Saturday 31 December 1951
Glasgow’s Barrowland ballroom was the place to meet the opposite sex, but a New Year’s Eve had a special significance. People felt happier, closer, and more likely to take that step that they wouldn’t normally. Carol McLean felt that she might find herself taking that next step when she met Gordon Faulkner. They were both smitten.
Gordon was a handsome fair-haired young man, a week away from his 22nd birthday and when he set eyes on young Carol he felt he’d gotten an early gift. Carol was a beauty, with naturally wavy chestnut hair that rested on her bare shoulders. She stood 5 foot 8 inches in her high heels which allowed the pair to look eye to eye.
“Are you old enough to be in here?” Gordon asked and raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t interested in the truth, it was just an idle line that brought a beaming smile.
“I’m old enough to do whatever I want,” was the cocky reply.
Just a couple of hours later in the perimeter bushes of Glasgow Green, both of them did what they wanted. To be more accurate, they did what Gordon wanted; Carol was trying to impress and her fears were clouded by excitement.
Whilst they kissed, groped, and went too far, I was engaged in my first real struggle, as one of thousands of miniscule creatures aiming for a chance at life.
It was several weeks later, before Gordon found out that the lovely Carol was a few weeks short of her 17th birthday when he’d had his way with her. He was non-plussed by that news. Cosmetics and her attitude had successfully camouflaged her true age, ably assisted by Gordon’s lust. Carol then announced through her tears that she was pregnant and Gordon was the father.
Gordon’s parents, James and Sarah Faulkner were proud, hard working Catholic people with another teenage son and two teenage daughters. During a brief, but tearful meeting at the Faulkner family home, Gordon and Carol were given an ultimatum.
They were to marry before Carol’s condition became too obvious, and so it was that they married on 21st February 1952. It was either that, or I went into an orphanage straight from birth.
On 30th August 1952, and not as mature as the midwife would have liked, I was involved in my next struggle; my birth. Our fledgling family moved to a single room apartment in a tenement in Glasgow’s East End. Within four and a half years, I had two brothers and a sister.
17 Years Later
Monday 27th October 1969
I made my way to the waiting room as instructed in my letter. Outside a message, or more accurately a command, was chalked on a blackboard.
‘All new recruits for 11th Signal Regiment are to wait in this immediate area.’ At that point, it became clear to me that the fantasy was over and a different life awaited. I swallowed and realised I was biting my lower lip and breathing rapidly through my nostrils.
The desire to catch the next train out of Darlington back to Glasgow was very real. I pulled out my new wallet and looked at the contents. I walked towards the group of young men near the blackboard. Apprehensive didn’t cover it. I felt sick. Joining up had seemed like such a good idea only a few weeks previously.
I was fresh faced, 5 foot 7 inches tall and not quite 10 stones when soaking wet. My short, light brown hair was combed and neatly parted and my blue eyes were on stalks taking in my surroundings.
It was like a POW escape in reverse. I had never been out of Scotland and here I was in England for the first time, among a load of strangers. We were all waiting to be transported to a place that was no doubt going to test most of us to the limits of our endurance. Like me, a few wore suits and ties but others wore jeans and leather jackets. I thought that was a bit cocky. Surely we should be smartly dressed.
The majority were in conversation with one or more of the others. They didn’t know it then, but they were having their first experience of camaraderie. I tasted the cigarette smoke from the greyish blue cloud that drifted over the general area.
Some lads leaned on the red brick station building, or the iron fence. Others sat on their luggage. Most had their hands in their trouser pockets and a few had long hair.
One guy, who looked about my age, was standing astride a large brown suitcase a few feet from the main bunch. He had blonde hair which hung to his shoulders and sideburns reaching his chin. With an effort, I slid my suitcase along the last two feet then stood astride it. It’s what most others were doing.
“Jimmy Faulkner,” I announced to the blonde stranger, using my accepted name rather than my formal name, James. I held out my right hand, “I suppose we’re both here for the same reason.”
I had noticed that the blonde guy had been watching the passengers alighting from the train I had been on. He smiled and his face brightened. We shook hands.
“Andy Munro,” he said. “Pleased to meet you Jimmy Faulkner, and we are here for the same reason if that has anything to do with it.” He nodded towards the blackboard.
Both of us laughed a short, nervous laugh. I felt better; not much, but better. We chatted nervously. Our initial conversation was about the behaviour of the other new recruits and the number that were smoking.
Andy nodded towards the two men in military uniform. Neither of them was older than mid-20’s. One of them had a black clipboard with a pad attached to it.
“They talk to each other, but not to anybody else and I’ve been watching them for about half an hour.”
I raised my eyebrows in acknowledgement but didn’t offer an opinion.
Having sat around a while, some of the guys looked around impatiently. A couple of bright sparks thought it amusing to sing out like a railway announcement.
