Alistair Fettes Leslie was born at Milngavie, just north of Glasgow in 1924.
He became an apprentice in the RAF in 1939, just days before the outbreak of war, and spent the entire War in the RAF, and afterwards, until he came out of the RAF in 1949. He was trained at RAF Halton and RAF Cranwell and spent much of the War training other RAF personnel at Cromarty Firth. He was in India at the time of Partition.
This transcript records his memories before and during World War 2 together with other experiences.
Alistair: Well my name is Alistair Fettes Leslie, the middle name of Fettes comes from my father’s mother’s side. I was born, the middle one of three sons in a gardener’s cottage on a large estate some eight miles north of Glasgow. My mother came from southeast London and married my father who’s of Scottish origin. When I was two years old, my father moved to another gardening horticultural job in the Island of Bute, Rothsay to be exact, which was a large Spa Hotel in those days. The gentry of the wealthy people of Glasgow used it as a recuperation area, a facility at that time.
My earliest recollections go to 1928, I would be four years old and I can just vaguely remember sitting on a wall, my father coming over the garden lifting me off. Our next move was at the age of four he had another post on an estate in Lanarkshire between Glasgow and Edinburgh. This also had a tied cottage to it as part and parcel of the job. This cottage had considerable land and woods behind it and to a large extent, we were self-supporting which was rather essential because we were in the deepest part of the depression in 1929/30 and wage, his wage at that time was two pounds a week. However, we survived…
Alistair: …. and in 1940 …. 1934, my father was showing serious signs of mental illness. He fought in France in the First World War …
Alistair: ….and transport being the using of horses …. and from there he went to Iraq which in those days was called Mesopotamia.
Alistair: …. and from there, he was moved to Burma and told me tales of rafts being built to carry a number of horses down the Irrawaddy River ….
Alistair: Now, he was sacked from that job because of his illness. My father had a brother and a sister ….
Alistair: …. rather he had two sisters as the second sister that I would emphasize because she was illegitimate ….
Alistair: …. and there was a great mystery as to her parentage origin other than my grandmother, obviously
Alistair: She came to the rescue. We had to move to a place near Dunoon on the river Clyde estuary and that lasted a few months. Then, we had to move to a small mining town in Lanarkshire because my illegitimate aunt provided funds to purchase a small shop on this estate where her main customers were miners, most of them unemployed at that time, by the way ….
Alistair: So, bringing us up was handed over to my mother, which she did valiantly really ….
Alistair: Well, one day, I was in the shop, we had a little room at the back and then we had a little toilet and wash place and we tended to live in there because we were up the road and one room, all five of us ….
Alistair: So,so we tended to gravitate to the shop for the day, we only went back to this room for sleeping at night. One day, a car drew up and two men and a policeman, that was three, came in and …. (I was looking through a little hole in the wall) and took my father away. Two doctors, they were, he was certified, he was 41 years of age ….
Michael: Hmm ….
Alistair: …. to come to a large Victorian style of, as they had in those days ….
Alistair: …. hospitals …. and he lived there till the day he died aged 90 in ’73.
Michael: So quite a long time, he was in hospital then …. for 30 odd years ….
Alistair: I was the only one in the family that kept in touch with him. However, err, …. I decided, my mother was having quite a hard time coping with us, to my knowledge she got nothing from the State and in fact the State at one stage wanted to charge her some fee to keep her father in the in the home, in the hospital, which if you think about it nowadays, is rather ludicrous isn’t it?
Alistair: I …. went to school along with my other two brothers and while we were in a small mining village, nevertheless we had a very good education both primary and especially in secondary. My older brother, two years ahead of me, was almost the top of the class and the top of the school. He was very clever. My younger brother scratched along behind me. I don’t know if you heard but one of the last great exhibitions was held called the Empire Exhibition was held in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow.
Alistair: So, I got access to this park and all these wonderful pavilions.
Alistair: And one particular pavilion was dedicated to the Royal Air Force. So, I went in this building, nearly hit me head on the Hawker Hart that was hung up in the ceiling.
