The Jay Street Gang
* * *
My lifelong pursuit of riches from the sea began in the least likely of places and I was the least likely of people to end up chasing millions of pounds worth of gold at the bottom of the ocean. Keighley was a nondescript Yorkshire town of fraying textile mills and worn-out engineering factories. It is about as far from the sea as you can get in northern England, though you wouldn't have known it from the aroma surrounding our house. Across the alley at the back was a fishmonger's yard strewn with fish crates and bins full of bones and skin. On hot days the stench was overpowering.
My only contact with water in my early years was the tin tubful warmed in front of the fire for the weekly hot bath on Friday night, but I was fascinated by the sea long before I first clapped eyes on it. One typically grey and wet Keighley afternoon, I and my mates were whiling away the time in the public library when I came across a picture book about famous shipwrecks and the treasures lost with them.
While my mates flicked paper pellets at each other and surreptitiously carved their initials in the tables, I sat spellbound, staring at the illustrations and poring over the stories of Spanish galleons, doubloons and pieces of eight. From then on I devoured every book about shipwrecks and pirates that I could get my hands on, and I knew Treasure Island almost by heart.
As soon as I learned to swim, I used to leave the jostling mass of bodies in the shallow end anddive tothe bottom of the pool, imagining myself prising fabulous pearls from giant clams on the sea-bed or finding pirate treasure chests spilling gold and jewels. It was a hard fantasy to sustain at the bottom of a municipal swimming bath in Keighley, but I gave it my best shot.
In summer, we swam in the River Aire which flowed through the town and I'd scour the river-bed for treasure, emerging with an old glass bottle or a metal cigar tube, as pleased as if I'd found a gold bar.
My first sight of the sea was on a day-trip to Morecambe. To my eyes the grey ocean reaching to the horizon concealed a mountain of gold, though the only things I got from beneath the waves that day was a carton of potted shrimps and a couple of shells I found amongst the shingle. I carried the shells in my pockets for weeks and was heartbroken when I lost them.
As I grew up and left school, the dreams of buried treasure began to fide. I had other things on my mind. What spare time I had was filled with a series of progressively more dangerous sports, including cycle-racing, potholing, rock-climbing and finally diving.
My first-ever dive could have killed me, so little did I know about the sport and its dangers, but it was enough to rekindle all those burning childhood dreams. From then on, diving was my sole obsession. I and a few friends formed a local branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club and scraped together enough money for some rudimentary equipment.
My first dives in icy lakes and rivers were for my own pure pleasure, but then came one that was the last act in a tragedy for someone else. A small boy had slipped and fallen into the River Aire in Keighley and drowned. Another boy had been with him, but he'd been warned by his parents never to go near the river and was so scared of the punishment he'd get for disobeying them that he said nothing about the drowning for five days.
Knowing nothing of the tragedy, the police began a search, making house-to-house enquiries and combing waste ground and outbuildings. Volunteers helped them to scour the moors above Keighley for any trace of the missing boy, but it was only when the distraught parents made a public appeal for information that his friend broke down and told his own parents what had happened.
A police diving team then tried to find the body for a further two days without success, though they were hampered by heavy rain and flooding which reduced underwater visibility to inches.
We offered them the use of our compressor, saving them the fifty-mile round trip to Wakefield to refill their air bottles, but they snubbed us. They were even less enthusiastic when we also volunteered to help with the underwater search. I heard the words, `Here come the glory-seekers,' as we approached the river. We ignored the insult and eventually, when they could still find no trace of the boy, they swallowed their pride and asked us if we would do a search.
The place where the boy had gone missing was known as the S-bend. I'd spent countless idyllic summer afternoons there as a kid, playing on the banks and swimming in the river. On our way down to the river, we used to go through a scrapyard and pinch spears decorative iron railings cut down and sent for scrap to aid the war effort. Armed with these, we'd dodge the owner of the scrapyard and spend the day using our trophies to dig caves in the riverbank. Before we went home, we'd hurl our spears far out into the river.
