I Was in the Navy You Know

See, I was looking for a picture of a freshly inked tattoo. I knew it was there somewhere but I found a thousand other pictures first. There goes my evening. I’ll have to look at every single one of them….and so will you!

First up, Falklands tour from September, 1984 to March 22, 1985. Your blogger was eighteen years old and had already been in the Navy for two years. I joined HMS Southampton, a Type 42 Destroyer  in June of ’84 and was with her for a year.

HMS Southampton
HMS Southampton

Trivia note from the Wikipedia article:

In 1984, she ran over one of the Shambles Buoys off Portland during final War Games before deploying to the Falklands, sinking the buoy and resulting in repairs in dry dock.

I was on board when that happened!

Top of the Rock of Gibraltar with a Barbary Ape
Top of the Rock of Gibraltar with a Barbary Ape

We had left Portsmouth and stopped in Portland for some war-gamey kind of exercises and finally set off for Gibraltar. We had just made it out of Portland when the ship lurched and there was a painful scratching sound. Then the propellers started making a horrible noise. Back we went to dry dock to have one prop shaft replaced and the other straightened out a bit. We then headed with careful haste to Gibraltar.

It was pretty funny when we arrived in Gibraltar as we were the lead ship of our convoy and the two frigates had to salute us as we came into to harbour. All three ships were in full dress with all the crews lining the decks and right after the salute, each of the frigates unfurled a ginormous banner over the side.

One said

Buoy, Oh Buoy! What a Shambles!

The other said

Congratulations! It’s a buoy!

Note to Americans: “buoy” is pronounced like “boy” in normal countries (as in buoyant).

Our Captain went mad. He was very embarrassed. But not nearly as embarrassed as he was when he got court-martialed. And though they did a fine repair job of trying to straighten out that shaft it wasn’t fine enough and for the next six months, if we went above 12 knots, the noise in our mess – right above the seals where the shafts entered the ship – was absolutely unbearable. We couldn’t even shout to each other. My bunk (pit in nautical lingo) was about 4 feet from the seal.

From there, we were headed south!

[I’ll tell you about our Crossing the Line ceremony another day]

Shit Fish!
Shit Fish!

Next stop:- Ascension Island where we encountered the shit-fish. They were like salt-water piranhas. We used to throw huge bags of garbage (gash in the lingo) over the side and watch them get eaten. The water would swarm and froth and the whole thing would be gone without a trace in a couple of minutes. Legend had it that if you fell off the ship, you would have a heart-attack before you hit the water. Any ichthyologists know what they are really called?

On to the Falklands!


The Falklands sucked really, really bad. It’s hard to imagine a worse place on earth. My family almost moved there in the late seventies as my dad worked for the company – Southern Ships Stores – that owned most of the fisheries there. We used to call the people that lived there Bennies after Benny from Crossroads until, one day, we weren’t allowed to call them that any more because someone noticed that it was derogatory. So we called them Stills (because they were still Bennies). I coulda been a Benny!

Christmas Day on the Flight Deck

Port Stanley, the capital of The Falklands, had four pubs and they all sold the same cans of Penguin Ale. It was not uncommon to get banned from a pub in Port Stanley and, indeed, on one night I got banned from all four of them.

We spent Christmas Day anchored in San Carlos Water which the military historians among you may remember as one of the main landing sites – and the scene of a ferocious battle– from which British forces had recaptured the Falkland Islands two years earlier.

The picture on the right is taken on the Flight Deck. See the clear blue skies? I think that must’ve been the only clear day the whole time we were there. The five of us (Harry, Jock, Andy and Pincher) were great friends and went everywhere together. I wonder where they are now?

christmas dinner

And here’s us having dinner. For some reason that I don’t quite remember, I wasn’t drinking at the time but everyone else was pished as a fart.

Dunno who the dude at the front was but I remember he was like just turned sixteen. Impossibly young to us eighteen year olds!

christmas coffeeHere’s me with an after dinner coffee and my Green Machine Fighting Machine (the name of my mess’s football team) t-shirt.

Wearing that very t-shirt, I managed to play a full 90 minutes of football with 6 pints of beer in me, narrowly missing George Best’s record by 2 pints.

My BunkAnd here’s me sitting on my bunk.

