Have you ever felt that sometimes things just fall into place? As if they were destined to do so? It was odd, but there I was, a year later living in married quarters in Dover with my family, being my mother, father, and younger sister Ann (I was now 15 years old), my dad being the regimental Cook Sargeant, and right there in the barracks next to us was stationed the regimental band of The Buffs. A readymade band! I attended several band concerts in the barracks. I was enthralled. That was the life for me. And to add to my 'luck' the bandmaster, Trevor Sharpe, lived in married quarters close by and soon I was digging up his garden and asking lots of questions about the band. With very little encouragement he helped me decide to join the band as a band boy. However, my father didn't think it was such a great idea. He had hoped I'd follow a career in journalism by starting out that summer when I left school by working for the local 'Dover Express.' Which I did. A kind of tea-maker come mail-sorter, with the odd reporting job at a council meeting or two. But the music bug was still in me. The dreams were alive. The 'pictures' were still in my mind. My dad went off to Egypt and after he left I joined the band. By an odd coincidence it was on my mothers birthday, November 16th 1951.
I didn't have to go far. I walked from my home in the married quarters, about half a mile to the barracks, and waited near the band practice room as arranged. I was still in my civilian clothes, a tall ungainly teenager, with a sudden nervous twitch. 'Fisher' this voice bellowed at me from a distance. I just stood there. 'Aren't you Fisher?' the voice bellowed again. Oh me, I thought, yes I'm Fisher, although upto then I was known as Kenneth Seymour, my real father's name. Because of my mother's 'indiscretion' with a Private Bill Seymour whilst married to Warrant Officer Herbert Fisher, in India in 1936 - I was born! And christened Fisher. It was on my birth certificate. Eventually they divorced but I was stuck with the name Fisher. And on that cold, windy day at Old Park Barracks, Dover, outside the band room, I didn't quite know who the heck I was! 'Are you Fisher or not?' asked the band Sargeant, a Fred Larkin. 'Yes, I am,' I replied proudly, but thought a detailed explanation of my lack of recognition as to whom I really was, was best left for another time.
My first night in the army was spent on an old metal bed with a thin mattress, two blankets and a bolster for a pillow. It was in, of all places, the band practice room. Why, I never did find out. And what really irked me was that just a few minutes walk away was my own bedroom in the married quarters where I lived, until that day. Next day I was placed in a barrack room with several other 'band boys', given a cornet, and a half sheet of music on which was listed the musical keys and scales I was instructed to learn first. I still have that piece of paper. Here it is:
I soon realised one important fact when I joined those other band boys that day, being, not all the young lads I was now in company with were there in the furtherance of a musical career! Several found their way into the army as 'boy soldiers' as a destination arrived at for them, by their unhappy parents! One young boy was an out and out rogue, but a lot of fun to be around! Being a musician was the furthest thing from his mind. Another young lad found his way into the army as a boy soldier because some kindly judge suggested to his frustrated parents that a good dose of military discipline might smarten him up. One very quiet boy, who turned out to be quite a good musician, was 'dumped' into the army just before his 'parents' made a quick getaway to places unknown. But of the ten to twelve boys I shared my early years with most were in the band in the hope that a musical career would give them some worthwhile purpose in life.
A group of us Band Boys in early 1952. From left to right - back row: Arthur Little, myself, John Goodwin, Alan Moat, second row left to right, Albert Waiten, Gary Boland, John Stephens, Peter Grevatt, the two in front left: John Coote, and right the 'rogue' Alan Evans.
My first year in the band was full of doubts, a few cherished hopes, and the sad realization that playing the trumpet was not going to be as easy as it looked - as it looked in that movie! I never warmed to it very well. It took months for me to produce even the most awful kind of sound. Learning at the same time all the scales one has to learn, as well as learning how to actually read music, combined with trying to make my cornet sound on a reasonable par with the more established cornet players in the band - frightened the hell out of me. There were many times I felt like just packing it all in. Then one day - a half decent sound came out. Not a good one. But something sounding less like a water buffalo in agony and more like a young cornet player with still a lot to learn. It had only taken a year! Not very promising my father said when I took my cornet home and played it for him. But through all this discovery of a lack of talent, I discovered something else. I liked writing music. Making up tunes. I wrote one rather silly song entitled, 'The Girl Next Door', mailed it off to Billy Cotton of radio fame, and I actually got a reply. Negative, but a reply. He thought I 'had promise for a 16 year old.'