When we began the search for the boy, the first thing I put my hand on as I swam along the bottom was one of those iron spears. I picked it up, bridging twenty years in an instant. I laid it down again as we cut out towards the deepest part of the river, where my eye was momentarily caught by something white sticking out of the sand. I was just about to pass it when I realised that it was the rubber strip on the sole of a child's baseball boot. I half-turned back and stretched out my hand to pick it up. As soon as my fingers closed around it, I realised this was not just a shoe. I had found the missing child.
He was lying face down, completely buried in the sand. I pulled slowly on the exposed part of his leg. After a week in the water, it was stark white and swollen; it had a crease at the knee like a baby. I took hold of the leg and pulled again, giving an involuntary shudder at the feel of the soft, pulpy flesh.
The lower half of the body rose out of the sand. The boy had been wearing jeans and a T-shirt any kid, from anywhere. One leg of the jeans had ridden up above his knee, exposing the bloated white leg, marked with the usual schoolboy assortment of bumps and scrapes a purple bruise on the shin, a graze on the knee.
I took hold of the shirt and gently pulled the rest of him free of the sand. He was curled into the foetal position. There was a shiny new watch on his left wrist, a gift from his parents just a week before. I'd seen it mentioned in the story of his disappearance in the local paper. As I turned him on to his back to carry him up to the surface, I caught sight of his face. It was still contorted in its death agony, eyes staring, mouth wide open in a silent scream.
I cradled him in my arms and swam to the surface, then kicked for the bank. As I reached the shallows, I got awkwardly to my feet, still clutching the body to my chest. There were shouts from the policemen waiting on the bank. A man walking his dog and a courting couple strolling by the river stopped and turned to see what had caused the commotion. Their faces blanched as they saw the river giving up its dead.
As I reached up to hand the body to a policeman on the bank above me I took my last look at the small figure in my arms. He could easily have been my own boy, Graham. There was a lump in my throat and tears were trickling down the policeman's face as he took the child from me and wrapped him in a blanket, hiding him from the eyes of the passers-by.
Long after an ambulance had taken the body away to the mortuary and the police had packed up and gone, I sat huddled on the riverbank staring into the water, thinking about the waste of a young life and how easily my own childhood could have ended the same way.
I was born in 1933, the depths of the Depression. My mother, Hannah, was a seventeen-year-old mill girl. I don't know who my father was my mother never told me and I never asked, but all my childhood I had the stigma of being illegitimate, the only boy in my class without a father. Few called me a bastard to my face, however, for I soon learned how to fight; I had to, Keighley was a tough town in those days.
My mother was small and painfully thin but she was also surprisingly strong and fearsomely strict. Like almost everyone else in the town, she worked in the textile industry, as a spinner. She grafted from 7.30 in the morning until 5.30 in the evening and when she came home, she tackled the housework with a rare ferocity. Everything from the furniture to the oilcloth on the floor gleamed from daily polishing and she scoured the front doorstep so hard she almost wore it away.
We lived with my grandparents in a terraced house in West Lane, the oldest and poorest area of the town; two of the town workhouses were just around the corner. We were always skint but in those hungry years my mother thought herself lucky to have any work at all. My grandfather had known even harder times. Frail and whippet-thin, with a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose, he'd tell me of the time he'd walked all the way from Keighley to Settle around thirty miles in the hope of a job. They gave him a shovel and, shoulder-to-shoulder with a few hundred other hungry men, he dug the reservoir which supplies Keighley's water.
Our diet was very basic: mostly bread and jam, or if we were lucky, bread and dripping. My grandmother baked the bread and I can still remember the delicious smell that greeted me every Tuesday when the week's supply was brought out of the oven. We didn't starve, but there was no money for even the smallest luxury. Very occasionally I'd manage to wheedle a halfpenny out of my grandad for a gobstopper, but that visit to the sweet shop would have to last me for weeks.
The annual holiday was exactly that, a single day if my mother could scrape the money together. Even Christmas brought few treats. I'd hang up a pillow case on Christmas Eve and wake the next morning to find it stuffed with old newspapers and cotton wool. Hidden inside would be a couple of tinny metal toys or whatever else my mother could afford.
