My late father’s life through his own words, tales and stories
|Brian Matier – 03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018|
Awaiting Your Turn
|The man pushed open the door to the waiting room and stood still for several|
seconds as the brightness of the lighting struck him in the face. “God”, he
muttered, shielding his eyes and shaking his head, as he walked slowly into
the room. It was a large room, very bright, and almost full of people of
both sexes and all ages. Just in front of him was a round machine at about
chest height and beside it a sign, which read “PLEASE TAKE A TICKET AND
AWAIT YOUR TURN.” Dutifully he did so.
He stood in the doorway for some moments, looking around. He was not a tall
man and was a little paunchy. He ran his hand over his thinning hair as he
searched for a free seat. The most remarkable thing about this wan was the
striking blue of his eyes.
“Is this seat taken?”
“No, buddy, it ain’t”. The small dark man with deep brown eyes shuffled to
his right to make space. He extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Al.”
The first man sat down heavily and clasped the other’s hand. “Frank.” He
took a pack of Marlborough from his pocket. “Cigarette, Al.”
“Hell, no, babe. Like verboten, in here. The damm things will kill you,
you know.” He laughed loudly at his own humour.
Frank put the pack away and looked at the number on his ticket. Number 98.
“What number do you have, Al?”
Al held up the little piece of paper. “I got 53. Where are you from, Frankie?”
“Yeah, you know, just for a minute I could have sworn you had a touch of Noo York in there.”
Frank laughed. “You’ve got me, Al, I was born in the big Apple.”
“Hey man, cool, I’m a NY boy.”
“Yeah, I’d never have known.” Frank regretted his words as soon as they
spoken, but fortunately Al recognised nothing to which he might take
“I noo it, I noo it. Where in our great city?”
“On the eastside, Hoboken. You know it?”
“Get outa here, man. I’m from Hoboken.”
Frank grinned. “I was born in Monroe Street. You an Italian boy, Al?”
“Sure as hell, man. Abbot street myself. I was part of Tony Catani’s crowd. You knew them?”
“I knew Tony. A tough guy.”
“Yeah, poor old Tony, God rest him. Got taken out by the Micks from across the river.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“What do you do for a living, Frankie?”
“This and that. I sang a bit”
“You do OK?”
“I made a living. What about you Al?”
“I was a funeral director, Frankie.”
“What, you put people in boxes?”
“Yeah, eventually. My job was to make sure they were ready to go in boxes. I was a fixer, you know, for the Family.”
“The Family. You mean?”
“Frankie, you’re an Italian boy. You know what I mean. The Mob, the Mafia, Cosa Nostra, it’s all the same. To me, it was the Family. I took care of those who caused problems for the Family. Like Mad Mick O’Connor who rubbed out Tony. You savvy?”
“Yeah, Al, I savvy.”
At that moment the room fell silent. The door to an inner office opened and a woman in a white suit, like a hospital nurse stepped out. The light behind her from the office lit up her head and figure, making it appear that she had a halo above her dark hair.
“Hey, Frankie, that’s you, babe.”
“It can’t be, Al. You’re 53; you’re ahead of me.”
Al grinned, a crooked little smile twisting his face. “It doesn’t work that way, man. Your number is not your place in the queue, but when you died. Me, I went to the chair in 1953. Noo York State Pen. I’ve been a bad boy. I gotta wait a lot longer.”
The woman called out again. “Number 98, Mr Sinatra
An English Garden
|He looked again at the Arrivals screen, for perhaps the sixth or seventh time. The message hadn’t changed. BA 8614 Bremen. Expected 1844. He checked his watch and did some calculations. All right, ten minutes to landing, ten or fifteen minutes fooling around getting to the gate, and the same amount of time with Immigration and Customs. These shouldn’t be too bad as they were coming from the EU, but still, it would be around a quarter or twenty past seven.|
“Right, do I get a coffee, or just continue to walk up and down like an expectant father?” He did neither, but inspected in a disinterested fashion the books in W.H. Smith. He went over in his head his prepared little speech of welcome, and wondered if he should follow John Cleese’s advice about not mentioning the war. Difficult in the circumstances.
It was funny where his purchase of the house in Clapham had led. The problem had been the old oak. It had looked pretty sickly, and the tree surgeon had confirmed his worst fears. So, it came down, and the gardening experts had decided a small charge of explosives would ‘loosen up the roots. Some experts! They lifted half the bloody back garden and cracked most of the windows in the house. Still, it certainly lifted the tree roots, and left a bit of a crater. That was when they found the engine. Big bugger it was. It was obviously much too big for a car, and they found a large plate with the legend, ‘Daimler-Benz A G.’
He glanced at the TV monitor, and noted that the BA flight had touched down at 1841. It was getting closer, and he practised his speech to himself. Around him was the murmur of the North Terminal mixed with the occasional more strident public address announcements, and the coffee aroma from the café informed him that he might have made a mistake.
It had been the plate on the engine which had clinched it. It was a German aero engine, and for a while he speculated if an entire aircraft was down there. It wasn’t, as the enthusiasts from the Aircraft Historical Society were quick to inform him.
“You see, Richard, a Heinlel 111 was shot down here on 4th September 1940, but as far as the records show, it was taken away and the remains put on display on Clapham Common. It had been taking part in a raid on the railway junction.”
“What happened to the crew?”
The head anorak consulted his notes. “All killed. A three man crew and they were buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery.”
“I thought that was just for British dead.”
“No, they used it for all sorts, American, French, Poles, Czechs as well as Commonwealth guys. And a few Germans and Italians.”
“If they removed the aircraft, why did they leave the engine?”
“I don’t know, but people had a lot on their minds in September 1940, and someone probably intended to come back for it and forgot.”
They had rooted around for several days, finding all sorts of bits and pieces, ammunition, metal parts, and, amazingly a wallet. It was badly deteriorated, but recognisable, and it contained a letter addressed to a woman in Osnabruck, and poignantly, a photograph of a mother and little boy, about two years old.
