The war broke out four months before my 13th birthday. I remember the sirens
sounding almost immediately after the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain,
announced on the morning of Sunday, September 3, 1939 that we were at war
with Germany. Everyone thought we were going to be bombed out of existence
before the week was out. The war didn't affect me all that much until a month
later. There was an air of tremendous excitement when I arrived at school
that Tuesday morning.
We were being evacuated. My mother had dressed me in my new dark blue suit
and sparkling white shirt so that I would be put in "a good respectable
home." Two or three other boys and girls had also been spruced up for
the occasion but all of us came from working-class families and some of us
looked rather more respectable than others. I didn't feel very brave about
the whole business and looked round anxiously for some particular friend to
keep me company. Then I saw Hertzel and a wave of relief surged over me. I
stuck to him like glue and suddenly we were on a bus. A teacher stopped at
our seat to speak to us. Hertzel told her my mother had told him to look after
me. I was a bit indignant about this bare-faced fib but I let it pass. Even
at the age of 12 Hertzel had a sharp brain and a ready answer to all emergencies.
His silver tongue later helped him to accumulate a considerable amount of money
but he was a firm believer that you can't take it with you and lived his life
accordingly. The bus started off amid cheers and we had embarked on our great
adventure. My mother had looked at the gas mask and label round my neck without
comment. It was a long time before I felt I knew what was going through her
mind. Before long Hertzel and I were sitting on our luggage in Newmilns
town hall in Ayrshire with the other evacuees. Natives of the town walked
round eyeing us critically and from time to time muttering to an official, "I'll
take that one." I felt like something in the autumn sales. Panic swelled
up in me when someone pointed at Hertzel and ignored me completely, but my
friend stood by me staunchly. "I'm sorry, you'll have to take
us both or I can't go," he said. No one contradicted him. They must
have sensed he was a formidable opponent. The next thing I recall is walking
along the town's main street with Hertzel. A middle-aged, dignified looking
man recognised us for what we were and stopped us. It crossed both our minds
in the same instant. This looked like the type of person we would like to be
billeted with. It was Hertzel of course who blurted it out. "Would you like a couple
of evacuees?" The man smiled and explained why he couldn't take us.
I forget the reason. He told us he was the provost of the town and we were
aghast at our impertinence. At least I was, I'm not so sure about Hertzel. We
went back to the town hall and sat on our suitcases again. Eventually a young
woman smiled at us and said, "I'll take these two." Our
white shirts and new suits had done the trick. Away we trudged with our luggage
to Mrs Campbell's neat little house at the top of a steep hill. After we got
installed Hertzel and I went out again. His mother had given him half a crown
(12½ pence) to last him until she came
to see him at the week-end. Hertzel made straight for a cafe and bought
for himself. And he kept buying ice cream, for himself, until the half-crown
melted away too. Not surprisingly he got a tummy ache. That night when
went to bed the pain of Hertzel's tummy ache transcended all the terrors
of war and evacuation. Our hostess had the cure. She brought Hertzel a
heated dinner plate and put it on his stomach. We got burned a couple of
times when it fell out of its cover but eventually Hertzel's stomach ache
subsided. Next morning we went to our new school and for a while I felt
as though we were on a different planet. The Ayrshire brand of English
differed greatly from that of Gorbals. I am prepared to admit that neither
reflected much credit on their users. I stayed in Newmilns a month and
my mother came to see me every week-end. One day a parcel of foodstuffs
and sweets arrived for me from my Auntie Debby in London and that evening
I asked our hostess if she would put up the black-out curtains on the window
of our bedroom so that Hertzel and I could open my parcel. Mrs Campbell
asked her husband to do it and an argument started. It ended when Mr Campbell
set about his wife with a dog chain. When my mother came at the week-end
I asked her to take me home. Hertzel stuck it out for another month before
the call of the city jungle proved too strong for him. I had not heard
anything about Herzel for some years until a relative of his phoned me
in April 1995 to tell me he had died. Another link with my youth had gone. When
I came home from Newmilns all the able-bodied teachers in my school had
been called up for the armed forces and we were left with a few elderly,
rather world-weary souls whose years of struggle with young Gorbalonians
had taken a heavy toll. It soon occured to me that I wasn't learning much
that would help me to make some kind of meaningful life for myself. That
occupied a lot of my thoughts. It seemed to be that all the adults I knew
had menial jobs in tailor shops, furniture and tailoring workshops and butcher
shops. On Friday, December 14, 1940, the day before my 14th birthday
I arrived home from school, threw my schoolbag into a corner, and announced
to my mother, "I'm
not going back." Unskilled jobs weren't all that difficult to get in
those days and I got a couple of them, but I didn't keep them for long. One
was in the darkroom of a photographer, another was in a garage. After work
most days I walked down to Gorbals public library and buried myself in books.