By the second year, 1952, the band had moved from Dover to Canterbury and one of my more interesting functions was to be selected several times to walk from the barracks down to Canterbury cathedral, about two miles away, and turn a page in the Book of Honour, being The Buffs Memorial Book to those who had fallen in the wars. It happened at 11 a.m. precisely, every morning, in a small chapel within the cathedral designated to The Buffs. A very proud event I took great pride in doing. Canterbury was also the place I remember taking my first deep interest in the opposite sex! After all, what is a young, tall, brash soldier in the Queen's uniform expected to do - but fraternize with the local ladies. And fraternize we did. There is a local courting spot where we'd head to with our girlfriends called The Dane John. It's a kind of a large four-sided memorial in a local park and up on the brow of a small hill. It has small seats carved into the sides. With some great effort you could squeeze into these 'seats' just as long as your girlfriend sat snugly on your lap! Ah - the memories come flooding back!
Several band boys, attached to but not actually in the Buffs band left for other regiments, and several others joined us. Our band became a watershed for young lads on their way to a musical career, or on their way from a van with a flashing light on top! But there were a few who remained as each year passed, and we all became friends. A Bill Bennie, Dave Scroggins, Gary Boland and myself shared a lot of good times together. We have linked up again over these last few years (except Gary who has passed on), and swapping those old photographs with our new photographs brings home to us just how much we've all changed since we parted company 30 to 40 years ago!
By early 1953 I was at last beginning to sound like a third rate, second string cornet player! Confidence was at last building as I learned the scales and the music, or I tried to. I enjoyed the special band parades and the trips we all made to places as diverse as flower shows and sanatoriums. At one of the latter the band put on a concert for the patients and I sat at the back with the lesser cornet players. There was only about 30 people seated listening to us play, which was everything from marches to musicals. One disinterested patient was reading his magazine and laughing, and two others were yelling at each other over a seat. Come to think of it that place was a hospital with a psychiatric ward! We marched through the barracks playing great marching songs, and did 'passing out parades' where the conscripts finally got through their basic training. We did concerts by the sea, and the dance band section played at the Corn Exchange or the Town Hall on various saturday nights. We were always going somewhere because, band practice 5 days a week can get you down!
And go we did. The next big event was to attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll. We arrived at Kensington Gardens and were assigned several rows of tents alongside hundreds of others. The whole gardens and nearby Hyde Park looked like one big tent city. I still have some souvenirs (see below) of that week we spent under canvas in Kensington Gardens. Our place on the route was to stand by the arches at Apsley Gate, not far from where we were tented. We stood there all day. From about 8 am to about 5 pm. No one was allowed to exit stage left for a pee or other personal needs! I know that by the time we moved off and marched knock-kneed towards the nearest urinal we were all in need of the longest and most satisfying pee of our lives! The coronation was a magnificent event, and that evening, John Stephens, a bandboy friend who played the trombone, joined me and we both went 'up west' and mixed with the thousands of people celebrating the Coronation as if it were New Years Eve. Incidently our Band Sargeant, Tom Lynch, was honoured with the 'Coronation Medal' as was our Bandmaster Trevor Sharpe.
After we returned to Canterbury from London, and sometime later that year I learned that my mother had received some disturbing news from my father who was now stationed with the main Buffs regiment in Kenya. I mention all this because it had a profound effect on my musical career and my life in the band from that moment on. What he wrote to her saying was that he was leaving her, and my sister and I, and was to take up a new life with an English school teacher he had met in Kenya. My mother was of course devastated. I didn't really believe he'd leave us all. We all hoped it was a brief fling and he'd come walking back into our lives. Christmas that year was a sad affair. After Christmas the band was informed we'd be going to Kenya in February, to the very camp my dad was still stationed at. I suddenly had visions of meeting up with him in camp and having it out with him. When we sailed from Liverpool on the SS Cheshire my dad was still in Kenya, but six weeks later when we arrived at the camp he had left just a few weeks before for England. I missed him by a few weeks, and, we never did meet up ever after that.
