“Where do you get your ideas from?”
That’s the one! I was asked it just recently, and I could give only the unsatisfying reply, “Life”.
The answer is unsatisfying because it’s vague, and sort of accurate, but sort of rubbish too. If we could only write about our own lives, fiction would not exist. In what way is it accurate? Let me tell you where I got the idea for my very first episode of my very first series.
I was a funny sort of a soldier. At 17 I had already seen a whole load of life – life in Lancashire slums, as a lodger in a stiflingly respectable semi, as a bereaved child, an Army brat, a pious and truly devout Catholic. I could be a rough and ready Lancashire lass one minute and a naive schoolgirl the next. What the hell was the Army going to do with me? If I didn’t know who I was, they certainly didn’t. They started off by giving me a 3 day intelligence test and it turned out that although the education system had placed me in a remedial stream doing needlework and cookery and art rather than anything academic, I wasn’t educationally subnormal after all. I was normal. Result! The story is too long and boring to go into but the end result was that I became a Military Policewoman.
A Military Policewoman who looked like an Irish schoolkid. A Military Policewoman who was required to caution and reprimand grown men and a) didn’t want to, and b) was quite scared of them and c) thought most Military Regulations were rubbish. What Convent girl wants to look up into the face of a 6 foot wide-beamed Para and tell him he’s out of bounds and will be reported? I’ve never been one for towing the line overmuch. I didn’t care if they were out of bounds, or not wearing a beret, or exceeding the garrison speed limit. Good luck to them, I said.
But if I wasn’t a good policewoman, I wasn’t a bad one either, and I was handy to have around. There were a few thousand soldiers in Catterick and only 4 female policewomen so we came in useful for family liaison and stuff like that. For example (she said with a trace of residual bitterness) when England won the World Cup in ’66 because I was a girl my male colleagues put me in the duty room on the phones while the whole rest of the UK watched the match on the telly. So, I had my uses.
In 18 months I never actually arrested or charged a single soldier. One day, called in for a routine assessment, my OC said something like “Gannon, we like having you around, you’re almost a mascot, and you’re a good driver, but you’re not a policewoman, are you?” And I shifted a bit and gazed at a cobweb in the corner and recited ‘Lars Porsena of Clusium’ in my head (I still do, if I feel unwanted tears coming) and I finally agreed with him. He said they’d discussed it and suggested that I was better suited to nursing or something like that. So that’s what I did for the next 19 years.
So now, let’s get back to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” In the first ever episode of Soldier, Soldier (which ran to 7 series) there was a young Military Policeman, called Nancy. And something happened to her, something that had happened in real life to me, my one and only claim to anything even vaguely like an arrest or caution in my short and inglorious military career:
It was 1966, the era of beehive hair, pointy toed kitten heels, American tan stockings (M&S) and outrageous eye shadow (remember Dusty Springfield?) . I was on driving duty that day, buzzing around the garrison, doing errands, picking up the bacon butties from our favourite caff – you know, top level policing stuff. I had been driving for only a week or two so this was a great adventure – tootling around the Regimental lines, playing at being a grown up. What 17 year old wouldn’t love it? In Daily Orders we’d been told that an MOD landcover (blue and grey) had been stolen from a depot in the South of England. Its theft had been reported on the BBC Home Service (gosh, this is making me feel ancient!) but what had not been reported was that there was a valuable piece of armoury involved. We weren’t told what it was, but the general consensus was that it was a gun – hence the BBC involvement. The Duty Officer told us to check the registration number of any MOD landrover and even if the reg was right, if there was anything a bit out of the ordinary about the driver we were to pull them up.
My pal, Jock ( a Scot and we aren’t terribly original in the Army) was a year older than me and very (read between the lines) experienced. She was off-duty, going on a hot date in Richmond and she flagged me down. Now, my vehicle wasn’t the best choice for hot-date-transport. It was a Landrover, emblazoned with ‘Military Police’ in huge red letters, sporting a whip-like radio aerial and anyway, giving lifts and haring off on your own happy outing was strictly, but strictly, against the rules. You would be up on OC’s Orders, fined and demoted if you did anything like that. So I picked her up. Obviously.
Jock clambered into the cab, hitching her min skirt up and worried about her stockings getting laddered, and then she held onto the grab rail as I set off. We hadn’t gone far, chatting away, when we passed some married quarters where a good friend of mine lived, and for whom I baby-sat. I looked at her house, hoping to wave at the children but instead of seeing them I saw a blue and grey landrover in a patch of field behind the houses. It couldn’t be. It really, really couldn’t be. Could it? Everyone in the UK mainland looking for it and…. I mean, just a mile from my MP station, right in the middle of one of the biggest Military Garrisons in Europe… it couldn’t be.
Telling Jock to hold on tight I turned left onto a sort of cart track… and drove to the edge of the field. Jock said something like ‘You eedjit, what you doing now?’ Here I had a better view. It was deffo an MOD landrover, in the middle of a rough field, with a bloke sitting behind the wheel. Of course I couldn’t remember what the reg number was, and as I reached for my notebook, the vehicle started up. So I swung into action… I drove onto the field. Jock protested about her date, about being late, about me ruining her life for ever…. but my latent police instincts had been awoken. Unfortunately, those police instincts were pretty crap. I drove alongside the MOD landy and prepared to get out to speak to the driver. He, of course, waited until my feet were on the grass and then he took off.
I had to turn my vehicle in that lumpy bumpy field (the turning circle on a 1960’s landy being approx 2 miles across) to hare off after him. We were evenly matched, each in the same vehicles, and what he possessed in experience and skill I made up for in enthusiasm and recklessness.