“Only ten minutes until departure to Hells Barracks,” and then they laughed. How quaint. They’d already made a nickname for the home of the Recruit Squadron, Helles (pronounced Helleez) Barracks.
I was confident that the NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers), had made a mental note of the comedians. I had no desire to be a comedian. Not until I’d managed to survive training at least.
Other than those who happened to be looking at him at the time, there was some confusion as to where the voice came from. Most of us would later agree that it sounded as though it came from three or four directions at once, amplified through a couple of loud speakers. It was of course one of the two NCOs.
“Listen up gentlemen!” He scowled at every breathing creature on the platform. “If you are going to Helles Barracks, 11th Signal Regiment, I am Corporal Cameron … I will be calling out your names.”
Some of the regular rail passengers were looking and listening, no doubt relieved to have nothing to do with the proceedings. I noticed a couple of them smiled. Bastards.
The NCO knew he had the attention of every English-speaking person, and a few foreigners within 100 yards. He continued.
“When your name is called out, acknowledge by shouting, here, then pick up your baggage. You will be shown the way to the transport by Corporal Smith.”
At the mention of his name, Cpl Smith stepped forward, the studs on his boots clicking on the concrete. Brow furrowed, he stood for a moment glaring. Like his colleague, Cpl Smith’s eyes were almost obscured by the glossy peak of his hat. He surveyed us from under the peak, his head tilted back a little, the back of his neck pressed against the collar of his shirt.
The ribbed, heavy wool pullover fitted him snugly around the chest, and his waist was narrowed and pronounced by the broad shiny black belt with square silver buckle. The creases in his trousers were sharper than the razor I’d used only the day before for the first time. Once I saw the gloss of his boots, I had to stare for a moment. They had a better reflection than the mirror I’d used when shaving.
Cpl Cameron allowed his colleague a few seconds to melt the soul of the recruits who had continued to smile and then he continued with his own verbal barrage.
“You will quietly make your way down through the tunnel and outside. You will board one of the white buses,” he paused and glared for a moment at specific people. “There will be no smoking on the bus, so extinguish your cigarettes before you get on board.”
There was an ominous silence and I noted whole cigarettes being crushed. I also noted that Cpl Cameron, the NCO making all the noise, sounded like a fellow Glaswegian. I secretly hoped that would count in my favour at some stage.
Cpl Cameron called out a surname, paused, then the first name. If there was no response instantly, he called the name again, but louder. I figured this exercise did two things for any unfortunate soul who responded after their name was called out twice.
First, it frightened the living daylights out of the named individual, thus making him answer loudly when he was aware of his name being called. Secondly, it meant by repeating the name, the NCO would no doubt remember it easier later. Probably not a good thing I decided.
My ears were primed for anything that sounded like my name. It never occurred to me that the roll call was being done in alphabetical order. Fear does that. As I was pondering my reasons for being there, I became aware of my own name being called.
I heard, “Faulkner ... James,” My reply was shouted almost in alarm. It was the loudest anyone had responded thus far.
“HEEEURR !” This betrayed my broad Glasgow accent. Only because I replied so sharply and with such gusto, Cpl Cameron briefly looked in my direction. He narrowed his eyes, probably as he thought a real movie bad ass might do, then he called out the next name.
I made my way to the bus hardly aware of the weight of my suitcase. I could still feel the eyes of both NCO’s on me as I passed them. Why had I signed up for this, I wondered?
A few minutes later, my new acquaintance Andy boarded the bus and sat beside me. He told me that as he walked past the NCOs they both eyed him up and down. He thought it was because he had been standing with me.
I nodded at his long lustrous golden hair.
I said: “You don’t think it could have anything to do with your hair and sideburns?”
“Well,” he said, “I suppose it might have been, but I reckoned since it was going to get cut here anyway, I might as well save the money a haircut would cost.”
We both laughed. It was a nervous but contagious sound.
Following what felt like a very short 30-minute journey to Catterick Garrison we arrived at Helles Barracks and parked outside the Sandhurst accommodation block. An NCO led us to a pair of swing doors with a multi-coloured sign above. The sign had a broad band of light blue marking the top half and a broad band of dark blue making the bottom half. Between the two was a narrower band of dark green. In white lettering it read, ‘7 Troop’.
As he led us along the corridor, the NCO called out what we had to know.
“This will be your accommodation during your training; it is your Troop Lines. You are now members of Seven Troop. Find yourself a bed-space, leave your baggage, and come back out to this corridor. Line up in front of this wall, facing this way, one step away from the wall.” As he spoke, he made gestures which would have made his instructions clear to a visiting alien.
Most of the rooms along the ground floor corridor were kitted out for four men.
