I became 14 years old in March 1973. My great-grandfather, James Neary, turned 14 in November 1848.
I can remember quite vividly my preoccupations as a fourteen-year-old. Would The Sweet be able to follow up their number one success with ‘Blockbuster’, with their next single, ‘Hell Raiser’? Would Southall Football Club be able to hang on to the mercurial Alan Devonshire long enough to launch a concerted promotion push before he could be gobbled up by a professional team? Would I be taken on as a Saturday boy at Fine Fare, the Grocers? Would Auntie Hilda knit me another garish, nipple chafing tank top for my birthday?
The outcomes of those preoccupations were:
Hell Raiser started an agonising run of form that saw The Sweet’s next three singles stall frustratingly at number two. I met Steve Priest in 1974, although “met” might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was my first trip out after a nasty bout of chicken pox. I had popped into Hayes to buy, (surprise surprise), Teenage Rampage. I was waiting at the bus stop to come home, when a chauffeur-driven Jaguar pulled up outside the café opposite. The driver got out, unfurled an umbrella and escorted Steve Priest inside for a Full English. I followed him in and from what was left of my pocket money, I purchased a warm Panda Cola. I’d like to report that I engaged Steve in a debate about great guitar riffs and the easiest way to apply mascara. I didn’t. I was a demure little flower at fourteen.
- Yes & No.
We held on to Alan Devonshire for our promotion season, sold him to West Ham and promptly got relegated. Such was life as a Southall supporter. Gordon Hill, Chris Hutchings and Les Ferdinand went exactly the same way; a fleeting moment of success whilst they were in our ranks, followed by season after season of crashing demotions after they left.
It was the start of a wonderful four years of slicing luncheon meat with an egg in the middle and overcoming my distrust of the rollmop herring. The shop was run mainly by women with Alan Bennett names like Nellie, Marjorie, and Glad. Under the watchful eye of Mr. Ernest Tipper, I learned the ropes on the cooked meats counter and after a very brief apprenticeship, I was trusted to work the ham slicer. Mr Tipper used to boil the hams on the premises and that pungent smell stuck to my Levis for days.
I wasn’t too enamoured of Marjorie. Every Saturday, before we opened, Marjorie would wait until Mr. Tipper was otherwise engaged and demand that I did her, “Half a pound of the scrag ends of ham and slip a couple of nice slices in the middle”. It was fraud, pure and simple. The scrag ends sold for next to nothing, whilst Mr. Tipper’s speciality hams were the most expensive item on the counter. One week, Marjorie came round and asked for her usual order to be upped to a whole pound of scrag ends with three slices of the best stuff thrown in the middle, because she was “entertaining Jim’s manager from Wycombe for tea on Sunday”. I flipped. She could have got me into serious bother. When she came to collect her order at closing time, she hadn’t noticed that I had served up exactly what she had asked for, but I had also given her a bonus by slipping a rollmop herring in the middle. Explain that to Jim’s manager.
A purple/yellow/lime one. The upside was, that this one was only three sizes too small.
One hundred and twenty five years earlier, my great-grandfather, James Neary had also celebrated his 14th birthday. For the first thirteen years of his life, he had passed his birthday in Harrow High Street, at the grocers’ shop where he lived with his parents and his three brothers. From about the age of eight, he had been expected to help out in his father’s shop and most of his birthdays were marked by a celebratory tea of sausages and rollmop herrings; but only after he had worked his eight-hour shift. Working in the shop was not what made his young heart sing though. The tedium of the shop was only broken on Tuesday mornings. His father supplied the groceries for the nearby Harrow Public School and James enjoyed the opportunity to be outside, pulling the heavy cart up the hill to the school. If he was very lucky, he might even be rewarded with a penny tip from the lovely housekeeper. On his fourteenth birthday, however, James was many miles away from serving the housewives of Pinner or dragging the grocery cart up the Peterborough Road.
A few weeks before turning fourteen, James had enlisted in the Royal Navy. He remembered breaking the news to his family. His mother cried for three days and his father, quite literally, turned his back on him. They were never to speak again. Nobody came to see him off and he looked a forlorn figure as he begged travellers for a ride on their carts to Portsea. However, before the journey was half complete, James felt his mood lift and he realised that he now had the freedom to dream.
