One drizzle-bound night we drove into Wales. I was 17 and in a car with my sister and her boyfriend. I felt a thrill that chilly October as we crossed the frontier into Cymru for the first time. I was jabbering away as we raced along. I was satisfied to see the signs in Welsh ”Croeso do Cymru” and so forth. I saw ”Heddlu” cars for the first time – police cars. The double ‘d’ in Welsh is pronounced with the ‘th’ sound. We followed the signs for Abergavenny y Fenny for a while. But soon we diverged off the main road. Into the wild hills. The roads chicanes became more frequent. We stopped at a white pub. Hugh, our friends from these parts, was well known around here. This being the days before mobiles this was our rendez-vous. We had an approximate meeting time but we wanted to ascertain whether Hugh was here yet. This Welshman spent most of his time in London. Sorry, make that Llundan. I put my head into the pub and inquired of one of the dozen or so punters whether Hugh was there. They all nodded in acknowledgement – he was known to them. But no, they had no seen him. Back to the car. Why did we not wait in the pub? Soon enough he came along. It was the second ever time I had met Hugh but my sister and her boyfriend had known him since schooldays.
Hugh had a mass of brown curls. There was an ovine curl to his lip. He was well below average height and lean. He spoke in a pukka accent. We followed his car off the main road and down a lane – through some stone pillars and over a muddy cattle grid. We were now on a graveled drive. There were rhododendron bushes on either side. Soon we curved out of the overgrown area of his estate and out onto a gravel car park in front of a house mansion. The grey granite mansion was multistoreyed and had a lawn in front of it.
Soon we were in the house and Hugh welcomed us raucously. Several other friends of his arrived – mostly couples. They were all public school people. Drink was flowing.
The house must have been 50 m by 20 m. It was ill-lit and the classical furniture was all decrepit.
I met Hugh’s father – Sir Martin. Sir Martin was a very short man. This bald baronet was the last of a kind. His family had been major landholders in the counties for centuries. This thin soiled hillside was not worth a great deal and only good for sheep farming. They were gentry until in the 19th century it was discovered that coal lay under these flinty fields. An ancestor had raised a regiment for the Crimean War and was given a baronetcy at the time. Sir Martin attended Harrow. His mother told him, ”a man of your class must never work.” He did his National Service in the Army because that was obligatory. But after those two years were up he took his mother’s words to heart. He felt his position was to provide leadership for the lower orders. He never earned a bean. There was so much family money that he had no need to. But the fortune was frittered away. Their house was huge but I was told only a decade before they had lived in another house that was double the size.
We had a hearty dinner and I drank more than was good for me. This gave me self-assurance to talk to people ten years older than me. Sir Martin looked on me with kindly amusement. He remarked that my sister being a teacher had better not let me get overly stocious. And so to bed.
A DAY SHOOTING.
The next morn I saw the place in daylight for the first time. The land was a deep green and the lawn was coated in dew. The jagged and almost treeless hills reached up and away from the estate. There were plenty of trees around the house and they had all lost their leaves. The brown and orange dead leaves carpeted the ground – the leaves all curled up and rotting. Outside the main house there was a stone stable. There I saw Hugh’s mother. She was ranting about something and hardly acknowledged me.
I went downstairs to the tile floored kitchen. People ate a quick but large breakfast. There was much excited babble about the day. Soon we headed off. Several of the boys were shooting. I do not think any of the girls had guns. The land was very uneven but not so stony. The bare trees in the valley was scattered everywhere. There were many barbed wire fences surrounding mucky sheep fields. I was enjoying it! I was assigned someone to walk with. I shall call her Phoebe for the brilliant reason that I have forgotten her name but I cannot forget her. The name gives you an image of her – it is appositely patrician. She was tall, statuesque with that combination of pale skin and rosy cheeks that I find irresistible. Her pale blue eyes and flaxen hair gave her a very Nordic sort of beauty. She was a posh girl like all there. We had a happy conversation with her. I pined for her but I knew that she would never be attracted to me. She was 10 years older than me. She was a wine dealer by trade – just the ticket for a gorgeous girl with an upper class background. I never saw Phoebe again.
We came to a gulley and one of us had to walk at the bottom and the other at the top. She went down. This was idiotic of me. I ought to have insisted on taking the more difficult path in the slab and among the dead leaves.
It was supposed to be about shooting birds but ground game was also considered . Hugh shot a rabbit and fitted it into a special pocket in the back of his jacket.
