I was born in 1940 in Wisbech but remember nothing of the WW2 apart from visits to our attic where we kept our gas masks and tins of hare soup. If my father wanted to get us extra sugar, he had to buy the soup first. Dad was a Conchie – a Conscientious Objector – but the milk from our herd of Jersey cows was reserved for the old and infirm due to its high fat content, and I consoled myself with that. He also had a tin hat with a white W for Warden on the front. His job was to bike round as a warning if air raids were threatened.
The prisoner of war camp at Fridaybridge was near our farm. Our herd needed seven days a week attention, so when the war was over and the prisoners were allowed out to work locally, their help was welcome. It was some years before all the prisoners were released, so over time we became good friends with several of them.
In 1951, after success in the 11+ exam, I was awarded a place at King’s School, Ely, where the fees were £65 a term. With a roll of just 200 pupils, representing the school at sport was a given. I recall rugby, cricket, fives and fencing matches.
The school was very musical, providing choristers for Ely Cathedral. My father signed me up for music lessons and I plumped for the violin, but I hated it. At some stage, Dr Arthur Wills, the Cathedral organist, formed a school orchestra. I thought it would be good to take my father’s cello to school, as the orchestra lacked one.
One day, never to be forgotten, I was asked by some seniors if I would play in a jazz band they were forming, as my cello was the nearest thing to a double base. To swing the deal (no pun intended) they played me Chris Barber’s band’s version of Tiger Rag. That did it! Henceforth I watched the Six Five Special every Saturday to catch the Chris Barber slot, whilst lending an ear to Radio Luxembourg to hear Winifred Attwell go to her ‘other piano’ to play ragtime.
Meanwhile I acquired a double bass and I even bought a sousaphone for £30 which enabled me to play in the Cadet Corps marching band. Impossible to carry a double bass and play it at the same time! We also had a Rock and Roll Band (remember ‘At the Hop’?) and even a Skiffle Group playing Lonnie Donegan tunes – (The Rock Island Line).
After failing to get into Cambridge in spite of holidays spent in Germany to polish up the lingo, the Headmaster told me I was off to St. Andrews, so in 1959 I pitched up there, double bass under my arm. My shared study was in Hamilton Hall overlooking the 18th green of the Old Course, but I took no interest in golf, even as Kel Nagle won the 1960 Open under my nose – well, perhaps it happened during our summer break.
The Honours Degree Course is four years, not three. Scottish Highers, in those days, qualified at 17, so we had to tread water as they caught up, which meant our parents had four years, not three, of accommodation, travelling expenses and sustenance of all sorts to pay. But at least, at that time, there were no fees and no mobiles to fund. St Andrews itself was a lovely backwater on a branch line from nearby Guardbridge. On one journey, I slept through and ended up cuddling my double bass through the night on Dundee station, being woken occasionally by the Police wondering what I had with me!
I left with a modest degree and a lovely girlfriend. She followed me home to Wisbech where a squash playing solicitor chum agreed to take her on as an articled clerk. He repaid my favour by proposing marriage to her. I must admit that at 26, I wasn’t prepared to outbid him! Instead, I bought an E-type Jaguar, and will never forget the joy of driving. In those days, there was little traffic and no speed limit. Today I’d be banned if I changed into top gear at 115 mph. But this was the swinging sixties. It was up to London every weekend. To King’s Road and BIBA or John Stephen on Carnaby Street whilst the nation waited eagerly for the next Beatles single.
Of course I had to earn a living to support this lifestyle, so from University I joined my father in his Insurance Broking business. In those days the Fens round Wisbech were alive with self-employed people. The town buzzed on Saturday when everyone came in for the market, to have a chat, do business and go to their bank. The annual strawberry crop provided a huge cash injection and my first earnings as a picker. Then the Government put pickers on PAYE, and cheap pulp came from Poland, so few strawberry fields are now to be seen.
Meanwhile, on several occasions I had put myself forward as a local Liberal Candidate, as I’d objected to our local council being against incoming industry in case it caused agricultural wages to be put up. But mechanisation scrubbed jobs on the land anyway.
