia Teare, my original dance teacher, was in charge of the Lonsdale. The last time we met was about four years prior. She hadn't changed one iota and was as beautiful as ever.

Dancing with her again was terrific. She asked if I'd taken any ballroom medal tests. I hadn't; she said I should. Had a few private lessons with her and in a few months she partnered me in the bronze medal test, at the Café Royal. I still have that medal. Patricia still teaches ballroom dancing!

One evening I went into the Semley Studios in Norbury. I noticed a shapely girl, about five feet eight tall, standing with a couple of other girls. I asked for a dance and we seemed to get on well on the dance-floor. The following week she was there again. She was also named Patricia. A year or so later we were married. All thoughts of ex-girlfriends just faded away.

A couple of years later my wife was pregnant. We were over the moon. Our joy was soon shattered. At about 26 weeks into her pregnancy she was in great pain and rushed to Mayday Hospital. Our son was prematurely born. The doctors said he could not survive and they took me to see this tiny baby. I felt shocked and quite queasy when I laid eyes on him: his head seemed huge in comparison to his body. He died an hour or so later.

Patricia was heartbroken. She so wanted to be a Mum. The doctor said there was no reason why she couldn't eventually have a child. First pregnancies sometimes just don't go right.

The doctor was perfectly correct. Eighteen months later we had our first child, a boy. A strong baby; a perfect child. Eventually we had two more children, both girls. Everything worked out exceedingly well.

Our three children in their turn have given us a grandson and three lovely granddaughters. Who could ask for more.

What became of Joan Turner, my girlfriend in Hereford? Well, about five or six years ago I started tracking down old friends. I started my search for Joan at Hereford United football club. Her father was the secretary or manager in their amateur days and I was delighted to see the name Graham Turner as manager now! What a bit of luck I thought.

What an idiot I was though. I wrote to him asking if he knew what had happened to Joan Turner. He wrote a short note back saying that he had no idea what I was on about! Oops ... what a fool I had been. Graham Turner was a professional football manager, nothing to do with the family I once knew.

Oh well, never one to give up the chase I contacted Hereford United's historian, via the internet. This chap certainly knew all about the early 1950s at the club. He said that Joan had married, in Hereford, around 1959, give or take a year. That was a start. I worked through microfiche records of marriages in the main library in Edinburgh and found her married name. Then, via census records on I found their current address.

I bought a "Happy Anniversary" card and enclosed a short letter. No idea if Joan had the slightest interest in replying, but she did. She telephoned me. The first thing she said really hit hard.

Her husband had a massive heart attack which killed him; just a year ago! Of course, I had no way of knowing this. The search of the census records gave both Joan's name and that of her husband. I'd just assumed they were both still living there.

She completely forgave me for my wrong assumption. She has a son who lives close by and one of her sisters sees her regularly. We keep in touch, by letter and a phone chat now and then. She and her husband became competition ballroom dancers and she sent me a few photographs of them in their ballroom outfits. We never touched on the when and why we lost touch. One day we may meet up for a meal or something. Not something I would rule out, especially if my wife and I have a holiday in Hereford.

I traced a couple who got married at RAF Bruggen in 1955. I was best man at Bert and Jean's wedding. I found some photographs of that day and sent one to the magazine called "Best of British", with a request for anyone to get in touch with me if they knew of their whereabouts. Strangely enough, it was Bert's mother-in-law who read my letter in the magazine and she rushed round to Bert's house to let him read it. Again, I keep in touch with Bert and his family - mainly via emails and the telephone.

I think a few gaps have been filled now so next time it will be back to the work scene. Again, like in Monty Python, it's a "now for something completely different"...

Monday, 22 June 2009

Moving On - Sort of

Thoroughly disenchanted with the bookmaking game. Fed up and needing something new. A half-page advert in The Sporting Life caught my imagination. It was for a new-fangled electronic calculator!

Phoned the advertiser, Ray Norton. He had an office in the Cheam area. Said I'd like to see one of these new electronic wonders. He said OK, come along and you can have a go on it.

Took a day off and drove to see this chap. He was very pleasant and welcoming. Told him what my job was; this interested him. He used to be a salesman for Anka Cash Registers, selling these machines to bookies throughout the UK. He was now trying to sell these CBM electronic calculators. Completely new to the market in 1971 and perfect now that decimalisation was here.

I was smitten with this machine. It was an eight digit display calculator with just the four functions: add, subtract, multiply and divide. Mains operated, no batteries. And its cost: £200. Yes, £200 - and even at that price I thought it was a real bargain. Never before seen in this country and I could see why Ray Norton had targeted the bookmaking industry.

Ray could see I was thoroughly approving of his machine, imported from America. He then suggested I might like to act as a salesman for it. I said yes, but still had to carry on as general manager for Johnno. I said I'd show the calculator to as many people as I could; I had quite a few contacts in bookmaking.

I was paid £15 for every machine I sold. I found it very easy to demonstrate its uses in the bookie game. Ray was pleased but thought I'd sell more if I went full time as a salesman. Eventually we came to an agreement: I would go full time and be paid a commission of 15% for each machine sold, plus a fixed weekly sum of £40. I took the plunge.

Concentrating solely on betting shop owners I went full steam ahead with this electronic marvel. Devised a method of settling all kinds of bets with it. My main demo being how to settle a 'Yankee' bet in just a few key presses. This never failed to grab the full attention of any prospect who saw how easy it was to use.

One day I'd travelled down to the south coast, just cold-calling in any betting shop I came across. Most managers of these shops were impressed. Some placed an order, others said they'd 'think about it'.

One shop had a female manager and the rest of the shop was staffed by ladies. Most unusual in my experience. This lady said she liked the machine but she'd have to speak to her boss. She made a phone call. Her boss said he'd be there shortly, so I waited.

He soon arrived. I left him and his lady manageress to have a good look at it. He too seemed quite impressed with it.

"Tell you what" he said, "If you can demonstrate its full use to my staff then I'll place an order.Provided all my manageress's like it and can use it." I was happy with this and said: "How many people do you employ?" He replied: "I've got fifteen shops and 65 staff - and they're all female!"

Phew, I thought ... that's a new one on me!

Anyway, we arranged to do this demo the next evening in a room he'd hired in a pub.

It went extremely well. The manageress who had first seen the machine was totally sold on it and she had obviously lauded its praises to her colleagues. After my initial demo I fielded loads of questions about its uses. I let them try it out too, but as I only had three machines with me it took some time to do this.

The boss could see how keen his girls were to get hold of this new toy. That evening he placed an order for twenty machines. No haggling, no request for discount: £200 each, making £4000 in total.

This was a terrific result. I'd been selling just one or maybe two machines when traipsing around the betting shops. But twenty in one hit was exhilarating. And it also meant a £600 commission for me! Wowee ... this certainly beat sitting in an office worrying about staff and racing results. Life seemed so much brighter.

I even took Ray Norton and his secretary over to Dublin to demonstrate it to a load of Irish bookies. That was a great few days and we sold plenty of the machines.

Actually our Dublin visit was quite funny to start with. We went in Ray's Mercedes car to Liverpool and then on the ferry to Ireland. We drove off the ferry and had to stop at the Customs barrier. A young Irish Customs chap asked us what we were going to do in Dublin. "Oh, just demonstrating some calculating machines..." He asked us to open the boot of the car and he saw all these boxes of calculators. He then said: "Well, there's a tax to pay on imports like this you know." We didn't know.

Ray Norton said: "Actually officer we're not selling them; just demonstrating them." The young Customs officer said "Oh, that's OK then, just as long as you are taking them back to England afterwards." And on we went. No forms to fill in or anything else.

We had twenty machines and sold them all for cash on the first night of the hotel demo! Quite a night. The Dublin people are all so friendly and helpful. All the bookies and their wives, all in furs and fine jewellery, were at the demo and they all wanted to take a machine home with them. If we'd have hand fifty machines we could have sold them all. We took orders for more to be sent over later. We drove back onto the ferry without a single machine in the car. Nobody stopped us at Customs. A really good trip, and profitable.

However, all good things must come to an end. And selling this 8-digit calculator was to end pretty quickly. Newer, better and cheaper machines were soon hitting the market. In a matter of months the blue skies would be turning greyer. I just could not sell enough of the CBM calculator to make it worthwhile.

The final straw came when I saw an advert in The Sporting Life for a dedicated bet settling machine called the Genie 247. The advert was cleverly worded:

'If you're thinking of buying a calculator ... Hold Your Horses!'

