Updated: Feb 12
This blog series outlines my life, seen through the lens of the books I have read.
I can’t quite place when I read my first Biggles book. Possibly it was while at primary school. If so, it was one of the later stories. At secondary school, I enjoyed making Airfix kits. I had a bewildering constellation of Second World War planes hanging from my bedroom ceiling strafing and chasing each other. My mum had great difficulty shaking out the duvet because some planes were low over the bed. Anyway, during one period I concentrated on building First World War planes. I was fascinated by their flimsiness and the bright colour schemes. And then I got hold of an early Biggles story, set during that war. That set me off and I read a bunch of Biggles books, by Captain WE Johns. But the early ones, describing dog-fights over the trenches and those early aeroplanes are the ones that are most atmospheric and stuck in my mind. They were written in a simple style and I whizzed through them very quickly.
(By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33244709)
A little later in my school career, I read Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’. This was a powerful fantasy novel (a trilogy at that time). I identified with Ged, the hero. He was a boy from a small village who attends a wizard academy. One of his spells goes wrong and releases a shadow being. Ged has to escape, understand the being and hunt it, so it is a great metaphor for growing up and confronting our shadow selves (the parts of us we dare not show to the world).
Possibly around this same time I was regularly taking out library books about woodcraft and survival techniques. A bunch of these were by a chap called Jack Cox. I found these fascinating and, when I was exploring our local woods, I imagined I was on a trek, an adventure or had slipped back in time. I remember at one point, I must have been about sixteen years old, getting out a book that described conservation and ranger jobs in Canada. That sounded challenging to me.
The most emotive song I recall during the summer after my O levels was I’m not in love, by 10cc. It was a very atmospheric song and reminds me of summer, sunshine and my white jeans that fitted me then. I loved it, but although it was No.1 for only two weeks, it got played everywhere, all the time. Finally the polish wore off, and it’s only now, decades later, that I can enjoy hearing it again. Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen, is another song that’s been overplayed. It was a Christmas sensation in 1975. Every party or disco I went to played it, usually at the end, and everyone would sing along.
From before my O levels, at age 16, I was aiming to join the army as an officer. We lived only 3 miles from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and I intended to go there. To accomplish this, and because I was told my first choices of A level subjects of English, Biology and Economics were unacceptable to the school, I changed them to Physics, Maths and Chemistry. During my first year in the Sixth Form, I also joined the Territorial Army (TA). I had two choices of local unit; I could go to Reading to The Rifles (or Royal Green Jackets) or I could go to Aldershot and join the Parachute Regiment. It was a difficult choice, but I couldn’t turn down the challenge of the Paras.
My experience in X (ten) Para was great with the two pinnacles being completing the summer training camp, which I had to pass to be accepted into the regiment and earned me the right to wear the red beret, and the P Course, which was when I gained my parachute wings. I had arranged an interview with the headmaster to request an extra week off over the Easter holiday so that I could attend the P Course.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, boy. There’s only a few weeks before your A levels. You should be revising, not jumping out of aeroplanes! I’m afraid I can’t allow you any extra time off school.’
But the headmaster didn’t know what I knew; that one extra week would make absolutely no difference to my A level marks. I had spoken to the headmaster out of respect for him and the school. His reply showed that he didn’t know anything about me or respect me enough to see the situation from my perspective.
The P Course lasted two weeks, at RAF Brize Norton in Wiltshire. I arrived with Fleetwood Mac’s rumours and Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill ringing in my ears. I remember saying to myself, as I looked out of the coach window, ‘I’m gonna get my wings. I’m gonna get my wings.’ I kept this up as a mantra for the whole fortnight.
The course finished on a Saturday, at tea time. The last jump was from a barrage balloon that had a metal cage hanging below it. At 800 feet above Weston-on-the-green all four trainees clipped our parachute straps to a solid, secure metal bar. Only the first man out, me this time, went through the procedure for exiting a plane. The sergeant calmly unlocked a low gate and I stood holding onto the cage, waiting for the instructions to jump. After number one had jumped the sergeant invited each of the others to step out of the cage. I didn’t care what would happen when I jumped. I was determined to get those wings and all I had to do was get to the ground, which took about 25 seconds.
It is one of my proudest achievements. I left school that summer with no A levels. I continued to live at home and tried to work out how to get to Sandhurst.