Alistair: Booklets …. sounds promising …. So, I took one of these booklets away and it explained exactly what was available on apprenticeship ….
Alistair: …. providing you passed an exam.
Michael: Hmm hmm ….
Alistair: My mother, I think, was rather pleased that I was heading in this direction, [laughing] one less from the nest ….
Alistair: Anyway, the curriculum was such that I didn’t quite meet the parameters and my headmaster decided to move me up to the next grade to do the science necessary, which is what happened ….
Alistair: I sat the exam, passed eventually and was invited to join the Royal Air Force, sign up for three years apprenticeship followed by eighteen years’ service.
Alistair: My mother signed me up – I said I’d get my own back on her at some time.
Michael: She was eager to get rid of you by the sounds of things ….
Alistair: Yes,so …. I eventually was given a date, go down to Halton, travel down to London, first time ever. One of my uncles met me, saw me, take me overnight and put me on the train to Wendover.
Alistair: …. a big lorry took us up to Halton and …. they sorted you out as to what you wanted to do. By the way, there were 1,750 lads applied for jobs and there was only 500 vacancies.
Alistair: I was about 460, I think.
Alistair: However, with the advent of the War, every single one was taken in.
Michael: I bet, yes. I …. just, you were how old at this time?
Alistair: I joined at fifteen years and four months
Michael: Yes, that’s right.
Michael: That’s quite young, isn’t it?
Alistair: The ages were between fifteen and seventeen and a half.
Michael: Mmm, yeah.
Alistair: I would say the average age was obviously 16.
Michael: Yes, yes. So, you arrive at Halton ….
Alistair: Arrive at Halton, given the usual checks and that’s when they discovered I had quite a serious colour definition …. Deficiency.
Alistair: I’d applied to be electric and/or wireless ….
Michael: Hmm hmm ….
Alistair: “You can’t do that, you’re colour defective. You might put a blue wire where the red one should go in”. So that finished that. So, the alternative was to be an instrument maker or instrument repairer whatever you want to call it.
Alistair: I had hoped that this was the way to being air crew.
Michael: Mmm ….
Alistair: As soon as I got my classification as being colour defective, right across the top of my records were written “UNFIT FOR FLYING” so that washed that out of the picture completely ….
Michael: Mmm, mmm ….
Alistair: Settled to be an instrument maker and the training was carried out at Cranwell at that time for electrical, wireless and instruments. So, I went up to Cranwell and …. by that time the War had been going about a fortnight. Because it was just ten days before the War when I joined ….
Alistair: ….the …. Cranwell was made up of largely a cadet training ground of, perhaps you’ve heard of Lord Trenchard ….
Alistair: Lord Trenchard created the Royal Air Force in 1918 ….
Michael: Mmm ….
Alistair: and he created this College at Cranwell to train officer-pilots, but he realised that with the technology of the aircraft, he needed airmen of a higher capability ….
Alistair: and that’s why he set these exams such that he got the right level of person – that was the idea. That’s why the apprentice training scheme was brought in at that time. That started in 19.., I think it was 1920. So, I started training there and a few months later, it was decided to bring all that part of the training back to Halton.
Alistair: So, we moved en-bloc, but just before we went, we had to a …. one-day move all our beds together, push them all together, why was that? Well, it released one block and possibly two blocks for airmen coming back from France through Dunkirk ….
Alistair: And that’s when I saw all these poor devils depressed, worn out ….
Alistair: …. gave us some indication of what went on in that part of, the early part of the War …. otherwise at that time it wasn’t really touching Britain to any degree. This was up ‘til 1940, about June 1940.
Michael: Yes, yes indeed ….
Alistair: Settled then at Halton to finish my training which, as I said, at the beginning was a three-year course – they decided to cut it down to a year in nine months. The curriculum had to stay the same, social life went out the door ….
Michael: Hmm ….
Alistair: You just get to, get your studying done or else you were off the course …. and, during that time, my mother, coming from Greenwich, she was one of 16 children ….
Alistair: …. and most of them had settled ‘round in, southeast London, Woolwich, Greenwich, Elton, Sidcup all those places. Excuse me [wipes nose] ….