To add insult to injury I learned that it was being financed and promoted by none other than James Lane, the Brixton based bookie and friend of Johnno. The end of the road for the little CBM machine. But we'd had a good run.

My brief encounter with the selling game would soon be ending. What next could I do? No way did I want to go back to the bookie business; no way José.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Settlers Running Scared - Dreading D-Day 1971

The letter D was looming large in the UK. For some months everyone was being brainwashed by decimalisation literature, television programmes and the radio. It seemed that the country was on the verge of doom and disaster!

Bookies and their staff were worried. Decades of handling and settling bets in good old Pounds shillings and pence would soon be history. Punters, too, were none too happy with the prospect. It was hard to find a person who felt happy about it all.

But it was going to happen. Nothing would stop it now. It was a momentous task and the logistics must have been quite daunting for those in charge of it all.

I was still working for Johnno as general manager of a chain of 12 betting shops in the south London area. All the staff were worried as to how they would cope with this change. Some could not get their head around the "new" money. A florin, or two-shilling piece, would now be equal to "10 new pence". This coin was usually known as "two bob" but would also be "ten new pence".

It was easy to see why so many people were a tad flummoxed. So what was my part in all this? Well, Johnno just left it all to me to "train" our staff. Thanks Johnno!

Firstly I read books and leaflets on the topic. Then I compiled a booklet of my own, aimed at settlers and counterhands in the bookie business. This item was very basic in content and was nothing more than some 20 pages produced via a stencil and duplicator. The pages were stapled in the top left corner. It showed how to work out bets to base 10 whilst still using the old fractions such as 6-4, 5-2 and so on.

I even advertised this rough and ready guide for bookmaker's and their staff in the "Sporting Life" and actually sold a few copies. Unfortunately there was a postal strike just before D-Day and this hindered my prospects of selling many.

Johnno seemed quite happy with the way things were going. I'd held a couple of "in house" training sessions which seemed to put the staff at ease. He then suggested that I give a talk and demonstration at Brixton Town Hall, mainly for the benefit of a couple of his pals in the bookies game. James Lane was one of these friends. He had more shops than Johnno and thought it would be a good idea to have a go at re-assuring his staff too.

Well, it was all arranged for one evening in January 1971. Public speaking was not my forté and as the hour approached I had a touch of the collywobbles. Johnno plied me with a couple of "stiffeners" and I relaxed enough to take the stage.

I knew it would be a disaster to "lecture" the lads and lasses of the bookie business. They'd either fall asleep or walk away. A short introductory summary of what D-Day meant was all I offered and then put the onus on the audience.

Asking for questions and seeking out their main queries and anxieties was the route I took. After one or two plucked up courage to fire a couple of questions the session seemed to take off.

"How am I going to settle a tanner yankee then?" or "What about a five-bob treble all at odds on?" and similar queries. I used a white-board to show how easy these bets were under decimalisation. The evening was far easier than I'd dared hope. Johnno was well pleased. Next morning he gave me £200 which was a useful sum then. He said Jimmy Lane had given it to him to pass on to me. I don't know if that was really the case but I accepted it with great pleasure.

By now I'd been working in the bookie business for some 15 years or so. I was fast becoming disillusioned with the business. I particularly hated to see a hardworking chap come into a shop and spend half his paypacket on a Friday afternoon on bets. I used to wonder what his wife might feel like when the house-keeping money was less than expected. What a way to make a living I thought to myself.

One day I saw an advertisement in the Sporting Life. It was to be the start of a new phase of my life ...

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Who Ate My Sausages?

Just before I switched to working in betting shops I worked for Albert Cook & Son. The office was in 801 Wandsworth Road in London. The 'guvnor' was quite a card in many ways. He was a member of The Magic Circle. Specialised in card tricks. Would never play poker with him; you'd lose!

He told me how he started bookmaking back in the 1940s. First he was a 'runner' for a local bookie. He said:

"I noticed that I always collected more money than I ever paid out to my customers. I decided to be a bookie and hang on to the bets I'd been taking and handing over to the local bookie."

"I had a rule book printed. Just a few pages saying what my 'limits' were. Every bookie had 'limits' as to how much a punter could win in those days."

He went on to say that his limits for a winning double was 12-1, 25-1 for a treble and 50-1 for an accumulator. Most punters stuck to having small win or each way singles but if a punter had a winning double they would never win more than 12-1.

He continued: "Because I wasn't too well-educated I had difficulty in reading. For a few weeks if a punter had a winning double I would pay him 12-1, whatever the starting price odds of each horse were!"

"A friend of mine pointed out the error of my ways. He said that some punters were laughing at me for paying out 12-1 when they were due much less than that."

"I thought quickly and replied: 'Yes, I know, but they'll always come back to me for their next bet!'..."

Albert Cook prospered in the bookie business, but he never made this mistake again.

One evening I was on duty until 7 p.m. which was to take a few greyhound bets from those clients who followed that sport. One of them was a butcher, from the Lavender Hill Road area. He called at the office at about 6.30 p.m. to pay his outstanding account. He was in high spirits. Apparently he'd just won the prestigious "Best Sausage" competition. I congratulated him.

"Tell you what Phil, I'll drop a couple of pounds in for you tomorrow evening. Let me know what you think of them." I thanked him and he left.

I finished work at 5 p.m. next day; young Alby Cook was doing the greyhound duty that evening. On the following morning I was having a cup of tea at about 11 a.m. when I remembered about the sausages.

Looked in the kitchen fridge; no sign of them. Back in the office I said: "Did Butch leave some of his prize sausages for me yesterday evening?"

One voice spoke; it was the boss's son, Albert Cook Jnr. "Oh, were they for you? Butch just rang the bell and just 'here's the sausages..' and he left."

I said: "So what's happened to them Alby?"

"Err, well I just took them home and..." he stammered. He obviously knew they were not left for him. I was quite annoyed. Alby was quite well-off financially and I'm certain Butch would have said that he'd left them for me.

"Well thanks a bunch Alby. Hope you enjoyed them!" And I said no more, mainly because Albert Cook Snr was listening to all this and was keeping very quiet. I felt sure he was most embarrassed by this verbal exchange.

I arrived home at about 6.30 p.m. I lived in Brighton Road, Purley, at the time. My wife, Pat, opened the door as she'd been waiting for me and I soon knew why.

She said excitedly: "Look what's arrived this afternoon!" In the living room was a large wicker hamper, choc-a-bloc full of expensive foodstuffs. It had arrived by van from Fortnum and Masons, one of London's most famous grocers and deli shops. There was a note included, from Albert Cook.

He wrote how ashamed he'd felt about his son purloining "my" sausages. I now felt extremely embarrassed myself; Albert Senior was a decent and proud chap. I was quite sad that I'd blurted out about the sausages earlier that day.

My wife had no idea as to how this had all come about. I explained it to her; she said it was nothing for me to feel ashamed about. However, she did not have to go in the office next day!

I had a quiet word with the boss next day and apologised for causing his embarrassment. He said it was not my fault and he just had to try to make amend for his son's behaviour. He asked me not to mention the hamper to anybody in the office and I never did.

The saga of the sausages was thus closed. No hard feelings. Life trundled on.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Threats, Violence and Robbery - Life in a Bet Shop

There's an old saying: "Where there's muck there's money". You can also be sure that where there is money there's a risk of robbery and violence. Certainly so during the 1960s in the betting shop business.

I first felt a "threat" of violence when I left the betting shop in Streatham one evening. I locked the door and started to walk to my car. I noticed a Jaguar saloon parked a few feet from the shop. The engine was running; I could see exhaust fumes from the twin tail pipes. The sun visor was also down; the driver was reading a newspaper. His face was completely obscured. Hmm .. I thought; never seen this car here before.

Kept my eyes on the rear view mirror as I drove off. Wanted to see if I was being followed. No, all seemed OK.

Next evening, same car, engine running, driver's face obscured. Same again next evening but I ducked back into the shop after noting the licence plate number.

Phoned the police station which was only yards away in Streatham High Road. Spoke to a CID chap; he knew Johnno as it happens. He said "Stay where you are, I'll ring you back in a few seconds." He came back on the phone. "The person who owns this Jag is known to us. Stay in the shop and in a few seconds you'll see a transit van pull up".