Richard moved towards the railing dividing airside from landside, and held up his little sign, rather like the limo drivers. ‘Herr Junge.’ He had gone out to Brookwood and found the graves of the three Germans, Karl Bremser, Michel Junge and Karl Bohring. Unlike the other dead, their headstones were placed together, touching each other. It was moving to think that the three men who had lived and died together also lay together in their final resting-place. He had taken a photograph, and when the German authorities traced the son of Michel Junge, he had sent it with a letter, offering to send on the wallet.
Two men approached him and he held up the sign hopefully but they walked past him without stopping.
Herr Junge had replied through his son asking if he could come to England to collect the wallet in person, and visit where his father had died. Richard could not refuse. And then they were with him, a big man in his sixties, who gave a little bow, and said haltingly, “I am Eric Junge.”
Richard made his little speech and the big man replied in German. He offered his hand.
The younger man spoke. “My father thanks you for your kindness, and for all your efforts on our behalf.”
Richard offered the wallet. “This is yours. The letter to your mother is a little late I’m afraid.”
Reflection 1956/Penned 2008
|It was not the best of times, nor was it quite the worst of times. Nevertheless, the times were hard. East London had been sorely, savagely tested during the Second World War and had come through the fire stronger. What doesn’t kill you, strengthens you may well have been the motto. The physical scars of the War remained for a long time in London generally and in the East End in particular. The bomb sites had been cleared for the most part, but empty shells of buildings still rose gaunt to the sky while the urban flora and fauna flourished. Long lines of prefabs stretched with military like precision in all directions. Many remain today, a testimony to their designers.|
The men of the East End were hard, and the women harder. It was in the fourth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lady Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when I arrived in the East End. I was eighteen, and in retrospect, very wet behind the ears. I didn’t know just how naïve I was, but I had been raised a Catholic in an Irish Republican family but in my own mind I was British, not Irish. I had been brought up not to drink, and to believe that women were there solely to act as wives and mothers. I would eventually be disabused of both these notions. I was a virgin, a status I would endure for another year.
When I graduated from the Police College at Hendon I was posted to Hackney. It was a white working class suburb at that time, but its journey into a coloured ghetto was even then beginning. Hackney was solidly Labour voting and had a large Jewish community, many of whom had fled from Hitler’s Europe.
When I became a full time police constable, the War had been finished for twelve years, but in the East End of London a different kind of war was still going on; the war of the gangs. People like the Krays and the Richardsons were in the Premier League of villains, vicious, evil and murderous thugs. Killings and beatings happened frequently, with handguns as the weapon of choice. Lower down the scale, but only just, was the use of the cut throat razor to inflict appalling injuries. In one notorious incident a man in a pub had his head blown apart with a shotgun. The man standing next to him at the bar, and still spattered with the brains and blood of the dead man, solemnly told the police he had seen nothing. The climate of fear was a dark cloud hanging over the East End.
In Hackney we had our own gang, the Morriseys, the Leyton Orient in the villains’ pecking order. Once, on stopping one of the Morrisey boys in his car at about three in the morning, he asked me what I wanted. I replied that he was a known criminal, and I wanted to search his car for stolen property. He laughed. “If I had had any stolen property in the car, I’d have run you down.” He meant it, too.
After about two years at Hackney I had graduated from being a police officer to being, in police parlance, ‘a good copper.’ There was nothing I might meet that I felt I couldn’t handle.
Hackney was a good ground. Its police were the normal mix of good, and bad. Some were very good and one or two were very bad. We were, however, bound together by a common bond of brotherhood. It was us against the world, the whole bloody lot, civilians, the tow rags, senior officers , politicians, the lot. We had all been instilled with the founding principles of the Force; “The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime, the next that of detection if crime is committed. To these ends and the preservation of public tranquillity must all the efforts of police be directed.” We were determined to follow these 1829 principles by the book. If we couldn’t do it by the book, we would still do it.
We policed riots at pop concerts in Victoria Park and at the Hackney Empire. We dealt with floods when the River Lea burst its banks, assisted the Fire Brigade in their difficult work and the Ambulance Service in their’s. We directed traffic, patrolled the night streets, drove too fast in our Wolseleys and on our Velocettes. We saw children across the road to school and picked up the dead and the injured from the roads. We ventured away from Hackney to have fun on a Sunday morning at Petticoat Lane and kept the strikers and the owners apart at Covent Garden in the Market strike.
We stood outside South Africa House at the time of Sharpeville, trading blows with the demonstrators, and listened to Bertrand Russell speaking at his Easter CND rallies in Trafalgar Square. We joined the 100,000 protesters singing along with Pete Seeger, ‘We shall overcome.’ We kissed the girls at midnight on New Year’s Eve in the same Square.
We attended post mortems, and got to know the nurses at Hackney and Homerton Hospitals so well that many of the lads married them. We got bored witless at two in the morning with the streets quiet and four hours to go before knocking off time. We attend burglaries and reported robberies and thefts and gave evidence at Old Street or North London Magistrate’s Courts. We got to know the magistrates and justices, and to become trusted by them. We learned the strange ways of the law.
“You are charged with being drunk. How do you plead?
Any trouble officer/”
“No trouble, sir.”
Or as an alternative: “Any trouble officer?”
“He was shouting and swearing, sir.”
We told mothers that their son was dead, or wives that their husband had been killed. We dealt with suicides and backed each other up in fights. We played football and cricket together, and occasionally had a drink.
For eight and a half years I worked in this drab place, which I grew to love, with these men. No women were involved; they spent their time on women and children. I depended on some of these men, if not for my life, then for my physical well being, and they on me. Looking back we were like a choir. We always sang from the same hymn sheet, were always word perfect, in time and mostly in tune.