My grandparents both died before I was five and soon afterwards my mother moved in with Tom Leonard, a spinning overlooker at the mill where she worked. He was a small man with wispy ginger hair and had a house near the Keighley rugby league ground.
Their relationship quickly turned sour. Tommy came in from work every Saturday lunchtime and changed into his best blue suit with a gold watch-chain across the waistcoat. A couple of medals that he'd won years before playing football for Keighley Town hung from the chain. He'd give his gleaming brown shoes a final polish and then he was off to the Dyers' Club for the rest of the day. There were always furious arguments when he came in after closing time, full of drink. I used to curl up in bed, wishing they would stop fighting. Even when he was sober, the house was full of bitterness and rancour. If a row was not already on the boil, one was invariably about to break.
He didn't treat me badly, but there was always a barrier between us; I was very aware that he wasn't my father. Whenever I could, I escaped into the back streets of Lawkholme, in the Keighley district, with my gang of mates, the lads who lived in my very local area the three streets surrounding my home. We called ourselves the Jay Street Gang. We felt like brothers and looked like them too, all dressed in shapeless, threadbare reach-me-downs and heavy boots or clogs, with our heads shaven like convicts. Mothers believed in getting full value for money from the barber in those days.
Only the worst weather forced us indoors and the happiest times of my childhood were spent in the streets or up on the moors. At weekends and holidays I was out of the house from eight in the morning until I ran in for a slice of bread and dripping at teatime. Then I was off out again until dark. We played piggy-stick, kick-can, football and cricket, and in between times, we fought like cat and dog with other gangs in the vicinity. The gang's cricket bat was cut from a plank of wood and the wicket was the pig-bin in the street. The pigs wouldn't have grown very fat on the scraps from our neighbourhood, but there was one on every corner to collect waste food as part of the war effort.
I was just six when war broke out. The greengrocer came round on his horse and cart, shouting that we were going to fight Germany again. My gang thought this was great news and we invented a new set of games, using guns made out of pieces of wood. The war also added a whole new dimension to the pitched battles fought in the school playground every lunchtime.
Many of Keighley's young men went to fight and many of them including one of my uncles didn't return, but the war wasn't all bad news for the town. It ended the depression in the textile mills and created a new industry: munitions. There was work for everyone at better rates of pay; my mother even saved enough to rent our very first radio relay. Even rationing caused few complaints. People in more affluent areas may have complained about the restrictions, but the weekly ration was far better and more varied than our normal diet even the notorious powdered egg was something of a treat.
The army arrived in numbers to begin training and exercising on the moors above the town, and to the delight of everyone at my school, the park opposite the playground filled up with tanks, trucks and armoured vehicles. We soon grew bold enough to walk through the lines of vehicles, chatting to the soldiers and nicking live ammunition from the piles of crates lying around. Every kid had a few live .303 rounds or the even more desirable 9mm ones in their pockets; we used them as currency. The brother of one of my mates tried to make a cigarette lighter from a stolen tank shell, however he was sawing off the head when it exploded. I saw the ambulance take him to hospital, blood streaming from his head. He lost the sight of one eye and was disfigured for life.
It's astonishing that there weren't more disasters, for we all took terrifying risks with the stolen ammo. One of our new games was to light a fire in the cellar, throw a handful of live rounds on to the flames and then run for cover as bullets ricocheted all over the place. The trick was to keep count of the bangs and not come out until all the rounds were spent. We put new heads on the spent cases and frightened other kids senseless by hitting the caps with a nail. The faint of heart soon disappeared.
We soon found an even more dangerous game. We set off on our rattle-trap bicycles one day and had been cranking along for an hour or so when we came to some Nissen huts spaced at 400-yard intervals along a deserted moorland road. The huts had no security whatsoever, not even a door; there were just strips of canvas at the front and rear. When we lifted the canvas, we saw boxes of ammunition stacked from floor to ceiling. I instantly recognised the boxes holding the familiar .303 and 9mm rounds but there were other boxes that I'd never seen before.
