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U3A Writing: Wearing A Uniform

John Ricketts says that he has worn uniforms all his life. The only time he could escape formal dress was while gardening in his allotment.

All my life I’ve worn uniforms. Even as a baby I was dressed in white hat, matinee jacket and white leggings. A year or two on I was in a romper suit, white socks and sandals.

My first day at school I was wearing the requested clothing; grey shirt, grey jersey, grey shorts, grey socks and black shoes. (What happened to colours at that time?) About a third of us turned up in uniform in those depression days. The rest were lucky to be dressed at all. In fact on my first day at school Nellie Milward turned up without any knickers and she wet the floor as well. After Christmas many of the children came in black trousers, black jersey, black socks and heavy boots. These showed that they were the recipients of charity from the Birmingham Mail Christmas Fund which distributed these items of clothing to the poor of the city. I have always wondered whether they picked such distinctive clothes so that the ones who got these items were easily recognised and looked down on by the better off.

At seven I became an altar server and had another uniform. We were dressed like little priests in cassock and white cotta. In the sacristy there was row of hooks on which these hung. We were always there at the last minute and grabbed the firstwhich came to hand. One day I had a cassock much too long for me. It was my duty to carry the Missal on its stand down three steps. On the top step I trod on the edge of the cassock and flew headlong down the Church. I looked back at Fr. Cox the Parish Priest and expecting to see a look of horror on his face. I was amazed to see him doubled over and almost crying with laughter.

The Grammar school added school cap, school tie and pocket school badge to the uniform.

At boarding school the weekday uniform of sports coat and school tie was very comfortable, but the Sunday uniform was horrible. It consisted of black coat and striped trousers and a terrible Eton collar. On the few occasions when we left the confines of the school wearing it we provided amusement to all we met. Only the sixth formers did not have to wear those awful collars. They wore wing collars instead. Though still ridiculous these were much better because they were easier to hide. We had a unit of the Air Training Corps which exercised on Sundays. As soon as High Mass was over I used to change into yet another uniform, and towards the end I had the only two-tone uniform in the whole of the Air Training Corps.

After training one Sunday I was out for a walk with two of my friends, Paddy Keegan and Peter Taylor. The latter had a hobby which in these days of greater sensitivity is illegal. He collected bird’s eggs. On our walk we saw a coot with a nest on an island in the middle of a small pond. The island was a couple of yards from the bank. My companions decided that it would be easy for me, muggings, to jump from the edge of the pond to the island, to get an egg and then jump back. And so it was decided. I took a good run, jumped and landed well on the island, which to my dismay proved to be just grass and reeds growing in liquid mud. As I landed I sank to my chest in foul smelling ooze. In spite of everything I got the egg. Then I waded to the bank. From the chest up I was dressed in Airforce Blue, from the chest down I was dressed in odiforous slime like the thing from the swamp. When I got back to school I showered as I was but no matter what I did I could not get rid of either the stain or the smell. At future parades I was always at the back.

A few weeks later I changed the uniform of the Air Training Corps for that of the R.A.F. After ten weeks of initial training and leave I found myself flying to India with only the very basic kit. In Mauripore I was issued with tropical kit which I lost a couple of weeks later when everything I owned was ditched from a Dakota over the middle of India. In Madras I was in trouble because I had no kit and in one frantic week I begged, borrowed and, I am sorry to say, stole until I had enough to get by. When I arrived in Singapore I was treated with respect because my kit made me look as if I had fought in Burma with the Chindits.

In Singapore dress rules were enforced but up country in Malaya the usual dress was a pair of shorts and some sandals. I was sent to Singapore to get some urgently needed stores. I was properly dressed because I knew I would have to see various units. Everything went well and we got our stores. I went to have a drink leaving the driver who was dressed only in shorts on the truck. On my way back I saw a couple of officers whom I decided to ignore. As soon as I had passed them I hear a cry;

“Airman !”

I turned and threw up a salute. To my horror the two officers were RAF Police.

“Don’t you salute officers airman?”

“Didn’t see you, Sir.”

They demanded pay book etc and then booked me for not saluting them, for being need of a haircut and shave. On my return to the truck the driver was dying for a wet and wanted to borrow my tunic because he had seen the RAF Police about. Foolishly I gave him my tunic and sat in the truck waiting for him.

“Get out of the truck airman” said a voice and there were two more of the so-and-sos. They demanded to know why I was improperly dressed. They wanted to see my pay book which was in my jacket, and so more charges were added to my crime sheet.

After the RAF I went to college where we had to wear gowns. Then into teaching where we had to dress smartly to show respect to the children. When I was young when we went to a function we dressed up, sometimes donning a tuxedo or dinner suit. I was once criticised in the editorial of a local newspaper for attending an amateur operetta in inappropriate clothing. We had been playing golf and on our way home had remembered the performance and had sat at the back in our golfing clothes while most of the rest of the audience had worn dinner jackets or ball gowns.

So for many years I had to wear uniform. It was seldom that I could escape. The one place that I could was at my allotment. My children used to rush out well before me or waited until I was away when they knew I was off to my garden. They were ashamed to be seen near me because the said that for gardening I wore Compo’s cast-offs.

Nowadays I can please myself what I wear. No more uniforms. I seldom wear a tie these days. I tend to wear polo shirts or polo-neck sweaters with a jersey. Maybe that’s a new kind of uniform.


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