I’ve been tagged! Both Gillian Bagwell and Linda Collison have tagged me as part of ‘The Next Big Thing’… Unfortunately all the people I’d tag in turn have already appeared in other people’s lists, so I’m afraid this particular bit of the chain ends with me – but even so, I thought it would be quite a fun thing to do, so there’ll be an extra post this week, on Wednesday, in which I answer the questions on ‘The Next Big Thing’. In the meantime, though, here are the continuing surreal misadventures of a very unlikely Sub-Lieutenant RNR (CCF).
Serving as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve (Combined Cadet Force) exposed me to a series of experiences that would probably otherwise have passed me by. I learned to sail – and got paid by the Royal Navy for doing so! – and was twice able to take two passages from Gibraltar to Portsmouth aboard HMS Jupiter, the old Leander-class frigate that served as the school’s affiliated ship. (Principal lessons learned: only start to get worried about how a wardroom dinner is developing when the ship’s chaplain falls over in a drunken stupor and fractures his skull on a table corner; and never agree to sleep on a mattress on the deck of the Exocet missile control room, as sleep proves elusive because of a nagging worry that one might roll over too abruptly, hit the wrong button, and obliterate Bordeaux.) I took cadets hill walking in Snowdonia and the Peak District, and spent a weekend day running from Rosyth dockyard in a patrol boat; as the navy largely goes home at weekends, at night I had the entire wardroom of the shore base HMS Caledonia to myself. I was divisional officer of a first aid course at the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, during the week which contained the 1992 general election, and watched with some bemusement as some of the navy’s most senior medics knocked back countless cocktails on election night. They were appropriately coloured cocktails, too: blue for Conservative supporters, red for Labour and orange for the Lib Dems (needless to say, virtually everybody was drinking blue, giving me a free run on red and orange).
(Before anyone contacts the authorities to bring charges of child neglect against me, I should probably hasten to add that during these courses, the cadets were always under adult supervision elsewhere on the base, and these being naval establishments, by definition their opportunities to get into trouble were effectively zero. For a teacher, this was one of the delights of being in the CCF: at night, somebody else looked after them!)
But perhaps the most memorable times I spent in the CCF were the four occasions in six years when I took cadets for a week on the Clyde Fleet Tender. This was a fleet tender of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service: the Cricklade on my first couple of occasions, then the rather more opulent Meavy, which had previously served as a commissioned warship (HMS Vigilant) on patrol off Northern Ireland, so the hold was fitted out to accommodate a dozen Marines. The tender was based at HM Naval Base, Clyde, the nuclear submarine base at Faslane, and to be in such close proximity to the navy’s ‘bombers’ – then the Polaris submarines – was a pretty amazing experience. On one occasion it was a pretty frightening one, too. We had arrived in Faslane late on the Sunday, the cadets were taken off to the Junior Rates Mess, and I settled into the wardroom of HMS Neptune, which was rather better populated than Caledonia had been. But when I went down to breakfast the next morning, I was the only person in the place. Still somewhat jaded from the previous evening’s ‘hospitality’, it took me some time to register the fact that the scene outside the window was rather busy. Remarkably busy, in fact – notably the amount of attention being devoted to the Polaris submarine alongside the jetty, which was clearly being made ready for sea. That was the moment when the wardroom steward informed me that there had just been a coup in Moscow. It was Monday, 19 August 1991, and the anti-Gorbachev revolt had begun barely a couple of hours earlier. As I chewed on my scrambled egg, an unnerving realisation grew upon me: I was eating breakfast in the middle of what would almost certainly have been one of an incoming hardline Soviet regime’s top two or three targets in Britain. So I was distinctly relieved when we put to sea later that morning, and, of course, by the time we returned to Faslane a week later it was all over.