Eventually I was successful and from my first day on Wisbech Town Council, when the incoming Labour mayor said he hoped he would immaculate (sic) the work of the previous mayor, I have enjoyed many more malapropisms. The Council met at a semi-circular table by ward. I found myself next to a fellow about whom I had been critical, but before long it was ‘Hello Bob’ and ‘Hello Paul’. He even became a client of my business.
Meanwhile, in the Isle of Ely constituency (now North East Cambridgeshire) a few doughty Liberals kept the flag flying until 1973, when the sitting Conservative MP, Sir Harry Legge-Bourke passed on, creating a by-election. Our committee interviewed three candidates, including Clement Freud in a velvet suit. Next day our Chairman called Freud, who had left the meeting immediately afterwards, believing he had not been chosen because his interview had lasted only half as long as the other two, to tell him he had been selected.
In his book, written later, he claimed that we had been able to assemble only 8 Liberals to grill him. As this was below our quorum, we had sent over the road to an old people’s home and 13 of them had come to make up numbers. When he asked the Chairman for the result of the vote, he alleged that he was told 13 to 8, implying that the real Liberals had all voted against him. Untrue of course but that was Freud the wit. He loved his 15 years as the MP: as he drove up from London at the weekends, he knew he was back in his patch when he reached Grunty Fen, a name which tickled him. It was here one day that whilst dashing up to the Isle, he ran over a cockerel. Fearing loss of a vote he thought it best to stop and apologise, saying to the lady who came to the door “I’m sorry, I’ve run over your cockerel. Can I replace him?” “Of course you can, Mr Freud”, the astonished lady said, “the chickens are round the back”
During the following Campaign, helpers came in from everywhere. One was Aza Pinney, a Liberal from the West Country. When he had to be back in his Constituency one evening to give a speech at a dinner, as I now had my pilot’s licence and had bought a two-seater plane, this seemed an ideal chance to put it to use. I offered to fly him down in time for the dinner, but when we got to the airfield, my plane refused to charge. As a light plane is equipped with a magneto, it will run even without a battery, though the radio would fail. So I was allowed to take a Club plane.
Now we were late, I had to run at full throttle even though it was disastrous for fuel consumption. The fuel gauge was a cork on a piece of wire through the filler cap in front of the windscreen. Five minutes short of Plymouth the end was rattling on the lid. The engine stopped completely with inhospitable Dartmoor below. Then I espied a field of sheep which looked suitable for a forced landing, something student pilots learn about, though, of course, they don’t actually go through the real process. As we got lower, I realised that what I had thought were sheep were, in fact, granite outcrops which weren’t going to run out of the way
We pancaked in, fortunately down the slope, and came to a stop sitting on the hillside. Wearing a full harness had saved us, but the plane was wrecked. Bits of the panel had injured my face and I couldn’t see out of one eye. Then we heard voices. A pony trekking group on the Moor had seen us come down. I lurched towards them, but the Leader called out -‘Don’t come near. You’ll frighten the horses. I’ll go and get help’
Eventually, a District Nurse arrived in her Morris Minor. ‘I do hope your eye will be OK’, she said. Then an ambulance took us off to hospital, where my sub orbital fracture was attended to. By next morning we were free to go. I had wondered around the hospital and seed crashed motorists with wired up jaws and with chest injuries, etc. They were going o be in for some time. I had pranged an aircraft and was out next day. Lucky!
Freud’s opponent was John Stephens, a party faithful from HQ, who was being rewarded with a safe Tory seat. A plan was hatched to expose this carpetbagger. All candidates were to appear on a question time type programme on local TV, with constituents to pose the questions. Our moment came: Doctor Tom, one of our supporters struck. “I’d like to ask the Conservative candidate what he thinks of Magpas?” An honest person might have said that he didn’t know what Magpas was. “ Oh it’s a wonderful thing worthy of our support etc etc” blustered Mr Stephens. Freud leant forward “I don’t think he knows what Magpas is”. “Oh yes I do” was the reply “it’s one of those agricultural arrangements”. “No it’s not” said Freud “It’s the Mid Anglia General Practitioners Acciident service”. Collapse of stout party.