Note that the bunks were stacked three high and note also that all of the bunks in the mess were, in theory, collapsible to make a kind of couch but, in practice, only two of the bunks ever were actually collapsed – the bunks in the two mess squares where the fridges, stereos and TVs were and where all the socializing happened.

The pits in mess squares were reserved for the most junior of junior ratings … unless… unless there was an Artificer Apprentice on board. Artificers (or Tiffies) were engineers and, because they were destined to be rapidly promoted up to a senior rating quite quickly, were condemned to suffer twice as badly during their apprenticeship. Most people had to tolerate 3 months in the mess square before they got promoted into a gulch pit, but tiffies – me and Jacko – had to spend the whole year there.

The rule for Mess Square pits was that you weren’t allowed to go to bed before Pipe Down at 23:00, but even then, you would have people sitting on your bed drinking until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning while you were trying to sleep. Fortunately, you couldn’t hear them over the noise of the bent propeller shaft.

After Christmas, we had a fun little trip over to South Georgia. I hope to tell you more about South Georgia another day so I’ll just mention that South Georgia may be the most beautiful place that I have ever visited.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. As an apprentice, I had to work for a period in each of the Weapon Engineering departments (small arms, Sea Dart, 4.5in Gun, Comms, Radar, fire control, Sonar plus some others that I don’t remember). That was my day job. But we each had other responsibilities too. Defense Stations and Action Stations.

On DeckFor Defense Stations (americans have a funny term for this – Sean, help me out), but it basically means “we are not under attack right now, but we might be at any moment”. Defense Stations has half the ship’s company manning the weapons systems. We were at Defense Stations for most of the time we were in the Falklands and my Defense Station was the 30mm BMARC.

It was a pretty cushy gig actually. Each gun had two people (one to load and one to fire) and a little cabin where you could be ultra-ready which was code for sleep. Actually, I was teaching myself A-Level maths at the time and spent all of my watches working through a text book that I borrowed from Jacko (except for the dog-watches, which were cur-tailed).

Every now and again, we would spring into action.

“Alarm aircraft! Bearing: Red nine-zero! Elevation two-two!”

Usually it was a drill but one time it was for real when two Argentinian Jets came to give us a scare. They closed us to about a mile before they veered away and left us in peace.

Also, every now and again, we would actually fire the thing.

Defense Stations in a 30mm BMark
Defense Stations in a 30mm BMark

A brave pilot would tow a target on a wire – or release a drone – and the

“Alarm aircraft! Bearing: Green nine-zero! Elevation two-two!”

would be followed by

“Port guns, engage!”

And then I would blast away at the target at 60 rounds per second per barrel, flanked by two 20mm Oerlikans and accompanied by the 4.5in Mk8 gun in the bow, all filling the sky with tracer.

My Action Station (translation: we are about to engage the enemy) was in the gunbay.

The gunbay is the magazine underneath the 4.5in mk8 gun way up in the bow of the ship. The gun fires a shell every 2.4 seconds and there is a feed ring thingie in the gun bay below decks that has, like, 12 rounds ready to go. There are also rows and rows of shelves of additional shells. My job – along with a little scottish dude named Jock – was, when the gun was firing, to make sure that the feed ring never got empty. Because then the gun would stop firing and we would get shouted at.

Now. Imagine, if you will, a rolling sea. Imagine a magazine full of rounds weighing about 80lbs each. Imagine two 18 year old who have 5 seconds each to grab an 80lb shell and carry it over to the feed ring.

Any Gun in a Storm
Any Gun in a Storm

Did I mention that we were way up in bow? When the ship rises and falls in a heavy sea, the forces on your legs are so strong that you can barely stand – never mind carry an 80lb shell. If it’s rolling too… fahgettaboutit.

Now imagine this:

“Naval Gunfire Support! 300 Rounds! Engage!”

Holy crap, that was hard work! The top shelves in the magazine were so high that you had to stand on tip-toe to drag the shell down from the shelf and catch it on your shoulder. 4 times out of 5, it would hit your collar-bone. Holy crap, that hurt!

The rest of our tour passed without incident. Oh. Except for the Argentinian submarine that followed us for a day or so before we started following him for another week or two. Oh. And the storm that caused the ship to roll over so far that one of the seas dart missiles fell over in the magazines and we all thought we were going to die. Oh. And the Force 11 storm  that followed us for a week on our way home.