We prised off one lid and found ourselves stating wide-eyed at neat rows of grenades. Luckily we talked ourselves out of experimenting with them but we couldn't resist taking some detonators we found in a metal box, even though we didn't have a clue what they were. We did recognise the firing caps on them, however, so we cut off the caps, leaving just the short fuse and the detonator. We were all delighted with our booty. Bonfire Night was looming and we reckoned we'd found a free alternative to the usual penny bangers.
Back in Keighley, our pockets full of fuses, we sneaked into a back street and jammed the top part of a detonator into a gap in the red brick wall. We tried and failed to light the fuse with a match. Undeterred, we shortened the fuse and tried again. We'd just about given up and were standing around long-faced when there was an enormous bang. Half the wall blew out and we ran for our lives through a cloud of thick, brown and very acrid smoke.
My illegitimacy had long ceased to be an issue among the members of my gang, but it was partly responsible for the difficulties I experienced at school. I wasn't thick, just rebellious. I always had plenty to say and could out-think most of my classmates, but I wasted the opportunities that came my way. My teachers saw me as arrogant, shiftless and lazy they were probably right and eventually most washed their hands of me, other than to cane me hard and often.
One of my teachers, `Pop' Walker, used the ultimate weapon, a cut-down hickory shaft from a golf club he affectionately called `GC'. Most of the school went in fear of an encounter with GC; a crack on the hand from it certainly sharpened you up for the rest of the day.
One day I found GC lying on Pop's desk in the deserted classroom. It was too good a chance to miss. I stuffed it down my shirt and into my trousers and disappeared as fast as my legs could carry me. During woodwork I planed it down and made it into one of the small wooden crosses we had to make as test pieces. I then sat in Pop's class, playing with my small wooden cross, as he told the whole class what he would do to the thief who'd stolen his beloved GC if ever he got hold of him. When I let my classmates in on the secret, my stock with them went sky high.
After years of rows with my mother about my lousy school reports, I gave it my best shot in my last year there and finished up top of the class. The headmaster wanted me to go on to grammar school, but my mother was having none of that. `No. I've kept you long enough.'
I left school at fifteen without a single qualification and as my mother wished, I went to work in a wool mill. It was a dead-end job, but it put a few bob in my pocket. If I'd taken up an apprenticeship in a trade, I'd have earned virtually nothing for several years, but any numbskull could get thirteen shillings and sixpence a week in a mill from the word go. The work needed no skills or intelligence. It was just a dull, back-breaking grind from 7.30 to 5.30 every weekday, with a half-day on Saturday. I stayed a few months, then moved on. I changed jobs regularly, working mostly as a labourer on building and demolition sites, acquiring muscles but few skills.
I spent most of my evenings at the Keighley Youth Club, where we played endless games of table tennis and danced to a stack of worn 78s. There I met a girl called Mildred. She had beautiful, almond-shaped eyes, and when she smiled which was often it lit up the room. She loved dancing too, which was a serious obstacle to any hopes I had of dating her, for I danced like a man wearing a deep-sea diving suit. With a dedication born of desperation I eventually managed to learn a very basic waltz and a slow foxtrot, though the way I danced them, only the keenest eye could have spotted the difference.
Beneath the veneer of Yorkshire machismo, I was quite a shy person and it took me some time to pluck up courage to ask Mildred out. To my surprise and delight, she accepted at once. Although I didn't realise at the time, she'd also had her eye on me. I was working in demolition at the time and during her lunch-hour she used to walk down to the centre of town and watch me knocking down an old church in Cavendish Street. Whatever it was she saw as I worked on the steeple was enough to convince her that I was worth a date.
We began going out regularly, but only on weekdays; at weekends I indulged my other passion, for dangerous sports. The first was cycle-racing. I joined the Keighley velo club and soon learned about pain as I tried to keep up with the older members of the club, but I trained every night and weekend like a man possessed. I saved five bob a week out of my wages, gradually building myself a top-class racing bike.