The sea voyage out to Kenya was a long one, but filled with adventure and thrills and full of wonderful sights I shall remember all my life. When we left Liverpool we had a full compliment of other military people on board going to Gibralter and mainly Egypt. As we arrived early in the morning at the Rock of Gibralter the band played a rousing march that echoed all around this very distinct harbour. At Port Said we said goodbye to a large group of military men and women, and embarked a large Mauritian regiment that had been in the Port Said area for seven years - seven years! As we glided almost silently through the Suez canal these French speaking soldiers engaged us in conversation; being what little English they knew, and played us at cards. The latter they were good at. As one of them said, that's about all they did over the last seven years!
The Mauritian troops were on their way home, after seven long years. They were often seen leaning thoughtfully on the ships rail looking homeward across the Indian ocean anticipating the reunions with families and friends. They had their own French language radio programme on board which was always introduced with the following statement: 'Attention da troop Mauritian - ay la museek continued.' I shall never forget that. Also I'll never forget the lousy food on board. It was so bad and always the same that we made a song up about it and we'd sing it as we lined up for supper. It went like this: 'One baked spud and a kipper, one baked spud and a kipper, one baked spud and a kipper, was all we had for supper.' And that's a fact.
Very early, on a bright and beautiful morning we drew close to Mauritius. As the dawn rose across the dark blue ocean, the Mauritian troops were lining the ships rail from one end of the ship to the other. In the far distance could be seen a dozen or so small boats, all heading towards the ship. Suddenly we heard voices, lots of them, cheering, calling, their ships horns blasting, and music being played. They drew nearer. Some of the boats were small with just a few people in them. Some were much larger with their decks packed with scores of waving and cheering people. The Mauritian troops on board began to wave, and to call, and soon the boats were alongside, and the soldiers and their loved ones could nearly touch each other. They followed us into the harbour at Port Louis. The troops were home. And their families and friends were there to greet them. And even as we anchored in the harbour small boats were coming out with yet more friends and family. We just watched, with a kind of warm satisfaction, knowing these friendly soldiers would soon be reunited with their loved ones. And us? It made us wonder when we would be seeing home, and our loved ones again.
Our stay in Mauritius lasted a full week. The ship had to anchor in the harbour of Port Louis as there were no docks for the larger ships like ours to tie up alongside. Each day we'd draw £1 (we were boy soldiers remember!) from the band sargeant and groups of us would hire a man with a small rowboat and he'd row us ashore. On shore we'd do the best deal we could in exchanging our pound for the islands rupees - usually about twelve I believe. From there we'd spread out in groups and head into town. One day four of us rented a taxi for several hours and took off to a beach where we swam. Another day we visited the local tropical gardens. On one occasion a lad from another regiment and I hopped on a small bus and told the conductor, 'all the way please', in a kind of fractured French. At the end of his run, on the far end of the island, we got out and met up by chance with an English school teacher who insisted we visit his small school. At the school he had us stand in front of the class and tell the children who we were. On another occasion several of us found this very so-so restaurant, but being in need of a good square meal we asked for steak and chips and something to drink. We each got a good steak, but the chips were what we call crisps, and our drink was an unlabeled bottle of homemade rum!
Our taxi driver for part of a day The bus ticket to the top of the island
When we left the paradise island of Mauritius our ship was eerily quiet. The Mauritian troops had all disembarked leaving just our band, about 50 of us, and a handful of soldiers joining their regiments in Kenya. We had the ship to ourselves. And we still had a large area of the Indian Ocean to cover on our way to Dar-es-Salaam, on the west coast of Africa just inside from the island of Zanzibar. The nights were warm and the nightsky studded with stars. With so much room to wander about deck, there seemed only one more thing to do - and that was to sleep up on deck under the stars. We dragged our flimsy bunk bed mattresses up on deck and found ourselves a safe place (near the middle of the ship!) and curled up for the night. But sleep we couldn't. I had this fear I'd start sleep-walking and walk right over the edge! But after chatting a few hours with the other lads, all laid out on the deck with nothing but a blanket to cover us, we all finally fell asleep. To wake up on a gently swaying ship's deck, with a soft, warm, sea breeze blowing, in the early hours of the morning, upon the vast Indian Ocean, is something I shall always remember. By now we were all good sailors and had our sea legs, so seasickness was not a problem anymore. We slept on deck several times, until we sighted the African coast and the port of Dar-es-Salaam.