Life and Death
|They seemed to be looking at me, accusingly, from the other side of the road. It wasn’t my bloody fault, I muttered. I had seen them before, well one of them anyway. Yet there they were, sitting on the pavement, opposite me, perfectly close together. Neatly, that was the word. They sat neatly, primly, together; their blunt toes lined up exactly to the edge of the kerb. They were sensible shoes, an old woman’s shoes. They were brown. Well, one as brown; the right shoe was stained with blood.|
I parked the motor bike and crossed the road, stopping the traffic on my right by pointing at the first car, and simply looking at the traffic on my left. The double-decker bus, half on the pavement, and the knot of onlookers gave the clue that something was happening and the passing drivers were slowing down to look.
“Keep those bastards moving” I snarled at Richard. He did so.
I looked at the shoes again. “Who did this?” I addressed the question to the crowd.
“I did, guv.” The bus driver stepped forward, detaching himself from his conductress.
“Why what?” he said.
“Why line them up like that?”
He shrugged. “It seemed more respectful, like. Better than leaving them under the bus. What with the old girl likely to snuff it.”
“She’s not dead yet.” I picked up the shoes, the blood, deep red and sticky, already congealing. I went back across the road and put them in the pannier of the bike. A lot had happened in the last twenty minutes.
It had been a quiet morning, and I had been on the streets since 6 am. I was hungry and it was nearly nine and I was due breakfast.
“Juliet 29, Juliet 29.” The radio crackled.
I picked up the handset. “Yeah, 29”
“Traffic accident, Morning Lane, opposite the newsagents.”
“Roger that, MP. On my way. 29 over.”
“Thank you, Juliet 29. Use your proper callsign in future.”
“MP, MP from Juliet 29. Roger that, MP. Juliet 29 over.” Pompous git, I thought.
I was at the accident scene in less than two minutes.
“Jesus wept.” There was someone under a bus, a number 30 double-decker, which was half on the pavement. The driver knelt in front of his vehicle.
“She just stepped out in front of me, guvnor. I didn’t have a chance.”
The woman looked in her eighties, and was moaning slightly, but mot moving.
“Ok, let’s get her out. Has anyone called the ambulance?”
“It’s on its way. We can’t move her, her foot is trapped underneath the wheel.” It was. Bollocks!
“Have you contacted LT for the heavy lifting gear?”
“Yes, but it will be at least an hour.”
She wouldn’t last that long. We had to get that bloody great bus off her.
“Right, back in the bus. Slowly reverse until I tell you to stop.”
The driver started to protest. I stopped him. “Get back in the fucking bus. The poor old cow will snuff it if we ponce about waiting for someone to shift this bastard. It’s got to be now and there’s only you and me.”
He scrambled away nervously as I got on the radio. “Urgent assistance, I need a car.”
There was no car, it was on a shout. “You have to deal on your own, Juliet 29. “
The driver leaned out of the window. “Back now, very slowly.” He inched backwards and the right front wheel rolled free of her leg. A couple from the crowd helped me gently pull her clear. She was unconscious. There was no moaning now. The ambulance pulled up at the same time as PC Richard Hills arrived on a bicycle. He was red-faced and breathless. The ambulance crew packed their stretcher and loaded it into the back of the vehicle.
“Where are you taking her?” My question was to the ambulance driver.
“The Hackney, mate.” He shook his head. “I think she’s a goner.”
I nodded. The ambulance screamed away, blue lights flashing. Thank God, the hospital was less than half a mile away. It was then I discovered the foot, the right one, still in the shoe.
“Sweet Jesus.” I picked it up and ran to the newspaper shop. “Give me a newspaper.”
The proprietor, eyes wide with horror, looked at the bloody foot in my hand. “Which paper do you want?”
“Any bloody paper.” I had read somewhere that newsprint was sterile.
He gave me the Sun. No point in wasting the Times on a dead woman’s foot. I delivered my grisly parcel to the Hospital. The surgeon looked at it. “I ‘m sorry, mate, but I’m not Christian Barnard. There’s nothing I can do with that. Anyway she’s going to die.”
“But you will try, won’t you?”
“Of course I’ll fucking try. Now clear off and let me get on with it.”
All this passed through my mind as Richard and I recorded our report, got the bus shifted, the road washed down and the traffic moving.
She didn’t die, not then at any rate, but I did attend her funeral four years later when she was ninety-one. I also visited her in hospital as she recovered from the accident. I brought her shoes. She laughed. “I won’t be needing those any more, dear. I didn’t like them anyway.”
Outside The Door
|I was almost level with the man on the pavement when he made a half step into the road and waved at me. “Excuse me.” I braked the bike to a stop about a dozen yards further on, selected neutral and switched off the engine. Twisting in the saddle, I looked over my left shoulder. “Yes, mate.”|
He walked quickly up to me. “I’m sorry to stop you like that, but I’m worried about the old man who lives upstairs to me.”
I had an hour to the end of my shift and had planned some shopping with my wife. I had a feeling her shopping trip might be delayed.
“What’s worrying you?”
“Well, I’ve been away for the weekend, but I haven’t seen him for a few days, and I haven’t heard him either. It’s unusual as he is normally a noisy old bugger.”
“Where do you live?”
“Just down the street a bit. Number fifty-six. I live in the ground floor flat, he’s upstairs.”
“Have you tried to contact him?”
“Yes, but there’s no answer. You’d better come and see.”
We walked back to 56, a nondescript terraced house, probably built at the end of the Victorian era. He led me in to the hallway. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Jones, Billy Jones.”
“And the man upstairs?”
“That’s all, just Mr Godfrey?”
The young man shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, that’s all, that’s what I called him. That leads to his place.” He pointed to a heavy looking door that was situated strangely about halfway up the stairs
I went and banged on the door loudly. ”Mr Godfrey” I called out, also loudly several times. I tried the door. It wouldn’t budge. I put my shoulder against the door and shoved. The result was a half-dislocated shoulder.
