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This is the Army Mr. Ted

Kenny Clare and Dennis Sullivan, my two closest friends, came to see me off from Victoria Station where I was en route to Canterbury for six weeks basic training. National Service had zapped me barely two weeks after my eighteenth birthday. Kenny and Dennis are trying hard not to snigger at my haircut. Within months of waving goodbye, both of my sniggering mates would be called up in the RAF, Kenny to continue his drumming career while Dennis worked his way around various RAF establishments with the same aplomb he employed with his skill at ballroom dancing. Dance halls were feeding ground for boys seeking girls. Instead, Kenny and I sat on long bus journeys counting bars in our head to see how close we got to each other.

The BUFFS (3rd Regiment of foot) were the oldest infantry regiment dating back to 1572 and renown for their valour, hence; ‘Steady the Buffs’ Our quietly spoken drill sergeant assured us that despite looking like a bunch of poofs in six weeks we would not know ourselves. He was true to his word.

 After basic training, I was confirmed to be non-infantry material and posted to the Royal Army Service Corps stronghold at Farnborough to take a course in shorthand writing. Followers of the perversities of military procedure will not be amazed to learn that, despite the twelve weeks course and achieving a modicum of success in both shorthand and typing, I was NEVER ever required to perform either task.

Sitting on our beds awaiting the call for all night guard duty, we were disturbed by a harrowed 2nd lieutenant bursting into our hut;

'Anyone here name Scott?’

'Yes sir, here’ I replied

'Got you down in your pay book as a drummer dance band – right?’

'Right . . . sir’

'Come with me Scott, you’re playing tonight in the Sergeant’s Mess’

I pointed out that it was impossible as I was on guard shortly. This was pooh poohed with a wave of the hand. We walked briskly to the camp hall

'What’s your name Scott – first name?’

'Ted, sir’

'Well Ted’ he replied. ‘Our regular drummer is George Scott – any relation?’

'No sir’

'Unfortunately he’s had to go home on compassionate leave, could be quite a while it seems – the band is waiting to give you a bit of a  They were proper musicians, many of them later to appear in top British bands. A super Premier kit awaited complete with three tom toms and three Zildjian cymbals. It was stuff beyond my wildest dreams and experience. Drum music stared at me, I could just about read but not sight read. Luckily they started off with American Patrol. Luckily also, I knew most of their book. You don’t get to listen to records until they wore thin without being able to ‘play’ them in your sleep. But, I was woefully out-classed. I lasted out several weeks playing various camp dances in the area. George Scott was due back shortly (probably to everyone’s relief). One of the trombone players worked in the postings office; ‘Hey Ted’ he asked one day; ‘How would you like a posting to London? They want a technical mechanist clerk at the RASC depot, White City; I jumped at it. Being on the Central Line I could get the underground direct to Leytonstone, and home.

Later, I am posted to Thetford, in Norfolk. This is an embarkation camp where life is made a little ‘unpleasant’ so that when you are eventually posted to some foreign clime you will be rather chuffed to leave. Shortly before I got to Thetford, two squaddies had hung themselves in the toilets.

Rumour had it that a shorthand writer was wanted by the military attaché in New York in the United Nations building. My imagination was further fired by the suggestion that military personnel were not allowed to cross the Atlantic in uniform. Civvy clothes would be provided. I wondered if they had a light grey, single-breasted suit with patch pockets? I further imagined visits to New York jazz clubs (and record stores). 

 My posting came after two weeks in a freezing cold environment with endless parades to either have your posting read out or much worse, your menial task for the rest of the dismal day. Cutting the grass in front of the Officer’s Mess with your eating irons was not high on the list of sensible things to be doing. Especially in a frosty November!

'1918445 Private Scott . . . . . embark to the Middle East for further posting'.

Given twelve hours leave, I just had time to go home and say goodbye to mum. Dad was out doing a deal! After a convoluted train journey from Norwich to Liverpool via London we embarked on the SS Scythia - a troopship leftover from the war. She was a single stack ex-liner from the White Star Line. Eventually we arrive in Port Said. On docking, there were little boys diving under the huge ship to recover coins thrown in. Ashore, little boys offered to introduce you to their sister. Other little boys were keen to clean your boots. A refusal incurred much bad language (in English) and a dollop of something awful on your boots, now in dire need of a clean.

