Beyond All Care - or How I Became a Scaleyback

By Barrie Wall (ex- 22562682 Sgt. Wall M. B., R Sigs, 1951-1956)

My home town in the late 1940s offered little in the way of job choice for a scarcely-educated 15-year-old. In those days, the Labour Exchange - a pre-war redbrick building near the Market Hall and Mechanics' Institute - was the first stop for all school-leavers after their school caps had been ceremonially hurled over the bridge onto the Crewe to Holyhead railway line.

Mine was no exception.

It was in this unprepossessing edifice that without ever making eye contact, a bored pin-striped clerk - probably one of the Toffs from the local grammar school - unenthusiastically recommended to us eager young job-seekers from Ludford Street Boys' either a seven-year Fitter's and Turner's apprenticeship at the railway works or, if you were one of the better dressed applicants, a similar post at the local Rolls Royce factory. For whatever reason, a Rolls Royce Fitter and Turner was considered more socially acceptable than one who toiled in "The Works", as the 100-acre London, Midland and Scottish Railway .plant was called.

For the Raggedy-Arsed product of a single-parent family like me, it was Hobson's choice - it was the Black Hand Gang at the railway or nothing.

Thanks, but no thanks, I thought. It's not that I had any serious objection to getting my hands dirty. In fact, having been brought up in a house with no electricity or hot water, the difference would scarcely have been noticeable. But I had a better idea. A slightly older street pal from a similarly humble background had earlier joined the 3rd Hussars as a band boy. And sharing his interest in jazz and music in general, it seemed like a good idea for me to follow suit. I saw him on his regular leaves from his Bielefeld base when, resplendent in best BD and shiny shoes, he'd come home laden with duty-free cigarettes, chocolate and all kinds of stuff that was readily available in Germany but remarkably, I thought, not at all in still seriously-rationed Britain. (Later, I was to be stationed at Herford, just a tram-ride from Bielefeld and I regularly drank and caroused in the 3H barracks with The Boys in The Band).

The trouble was, my tone-deaf and quite unmusical mother needed the pittance I was bringing in to help keep the bailiffs from the door and to my dismay, and she categorically refused to give permission for me to join up. And it didn't help when I reminded her that my late Dad had falsified his age in 1915 to join the Argyll's and later the Machine Gun Corps, after his mother yanked him out of the Highlanders.

She was adamant. "That was differen"t, she reasoned. There was a war on and besides, she needed me at home. God knows what for. I was only earning a pound a week.

Later though, as mandatory registration for National Service approached, I jumped the gun and surreptitiously took a bus to the Stoke-on-Trent recruiting office as soon after my 17th birthday as I legally could. I don't recall whether or not I needed parental permission at the time. If I did, I almost certainly forged it. But a bandsman I was not to be - at least not for the time being.

A persuasive recruiting sergeant - elegantly attired in red sash and blue patrols - persuaded me after a battery of aptitude tests in the back room that I was far too intelligent to be a bandsman and that I should consider being a cryptographer in the Royal Corps of Signals.

Of course, even if I'd recognized it, it wouldn't have occurred to me that the Jimmy in his cheese-cutter cap might have indicated a certain bias. But after a token argument - to which I surrendered without a struggle when he told me I'd get two stripes and more money after cipher training - I signed up there and then. A pound a week to start, two quid after cipher school at 4 TR. Riches beyond my wildest dreams!

To be frank, I wasn't entirely sure what a cryptographer was at that time. But the money was unarguably better - and it certainly looked like an improvement over the railway's Black Hand Gang or to spending perhaps a lifetime as a lowly bandsman. In addition, having had a lifelong addiction to cryptic crosswords (which continues to this day) it looked as though I might have found a niche.

So this is really where the story should start to wind up.

A great five and half years Swanning around the world followed, providing me with the more formal and liberal education that I'd missed during my school years and at the end of it all, being launched quite by chance into another kind of communications career that has supported us ever since.

But there's a sequel. Despite the recruiter's disparaging view of military bands - slow promotion and all the rest - I'd begun to study music in my spare time and had become a reasonably competent flautist, which back in 1951 is what I'd wanted to do in the 3rd Hussars.

I'd had had neither the confidence nor the opportunity to play with anyone in Britain but on emigrating to Vancouver as a newly-wed in 1968, I answered an ad in the local newspaper that simply said "Musicians Wanted - Auditions 7 p.m. at 604 Royal Avenue, New Westminster, BC". Along with a clarinet-playing ex-Squaddie and colleague of my wife, we turned up at the published address - which to our surprise and not a little dismay turned out to be the local Armouries (or Drill Hall) - the home of The Royal Westminster Regiment militia, a TA unit equivalent.

We never did get an audition but before we knew what was happening, our pants were round our ankles, the unit's part-time MO was asking all kinds of personal questions and doing quite unspeakable things to our private parts. In no time flat, it seemed, we were fully inducted and seated in the front row of the band and ready to play.

Sometime after that we were issued pith helmets, scarlet tunics, boots, braid, brass buttons and blue pants - followed by four and a half-years of bullshit, concerts and somewhat breathlessly pounding of the steep streets of New Westminster in ammo boots. Highlights? Well, we once played for HM The Queen and Prince Philip at a New Westminster City Hall luncheon, in 1971 I think. The event was made remarkable only by the fact that HRH paused momentarily as he rushed by the band in the City Hall foyer, to ask: "Who are you lot?" I started to say the 'Band of the Roy ...." but before I could finish, he'd been whisked away. He probably won't remember me.

I still play regularly. Far too old for The Westies and marching up and down hills - except on Remembrance Day - but still enjoying regular gigs and rehearsals with other expatriate military bandsmen in the local community orchestra and concert band.

A latent musical career that was neither Swift nor Sure - and I've yet to play in a band that has the score for Begone Dull Care. But at 72+ I'm still hoping!!.

Cipher Op. 1951-56, 7 TR, 4TR, HQ BAOR Signal Regt, 18 Ind. Inf Bde Sigs Sqdn, Malaya (53-56). Recalled as reservist Aug 56 to 10 Armd Div Sig Regt, Azzizia Barracks, Tripoli Libya

Emigrated to Vancouver 1968, worked as newspaper reporter/editor, columnist, Corporate Comms. Manager, Air Canada, Macmillan Bloedel and BC Rail, until I retired in 1998.Now living on Sunshine Coast (Gibson's, BC) a 40-minute ferry ride from Vancouver.
We moved here from West Vancouver in 2002 and built a house on a 1.2 acre lot. Daughter and family (2 Grandkids and Hubby) also built house on same lot. .

(Was demmobbed, remustered for Suez crisis in 1956 and demmobbed again at Saighton Camp, Chester).