“Officer”, Jones said apologetically, “It’s no good doing that. It opens in this direction, because of the stairs.”
“Ah, yes, thanks mate.” To myself I snarled, “You daft prat, of course it must open outwards.” I came down the stairs. “Who’s the landlord?”
Jones indicated upwards with his thumb. “He is.”
“Is he on the phone? Does he have any relatives?”
Jones shook his head. “No, he’s got no phone. I think his daughter comes to see him from time to time, but I don’t know where she lives.” Few people did have phones in the early 1960’s.
“I don’t suppose you have a key to this door?”
“If I had, I’d have opened it.” He seemed indignant.
“Sorry, mate. Just had to ask. You’ve no idea what some folks are like. Anyway, round the back then.”
“I’ll show you.”
We went through his lounge and kitchen to a small back garden. I studied the rear of the house. There was a shaky looking lean to which went up roughly to the first floor and then a series of drainpipes from underneath what I took to be the kitchen window. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a ladder?”
“Just a pair of steps” he replied, almost apologetically.
“Thanks, they’ll do.” I removed my tunic and helmet and gave them to Jones. I clambered up the steps and heaved my self on to the roof of the lean to, which bowed alarmingly. “Christ! Don’t fall through, you dickhead, you’ve made a big enough prat of yourself already.” The drainpipes were, thank God, very old and very solid. I looked in the kitchen window. Nothing. I knocked hard on the glass. Nothing. Right, time for brute force and ignorance. I took out my truncheon and smashed the window. Not without difficulty, I scrambled into the kitchen and stood breathing heavily. My right hand was bleeding and I wrapped my hankie around it.
The kitchen was empty, as was the toilet and bathroom. The bedroom was also empty, the bed unmade. I turned to what I supposed was the lounge and stood for a moment with my hand trembling a little. I thought I knew what I would find, but if I didn’t, I would need to explain what the hell I was doing breaking into someone’s house.
He was there, in an armchair facing the television, from which the test card flickered. It looked like he was asleep, eyes closed, mouth open, hands folded in his lap. I touched his face. It was cold and stiff. I went down the stairs and unbolted the heavy door.
“Billy, please go and find a phone box. Call the operator and ask her to put you through to the Police Station. You are calling on my behalf, PC 656J. Ask them to send the duty officer to this address. OK?”
“Yes. Is he, is he dead?”
“Afraid so. Please go and find a phone.”
He hurried away.
I went back upstairs. There was a gas ring on the tiled hearth and a small saucepan on it. It had contained milk which had boiled over. There was a mug beside it, with something that looked like chocolate. The gas ring was switched on but there was no gas. In the hallway I checked the meter. It showed empty. Back in the lounge I gathered up a handful of net curtain and sniffed deeply. Gas. It was a little trick I learned from a North Thames Gas man. I sat down on the settee to make some notes. He had fallen asleep in front of the box while waiting for the milk to boil. It had boiled over and put out the flames. The gas continued until the meter ran out.
Poor old sod. There you were, Mr Godfrey, on your own at the end. I guess that we are all alone at the end, with our hands trembling on the door as we move from life to death.
The Drill Exam
Although already standing to attention, I straightened my shoulders. “Sir.”
“Come here please.”
“Sir.” I about turned smartly and faced the squad. There were twenty-six members in all, including three women. Peter McBright, a dentist, looking like a sack of potatoes, gazed abstractly at a point somewhere over my head; John Watchson, an education officer was grinning, as were several others. Beverly Pletchford had the facial expression of someone with a broom handle suddenly thrust into her rectum. Sally MacCarthy, blonde hair curling below her hat, blue eyes twinkling, whispered loudly enough for the entire twenty-six to hear, “I think you’re in trouble, mate.” She reminded me for all the world of Susannah York in ‘The Battle of Britain.’
“Squad”, they also straightened. “Squad, stand at ease! Stand easy.” Another inch perfect about turn and as well as I could manage, I marched off towards Flt Lt Brighton and Warrant Officer Nolman. I crashed to a halt in front of the pair and saluted the Flt Lt, but addressed the Warrant Officer. “Sir.” It was a quirk of the RAAF, perhaps the RAF also, that at Officers’ Training School, officers called warrant officers ‘Sir’ and the warrant officers addressed officers as ‘Mister’, a situation entirely reversed on completion of training.
It had been, I reflected, as I marched across that parade square in the fading light of a cold Victorian winter’s day, a long journey I had made in the last twelve months. One year previous I had been a police officer in the Metropolitan Police, serving the good people of Hackney in East London. Point Cook, Victoria, Australia was indeed a long way from London E8, and maybe a tad longer from E9.
A month at sea with my wife and baby son had been followed by a depressing nine months in the Victoria Police, an institution which reminded me of what England must have been like in the 1930’s. Going home from work one evening on the train, I read an advert in the newspaper offering commissions in the Royal Australian Air Force. Provost was the word that caught my eye. I had a vague feeling it had something to do with Military Police. And so it happened. Six months ago I couldn’t even spell ‘Officer’ and now I is one.
At Point Cook we trained. At Point Cook everyone trained; pilots, cooks, mechanics, bottle washers, the bloody lot. The officers’ course was thirteen weeks long. In that time we learned about Air Force law, the 1938 Air Force Act from UK, borrowed by the Australian Government at the outbreak of War and still in use in 1966.
We learned service writing, military theory and world politics, especially how the Soviet Union would sweep across the North German plain and throw NATO into the North Sea. Point Cook was a long way from the North Sea but just as cold. We learned how to use the SLR rifle and the 9mm Browning pistol. We went out on night exercises, ambushed each other and shot up innocent ‘cow cockies’, i.e. farmers, on tractors and Land Rovers. The Service did have the good sense not to issue live ammunition. We learned how to live in the Mess, how to get totally rat arsed, but still turn up for early morning parade. And we learned drill.
