If my fifty year old memory serves me faithfully, it was some weeks after returning from the Ocean Youth Club trip to the Baltic in the summer of 1975 that I sailed with the RNR to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France. La Rochelle adopted Reformist ideas during the Renaissance, and thence became the unoffical capital of Protestant (Huguenot) France, that is from the year of the Edict of Nantes (1568) which, issued by Henri IV, accorded French Protestants certain rights, until 1627 when a British-aided Protestant uprising resulted in the Siege of la Rochelle, during which Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for 14 months. Following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685 some 200.000 Huguenots migrated during what has become known as Le Refuge. Among the destinations of the Huguenot diaspora were North America, notably New York and South Carolina, Great Britain and Ulster, Germany, Dutch South Africa and the Netherlands. London became a key Huguenot centre. In South Carolina they rapidly integrated into the nascent Southern Anglo-American society.
My best RNR oppo Colin, who had been with me on the La Rochelle voyage phoned me only a few years ago from his East London home to remind me of one memorable evening we spent in the city:
In a stygian tavern we fell in with some wild locals led by a Romany-like minstrel and his winsome female companion who spoke to me protectively possibly fearing that as military men Colin and I might be in some physical peril, and a fiery Welsh ex-pat called Taffy…and on the way back to our ship from a night club in the early hours of the morning we were set upon not by local cutthroats but a pack of mangy looking pariah dogs; and it was Colin who coaxed them into backing off…
Soon after returning to London, I was with the RNR again, this time in the Pool of London, subject of a famous British crime film directed by Basil Dearden in 1951 and referring to that stretch of the Thames lying between London Bridge and Rotherhithe. In order to get onboard ship, I joined a group of salts on a motor launch of which one of the lads, very much a handsome sailor, probably a Leading Seaman in his early 30s or thereabouts had taken unofficial charge. Once we were all onboard except our self-appointed leader, it was his turn to join us, but as he stepped off the launch, he somehow lost his footing and slipped into the Thames beneath him, and within a horrifyingly short space of time his heavy clothing and boots, helped by a truly ferocious current, had dragged him beneath the river’s surface and he was lost. Upon returning to London, I told my mother about this terrible occurence, and as she broke down in tears it brought home to me for the first time just how deeply tragic an incident it was. I am reminded thereby of the words of that beautiful song “How Men Are” by Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera, which was a British hit in 1988:
“Why should it take the tears of a woman to see how men are?”
Staying with the maritime theme ’75 was also the year I attempted to pass what is known as the AIB or Admiralty Interview Board as a means of becoming a Supply and Secretariat officer in the Royal Navy. This involved me taking the train down to (presumably then as today) HMS Sultan, the Royal Navy’s specialist training centre in Gosport, Hampshire, and spending three days attending various examinations and interviews intended to assess my potentiality as a naval officer. Today the tests consist of Maths, English, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and general and Service knowledge. Additionally, there is a leadership task, a group discussion exercise, and two interviews, and presumably little has changed since 1975. And yet with what a wistful eye I survey my carefree halcyon mid nineteen seventies from the confines of this little ground floor flat where I have spent so many hours in bitter-sweet reminiscence.
On one occasion early on in the sojourn, clad in my usual finery and delicately putting the final touches to my costume in preparation for one assignment or another, one of the hopeful future officers I was sharing a dormitory with made a comment to the effect of:
“Oy, mate, it’s an interview board for the selection of naval officers not some flaming male fashion parade”.
Not my sort of man, which is to say the kind I wanted accompanying me to the local discoteque as soon as I had an evening free. Ultimately two of my fellow interviewees were up the task, at least that’s what I thought at first. I can recall asking one of the them precisely what he was expecting of the evening soon after we’d plunged into the exhilerating demi-darkness of the disco, and he muttered something placatory to me, but it was pretty clear on retrospect that he was keen to return to HMS Sultan, and sensibly so I’d say. In the event I was left alone at the club dancing with a soft-spoken local girl by the name of Shiralee. Every inch the gentleman, I accompanied her homewards along a busy main road on the way back to base, with several cars sounding their horns as they passed by, only to discover to my horror that Sultan’s main entrance had been locked and was now being manned by an armed guard.
If the young man nervously trying to reach someone in authority within the training centre on a walkie talkie was wondering precisely what kind of man returns to base dressed to the nines after a night’s carousing when he was supposed to be in the midst of three days of gruelling tests and interviews that were vital to his future career he gave no indication of it. Eventually he made contact and I can recall passing through an officer’s mess…at least my memory tells me it was…and engaging in jolly conversation with the officers therein…prior to returning to my bed…red-faced I should hope, although knowing how I was back then I probably wasn’t.
To my credit, I tried my best to impress my assessors at Sultan beyond this faux-pas because at the time I was genuinely enthusiastic about becoming a legitimised officer and gentleman, but sadly, my efforts failed to convince them that I warranted a commission in the Royal Navy. For my brother, two and a half years younger than me, it was a different story, for after passing the AIB with some facility he had his university fees paid for him by the RN and went on to graduate from the Royal Naval College Dartmouth in the early 1980s. As for me, it was back to life as a jack tar.