Michael: It’s OK.
Alistair: So, I took the opportunity whenever I had a day leave or two days leave to go and visit them which is what I did quite regularly.
Alistair: And one weekend, I was at an aunt and uncle having lunch when the sirens went off …. so, we were told to decamp to the foot of the garden and into an Anderson shelter. Some people may not know what an Anderson shelter but there was a tin contraption on which you piled sods of earth and it was quite effective as far as I know.
Michael: Hmm ….
Alistair: And we’re in this, heard the drones coming from above and I looked up, I saw there were a lot of blackbirds up there. It was the first massed raid on London by the Germans, thousands of Junkers bombers coming over. They passed over us and then we started hearing the, the bangs right on the docks in London. The first major raid carried out in Great Britain.
Alistair: After that, it continued, obviously, for some, some years. It didn’t start easing off until D-Day really and then of course they had a lot weapons such as the V1 and the V2 ….
Alistair: When my course finished, we had to do our written exam and a practical exam. I, I had, my job on the practical exam was to make a Maltese Cross. You don’t kick him you know, but it’s an interlacing thing like that [demonstrating]. I don’t know if you have ever seen a Maltese Cross and they must spin, so you’ve got to get it very accurate.
Alistair: Anyway, of my entry, there was 126 boys studying to be instrument makers and six of us came out at the top and I was one of them. And we got the top aircraft rank immediately. Then was two before that, below that, Aircraft One, Aircraft Two, I was a leading Aircraftman. I had a propeller.
Michael: Yeah ….
Alistair: Right, finished your exams, dispatched us all to squadrons to do some work and I was sent to the very north of Scotland …. probably somebody saw I was Scottish, so we’ll send him up there ….
Alistair: It was a blessing really and, err, the little unit I was on was on the Cromarty Firth …. and its main purpose was to train air-gunners and bomb aimers. Lots of empty land north of there, you could go and drop your bombs on marshes and all sorts and the air gunners, we had small planes like Lysanders, that pulled drogues and they could fire away at that. So, we had 26 …. sorry, 60 people coming in every few weeks to train in those two occupations …. The sad part was that after their training, they all went to Bomber Command, they were voracious for people to possible building Lancasters are all sorts at a terrific rate.
Alistair: Mostly here in Manchester of course ….
Michael: Yes, yes indeed.
Alistair: Avro …. And, err, as we know now, 50% of those lads …. died within, some within days, weeks, months, huge loss. I can’t say other than that I had a very enjoyable time in the north of Scotland at that unit …. got to know all the local population extremely well …. getting invited in to tea, here and there ….
Michael: Very nice.
Alistair: Rationing? They’d never heard of it.
Alistair: It didn’t exist. And our dental officer, he’d two stripes, decided to approach the Air Ministry and we created the very first pipe band in the Royal Air Force.
Alistair: We gotpermission to wear the Seaforth Highlanders kilt and we’re all equipped. I learned to play the bagpipes then ….
Michael: Did you?
Alistair: Yeah, so I joined the band and off we went. We used to go around all the little towns, you may have had that we held things in the War – Wings for Victory – you brought your own saucepans along and whatever you could afford to go and build Spitfires and etc. We had a great time doing this. I see the Air Force pipe bands now. Oh, they’re full of gold leaflets and all sorts. I just can’t recognize them but that was the origin, that was the first one ….
Alistair: …. that was created. Anyway, those days came to a halt after V-DAY, VE-DAY ….
Michael: Hmm, hmm
Alistair: Somebody down south thought, we’ll sort that lot out – so postings came through and I was sent to join a unit consisting of officers and senior non-commissioned officers to learn the ropes that was occupied by civilians normally, which was aircraft, err, …. aircraft checks, it was really. I’ve forgotten the name now, it will come to me a moment.
Michael: Hmm, hmm
Alistair: A.I.D. that’s it. Aeronautical Inspection Department and we were all civilians ….