I cannot say that I ever really took to drill. It was after all, for soldiers, not Air Force officers. However in those dear former non-PC days, one did what one was bloody well told to do. And we had a drill exam. This consisted of everyone in my squad, twenty-seven strong, having the opportunity to drill the other twenty-six for about ten minutes. The damm thing lasted all day and fate decreed that I was last cab off the rank.
The instructors, Warrant Officer Nolman and Flt Lt Brighton had a selection of plastic coated cards which they shuffled and then invited the aspiring leader to pick one. The lucky chap, or chapess, then followed the instruction on the card and was judged accordingly; distinction, credit, pass or fail. When my turn came we were all cold and tired, in need of a drink a hot shower and a good dinner. We decided that after this missed day in the history of the world, we owed Paddy Nolman and Ian Brighton something. We decided that a silent halt was the appropriate riposte for their day of inhumane treatment.
My card was easy; no slow marching, no left or right wheeling and no moving from line into column. It went OK and when I had given my final order on the card all that remained was to stop the buggers before they marched into Port Phillip Bay. Now was the moment for the secret signal. Yes, all right, it couldn’t be too secret.
“Squad, squad” make sure you give the command on the right foot, you galah. “Squad, for the last time, Halt.” I could feel Paddy and Ian’s eyes boring into me. For the last time, what is he on about?
It worked, sweet Jesus, it worked. All fifty-two feet crashed without a single sound. A 100% silent halt. Not one foot twitched on the ground. Zero noise.
“Sir.” As I stood in front of the two instructors I expected a bolt of lightening to flash from the heavens and strike me dead. Instead Paddy spoke. “Mr Matier, I don’t mind a joke, but I detest fucking pantomime.”
He was grinning now and Ian Brighton had suddenly developed a cough that needed his hand to smother. Paddy spoke again. “By the way, you march like you were going for a stroll on a golf course. Now get the hell out of here.”
Yes sir. Thank you, sir.”
On this basis did one Pilot Officer Matier receive a Distinction for drill.
Reflection 1962/Written 2015
|“Paddy, close that bleedin’ window; it’s like bleedin’ Siberia in here.”|
I glanced at my companion in the driver’s seat in the Police car. “I’ll close the window when you stop smoking that bloody camel dung. It’s more like a Chinese brothel in this bloody car. ”
Mac grinned at me, an action which gave his face a sly Bill Fagin like appearance, although his fingers continued rolling the Old Holborn. “What would a good Catholic boy like you know about them?” He looked over his shoulder, addressing the sprawling, inert figure on the back seat. “You don’t object to a bit of cigarette smoke, do you, Hanz”
“Leave Bill out of it; he’s asleep.”
Bill grunted. “How can a man sleep when you pair of bastards keep mithering on? And I’m not asleep, just resting my eyes.”
It was 1962, in the dear, long gone, days before political correctness and anti smoking legislation, and when the Metropolitan Police were interested in fighting crime and not simply seeking easy options with speed cameras, and before they were told they were all ‘institutionally racist.’
The radio chattered into life, and Mac reached across to turn up the volume.
“Oy! Leave it alone. You drive the car and I’ll operate the set.”
Macdonald shrugged. “Well, you turn it up them.”
“I can hear it OK.” But I turned up the sound anyway.
The r/t operator on the Wanstead car was burbling on about chasing a silver Jaguar Mark 2, 3.8 litre.
“He can forget that,” grunted Mac, “he wouldn’t get within a mile of a Jag.”
“He was close enough to see it was a 3.8” ventured Bill from the back seat.
We listened; the windows of the Wolseley rolled up to keep out the February night, and to contain the commentary within our own private world. “Let’s go in that direction, Mac.”
Mac was scornful. “Naw, he’s out in the sticks.”
“OK, but he’s heading our way. Let’s go and have a look. It isn’t our petrol.”
Mac grunted. “All right.” He shifted in his seat, and started the engine. We had a Series three 6/90, with manual change, reputedly the quickest model in the fleet.
We were an ill-assorted trio, the crew of Juliet One, the Hackney area car. James Macdonald, about forty years of age; ex Argyll and Sutherland Highlander, captured on Crete in 1941 and a German POW for four long years. At the age of sixteen, on 2nd September 1939, Mac had lied about his age and joined the British Army. On 2nd September 1939 the British Army were not making many detailed enquiries and the East End born son of a Scot became the only Macdonald in a Campbell regiment.
‘Hanz’ Wilhelm Fischer, British born child of an English mother and German father was a tortured young man of 23. His father had been interned for part of the war, something that still rankled with Hans, as did Mac‘s studied habit of calling him ‘Hanz’, and his constant retelling of POW stories.
Then there was me, a Northern Irish Catholic who had deeply disappointed his mother by rejecting the priesthood in favour of girls. Of course, today you could have both. I had also disappointed my Nationalist, Republican father by looking back to the French, Protestant roots of my grandfather rather than Dad’s viewpoint. Poor man, he didn’t know it then but worse would follow in 1966 when I accepted the Queen’s commission.
An odd group, then, who wended their way eastwards in the darkened streets of London.
“He’s heading towards Stratford.”
“Yeah, he is.” Mac put his foot down and the Wolseley sped through Leyton and Leytonstone. The Wanstead car got dropped and the Woodford car also trailed behind the Jaguar, which had not yet been reported stolen, but which was occupied, by, as Juliet Four reported, ‘three little towrags.’
“MP, MP to all cars on three District. Change to channel three on this chase. All other cars stay on Channel One.” ‘Canada’ was the duty radio controller at the Yard, a serviceman who stayed on in 1945, and whose calm gentle tones were well known to thousands of Metropolitan Police officers. I changed to channel three.
K and H Division cars joined in, arriving from different parts of the East End. We approached Stratford High Street, and there it was, suddenly, gut wrenchingly, a silver Jaguar crossing our front, not fifty yards away. It was moving at great speed.
