One element of my life I haven’t yet mentioned, let alone discuss is the three years I spent in the Sea Cadets. As a teenager I had joined the Warlord Secret Agent Club, the Doctor Who International Fan Club and Doctor Who Appreciation Society, and the Young Ornithologists Club. My interest in joining one of the Scout organisations was slightly less than none. I had been camping once. A week at the Herts County Council site at Cuffley. It was where us poor kids who couldn’t afford to go to St Mary’s Bay in Kent went to. At least I believed this for years until I spoke to an old school friend on here and found out they went to both. Bloody elite!
Anyway, at some point I must have either come under pressure from my mum to ‘do something’ or watched an episode of Warship that sparked something in me. I suspect the latter because though my parents were encouraging they would never push me into anything I didn’t want to do. I actually think the final deciding factor may have been that my good friend Jamie had recently joined.
So anyway, whatever the reason, in that long hot summer of 1976, I went down to Cheshunt where, in a battleship grey prefab in the grounds of Riversmead school, I became a Sea Cadet. At this point I should rattle off my service number but that has long slipped my mind. I can tell you that the unit was no. 233 or T.S. Intrepid.
In due course I was issued a uniform. No problem getting something to fit in those days of svelteness and normality. Nowadays nothing interesting goes up to my girth and I end up wearing baggy plus-size habits and cardinal suits to every fancy dress I attend.
I really did enjoy my time in the cadets but I think my dad enjoyed it even more. He had been in the navy for seven years serving in Korea. Now he accompanied me at every opportunity driving me to weekend events all over the show. I swear he would come with me every Tuesday and Friday to the normal meetings if he was allowed. He certainly never missed a special parade.
The cadets allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise have thought about. I even had bugle lessons for a while from a certain Tony Dobra, whose wife to be has already featured in this blog. I learned to play a bosun’s call and to remonstrate harshly with anyone who called it a bosun’s whistle. I still have this and the ability to play it so if you ever want to be piped aboard somewhere, I’m your man.
Moreover I got to do some travelling too. Portsmouth was a regular where we stayed on HMS Ramehead on Whale Island and pulled, sailed, and motor-boated in the harbour. It was here that we nearly ended up with a very hefty bill when the motorised whaler we were out in went over to have a closer look at one of the submarines moored up by HMS Dolphin. I think Monty (Cadet Montgomery) was at the tiller and I recall there were no officers with us which was lucky. As we ran parallel with the boat at good six or seven knots (I’m loving how all the terminology is just slipping back) there was a tremendous crack and our bow suddenly rose four feet out of the water. We had not anticipated the stabilising fin just below the surface of the water. In reality there was little chance of us sinking a £30m submarine by ramming it but we were damned lucky not to hole the bloody motor boat.
I mentioned pulling in that last paragraph. Although this would soon become something I was spectacularly poor at in discos and at parties, in those days it was navy speak for rowing. I actually got quite good at that for a time and was in a lot of competitions. Most memorably we pulled on the King George V dock in London in 1977 at a time when Docklands was in its final decay before they rebuilt it all. Thankfully dad was in attendance that day as usual and we have some great photos.
Another holiday with the cadets was a week to RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. It caused a small ruckus that made me see my mother in another light. Essentially the week long trip was in term-time and the man in control (Mr Instrall for fellow St Mary’s people) said I couldn’t go. My mum actually jumped on the bus and came straight to the school to see him. I don’t know what went on in that office but I do know when I got home that night she said I could go. That was a great week. I got to go up in a helicopter and then get winched into it as well as stroke a dolphin in Falmouth harbour. We also visited a kind of mini-theme park where a film crew were making an advert for it. Since we were all in uniform (Number 1s) they got us to play with the radio controlled boats and filmed us. It was my first TV appearance but I have never seen it.
The final trip I remember was a week to Jersey where we stayed with the Sea Cadets based up on Fort Regent. My abiding memory is that we were there for the Battle of the Flowers and provided crowd control dressed in our half whites. At one stage someone from the Young Generation float (Seaside Special was in Jersey that week) was crying out for a bottle opener. Being the well prepared Sea Cadet I was I was able to oblige and waggled my tool at them. A well-tanned young lady with legs that didn’t end jumped off the float with her bottle of beer and came over to me. I’m surprised I didn’t pass out there and then.
As well as guarding parades, we also took part in them. Silver Jubilee year was particularly busy. We always took our wooden cannon along with us. Personally I thought it looked rather naff, it was so obviously wooden but I guess the public liked it.
It wasn’t all fun and games though. There was a lot of work and I took it seriously. You joined the cadets as a Junior Seaman and could progress as far as Cadet Petty Officer. After that you would have to wait until you were 18 and train to be an instructor/officer. When I joined in 1976 there were others who had been there for a year or more and were Ordinary or perhaps Able Seaman. When I passed my Cadet Petty Officer exams in 1978 after about 2.5 years, those same people were still there as Able or perhaps Leading Seaman. I was told my ascendency was the fastest it had ever been done in the North London District. What it meant in reality was that a lot of people didn’t like it. Suddenly they were expected to take orders from someone who they had once been giving orders too. It certainly contributed to me leaving the following spring although exams and the lure of the pub were also having their pull on me.
At least my time in the cadets gave me an idea of what to do with my life and in April 1981 I passed the entrance exam to Dartmouth Royal Naval College to train as a Royal Naval Officer. Another time I’ll tell how eight months later I was working on the fringes of the rock’n’roll industry instead!