Alistair: But it was decided the civilians would not go overseas. So, the idea was this lot of officers and NCOs, they’re going overseas, we’ll put them somewhere. So, I went on courses. I went to about four or five factories, spending a fortnight in each, went to the English Steel Corporation in Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol especially. And …. Eventually, we were all brought together at Blackpool. Civilian houses there on the south shore ….
Alistair: We had a whale of a time, thought this is great. [Laughing] Ah well, the day of reckoning came, and we’re all marched to the station and finished up at the docks, Liverpool docks, and off we went on a troopship. We’re supposed to have gone but it brought down, got the middle of the river Mersey and broke down so we went back in dock for a few days and in that time, we’d missed the convoy assembling in Liverpool Bay. However, when we did get out there eventually, we had our own destroyer to escort us and at that time you didn’t just go around and into Gibraltar, you went away into the Atlantic then came in ….
Alistair: …. ‘cause the submarine activity was quite active at that, still going on very strongly. Although, once you were in the Med, there wasn’t any, err, submarine activity that I know of. So, the destroy, the destroyer went off and left us ….
Alistair: …. and we ploughed on through the Med …. Oh, as we were getting equipped to go abroad, the interesting thing was that the landladies could always tell you whether you were going to Iceland or India, you know ….
Michael: They knew first ….
Alistair: They knew first, yeah. We were all issued with pith helmets which we’re still issued in the Zulu Wars and the minute you got to your station in your country you’re going to, the first thing they did was take them off, put bush hats on so that was an episode that phased out then ….
Alistair: We, the troopship was packed with mainly Army, quite a large contingent of the Air Force and about two or three hundred girl WRNS who were secreted away at the front of the ship, keep them out of harm’s way.
The food was abominable. It was almost a riot as we passed through Gibraltar. It was just slops, so there was a quite a serious meeting took place with a Captain, and he said as soon as we get to Malta, we’re getting some better supplies which is what they did and again Port Said as well, they did the same. So, we managed to struggle through and we went down the Red Sea, across to Ceylon. We got all these girls off then, sent them on their way and then we went up to Bombay, had a few weeks there, some lovely places to swim north of Bombay but some lovely outings. We always made the best of it no matter what the circumstances were.
Alistair: Anyway, I was posted to Calcutta, so six days on the train to get there, stopping and starting. When we arrived, I was allocated two factories, quite near to where we were billeted, under contracts to repair instruments. Meantime, most of those troops went a hundred miles north and they suffered some terrible casualties.
Alistair: Felt a bit guilty looking back on that now, everywhere, in this city, living it up really, playing tennis on the Maiya Down, going to a famous restaurant in Chowringhee called Firpo’s. Everybody went there ….
Alistair: The cinema was called the Electric Cinema. It was the only one that had air conditioning.
Anyway, one day as I was out, actually I was playing tennis, its terrible to say that, when these lads were up there giving their lives away. However, a colleague called me over and said, “Have you heard the news?” I said, “No.” “The War’s over.” “Is it?” “Yes,” he said, “the Americans have dropped the atomic bomb twice on two cities, it’s over, finished”. This was August ….
Alistair: Well, these clerks who work in the background deciding who goes where and what thought we’ll sort this lot out. On the train North West Frontier …. [Laughs]
Michael: Oh, no!
Alistair: So, now I’m into peacetime you see ….
Alistair: and, err, went to a small unit in the foothills of the Himalayas but I don’t know why we were there or what we did, but anyway we made the best of that as usual. We used to sit in a circle there was a big tin drum full of beer and tell stories …. and, err, that came to an end obviously, it couldn’t continue. We’d a huge maintenance depot in Lahore, sent there, so I went down there to take charge of this depot, and then I got promoted to Staff Sergeant at that point and I spent two years in Lahore …. all post-war now.
Alistair: I, they had us, all people going through at that time were going home because they’d signed up for the War …. then that left me feeling, err, all my colleagues were going, you see. But they had a system there for the Army and the Air Force that you could go on leave to the UK if your name came out of a hat, one in 10,000, [lifts hand in the air] out it came. Six weeks to get back to the UK, a month’s leave, six weeks to get back.