I looked out of the window and the van appeared. The doors opened and five policemen jumped out and surrounded the Jag. Within a minute or so the CID officer tapped on the door and I let him in.

"It's OK" he said, "you can get home now. He's waiting for a lady-friend but doesn't want anybody to see him here." Obviously an affair the driver wanted to keep private. The police said I'd been perfectly right to phone them. Betting shop staff were frequently being robbed and as they "knew" this car and its owner they had good reason to pounce on him.

On another occasion, our Brixton shop manager was attacked whilst walking through a park on his way home. He had ammonia sprayed onto his face and was robbed of the cash he was carrying. He was off work for a fortnight as his eyes were hurt in the attack. Badly shaken up, too. Carried on with his job for a few years more but did not take a short cut through the park again.

A smaller shop in our Angel Road, Brixton, branch was robbed at gunpoint one evening. The robber got only a couple of hundred pounds, but the manager was so scared of a future attack he resigned and left the business entirely.

However, the worst event occurred in our Tooley Street betting shop. This had only been opened, after conversion from its former warehouse use, for a few months. It was in August when I had a phone call from a CID officer at Southwark Police Station.
He asked for Johnno. Not possible, Johnno was in Majorca for a month.

He went on: "What I want is permission to plant some officers in your Tooley Street shop on Friday next. We have information that it's going to be robbed then."

I said I'd have to get back to him as soon as I could contact the boss. Johnno was on his yacht when I phoned his villa but they contacted him with a ship to shore radio. He soon phoned me back, anxious to know why I'd phoned him.

After explaining the police proposition Johnno said it was OK, provided I made sure that the police assured me that none of our other shops would be hit. Johnno thought that their "information" might be a blind, in order to divert attention from the real target shop. The CID chap gave me his absolute assurance that Tooley Street was going to be attacked by a known gang of violent villains, so I approved the plan that the police had in mind.

I was now general manager so I stayed in Tooley Street from lunch time on that Friday. The attack was thought to be at around 5 p.m. Evening racing would be on this day but the main afternoon racing would be finished by 5 p.m. It made sense to hit the shop then as there was likely to be more takings in the till.

In place of our usual counter staff we had two male plain clothes officers acting as counter hands, plus the sergeant CID acting as "manager". There were also two other plain clothes police reading the newspapers on the wall, making out they were punters. In the adjoining butchers shop and in other neighbouring shops there were uniformed officers hiding out, ready and waiting to pounce.

Almost on the dot of 5 o'clock a man wearing a fawn raincoat comes in and starts to read a paper. I heard the CID sergeant whisper into a hand microphone: "The first one's in ... get ready."

Another guy comes in a few seconds later, similarly dressed. "Number two's in ..." whispers the sergeant.

Door opens, a third man enters. "That's it, don't wait any more ... go!"

The door bursts open and five uniformed policement charge in. The plain clothes officers in the shop, plus the "counter-hand" officers literally jump on these three villains. They are pinned down to the floor with a heavy uniformed officer actually sitting on each of the suspects.

A strong smell of ammonia filled the room as a "squeezy" bottle burst in the raincoat pocket of one of these crooks. A large revolver was snatched from another one and a sawn-off shotgun from another.

It was all over in seconds. A car roared away from outside the shop and sped off. The police did not give chase; they had plenty to deal with on the spot.

I later found out that the driver of the getaway car was the 'informer'. An undercover policeman who had finally stopped this vicious gang from doing any more harm. They had been robbing shops throughout the UK. The leader was from Scotland and a professional and callous thief. They were fully armed with loaded weapons and had used them on other jobs. They all got hefty prison sentences and they thoroughly deserved it.

People have often said that bookies are there to be shot at ... but not with guns! It simply meant that punters would try to relieve the bookie of his cash by backing many winners!

That's enough sex and violence for now; well, enough violence anyway. As the late, great John Betjeman remarked towards the end of his life: "I've not had enough sex...". He was answering the question: "Do you have any regrets...?"

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Sunnyhill Road Mob - Streatham, S.W.London

Now licensed betting shops were in full swing and there were jobs aplenty for shop settlers/managers/counterhands. I started work as settler/manager in the Sunnyhill Road betting shop owned by John Parry.

Johnno, as we often called him, was typical of many Londoners who came up "the hard way". He was about 5' 10", broad-shouldered and with forearms twice the normal size. Solid muscle; not a guy you'd willingly tangle with. He was a decent chap as far as I was concerned. Play fair by him and you'd benefit. Try to get one over on him? My advice: forget it!

Johnno, like my first bookie boss, was very fond of cars. He was forever changing them and getting something newer and costlier. He once bought the James Bond type car, the Aston Martin DB6. When I first had a ride in this car I seemed to be almost lying down in it. It was traded in after about six months for something much bigger: a large Mercedes saloon. It was light blue and virtually brand new. Johnno had a call from one of the largest Mercedes dealers in London saying that they had this car and offered him first refusal. Apparently a member of the Cadbury family, the chocolate manufacturers, had ordered this car to have a special paint job when he bought it new. On delivery he decided he didn't like the colour! The dealer then agreed to sell it on behalf of Mr. Cadbury - and Johnno bought it. The DB6 was part-exchanged and this marvellous new car took its place.

The Merc looked like one of those state cars used by diplomats and other bigwigs. It had everything. Fully automatic; stereo radio; cream leather upholstery; an engine that literally purred, no matter what speed you achieved.

After I'd been with Johnno for a couple of years he asked me to take over management of the twelve shops he owned. These were in Streatham, Brixton and Bermondsey. All were busy shops; good earners. Our London Road, Brixton shop was known as the "grand shop" as it seldom earned less than a £1000 a week, which was good going in those mid-1960 days. I thus became his general manager. No more "settling" but much more responsibility.

I now shared an office opposite the Sunnyhill Road betting shot with Johnno. I got to know him a lot better. He was easy-going for most of the time; he also spent a lot of time in his villa in Majorca. He had a lovely yacht out there too.

Johnno had a scar running down the right side of his face and down the side of his neck. It was an old scar. One evening we were having an after-work drink in the local pub and I asked Johnno about this scar.

He said that in his younger days, when he was about 18 or so, he was a 'minder' for a south London 'business man'. This person had been threatened by somebody called Jack Spot, a gangster of some renown in the underworld apparently. Johnno was to deter this gangster and he did so by confronting him with a dagger. He stabbed him in the side, threatening to finish him off if he ever troubled Johnno's boss again.

A month or two later, Johnno was waiting to cross the busy London Road in Brixton. He was about to step out when he was grabbed on each arm by two large men. They dragged him into the road as a tram was approaching and slammed him onto the tram-lines. He just escaped decapitation but the steel wheels at the front of the tram caught the side of his face and neck. The deep wounds were now fully healed, but highly visible, scars.

I've more to say about my Johnno days, but that's enough for tonight.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Kray Twins and Others I've Met

I moved on from Arthur Horton's bookie office and moved to Albert Cook & Son, 808Wandsworth Road, then a bit later into betting shop work. Along the way I met quite a few 'interesting' characters. The most famous, or infamous, were Reggie and Ronnie Kray, known by most simply as 'The Twins'. I'll start with these two chaps; it was some time around the early to mid sixties.

I was working for a car-dealer whose mother-in-law was a Croydon bookie, Beat Chapman. I worked for her in her Tamworth Road betting shop for a while when she asked me if I'd help her son-in-law, Brian, to learn the betting game. I agreed.

Met Brian and his aim was to add another string to his bow. He thought betting shops were a licence to print money. Not always true, but 'the bookie always wins' was burned into his brain I think.

Firstly he had to find premises. He bought a corner café in Purley Way Croydon, with many factories just opposite. Looked a good site to me. Applied for a bookmakers licence and it was approved. Set about gutting the café and turning it into a plain and simple betting shop, complete with Extel broadcasting installed. I was the 'settler/manager' and employed two girls as counter-hands. They took the betting slips and paid out the winnings. I just settled the bets and kept a general eye on things. Brian frequently helped out during the afternoon.

At about 1.30 one afternoon I was sorting through the early morning slips with my back to the counter. Brian came to my desk and sat on the corner. He whispered to me: "Get on the blower and tell Charlie and Bomber to get here now! The Twins have just come in." I went to look round; Brian hissed "Don't turn round, get on the blower now." He was obviously very tense. I made the call. I simply said: "Brian wants you now - the Twins have turned up." The line went dead.

