Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Valentine

The Valentine Public House,

Gants Hill, 1943-1950

When I went home on wartime leave to Ilford, I usually spent lunch times in a pub called the Valentine. The Valentine was big, bright, airy, comfortable, civilised and cheerfully respectable, and stood in its own grounds. It was just about the best of our three or four locals. and lay about twelve underground tube stations east of Oxford Circus on the Central Line at a place called Gants Hill.

During the war, the trains didn't run along the tube that far. The last mile or two of subway tunnel, which had only just been completed before the sirens sounded for the first time, had been taken over as an underground factory for making special navigational instruments or something.

So the Valentine, newly built and close to a hub of suburban activity, was really going strong. And had been that way all during the war.

Every lunchtime, every evening, they were three and four deep around the long curved bar in the lounge and they were packed in through the adjoining saloon bar and sit-down lounges, too. The place pulsated. Nobody cared about the air-raid sirens, people smoked away as if it was good for them, and everyone drank away their overtime or flying pay as if August 1945 was never going to come.

Over the end of the bar in the lounge, from a small discreet nail in the mahogany panelling, hung the leave book. When you came on leave, and into the Valentine, the first thing you did after saying hello to the girls behind the bar and ordering a pint was to take down the leave book and look at the last few entries. There was a column for your name, another for the time you were on leave and another to note down the days and times you expected to be in the Valentine, right near the leave book, having a drink. In this way you could meet any old friends who also happened to be on leave at the same time as you. It worked very well. I daresay you'd have met almost as many drinking pals without the help of the leave book, but all the same it was a cheerful sort of thing to do and it gave some purpose to your first day of leave’s lunchtime to go into the lounge and sign the book.

The crowd in the Val was pretty good too. Lots of uniforms of course, both male and female, plenty of regulars who were always around, some from the underground aircraft factory, I guess, and then those other types in uniform who always seemed to be on leave—must have been sent home on 'indefinite' soon after being kitted out and then somehow forgotten by their orderly rooms!

The lounge group was a good bunch. Saturday lunch there'd be a real crowd, what with all the weekend-leave mob up from the south coast naval depots and home-county army camps. If the weather was sunny, there would be quite a few pretty girls in white shorts holding tennis racquets who had been playing all morning on the park courts just along the road. As well, there were always plenty of what we considered smartly dressed women.

It was pleasant all right. Everyone had a story to tell—a true one that happened only last week when he was co-piloting with old Knackers Johnson or out with the adjutant in Nether Wallop. And there was lots of world news to discuss and rumours to pass on.

The crowd in the lounge, where everyone mostly stood tall with just a few girls sitting on leather-topped stools, was rather a horsy bunch, I suppose. Nobody had a horse, of course, but most had at least a part interest in a tank, jeep, aircraft or motorbike and many did a bit of skeet shooting when the weather was clamped down for flying. So we felt happy about chaps in civvies wearing silk scarves knotted inside open-necked shirts and growing moustaches and laughing loudly. And it was fun. Even for those smart-looking friends who were in crack rifle regiments and had such quiet, aloof pride in marching about everywhere at a much faster pace than anyone else.

Then your leave would be over and it was time for hearty goodbyes.

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