Alistair: No flying, we didn’t fly anywhere even though you were in the Air Force.
Alistair: So, I came back and, err, had my six weeks. Colleague of mine I knew in Scotland was getting married, I went up to Inverness and I played the pipes at his wedding …. and I think it’s about then that I began to become acquainted with Manchester. Why and how? My older brother, by the way all three of us were in the Royal Air Force ….
Michael: Really, yes.
Alistair: …. butmy older brother, he always wanted to be Air Crew but whatever he did he couldn’t get beyond being the lowest rank.
Michael: Hmm, hmm
Alistair: Anyway, he was posted to India while I was up here [raising arm] and he was posted to Madras [ pointing down] waiting to go for Singapore’s D-day. It was all getting built up. Anyway, the bomb finished it. He’d caught a cold in his face, jaw got jammed with sleeping under his lorry apparently and for recuperation, they said, “You could go away for three weeks, where’d you like to go.” He said, “Well, my brother’s up ….” “All right, you can go.” A thousand miles, [laughs] he came up and, err, he said, I said “Listen, I’m running the Sergeant’s mess here, you’re a Sergeant, don’t tell anybody ….” [laughing] So, this went on for a while and one night, by the way, we had fires up there at that time in the winter.
Alistair: It wascold enough for a fire, but we sat around the fire and the senior non-commissioned officer was sat there and Roy, ach, out he drank a beer too much, and his tongue began to get loose ….
Michael: Oh dear.
Alistair: So, I had a job quite getting him out of there at that time. They brewed beer up in that area called Muree, M-U-R-double E, it had a kick, like a mule. Eventually he went home to be demobbed …. When he came back, he’d been promised a place at Manchester University. [Of] course by that time he was, err, what you call a, aged pupil is it ….
Michael: Mature student, whatever ….
Alistair: Ah, maturepupil, that’s the word, yes.
Michael: Hmm, mmm
Alistair: So, he started …. Oh, he came home to get married as well ….
Alistair: ….and he married a lady called …. Erika and her surname was Fröhlich and she always said she was Swiss, and I had my doubts. [Roy Francis Leslie married Erika F Fröhlich in Macclesfield in 1946.] There’s a lake in the South of Switzerland one side’s Switzerland, the other side is, err, Germany.
Alistair: She worked as an ATS girl on the Ack Ack guns, and one of Roy’s jobs before he was sent to India in the Air Force was to liaise with some aircraft that came over and allowed the gun, the gunners to compute their equipment such as it was then and that’s how he met her, place called Clydebank near Glasgow. I kept in touch and he decided he was going to get married, he came back, got married, I couldn’t attend though, obviously ‘cause I was still in India you see …. and, err, when I did come back, my mother was …. when she, eventually she had to sell this little shop in Lanarkshire because the business fell away. She joined the Fire Service …. I’ve got photos of her in her uniform ….
Alistair: …. joined the fire services and everything. She came up for the wedding and Erica’s parents lived in Macclesfield …. and she liked her so much, she says. “I’m going to stay here”. I don’t know where she’d been all over the place. Because she was in NAFFI as well, you know, in Oxfordshire. So, when I did come home on this six weeks leave later that year, that was my focal point, Macclesfield. Only being 20 or 21, I was a right gad about, into Manchester. That’s how I came to make my acquaintances of Manchester you see ….
Michael: Yes, yes.
Alistair: So, there was a club which was for the Forces underneath Boots Chemists down at the bottom of Market Street ….
Michael: Hmm, hmm.
Alistair: …. and there were a lovely restaurant in there, dancing, oh this is great. So this, oh by the way, on occasions the nurses from the local hospitals were allowed in the dance. That’s where I met……
Alistair: …. and we were able …. they were starved you know the rationing was dreadful and they were absolutely starved. Could you, could you get me into the restaurant, could you get me clothing coupons [laughs] all of that. Anyway, this was I got to know, I got to go know her then.
Michael: And this was after the War, not during it?
Alistair: This is after, you see most of my tales are after the War ….
Michael: Yes, yes.
