Norky’s ramblings: fencing into the Falklands War

These are the medals presented to Nick during the under twenties fencing world championships in 1982, and the 1984 summer Olympics.

True stories from ‘Norky’ who comes from Scapegoat Hill, a small, isolated farming village, high on the Pennines in West Yorkshire. You can catch up on his ramblings so far via his author page.

As my brother has been complaining at length that all my ramblings have included almost every other members of the family except him, I thought it was time to put this right.

On Monday 3 September 1956, my little brother Nicholas arrived. I’d been sent to school in the morning, but unusually, my Dad had prepared my morning politch. Dad told me to come home at dinnertime (midday in our house) and I may have a little brother or sister. I can’t remember ever noticing that Mum was pregnant, nor that we were excited about the prospect of a family addition, the reason for which may be explained to some degree below.

I was nine years two months and twelve days old, an age gap which Nick likes to call ten years – unless someone who sees us together for the first time asks who the eldest is, when he quickly recalculates the difference.

He was a cute little fella, and apparently a lot easier to deal with than his older brother, probably because nobody believed he could get up to mischief, and also he would never admit to anything, whereas his older brother would proudly admit to any wrongdoing with a, ‘Yes I did it, now we all have to live with it’ type of attitude.

Nick was born in the posh front room of our Golcar council house. The front room was only used at Christmas, weddings, funerals, for visiting German dignitaries, such as the lovely Christa, and in this case births. In fact, our sister Rhondda’s son Steven was born in the same room in 1963.

Our family doctor was in attendance. Doctor Ron Jameson and his wife Jessie arrived in Golcar from London in 1955. Mum was always proud to say that Nick was the first child in Golcar that Dr Jameson saw through from conception to birth. I was never sure what Dr Jameson’s involvement was during conception and I thought it better not to ask too much; perhaps he held Dad’s coat.

When they first moved to Golcar, Jessie gave up her career as a professional pianist to become Ron’s surgery manager and receptionist. The system for a patient who needed to see the doctor was that on entering the waiting room we had to present ourselves at the reception hatch for grilling as to why we dared to darken these doors. I was frightened speechless when I had to attend. Jessie had a posh London accent, which the BBC had convinced us scruffs in the north signified a person superior to us in every way. I was eventually to learn that Jessie was in fact one of the loveliest people I knew

Also in attendance at Nick’s birth was the Colne Valley midwife in the shape of Mary Sykes. Mary started her nursing career in the mid-1940s before the birth of the NHS. Along with Dr. Jameson, she became well established and well respected in the area. Both are still alive and kicking and are now well into their nineties.

The reason why Mum chose to have Nick at home, instead of in a maternity hospital as she did for Rhondda and me, was because she was embarrassed about giving birth in the same ward as all those young mothers. Coincidentally, Mum, her younger sister Zena and their brother’s wife Barbara were all pregnant at the same time, and they were also all taking driving lessons. There must have been something in the petrol fumes.

As was the advice in those days, new mothers had to bed rest for ten days after giving birth. Luckily, our big sister Rhondda was 14 years old when Nick was born, and Nurse Sykes was able to instruct her on how to bath and look after a new-born child. Rhondda looks back on this even now after 64 years with affection, so presumably she enjoyed it. I’m not sure if anyone would have benefited if I had been given that responsibility when I was 14 years old. At that age, I was more concerned about what happens at the other end of pregnancy.

Here are the three siblings in 2012.

Nick began fencing at school, soon winning competitions and championships. In 1971, he became Huddersfield schools champion and from 1972 to 1975 he was the Huddersfield champion in foil, épée and sabre. He was a member of Mary Hawdon Fencing Club, who were épée team Yorkshire Champions in 1975. In 1978, he became Yorkshire senior foil champion.

On the strength of this, his fencing coach persuaded Nick to seek his fortune in London, and so he sold his soul to the Devil and abandoned God’s county for another place. In fact, the kid did all right. At the Los Angeles summer Olympics in 1984, he refereed at the finals of the fencing event. A few years previously, during the Easter of 1982, he visited Buenos Aires to referee there. Easter … 1982 … Buenos Aires … Argentina. Any alarm bells ringing?

I’ll let him tell the story in his own words. 

