Just two months into my first year at Coton House [accomodation for first year apprentices at British Thomson-Houston] I was just getting used to motorbiking to work when the Suez crisis erupted and petrol rationing was introduced. Funds barely covered the fuel cost and L plates had prevented the carrying of a paying passenger. However, I had heard that until the crisis was over that restriction had been lifted so started taking friend Roger on pillion immediately. It was an easy trip there being little traffic in those days and there were no problems until one very icy morning we could only stay upright by keeping both feet on the ground. This worked OK until a downhill stretch where on a left hand bend we met a heavy articulated lorry inching up. Steering was lost at that point and, in slow motion it seemed, the bike simply carried on sideways and we disappeared under the lorry, still seated but lying down! We eventually managed to extricate bike and ourselves not much the worse. We carried on with feet down, but left behind an ashen faced driver who seemed very shaken up, poor chap.
The travel arrangement worked well right through to the next spring when life suddenly went pear shaped. I had left Roger on the bike at the kerb outside the post office while I went in to get a new tax disc. Just as we were about to pull away, constable PC 47 strolled up and asked to see my licence. Apparently my assumption had been wrong, and nor should L plates have been removed. Humble pie had no effect and with a string of “most unfortunate, most unfortunate” mutterings he laboriously issued a penalty notice. When I asked if it would be alright to take Roger back he seemed lost for words and left us.
A week or so later it came as a frightening shock to receive a court summons. BTH did all they could to help, and Mr Dyson from the company’s legal department accompanied me in the courtroom for the hearing. To this day I recall how, on standing for the oath, my legs nearly gave way as the horror of being branded a criminal swamped my mind. I think in the end there was just a nominal fine, but it was a lesson well and truly learned.
Digs in town
After a year at Coton House, isolated and tucked away in the country, a youthful sense of adventure and a search for more social interaction caused me to hunt for digs in town. Choices were limited, and the best seemed to be at Manor Road, where I shared a bedroom with two others. There was a resident’s lounge and use of the back yard to work on the motor bike. The landlady turned out to be a harridan though and after just a few weeks of mounting tension, things came to a head when one particularly cold day I had the temerity to ask if we could have a fire in the lounge (the house had no other heating). This was the last straw and I was given marching orders without notice.
A desperate search
We were not allowed time off work unless ill, so there ensued a desperate search for alternative accommodation, trudging the streets and eventually finishing up in similar lodgings. This landlady was at least a jolly soul but I had to share a small room with four others where beds were wedged so tight I could only reach mine by climbing over the others! Only breakfast was provided here though, eaten in the small kitchen round one table that seated all twelve residents at once but only by squeezing round together. The only place for personal belongings was under one’s bed. The bike had to live in the road.
After three weeks it became clear that funds would not stretch to an adequate diet for survival. Pride had to take a back seat and I went humbly for help to the apprentice welfare office…