Harry Turner's Footnotes to Fandom
FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #4    | FOOTNOTES Page | Obituary Page |

 
"SAUSAGE TOWN PLAN TOWED IN A HOLE"

    ■ That outrageous headline in The Guardian of 13 June 1988, and the story of a community project "to revive the old Wiltshire sausage town of Calne", roused fading memories. Calne happened to be the nearest village to the wartime RAF Yatesbury camp which sprawled along the Chippenham-Marlborough road to within walking distance of the Avebury Stones. In those days, the economic mainstay of Calne was the mighty Harris sausage, pie & bacon factory, now demolished. But in wartime Harris's prospered and their products figured prominently in the daily menus of the Yatesbury canteen.
    Their bacon and bangers relieved the monotony of a diet otherwise based on baked beans; their pork pies proved to be a delicacy that satisfied trencherman and gourmet alike... noble-size pies, freshly baked, with a glazed crusty pastry that melted in the mouth and a succulent spicy solid meat filling. A treat I sorely missed when I moved on in my RAF career.
    Even now, decades later, I feel the digestive juices flowing with the memory of coming off night duty, marching with the squad along the mile or so separating technical site and main camp, to invade the canteen in the early hours before the rest of the camp stirred and tuck into freshly-delivered Harris's pies, cut into generous slices, supplemented with tomatoes and bowls of Original Branston pickle...
    It was one of the supreme consolations of life in trying times.

— Harry Turner
 

Harry Turner at Yatesbury Radio School, 1943
Harry Turner [back row, 3rd from right] and his class at Yatesbury Radio School, 1943

After completing a lengthy radio course at Birmingham College of Technology, enjoying the comfort of civvy billets, I was among those posted, at the end of February 1943, to Yatesbury Radio School, in deepest Wiltshire, to continue working on more hush-hush developments...

Envelope addressed to Harry Turner at RAF Yatesbury

Months before, while training at Redcar, I'd had a postcard from Arthur Clarke, then stationed at Yatesbury. I wondered if he was still here. I had a fleeting glimpse of a corporal who was his double, in charge of a squad that marched past me while I was being pushed around in those first few days, but adjusting to camp routines, familiarising myself with the geography of the place, and then being put on a night shift, meant that several days passed before I was able to track him down.
    He was billeted in a block of huts not far from my quarters and when we did meet, all our spare time that morning was spent exchanging news. Enquiring after Marion and the demise of the Junior Astronomical Association, he announced that he's giving a talk on rocket propulsion at a camp meeting at the end of the month. He seemed well-organised, had his typewriter with him and, looking to the future, kept a file of all potential British Interplanetary Society members he met. Taking me into the store room of the hut, he thrust a small telescope through the drawn blackout curtain to project an image of the sun on the opposite wall. There was a large sunspot group visible which we studied with interest until the sun disappeared behind a drainpipe.
    That afternoon he gave a gramophone concert—Elgar, Walton, Dvorak, Borodin—in the camp recreation room, and roped me in to help with the records. We had two turntables, so that we were able to fade-in the 78 discs, avoiding the usual pause for the turning-over of record sides, and giving a welcome continuity to the music. We carried on playing records long after the audience had departed. After the rich musical life of Birmingham I thought that it would be dead here, but the officer in charge of the camp is musically minded so we get record concerts every Tuesday and Sunday evening.
    Our later meetings were sporadic owing to the vagaries of changing duty shifts. But in the weeks that passed, music provided a welcome break in routine, between technical training and the inevitable grind of admin 'bull' and fatigues. I became aware that a significant proportion of the instructors happened to be performing musicians, discreetly retained from the stream of trainees passing through the school to become mainstays of the resident station orchestra. I commented on this when writing home to Marion:

Last night I went down to the music circle with Arthur... as well as the gramophone concerts, there's a station orchestra (with several ex-members of the BBC Symphony) which plays occasionally. When we got back to the huts Arthur left me with his telescope while he went for a shower. I had to balance the tube against the doorpost and crane my neck to get a peek at Jupiter before searching for the comet, which I picked up eventually... Evidently Arthur is a familiar figure hereabouts, since several passersby in the darkness made cracks like 'old Rocket Clarke up to his tricks again'. Which reminds me to ask if you'll bring along any new copies of the Scientific American when we get together. Arthur would like to see 'em as he's not been able to get hold of any copies for ages.