In theory, we could go wherever we pleased in the Firth of Clyde and its environs, but in practice this depended on where the surly and distinctly bibulous Glaswegian crew of the tender had already decided they wanted to go. On my first trip, I’d done my homework in advance and had calculated that a day run down to Campbeltown, at the southern end of the Mull of Kintyre, might provide good seamanship training for the cadets. I was quickly disabused by the ship’s cook: ‘you dinna wanna go to Campbeltown’, he said emphatically, ‘it’s a c*** of a place’. (I eventually got there on a subsequent trip, and found it very pleasant – which was more than could be said for the return voyage, when we ran into a gale off the south coast of Arran and I had one of the most violent attacks of seasickness I’ve ever experienced: the fleet tenders were atrocious seaboats.) Luckily, on my first trip I was accompanied by a Maths teacher from the school who wasn’t actually in the Corps but had been seconded to the trip, principally because he was a local lad from the west of Glasgow. The crew, accustomed to dealing with archetypal ‘posh’ public school masters, were surprised and delighted to encounter one of their own, and were prepared to make allowances for the Welshman he had brought in tow. This stood me in good stead on the subsequent cruises, when I was always remembered as ‘Joe’s pal’.
Over the course of the four trips, I got to know the waters and the harbours of the Firth of Clyde pretty well: lovely Millport, on Great Cumbrae Island; Rothesay, the epitome of a genteel Victorian seaside resort; Largs, Dunoon, Greenock, Inveraray, Arrochar, the Kyles of Bute, and others too. In those days we slept aboard the ship – on one occasion I slept in the wheelhouse – so would moor for the night, ensure the cadets were bedded down and under the supervision of the crewman left on watch, then head ashore to sample the delights of our port of call. (Nowadays, alas, ‘Health and Safety’ dictates that cadets and officers must sleep ashore, in youth hostels; I’d finished in the CCF long before this ludicrous change was made, but it seems to me that it wrecks an important part of the purpose of the cruises, namely teaching the cadets what life aboard a ship is like.) My particular favourite of all the ports we visited was Tarbert on Loch Fyne, a picture postcard fishing and yachting harbour where the pubs seemed never to have heard the term ‘licensing hours’. Another glorious port of call was Carrick Castle on Loch Goil; on one occasion, we’d just left the Ministry of Defence jetty there when we encountered the Polaris submarine HMS Repulse, which passed us majestically but menacingly, just a few score yards away to port, as she went up the Loch to carry out her diving trials. The skipper of the tender warned us not to take photographs of her or we might be shot; I’m still not sure whether he was joking.
Before anyone gets the impression that these cruises were purely jollies designed so that the CCF officers could extend their knowledge of single malt whiskies in an eclectic series of bars across the west coast of Scotland, I should emphasise that we worked hard. (Having said that, I remain to be persuaded that the cruises weren’t purely jollies designed so that the tender’s crew could revisit said bars at frequent intervals; they certainly seemed to be greeted as regular customers in all of them.) The cadets spent the days learning navigation and seamanship; we practised man overboard drills, coming alongside buoys, and so forth, in Lamlash Bay, Loch Long and the other gloriously scenic anchorages in the area, took countless bearings on the likes of the Cloch Point lighthouse, and the cadets learned the essentials of watchkeeping, notably that there is no possibility of devising a watch system which means that one watch entirely avoids dishwashing duty for the entire voyage. There were also opportunities for adventure training ashore, such as hill walking on the Isle of Arran. The latter provided one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, when I was convinced that I was experiencing every teacher’s worst nightmare – losing a student. This is a long story, but it basically hinged on the absence of mobile phones (this was c.1992, after all), the fallibility of my assumption that ‘there’s only one road running around the perimeter of Arran, it’s impossible for cadets x, y and z to get lost’, cadet x then disobeying the express instructions he’d been given and separating from y and z, followed by a complex saga that hinged upon the unexpected intervention of a Calor Gas lorry. Being driven up said one main road on Arran in a police car in a state of mounting terror, failing to find cadet x, and driving back to the ship convinced that I was about to become a Daily Mail headline, is not a feeling that I ever wish to repeat. My emotions when I saw cadet x safe and sound on the mess deck, eating his supper and being mercilessly ribbed by his mates, are probably best left to the imagination. To his credit, the policeman wordlessly took me to one side and then drove me to the Brodick Castle Hotel, where, still wordlessly, he placed a large Scotch in my hand.
Ultimately, my four memorable voyages in the Clyde Fleet tenders had a sequel many years later: they provided me with the settings, and some of the inspiration, for the plot of Gentleman Captain, the first Quinton novel. I’ve been back to the area many times since, but somehow, visiting it as a tourist isn’t quite the same as sailing up and down the great sea-lochs aboard a naval vessel (of sorts).