Actually that storm was pretty nice. On any given ship, about half the people get sea sick and about half don’t. I get sick for about the first 2 or 3 days on board – whatever the weather – and then I am fine and nothing will bother me after that. Our Captain and The Jimmy both suffered from seasickness so, whenever there was heavy weather, they would send everyone who wasn’t actually required to keep the ship sailing to bed. The half of us who didn’t get seasick got to sit around drinking and playing cards. Sweet! A storm that lasted a week was a week’s vacation!

I am sure I have missed some important bits – like the Master of Your Domain contest (predating Seinfeld by several years!) and the deckchair bonfire and my Two Days’ Nines for being thirty seconds adrift from the operations room which place it was my duty to attend and the three-legged volleyball, but I am tired so, if I remember them, I’ll tell you about them another day.

Heroes take journeys, confront dragons…

[continued from There Be Dragons…]

Actually getting the tattoo was pretty cool.

Tattoo parlours always intimidated me from the outside but inside it was just like going to the dentist (if your dentist had a lot of tattoos) [is that supposed to be less intimidating?-ed]. My hostess – I wish I remembered her name. The google was no help. I’ll call her Tattooed Lady – sat me down and pulled out a Bic razor. Ooooh! Didn’t expect that. Never had my legs shaved before (or since).

Next, Tattooed Lady traced the outline of a dragon with a Bic ballpoint pen (didn’t expect that either) before going over it with the needle thingie. Holy crap! It hurts when the needle hits your tibia! I don’t know how people can tolerate it when they get the really bony bits – like the top of their feet – tattooed. When I mentioned this to Tattooed Lady, she showed me the half-finished tiger that she was having on her skull.

My New Tattoo
My Brand New Tattoo

Colouring the tattoo didn’t really hurt (though, oddly, when I had my other tattoo done it was the colouring that hurt most). As far as I could see Tattooed Lady was working blind because all I could see was a mess of red and yellow ink. Every now and again, she would wipe it away and I’d get a brief glimpse of a stunningly vivid dragon before the ink (or was it blood? *shrug*) would flood back and my dragon faded back into the mess.

When she was done, she covered it with a bandage which quickly got soaked with red ink (or was it blood? *shrug*). She gave me the after-care speech and sent me on my way.

I happened to be staying with my mother at the time and it was hard to hide the huge, red-soaked bandage. She assumed the worst but all sympathy vanished when she found out that I had not been in a horrible accident.

Everyone thought I was nuts. I got all the usual lectures.

“Only bad people get tattoos. People will think you are a bad person.”
“You’ll regret it when you are older.”
“They cost a fortune to have removed.”

But I can honestly say that I am still fiercely proud of my tattoos. I don’t notice them very often but when I do, I still get a flash of pride – as though I drew them myself. I know a ton of people that regret their tattoos and it’s usually because they are sick of seeing them or because they got some spur-of-the-moment image that they don’t like any more. Don’t even get me started on the people that tattoo the name of a former lover.

To summarize, my tips for getting a tattoo that will give you a lifetime of pleasure:

  • Get it on a part of your body (ideally not a bony part) that you don’t have to stare at all the time
  • Don’t settle on the first image that takes your fancy. Take your time over it. You will have to look at it for the next 60 years. Make a few trips to the parlour until you are sure.
  • Don’t be under the influence when you get it.

Bonus tip that may or may not apply to you:

  • I like to make big decisions alone. Getting advice is fine but in the end, it’s me that has to make the decision and I like to do it free from pressure. I make better decisions that way so I went to the parlour alone. YMMV.

I still love my tattoos. Will you still love yours in 60 years?

Lists of Things

I read a book once where the protagonist made a list, at a young age, of certain pleasures that he wanted to save – read King Lear, visit the Bahamas, eat a durian – until he was 40. He didn’t want to use up all the good stuff too early, I suppose.

Here are some things that I have wanted to do before I die.