Dar-es-Salaam was, and maybe still is, a grubby African portside town with shanty-like stores with makeshift homes for the blacks, and a few very old Arabian style buildings. We were only there a few days so the first night a group of us band boys, about six of us, roamed the town as soldiers do when in port. It was hot. And it was noisy. Makeshift shops sold cold cokes and peanuts to us soldiers in uniform. A small boy, about ten years old, insisted we follow him and he would take us to where we could 'have a good time.' A few of the younger band boys asked, with an unknowing squint ' 'what's he talking about?' Us older boys, by a mere year or two, and worldly-wise in these things(!?) suggested we go along for the ride and we'd show them. The young boy took us to a house with a huge yard. In the yard, squatting on their haunches along the surrounding walls were dozens of girls in age from about ten to a hundred and ten! We paid the boy his expected 'finders fee', and after watching eyebrows raising on the younger boys faces, we got out of there fast! One younger band boy kept asking - 'I wonder how much they charged?'
We finally reached our port of destination, Mombasa, about six weeks after leaving Liverpool. There was no time to see any sights, we were quickly disembarked and taken to the railway station where we all boarded a train for Nairobi. I shared a cubicle with three others and within a few hours we were on our way on the long overnight journey into the African interior. The train was slow, curling and clattering around low hills and bends, and stopping occasionally to fuel and water the engine. It was an uphill climb, literally. Mombasa to Nairobi takes you from the low east African seaboard up onto the vast African plain. We soon took up vantage points, sitting in the door openings with our feet resting on the running board. It was a thrilling ride. As evening drew in the train continued its slow clatter up the gentle incline passing dimly lit villages and townships where the natives would wave, and sometimes the younger children would race alongside the train. The next morning is remembered firstly as having at last a decent breakfast! Eggs & bacon, toast & tea! The other thing I remember about that morning is being in view of a vast plain, that stretched as far as the eye could see. In that distance there was a mountain, topped in snow, rising majestically in a haze of lavender blue mist. It was Mount Kilimanjaro.
At Nairobi railway station we boarded several open trucks which took us along dry dusty roads to our campsite at a place called Nyeri. We were stationed with H.Q. company of The Buffs, and this was the camp where my father had been - just a few weeks before. Brushing the red dust from our faces, hair, and uniforms, we were assigned to tents, given an empty 'palliasse' and told to fill it with the local dry grass! This was our mattress! This, with two ammunition tins and three 6 foot long planks of wood became our beds. We did however each get a mosquito net. After a wash that night (showers were only available once a fortnight) I asked after my father. He was already on his way home with the lady shoolteacher he had met just a six months before. It was a strange feeling all round. Knowing my father was there just a few weeks before, and I might never see him again, gave me a sad feeling. But in contrast the eight-seater toilets gave us all a good laugh! These were long planks of wood, with holes cut in them, being eight holes to a plank, which rested on some wooden supports, over a big hole filled with lime! For added decency, in the true English fashion, a large amount of netting was placed all around these - not between each hole, but all around the entire latrines. It was the only time in my life I could sit, doing you know what, and chat to several other guys down the row! We even swapped newspapers. "Eh, look at this Ken, Arsenal lost again." The newspapers were never wasted. Because the army never wasted money on toilet paper!
In the next few months we all had varying degrees of dysentry (the water), stomach pains (the food), boils everywhere (the water & the food), and, mosquito bites. The food we were given ran the usual gamut of army food, but this time it was cooked in the open over oil drums cut in half. We're not talking 'barbecue' here, more like 'barbedoo.' The main dishes were a kind of mashed potato called 'pom' that resembled wallpaper paste, and dried fish - grey, with black streaks, and then boiled. We drank weak tea, and coffee made from a coffee flavoured syrup. In the camp we had two pigs. One night we heard grunting coming from outside our tent and thinking it might be the Mau Mau come to hack us to pieces we rushed out, rifles at the ready, to find the two pigs had got out of their pen. A few days later the pigs were shot, hung up outside the mess tent, their guts removed, with both carcasses covered in flies. The following week we ate pork every way it can be cooked, or should I say badly cooked. Boiled, braised, stewed, fried, roasted, casseroled, everything - but barbecued!
