I am down on the south coast, spending the weekend with my father, who is eighty-eight, partly in order to watch the climax of rugby’s Six Nations tournament together. Sitting outside on his terrace in the bright spring sunshine, he came out with two anecdotes that I had not heard previously – something of an unusual occurrence these days.
In 1946, as a twenty-year old Fleet Air Arm sub-lieutenant, he was serving on board HMS Illustrious when it docked for a period in Gibraltar. In his rank, despite his youth, he was made responsible for dealing with the personal problems of sailors and others up to the rank of petty officer.
By this route, he was required not only to dish out contraception and sexual health advice to men up to twenty years older than himself, but also to provide sympathy and relationship advice to married men of all sizes and dispositions.
He admitted that it had been quite a daunting ‘position’ to discharge, given that he was the only unmarried man in the ship’s company of approximately 1,800 and, at that stage, had only the vaguest notion of what a woman’s body looked like in the flesh.
Different story, different time. One day he was in conversation with his senior partner in an accountant’s firm and mentioned that he was thinking of giving up smoking.
“About 20 …” he replied.
“I was about the same age as you when I gave up smoking,” rejoined his colleague, “… but I was smoking about 40 a day”.
“Hmmn, that’s quite a number …” commented my father.
“Yes it was, “continued the other, “… but what made me give up wasn’t the fact I was smoking 40 a day. It was the fact that I was smoking 40 a day of other people’s cigarettes!”