  • Join the Navy (check)
  • Live in Australia (had a job offer once. turned it down.)
  • Play Clair de Lune on piano (almost)
  • Backpack around the world (check)
  • Live on a boat (not yet. haven’t given up on this one.  navy doesn’t count.)
  • Go to Tahiti (check)
  • Leave the Navy (check)
  • Learn to speak French (got pretty good once – in Tahiti. forgot most of it.)
  • Live in a big city (check. London, New York. I’d like to do that again.)
  • Learn to surf (check. wasn’t very good at it though)
  • Start my own company (tried. failed)
  • Live way out in the countryside (fail. not sure I’d enjoy it anyway now)
  • Learn to speak Georgian (fail. I have no idea why I wanted to speak Georgian.)
  • Live in France (I have had two job offers and turned them down. Epic fail.)
  • Dive with one and a half somersaults (check)
  • Design an application that makes money (not yet)
  • Smoke opium (this is my end of life plan in case I need to relieve the horrible pain)
  • Learn to speak Indonesian (got pretty good once. forgot all of it.)
  • Get a degree (I’ll get back to this one day)
  • Own a convertible (check. miss it terribly. need another one.)
  • Design an application that people want to use (not yet)
  • Draw a portrait (check. forgot how.)
  • Sleep on a beach (check)
  • Score a goal from a bicycle kick (fail)
  • Take my wife to the places I travelled in my youth (not yet)
  • Enjoy a beer with my son (not yet)
  • Draw a nude (check. forgot how now.)
  • Play Marsha’s Mood on piano (fail)
  • Get married on a beach (check)
  • Go back and walk through the streets where I grew up (check)
  • Brew beer (check)
  • Live in the Caribbean (fail)
  • Take a life drawing class (fail)
  • Design an application to recreate physics experiments (not yet)
  • Live by the beach (Lived in sight of the ocean – ok. the English Channel – twice. I’d like to do that again.)
  • Live in a little village (fail)
  • Sing Heartbreak Hotel on stage (check)
  • Learn to make tapas (working on it)
  • Run a training company on a boat in the Caribbean (I still dream)
  • Swim on the Great Barrier Reef (check)
  • Decorate my study with drawings of my heroes (fail – never had a study)
  • Model for a life drawing class (fail)
  • 360 on a snowboard (check)
  • Frequent a pub where everybody knows my name (not for a long time)
  • Dance with my daughter (not yet)
  • Dive into the ocean from a very high place (check. almost killed myself)
  • Play guitar (working on it)
  • Own a country pub by a river (fail)
  • Get air in the halfpipe (check)
  • Visit a nudist club (check)
  • Take my kids to celebrate Christmas with family in England (before they are too old to appreciate it [too late? – ed])
  • Score from a free kick bent around a wall (still time)
  • Decorate my study in a 1930s colonial style (fail – never had a study)
  • Own a hamster (check)
  • Sail around the Greek islands (soon, i hope)
  • Go to Cambridge (fail)
  • Visit Tuscany (not yet)
  • Backside 180 mute (check)
  • Ride a horse into the ocean (check)
  • Write a book (fail. there are too many books in the world already)

Some things that I have tried to avoid:

  • Run a marathon (check)
  • Go to Chicago (close call – changed planes in the airport once)
  • Live in suburbia (epic fail)
  • Own a lot of stuff (fail)

Some things that I have started that I’d like to finish one day:

  • Program: Emulate a Zilog Z80 (so close)
  • Essay : Why I am Ceremonial Deist (couple more drafts to go)
  • Program: Evolution simulator (this will get me my Nobel)
  • Portrait: Wife (will have to re-learn to draw it’s been so long)
  • Article: Software Design is a Waste of Time (seemed like a good idea when I started it)
  • Web site : www.ceremonialdeists.com (to host essays by famous ceremonial deists)
  • Game: Massively-multiplayer online puzzle solving game (didn’t get very far with that)
  • Poem : Return to Wonderland (doubt I’ll ever get return to that)
  • Program: Play & recommend music from Rhapsody on my SqueezeBox (Making good progress. Just needs a physics engine.)
  • Web site: www.tremblr.com (Step 3: profit)
  • Game: A Question of Speed (the oldest unfinished item on my list)
  • Program : Physics Experiment Simulator (just started!)
  • Game: Diplomacy over IM (it works. just need to finish the UI)
  • Blog: Tales of a Submariner (not even sure what it was about now)
  • Blog: New wordpress theme (haven’t actually started yet. have to finish this post first.)