Four minutes later the door burst open and four of Brian's 'acquaintances' came striding in. I knew Chas and Bomber, but not the other two. I was now able to witness what all this kerfuffle was about. Very smartly dressed in blue mohair tailored suits; pristine collar and ties and expensive looking shoes - that was the Krays. Their Mum would have been proud of them, which, as we all know, she was!

Chas went straight over to Reggie Kray, hand extended and they shook hands - as did Bomber, and then Brian joined the mob. There was much back-slapping and "How you doing?" small talk.

Chas asked Ronnie: "Wotcha doing round these parts then? Bit out of your way, innit?"
Reggie answered: "We're on our way to Brighton but we're gonna miss the first race or two. Just wanna have a couple of bets, that's all."

Brian's face regained some colour; he'd gone quite pale. There was a bit more general chit-chat and the Krays, plus their three associates, left the shop and went on their way. Chas, Bomber and the other two heavies also departed.

Brian was obviously relieved when they'd all gone. He said to me that he'd been convinced the Krays were going to 'protect' the new shop! The Krays knew Brian as he and his Dad had often supplied cars for them. That's all I knew about his dealings with them; it was all I wanted to know too. My business was to look after the betting shop; any other business was nothing to do with me, and that's the way I liked it.

The Krays had about £20 in a couple of bets; they lost. No doubt they could afford it! I met them on a couple of other occasions when I went to a couple of boxing events in London. The Twins were great boxing fans and they were once very well thought of as boxers themselves.

They also liked to contribute to 'good causes' - donating plenty of cash, usually in a very public way. One evening at a boxing match there was a an 'auction' of a few things from the ring. Tommy Trinder, a well-known comedian (You Lucky People being his catchphrase) was the auctioneer. The Krays bid for everything, often bumping the bids up between them! The final item was a huge bouquet of flowers. The Krays were the highest bidders. After the applause died down, they passed the bouquet back to Trinder and said: "Give this to the nurses home, with our compliments".

Yes, they were villains and murderers. They terrified all of their victims. Not the kind of people one would want to associate with normally. However, in many people's eyes they were generous 'businessmen', running clubs, giving to charity and doing good things generally. It's similar to thousands of people who admired Hitler and Stalin, and some still do - sickening though it is to even think such a thing.

Next time I'll write a bit about my time with a Streatham bookie who started life as a sort of 'minder' for a London crook...

Monday, 15 June 2009

Characters I've Met in the Bookie Game

My time spent learning the settling game was hard going. Like all things, it gets easier in time; practice makes perfect. Well, almost perfect.

In the 1950s the Sporting Life newspaper held an annual "Settler of the Year" contest. It was held some place in London. If you took part you had to work out various complex bets as speedily as possible. It was a speed test, the fastest settler won a cash prize. You had to get the test bets right, to within a couple of pennies.

My pal, Dicky Cox, entered it a few times. He came very close to winning on two occasions. Pipped on the post by a few seconds on the clock.

Nowadays of course most, if not all, the settling is done by a computer! Glad I am not having to work in the game now.

Whilst working at Arthur Hortons office we had a Glaswegian "manager" (Jock Lindsay) who used to work for William Hill, the then biggest bookie in the UK. Jock was about 5 feet 6 inches tall. A thin scrawny-faced chap with a broad Scots dialect.

He used to scare the pants of me at times. One evening we had to go to a pub in New Addington to collect some money from one of our "runners". This runner, Chippy Marshall, had a reputation as a hard man. A cut-throat razor was his favoured weapon. Nobody spoke out of turn with him. Except Jock!

We were waiting in this pub for Chippy to arrive. Dicky Cox, Jock Lindsay, the Boss and myself. Chippy enters. Jock had never met him before. The boss pointed him out to Jock.

In a loud voice Jock said: "Hiya Chippy, over here!" It sounded like an order, not a request. Chippy Marshall saunters over; Jock extends his right hand, which Chippy grasps as though to shake hands. Jock pulls Chippy so that their noses almost touch.

"You know what youse are Chippy ... you're a real right liberty taking bastard!" bellowed Jock. The hub-bub of the bar diminished. All eyes seemed to turn towards our little group at the bar.

Chippy replied: "Oh dear; we'd better go into the office Jock." The office was the gents toilet! Jock and Chippy disappeared into the toilets. Arthur Horton, my boss, said: "I think a couple of you should go in there ...." Both Dicky Cox and I declined.

Within a few minutes Jock and Chippy emerged and came to the bar. Jock handed the boss a bundle of £5 notes, saying: "Chippy apologises for not sorting this out earlier Arthur and here's most of what is owed. He'll get the rest in a couple of days."

All smiles. I'd expected buckets of blood! Jock was either very brave or just plain stupid. Either way, his confrontational attitude always seemed to work. Except with one person: his wife!

I'd met Jock's wife, also Scottish, in the Goat House pub one evening. Jock had said she was coming there for a drink with us later on. He was describing her in a very complimentary and loving way. He called her his "fillum star" lady.

We awaited her entrance. She came into the saloon bar and Jock's face beamed as she sashayed up to us. She was tiny! Probably a couple of inches under 5 foot. She literally glittered. Her eyes had some sort of bluey-silver sparkly makeup. Her cheeks were heavily rouged. Her dark brown hair was just visible under another kind of glittery spray. Some "fillum star". Minnie Mouse perhaps, but no Marlené Dietrich!

But Jock certainly loved her, so good for him. We would learn later on that she belied her diminutive frame.

About a week or so later Jock, Dicky Cox and I were having a drink after work. It went on a bit longer than usual. About 11.30 that evening Jock invited us to have a night-cap in his flat. We both said we really ought to get off home, but he insisted.

We climbed the iron staircase leading up to the top flat of a three storey building. It was approaching midnight. We entered the flat to find Jock's wife waiting for him. She was in her dressing gown and with curlers in her hair. I don't think she was expecting company! Jock asked if it was OK for him to offer us a drink. She looked daggers at him and said: "Just one drink, just the one, OK!"

Dick and I accepted a small whisky from Jock, downed it swiftly and said that we'd best be on our way. We scampered back down the iron staircase, never looking back.

Next morning we arrived at the office at our usual time, around 10 a.m. Usually Jock was first in, but not today. He finally turned up around midday. He did not look well.

He had a bandage around his forehead and his upper lip was swollen. We made no comment other than to ask if he'd like a cup of tea. He said no.

Eventually he told us that his wife was none too happy with him for inviting us into the flat so late at night. She had hit him a few times with a heavy cast-iron frying pan, cutting his head. No wonder he was late to work!

Our boss, Arthur Horton, used to take part in the TT races in the Isle of Man before he became a bookmaker. His father was a bookmaker too, with a regular pitch at Wembley Greyhound stadium. Arthur was the side-car passenger in these TT races and some of the old black and white films of these events were quite something. How anybody could lean so far out of a speeding side-car as it sped around the bends was beyond me. Arthur's main weakness was booze. He was a member of a few "after hours" clubs and frequently he would still be imbibing into the wee small hours of the morning.

His passion was fast cars. Jaguars, XK120, 140 and others were his favourite fast cars, but he also had a lovely vintage Lagonda car which he adored.

This bookie game was full of characters. Some were lovable rogues; some just plain rogues. Such as the Kray Twins. More later...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Working out - But not as You Know it.

This new job of mine, after leaving the RAF, is proving harder than I expected. Mental arithmetic was not my speciality. This job was 80% mental arithmetic! Am I mental? Don't all yell yes at once please...

The currency in the 1950s/60s was duo-decimal. Base 12, not base 10. There were 240 pennies in £1. 12 pennies in a shilling. 20 shillings in £1. There were other coins: farthings (4 farthing = 1 penny), halfpennies, threepenny bits, sixpenny bits, shillings and half-crowns. A half-crown was two shillings and sixpence. There were 8 half-crowns in £1.

Following me? Good. That's very good! Thank goodness we went decimal in the 1970s.

I remember struggling with how to work out a simple bet; well, simple to my colleagues in the bookie's office. The punter had half-a-crown to win at 13/8, (the price of the winner he'd backed). How much money was due to him? I did my best to calculate it using a pencil and paper. I made it 6/5d. Six shillings and five pence, including his half-crown stake money.

Dicky Cox said it was wrong! I couldn't believe it. He called out to Tony, another settler: "Tony, tell him what half-crown at 13/8 is..." Tony's reply came back instantly: "Six and Seven..." meaning 6/7d. I couldn't believe that anybody could have worked out this bet so fast.