We put on band concerts for all the different companies in the regiment: A company, B company, etc., that were scattered around the Kenya plains, as well as travelled to other regiments and played for them. We moved about in 3 ton army trucks, usually three in all, carrying all our equipment and the near 50 personnel. Our concerts consisted of the more easily recognisable tunes, such as music from the Broadway shows like 'The King & I' and 'Oklahoma', as well as a few patriotic pieces and a sea shanty or two. There was a sea song we all sang in choir form, that went like this: "Up with the jolly roger boys, it's off we go to sea, there's heaps of fun on the jolly roger run, and the wind is on the...lee!!" We had a jazz group within the band and they often played in the 'beer tent,' where one could buy large quart bottles of warm beer by the name of 'Allsops Pale Ale.'
I remember in particular one trip we made from Nyeri. It was to play in a 'Barraza', a kind of gathering of the local tribes people who meet to challenge each other at spear throwing and various other jungle pursuits. We left Nyeri at around dusk and some hours later we arrived at a small army camp where we were billited overnight before we moved off the next morning. It was late on arrival and all of us took to our beds. Early the next morning I arose before the others and left the tent to stretch my legs. I shall never forget the sight that greeted me. It was a vast panoramic scene of spectacular wonder. I stood on the edge of the famous Rift Valley, looking down across miles and miles of grasslands, lakes, and woods. The sun was rising on my left and cast giant misty beams of light across the valley, and somewhere below in the distance a flight of white winged birds took off and flew low across a small lake. The view was stunning. Something I shall always remember. On another occasion a group of us stole out of camp one afternoon to 'case' the local territory. After a mile or so we were bypassed by a large group of grunting baboons, then we saw a leopard in the grass some distance away, so, very reluctantly we decided to tip-toe our way back to camp! Our route took us past a small lake. Here, sitting on the bank, all alone, miles from camp, was one of our bandsmen, a pleasant chap named 'Soapy' Sullivan, with his fishing rod out plying the local waters for anything he could catch. It was as if we'd passed him on a lazy sunday afternoon by some chalk stream in England! He was an avid fisherman. 'Soapy' is sadly no longer with us.
The months flew by and soon the band moved closer to Nairobi to a large camp at a place called Thika. Here it was easier getting into Nairobi to go to the pictures, ('Hobsons Choice' - 'The Glen Miller Story' two I remember seeing), or visit the 'Jacaranda Club' where service men abounded and a Tom Collins cost just two bob! After one night at the Jacaranda Club another bandsman, Peter Glue (now sadly passed on) and myself missed the last truck back to camp and had to walk - through the shanty town parts of Nairobi, rifles slung over our shoulders, eventually reaching camp after a long hours walk through the dark African interior! Not a wise move but it was better than doing 28 days 'jankers.' There was an ice cream parlour where we bought 'banana splits', and a small hotel that made a good steak & chips - real chips. A pal and myself would get away on weekends and head to the gates of the 'Nairobi National Park', and hitch a ride round the park. This way we saw all the animals the tourists saw from prides of lions, to rhinos, and giraffes. We usually got invited back to the peoples homes, and enjoyed that rare thing for us soldiers - a first class meal. I remember one evening having baked ham and pineapple, and on another occasion roast lamb, new potaoes, and mint sauce. Ah!
Things had got worse with my mother back home. The seperation from my father was final and he gave up any family responsibility for mother and my 11 year old sister. This resulted in my mother having to leave married quarters in Dover. The army assisted her in the move, giving her £25 and secured a place for her as a housekeeper in a small village near Dover called Kearsney. She wrote to me in a kind of desperation whilst I was stationed at Thika, but knowing I'd be home myself in a few months to go to Kneller Hall (the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham) I told her to hold on until I returned and we'd take a good look at the future. I had hoped to return to England with the first contingent, but I had to wait another month until the October when I finally flew home, giving me just five days before I had to go to Kneller Hall. She was pleased to know I was back in England and close enough to get home regularly, so we agreed I continue with my musical career and see how things developed.