At first glance, I could see that each of us would have a metal wardrobe-style locker, a metal bedside locker and a bed, with metal frame of course. All of the furnishings were finished in an Admiralty Grey. Even the bedside mats were grey.
I found myself in Room 119 at the end of the corridor. My roommates were Andy Munro from Nottingham, Mick Martin from Penzance and Ken Jackson from Leeds.
We paraded ourselves in the corridor. It was to be the first of many such parades. We stood along the length of the corridor, a step away from the wall with our toecaps right up to the line of the third floor tile. Half of us were nominated to go and collect bedding, whilst the others were collecting uniform and equipment.
The Bedding Store and Clothing Store were located only yards apart in one large, long building with ‘Quartermaster’s Stores’ signed above it.
There was little time for anything other than a nod between members of the various rooms because there was an NCO at every turn. There seemed to be about a dozen of them but there were only three. Three too many, I was beginning to think.
The first two were the pair we met at the station, Cpl Cameron and Cpl Smith. The third NCO, Cpl. Flanagan made his presence felt by constantly keeping people on the move. He would be showing various groups the route to the Barber Shop, the Cookhouse (dining hall), the Bedding Store and the Clothing Store.
I figured that at some point in his career Cpl Flanagan had been given the advice, ‘Shout a lot, and if you want to frighten recruits, pick one and shout louder at him.’
As had been the case since first meeting, Andy and I found each other’s company useful. We managed to find humour in the way that we never seemed to stop moving. It also served to make us feel a bit more confident as we went through the rigors of the first day. In our opinion there seemed to be nothing to choose between the three NCOs. They all appeared to be total ‘Army Barmy’ nutcases.
The recruits of our intake had travelled from all over the country. This was because we had signed up to join the Royal Corps of Signals. Regiments like the infantry or guards tended to recruit from a local area, hence names like the Highland Light Infantry, Durham Light Infantry, Welsh Guards etc.
I picked up from conversations that apart from the home towns of the guys in my room, we had recruits from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Southampton, Cardiff and London. There were three from Liverpool. The youngest of these was a 17-year-old who introduced himself simply as ‘Scouse’. His name was Steven Sherry and he seemed to wear a permanent scowl.
Scouse Sherry was slightly built and not particularly tall. Unremarkable except for his acne-covered face and his heavily laid on Liverpool accent. He sounded like he constantly had a mouthful of phlegm. I’d never heard a Scouse accent before and it was grating on me. Cpl Cameron always seemed to be giving Sherry a sideways glance.
Our initial issue of uniform and equipment will forever be burned into my memory. There was the ever-present NCO. It seemed one would appear every time you thought you could relax for a minute.
From the Sandhurst accommodation block to the Clothing Store was a mere 200 yards. The door to the store opened and a large group of us were ushered in and told to form a single straight line, facing the counter.
The counter was a considerable length, when it’s remembered that equipment would be issued to around 20 individuals in one session. In true military style it was already prepared with 20 sets of kit. When it comes to, ‘Here's one I prepared earlier,’ the children’s TV presenters have nothing on the military.
Whilst the Clothing Store NCO went to fetch pairs of boots of particular sizes, it allowed two assistants to inspect the sizing of shirts, jackets, and trousers. For those unlucky enough to have anything other than average height and shape, this meant exchanging kit until they were kitted out. Our first issue of hats was done rapidly by one NCO at the end of the line.
During the first short session in the Sandhurst block a small, but important piece of administration was taken care of. Every recruit had been given his service number. Each time we had to sign a document, there would be small boxes to write our service number, rank and name. During the first day, we got lots of practise.
Like most of the other lads, I had difficulty trying to remember my number so I kept it written on a piece of paper in my pocket. I had become a small cog in a very large mechanism. I was now 24165999 Signalman Faulkner, J. We were Privates but we were to learn that in the Royal Signals, like so many other arms of the military, the rank of Private was replaced with rank that would also indicate the Corps to which we belonged.
As seen in various movies on the subject, we made our way back to the accommodation block dropping our new kit all over the place. It was more like a scene from a television game show. At this stage, there were a lot of young men wondering if they had made the right decision after all. I was one of them.
I deposited the pile of clothing and equipment in the general area of my bed-space and started to worry about the coming weeks. Would I even last for weeks?
Andy and I went to the Barber Shop with a crowd of other guys. We had been rounded up by one of the NCOs and found ourselves in a rapidly moving queue. Sweeney Todd, as the barber was affectionately known, had a small establishment.
I was alarmed that the time taken for the average haircut was less than two minutes. When I left school, I had gone to work in an office environment. I never had long hair, so it was already short and tidy but I still had to have it cut shorter.
As Andy sat in the chair, Sweeney smiled into the mirror and lifted his scissors.
