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Friday, July 27, 2007

Button up your overcoat..

By Ian Skidmore
I worry when people, usually mothers, ask me how I got my start in journalism. And not only because the question carries a sub text: ‘If a prat like you can do it, it will be a doddle for a bright child like mine.’

Mostly I hesitate, because everything that has happened to me in my career has stemmed from an embarrassing accident.

In this case going to prison. Only an army prison and I was guilty of nothing - but then they all say that, don’t they?

I suppose I could explain the issue by saying ‘It was because my greatcoat was unbuttoned, coming out of a pub in Thetford.’

We were a night away from a draft to Palestine and were celebrating in a last chance saloon called the Green Man.

I was a lance corporal in the Black Watch (RHR) who had somehow got mixed up with an RASC unit in the days when Englishmen dominated the Highland Division while the canny Scots all joined corps and learnt a trade.

In my unit all the Scots came from Glasgow. None much more than five feet high. If you were any taller in Glasgow, you got posted to Edinburgh.

Because I was still fastening my greatcoat on the street, I was pounced on by the Town Patrol of burly corporals for being improperly dressed.

A minute Glaswegian ran up to one of the corporals and smacked him in the mouth for being impertinent to ‘a Highlander’ (from Manchester, as it happened).

In consequence, we were all charged with assault, taken off the draft to Palestine and sent to Germany.

My charge – ‘in that he did assault six regimental policemen’ - preceded me to my new unit where I was summoned by the CO. He said: ‘I am a very bewildered officer; you don’t look violent to me.’

I didn’t. Indeed in the kilt I looked like an undernourished reading lamp and I have a photo to prove it.

I explained what happened, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. It was a court martial offence and he would have to remand me.

‘But’ he said, ‘a word of advice: ‘plead guilty. Otherwise they will have to adjourn the court and you will have wasted the officers’ morning. They will have to bring the witnesses over from the UK and they will be very cross with you. Plead guilty and your Prisoner’s Friend will explain the situation.’

I did. He didn’t. And I spent the next 56 days in 3 Military Corrective Establishment at Bielefeld.

When I was released and posted to Bad Oenhausen I decided to desert. On my way to the Bahnhof to get a train to the Hook of Holland I was pounced on by the garrison RSM, a Scots Guard called Graham.

He was very rude to me, suggesting that if I didn’t smarten myself up he would take the red hackle out of my bonnet, stick it up my arse and have me clucking like a Rhode Island Red.

I was very glad when he dismissed me.

To my horror I saw him again five minutes later in the next street. Rather than face him I dodged into the first door I could open. As it happens it was the office of Army PR.

A CSM, Paddy Seaman, asked me what I wanted. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him if he had any jobs going. I thought I might sweep the floor or make some tea.

He said: ‘Have you any experience of newspapers?’

I thought, that’s a funny question - because, as a matter of fact, I had: I had been a printer’s apprentice at Allied Newspapers at Withy Grove.

I said I had worked on the Manchester Evening Chronicle and Paddy said: ‘Blimey, we haven’t had a newspaper reporter before. Come in and see Kenneth.’

Kenneth, it turned out, was the CO. At the time I didn’t know officers had first names, so I was a little surprised.

I was even more surprised when I met Major Kenneth Harvey. He was a touch fey. I later learnt he had transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps because the black beret brought out the blue of his eyes. What with one thing and another I was very relieved when he asked me to sit down.

All I remember of the interview was the bit where he said ‘Here’s a chit. Go to the QM and draw your three stripes.’


‘You will join as a sergeant, of course’


He bridled and his little shoulders shivered.

‘You cannot expect to be an officer straight away,’ he said.

That afternoon with not the slightest idea what I was doing I was on my way to cover the Berlin Airlift. Still the biggest story I have ever covered on my own.

But the army always did the unexpected. Some months later when I was Returned To Unit because of persistent drunkenness, another Guards RSM - Irish this time and called Kenny - thought PR was short for provost and appointed me Provost Sgt of HQ 7th Armoured Division.

So if your child wants a career in journalism, tell him to try unbuttoning his overcoat in Thetford.
Journalist and author Ian Skidmore keep his own blog in his shed in the garden and at