    Marion's reply included mention of a steady stream of Astonishing Stories that had been arriving at home from an anonymous source; she didn't rate the contents very highly. We suspected that they were a tongue-in-cheek contribution from Doug Webster. When I mentioned this to Arthur it turned out he'd been starved of current sf also. I hastily wrote to Marion to say that I'd found a way of disposing of the pulp-mags, and to send them on before Arthur changed his mind.
    Arthur was a keen member of the current affairs discussion group run on the camp under the watchful eye of the welfare officer. Around the time I arrived a series of talks on the postwar world was planned, with speakers including Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour politician, Ivan Maisky, Soviet Ambassador in London, and Winant, a US diplomat. I was also introduced to an independent discussion group—held in the neutral territory of the YMCA hut to evade the control of the welfare officer—run by an ardent marxist who was also planning a wall newspaper. Arthur had been inveigled into writing a series of science articles for this and, as he'd given me a glowing testimonial as an artist, I soon found myself designing headings and doing cartoons for the page displays. But time for these diversions was restricted by the demands of working on the night shift.
    When eventually I switched on to a day shift things didn't improve. The big advantage of night working was that you dodged daytime routine fatigues; now my name started appearing on duty lists. One boring chore was lighting the heating stoves in the instruction huts on the tech site early in the mornings... I doubt if any chimney pipes had been cleaned out since the huts were first built; the fires never drew, and smoke billowed out of every crack and crevice until the stoves began to glow. It didn't help that we had to collect the wood for kindling the day before, from an old chalet nearby, wood that was absolutely green and damp as a wet blanket, so that initial efforts at fire-raising merely carbonised the surface layer before the wood went out... We needed lots of paper to dry out the wood and start it burning before there was any hope of starting combustion of the near fire-proof coke provided as fuel.
    Scrounging around for the thin wartime dailies that were our main source of reading matter conflicted with the urgent need to hoard copies to cover newly-polished floors prior to weekly hut inspections. Fortunately two Canadians billetted in our hut received papers regularly from home, big 100-page weekend issues with umpteen pages of comics. Slow progress in coaxing recalcitrant stoves to working temperatures was eased by being able to catch up with the adventures of Little Orphan Annie, the Gumps, Bringing Up Father, the Katzenjammer Kids, and other familiar friends of younger days. But fatigues tended to expand to fill the time available, as I complained in a letter at the month end:

Not only were we fire-lighting on Monday but had to go on parade early for a session slinging rifles about, and then a PT period heaving heavy logs around. By the time I got to the Radio School for instruction I was worn out. Most of the class were yawning and dozing off during the lectures. After all that, on my return to the main camp, I was put on guard duty that night. So I was glad to get to the music circle for a change and a rest last evening. Arthur was in charge again, so I gave him a lift with the records though unfortunately one of the pick-ups had been damaged and we had to manage with a single turntable, so it was a bit more stop and go than usual without the fading-in of sides. After all my recent exertions I tended to doze off now and again. However, Arthur has a habit of turning up the volume until the sound waves almost knock you over... which kept me alert enough to cope with record changes. Needless to say all requests from the front rows to turn down the volume were ignored...