Alistair: …. really when I look back now and I’ve hardly a photograph of, taken during the War ….
Alistair: …. most of them are subsequent to that. So, I, I hadn’t met Chris’s mum by that time.
I came back …. Oh, I was in India the night that Jinnah and what’s-his-name came on the radio and said that at the stroke of mid-night, Pakistan’s created. It was a very, err, it was a very, well, what was the name Pandit Nehru that’s who ….
Michael: That’s right, yes.
Alistair: He came on the radio and said I, I can hear him now …. “At the stroke of midnight, the British Raj will be no more” and he was absolutely right.
So, within a few weeks, we were all ordered out, get down to our troop ship the best way you can ….
Alistair: So, we downed tools and off. And when I left Lahore station to go down to Bombay …. about four or five weeks later two trains came in, one was full of Pakistani, the other was full of Hindus …. set about each other and almost slaughtered the lot. Well, this went on throughout that area at that time. What, about a million, one and a quarter, killed in that way?
So eventually I got back home. Now I originally said I joined up for fifteen, err, three years training and eighteen years’ service ….
Alistair: So, I was on my contract …. So, I was still serving on …. came back for two, three weeks leave and immediately told to report to a station near Cambridge. Next day, trucked out to Germany via .… Went through Hook of Holland across to Belgium, err, to Holland and through to, err, past Hamburg to a place called, err, oh dear, it’ll get me in a moment I’ll remember ….
Michael: Hmm, hmm
Alistair: …. and the squadron that I was attached to, was the very first squadron to operate jet engines, the Meteor ….
Alistair: …. and they talk of cold wars now but there was the most terrible cold war going on at that time and they just, shortly after the War, two years because Stalin had decided he’d only got a quarter of Europe divided up when they carved up …. Yeah, he wanted a bit more. Maybe being, shall we say, very awkward …. and our job was to patrol up and down the line there. Lubeck’s the name of the place, near Hamburg. That was …. 1947 late ‘47 ….
Alistair: I left India in August ’47.
While there [Germany], I took the opportunity of having a trip into Hamburg, mile after mile of huge piles of rubble, still smoking …. but there was one great big building in the middle and it was the town hall. I don’t know if you know they call the Town Hall in Germany, it’s called a Rathaus.
Michael: Oh, yes.
Alistair: …. and we had German bands busy playing away in order to earn a crust, food galore we had a wonderful time there, all these little trips.
At that time, I think they were getting quite near …. About …. a place called Travemünde ….
Alistair: …. that’s where they were beginning to build the site for the V2 rocket, you know ….
Alistair: That was centre of it. Anyway, after a while they decided [to] change squadron ‘round, brought it home and they sent me to, err, near Doncaster on a Lancaster squadron. That was the first time I flew in a Lancaster, there.
Michael: Hmm-hmm ….
Alistair: While I was there, my mother was in Macclesfield, I was courting Chris’s mother, coming backwards and forward and backwards and forwards and, err, then we decided to get married. So, we’re married in Leeds, had our honeymoon in a place called Lynmouth, you know in Devon.
Michael: North Devon, yes.
Alistair: …. and then I was posted to London to the R.A.F. headquarters just off top of Aldwych there …. and I was on a job that I’ve never really fathomed yet to do with statistics. You were allowed to go in civilian clothes, I was in a big flat opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground ….
Michael: Oh yes.
Alistair: …. again, the Life o’ Riley, I feel ashamed when I look back. [Laughing] So, this went on for a while…. Oh, my being married, the ability of getting quarters was non-existent then, so …. eventually we got a little apartment, or part of an apartment, Southeast London, near Crystal Palace. This job in civilian clothes, living it up came to an end. Shipped abroad again, this time they put us in Dakotas and flew us direct to Germany to Schleswig-Holstein and when got there, we had a whole load of, err, Hercules bombers, I’ve forgotten, I’ll get the name in a minute, converted.
What were they carrying? …. Coal.