My first race was the Yorkshire championship and I'd already decided that I was going to win it. It started from Skipton with a massed start like a poor man's Tour de France, and halfway round the circuit everything was going to plan. I was tearing along in the leading bunch at thirty miles per hour over a newly-gravelled road, when there was a pile-up which hurled me to the ground and nearly skinned me alive. It was the end of my cycle-racing career. Apart from my injuries, my £70 bike had been wrecked and I didn't have the money or the heart to rebuild it.
I soon had other, even more dangerous crazes to keep me occupied. Every weekend would see me clinging to the pillion of my friend Arthur `Arch' Brown's Triumph Speed Twin the motor bike at the time - as we burned rubber up to Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales, the heart of the best caving country in the North.
The appeal of crawling up underground stream beds, getting cold and wet, and skinning my knees and elbows, quickly wore off, and the potholing craze only lasted six months. Then I found a new and infinitely more exciting challenge. Just a few miles further along the road from Ingleton were the towering crags of the Lake District. One taste of rock-climbing and I was hooked.
I even switched to a Monday-to-Friday job to lengthen the weekend. Every Friday evening Arch and I would set off, laden with a ramshackle assortment of ex-War Department boots and ropes. We made the Langdales our base and scaled almost every crag in the valley, then tackled climbs in North Wales and the Isle of Skye. I lived for the excitement and danger of climbing, of testing myself against the crags.
Climbing taught me better than anything else how to make decisions. Could it be climbed at all? Could I do it without freezing in panic on the rock face or falling to my death? My unwitting tutor in that vital lesson was a man we found stuck to the face of a crag one fine Saturday morning. Arch and I had made a late start after a heavy night in the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub, and decided to spend the day messing about on Raven Crag, a few hundred feet up the hillside from Dungeon Ghyll itself.
On the way up I took a good look at the route we were planning to do and noticed a climber on a section called Holly Tree Traverse, named after the small tree that had taken root in the middle of the cliff face. At the foot of the crag we found a tearful woman. She told us her boyfriend was up on the cliff, but his rope had been hanging motionless for some considerable time and there was no response to her shouts.
I secured a rope around my waist and made a fast climb up to the traverse. The man was rigid, clinging to the rock face, too scared to move or even speak. His face was death-white and there was a sheen of sweat on his forehead. I talked to him for a few minutes, trying to get him to relax a little. `Everything's all right now. It'll be okay. I'll fix my rope to you and then you can climb back down. I'll be holding you on the rope, so even if you slip or fall, you'll be in no danger.' He gave no sign of having heard me. I tried again, but though he shifted his gaze slightly to look at me, he was still petrified, unable to move a muscle.
In the end I called Arch, who also climbed up. We roped the man between us, then began moving him very slowly back across the traverse. It took all my strength to prise his fingers free of the rock and move them a few inches to the first handhold, but once he was moving, his panic ebbed enough for him to follow our directions. It took a long time, but in the end we got him safely off the crag and down to the waiting arms of his girlfriend. They left vowing eternal gratitude and promising to leave the price of a few pints behind the bar of the pub. I got the strong impression that it would be some time before the man ventured on to a rock face again.
It was the first time I'd ever seen someone in such a state and I took the lesson to heart. I tried to make sure I never got myself into a position on any climb where I was not in control, unable to go forward or back. Yet even though we showed maximum respect for the dangers and difficulties of the climbs we made, we were very lucky to survive unscathed. There were no more enthusiastic nor dedicated climbers, but our techniques were self-taught and our equipment makeshift; we were still using hemp ropes rather than the newer and infinitely stronger nylon.
One day Arch turned up with what appeared to be a thousand feet of manila rope, which he swore would safely lift a ten-ton truck. Elated, we gave it its first test abseiling off the Cow and Calf rocks at Ilkley. The descent included a dramatic leap out into space at the end of this wonder rope to clear the overhang on the Cow. It was heady, exhilarating stuff. The gods were certainly with us that day. The very next weekend the rope snapped like cotton, luckily when the man clinging to it was only a few feet from the ground. When we examined the rope, we found sections of it were rotten to the core.