After a week in Port Said, we are transported to Port Suez. The transit camp is huge. There are rows and rows of tents interspersed with seemingly dozens of shops owned by the locals. Every third one is a ‘dhobi wallah’ offering a superb uniform clean and press service for a pittance. The vast camp is occupied by an assortment of regiments from Scots Guards to Welsh Fusiliers, all awaiting postings. The NAAFI at night is a dynamite keg waiting to be lit by copious quantities of alcohol.

 We wait around for postings. My group of mates was dwindling as postings came through for Mombassa, Aden and all points east. Finally, the last fifteen of us are told to report to the ferry to take us across the canal where we were to board another train headed for Palestine. The train takes two days to reach our destination because some brave chappie has to walk ahead for lengthy periods with a land mine detector.

It was during this journey that I met a guy whose life (as he told it) would form the basis for my series of fictional characters headed by a cheeky, fun-loving bloke named 'Gordon Bennett'. The trilogy is entitled HOW THE RICH LIVE. It's humorous and rather dark!

 We arrive in Haifa. It’s December 1947; British troops are leaving in droves. As Jewish refugees flood in, Palestinian homes are being confiscated and there is a general air of discontent. We brave fifteen are ensconced in a camp on Mount Sinai. The camp used to hold hundreds but they have vamoosed. We play cards and generally enhance our previous female conquests. However, boredom creeps in and one night we decide to pop down to town. The duty sergeant politely tells us that we had better chain our rifles to our wrists. He further pointed out that chopping one’s hand off by the local inhabitants to gain access to the weapon was not beyond the realms of possibility. We returned to our poker school. 

After three weeks of inactivity, one sunny morning we are bundled into a K5 Austin 3-ton truck heading for Haifa docks. En route, the duty sergeant advised; ‘Keep your heads down chaps - a lot of stray bullets about. ‘We board a small steamer (about 5000 tons) with a hundred or so Cypriot troops. Our destination is Cyprus. En route, the weather is atrocious with massive thunderstorms, sheet lightning and heaving seas. Life below decks is not a runner what with the smell and inert Cypriot soldiers. Up top, all the Cypriots are dreadfully ill, some may have even got washed overboard – who knows? Next morning, drained of all life on the sick infested deck, we awake to sunshine and calmness with the coast of Cyprus looming up. Sunshine and calmness combined with peace and tranquillity sums up my twenty months of army life in Cyprus.

On disembarking, fourteen of, what are now, my closest pals, are taken to 695 Company outside the port of Famagusta in northern Cyprus. I am decreed to join 471 Company in Nicosia. Life is cruel it appears. Not for me however, 471 Company was a doddle posting whilst 695 Company was Aldershot and Farnborough combined in the blistering sun.471 Company, Nicosia, is a Royal Army Service Corps camp positioned in a small wood. About twenty of us lived in a Nissen hut (on site) in some degree of comfort. It wasn’t Butlins to be sure but I had landed on my feet.

My musical ‘talents’ were later gleaned from my trusty pay book and I was recruited to play at various army venues in a small combo more suited to my drumming abilities. The Commanding Officer of 471 Company discovered that in Civvy street I had looked after my father’s books. The café business in those days with rationing was a minefield of paperwork. The Captain enquired whether I could ‘look at’ his personal books. I did. He had several investments and I assisted with his tax returns. The beautifully spoken Captain, not much older than me, always called me ‘Mr. Ted’. Later, in life, Keith Beckett, a television director on the Val Doonican series also called me ‘Mr. Ted’.

The Berlin airlift was happening around this time and we were all given another three months added to our two years National Service. Cyprus is only a hundred miles or so from Russian soil and some top brass hat must have considered an invasion a possibility. This hypothesis never touched the busy cafes and bars of delightful Metaxas Square in Nicosia. Life went on as usual and peace reigned. Eventually, demob loomed up. A flight to Tobruk in an ancient Dakota gave the chance to view from above lots of sunken ships in the harbour, still lying there awaiting salvage. 

Ten days later, we board the troopship, Empress of Australia (21,800 tons) for the journey home.  On docking at Liverpool. I am given a demob suit, but choose to wear my khaki with Middle East flashes. The grey demob suit finished up in a bin on Liverpool station. On the tube I sit alongside rows of dismal-looking people, all in dire need of some sun. Mum and Dad greet me taking me to their latest venture, a transport café on the old Southend Road. Some months later I am peeling sack-loads of potatoes on my twenty-first birthday awaiting the rush of coach parties returning from revelling in Southend. Cyprus, beautiful Cyprus, the biblical Jewel of the Mediterranean, is a distant memory.

 Life looks bleak. What the hell am I going to do?   

My First Equipment