Sweeney said: “What's to go first son, the sideburns or the hair?” He then looked into the mirror and grinned at his victim.
There was no reply from the customer but the comment produced a chorus of laughter from the waiting line of nervous recruits. As I watched my new friend’s expression in the mirror I could see that this was not a subject to treat lightly later on.
After two hours of activity, all 46 of us, now known as 7 Troop found ourselves standing in the main corridor, our backs a few inches from the wall, feet together, arms akimbo, facing front; mouths shut and eyes and ears wide open.
One of the NCOs was pacing up and down the line doing the talking, occasionally stopping to look menacingly into the eyes of an individual. The other two NCOs were standing at either end of the line, almost as if they were there to prevent any escape attempts. I got the impression from the atmosphere around me that there might be a couple of attempts later that night. Cpl Cameron briefed us on our many areas of responsibility.
We hadn’t reached the end of the first day and there seemed to be a never-ending list of tasks. A lot of them seemed to eat considerably into what might have been free time. We had our own bedspaces and lockers to get up to standard and our rooms had to be cleaned and polished. Apart from those things, we had the communal areas of the troop lines to clean and polish, plus check around the outside of the block for any tiny pieces of litter. There was a fair amount of uniform issued and it all had to be ironed.
Good news came in the form of an ironing demonstration. A show of hands in the corridor showed only a couple of lads had ever used an iron. I was not one of them. Apart from that, it seemed that plenty of food would be served, and it would be laid on three times a day, if you managed to get to the cookhouse in time.
My first day served to tell me that we had food, shelter, warm clothing, leisure facilities, and companionship. I wondered absently how many hours there would be in a military day and what we as recruits would be expected to do to fill them. Our first day changed to evening and thoughts of the morrow occupied my mind.
No matter how well organised any of us were, the first night had a similar list of priorities. Get organized for the next morning, unpack as much as possible and sleep.
If the first day was anything to go by, none of us would be ready for the next one. For some reason that night, everybody in our four-man room wore their issued blue and white striped pyjamas. We all wished each other good night, and as I confirmed later, we all then lay there awake in silence for a long time ... each of us deep in thought. I heard one guy sobbing in the middle of the night. I prayed that night.
I lay awake for a long time and wondered if any of the others felt like I did, that I might have made a big mistake. My thoughts wandered back to the start of my day.
At home, I had trembled as I took my clothes from the coat hanger and got dressed, but not because I was cold. I was mentally somewhere between fear and excitement. It was just as well at that point that I didn’t know how the day would go.
For instance, I wasn’t to know that as the day continued the fear would increase and the excitement would diminish. The change would occur rapidly.
My mother had insisted she accompany me to the station in Glasgow. We both knew that there would be tears. As quiet as I was, none of them would be mine. During the 45-minute journey into the city she talked incessantly, saying how it would be so organised, and how the recruits would be guided and helped. I sat in silence, thinking, what the hell do you know about it?
I’d watched absently as we passed all the familiar places. All the sights I had taken in for nearly two years on my daily bus journey to Glasgow, then back home at the end of the day. Two years of office work was enough to prove it wasn’t for me. I simply had to succeed and do this military thing. I felt that my very life depended on it.
Neither of my parents thought I would survive the basic training unit, but giving my mother credit, at least she didn’t say it out loud. When I look back at it, I do have a lot to thank my dear departed dad for. Thank you dad! Thank you for ensuring I started my career in the right mind-set ... with no confidence, but a burning desire to succeed.
I hugged my mother and got onto the 9am train bound for London King’s Cross. I looked at her from the carriage and for the first time saw her as an attractive woman.
She stood there, tears streaming down both cheeks unchecked. Her pastel green suit was immaculate, as were her white accessories and white stilettos. To the casual observer it would have been hard to believe she was 33 years old, the mother of four and wife of a hardened drinker. She looked much younger, standing there sobbing, bidding farewell to her oldest.
It wasn’t until we clattered south across the Jamaica Street bridge that I turned to take in the person sitting opposite me in the carriage. It was a young woman in her mid-20’s. She had long dark hair and a beautiful face, but my teenage eyes were unable to hold back from taking in the well-filled white blouse and the expanse of thigh seen when she crossed her lovely legs. The mini-skirt was a relatively new idea and the tiny red garment she wore did a marvellous job as a fashion statement.
I was aware of swallowing hard before I looked up to her face again. She arched her right eyebrow and dimples appeared in her cheeks then she uncrossed and crossed her legs. I was magnetised to the view and she knew it. My underwear was uncomfortable for a lot of the journey.
My lovely companion didn’t speak until I was reaching my suitcase down from the luggage rack when we pulled into Darlington Station.
She said: “Good luck,” and then she smiled and winked.
I gave her a weak smile, looked her up and down again, and left the train.
Sunday 16th July 2017
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