“MP, MP from Juliet One. We are behind him, Stratford High Street towards Stratford Church and Bow.”
Canada was easy. “Talk to us Juliet One, you have the air.”
I described the chase. He was quick. I let up the transmit button. “What are we doing Mac?”
I spoke into the mike. “He’s doing a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty. He’s leaving us for dead.”
Another car came in. “Hotel three here. We have closed the road to traffic. Do you want us to block the road with our car?”
Mac grunted. “Tell him to keep out of the bastard’s way. He’s mad. He’s going to lose it in a minute.”
“What about you?” I asked, hanging on for dear life in those pre seat belt times.
“I’m a grown up man. He’s a spotty kid. He will lose her”
He did. As we approached the railway bridge, the Jaguar began to snake sideways across the road. The brake lights had gone on. The Jaguar hit the metal central island of the bridge with its offside, and, almost it seemed in slow motion, turned over and over and over. A great cloud of debris enveloped the car like a shroud, and the broken glass from the windscreen hung in the night air, sparkling like a shower of diamonds in the streetlights.
“MP. MP, he’s crashed. Overturned, Stratford High Street at the railway bridge. I think we will need an ambulance.”
”Roger that, Juliet One, ambulance called.”
We screeched to a halt, the Wolseley juddering in protest as Mac pulled up just behind the Jaguar, laying on its roof, all four doors open, and smoke rising from the engine compartment.
“Thanks, Canada, we’re leaving the car. Juliet One, out.”
The driver was crushed, upside down, between the front seat and steering wheel. There was blood everywhere, and I could not detect any pulse. I thought he was dead. Mac, on the other side of the car was examining the other front seat passenger, who was half in, half out of the car. “A deadun here, Paddy.”
I ran back to the third man lying face down about ten yards away from the still hissing, smoking Jaguar. I turned him over and recoiled in horror. His face was gone, replaced by a bloody pulp, through which he noisily bubbled, trying to say something, and spraying me with blood. Beside me an H Division officer knelt. “Another goner, then?”
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“High price to pay for a little bit of TDA.”
The ambulance arrived, bell clanging, blue light blinking. The two men in the car were extricated, and all three loaded into the ambulance.
“Where are you taking them?” I asked.
“Whipps Cross, mate”
We tidied up and had the dead Jaguar removed. It was almost an hour before we were ready to leave.
“Have you seen Bill?” I enquired of Mac.
“No, not since we arrived.”
There was no sign of Bill. We went back on air and drove back to the nick. “I guess Bill couldn’t handle it.”
Mac was succinct. “Bill is an arsehole.”
“You do treat him pretty badly, Mac.”
Mac pulled over the car, and switched off the engine. “Look, Paddy”
“Ben,” I interupted. “My name is Ben.”
He looked at me. “Fair enough, Ben. Any stick I give Bill he will get ten times worse on the street. If he can’t handle that, he shouldn’t be in the damm job. I have an eleven-year-old son, Jim. He is brain damaged. What will happen to him when his mother and I die? I still do my job. Now you did all right back there. You have the makings of a good copper, but you need to make up your mind. Do you want to be a copper or a social worker? We have millions of those bastards, and none of them is worth a damm. Make up your mind.” He started the car again. “There will be a coroner’s inquest. They will need a witness. Will you go?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
That was a long time ago. Looking back I understand that Mac was right, but I knew that at the time anyway.
Mac’s son died at the age of eighteen. Mac did his thirty years, and drank himself to death at the age of 57. Bill ended up in a mental hospital at Banstead, and was kicked out of the Police. And me, well I was a witness.
A Dish Eaten Cold
|He was short, fat and ugly. He smoked, belched and had bad breath. His uniform fitted badly and was stained. He was reputed to have screwed half the female population of the island, and rumour had it, probably wrongly, some of the male part as well. He had attempted to get his leg over with my wife when I was fighting for democracy, Queen and Country in Brunei, but she had persuaded me that she could deal with it, and her assurances had probably saved my career. I devoutly loathed the man, but he was my CO.|
My office was next to his, and every so often he would call out to me, requesting my presence in front of his desk. None of these visits was ever pleasant, and some were downright stormy. I had learned what to expect by how he summoned me. “Ben” was the normal forerunner to unpleasantness. “Flight Lieutenant” was a ratchet or three up the scale, while ‘Flight Lieutenant Matier’ heralded the Third World War.
It was a bright, sunny but oppressive morning in Penang State, Malaysia, a sure sign that the seasonal monsoon would dump its vindictive burden upon the expectant earth in the middle of the afternoon. I was in my own office brooding gloomily on my last meeting with Squadron Leader Crowland. There was a quiet tap on the open door, accompanied by a polite cough.
“Morning, boss.” Corporal Rick Stalwart essayed a passable imitation of a salute.
“Hi, Rick. Come in.”
Stalwart removed his cap and entered the office, slumping into a chair.
“I was just wondering, boss, if you would like to come out on the Vice Patrol tonight?”
“That’s a great idea, Rick. Sometimes a bunch of whores are better company than is available around here.”
So about nine in the evening, Stalwart, Corporal Trevor Brompton and I went off around the whorehouses of Georgetown in our Land Rover. The military mind has long recognised that young soldiers, sailors and airmen have excessive energy which they wish to expend in female company. These activities will take place whether or not the Military approves, so, it makes sense to control them. Following the logic of this, there were brothels which were either ‘in bounds’ or ‘out of bounds’. The difference was that the girls ‘in bounds’ had been medically vetted by Air Force doctors. Girls in ‘out of bounds’ premises had not had this pleasure.
We had visited several such establishments without success, when we stopped outside our last port of call, and were met by Mama San, the madam.
“Morning, Mama.” I touched two fingers to the peak of my cap.
“Morning, master. No Aussie boys here.”