Why were they carrying coal? When they carved Germany up, they handed certain parts to the, err, four. The Russians, the French, the Americans and ourselves. And they did the same in Berlin, into four pieces, but surrounding Berlin was the Russian part. So, Stalin had got his grips …. he decided to starve the whole of Berlin out. He wouldn’t allow any, err, any troops, any rail or road transport. But he couldn’t stop the flying. That’s the reason for the coal. We flew the coal into Berlin. When we had to go and repair the instruments, we used to come out as if we’d been down the mine, all the dust……. So …. by that time, I had been 10 years in the Air Force.
Alistair: All my colleagues, I knew, had been demobbed. I didn’t think I was going anywhere, so I said, “Can I break my contract?” You could under the circum[stances], oh, by the way, at the same time, my younger brother who was a pilot crashed near the Zambezi Falls …. he was coming home for my wedding, but he was killed. Now you have to have a pretty good excuse to break your contract and you needed £50, and £50 …. was a lot then.
The MP for Macclesfield where my mother lived was a retired Group Captain, got in touch with him explained my brother had been killed, my mother was on her own, bla bla bla …. He gave me okay to break my contract provided I’d got the £50. So, I went to Kathleen, I said “Do you have £50?”
And that’s how I came out of the Air Force after ten and a quarter in there, roughly it was just over 10 years really. It held nothing for me, I didn’t know where I was going.
Michael: No ….
Alistair: So, I came out on the Thursday. I went to this recruiting place for ex-servicemen, this man says, “You have to start doing there you know, don’t think you’re going up there, start on Monday ….” So, I started in the factory on the Monday. Horrible little foreman, oh he was …. I could’ve rung his neck. Anyway, I stuck it for four weeks then rolled up my overalls and threw them away.
So, I thought that’s finished for that, now what do I do? So, I thought, oh, I’ll see about this selling business …. Advertising …. this firm. I think it was in Ilford, about forty of us all went on a six-week course. It was so vicious that at the end of it, there’s only about 10 left …. the rest cleared off quick. It was cold-calling selling carbon paper to offices in London.
Michael: My goodness ….
Alistair: Real difficult job …. They had offices throughout London and our office was just by Victoria Station and there were six of us there, operating in different roads and had a system such that he knew all the customers or possible customers and had stacks of cards and each day you got another stack of cards, forty in a stack. So, you had to try and go on forty calls up in these buildings.
Alistair: You got about forty orders a day …. 39 to get one in the book!
Alistair: I thought, they’re not gonna, I’m not gonna let this get me down. I used to go and sit and read in, err, in the park by the Palace there, and say, “What shall I do now?” Well, I’m gonna stick this out a while and I decided, “Well, why let all that training in the Air Force go to waste …. can I bring the two together?” …. So, that’s what I set about doing ….
Michael: Hmm, hmm.
Alistair: I thought, “Well, I’ll write ….” You didn’t have CVs in those days, you wrote off your own volition. I got this technical dictionary out of the library at Croydon, that was my local library, I thought, well, opened the …. and of course, A B, the first happened to be a [….] eight names …. Right start there, borrowed a typewriter, or hired one, typed out eight letters and sent them off. Kathleen kept saying, “Come on, the dinner’s ready don’t, get away from that typewriter.” I said, “Just a minute, I’m nearly there ….” Sent them off …. got no replies for six …. one said, “Sorry, nothing available ….” and the eighth said “Maybe ….”
So, I wrote back …. I said, “Oh,” I said, “I just happen to be in Manchester next week, I’m in South London ….”
Alistair: “I’ll call in and see you, will that be all right?” Called in at Trafford Park, an American company, Carborundum. “Yes, yes there’s a possibility, err, can’t offer you anything directly. You’ll have to be a clerk, answer the phone and learn something about the business.” “Right,” said Kathleen, up sticks and we’re away to Manchester. So that’s how we came up here and did about eighteen months, largely going around the factory.
Our man in Scotland had, err, in his spare time been working for the BBC ….
Michael: Hmm hmm ….
Alistair: He and his wife were Uncle Sam and Auntie Somebody on the Children’s Hour ….
Michael: Oh yes.
