2017-06-02 / Columnists

Joseph’s Amazing Territorial Army Dreamcoat

Tales From the Rock
By Joe Mara

My brother Dave joined the Territorial Army, (the TA) sometime in the mid 1960s and the unit he was in was a Scottish regiment because his best mate was Scottish and accordingly part of their uniform was a kilt. When he came back to our house in London in full uniform wearing his kilt he caused his three younger brothers to have uncontrollable hysterics partly because of his gangly late teenage legs and also because in England nobody was used to men wearing kilts, in uniform or not. He might as well have been wearing a bright orange miniskirt as far as we were concerned. I barely noticed the long, heavy green military overcoat he also sported from time to time on his home visits, which when he finished his stint in the TA he was allowed to keep. It was stored upstairs in the attic when Dave and his Scottish mate went to Spain for a few years looking for more exotic adventures in the later ‘60s.


By that time I too was looking for adventure but of a different sort because I was still a young teenager in school and I was the classic rebel without a cause. That is until hippies came along. Being a hippie to me now suddenly seemed to be a reasonable cause. Hippies became the dominant youth culture in the later ‘60s and I urgently wanted to join. One of the main reasons for enlisting was that I desperately wanted to join in the ‘60s too because everybody who was older than me seemed to be having so much fun. But I was too young; I was only 15 at the end of 1968 and also at a school which I hated.


I hated the De La Salle brothers in their long black robes and white collars who taught us at our school in South London. It was as if they were in a time warp from the 18th century. Outside the high walls the ‘60s didn’t exist. There were regular haircut inspections where your hair was not supposed to overlap onto your jacket collar and you were given detention if it did. You were forced to cut it that same day under pain of being caned. Different youth culture clothes that were recognized as such were also banned immediately, like in the mod mid-‘60s “shortie terylene raincoats” which just about stretched halfway to your knee like a mini-skirt. They were only banned because they were fashionable not because they were probably one of the flimsiest garments ever made and of no use whatsoever in the rain or the harsh English winters! But oh they were so stylish! Just like those Cuban heels which the Beatles and the Stones wore that was immediately banned too. I remember a quiet boy two forms above me being caned publicly and viciously on the rostrum for being caught wearing them at one of our daily morning assemblies. The caner who’s name ironically was Brother Solomon, the “Prefect of Discipline” took great and sadistic pleasure in beating the living daylights out of this boy in front of us. We as the whole school knew that this was both wrong and unfair as we trembled at the viciousness of the prolonged beating of the unassuming boy.


On the home front as the next few years rolled by and it came to the end of 1969 (when I was a mighty 16) and the beginning of 1970 the relationship with my parents became very fraught too. They were Irish in England and they were far stricter than my English friends’ parents were. My time with my friends was always curtailed because I had to be home earlier than them. English parents and English society was far more liberal and freer than the Ireland they’d left behind. Rebellion was therefore natural and inevitable both on the school and home front too now. Curfews started getting missed, hair grew, forbidden clothes were worn at school and I could care less! Cruel Brother Solomon had been banished because he’d disgraced himself on a school trip to France by uttering the French word “merde” on a radio show in reference to our headmaster when he was apparently drunk! Now that the Prefect of Discipline was gone the regime was a bit more liberal and it was time to storm the walls to see what happened. I was now the proud possessor at 16 going on 17 of the biggest pair of flared trousers in the school which of course were banned. Also instead of the standard issue of black shoes we were supposed to wear I now proudly and defiantly sported a pair of what I thought, were very fetching green shoes. Brother Paul who’d taken over as second in command from the vanquished Solomon had socialist leanings, or so he thought anyway. I mean that in the English sense of the word, he was a progressive liberal. Instead of publicly caning me or expelling me which he eventually did anyway, Brother Paul would ask me what my green shoes were saying to me. I always felt like replying with an obscenity but usually just responded with some fey hippie remark or the occasional sarcasm, “I just wanna’ be free man!”


However Paul’s socialism didn’t extend too far in reality and he called my parents up to school to discuss my green shoes amongst other things with the headmaster. My mum came home from the meeting furious with me, because I’d told Brother Paul that the reason I wore the green shoes was because my parents couldn’t afford black shoes! I was in luck though because Brother Leo the headmaster liked me because I played rugby. I was rather good at it too and he coached me quite a few times on my drop kick. He’d said at the meeting he was far more interested in what went on in a boy’s head than what he wore anyway. Buying another pair of shoes (although it was unsaid) was actually out of the question for my parents, they were virtually broke with all the fees they were paying at the school and raising three boys still at home. The green shoes had been quite an expense. So when I went back to school the next day Brother Leo approached me and gently spoke to me, maybe I could dye the shoes black? Wouldn’t that be a good compromise? It wasn’t that hard to do in those days and anyway to tell the truth I was pretty sick of the green shoes myself by then. So that’s what I did, I took them to a cobbler when they could still do such things and with a little bit of money he dyed them perfectly black. A thought came into my head. I’d been wearing some of my dad’s old jackets recently much to his astonishment. Why? Because they had wide lapels, were double breasted and so very much back in fashion. What if I dyed Dave’s great green army overcoat upstairs dark blue like all the military overcoats the hippies wore in those days? It had super wide lapels, it was triple double breasted and ultra long too, almost calf length which was also very much the style then. All I had to do was do it right, so I did it myself. Careful dyeing was involved obviously followed by a night of laying the coat in a full bath tub of cold water to get rid of any residue. Then I hung the coat up on our washing line for a day or two to dry it and then a trip to the dry cleaners to literally seal the deal. It looked great when I picked it up from the dry cleaners a week later; they’d done a great job.


Well much to my great surprise the coat made no banned list at school and I felt very cool in it to be honest with all my mates. It was quite the dog’s bollocks. I made no mention of the coat’s humble origins, its age or the horribly un-cool green military color it had been. It was also truly very practical, it was actually super warm during the winter, a miracle in England. It looked like a million dollars until the night my mum who was mad at me for missing one curfew too many threw a bag of flour at me that missed me and instead exploded all over the coat! When I left the house cursing and went to see my hippie mates in the park a mile up the street who could hang out all night, one of them looked at me askance, immediately quipping, “Flour Power!”

(To be continued...)

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