Of course Tony was correct. However, it later dawned on me that he hadn't "worked it" out at all. He and others in this business simply knew what the answers to a myriad of combinations simply from memory. I felt dejected. I couldn't imagine that I had the capacity to cope with this numbers game.

Dicky Cox was a good friend and he tutored me. He showed me how he and others broke the "price" down into sub-fractions. He said: 13/8 is simply one-and-five-eighths to one. Five eighths is easily broken down to 'one half plus a quarter of the half'. He went steadily through other fractional prices, some trickier to break down than others. There are dozens to deal with: odds-on and odds-against.

An odds-on price is anything less than even money. Even money is 1/1. 4/6 is "six to four on" ... while 6/4 is six to four against. There were horrible prices like 100/7 - which translates to "bet £7 and if the horse wins you win £100, plus your £7 stake back". Other nasties: 4/7, 8/13, 8/11, 4/9 plus their reverse "odds against" prices, such as 7/4 and so on.

"Settling" bets meant, of course, that one had to know exactly the result of every race as they occurred. If there were six race meetings that afternoon we would have at least 36 results to remember. And not just the winners name! People loved to back horses "each way" which meant a horse could come 1st, 2nd, or 3rd (and sometimes even 4th).

So, we had to remember the names and prices of around 144 horses in order to work out a punter's returns. Of course, we also had to know which horses had run and lost, or perhaps been a non-runner. If the settler inadvertently crossed out a winner it would not only upset the punter it could cause a hefty liability to the bookie.

Say a punter had a £1 win treble and the settler had mistakenly crossed out the first horse on the slip as a loser, but in fact it was a winner. That betting slip would go into the "loser" pile. However, if the other two horses on the slip also won then the punter would have a winning treble, which, depending on the prices, could come to a tidy sum.

Whilst doing all this "settling" of bets we had to answer the telephones at the same time, taking down more and more bets. It was an awful strain during my first few months in the bookie business.

I stuck with it right through to 1972; sixteen years of it. During this time I met with some 'colourful' types, on both sides of the job. I'll tell about some of them next time.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Tricks, Traps and Tips in the Bookie Game

Everybody knows the bookie always wins. Right? Wrong! Well anyway, they didn't always win in the 1950s. There were plenty of punters out to rob the bookie by hook or by crook.

One day I opened a "clock bag" and tipped out the grubby contents. Old fag packets, scrap paper and anything that could be written on. Racing had started about an hour or so earlier. The time stamp of the clock bag was OK. It had been closed and locked five minutes before the first race. All seemed well until I found one of the betting slips rolled up into a tight, thin cylinder. Unusual, and even more so when I unrolled the slip and found it had three winning horses on it. A £5 win treble, which came to over £100 in "winnings".

Called the boss and showed him. He was furious, and experience told him this was a very fishy betting slip. For one thing he always told his runners that any "large" bets should be phoned in before the races started. A £5 treble was, in those days, a large and potentially dangerous bet.

I told him how I'd found the betting slip tightly rolled up when I opened the bag. He inspected the clock bag closely and found that the seam at the bottom had been tampered with. The stitching had been cut in one small section. The allowed the rolled up slip to be pushed into the sealed and timed clock bag. Somebody had got the three winners, written out the dodgy £5 treble, rolled it up and slipped it into the small hole in the seam.

There were only two people who could have done this trick: the runner himself or the taxi driver who had brought the bag from the factory to our office. It did not take long to work out who the culprit was. Normally the taxi picked up the clock bag from this factory about 5 minutes after the first race of the day. On this occasion the taxi driver said he'd been told to leave it until about 40 minutes later that day. The runner had no real excuse for this and thus condemned himself.

He lost a fairly lucrative little side-line and was lucky not to have been roughed up for "trying it on" with Arthur Horton Ltd! Had the runner not been so greedy he might have got away with some smaller scams - but not a fiver treble!

One day we had a couple of chaps call at the office saying they could take a few bets at their workplace. Were we interested? Yes, said Arthur, we are. These two guys said they would bring the betting slips directly to the office just before the first race each day, together with the cash. That's fine we said. No problem. But there was.

I have to explain that in those long gone days there were no "overnight declarations" of runners in horse racing. As a result there were often lots of "non-runners" in each race. It was this fact that our two new "runners" had latched onto.

Next afternoon they arrived at the office. Racing was just about to begin. One of the men pulled out a pocketful of cash: £5, £1 and ten-shilling notes, all screwed up, along with lots of coins. They said, "Let's get the money checked out first of all please.." and the boss was happy to start sorting it out. Eventually a total was agreed as correct. Then a bundle of betting slips, with an elastic band securing them, was dropped onto the desk and they said "Cheerio, see you tomorrow".

I was given the bundle of betting slips to sort out and start "settling". Surprise, surprise: our new runners had a very nice winning first day! Strangely enough, nearly every betting slip had the first winner of the day, either as a single straight win bet, or in doubles and even trebles. Very strange. Especially as all the doubles and trebles were winning bets, simply because the other "legs" of the doubles and trebles included all non-runners. This meant that all these "multiple" bets became singles, with the first winner of the day as the only runner.

The "profit" on this first day did not amount to a great deal as the first winner was odds-on, meaning it was less than even money. The boss knew he'd been "had over" and he had worked out how these guys had rooked him.

Next day when these two shysters arrived, again about five minutes before the first race, they began their spiel about "checking the cash first." "No", said the boss, "just give me the bets first, and we'll settle the cash afterwards." They were twigged! They handed over a bundle of bets which the boss took hold of. Then they handed over the jumble of money. The boss paid them what they had "won" on the previous day and they left, somewhat dejectedly.

This time all their bets lost. Yes, every betting slip was a loser! They actually lost about twice what they had "won" yesterday. We never saw these two scammers again.

How had they tricked us on the first day? Well, the night before they had written out dozens of bets and each bet had a horse in the first race written as singles, doubles etc., all linked with known "non runners" in the later races. If there were, say, 10 runners in the first race they would have 10 separate bundles of bets. Each bundle would have the name of a horse in the first race in every bet. When they arrived at the office they deliberately delayed handing over the bets until our "boardman" had written the result of the first race on the blackboard. Now they knew the first race winner and all they had to do was pick out the "winning bundle" from their pockets. They had to have a system of remembering which pocket the "winner of the first race" was in.

Another scam involved telephone bets. A credit client would come on the phone from, say, Wimbledon dog track, just before a race was due to start. He would read out a couple of bets for later races and then, just after the first race had finished, he would try to place a largish "forecast" bet. This was a bet to name the first and second dog in correct finishing order. His bet was refused: it was too late! He protested of course, but we knew that he had a person in the stadium who had just tic-tacked the result to him in the phone box. No mobile phones in those days, but where there's a will there's a way.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Settling in a Bookies Office

It's early January, 1956. A strange new world, for me, learning the tricks and trade of "settling".

Betting on horses was something I'd done on a few occasions, such as the Derby and Grand National races. Most people might have a small flutter on these two races but there are many thousands who have a bet every week; or every day; even maybe every hour or so! This was now my job: to take these bets and to "settle" them. Easily said, less easily accomplished.

There were no betting shops in 1956. It would be another five or six years before licensed betting shops started to open. The only way people could bet in the 1950s was either at the racecourse or with a "credit account" with a bookmaker. There was a third way, but it was illegal.

This third way accounted for a good 50% of the business of my boss's setup: bookie's runners betting. A bookie's runner was a person, usually a man, who collected bets from everybody and anybody. This chap would take a slip of paper with the bet written on it, together with the cash for the bet.

The 'runner' would pass all these slips of paper to the bookie, in various ways. The bookie would reward the runner by paying him a 'commission' of, usually, 1/6d (one shilling and sixpence) for every £1-worth of bets. The runner, if he had a good 'pitch' would earn a nice income irrespective of whether these bets won or lost.

1/6d in the £ was 7.5% of the stakes. The risk was that the runner, if caught taking these slips, could end up in jail. Very few were ever caught. One reason for that is the police were usually on the payroll. Yes, the bookie gave a regular 'drink' to the local cop-shop and in return the cop would warn us that our 'runner' was due to be 'nicked' tomorrow! This enabled the bookie to warn the runner, who would then arrange for a substitute to take his place on occasions like this. The 'substitute' runner would thus be a 'first offender' and would draw only a small fine from the magistrates. All very nicely organised; everybody was happy.

