SECONDHAND WAR STORIES
For a man who's never been in the army, I know a hell of a lot of war stories. It is because, throughout my life I've made a point of speaking to ex-servicemen and women, whenever the chance has arisen.
I worked as a house painter for years, and was privileged to hear many interesting stories from ex-service men and women while I dipped and rolled magnolia. Once I was sent to an address in Deptford, with instructions to paint a single back window. Mr. Ashley, a Barbadian senior citizen, opened the door and politely gestured me in. He was probably into his ninety's, almost frail. His hallway was stacked, left and right, with old yellowing newspapers, they were piled waist high in some places. Mr Ashley led me through the newspaper corridor to his living room, which was filled with more old newspapers, and not much else. No TV, but a small transistor radio - and up on an otherwise empty bookshelf, a framed black-and-white photograph of a dashingly handsome young man, beaming brightly, in a RAF uniform. "Hey", I said, "so you served in the RAF yeah?" "Yes", he replied, grinning bashfully, "a pilot, a pilot."
I followed him further down the yellow newspaper corridor, to his kitchen.
There, I was gobsmacked to see a huge jagged hole in the middle of the floor. The floorboards had rotted and fallen down into the pitch darkness of a disused basement. He assured me his daughter would get it sorted when she next visited, from Australia. I sidestepped around the hole to the back door, and couldn't help noticing his kitchen worktop was going the same way as the floorboards. There was moss growing around the sink, and the only food items on show were two tired leaves of spinach lying in a rusty colander. Before I left, Mr. Ashley relayed a fighter pilot story, but I can't remember it. I do remember travelling home that evening with a fair-sized lump in my throat.
I used to coach at the Lion Amateur Boxing Club in Hoxton, alongside Roy MacDonald. Roy, at the time, was well into his eighties. He'd been at the club, first as a boxer and then as a coach, for over 70 years. You might remember, back in the day, the children's TV series Grange Hill - it was Roy's son Lee, who played the hugely popular character 'Zammo'.
Roy often spoke of his army experience in Kenya, at the height of the 1950's Mau Mau uprising. After serving abroad in World War Two, it felt, he said, as if he'd only been back in London five minutes, before being called up again and flown off to deepest Africa.
None of the young soldiers in Roy's unit knew why they'd been sent. The whisper among them was, that the Mau Mau were evil, and If they caught you, they'd kill you slowly. With that in mind, they were soon out on manoeuvres, deep in the Kenyan rainforest. Within a month, the unit suffered two horrid fatalities. One lad was bitten by a leech type creature, the other poor soul perished while sleeping underneath a tank that sunk into soft ground during the night.
While creeping through the jungle early one morning, with screaming monkeys thrashing about high above them, their Captain signalled a sudden halt. He'd noticed irregular movement in bushes, 30 yards ahead. On seeing further signs of activity, he barked a warning to the hidden threat. Two more warnings were ignored, so the Captain ordered his unit to take up positions and open fire. There followed a thunderous and prolonged submachine gun assault.
Roy and another lad were sent into what remained of the bushes to assess the situation. There, they found an adult male gorilla, cut completely in half. Even into his eighties, Roy had no idea what the conflict in Kenya was about. "I made it home to my family in one piece" he said, "there were times when I thought I'd never see them again."
Roy Macdonald and former British and Commonwealth flyweight champion Francis Ampofo
And finally, here's to Green Park Jim, who once lived in the tunnel between the Victoria and Piccadilly lines at Green Park tube station. A tall, stooped, charcoal skinned, Belizean with tufts of white woolly hair and a wide toothless mouth. Forever in a shapeless black overcoat, you couldn't meet a more polite and well-spoken man. I enjoyed long conversations with old Jim. He'd served in the British Army during World War Two, and been stationed in Belgium.
After the war Jim settled in Notting Hill, and married the love of his life. Her death from an illness propelled him into a downward spiral which eventually bottomed out in that tunnel.
Jim told me that, after surviving an ambush in Belgium, he was grateful every day just to be alive. Sometimes I'd see him asleep, sitting hunched over on a platform seat.
London life is a free-flowing time-lapse experience. I remember waking up one morning with the sudden realisation that I hadn't seen Jim for years.
Old soldiers, they simply fade away. So, we ought to learn from them what we can, while we can.