“What about British boys, American boys or Kiwi boys?”
“No European boys.”
“We’ll have a look anyway, Mama.”
The Malaysian Police had a policy, undoubtedly unwritten, that declared that anyone with a coloured face was their responsibility. All the white faces, the Europeans, were subject to military law and were, therefore, our problem.
I pushed open various doors, apologising to a variety of heaving Chinese and Indians, and had almost given up when I came across a Caucasian backside writhing above a small Chinese girl. I didn’t recognise the said backside, but there was something familiar about the back of the head.
“Good morning, sir.”
The squadron leader didn’t look too pleased. “Feck off, Ben.”
For a moment or two I debated whether this was a lawful command, and decided that it was.
“Very good, sir.” I saluted. After all I had been saluting this asshole for over a year now, one more time made little difference.
Outside the brothel, the two corporals waited, a young uniformed airman between them.
“What’s your name, son?”
“LAC O’Nell, sir.”
“Well O’Nell, you’re improperly dressed, out of bounds, and if you visit places like this, your dick will drop off. Piss off back to base or we’ll put you in a cell.”
The lad scampered off and Stalwart looked at me, his eyebrows raised.
“He’s only a boy, Rick, he doesn’t know any better.” There couldn’t be one law for LAC’s and, you know what I mean.
The following morning there was a call from the next office, “Ben.”
“I understand you were on the Vice Patrol last night?”
“Roger that, sir.”
“Negative, sir, a quiet night.”
Some days later, having lunch in the Mess with the squadron leader, he suddenly said, “Oh my God,” and his face disappeared into the Madras curry.
I hauled him out, and beneath the rice and sauce sliding down his face, his skin was turning blue. He was in hospital within ten minutes and was off duty for three months with heart problems.
The station commander decided he needed a squadron leader Provost Officer, and I achieved acting rank. I went to visit the stricken squadron leader, my shoulders gleaming with my two and a half rings. I spoke to the nurse on duty. “Squadron Leader Matier to see Squadron Leader Crowland.” I spoke loudly enough to make certain the man in the bed had heard.
“Morning, Merv. How are you feeling?”
“Not getting your end away a lot in here, are you?” I picked a few of his grapes. They were a little bitter I thought.
“Feck off, Ben.”
“Roger that, Merv.” After all a lawful command is just that, whether given in a brothel or a hospital. As they say, revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
|Wealth, sudden or otherwise, can often arrive in different guises, but is usually welcomed in whatever clothing it may choose. Subsequent events may demonstrate that it may not be quite the blessing it seemed at first.|
In my case, sudden wealth visited itself on me in March 1969, and it came as a double dose. I was, at the time, a Flying Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, and serving as the Adjutant of my unit in Melbourne. I thought of myself as able and self-confidant. Others may have expressed it in a different way. I was married with a boy aged nearly six and a baby girl of some nine months. I wasn’t impecunious, though my wife held different views, but I readily admitted to running out of money at the end of week three just about every month.
The summer was coming to an end, in the brilliant blue skies and warm weather common to Victoria as I walked to the Railway Station. I was dressed in uniform ‘drabs’, khaki shirt and trousers and my blue ‘cap service dress.’ Next month we would change back into blues, and I would once again look like a member of the RAAF and not the bloody Army.
The train was on time and I walked up Bourke Street to the office, to exchange greetings with superiors, subordinates and equals, in a manner appropriate to their status and mine.
I checked my mail, which contained little of major interest. There were two sealed envelopes, one for the CO, the other ‘to be opened only by the Unit Admin Officer’. I went into Wing Commander Hollie’s office, and managed to locate him through the blue haze of cigarette smoke, as, in those pre PC days, one could smoke their lungs out if they wanted, and everyone else’s as well.
“Morning, Ben, good weekend?”
“Not bad, sir. This is for you.”
He removed the cigarette from his mouth, adjusted his glasses, and, dribbling ash on to the desk, peered at the envelope. “OK, I’ll deal with it later.”
I opened my own missive from the Department of Air, and had to read it three times before it dawned on me. I was shortly to become very wealthy. All officer appointments in my Branch were established at least at the rank of flight lieutenant. All pilot officers and flying officers filled positions which should have been occupied by flight lieutenants. The RAAF had always denied the junior officers HDA, higher duty allowance, on the grounds that they were ‘under training.’
This Air Force Order changed all that, and further more, backdated the change for three years. I was like a dog with two tails. I quickly worked out that I would clear about 1200 dollars in back pay, equivalent to three months wages. I showed the Order to the CO, who, between clouds of smoke and bouts of coughing, agreed with my summary of the situation.
“You’d better get on with it, then, if you want everyone to be paid next pay day. By the way, the letter you gave me was to say the Department has upheld Corporal Leaton’s Redress of Grievance. Well done, I thought you were backing a loser.”
He gave me the letter. “I’ll let you tell him. You’re his Section Commander”
Corporal Frankie Leaton worked for me in the Orderly Room. He had applied for re-engagement, and had been refused on the grounds that he was close to being an alcoholic. Frankie sought my advice which was to apply for a redress. I supported him, as an ‘Airman’s friend’, and gave evidence at the hearing.
I gave him the letter. “You won, Frankie, you beat the bastards. Don’t let either of us down.”
Corporal Leaton broke down in tears, and hugged me, which was a little embarrassing in the middle of the Orderly Room. We had a beer at lunchtime, and I left for home that evening, pretty dammed pleased with myself. What had my last APR said? “A confident officer who shows exemplary leadership. Has a bright future in the Service.
Well, wealth, like everything else, is relative. The three months back pay was quickly spent. Corporal Leaton slipped over the abyss into alcoholism and was dismissed from the Service. Dan Hollie died from lung cancer twelve months after retirement. And me, the officer with the bright future? I made it to Flight Lieutenant and for three dizzy months acting Squadron Leader before my wife’s supposed illness made me resign. To say she was leaning towards hypochondria would have been an understatement; she was bent double in that direction. When Rock Hudson died from Aids, she gave me back his treasured autograph which I had obtained for her one evening in a London theatre.