The flight back from Kenya, after just seven months there, was my first time in a plane, a four engined Hermes of Britavia Airways. The plane seemed to catch every up-draught and down-draught, and lasted a very long 18 hours, plus stops, that took us first to Entebbe, then through the night across the Sahara desert to land at a hanger-come-windsock named Waddi Halfa, then on to Khartoum for dinner, and then an early breakfast in Malta, before we finally landed at Blackbushe airport just outside of London. A quick five days leave in Dover where my mother kept house for a retired gentlemen, and I was off to register at Kneller Hall. This grand old building is situated next to the world famous Twickenham rugby stadium, and on one occasion I attended an international match there, when England played Wales. But Kneller Hall was going to prove the turning point in my quest for a musical career. It is the Royal Military School of Music and nearly all military bandsmen go there for a full years study. A select few return to train as military Bandmasters. It started well for me. I was selected into the third group of the 'second string cornet' players, being over half way 'up' the long list of cornet players at the school. And I began not only the daily interesting study on all aspects of music and military band procedure, I also had a fortnightly half hour private tuition with a famous semi-retired trumpet player, named Jack McIntosh. It was Jack who told me the truth about my chances as a trumpet player. He told me, after about six sessions, that it might be better if I switch to a trombone or a euphonium. He said the trumpet was too 'precise' an instrument for my 'lip and breathing' ability and I'd achieve better results with something requiring less intricacies. In other words my lips and mouth didn't suit the cornet or trumpet. He might have been wrong. Some people said he was. But I took what he said as gospel. However, I didn't want to switch to any other instrument.
The following summer my mother had divorced my father and was now getting some very irregular amounts of alimony from him. Once again the subject was raised about me coming out of the army to be there to see her through these bad times. With the great disappointment of being told I didn't cut the mustard trumpet-wise, and the following letdown one feels when you know you'll never achieve what you had really set your heart on, I decided that on my return to the regiment now in Germany, I would see the bandmaster and discuss a compassionate discharge. It was not an easy decision. But I had little choice. I left my never-to-be-forgotten year of study at Kneller Hall at the end of the September 1955, and after a few days leave I rejoined the band in Wuppertal Ronsdorf, then West Germany. I saw the bandmaster, and explained all the reasons why I was requesting a discharge, and he referred me to the army chaplain. From there I saw the Commanding Officer, and finally an official request was filed for a compassionate discharge to care for my mother. This was all done in November 1955. I would not hear another thing about the discharge for nine long months.
This was me just after I returned from Kneller Hall 1955.
On my return from Kneller Hall I realised just how distant I was from becoming a capable and skilled member of the band. The Buffs Band was no ordinary military band. It was in fact rated as one of the top three military bands in the British army. The band was filled with some of the finest musicians in the British army - or for that fact, anywhere. The names of these musicians mean little perhaps to the average person, but they deserve mention. Tony Young - percussion. Tony Coe, Ted Weatherall - sax/clarinet. Douglas (Pony) Moore, Jeff Holden - piano. Gerry King - piano/string bass. Pete Coppins - trumpet. And many more, like George Harrison, Joe Underhill, Ernie Gornall, and others, some no longer with us. Tony Coe went on to individual fame. You'll hear his sax playing the 'Pink Panther' theme in those great Peter Sellers movies. Our bandmaster, Trevor Sharpe went on to be the governing head bandmaster at Kneller Hall, as well as lead another great military band, The Coldstream Guards. A late member of our band who joined about a year before I left was Les Reed. Name not familiar? How about these hit tunes we'll never forget, like 'Its Not Unusual' for Tom Jones, 'Delilah', 'Green Green Grass Of Home'. Also, 'There's A Kind Of A Hush' for Hermans Hermits, and, 'The Last Waltz' & 'Les Bicyclettes De Belize' for Humpy, - and many many more. Les Reed has his own website, and now a new upcoming Westend musical, 'Beautiful And Damned' details of which are listed at the very end of this article.