I walked with one of Hugh’s family retainers over a sludgy field. I shall call the old chap Cwyo. Cwyo must have been about 60. He was a hefty man with a thick Welsh accent. He wore a tweed suit – the sort one wears as an outdoorsman and not in a formal setting. He tottered over the mire and knew all about the countryside – telling me the species of every tree and bird.
Back to the house for another bibulous evening. Sir Martin took me to a lockable room to see his gun.
There was a game we were playing. My sister’s boyfriend was cheating. Being roaring drunk I decided to punch him for it. I delivered an ineffective punch. He quite rightly hit me back but not too hard. I was cross-eyed for a moment and saw the others looking at me to see I was not significantly hurt.
Later I ran outside shouting about something. My sister had to come to me and say ”I think you are a bit pissed.” I was more than a bit pissed. The next day Hamish found out he had passed his exam and was very relieved. He had been on edge before. We drove back to England
It was the end of June. That cloudless morning twenty boys gathered outside a courtyard in school and got into a coach. the school year was over and now we were going for some supposedly military training. Despite it being so-called military we did not take uniform with us. We were driving to Wales. It was a shame to be on a coach in such lovely weather. I do not remember what I was reading on this five hour drive. Thankfully the coach was half empty so we all had a spare seat beside us. I discussed the Northern Ireland conflict with Miles. His father was very senior in the RAF and possibly reflecting his military background Miles took a very harsh view of the IRA. He pointed out that the great majority of people in the Northern Ireland were against the IRA which made it wicked of them to perpetrate acts of violence.
We stopped at a service station somewhere in the English Midlands. There were some long green army lorries there – the sort used for carrying smaller vehicles. Our driver was a painfully thin middle-aged man with lank brown hair and a swarthy complexion. He looked a stressy type. I saw him puff desperately on a cigarette in the car park.
We crossed into Wales. We drove into Snowdonia, one of the northermost regions of Wales. The roads becoming narrower and windier. We corkscrewed up into the wooded hills. There were many silver birches and pure gushing streams. Moss coloured rocks lay on every dank hillside. The coach growled with difficulty as we made our way deep into the countryside. The coach driver looked like he really needed a toke.
Finally the coach was parked. We were in front of a wooden single storey building. This was to be our home for the next week. The serried ranks of verdant hills and the primordial forests lay all around. The cool, clean mountain air was very welcome after so many hours aboard the coach. Stretching my legs was also a relief. But there was little time to admire the crystal brook that babbled by the road. We were ordered to take out rucksacks into the house. The chain-smoking coach driver treated himself to half a pack before driving off.
It was a camping hut really. One could not complain that it was not clean but it had few comforts and was very plain. The floor was red-painted stone. The wooden walls were hung with a few paintings. The dormitories were named in honour of renowned explorers such as Bonnington. I had never heard of Chris Bonnington until that point. I was in the largest dorm on a top bunk. The cook and our teacher shared a room. I shall call the teacher Piggy since that was his soubriquet. He was a man in his 50s with pale grey hair. He was a decent sort but not especially popular. He was out of shape and unsuitable for the position but we were not too rambunctious so we gave him no grief. The cook was a shaven headed middle-aged cockney with a wicked sense of humour and a winning grin.
After the first evening’s repast I volunteered to wash up. I thought I had better get it out of the way. We had a a briefing from soldiers. ”Don’t go into town because they hate the English. You don’t want to get beaten up.” Could I not tell them that I am Irish? It might not ring true bearing in mind my unmissable public school accent. Looking back on it surely the threat of being physically attacked for being a presumable English boy were overblown. This was probably a mythos fed to us to prevent us going to the pub.
There were some soldiers there who were to help us with adventure training. It was boy scout stuff rather than anything military. The two soldiers I remember meeting that first evening I shall call Paddy – for that was his name – and Lee (because I had to invent that one). Paddy was an Irish London and stood about 5’4”. He had a little grey hair at the back of hsi skull and yellow teeth at the front. He must have been hard as nails to make it as a soldier despite his size. Lee was from somewhere in northern England – I could not locate his origins by his accent more precisely than that. He had a droppy blond moustache and was of a normal size. He had a look of Asterix about him but not the energy. Neither came across as very soldierly. Both of them must have been in their 30s. This was adventure training.
