Books and My Life: Part 5

Updated: Feb 12

This blog outlines my life, seen through the lens of the books I have read.

When I left school in the autumn of 1977 I worked for three months as a packer in a perfume factory. I applied for a pre-Sandhurst course with the Royal Artillery and, as part of my preparation, I spent a weekend doing team leadership exercises at Woolwich, near London. By the end of that, I’d discovered that I didn’t really want to join the army after all. I was disgusted with what I, observing through young, idealistic eyes, saw as elitism and favouritism shown to public school applicants. But I did need some sort of career and the dad of a friend from school helped me get a job as a photo-copier, Grade 2, at the Military Vehicle and Engineering Establishment (MVEE) near Chertsey. At this time I had a motorbike to get to and from work, an MZ 150. The photocopying department was reorganised soon after I joined and the job ceased to exist. The main thing I learnt from that time was how to open a ream of paper. That job disappeared, but I was given the job of clerk; first to a bunch of scientists as their admin person, and then I was moved into Non-industrial Personnel.

These were times of high political and social anxiety. Britain was stuck with high unemployment, with frequent clashes between unions and bosses and the cold war continued to be dangerously frosty. I didn’t expect to live long enough to see the 21st Century. I remember reading a fictional account of the Third World War by British general, Sir John Hackett, suggesting that, by August 1985 USSR would have over-run NATO and become the dominant power in Europe. Very sombre. My TA training had taught me that as a battalion anti-tank gunner I had a life-expectancy in a combat situation of 40 seconds, during which we reckoned we could get two shells fired. My plan was to get those shells on their way within 30 seconds, then I’d be off, too.

It was definitely a time that required a well-developed sense of the absurd, and I found it comforting to read Spike Milligan’s war biography. I also love his poems.

The MVEE offices were large but cheap concrete structures set in a big heathland site. At lunch times I would go and sit in a small room with no windows. Here I would read a book. The one I remember most is ‘Signposts to the Past’, by Margaret Gelling. This is a non-fiction book about place names in England, and I found it fascinating. While at MVEE I borrowed some early Genesis albums from a colleague and so became familiar with Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound. The atmosphere of that period still lingers when I hear those albums. I also recall going up to London with friends to see A Bridge too Far, a film about the airborne attack and defence of Arnhem in 1944. While there I bought a great album by Renaissance; Novella.

Around this time (maybe slightly earlier) I read ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams. This was an adventure story with a group of rabbits, led by the prophetic Fiver, setting out on a journey to find a new home. My boss, Ron Cole, who I got to know a few years later, cursed this book because, he said, it encouraged people to look at rabbits as fluffy bunnies rather than the vermin that they really are. Anyway, I enjoyed the book enough to try another Richard Adams novel, ‘Shardik’. This was a much more evocative and powerful book that followed the life and career of Kelderek, a poor boy who somehow becomes tangled up in the fate of a mystical giant bear (Shardik). Kelderek follows Shardik and finds success and power at the centre of an empire, but then his life spirals downwards and he ends up, along with a band of children, in the hands of a slaver. It’s a wide, sweeping background on which his personal story is played out. I thought it was brilliant

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