These runners were usually sharp-witted people. Some would have a network of sub-agents who would collect bets and hand them to the main runner. The largest sources of these illegal bets were in factories and pubs. Most of these betting slips were collected prior to the first race of the afternoon and placed in strong leather or canvas bags, specially made for the purpose. They were called 'clock bags'.

The runner would close the bag and it would be locked, with a time-clock showing the time of sealing. The bag would then be taken by car or taxi to the bookie's office. The office staff would open it, check the time stamp and add up the total stakes. It was the settler's job to work on these grubby betting slips.

Bets were written on bits of paper, cigarette packets, bits of old cardboard or any other scraps of paper.

The other business was by telephone. Some runners would phone their bets through if they accepted a slip after the clock bag had been closed. However, most phone bets were from private 'credit' clients. These people were slightly more sophisticated punters and would have a set credit limit. They would receive a weekly account of all their bets and were required to pay up any losses each week.

So, there you have it. I was in this small, smoke-filled room, with up to six other people, answering the phone and taking down bets. I would also be working out these various wagers as the minutes ticked by in the afternoons. Whilst racing was in progress it was a pressurised job. All the action was crammed into around three or so hours in the afternoon. Non-stop concentrated effort to keep pace with the racing.

An important aspect of being a bookie's clerk, or settler, was liability. This meant we had to watch out for any bets that might cost the bookie too much. For example, if a punter had placed an accumulator bet and the first three horses had won there might be a large amount building up on the next horse on the bet. Say that the bet was a £1 win accumulator on four horses. The first horse has won at, say, 8-1 and the second has won at 10-1; this would mean that there was now £99 going onto the third horse. If this 3rd horse odds were about 5-1 or so this could put a liability of around £600 on the fourth and final horse of the accumulator.

In such circumstances the settler would tell the bookie and it was then the bookie's decision as to what to do. He might say "Give Ladbrokes £50 to win on the 3rd horse" - thus 'hedging' part of the bet. On the other hand, he might consider the third horse to have no great chance of winning and would simply let the bet run.

Life was never dull in these smoky dens. Phones jangling all afternoon, the ticker tape rattling away as the betting and results came through. The screech of chalk on the blackboard as our 'boardman' wrote up the results for the settlers to work from.

It was all go, go, go. Cups of tea, usually made by the boss, often went cold. Cigarettes frequently burned away on the ashtray as the phones were constantly in use.

This was a steep learning curve period for me. Fortunately, my pal Dicky Cox was a great help. He had introduced me to Arthur Horton, the bookie boss, and he thus wanted to me to get on with the job as quickly as possible. Dicky was an amazingly fast settler; mental arithmetic was his stock in trade. A good friend. One day, some years later, I would be in a position to help him in a similar way.

Tricks and traps of the trade in the next instalment.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Decisions, decisions ... Which way to jump?

Three years ago, well - nearly three years, I'd joined the RAF. Like most lads in those days I was marking the days off the calendar as "demob" day approaches.

My travel warrants were made out, from Bruggen in north Germany through RAF Gloucester - and in mid-December 1955 I was on my way to the demob centre in Blighty.

Feeling happy and sad at the same time I travelled alone on the train through Germany and Holland. Boarding the troopship at the Hook of Holland I was amongst a varied bunch of RAF chaps heading for Harwich.

Arriving at RAF Gloucester is something I only half-remember; it's all a bit hazy now. I have one indelible memory of that day though: to go back to Civvy Street or sign on in the RAF again!

I'd been counting the days to demob for some months but now it had arrived I was so unsure of what to do. The officer who interviewed me prior to getting my discharge papers made it even harder for me. He looked at my records and, in a sincere and friendly way, did his best to sign me up for a 5-year engagement.

He was adamant that my acting-sergeant rank would be made substantive in a short period of time if I decided to stay on. He pressed home all the advantages of making the RAF a career, not just a short compulsory engagement. Foreign travel, good pay as an NCO, no housing problems, all food and clothing included ... what more could one want!

His attitude was quite 'fatherly' and he seemed genuinely concerned about my making the right decision. "What" he asked, "would I be doing if I left the RAF?" That was a good question! What indeed would I do. I daresay I could have returned to my job as a 'day-book' clerk at Charrington the brewers but the thought of that mundane life held no appeal now.

"I just don't know what I'll do, Sir" I replied. He seized on this and pressed home all the good things about staying in the RAF. I was almost persuaded, but in the end I said no; I wanted to leave now, and he said "Well Harfleet, I wish you all the best and if you change your mind you should get in touch and we'll welcome you back."

That was the end of one part of my life that, with hindsight, was probably the best three years of my life.

Soon I was back in the parental home, officially on leave until 17th January 1956; I'd be 21 in a few weeks time.

I had to keep my RAF uniform as I was on the 'reserve list' for seven years, during which time I could be called up for duty in the event of a war or various other situations. Other than that I was a civilian again. An unemployed civilian. I still had a tidy little sum in my post office savings book which came in very handy. I had, of course, to pay my mother a weekly sum towards my keep at 45 Kensington Avenue and then there were personal expenses.

My immediate concern was to find a job. I soon found one, thanks to a friend and ex-colleage from Charringtons: Dicky Cox. I called at his house one evening, in Derby Road, West Croydon, and discovered he was now working as a "settler" in the office of Arthur H. Horton, Turf Accountants, of Anerley Road. Dicky used to be a stocktaker at Charringtons but had got cheesed off with that job and had been working as a settler for about 18 months.

What is a settler? He settles the punter's bets; he works out what money is due to the punter if the bet is not a loser. The bets can be anything, from a simple 'single' bet, such as £1 to win on a horse or dog, or a complex set of doubles, trebles, accumulators, 'round the clock' bets, 'up and down, double stakes about' bets and other combination bets.

Anyway, Dicky Cox said he'd introduce me to Arthur Horton, the bookie and the upshot was I became a trainee settler. I would start in early January, 1956. Another new learning period was on the way!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Freedom of the Town of Echt, Holland

The pipes and drums of RAF Bruggen entertaining the citizens of Echt in Holland, August 1955. I took a couple of photos using an elderly camera; black and white were the only colours available then!

Why did the Mayor of Echt offer the "freedom of the town" to all the lads at RAF Bruggen, across the border in Germany? Well, according to the Mayor it was a sort of "Thank you" for not causing any damage to the town during WW2. Whether this was by luck or otherwise, he said that not one brick had been damaged by any of our bombing raids and for that everybody was eternally grateful.

We were given a very friendly reception by the townsfolk plus a free drink and other small gestures. It was a beautifully sunny day and it ended all too quickly.

Many of the Dutch people put the UK people to shame in that so many of them can speak English so well. I was so surprised that it was seldom necessary to use a phrase book when speaking to somebody in Holland. If they didn't speak English there was always somebody nearby or with them who spoke it perfectly, often with better diction and grammar than many Englishmen. They were always so polite too! A generally nice bunch of people, and no mistake.

Back at camp I was ordered to learn to drive! This happened almost as soon as I arrived at Bruggen and apparently it was required that all personnel should be able to drive. We were technically "on active service", even though the war had been over for some 10 years. The "cold war" with Russia was still a major factor and Berlin was carved in half, with the Russians ruling one side of the wall separating east and west Berlin.

I was introduced to my L-driver vehicle: a 3-ton German "Magirus" lorry. I thought I would be learning in a car! But no, a lorry was to be my initiation to the skills of driving.

Fortunately there was plenty of space on camp roads to learn with little danger of causing any damage to any other road user. The airfield perimeter was also available too, and this was where you could put your foot down and get up some speed.

These lorries were not equipped with syncromesh gears in those days. It was necessary to "double de-clutch" when changing gear - meaning one had to depress the clutch to get out of a gear, release the clutch and then depress it again to get into the next required gear. During the first hour of my driving lesson there was quite a bit of grinding and swearing as I struggled with the long gear lever and clutch operation. It could be called the "gear crunch", similar to our current credit crunch.

Owing to the relaxed atmosphere on the open airfield roads I took only about four or five hours of lessons before I could reverse the lorry into a hangar, charge around the perimeter at some speed and generally manoeuvre this beast of a lorry without crashing it. I had "passed" my driving test and was issued with a RAF driving licence. Great stuff.