James Neary adjusted quickly and happily to his new surroundings aboard ship. Training, what there was of it, was on the job, so to speak, so he set sail on his first assignment within days of signing up. If there had been fourteen birthday candles to be extinguished, they would have been lit on board HMS Camus, early into its 102 day passage to China and the Navy’s participation in the China opium wars.
The journey was long, tortuous and fraught with unexpected danger. James had never seen waves in the water before and nothing in his imagination could have prepared him for waves that were taller than the ship itself. In those very early days of his naval career, James had the ranking of “Boy” in the second regiment class. Most of the other boys hid in the lower decks whenever mountainous waves loomed, but James found them exhilarating and he truly understood the meaning of being alive as viscous spray nearly washed him overboard. He faced the birch on his third night at sea after an officer found James with his shirt off, arms outstretched, revelling in the waves on the poop deck. When James was seven, the circus had came to Harrow and he had witnessed a neighbour, who had volunteered to put his head inside a tiger’s mouth, being mauled to death by the creature. That was danger, in James’s eyes, not feeling the full force of an Atlantic wave. He had not considered that exposing himself to the elements might not only be endangering his own life, but the lives of his fellows, by adding his jobs to their workloads. Duty, in Her Majesty’s services, James learned, was the sternest of taskmasters.
James had never known pain like the birching. His back was still bleeding, three days later. But not even the pain and humiliation could quench James’s fascination with and admiration for the sixty-foot rollers. The officers observing him might have believed that his subsequent caution was a sign of a lesson having been learned. Inwardly, James smiled. He had learned an important lesson, just not the one the officers were expecting. He learned that you had to know how to play the game and he was grateful that the officers couldn’t look inside him and see his dancing soul.
Being one of the youngest on the sloop, James’ daily tasks were pretty menial and he spent much of his days as a powder monkey, cleaning and maintaining the gun deck with its small arsenal of eighteen guns. James was one of the fittest of the boys and enjoyed the challenge of carrying the gunpowder from the Hold to the artillery deck, several times a day. The other boys laughed at his eagerness for any task, but James knew that he was in the Navy for the long haul and was keen to learn everything there was to know about military duty.
James surprised himself with how quickly he adapted to the strict hierarchies aboard ship. Throughout his young life, James had never been a cap doffer. In the small world of Harrow, there was a lot of that subservience and James had carved out the reputation as a bit of a rebel. Whether it be his uncles or the respectable customers at the shop or the masters at Harrow school, James had a lazy temperament when it came to what he called;
“The Yes, Sir. No, Sir, Three bags full, Sir, poshies.”
He quickly learned on the Camus that practically everyone he encountered expected a “Yes, Sir. No, Sir,” when he spoke to them and for the first time ever, it didn’t rankle.
There were many dark times during that first three-month journey. There were sporadic skirmishes with enemy ships and James quickly became accustomed to the sea burials of his friends and commanding officers. Men, who one day would be laughing and joking about the weevily biscuits, and then the next day, their ending was being marked with a prayer and a splash. Horrendous injuries to his colleagues became a daily pattern and James needed a strong stomach to tend to their wounds. James was frequently mocked or reminded that he was ‘just a boy’, but when the battles were heated, the ages of the crew became irrelevant. James, at fourteen, could have been as heroic, or as dead, as the ship’s captain, thirty years his senior.
The night of his birthday, James would continue his work alone, standing watch on A deck. Everybody else, not on watch, had turned in for the evening, but James was in the habit of minding his business whilst staring into the vast, menacing expanse. He celebrated the man that he was becoming. He fancied that he could see Harrow on the distant horizon and a much older version of James Neary, in his blue apron, patting great slabs of butter into saleable shapes. He could see his father, getting older, but still greeting his customers with a cheery joke. He celebrated that arduous journey to Portsea where he had found a small package his mother had packed into his bag. The package contained some food from the shop and his grandmother’s broach.
“Neary. Get to your hammock.”
James obeyed for fear of another punishment, but he knew that he had exercised wisdom in choosing this life change. In just one month, the rolling sea had opened his eyes and the stars at night had opened his heart.
The only thing missing was someone who could say, “Happy birthday, James”.