Some things that I really need to do soon:

  • Fix the waste disposal
  • Make Jazz a real pendulum drawing table
  • Buy some blinds for my room
  • Book trip to Barbados
  • Synchronize Jazz’s Sansa
  • File expenses
  • Renovate bathroom
  • Replace garden fence

Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!

The WallAs I mentioned at our reunion, we had quite a few stories of teacher on pupil violence. Mine was best 🙂

It was the end of the third year (8th grade for the ‘mercans)  and we had to pick our subjects for ‘O’ Level so Paul and I went to speak with Mr Lewis to get some advice.

As a result, we were late coming into Mrs Timm’s history class. We so often were, but this time we had a rock solid excuse.

So we milked it.

Mrs Timm [angry]: Where have YOU been?

Kevin [shame-faced]: Er….

Paul [shame-faced]: Ermm…

Kevin [frantic]: Where shall we say we were?

Paul [scheming]: What if we tell her we were talking to someone?

Kevin [relieved]: Sure. Who?

Paul [delighted]: How about we say we were talking to Mr Lewis?

Kevin [delighted]: OK. Let’s say that.

Paul & Kevin [together]: We were talking to Mr Lewis.

Mrs Timm [still angry]: You know I can check?

Kevin & Paul [together. shocked]: Er? Really?

Kevin [conspiring]: Shall we change our excuse?

Paul [assertive]: No. Let’s stick with Mr Lewis.

Paul & Me [together]: We were talking to Mr Lewis.

We forgot all about it as taunting Mrs Timm was just the usual harmless fun and, anyway, we were telling the truth.

We forgot about the incident until the next day when we heard the Tasmanian Devil coming up the stairs to room 41, four at a time. The door almost burst off its hinges and it wasn’t Taz. It was much worse.

It was Basher Lewis. And he was very, very angry.

Basher Lewis [very, very angry]: How dare you take my name in vain!

[Basher Lewis takes backhanded swing at Kevin. Kevin ducks. Basher Lewis misses]

[Basher Lewis tries a forehand and connects with Kevin’s cheek]

Basher Lewis [angrier]: Why…

[Basher Lewis hits Paul open-handed in right ear]

Basher Lewis [ibid]: did…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: you…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: lie…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: to…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: Mrs Timm????????????

[sound of sobbing from the girls in the next row]

Kevin: But…

Paul: We…

It’s hard to tell your side of the story when blows are raining down on your head and eventually our teacher, Mr Gooden, decided to intervene and walked us out of the class.

Don’t know what happened next with Mr Lewis but we never did get to tell our side of the story. Until now. I hope he read it and feel guilty:-)

[I have another story with even more violence but that’ll have to wait for another day as I have to go check in for my flight]

Reunions FTW

It started with a random comment on a blog.

A few months back, I blogged about a rather famous party at my school and, last week, Helen left a comment. It’s always exciting to get comments on my blog- especially when the commenter is someone you haven’t spoken to for 25 years. Helen was at the party too.

hall-place-bexleyI mentioned that I was coming to England for a visit and, a couple of emails later, the reunion was on.

It was supposed to be just a coffee at lunch time but Helen asked Jo, and I asked Mark and the coffee turned into a meeting at a bar in the evening. 8pm at Hall Place. (is there a bar at Hall place? *shrug*)

I got there early and, having not slept for more than about 6 hours for over a week and, being super-jet-lagged, I managed to catch 17 minutes of sleep while I waited.

I woke up in time for Mark to arrive and catch up on the missing years (Mark and I started school together on the same day in 1971. Mark is in this photo, can you spot him? He hasn’t changed.)

Wendy & MarkHelen and Jo arrived just after 8 except that it was Wendy and Jo (Sadly, Helen couldn’t make it).

The memories flowed and flowed.

We were sharing our stories of teacher on pupil violence (stay tuned for mine) and of romances past and of who was married to whom when a man walked in who looked oddly familiar and he obviously knew who we were.

JoI had instantly recognized Wendy but it took me a moment to remember David’s name! David said he didn’t care much about people from the old days but he said if I cared enough to cross the Atlantic, he should probably care enough to stop by on the way home from work. I am glad he did!

We had a great time (at least I did. I should let the others speak for themselves). I could have talked all night…and Davidwe would have if the bar staff had not turned the lights down and sat on a table sighing obviously.

I enjoyed it all the more for being so spontaneous and I am looking forward to the next one in 2044. We’ll be 68. Maybe the rest of you will show up next time.