For the week we went on various outings. We did command tasks down in the town. I do not remember the name of the town and don’t believe I ever knew it. The place was festooned in ‘Vote Labour’ signs all over the shop. It was very childish. One person was blindfolder and pushing a wheel barrow. Someone else had to give him instructions but could not help. Teamwork, you see. It was a soft rainy day. The town was on a slope and was all made of granite but was not at all dispiriting. There were parks and flowerbeds to give the place some glee. Signs were up in Welsh and English. There was a stolid Presbyterian church on the hill. Misty mountains rose above the small town.
That evening, back at base, we had a barbecue. Paddy seemed keen to win out favour. He had grown up poor and as a teenager had a job washing up. I found it hard to suppress a bigoted sense of condescension at this. Snobbish attitudes were well implanted in me despite my own working class roots that were not distant. He and another boy had a falling out and the other chap invited him out for a fight. Paddy accepted and they headed for the door to fight outside. Before he had even reached the door the other lad punched Paddy. Paddy said the lesson was when you accept an offer to fight then start it straight away – do not wait for the other chap to begin on his terms. He hinted that he had gone for the SAS. ”So you failed then?” asked Ben. This stocky bigot was an arse crawler to anyone he felt had higher status than him an a merciless bully towards eccentrics. He was also tactless. ”Well there’s different ways of failing. There could be breaking your leg in selection.” Paddy said that when he was a child his father supported the IRA. ”Whenever a soldier was killed in Northern Ireland it was like – yeeeeeaaaaaaaaah!” and he raised both arms in a Victory sign. ”But then me and me brother joined and me father didn’t want us to get hurt.”
There was a day by a lake. We were canoeing and we swam wearing wet suits. Rupert was one of the boys in my group. He later went on to be a Rupert – as in an army officer. I recall on the minibus drive to the place thinking over my family situation and how furious I was at the turmoil in my home life. The chap in charge of us was a young officer with a shock of red hair who looked like a ringer for Chris Evans the DJ. George – another boy in my group – recalled, ”If you are caught in bed with a girl you are expelled but if you are caught in bed with a boy you are rusticated.” The Chris Evans lookalike joked, ”you been rusticated then?” George fake laughed at this quip at his expense. In fact there was something camp about him. He was tall, scrawny and had blond hair and an almost girlish manner.
Chris Evans explained us how to do things, ”there is a sequence and an order” in how to put on the wetsuit. Sequence and an order – ‘that’s a tautology you prick’ I bethought myself. Chris Evans said he had not bothered with university and gone traveling in Africa. What for three years? They are not mutually exclusive.
Chris Evans and Asterix were in the front of the minibus as we drove back. I overheard their dialogue about one of their colleagues seducing a woman who came to a soldiers’ party. ”He shagged her out on the range.” I was impatient to sample the delights of adult life.
There was a day caving. We went down into a huge cavern from which slate had been dug. only a small portion of the slate was suitable for roofing. Tonnes upon tonnes of slate was abandoned on the surface. There was an unrelenting moonscape on the surface. We crunched over the endless mounds of slate. It clanked and slip down the hillside. We had to use headlamps when down in the mine. We walked through some long and lofty chambers. The air was moist. We tried switching out lamps off. There was not a hint of late and only the faint sound of dripping water. The soldier guiding us explained that people had worked down here for says at a time and slept down here. Food and water was brought down to them. So they went days without any natural light. Where had they gone to answer a call of nature? Presumably their waste was emitted here in what really were the bowel of the earth. It brought home to me the grimness of work in the age of unrestrained capitalism.
Outside the town there was a barren hillock. There had been boots that the US Army did not want when they were stationed during the war. They dumped hundreds of pairs of boots there. For some reasons the boots were burnt. The rubber caused the hillock to be unable to produce plant life ever since.
There was a time when we climbed Mount Snowdon: the tallest mountain in Wales. We walked for many miles over the plashy earth. We followed minor country paths and carried rucksacks. At one point we climbed over a stile. The boy ahead of my, having crossed the stile, turned his head and shouted, ”watch out for that rock.” I took note of his warning. I clambered over the wooden stile and then jumped. Idiotically I put one foot out to stop myself. One foot! It was my right foot. I certainly watched out for the rock – my foot landed on it. It landed on this unevenly shaped rock at an awkward angle. I felt an acute pain. I let cry ”arrgh!” and bizarrely ran on for a few steps – as if to get away from the pain. The sharp pain subsided. Over the day the pain returned. That evening we pitched tents in a campsite high in the hills. Taking my socks off I saw that my right ankle was hugely swollen and bruised. I thought I could report it but then be sent back to the building where we were staying and get bored rigid. The telly did not work except for watching videos and there were no books. I decided to fight the pain and struggle on.