By this time I'd passed my eighteenth birthday and two years of compulsory National Service were looming. I saw an item about the Royal Marine Commandos on a cinema newsreel, heard the words `Every Commando is now trained in rock-climbing', and saw them shinning up and down sea-cliffs. I decided there and then that the Commandos would do for me.
When I registered for National Service, I stated my preference and was laughed out of the room. The Marines only accepted the best and fittest men, almost invariably those prepared to sign on as long-term regular soldiers. Spotty youths press-ganged into two years' National Service did not fit their bill at all. Still I persisted, emphasising my fitness and climbing skills, and in the end they wearily agreed to put my name forward.
According to everyone I'd spoken to, the medical examination for National Service was a formality; if you were warm you were in. To my surprise, mine was very thorough and prolonged. After weeks of suspense I received a letter. I had been accepted by the Marine Commandos.
Friends who'd already done their National Service had filled my head with horror stories about their experiences. I turned up for basic training at Lympstone in Devon full of apprehension, but there were none of the meaningless, humiliating tasks like whitewashing coal or cutting grass with nail-scissors that recruits to the army were reputed to face. Training was hard but I relished every moment of it. My school teachers would have been surprised at how quickly I lost my resentment at being ordered around every minute of the day, but then, unlike my school, the officers never asked us to do anything that they weren't prepared to do themselves.
After basic training at Lympstone, we moved to Commando School at Bickleigh on Dartmoor. I was now able to demonstrate my skill at climbing and we did all manner of stress and stamina tests: speed-marching over the moors, bivouacking in bad weather conditions, unarmed combat, beach landings and exercises with live ammunition. The last and hardest part of our training came in the final pass-out week, when they hit us with everything, forcing us to sweat blood to earn the coveted green beret. It was then, at the worst possible moment, that I got into trouble for the first and only time during my Commando training.
For once it wasn't even deserved. A sergeant put me on a charge for having a rusty rifle. What he'd actually spotted was a trace of red lubricating oil, but recruits don't argue with sergeants, even when they're wrong. I was confined to barracks for three days and when not on duty was forced to report to the guardroom on the hour, every hour, day and night. In the middle of my punishment we had to do a forced march over Dartmoor. It was thirty miles if we got our compass bearings right and anything up to infinity if we didn't.
Battling against snow and gales, my group got it more or less right, but my limbs had seized up when we finally arrived back at the barracks. While my mates settled down for a rest, I had to report to the guardroom. It took me fully fifteen minutes to hobble the few hundred yards there and another fifteen to hobble back again, but I had to keep doing it or risk failing the course.
Having secured my green beret, I was counting on becoming a Cliff Leader, teaching rock-climbing to other Marines, and when I saw an officer strolling around the camp in a pair of state-of-the-art climbing boots, I introduced myself and told him of my ambition. He invited me to go climbing with his group that weekend. They were practising `problems', moves carried out close to the ground, which could then be faced with more confidence when they were encountered for real high on a cliff face.
One problem on an overhang beat all of them. The move was to climb out of the mouth of a cave on to the cliff face directly above it. The crux of it the key move was very similar to one I'd practised a number of times back home. The thought flashed through my mind that if I succeeded where they'd failed, they might let me take the Chiff Leader's course.
I volunteered to have a go. There were a few quizzical glances from the Captain and the rest of the experts, but they stood aside to let me try. I pulled myself up on to the cave roof and jammed the fingers of my left hand into a crevice in the rock. With that as an anchor, I swung myself up and out of the cave mouth. I scrabbled for a hold above the overhang with my other hand and for a second, I thought I might fall back. Then my fingertips held on the tiny ledge I'd been aiming for and I was out and pulling myself up the cliff face.
Stung by my success, the others all lined up for another go. It was then that I made my big mistake. As the Captain battled to make the move, his face puce with exertion, I called out, `Come on Sir, it's easy.' He didn't make it. For some strange reason I was never invited to go climbing with him again and I never did get my chance to become a Cliff Leader.