My next surprise was that I would now act as a driving instructor to the next airman who hadn't got a licence! From trainee to instructor in about 6 hours. I quite enjoyed doing this little job and my "pupil" learned as quickly and easily as I'd done.

What would you say your most enjoyable, tasty and memorable meal has been? Mine was when I had to take part in a convoy through part of Germany one Sunday. I don't know what the purpose of this convoy was other than it was a necessary training exercise. Anyway, the convoy comprised some twenty or so Magirus lorries, each manned by a driver and co-driver. We set off after breakfast and just drove off in one long column of lorries. We stopped after a couple of hours for a brew, a welcome half-pint mug of hot, strong tea dispensed from a large tea-urn in one of the lorries. Lovely jubbly.

After another two hours of driving through the countryside we all halted again, for lunch. And this is where I had my best meal ever: Irish stew, sploshed out of a large "oil drum" like vessel from the "cookhouse lorry" straight into my mess-tin!
It was really delicious; hot, meaty with the usual vegetables mixed in, plus a hunk of bread to mop up any remaining gravy. It probably tasted so nice because I was pretty hungry by then. A good appetite is the best sauce of all, and whoever created this superb meal deserved a medal.

I was now a substantive corporal but in September 1955 I was promoted to acting-sergeant. I had only a few months left of my three-year engagement and I've no idea how I managed to climb the ranks in so short a time. The RAF proved to be a great choice and I was so glad to have signed on for the extra year instead of just doing the National Service 2-year stint. One of the best choices of my young life.

Monday, 8 June 2009

New Camp: RAF Bruggen, Dutch/German Borders

It was with mixed feelings that I said cheerio to all my friends and colleagues at RAF Hospital Wegberg, although the leaving party was thoroughly enjoyable. Quite a few drinks but not enough to make me incapable before I hit my "pit" that last night at Wegberg.

RAF Bruggen was totally different from Wegberg but pleasant enough. We had a large theatre/cinema which was handy and a darn good NAAFI too. I found my quarters comfortable enough, though not quite up to the ones I'd just left; still, I was not going to complain on that score.

The office I occupied was excellent and I had it to myself. The job was varied but still included quite a lot of typing tasks, including cutting stencils giving various orders and instructions. Dealing with travel warrants for the multitude of airmen/women was another part of my duties. All-in-all it was purely clerical/admin stuff which came quite easily to me.

The best part of this job was when my boss, Wing Commander North... (a Battle of Britain pilot a few years earlier) popped his head into my little den saying "Fancy a flip Harfleet!?" followed by, "Well, grab a 'chute then ... c'mon, quickly now." I would scamper after him and clambered into this little two-seater trainer aircraft and off we'd zoom into the skies over Germany.

He was a brilliant pilot and he seemed to enjoy having a passenger present as he swooped and twisted, climbed and dived, rolled and banked for at least half an hour, often longer.

These "flips" were something he loved for keeping his skill as a pilot up to scratch, but more importantly perhaps was the need to keep logging his "flying hours". He used to get flying pay in addition to his standard pay; don't know how much it was worth to him but I thought how wonderful it was to get extra pay for doing something you love to do! A lovely chap, now probably flying around heaven as a guardian angel. One of "the few", justly honoured by Winston Churchill during WW2.

The Commanding Officer of Bruggen was another ex-fighter pilot, now a Group Captain. He was a really good C.O., much like and highly respected by all on the camp. He had this great love of music and one week we discovered that he had invited the mayor of a town called Echt, in Holland, to give us a concert in the camp theatre. The town band duly obliged and it was a delightful evening's entertainment.

We then learned that our station band was to return the compliment by travelling across the border into Holland and play in the town square. Bruggen's RAF Band was pipes and drums! Our C.O. was a huge fan of bagpipes! Apparently, the day prior to the Echt parade, one of bagpipes had developed a fault. The C.O. simply ordered one of our jet fighters to fly to Glasgow and pick up a new set of bagpipes! To Glasgow and back to Bruggen in a matter of a few hours. Hate to think of the cost of the flight; probably logged it as training.

Everybody I spoke to thought it was going to be a great Sunday, which is when we were all invited to spend the day in Echt ... each airman attending would receive the freedom of the town.

Continued later...

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Another Course at RAF Hereford

Things were going perfectly at RAF Hospital Wegberg. Plenty of cash, owing to the cigarette scheme I had with Herr Puhl; plenty of sports, keeping me ultra-fit; and a dalliance with a young lady WAAF for a short while.

This WAAF was actually going around with another chap stationed here but one evening, after bust-up with him, she came out of the dining hall in tears. We had been on nodding terms and she approached me in some distress. She literally used my shoulder to cry on! I now knew the full meaning of that well-worn cliché. I gently put my arms around her shoulders and just let her get it out of her system, so to speak.

Eventually she calmed down and said she was sorry about her "silly behaviour" and we took a stroll on this pleasantly cool evening. I said: "What about a drink in the nearest café bar?" and she said that would be nice.

We walked for perhaps twenty minutes or so and went into this local café and ordered two drinks: a Steinhager for me (sort of German gin I'd say) and she had something called a Jagermeister, a kind of herbal liqueur. We just sat talking for about an hour when she wanted to return to camp - which we did.

I took her out a few times, once to a dance in Munchen Gladbach, and everything was going very smoothly and I thought a new romance had been born. But no. Her boyfriend had seen the error of his ways and he shortly persuaded her to resume their affair and that was it; we remained "just good friends", but no more dates. Oh well, never mind.

My application for the Admin course at Hereford was approved and within a month I was on my way to Blighty. I spent a few weeks on this new course and naturally the time went by so quickly as I was enjoying every moment of it, especially the many moments I spent with Joan Turner. We were always together in the evenings and every weekend. I got on extremely well with her Dad, the Hereford United club secretary/manager, and with her two older sisters. I didn’t spend much time with the family but they were all highly likeable and pleasant people.

We went dancing regularly; to the cinema too. Country walks on Sunday afternoons were memorable too, because we could find some lovely spots that were devoid of other people. We spent many romantic hours alone in the sweet and pleasant countryside and life was perfect.

Nothing lasts forever and soon I had completed the course and had to say another fond farewell to a tearful Joannie. Parting, as the bard says, is such sweet sorrow.

Joan again watched as the train pulled out of Hereford railway station, weeping and waving until she was no longer in view.

Back at RAF Hospital Wegberg life went on just as before. I'd only been back a couple of months when my boss W.Officer Robinson told me that I was on the promotion list to corporal! I'd only been in the RAF for around two years or so and was soon to be a substantive corporal! More pay and a couple of chevrons on the arm of my tunic - but there was a snag. Yes, there's always a snag. I had to be posted to RAF Bruggen, where the promotion would be confirmed. Hmm ... a bit more in the pay packet but my little black market shennanigans would be at an end! However, it would be new surroundings, new work, and I'd be on a fighter station.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Wegberg, Germany, continued

This is an aerial view of the hospital, with a bit of spillage on the bottom left corner. Such a wonderful place to work in.

One of the best memories is the cafeteria which I always loved at the morning and afternoon tea breaks. I am re-living the atmosphere of that superb café right now, with the welcoming smell of freshly roasted coffee permeating the air as one approached it. I have never tasted better coffee since and it's amazing how the aroma lingers in my memory so strongly. A lovely, lovely haven of delight.

I have now been promoted to senior aircraftsman,(SAC) and am now the proud possessor of a tri-bladed propeller insignia on each arm. I achieved this giddy height in rank by passing the RAF education tests after some evening classes. I found the tests a doddle and the reward for bothering to take them was worthwhile.

I'm looking forward to seeing Joan again when I arrive in Hereford. I took the train to the Hook of Holland and enjoyed a nice meal on the train - which was such a delight. The trains of those days in Holland and Germany put most of the English trains to shame.

Eventually arrived at Hereford rail station and dear little Joannie was waiting for me on the platform. She waves to me as I'm leaning out of the window and it is so good to see her again.

I spend four days with her. We didn't go dancing but did go to the pictures one evening. I recall the film: "Susan Slept Here", with Debbie Reynolds. I say I recall the film, but I do not remember much about it except for the theme song: "Hold my Hand", sung by Don Cornell. I would have to say that this would be "our song" during my stay in Hereford. Most of the time we were in the darkness of this Hereford cinema was spent in kissing or with Joan's head snuggled on my chest with my arm around her shoulder.