Alistair: They’d been watching him for a while …. So, give him the heave-ho and said to me, “Do you want to go to Scotland?” “Oh,” I said, “all right, I’ll go ….” “Start first of January ….”
Christina was only six weeks old …. off we went, most terrible winter it was, the snow was up here. [raising arm] So, I settled in, in Scotland, for nearly 20 years a representative ….
Alistair: I came down and took over the, err, the salesforce and I changed, had a few different jobs and finished up traveling in Europe quite a lot, especially Paris, I used to go there very often …. And ….
Michael: You’d gone back up to Scotland ….
Alistair: I came back down ….
Alistair: Spent another eleven years at head office here ….
Alistair: …. was then made redundant …. at 59 …. I said to them, I said “You know, you’ll regret this.” The firm folded three years later [laughing]. In fact, Carborundum based in Niagara Falls had factories throughout the world ….
Alistair: …. and they all shut. Do you remember all of the heavy big business the …. foundry, steelworks? All shut down.
Alistair: Heathrow, is it Heath? Was a prime example. They went through it here as well. If I’d stayed in Scotland, I wouldn’t have had any customers to call on, they’d all disappeared.
Alistair: So, that was it, I was out again. What shall I do now? Some of the relatives on Kathleen’s side said, “You want to put your feet up and have a rest for a while, you’ve done enough.” So, I decided to be retired, put it that way.
Alistair: And I started my retirement which has lasted nearly thirty-six years, it’s a long retirement, isn’t it?
Michael: Yes,it is, it is, have you regretted that?
Alistair: Not one bit, but no, it’s all passed, just like that, yes.
Michael: Yes, there’s always things to do aren’t there?
Alistair: That was the point, err, I was always working around, well you know Philip don’t you? [Talking to his son, Philip] …. tried to put [sounds like] crumbling bloke thing around, one thing and another ….
Michael: Yes, yes.
Alistair: Time went on, yes.
Michael: Is thereanything that you felt that you experienced during the War that influenced your life afterwards? I mean it sounds as though you were ….
Alistair: Probably to become more resolute that’s probably it, which because, which became the driving force in effect ….
Michael: Yes, determination – yes, I mean you’ve not had it easy, you been made redundant once or twice or things have come to an end and you’ve had to suddenly find yourself having to find something else to do, hmm, not easy when you have a family to support and so on ….
Alistair: Well in that regard of course I didn’t have a family because I had got this pretty good job with ….
Alistair: Well, Christina was growing up in Glasgow ….
Michael: Yes, yeah.
Alistair: She was born in Manchester ….
Alistair: Christened in Leeds, educated in Scotland [laughing] ….
Michael: Well that’s not a bad, err, combination is it on the whole …. [laughs]
Alistair: One of our grandparents were Leeds, were Yorkshire and the others were Londoners, yes.
Michael: Is there ….
Alistair: I was telling you, my father…. my grandmother on my father’s side had seven children ….
Alistair: My middle name is Fettes because she was a Miss Fettes before she married ….
Alistair: …. and she married a Leslie obviously …. one of her brothers David, David Fettes, was a very personal friend of the Queen’s father such that he made him …. made him an Honorary Surgeon in 1936, then he was given the OBE and then the CBE and became surgeon for the British Army. Michael: Hmm-hmm
Alistair: So, we had fame on one side and fame on the other side ….
Alistair: Funnyhow life works, isn’t it?
Michael: It does indeed, does indeed. If you, talking about that, I mean if you were asked to give advice to youngsters today, about how to live a long and happy life, what would you say?
Alistair: I would say, having the correct outlook on life. If you’re gifted with it, well and good. If not seek it out ….
Michael: Yes, which is something you obviously did, yes.
Alistair: ….and it will reward you in the end.
Michael: Absolutely! Alistair, I think we’ve probably come to an end at that point but thank you very much indeed ….
Alistair: You’re welcome.
Michael: …. forallowing Wargen to come into your home …. to, to listen to your memories. Thank you very much.
Alistair: You’re welcome.
Interview recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, for WarGen. Transcription by Michael Thompson and Tom Humphrey.