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Two Rooms And A View: 103 A Time of Personal Development

...National Service also gave me the opportunity to go abroad for the first time and visit places I would never have seen in civvy street. It taught me a lot about machines, more about people and even more about myself. It caused me to reassess my possible future career as an engineer or draughtsman and to think about establishing some other goals for my life ahead...

Robert Owen concludes his service in the Royal Navy.

After the first few weeks of national service I was well paid as a Petty Officer. This, with my hereditary thriftiness, meant that by demob time I had never been so well off in all my life.

With three weeks to spare before leaving the service I had the chance to relax and see something of the south coast. If only I had my own transport. The 'in' mode of transport at the time was the 150cc Scooter. These were reasonably priced, very cheap to run and, perhaps more important, could be driven without passing a driving test. After investigating the market, I finally bought a one-year-old Lambretta Scooter.

During my remaining weekends, I explored many places from Brighton to Bournemouth. I also called at Market Street, Worthing, in an attempt to renew acquaintance with Barry Gilhespy, my old friend from Fence Houses. I never found him.

During national service I also discovered Fratton Park, the home of Portsmouth AFC or Pompey as they were known. Whenever possible I used to go on Saturday afternoons to watch Pompey, who were at the time ably led by Jimmy Dickenson, that long-serving and former England wing half.

I recall the club signing an unknown teenage centre forward striker from Ireland named Derek Dougan and followed his progressive career for the next thirty years. He scored many goals for Pompey but then went on to a more distinguished career with Blackburn and Wolves, as well as playing for Ireland. He also became a very eloquent chairman of the Players' Association, Manager and later Chairman and Chief Executive at Wolverhampton, as well as a TV broadcaster.

After the football match on a Saturday afternoon I occasionally made a weekend of it by going to the theatre and sleeping ashore at the well-known Trafalgar Servicemen's Club. The Traff, as it was known, provided an excellent service to navy personnel by offering overnight accommodation and meals at very modest prices.

Opposite the Traff was the old Coliseum Theatre. The area was also surrounded by public houses. Much to the surprise of my shipmates, I often chose to go to the former. I recall seeing several variety shows there. The one that sticks in my mind included Vic Oliver, the well-known comedian famous for his then - blue jokes.

The Royal Navy has always been a very rank-conscious organisation. Officers did not mix socially with senior ratings and neither rank mixed with junior ratings. During my initial training I had met a bright young 18-year-old who went on to be a midshipman (trainee officer), and was also drafted to HMS Hound. He did not acknowledge me until we were alone and then he asked me to keep our former acquaintance to myself.

Also I once attempted to go ashore with a group of junior ratings who were more my age. Once this became known I was politely taken aside by a Chief Petty Officer and told to choose my going ashore mates more carefully.

On the other hand I found there was something quite unique about the comradeship between shipmates in the navy. It was as if the crew was bonded together by being on the same ship. While ashore if a member of the crew got into trouble, whatever he did, he would expect and usually receive support from all his shipmates.

Like many other sailors who were free at weekends, I also did a tour of the local dance halls. Unlike today, we used to go ashore in our uniforms, and I found different ranks used to patronise different dance halls.

The large Savoy on the sea front at Southsea was perhaps the most popular with the junior ranks. The Pier was a little more selective and mostly used by senior ratings, while Kimbells, off the sea front, was definitely an officers' club.

In the late fifties half the young female population of mid-England seemed to come to Southsea for their holidays. The dance halls were packed, and a sailor in uniform was never without a partner.

While waiting for demob I met up again with my national service colleague, John Randle, who was also waiting to leave the navy. Even though I had a certificate that said I was qualified to take charge of a ship's boiler room, it was John who had to show me where the spark plug was on my new 150cc scooter.

Finally on 17th March, 1958, we both said farewell to the navy. John returned to nearby Dorset and I travelled back to Tyneside on the train accompanied by my scooter. It was to be my major mode of transport for the next six years.

Since National Service finished in 1963, it has been the brunt of many jokes and much criticism. David Nobbs in his autobiography of 2002 says that it taught him every four-letter word, apart from 'work'.

To me it was just the opposite. There was plenty of work, new experiences and the eighteen month period was a great personal developer. It took me away from home, exposed me to a new environment and considerably widened my outlook.

National Service also gave me the opportunity to go abroad for the first time and visit places I would never have seen in civvy street. It taught me a lot about machines, more about people and even more about myself. It caused me to reassess my possible future career as an engineer or draughtsman and to think about establishing some other goals for my life ahead.

National Service also imposed on young men generally, a structured discipline and provided an outlet for physical activities, which in my opinion is sadly lacking in society at the start of the twenty-first century.

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