    It was a welcome break to be excused fatigues after a series of inoculations for something-or-other, but I promptly lost interest in life with a throbbing arm and the sight of fellow-sufferers agonising around me. The music circle was cancelled as concert pianist Marjorie Few, who had been playing with the London Philharmonic at nearby Marlborough, was persuaded to give a recital at the station theatre before returning to London. I decided not to go, still feeling groggy from the inoculations, but Arthur came in, panting, all enthusiasm, to collect me. So I went, enjoyed Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Chopin, and Liszt and felt all the better for it...
    Arthur's talk on rocket propulsion was due the following Wednesday, and I was invited to write an unbiased report for the wall-newspaper—by Arthur himself. He drew a big audience, mainly technical people, and spent most of the time answering questions from the floor. There were arguments raging all over the camp for weeks after the event, with 'Spaceship' Clarke being regarded as a genius or a complete nut-case!
    Shortly after, around mid-April, Arthur was told he'd be sent on an officer training course in a matter of a week or so. We were both kept busy trying to catch up with each other's reading material before parting. I described the frantic activity to Marion:

Spent most of this evening waiting for a haircut, and reading The Glass Giant of Palomar in a hurry before Arthur departs. When I called on him, I found him lying on his bed with sf mags on one side, the book on Lowell propped up in front of him, and the Scientific Americans buried under some laundry at the other side. He picked up an Astonishing, flicked through the pages briefly and then heaved it into his locker, seized the Lowell book and started to career through it at the rate of sixty pages a minute. Then with an impatient snort he dug out one of the Scientific Americans from under the pile of clothes and started to skim through Russell's article. Inadvertently he knocked over a pile of letters, cursed, leaned over to stop the avalanche, caught sight of me at the door, beamed heartily and explained that he'd just finished Russell's article and thought it particularly good! He tickles me; he's so impetuous, always in a devil of a rush to do innumerable things. Strangely enough, he does seem to get a lot done—or at least leaves that impression.

    I called on him one evening a short time later, to be treated to the spectacle of him packing. He had three large suitcases and his kitbag spread over the floor, kept whipping things out of one and into another, only to change his mind and reverse the process a few seconds later. The whole process was slowed down by the discovery of forgotten things at the bottom of the cases. We carried on a conversation separated by a mounting pile of Arthur's possessions. Eventually he disappeared behind it altogether, though I could hear him cussing mildly in between exchanges of opinion. I left him to it and crept back to my hut. When I met up with him in the canteen at supper, he was immersed in a book of war verse; apparently packing had been suspended after he unearthed this treasure.
    I began to wonder if he would ever get away, but was able to report to Marion towards the end of the month:

I managed to skip through the rest of The Glass Giant of Palomar in time to pass it back—sad that the war has held up further progress after most of the difficulties had been surmounted. The money spent on experiments with fused quartz for the mirror was enough to have bought the 60" Yerkes telescope and equipment, yet the experiments weren't successful. Hale's efforts at getting money to back the 60", 100" and 200" telescopes certainly would sound well-nigh incredible in a novel. The BIS could do with engaging the services of someone with Hale's persuasiveness... Arthur has departed. He came dashing in just as I was breakfasting in bed this morning—he's going to Cosford, near Wolverhampton, for the next six weeks, but has no idea where he'll go from there. He did have hopes of returning here when he'd got his commission but apparently the prospect is remote...

    As a parting gift, Arthur returned all the copies of Astonishing. Fortunately an orderly corporal spotted them on a duty visit, eagerly asked to be put on the 'waiting list', and eventually carted them all away. At least they found a good home!

    Leisure activities seemed to fall apart after Arthur's departure. The music circle went into decline when all musical forces were mobilised by the commanding officer for a production of a Gilbert & Sullivan opera; the guiding genius behind the wall newspaper was posted and couldn't find a replacement editor; a new welfare officer resolutely cracked down on the more extreme political elements of the discussion group... But I had my head down, coping with the last few weeks of my technical course.
    When I came up for air I was a qualified ground-radar mechanic. I expected a prompt posting to one of the coastal radar sites, but instead was switched to the permanent staff at Yatesbury, to spend the rest of that year carrying out maintenance on equipment at the technical site. ■

recalled by an occupant of Hut W 32, H Wing, A Squadron, RAF Yatesbury


FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #4...
one of a series of occasional pieces published by the Septuagenarian Fans Association, May 1998
Originally published in Hazel Ashworth's LIP 4, September 1988, under the title "Work in Progress"
Revised September 1996.
 
© Harry Turner, 1998.

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