The odds on Clement Freud were initially 33-1 and as a gambling man he had put what we believe to be a substantial bet on himself, which no doubt increased his pleasure in winning the seat He loved his 15 years as the MP: as he drove up from London at the weekends, he knew he was back in his patch when he reached Grunty Fen, a name which tickled him. It was here one day that whilst dashing up to the Isle, he ran over a cockerel. Fearing loss of a vote he thought it best to stop and apologise, saying to the lady who came to the door “I’m sorry, I’ve run over your cockerel. Can I replace him?” “Of course you can, Mr Freud”, the astonished lady said, “the chickens are round the back”
My best chum at St. Andrews became a lecturer at Bangor University in North Wales. During a visit to him, I met Lowri, my wife. Lowri had worked as a nurse in the Middlesex Hospital (now demolished) where they had nursed the owner of the Fairoaks aerodrome. In gratitude, he offered any of the nurses half price flying lessons. Lowri took up his offer. So we had a joint interest to begin with.
Lowri had given up nursing the day she qualified, to start a French Degree Course, and then found out she had to spend a year in a French school. We picked a town called La Fleche, not too far south as it had an aerodrome. It was only when we got there that we found it was restricted to aircraft based there, and the last Englishman to land there was handed a hefty fine.
One day, when I was cruising round the nearest airfields, I landed at Saumur on the Loire. Suddenly a Frenchman came rushing up to me asking for help. He and his friend were parachutists. Whilst he had landed on the airfield, his friend had unfortunately come down in a nearby wood and he would not be able to find his way out. So I took off again, and we spotted him, landed and then guided him out. As a reward, my new chum said ‘Now we baiser une fillette’ – which can mean ‘cuddle up to a bottle of wine’.
We then took off again and flew to a private strip at Bauge for the afternoon. Private strips are rare in France, but this one, mirabile dictu, was close to La Fleche but not on any maps. I could never reveal Bauge as a destination due to French beaurocracy. It solved my problem nicely, though.
We also used my plane for instruction at the Fenland Aero Club at Holbeach St Johns. To help the airfield get established, I organised some Air Shows. There were the Red Arrows (fee £250). They would send on ahead Red Nine (Red one to eight are the pilots) to give the commentary. One time, as the Arrows were approaching, the leader asked Red Nine ‘is there any brass about?’ ‘No’ was the reply. A few seconds later, the Arrows arrived from behind the crowd line virtually at ground level. That’s a definite no-no today. But being dead flat and devoid of trees, the Fens are ideally suited to exciting low flying. I still have a photo of the DuxfordB17 almost cutting the grass with his propellors.
Mind you, the downside of Fenland Air Shows is spectators being able to park nearby and see the show for nothing. After one show, a Parson Drove man came into my office. ‘Paul, could you put the Arrows on later next year. I was still in church when they were on and I missed them.’ ‘Sorry, Wally, I’ll do my best. But I didn’t see you there.’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Wally, ‘I didn’t actually come in.’
One day at the Club, a bunch of customs men arrived. One of our members was suspected of flying cigarettes in and using the Clubhouse as a staging post. ‘We’ll be entering your storeroom by force.’ There was no mention of any warrant which I believe Customs men don’t need. So they crashed the door down, only to be disappointed. They found nothing but tomato ketchup and toilet rolls.
A Holbeach solicitor was married to a French lady from Sezanne, a town with its own Aero Club airfield and – best of all – situated in the Champagne growing district. One day, Lowri and I arrived there to a marvellous reception and an introduction to the joys of ratafia, a fortified wine made from the last pressing of the Champagne grape. Our visit led to an enduring twinning arrangement between our two flying clubs. Every time our club went there, Lowri and I were hosted by the local Renault dealer. Everyone else seemed to stay with a viticulteur who made his own Champagne.
Time now to tell you about my night in prison. But its a longish story, and I think its best left for the next edition of the Pump. So – until then – enjoy life. You’ll only live it once!