But Germany was a long cold winter, and seemingly a long way from home. Twice I went home on compassionate leave as my mother became ill. In all I spent nearly eight weeks away from the band, being at home (rented accommodation in Dover), doing the best I could for my now ailing mother. Everything was coming to a close on my musical career, yet I still didn't know when I'd be discharged. At one point I was told 'to forget' the compassionate discharge. Another time, in the late February, I was told by a regimental clerk (I asked him to check 'files' privately for me) that the discharge had been 'approved' but not authorised. The bandmaster said he knew nothing, and the band Sargeant told me bluntly, 'you'll know Fisher me lad, when, and if, you get one.' In the spring the band returned to Canterbury, the place I spent my first two years as a band boy. Now I was a bandsman and my early years there seemed a lifetime away. My mother, to make ends meet, was playing the piano weekends in a pub in Dover. I began to wonder if I'd ever get a compassionate discharge. It just didn't look like it was going to happen. No one could give me a straight answer. Why so long I asked? Is it on, or isn't it? If It was not going to happen then tell me, so that I can work on some other arrangements for care for my mother. It wasn't as if they were against me leaving. After all, third row, second string cornet players, were in ample supply! And as a five year bandsman I was no great shakes musically.
On August 7th 1956, just before noon, as I was walking across the grass at Wemyss Barracks, in Canterbury I heard a voice call out, 'are you Bandsman Fisher?' Yes I replied. (This time there was no doubting who I was!) It was the Adjutant. 'Then I have to tell you your compassionate discharge is approved. Now report to your bandmaster." I saluted, wide-eyed, and shocked, turned, and hastened off to the bandmasters office. The bandmaster agreed it was 'approved' and I was to be discharged the following day. The following day! But first he insisted I return the £2 I owed the loan club! Yes, I owed £2 I had borrowed some weeks before. It seemed odd. After all these years as a band boy then bandsman, all the training, all the travel, and all the hopes and dreams now gone, all anyone seemed interested in was the £2 I owed. That evening I took a bus into Dover, told my mother I would be home tomorrow for good - and has she got £2 I could borrow! It was all very hard to believe.
I returned to the barracks late that evening after lights out. I crept into bed but hardly slept. Next morning (my young sisters birthday) before breakfast I was advised by the band Sargeant to go immediately and hand in my kit, then collect my pay & papers, then return to the band office and see the bandmaster. I quickly said a few hasty goodbyes to some of the bandsmen I shared a barrack room with (although most of them just didn't believe I was finally going - thinking it was all a joke - yeah, pull the other one) handed in my kit, got my pay (£19 was my total lot after five years) and the official compassionate discharge, and saw the bandmaster. I handed over the £2 and received a odd sort of lecture about not trying hard enough to stay in the band? He then took me over to the adjutant who joined in the dressing down by yelling at me, saying, 'you are damn lucky to get a discharge.' Exhausted, tired, with not even a drop of weak tea or a slice of stale bread in me, I went back to the barrack room to say some last farewells. But no one was there. They were all in band practice. It was eery. No one to say farewell to - and no one to bid me goodbye. I heard the band playing in the band practice room. It was a march. It sounded good. The last person I saw was a Sargeant Munns, a quiet man who received my band uniform. He looked at me. Put out a hand. We said nothing. We just shook hands - and I left. At the entrance gate to the barracks I turned and looked back at the sprawling barracks of red brick buildings. I could no longer hear the band. It was time to go home.
Old bandsmen never die - they just decrescendo........
The Buffs Band reunion of 2003. L to R back row: Peter Grevatt, Ted Weatherall, Alan Barnes, Dave Scroggins, George Harrison, C.Satterthwaite, Les Ormiston, D. Moore, Tony Coe, F.Rabbatts, Ernie Gornall, Dave Peschek, S.Supple, Jeff Holden, R.Jones. L to R sitting: J.Holmes, T.Lynch, J.Underhill, S.Pullman, Tony Young.
Les Reed has his own website: www.lesreed.com where you can read all about this very gifted and famous ex-member of The Buffs Band. He has a new musical, 'Beautiful and Damed' that opened its pre-westend run at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford to rave notices. Visit his website. It's studded with great stories and great people.
Ken Seymour (aka Ken Fisher)
Brits Abroad Newsletter & Website
Email me at: Britmail@aol.com