UPDATE: It’s 3:30am. My flight leaves in 3 hours and I still haven’t slept. As Geir used to say on a big powder day at Tahoe: You can rest on the lift.


On Monday I will be visiting the town of my childhood for the first time in over 20 years.

I wonder if it has changed at all?

I wonder if I have?


The name is thought to be derived from Cetecopp meaning ‘seat shaped or flat topped hill’; it has its earliest recorded use in 1254. Sidcup originated as a tiny hamlet on the road from London to Maidstone.

But Sidcup is a relative newcomer. I actually lived in Footscray.

Foots Cray is a place in the London Borough of Bexley, near the town of Sidcup, in southeast London, England, United Kingdom.

It took its name from Godwin Fot, a local Saxon landowner recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, and from the River Cray that passes through the village. It lay on the old Maidstone Road (now bypassed by the A20 road) leading from London to north Kent. Until the 20th century, Foots Cray dominated the nearby, less ancient hill-top hamlet of Sidcup.

Sad and Red

Dear Mr Ferguson,

I am very happy that the reds are back on top of the table despite the recent poor run of form. I am also delighted that we are in the semis of The Champions League.  The League Cup and World Club Cup and Charity Shield trophies were nice too.

manu logoBut I can’t tell you how sad the ignomious end to the FA Cup run made me.

I understand that you really, really want to win the Premiership and the Champions League. I get that. I do too.

And I understand that you need to rest players at the end of a long hard season. But still I am sad.

1976 FA Cup FinalThe FA Cup has a special place in my heart. For the 76 cup, I dressed up all of my cuddly toys in red – Bugs as a player and Uncle Ted as a fan – and put them in my window. I treasure the heartache of that defeat as much as the joy when we beat Liverpool in 77. I still remember looking forward to school so i could rub Gavin Mantel’s nose in  it.

And so, I think it was disrespectful to field a team of reserves in an FA Cup semi-final. At Wembley Stadium no less!

It was disrespectful to Wembley Stadium, to the oldest competition in Football and, especially, to my memories.

Could you not have played a decent playmaker? Scholes was fit. And Giggs. Even Nani or Carrick!

Why did you stay in the competition so long, only to throw it away in such an easy game against such weak opposition? It was just one more game! One goal and we would have been in the final! You may think 11 wins is enough, but I, for one, would have been overjoyed with one more.

Mr Ferguson, I am disappointed in you.

The Ragged Clown

A Pound’s a Pound the world around

In my travelling days, I used to keep one note and one coin from every country I visited. I just came across some notes in a photo album and, on a whim, had a look on eBay to see if they are worth anything.

Gibraltar Pound

I have a Gibraltar Pound from 1979. This is a £50 so I imagine mine is worth a bit less.

This one has a $255 bid.

Falkland Pound 1984

I have this one with the exact same date!

I arrived in the Falklands at the end of October 1984, so it was freshly printed and in perfect condition!

eBay says $69.

But…wait..for it….

Falkland Pound1982

I also have a £1 note from 15th June 1982 (Argentina surrendered on the 14th).

The starting bid on this £10 note is over $1000!! (Mine is not in as good condition)

Sozzlehurst and Hiccup

School coat of armsA long time ago, I went to a school called Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar. It was a good school: very academic and very sporty. Purple blazers. It was about as close to being a public (i.e. private) school that you could get without paying large sums of money. At one time, Chiselhurst and Sidcup was officially the second best school in the country (after Manchester Grammar).

Then one day the school became famous. Front page of every national newspaper. On the editorial pages for about a week. Suddenly, Chislehurst and Sidcup was a symbol for everything that was wrong with the country.

I was a part of that and this is my story.

I had already left school to join the Navy in 1982 but all of my friends were still in the sixth form when I came home for Christmas holiday. Come to the Christmas Party they said. Of course I said. Why wouldn’t I?

Make sure you bring beer my friends told me because we are only allowed beer, wine or cider. Nothing stronger. So I brought some beer. Most people did. Mr Gooden brought a couple of boxes of wine.

Mr Gooden saw me going into the sixth form centre where the party was to take place. Where are you going, Kevin? He asked. He checked my bag and, when he saw that it was only beer, he let me in.