“Burn it,” she said, “I don’t want to catch Aids from it.”
So it is with all sudden wealth. Sooner or later it goes up in smoke.
|I knocked on the door and entered the small office. An officer sat behind a desk poking warily at the typewriter keys. He looked up irritably, pushing away the damp strands of ginger hair which hung limply from his balding, freckled pate. Overhead a solitary fan followed its fruitless circular path through the humid, foetid air, its leading edge rusty from years of such struggles.|
The officer pointed to a sign on the outside of the door, which declared ‘Service personnel only.’ Underneath was a smaller sign saying, ‘Air Movements Officer, RAF, Kuala Lumpur.” “Sorry, but this is for servicemen only.”
I had a fleeting thought to tell him that I could read, but contented myself with, “Hi, Ben Matier, Flight Lieutenant, RAAF.” I extended my hand.
He smiled and half rose from his desk to take my hand. “Apologies, we get all kinds of weirdoes in here. Dave Millar, Flight Lieutenant, RAF.”
The latter information was superfluous, as the two blue rings on his shoulder tabs told me his rank, and the lack of any country of origin said ‘Royal Air Force.’ My own badges of rank carried the words ‘Australia’.
He waved to a chair, piled high with papers. “Sit down, what can I do for you?”
I removed the papers which Millar did not seem to notice, and placed them on the floor. “I have just got back from leave in UK and have missed the MSA flight. Got any service birds going to Butterworth?”
“How was England?” he said, shuffling through the papers on his desk.
“It was raining when we left.”
“Christ, I wish it would rain here. The bloody monsoon is two weeks late. Real suicide weather.”
I nodded in sympathy, but my primary concerns were with my wife and two small children, now drooping in the un-air-conditioned Airport Terminal.
He stopped shuffling. “Sorry old boy, I can get you on a Herc, but not till Saturday.”
It was now Thursday and I had to be back from leave at 0800 hours on Friday. “Thanks for trying, Dave. Any thoughts on my getting to Penang?”
“Easy, take a cab, it’s only 250 miles. You will get there in tons of time.”
I looked at my watch. It was 10.30PM. “What about the curfew?”
“It’s 0100 to 0500, but don’t worry they are only shooting each other, not white people. Is your family with you?”
“Yes, my wife, a seven year old boy and a baby girl.”
“You’ll be OK. They have only shot up European families once or twice since this began.”
With those comforting words in my ears, I hired a Malay taxi driver and his ageing Austin A-55 Cambridge. We agreed a price, 250 Malaysian dollars. “What about the curfew?” I enquired, hoping my wife couldn’t hear.
He grinned toothlessly. “No problems, master. They don’t shoot Europeans.” He cackled loudly and added as an afterthought. “Well the Police don’t, the Army are different”
Race riots occurred with disturbing frequency in mainland Malaysia. The country was riven by racial prejudice, but then, as now, that only counted when it was white against black. As an example, in Malaysia, Malays made up 45% of the population and Chinese about 42%. There were about 8 or 9% Indian and various other bits and pieces made up the balance. Despite this, the law required that 75% of Government jobs were reserved for Malays and ALL races, including Malays, competed for the remainder. I never saw a single soldier of Chinese origin, although they made up about 90% of the Air Force. In these current riots, in 1970, about 1500 people had been shot, burned or hacked to death.
And off we trundled though the sticky tropical night, one bottle of water between the four of us. We were stopped four or five times by Police patrols. I told them I was a serviceman returning to my unit in Butterworth, and they allowed us to continue. Then about 4.00AM our car was stopped by an Army patrol, bristling with weapons, all pointed at the Austin. The officer in charge was a young second lieutenant in the Royal Malay Regiment, his jungle greens as starch stiff as his face. A tiny apology of a moustache shaded his upper lip. He looked about twelve.
“Get out of the car” he ordered, pulling open the front passenger door.
I remembered the ubiquitous James Robertson Justice as an RN officer in a 1950’s POW film and his splendid line to the German Camp Commandant. “Certainly not! I replied stiffly. “I am a Britsih officer” There was more than a touch of arrogance about me in those days, some of which may linger still.
Anyway, the effect was electric. He jerked to attention, and threw up a magnificent salute. “I’m very sorry, sir. Driver, please carry on.”
My wife looked at me. “You were lucky to get away with that, buster.”
We arrived home at six in the morning. I had no money to pay the driver, but he agreed to take a cheque and said he would sleep outside the Standard Chartered Bank until it opened. I gave him my CO’s name with instructions to contact him if there were any difficulties. He was very relaxed about the whole thing.
The electricity did not work in the house. I had had the meter read the day before we had left, and paid the account. One month later, the Electricity Board sent their bill for one day’s usage and when it wasn’t paid, they disconnected us. I owed about fifty pence.
The house was full of chattering geckos, and worse, dead and part-eaten geckos, and a half-inch of droppings. I had a cold shower, got the duty sergeant to send a Land Rover and prepared for work. Cpl Bluey Playford was standing beside the Landy. He touched two fingers to his cap. “G’day, Boss, welcome back.”
Red heads in Australia are always nicknamed Blue or Bluey. Don’t ask me. “Morning, Bluey. Good to see you.”
In the Air Force Police, Provost Officers who were liked and respected by their men were always ‘Boss’. It was something picked up from the RAF. Other officers were ‘Sir.” Everyone in the Branch knew this and it was easy to tell a Provost Officer how he was regarded by calling him ‘sir’, without any detectable disrespect.
I was back at my desk at 0750. The deadline had been met. It was later in the day when my CO called me. “Why did you come back early? I wasn’t expecting you till Monday.” In such ways was the world kept safe for democracy.