The next day we began our assault on Snowdon. We walked up a difficult route. There was plenty of mist. The thin soil was slippery and the gradient was severe. But we were teenagers and no one had much trouble. George told us about martial arts and the Chinese style of fighting. He used the word merchantman. The word is merchant, surely.
After a couple of hours we arrived at the summit. There was a satisfying view over many mountains and the Irish Sea. It was very surprising to see a reastaurant at the peak of Mount Snowdown and even a railway station. We walked down a well prepared path with gravel in place and wooden boards holding at all together. I remember the public convenience at the foot of the mountain had graffiti in it about how England won all the wars and that was why Scotland, Ireland [should have been prefixed with Northern] and Wales were united with England. I ruminated on that. I was in a phase of studying how the United Kingdom came to be formed.
When we got back to our building I fessed up about my ankle. The tumescence had subsided very considerably. But the bruising had spread out and gone blew. The pain had mostly abated. It had to be hand recorded in a book by Paddy. I wondered if in a long time to come a historian would come across this.
After a few days George had to leave early to got o Cambridge for an Engineering Open Day. His sister was coming. I hung around the dorm for when she turned up. We did not often get to see a real live girl. She came along – confident and almost loud. She was in her early 20s. She had long brown hair but she was not very feminine. She was only averagely good looking and wore clothes that were not at all revealing – jeans and a jumper, both dark blue. Not what I had been hoping for but I would still have happily leapt on her. But yes, for my sake, she should have turned up tottering in stilettoes and in a miniskirt and see through barely there blouse and perfectly made up.
We watched from Dusk Till Dawn one evening. We were allowed to have some beer as we watched. It was a terrific Quentin Tarantino film. It began with a long and dull conversation in a convenience store deep in the American desert. I was just beginning to lose conversation in this windy dialogue when suddenly it was revealed that there was a crazed gunman hiding on the floor keeping his weapon trained on the shopkeeper. It was a favourite Tarantino technique. Begin very pedestrian and allow the audience to almost get bored before shocking them. It was excellent – jolting us and grabbing our attention. Seeing Selma Hayek twerking was an especial thrill. The huge serpents at the end was not something I liked.
During the film I broke wind. Some people chided me. Robert made the mistake of thumping my shoulder. I then tapped his nose. He yelped and ran off. ”Say sorry” some people told me – especially a douche bag named Ben. I refused and despite being pressed was stubborn. Robert hit me so I hot back. In fact punching his nose was an overreaction maybe because of the beer. He turned out to have a nose bleed. I did not dislike him much. Years later I had his aunt for a colleague. I wonder if she ever heard of this incident.
While we were there the handover of Hong Kong occurred. Poodle haired Max remarked wistfully ”there goes our empire boys”. There was also Brown’s first budget.
It was the same nicotine addict of a coach driver who picked us up at the end. We descended from our aery. We stopped in that same banal service station in the English Midlands that we had visited on our way out. I took the opportunity ti steal some cheese when no one was looking. Since I had become a fervent disbeliever in God I made it my mission to try to be an epicure and to break moral rules whenever this would lead to more pleasure for me. I sat near Miles and he read sedulously.
I got back to school and my sister Geraldine was waiting for me at my house. This was long before I ever had a mobile phone. She said she had feared she had got the day wrong. People were buzzing around the place because the Bell Schools had rented it out. Little did I know that in 12 years time I would be employed by them.
Back at the house I saw Nick. This numb skulled boy was in my year. Nick was half deaf but idiotically refused to make use of his hearing aid. So he missed out on a lot of information and was forever getting things wrong. His life was an ongoing and unintentional harlequinade. He had gone to Germany with his trip. They had had to wear dinner jackets and had been royally entertained in a British Army casino if you don’t mind. Nick usually had a strained relationship with the truth but this one I believe since it was corroborated by several others who had been there. The dame scolded him bitterly. On the night before going on our trips many of us had downed plenty tinnies suppled by Tappie. Nick had got wankered. He had left all his junk in his room when he was supposed to have stored it.
My sister drove me down to Kent and we had a chat all the way – mainly about our parents parlous situation and my political aspirations.