We walked in the countryside during the daytime; there are some beautiful gentle hills around the city. A stroll along the riverside, or a visit to the lovely cathedral, or wandering around the city shops and cafés were other simple joys of life then.

The hours and days just flew by and soon it was time to say a touchingly tearful "goodbye" again. Joan watched as the train pulled out of the station, waving with one hand and dabbing a handkerchief to her eyes with the other. She looked rather waif-like standing there in a thin floral dress which was being fluttered by the breeze. I can see her still, although over 50 years have flown by now.

On the train journey from the Hook of Holland through to Munchen Gladbach we were boarded by German police as we came to the border crossing. I had to open my suitcase and the contents were thoroughly searched, looking for contraband coffee and tea. There was quite a black market in such stuff then; what else they may have been searching for I know not. Later in my life I would be making this journey again, but as a civilian on a nostalgic trip back to see Wegberg and my journey would be interrupted by armed border guards ... but that's another story!

Back in Wegberg I resumed my usual duties and was soon back in the swing of things. I entered various sporting events, including cross-country races and some track events. I cannot lay claim to any great achievements in these sports but I enjoyed the taking part. I could never get the "pace" right in track events, especially the mile race. I was too keen in the early stages, often in front for a couple of laps, and then paying the price and running out of puff in the last lap. I didn't mind not winning; it kept me fit and happy.

I also used the gym quite frequently and did a bit of boxing training. There was a good light-heavyweight airman (cannot remember his name) and he represented the RAF in boxing events. He asked me one evening if I would have a couple of rounds sparring with him; I agreed. The first two minutes or so went very well, with me dancing around the ring and him just landing a few blows to the head - but not with any real force.

After a breather of a minute or so we carried on sparring when he suddenly unleashed a powerful right-hand punch just below my heart: wham! My knees buckled and all the breath was shocked out of my body. I dropped to the canvas, gasping for breath; my sparring partner crouched down anxiously trying to help me off the floor. He was repeatedly saying "I'm so sorry ... so sorry..." I soon recovered but felt quite weak still. Had a glass of water and was fully OK, but that was the last time I ever went back in the ring with him. He was a jolly good boxer and the lack of a regular sparring partner was difficult for him and the temptation to "let fly" with a good body-shot was too much for him to ignore. Oh well, never mind - no harm done!

My boss, Warrant Officer Robinson, said that I should consider applying for another Hereford course in administration. He said it would be a further step up the promotion ladder should I pass it. Why not, I thought; nothing to lose - so I applied. It would also mean that I would have more time to spend with Joan again and that had to be an added bonus. The future was looking good.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

RAF Hospital Wegberg, Germany, 1954

To say this was a wonderful place would be an under-statement. I could not believe how lucky I was to arrive here. It was, of course, virtually brand new, having been opened a few months earlier. Everything about it was clean and bright. No dowdy colours, no stale smell permeating the air - nothing dreary or depressing about the place at all.

I was told that a National Service airman had designed the hospital and that German builders and tradesmen had built the place in something like 3 months, from start to finish! What an achievement and what a superb building it was.

Another bonus was that much of the day-to-day work was done by German personnel, such as groundsmen, cleaners and other tasks. The medical staff were all RAF personnel of course, and excellent they were too. Good surgeons, doctors, nurses and ancillary staff and I was privileged to be working amongst such dedicated men and women.

I found my quarters to be the best ever. Shared with seven other RAF bods, it was nicely furnished and spick and span. Adjoining bathrooms were similarly a vast improvement on my earlier experiences. But perhaps best of all we had all our cleaning done by German Service Orderlies, or GSO as they were termed. These people were dressed in dull green uniforms, complete with early versions of baseball caps in the same colour. The "forman" was a Herr Puhl whom I later became very friendly with. He was a corporal in the SS during the war and he retained much of the firm protocol that existed then. For example, he insisted that all his staff "salute" all RAF personnel when in uniform! He stood no nonsense from any of his crew.

My main occupation was to keep and update patient records, typing up doctors' notes and various other admin tasks. Another of my responsibilities was to issue cigarette ration cards to those who smoked! All military personnel were treated at this hospital, and some civilians too. Any military patients were entitled to a ciggy card if they said they were smokers and wanted one. The thing is, cigarettes could be bought in the NAAFI for one shilling (5p) for 20 Players! I did not smoke, having packed it in just after I joined up, but I still took my card each week. This card allowed you one packet of twenty fags a day. If any new entrant to the hospital said they didn't smoke then I would "issue" a card - but to myself! There was method in my apparent madness.

After a few weeks I would have a nice stack of cigarette cards stashed away. I came to an arrangement with a nice young German girl who worked in the NAAFI. She would let me have sealed packs of 500 in packs 20 of cigarettes in exchange for the cards and the appropriate amount of cash, at 5p a throw! I gave her a couple of packets of 20 cigarettes for her issuing me with far more than was strictly permitted.

I then had another "arrangement" with Herr Puhl, the GSO commandant. He would pay me 1 Deutsche mark for each packet of cigarettes, and as 1 Mark was equal to almost 1/9 (one shilling and ninepence) I was making a full 75% profit on each packet. Herr Puhl took all the risks by taking the cigarettes out of the hospital gates. Anybody who was found to be taking more than one packet out of camp would be fined 5 Marks for every excess pack! This was to stop any "black market" trading, which was rife in post-war Germany. Tea, coffee and cigarettes were the most valuable black market commodities and Herr Puhl was quite an entrepreneur in this field. I used to leave a few of these bulk 500 packs in my locked bathroom; he would personally remove the fags and leave me the cash and re-lock the bathroom with his pass keys. He used to then sell the cigarettes in a Munchen Gladbach brothel for 2 marks a pack! I made 75%, he made 100% - but as he was taking all the risks of the transaction I did not begrudge him his extra markup! Because of my little trade in ciggies I only drew 10/- (50p) on each fortnightly pay parade, having the rest of my pay deposited in the post office savings account I'd set up.

Yes, I got on very well with Herr Puhl; even went to meet his wife and family one evening for a meal - bratwurst sausages and kartoffel salad of course!

Another delight of RAF Wegberg was working for Warrant Officer Robinson, my immediate boss in the hospital. He was offical tennis coach for the RAF team and he was also a fitness freak. He was out running every single day, plus tennis practice and training and other exercises. It was W.O. Robinson who encouraged me to join the hospital athletic team and I did so. I took part in cross-country races and track races, up to 1 mile. We had an excellent sports ground and facilities here. Not only that, he arranged for me to take a fortnight's "continental leave" at a place called Scharfoldendorf, near Hameln, the town from which the Pied Piper of Hamilin was said to have come! This fortnight's leave was ostensibly for hill training; there were plenty of hills in Scharfoldendorf! There was a superb hotel(owned by the RAF) in this place which was all free to me and my colleague who was also here for the same "training" purposes. Other staff were sometimes sent here for convalescence after accident or illness and it was all compliments of the RAF.

But best of all there was a glider station here, and after an hour or so running up a hill and down again we'd have a shower, some lunch and then go gliding over the hills, soaring on the thermals and enjoying the thrill of engine-less flying. The silence of the flight, apart from the creaking of the wings and the rush of the wind as we landed, was absolutely unbeatable. Sheer bliss. The gliders were two-seater jobs and all the navigation and flying was done by the pilot of course, but if I had my way I'd love to have the chance to go solo. It may still happen one day, but then again ... 'tis getting rather more expensive as each day rushes by.

Another much-loved time for all military chaps and chapesses serving overseas was the Sunday midday programme on the radio "Two-way Family Favourites". This was a favourite with countless millions of listeners and a lucky few had their names and family messages read out, followed by their favourite song request. This often had some listeners in tears as they heard messages from their loved ones back home and the sentimental songs could sometimes have the same effect on even those who had not had a personal message from home!

I wrote regularly to Joan in Hereford and managed to book a phone call to her one evening. Apart from two weeks "continental leave" we were allowed two weeks UK leave each year. I'd saved up a nice little bundle in the post office savings book after six months at Wegberg and applied for a week's UK leave in June 1954. The route back was exactly the same as when we first came to Germany, but in reverse of course. Train from Wegberg to Munchen Gladbach then across the Dutch/German border to the Hook of Holland and the troopship to Harwich, with the final leg by train back home. However, I'd no intention of spending more than a few hours in the parental home as I'd arranged to see Joan in Hereford and spend the rest of the week with her.