In recent months, we decided, we – the youthful and the brave, that we would do a skydive to raise money for the Poppy Appeal.
Most of those who signed up for the skydive in the cool, post-Christmas hangover, were still firmly entrenched in their teens. Others of us, dwell in the mixed up netherworld of GUNDY (grown-up, not dead yet).
It was a night of revelation. I drank rather more Guinness than I could process with only one liver, and a friend of mine admitted to a six month clandestine hook-up with an arse. This put something of a dampener on the air of electric toasting and merriment, but it certainly contributed to the disintegration of my stomach lining.
After a few days’ recovery, I was ready for this skydive.
A little nudge, a moment of flying and the warm and cosy feeling of doing something good for charity, perhaps a video for posterity, doubtless to be shown at Movie Night: this was exactly what was needed. Besides, I reasoned, it was in the blood.
Many years ago, my father was in the Royal Air Force. Upon arrival, he was pushed into the nickname ‘Blue’ because he was a redhead. Among the new recruits were two other young men with flame and rusted hair. The first was labelled ‘Ginger’, the second ‘Red’, my dad was the last to arrive, and too muscle-bound for ‘Scarlet’.
They did their training in Wilmslow and were soon sent to the Suez. Little bit of history here: this was in the early 1950s, so the Suez was not the easiest place to be.
He trained as an armourer, and took hundreds of photos, which would later be mounted in a camel-skin album. As I child, I was assured it had been a very sick camel that had loved my father very much, so it was what the animal would have wanted.
My mother’s father, an aeronautical engineer and keen amateur sportsman, never tried to talk aeroplanes with my dad. They never spoke about what it was like at eighteen to look out over the Pyramids of Giza, or to fly over the majesty of Mount Kilimanjaro.
They never spoke of how my dad and the other lads in Libya played football in 127° heat.
This strikes an odd note in me. My grandfather tried to get him into chess. I can’t begin to explain that.
In any case, when he was eighteen, my dad went to Egypt, having never been abroad, a pale, red-haired, partially-freckled, apprentice carpenter, now armourer.
Among his intake was the actor, Richard Briers. At some point, Mr. Briers told the other young airmen how to fall without hurting themselves. He was training to be an actor, he told them, so he knew how to do it properly.
He talked them through the process: the trick was to throw both arms out to the sides upon landing. There would be a bit of a sting, no doubt, but the impact would be taken through the arms and one wouldn’t break anything vital.
He demonstrated by falling backwards off a low-rise roof. The split second he landed, he threw both arms out, took a moment, then rose, dusted himself off and buffed his nails. Most of the lads looked on, impressed, but with no intention of risking their lives or man parts.
My dad decided it looked simple enough. He climbed onto the roof, lifted a licked finger to determine which way the wind was blowing, and threw himself to the ground. He landed with a thump. As the sound of his landing ricocheted along the concrete, he threw his arms out. I’m not sure how he survived.
This is the best thing about Sunday lunchtimes at the Legion. Many of the men there are the same sort of age as my dad would be now. They did National Service and grew up through the War, so the perilously few conversations I had with my dad have been bulked out and textured by the Sunday boys.
In fact, I started interviews with the Sunday boys late last year. After a brief chat with a Navy chap, with a proper Captain Birdseye beard and a working bar in his shed, he concluded that stories from his life, though fascinating to me, were just “Granddad stories” to his family.
I suspect this will become Book 2.
They had the usual pin-up girls on the walls around their bunks. I have seen pictures, and I’ll say with no small amount of pride, my father was a man of substance.
Not just Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, and a handful of nameless dolly girls, he had Bette Davis and, somewhat confusingly, Joan Crawford on his walls. They hadn’t appeared in a film together at that point, and nobody knew how scary Joan Crawford was.
They smoked roll-ups, and bought week-old English newspapers to see how Tottenham was doing in the league.
They rode camels. Camels bite, and they spit. Nobody had informed the lads of this, or the fact that camels rise back-end first. Most of the young men braced themselves for an ungentlemanly impact from the front end, only to find themselves sitting, unceremoniously, on their delicates. Barely finished choking from the first assault, the camel stood fully, and the chance of fatherhood or even Saturday night entertainment began to ebb away.
They learnt two words in Arabic. In order to point at beer bottles and ask for one or two, depending on whether they had brought a friend.
When he returned, my dad seemed to have acquired a decent tan. All that had happened was his freckles had joined up.
Years later, when the young chaps he’d trained with saw Richard Briers in ‘The Good Life’, playing the husband of the utterly lovely Felicity Kendall, I’m sure they were jealous as holy hell, although some of them couldn’t look at him without rubbing torn muscles in their backs.
We haven’t booked the skydive yet.
Life and logic have taken control of my friends.
Not me. Not yet, anyway.