“I was selected to be the official Great Britain team referee for the 1982 world under twenties junior championships being held in Buenos Aires at Easter 1982. Throughout the day we were due to fly, the BBC was regularly broadcasting reports that an Argentinian force had invaded the Falkland Islands, as yet unconfirmed by the British government. I arrived at Heathrow at 4pm and met the team manager and captain. The fencers, aged as young as 17, arrived soon after with concerned parents.  

“The team manager had consulted various manuals, risk assessments, even the current rule book produced by the Amateur Fencing Association. It soon became obvious that no appropriate risk assessment existed: the page on ‘What to do with a team of teenagers upon arrival in a country we are at war with’ was not available. It was therefore agreed that, in true British spirit, we would fly and see what would happen!

“Before we’d left, all British airline companies flying to Argentina had already been grounded. Our own long flight, with the Brazilian airline Varig, left at 6pm. Our first stop was Lisbon, then Rio, where we were to change flights after a stopover of three hours for Buenos Aires. In this three-hour wait we contacted Mary Glenn Haig, the then president of the Amateur Fencing Association, and also the British Embassy in Brasilia for advice. The responses can be summed up as ‘No comment’. On we went.

“Although none of us could speak Portuguese or Spanish, the gist of the photos and headlines on other passengers’ newspapers was clear. We also began to realise a good number of our fellow passengers were aware we were British and, as we approached our final destination, a feeling of anticipation grew within the plane. One particular Argentinian businessman who spoke English (he worked for Fray Bentos – who remembers the blue flat round can with a beef pie in it?) showed me his national paper, which carried a comparison of the British and Argentinian navies. For the very first time I felt a sense of fear, adventure and a touch of pride. Memories of my Dad who served in the Royal Navy came flooding back.

“When we landed, there was rather a large military force all over the airport. We also noted our fellow passengers were clearly very keen to leave. There were three military personnel on the tarmac obviously waiting for the British fencing team. The officer in charge (who later told me he had been on an officer’s exchange and spent two years at Sandhurst) explained he was here to meet us and expressed his understanding that we were in an unusual situation. Having accepted his kind invitation to be escorted to our hotel, we gave him our passports and were taken to a side exit where a bus was waiting. Our passports were returned to us on the bus with a stamp allowing us in. I’ve still got this today. 

“The bus drove slowly along a dual carriageway towards the capital. Every half mile there was a military vehicle parked on the side of the main road, but very few cars about. We arrived safely at our hotel in the late evening and were met by welcoming faces. We were all very tired after 19 hours of travelling and gratefully went to bed.”

“Next morning at breakfast, we saw the TV news clearly showing Margaret Thatcher standing outside No 10. (When the British Government had confirmed that we were at war and the prime minister had issued a recall for British citizens, the Huddersfield Examiner printed a picture of me with the headline ‘LOCAL MAN DEFIES MAGGIE’!) In fact, in the ten days we were there we saw all sorts of stuff, even the Royal Navy leaving Portsmouth, all of which seemed very surreal.

“There were a number of meetings with various officials and organisers including the FIE (world fencing governing body), who were all very pleased and impressed that we had made it, as were the local Argentinian organisers. All agreed that we had no idea on how this was going to go but said, ‘Let’s do it’ – a collective Dunkirk sprit!

“There were many weird aspects to what followed, for example that our training venue was the mess and sports hall of the Argentinian army’s ‘Sandhurst’, where I remember a person coming round with a collection tin to support the war effort – we didn’t contribute. We had two plainclothes armed security police officers in our hotel, whom we nicknamed Starsky and Hutch, and there was a police car parked outside. 

“We had to cover up the British ID on our fencing bags and not wear our team tracksuits until we were inside the event stadium, and agreed to say we were Canadians if asked as we ran the gauntlet of the ‘Viva las Malvinas’ demonstrators outside the presidential palace. We also had to rely on exchanging our British currency with other teams, as no banks would accept it, a challenge made more difficult by the 220 percent inflation rate.

“While walking to the venue, we came across BBC journalist Michael Buerk doing a report to camera. He was astonished when we told him – of necessity very quietly – that we were the GB fencing team competing in the world championships. A few days later, the BBC did a piece from the fencing venue which was broadcast on the BBC news.

“The opening ceremony was an amazing experience – once we had placated our Scottish team members who thought they might be asked to march behind an England flag! We had no idea what sort of reception we would get but, as it came to our turn and we walked in to the March of the Grenadier Guards, the audience of 6,000 people stood up and applauded.”

An unforgettable memory for all of us and, I hope, an interesting story to add to the other Norky’s Ramblings!

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