The party was fantastic!

Spirits were high. Lots of dancing. Lots of singing. Apart from that one kid who threw up, no one really got drunk because we had all been having beer at birthday parties since we were thirteen.

The highlight for me was when Come On Eileen came on and everyone held hands in a big, boisterous circle and sang with lung-bursting joy. I got to hold hands with Jo Burston (who I had wanted to hold hands with for 4 years) and we danced together for the rest of the afternoon (and the next three years).

The rest of the vacation passed without incident – except that I started dating Jo Burston – and I went back to HMS Fisgard brim full with happy memories…

…until the second week of January.

Suddenly, our party was on the front page of every national newspaper. Every op-ed page had a stern reflection on alcohol in schools. A few papers had 6 page special features on the evils of drink. The Sun had an editorial cartoon.

Sozzlehurst and Hiccup

I called Jo that night to find out what was going on and she said she was suspended.

The whole sixth form had been gathered into the assembly hall and given a lecture. The headmaster called out some names of kids who admitted to being at the party and said they were suspended. Other kids then said I was at the party too then more kids (I imagine I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!) until finally the headmaster said everyone who was at the party should just go home because they were all suspended and the whole sixth form walked out.

Good times!

My Deepest Shame

Roger Ebert has written a powerful, meandering essay about shame.

The essay takes many twists and turns and each one of them is fascinating journey in its own right.

It starts out as a review of the movie The Reader

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with “The Reader,” that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t agree or disagree. What I thought was, “The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about not speaking when you know you should.

[It’s great that The Reader is not about the holocaust because I’d like to see it and my wife wouldn’t watch it with me if it were about the holocaust.]

In his first meander, Ebert uses Twain

That wise man Mark Twain told us: “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”

as an excuse to reel off a laundry list of Things He Believes

This is true. It is even sometimes true of me. Perhaps of you. However, there are certain areas in which I consider myself an authority, like the movies. I have devoted years to learning about the Theory of Evolution. I think Creationism is superstitious poppycock. I believe the problem with the literal interpretation of the Bible is that anyone can easily discover its support for the opinions they already hold. I believe Conservatism has proven itself disastrous every time it has been implemented in this country.

After meandering past speaking engagements, dinner parties, segregation and atheism – with every meander a gem – he ends up back at The Reader.

The Reader, Ebert says, [Spoiler Alert!] is about a woman’s wrongful conviction that she could have easily avoided if only she could overcome her shame about her inability to read. A key witness realizes this but fails to speak up because of his own shame that he had an affair with her.

This is where his essay gets interesting because it leads Ebert into a riff on the power of shame

We learn of young mothers who put their babies in dumpsters because they are ashamed of their pregnancy. Young fathers who murder their girlfriends, simply because of the universal human reality of pregnancy. We hear of prison guards who follow orders to torture, orders they know are illegal and immoral. And leaders who issue the orders. We learn of terrorists who die and kill others rather than face the shame of being frightened to. We hear of gang members who kill people unknown to them, not because they want to, but because they have been shamed into “proving” themselves as men. We hear of Wall Street executives who lead their firms into what they know are dangerous and unsound practices, because they would be shamed to be outdone by rival executives. They steal the savings from millions of victims, so they can win a pissing contest.

and ultimately triggers Ebert’s memory of a shameful episode in his own past. Ebert’s shame story is about cheating in a game of chess with a blind man who was his very good friend.

More than 40 years have passed since that game, but I have not forgotten it. I can never even think of the University of Cape Town without it coming to mind. My cheating itself was shameful. When I denied it, that was despicable. Herb, I hope someone reads this and tells you about it. You were right. Of course, you always knew you were right, and we both knew that I had lied.

Just reading that makes me feel that familiar burning sensation that heralds the unbidden return of my least favourite memory. Suddenly I am transported back to my fourth year Latin exam in Room 41 and

David Samuel is handing me his exercise book under the desk.

We are halfway through our end of year exams.

Our exams are kind of a big deal because, unlike America in 2009, in England circa 1981 the only thing we will have to show for all our years of schooling is a certificate that said how we performed in a bunch of exams that we’ll take at the end of the fifth year [maps to 10th grade – ed].

We do one of these six hour exams – an ‘O’ Level – for each subject we take (plus an oral for languages). I’m taking 9: English, English, Maths, Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, French and Latin.