There were rows upon rows of them on such a bewildering range of subjects and
I used to think how clever all these authors were to write a whole book about
all these interesting things. I wasn't very discriminating in my reading. I
read for hours about strange, far away lands and peoples and about the seas
and stars and deserts and about about explorers and doctors and scientists
and lawyers and archeologists and animals and anything else that would take
me away for a while from the gray streets and black buildings. I vividly recall
walking the half-mile or so home when the library closed dreaming of being
somebody of importance with a big office and a big desk and telephones and
people constantly coming in to ask my advice. I knew from the all the books
I was reading that there was a better life out there somewhere and I was determined
to try to achieve it. Young and unsophisticated as I was I also realised that
life was no rehearsal. This was the real thing and you get only one chance
to make something worthwhile of it. Then I chanced on books on journalism and
the characters that followed that profession and the adventures they had and
the people they met and I decided that was for me. It was a curious ambition
for a boy whose family were barely literate. In later years when I was interviewed
by other journalists I always said I became a journalist because I had seen
films with Humphrey Bogart or Lloyd Nolan or George Raft as a wisecracking,
daring crime reporter who helped dumb cops solve gruesome murders. I'm not
even sure these actors ever played newspapermen. I never did reach the heights
of the newsmen I read about in those early days in Gorbals library but I did
achieve a certain status and reputation over the years. I have never regretted
going into journalism, even if it's not the most respected of trades. In later
years I have regretted never having taken piano lessons but I'm not really
envious of musicians, painters, architects or men who build great bridges.
I am happiest when I'm putting words down on paper, even if I'm not a Norman
Mailer, Gore Vidal or Morris West. I can still do things with words that many
other people cannot do. Writing also helps me considerably by making me concentrate
so that everything else, anxieties, chores, worrying about trivialities are
driven out of my mind for a while. The war that was supposed to be over by
Christmas lasted six years and before it ended I was a soldier. My mother and
father understandably didn't want their son to go into the army. They were
convinced that anyone who went into the armed services were given a uniform
and rifle and sent out the following day to be killed. My mother tried to think
up all kinds of devious schemes to keep me out. At one point she tried to persuade
our family doctor to give me a letter to take to my medical to say I wet the
bed. Someone had told her they didn't take men with that particular complaint.
Someone else told her to get me to swallow some chewing gum before I went for
the medical. This was supposed to show up in x-rays as an ulcer. Of course
I wouldn't play along with these ploys. Not that I wouldn't have been happy
to stay out of the army but I did have some pride.
Even when my parents died many years later they still did not know that
I could have stayed out of the army. When I went to register for service
the clerk told me I could stay out because my father was registered as a
Russian alien and I would automatically revert to his nationality when I
reached the age of 21. If I went into the services I would become a fully-fledged
British citizen at 21.
"Get me in quick," I told the clerk."I don't want to be
a bloody Russian." As I said, my parents never knew about this exchange.
They would have been happy if I had become a Martian if it had meant staying
out of the services.
My father saw me off to the Black Watch barracks in Perth that Thursday
morning in 1945. He arrived home with a badly bruised face. After my train
drew out he walked out of the Central railway station with his eyes fixed
disconsolately on the pavement and walked into a lamp post, almost knocking
My army career was undistinguished but interesting. For a time I was an
army boxer and once created a sensation by hitting an opponent. My sergeant
nominated me for several inter-company boxing matches to get back at me for
a run-in we had on parade one morning. Passing along the ranks he stopped
at me and made a number of uncomplimentary remarks about my appearance.
When he was finished I said quietly, "Have you ever considering consulting
a taxidermist, sergeant?" Sergeant McCann of the Black Watch glared
at me and passed on. About 15 minutes after our parade was dismissed I was
lying on my bed when the door of the barrack room burst open and Sergeant
McCann marched up to my bed and bawled, "On your feet soldier." I
was marched to the adjutant's office where the sergeant reported me for everything
but mutiny on the high seas. Apparently he had gone to the barracks library
after the parade and looked up the word taxidermist.