Our radio communications back then were poor but Jock was an added complication – I couldn’t pause long enough to throw her out and if I called for back-up I’d be discovered with her on board. So it was an exciting one-on-one pursuit. We charged all over Catterick – screaming through roads, lanes, across verges…. at one point teetering along a canal bank… In the garrison, back then, there was network of railway lines, once used to transport supplies and armaments. They were narrow gauge as far as I remember but higher than a speed bump is now, and as we soared over them our bums left the seats and our heads cracked the roof. As we hurtled along, Jock beside me screaming ‘Ma hair, ye bastard! Ma *** stockings!’ I tried to tell her about the theft reported in Daily Orders, shouting above the screaming engine and the clunky gear changes (double de-clutching, remember?) . When I got to the bit about the gun, Jock became quite unreasonable. ‘We’ll be bloody kilt! Let me oot, ye mad cow.’ and other sentiments like that. But my blood and my dander were up and there was no way in hell I was going to stop. This was fun. I managed to keep him in sight most of the time, and even when he was lost to me I soon caught up again, knowing this maze of roads and supply lines better than he did. I almost had him penned in when he turned into a dead end but he beat me to the turn and left me in his dust again.
I think the chase lasted about ten furious, fantastic, knuckle-biting minutes. I think there were moments when I whooped with exhilaration.
And then, somehow, he had reached the main road, a road where there were civvies and buses and people walking their dogs and the fun was gone. It was suddenly deadly serious. What if he mowed someone down? What if I did? What if this thief was IRA? My family knew all about the IRA. What if this was a plan to infiltrate the military base and plant a bomb? Or what if the thief was a madman? What if he was a Communist? I was 17. To me the possibilities were endless and giddying, but the adrenaline just kept pumping. I had a job to do and I was gonna damn well do it, if it killed me. Oh, and Jock.
She was in tears – her mascara had run, her shoes were off, she was clinging onto that grab rail with both hands, thrown from one side to the other, her handbag was on the floor, its contents strewn everywhere, she was hitting her head on the windscreen, the roof…. and her language! There were words I had never heard before.
We came to a roundabout, the main roundabout in Catterick, and he could have gone any one of four ways. No sign of him. As I changed down and circled the central island, scanning the roads, I realised that right there, at that junction, there was an MOD depot. There were about twenty MOD land rovers lined up in an open-fronted garage and I realised that he could be in any one of them – no time to check the registration in my notebook, no time to do anything but charge into that depot and find the swine.I screamed to a an abrupt halt and yelled at Jock to feel the bonnets – feel for a hot one – quick quick! Poor Jock. The romantic date was forgotten….
I think she managed to hobble past a few vehicles in her high heels, doing her best, but it was me who found the red hot bonnet, me who smelt the burnt brake and clutch linings, me who heard the clicks and sighs as hot metal cooled…. and it was me, running to the back of that stolen landrover who found the villain, the foul and murderous thief.
I screamed with the fright of seeing him. For a few seconds I was terrified. And then I wasn’t.
He was standing in the shadows, his heart beating as loud in his ears as mine was in mine. He was, like me, 17. He was pale and spotty, shaking, a squaddie in the Infantry, he’d gone AWOL and now he was just plain scared. I stopped dead in front of him. I think we were both too breathless to speak for a minute or two. Then he said “Sorry”. I remember not knowing what to say to him, and seeing that there were tears in his eyes. I remember putting my hand out and taking his and leading him, as if he was a child, back to my landrover.
It was only half a mile or so back to the Military Police HQ (150 Provost Company for those of you who care about these things) and all the urgency and excitement and triumph had fled. There was just sympathy, apology. He apologised for frightening me as I came across him. I apologised for finding him. We both said “Its OK.”
Jock quietly gathered her things together and put them back in her bag, and hobbled off towards the bus stop to what remained of her hot date. The lad said he wouldn’t tell anyone there was someone with me. I asked him why he’d done it and he said he was homesick, and he hadn’t been thinking straight…. he was on his way home to see his mum. He didn’t know there was anything at all in the back of the vehicle. He was just going to go home for a couple of days and deal with the fall-out when he got back.
When I walked into the duty room with this young lad, there was disbelief. I told them where the stolen vehicle was and someone was despatched post haste to secure it and its contents. My colleagues gazed at me, stunned. Of all people…. The bewildered culprit was led off for interview. The OC came out of his office to pat me on the back. Someone brought me tea and someone else headed off to get me a bacon butty. The Orderly Sergeant rang the MOD with the good news. 150 Provost Company was united in its disbelief. Luce, who had never charged or arrested or even told anyone off…. oh. Hang on! Hang on a cotton picking’ moment…..
The CSM (he terrified me, but he was such a kind man) poked his head around the duty room door. “Er, Gannon… tell me….. did you caution him? Did you tell him he was under arrest? ” His gaze was unwavering. I swallowed. His voice went down a notch. The entire duty room fell silent as everyone paused and turned “Tell me, please tell me that you cautioned him?”
All I could do was shrug, recite ‘Lars Porsena of Clusium’ in my head and finally blurt out “He was only borrowing it, Sir. He was homesick.”
So someone else had to caution him and then charge him. I’m glad.
And twenty years later I used that story when I wrote Soldier,Soldier.
Sometimes you can get your story ideas from life.
I don’t know what the piece of armament was – but it wasn’t a gun. And I don’t know what happened to the lad. But I know the Army and I know that his punishment would have taken into account his youth, his homesickness, his lack of malice. I wonder where he is now, and how he remembers that day?