Every year until now has ended with a solid battery of  two weeks of exams with 8 hours a day under exam conditions. Our grades throughout the year are based on classwork and homework but all that was tossed aside after the exams. Only the exam counts. The fourth year exams are special because they are a dress rehearsal for the real thing at the end of the fifth year.

For me, exams are a godsend. The laziest student ever (at least until I have children of my own), I have made avoiding work into an art-form. In the last two years of chemistry, I have written a total of three and a half pages of notes and have done no homework at all. I read computer magazines in Latin class and I am teaching myself BASIC in French. I am bottom of my class. In two weeks I will be top. Again. They stopped giving me ‘most improved student awards’ after four years of improving from worst to best every exam time.

Best of all, I genuinely enjoy exam time. We have no homework assigned and I have no need to study. The fact that I have no notes to study from is irrelevant. I will not open a book. Last Christmas, Miss Mills said that we should be studying about 6 hours a day by now. I have studied for less than 6 hours total in my whole life and Not At All for these exams.

Each subject has an essay-based exam and a quiz-based (occasionally multi-choice) exam. In Latin, it’s translations.

In class, we have translated Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Tacitus’ Histories, umpteen poems by each of Ovid, Horace and Catullus and the complete works of Pliny the Younger. In the exam, we’ll have to translate some 10 or 12 of these.

And now I’m sitting in the back row of room 41, next to David Samuel and, when I open the exam paper, I realize that I don’t know anything.

It’s easy to fake your way through translating French. It’s all “Ou est la place de la Concorde” but Latin is much more precise, more distant. More foreign… And you certainly can’t fake your way through poetry. They expect us to understand it.

David Samuel leans over, opens his bag and shows me that he has a book with all the translations. “Give it to me”, I signal. He smiles and hands it over. I copy just enough to save me from being booted out of Latin class because Mr Hickey doesn’t want bad students sullying his record.

That feeling of dread when I opened the exam paper inspired me to study for an exam for the first time in my life.

I still didn’t study for Maths or any of the sciences (all As, in case you are wondering) because they were easy. Nor did I study for English Lit as I had never got better than 8% and studying wasn’t going to make much difference. [I didn’t even read one of the assigned books – Brighton Rock – until I was 23. When I did finally read it, I fell in love with Graham Greene and have now read all of his books. If I had read it at 15 like I was supposed to, I might’ve gotten a better grade at ‘O’ Level but I might’ve hated Greene and never read him again.]

But I did study Latin.


I memorized the translations of every single one of those histories, poems, legal documents and letters to the Emperor Trajan [except Pliny X.96 – the one about the Christians, but that’s a story for a different day].

I still remember many of them now

That Suffenus, whom we know well Varus,
Is a charming, witty and sophisticated man.
Yet at the same time he writes more verse that anyone else.

Not, as usually happens, on second class papyrus.
He uses new papyrus, all ruled with lead and smoothed with pumice…

But, more than the poems, I remember the shame because it eats into my conception of who I am. I have barely spoken with David Samuel since that day but I don’t think I could even look him in the eye if I saw him again.

Worse still, he was the boyfriend (and may have married?) of my girlfriend’s best friend. I imagine him telling Sarah who tells Jo, remember Kevin? The kid who was good at exams? He was a cheat. I saw him. He used to take books into all the exams.

David Samuel’s mum used to work with my mum. They were very competitive about their offspring as mothers often are. What if David’s mum knows I am a cheat?

I never cheated again but that once was enough to give me a lifetime of shame.

The common element of all these shame stories leads me to propose the following thesis:

Our greatest shame arises when we do something that is not just bad but that conflicts with our image of ourselves.

Ebert’s is bleaker:

I believe the movie may be demonstrating a fact of human nature: Most people, most of the time, all over the world, choose to go along. We vote with the tribe. What would we have done during the rise of Hitler? If we had been Jews, we would have fled or been killed. But what if we were one of the rest of the Germans?

It’s a shame that the move is about the holocaust because I’d really like to go see it but my normal movie going companion won’t take me so it will be condemmed to my Netflix queue where it will fester until it finally arrives and sits on the shelf for three weeks because I can only watch those movies after everyone else has gone to bed which seems to get later and later as the years go by.

It’s a shame, I tell you.