"What exactly did the accused say to you sergeant?" asked
"He told me to get stuffed sir," said Sergeant McCann.
"I did not, sir." I said indignantly.
"What did you say then?"
"I asked the sergeant if he had ever considered consulting
a taxidermist, sir."
The adjutant's face contorted as if were trying hard not to choke and he
sentenced me to seven days' confinement to barracks.
On leave one week-end I was walking with my mother when we met
an elderly Jewish friend of hers who said questioningly, "You're in de army?" and
added, "You must know my nephew Sidney. He's in de army also, a tall
fair haired, good looking boy, yes?" There didn't seem to be any point
in telling her there were quite a number of guys in the army I hadn't met.
I did my training at Queens Barracks, Perth and half way through
my training was sent to an army physical training camp at Shrewsbury,
be "built up"a bit. I wasn't the weediest soldier in the British
army when I was called up but I wasn't far from it. When I went back to Perth
after the three-month course I was a great deal fitter and stronger.
Back at Queens Barracks I saw a notice outside the adjutant's office asking
for volunteers to learn shorthand and typing so that they could be sent to
the British embassy in Washington DC. I immediately volunteered as I was
already a good shorthand typist and was transferred to the Royal Army Service
Corps and posted to an army transit camp near Little Budworth in Cheshire
as a clerk. This was the army's version of logic. A number of former joiners,
plumbers and coal merchants joined the shorthand/typing course and were later
sent to America.
A couple of years later my knowledge of shorthand and typing got me posted
to Egypt as secretary to the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General, Middle East
Land Forces at Fayid in the Suez Canal zone.
Much of the 12 months I spent in Egypt was occupied typing letters
to generals in surrounding military theatres. My boss, also a general,
a flawed knowledge
of the English language. "How does that sound, Diamond?," he would
say when he had dictated a letter.
"May I speak freely sir?" I enquired politely.
"Er..let's say it's not a model of lucidity, sir."
"Impudent bugger. You write the bloody thing then," so
from that day he told me what he wanted to say and I drafted the letters,
how a private soldier in the British Army came to issue orders to generals
throughout the Middle East. A lot of my time, too, was devoted to maintaining
a stock of tennis balls, racquets, and other vital sports supplies for officers'
clubs during my tour of duty in Egypt in 1947.
I was introduced to the wonderful world of sex by a persuasive
Egyptian belly dancer with a large family to support. I was a poor pupil,
because I was scared sti....er...silly. Many years later when I was entertaining
my colleagues in the dining room of the City Chambers with this and other
stories I declared, "I don't think you guys appreciate that people like
me came out of the army trained killers!" I couldn't understand why
they burst into hysterical laughter.
The year before the State of Israel came into existence in 1948 was not
a good time for a Jewish soldier in the British Army in the Middle East.
The British detested the Arabs and the Jews, the Arabs detested the British
and the Jews, the Jews hated the British and the Arabs, and I was in the
middle of it all.
There weren't all that many places to go in the immediate vicinity of my
camp at Fayid, but I seem to recall looking furtively around whenever I wandered
any distance from my tent in case someone decided to take a shot at me. It
wasn't unusual for me to get the blame for Haganah or Irgun exploits. Haganah
(the Hebrew word for defence) was the forerunner of the Israel Defence Forces.
It was formed in 1920 in response to Arab attacks and British inability to
defend Palestinian Jewry.
Irgun Zvai Leumi (national military organisation) was formed in 1931 because
its leaders felt that a purely defence orgnisation was not enough. The organisation's
objective was to obtain the admission to Palestine of Jews from the death
camps of Europe. Later it focussed its attacks on the British Mandatory authorities.
One of Irgun's exploits while I was in Egypt really generated hatred of
anyone vaguely connected with Jews or Israelis, the hanging of two British
army sergeants. This was in response to the hanging of four Irgun men in
Acre prison by the British authorities. It was a bad time for everyone in
the Middle East.
While I was engulfed in indents for tennis balls and racquets my co-religionists
who had survived the holocaust in Europe continued to arrive in Palestine,
despite British efforts to keep them out. Then an event took place that shocked
the world and reinforced the British Government's decision five months earlier
to hand over the Palestine problem to the United Nations. This was the voyage
of the immigrant ship EXODUS from France to Haifa and its enforced return
to Germany with more than 4000 Jewish refugees from all over Europe. The
story of the voyage was to have echoes in my life 40 years later.