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'Dormant Courage'

Writing from experience ...

If someome encounters, at an early age, violent and emotional traumas they are in no way able to cope with, it can shape their personality and their perspectives for years to come.  I speak from experience.

In 1959 I was living in a bedsit in Cardiff Docks, (then known as Tiger Bay). For no other reason than leaving my rent in my room instead of handing it to him, my drunken, violently psychotic landlord, backed me against a wall and  removed from his pocket an open razor, which he assured me he was going to use to 'teach me a lesson I would never forget'.  I was  petrified and only saved from being scarred for life when his (battered) wife appeared and began screaming hysterically.

Distracted enough for me to break free and run, fearful of repercussions, I told nobody of this terrifying ordeal. I was fifteen years old. At age sixteen an even more traumatic ordeal began when my dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was an incredibly worthwhile and lovable man, who survived such things as trips to Murmansk in the merchant navy. My mother and I nursed him at home before he died eight months later, weighing just four stone.

He was just 52 years old.

These harsh lessons left in their wake a deeply ingrained timidity where the smallest hint of confrontation would churn my stomach unmercifully. Severely lacking any degree of self confidence, for the next few years, I worked as a fireman on the railways in what at the time was the death knell of the steam age.

By now married with a young family and working like a donkey for mostly twelve hour shifts, when events plunged me into the depths of absolute despair, a chance meeting with my boyhood Sunday school teacher, Mr Graham changed my perspectives forever. A gentle, softly spoken man, yet a tough veteran of Arnhem, he was the only person to whom I ever disclosed the traumas of my youth. Making short work of dismantling my self pitying admissions of cowardice, he then  persuaded, convinced me, to remedy matters by nurturing a sense of iron determination. Giving me two five pounds notes to purchase an Army Bergen, and advice how to proceed, he sent me on my way feeling incredibly motivated.

Following his advice to the letter and filling my brand new Bergen with eighty pounds of bagged sand, I began getting up at five am to go jogging in virtually any weather conditions. Totally unfit I ached all over, yet the harder it became, the more foul the weather, the more it constantly ground me to my knees, the more determined I became. One month later, by now superbly fit, I challenged my fledgling confidence by spending a night alone in a forest reputed to be haunted. A chilling experience when I discovered I was no longer alone, but, to my absolute amazement, contained my rising fear and panic to stand my ground and confront the unknown head on. The next morning I left the forest with my confidence soaring and a mindset that timidity and failure was simply not an option.

Enlisting in the Territorial Army, events channelled me into something I didn't even know existed. a reservist  airborne unit where qualification for full membership had a staggering failure rate. After completing a selection course designed to wear out a mule,  I did a basic parachute course of two balloons and five aircraft descents at RAF Abingdon. Several weeks later continuation training consisted of further balloon jumps laden with jump containers weighing ninety pounds, one of them being at night. (Such balloon descents with equipment, particularly at night, were later banned by the MOD).

Then came a six week exercise in the United Arab Emirates and experiences  such as being chased out of the sea by 'a shark'; awakening in a tent crawling with scorpions; coming under perceived rifle fire and a night descent into the desert laden with over one hundred pounds of equipment and a twenty six mile tab into the interior. Returning home, darker than a spoonful of Nescafe, my family hardly recognised me.

In Cyprus came an hilarious escapade as an extra in a Movie with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, for which  four of  us, dressed as Arabs, were paid £5 each for half an hours work. Back in the UK, at Netheravon, on what the Army termed  - character building/adventure training - I was trained how to climb out onto the wing of a De Havilland Rapide Bi plane at 2,600 feet and step off it; How to drive an APC - Amoured Personel Carrier. How to ski and how to survive parachuting into the sea where you undo all the harness couplings at 800  feet and sit tight, to then jump clear of the entire parachute just before landing in the water. (a detailed account of this extremely hairy descent can be read on my Blog).

In Germany, in 1976, came a chance visit to the remains of Belsen Concentration Camp, an  intensely thought provoking, and emotive experience I continue to reflect on more than three decades later...

My book, 'Dormant  Courage' portrays the events outlined above in considerable detail and draws to a close with the following text...

As the aircraft engines drone their ceaseless lullaby high above the English channel, everyone around me is switched off, red berets pulled low over their eyes as they lose themselves in the welcome oblivion of slumber. Sleep evades me as the events of the last five years randomly trawl through my mind bringing fleeting images of laughter and tears and nail biting fear. Combining them together, I inwardly marvel at its sheer diversity. I watched my dad die and my daughter being born. I have proceeded from not having the confidence to walk into a crowded pub to climbing out onto the wing of an aircraft at well over two thousand feet. I conclude, with profound conviction,  all men are frail, yet immensely durably in all things; That anyone can do virtually anything if they draw on the infinite potential of their human spirit….

I grin as the warm, friendly face of Mr Graham loom into my thoughts and as if I have picked up a book I can't wait to read, settle back to feast on a banquet of reflection about him. With graphic ease I watch him handing me those two five pound notes and sending me off to discover the extent of my determination. My grin broadens as the next scene depicts a tiny figure laden with a heavy pack trudging around a vast green landscape in pouring rain. Amazingly, it all seems like yesterday. In that moment I suddenly experience a mammoth feeling of elation, and inner certainty I have come full circle; that there is much I need to learn yet nothing I need to prove, especially to myself. Mr Graham told me this moment would arrive and here it is. I positively yearn to see my daughters and when I've done that I intend to find him, wherever he is, and keep that five year old promise to go back and see him. This immensely exciting prospect follows me into unconsciousness when I close my eyes, pull my beret over them and become as switched off as my mates.

These days, I live in the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan in extremely contented semi retirement with my wife Elly, plus our dog and two cats.  Elly, my best friend, patiently indulges my lifelong passion and love of writing...