I was not destined to become a war hero either. We missed involvement in both Korea and Malaya by a month and instead were sent to join 45 Commando in Malta. After the relentless training to turn us into fighting machines, our only moment of real excitement came when we were sent to Egypt after a campaign of violence against the giant British base at Suez, stirred up by the new nationalist government. We landed at Port Said, ready to knock seven bells out of the Egyptian army, but they had all run away before we got there. Only the occasional palm tree stood in the path of our relentless advance and not a single shot was fired in anger. The only thing we actually killed was a pig which we bought from an Egyptian for a barbecue. In the end we returned disconsolate to Malta without a service medal to share between us all that finely honed fighting potential and our only score was a pig.
After that fiasco, the officers thought up all sorts of diversions to dissipate our pent-up energy, including twelve weeks' intensive training at Taruna in Libya. The Italians had used it as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War and the place was dominated by a thirty-foot flagpole, planted in the top of a twenty-foot concrete tower. The wire which winched the flag to the top had been broken for years and there was a long-standing competition between various army units to be the first to run up a flag. Many men had tried and failed, many bets taken and lost.
The flagpole became an obsession for the men of 45 Commando; officers, NCOs and other ranks alike thought of little else. It seemed as if every time you looked out of the barrack-room window, you would see someone halfway up it. To a man they failed.
I took a careful look at the flagpole one day. Most of it was steel, but the top eight feet was wood. All you could see from the ground were long cracks running the length of it, which didn't exactly inspire confidence in anyone trying to climb it. I decided that people were expending all their energy on climbing the shorter, thicker part of the pole. The answer was very simple. I borrowed a short ladder, and used it to scale the concrete tower. The ladder now helped me avoid the most difficult part of the flagpole and with a wire through my belt, I started the final stage.
The wooden pole creaked ominously as it took my weight and it was a very dodgy climb. I wouldn't have made it without all my experience in the Lake District. When I reached the top, I threaded the wire through the metal hoop and on to the roller, but in my haste to get clear of the wooden pole, I'd forgotten to unhitch the wire from the loops on my belt. I then had to climb the flagpole for a second time. I was completely exhausted when I got down, but the wire was in place.
Most of the men were away from camp on manoeuvres at the time, but I was an instant hero when they returned and saw the flagpole. The RSM invited me to hoist the flag and later that night I was invited into the holy of holies, the Officers' Mess, where we drank copiously and at length to my achievement. I was then escorted to the Sergeants' Mess, where the entire boozy ritual was repeated.
A much more significant event awaited me back in Malta. Included in the standard gear of every Commando company was some basic diving equipment: fins, mask and snorkels. Since we were spending most of our time on the beach, I asked to use them. As I put my face under the water, I entered a new world. I was mesmerised by what I saw. The sea was crystal clear in those days; pollution had yet to cloud the water and reduce visibility to a few feet. I could see a hundred feet in all directions. I had no way of gauging the depth of the water, nor the size or distance of anything I saw. A tiny fish swelled into a ten-foot shark as it cruised towards me, then shrank again as it thrashed its tail and disappeared back into the depths.
The experience was so new and unreal that it brought on an attack of nautical vertigo. It was completely illogical, but I felt there was nothing to stop me dropping like a stone all the way to the bottom. I had a slight panic attack, but forced myself to turn over and swim on my back. I stared hard at the sky and gradually talked myself back to reality.
In every other respect I found diving utterly exhilarating. At times I began to resent having to leave the underwater world where everything was quiet, clean, weightless and dream-like, to face the problems of the noisy, dirty, smelly place up top. I was so anxious to spend more time on my new craze that I offered to sign on for a seven-year stint as a regular in the Marines, providing they would let me join the Special Boat Squadron, which specialised in underwater operations.
They were happy to let me sign on, but would give no cast-iron guarantee that I would be accepted by the SBS. That wasn't good enough for me. I completed my two years' National Service and went back to Keighley.