“Join the Navy and feel a man!” exhorted the famous Royal Navy recruiting slogan from the early 1980s.
Or at least, the famous RN recruiting slogan according to us Air Cadets when we were trying to score banter points over the Navy Cadets at my school. Even though I thought the slogan probably made up, it still made me wonder if I’d chosen the wrong service to spend Tuesday afternoons parading around with.
Besides, historic naval recruitment posters promised so much….
And then there was this famous US Navy recruiting ad from 1979:
I’m only half joking. The US Navy provided the Village People with a frigate and some decorative seamen for the ‘In the Navy’ video in exchange for the rights to use it for recruiting purposes. Reportedly the admirals changed their mind when they saw the finished product. Nevertheless, the song and promo continued to be a toe-tapping recruiting sergeant for them in the charts.
Come on and join your fellow man In the navy.
Part of the appeal or the marketing of male military service, in addition to uniforms and camaraderie -- and regular scoff and dough -- has long been related to the idea of a kind of male finishing school. Or, to use the more traditional terminology: a rite of passage. About selling the prospective recruit a more desirable image of themselves in the future. Their dream version of themselves.
Where can you find pleasure, search the world for treasure Learn science technology?
Despite currently being smaller than at any point in its history, the Royal Navy has been airing on UK television some extremely well-made and cleverly manipulative -- well, they brought a tear to my eye -- recruitment ads titled ‘Made in the Royal Navy’. They promise today’s young chaps that the Navy will make men of them. Better men. Fitter men. More popular men. More successful men. Celebrities.
Joining the RN in the 21st Century is still sold as a way to make a young lad feel manly, and become part of a (patriotic) ‘team’. But this is a century of reality TV and social media, so joining the RN has apparently become less about serving, than a kind of full makeover that turns you into a star.
The ads profile an actual serving (photogenic) RN sailor, and his ‘story’ -- going back to his gritty, no prospects hometown, X-Factor backstory style, showing how joining the Navy rescued him and helped him realise his true potential -- or ‘his dream’ as reality TV would put it. And become the subject of an affecting TV mini-movie. The RN as your very own selfie-stick or Facebook memories timeline. (Contrast with this 1979 RN ad for submariners in which none of the serving seamen are allowed a face and everything is about ‘the team’.)
Though part of the task modern RN recruiting ads have, ironically, is to persuade today’s young men to apply for a job that will severely restrict their access to uploading selfies on social media for months on end.
As ‘Michael’ tells us (with some help from the ad agency copywriters and, I assume, an actor voice over) in the latest ad:
“Helping to turn him [shot of sullen young tearaway in hoodie] into -- HIM [proud young rating in uniform on deck, sun glinting off his chin] … This is the new me… introducing the true me.”
The ad finishes with the line: “I was born in Blyth, but made in the Royal Navy.”
As with X-Factor, authentic, gritty-but-charming North Eastern accents are popular -- and it’s certainly true that a lot of lads from the NE do join the the Forces as a way of escaping some of the highest male unemployment levels in the country -- or under-employment in a pub.
If you like adventure, don’t you wait to enter The recruiting office fast
Though in the case of ‘Ben’s Story’ (below), a similar tale to ‘Michael’ -- except that joining the Navy also gave him fashionable face fur (something RN regulations permit, damn them) -- the advertising agency gave a Durham accent to a lad from Carlisle. This caused understandable outrage in Carlisle, which is in the north, but west of the Pennines and endowed with a completely different accent. Apparently the bearded matelot (whose real name is Gareth) gets asked all the time why it isn’t his voice in the ad, he explained to his local paper:
“Basically, we had a short amount of time to film, about three weeks. And I don’t think they like our accent.
“I knew it was going to happen – while I was filming they were away doing the voice-over.
“I know for a fact there were a couple of lads from Carlisle who auditioned for it.
“They changed it from a lad from Chester to a lad from Durham at the last minute.”
You just know the (London based) ad agency decided that the bit between Manchester and Scotland should all be Big Brother Voiceover Land so as not to confuse the punters.
But apart from the wrong accent -- and a different name -- most of the biographic details seem to have been accurate. And I don’t doubt, by the way, that the RN is a great way for some young chaps to ‘better’ themselves, learn a trade, make some mates, see some sights, get drunk and into some epic scrapes.
The end-line for ‘Ben’s Story’ is: “Sure, I was born in Carlisle. But I was made in the Royal Navy.” The “sure” here sounds a misstep -- or giveaway -- on the part of the copywriters: it suggests that being from Carlisle isn’t something to be proud of. This formulation seems to have been dropped for the more recent ‘Michael’s Story’, which just ends with him saying: “I was born in Blyth, but made in the Royal Navy”.
In ‘Gareth’s Story’ (below) it seems the matelot has been allowed to voice the ad himself in his fine Welsh accent -- the script is also more naturalistic. Though the same, rather endearingly, can’t quite be said for some of Gareth’s movements in front of the camera: being natural, as Oscar Wilde said, is such a very difficult pose to keep up.
But obviously he really can move when he’s not thinking about the camera or being told by the director to walk slowly so as to stay in shot -- seeing as he made the RN rugby team. (Though his opposite squaddie number as he enters Twickers stadium for the Army & Navy rugby match [0:48] made this viewer want to join the Army.)
Another, more recent ad in the series stars ‘Modou’, a black lad who is also given the mini-movie treatment about bettering himself -- ‘Born in Blackpool. Made in the Royal Navy’. Though he isn’t given much of a biography or even copy-written lines and an inaccurate accent -- instead we hear the voice of a posh, old-fashioned, very charismatic chap, talking about self-improvement:
“It all comes down to this basic question: can I improve me?”
It’s actually surprisingly effective -- ‘Modou’s Story’ is perhaps the most emotionally powerful of all the RN ads. It’s also the most homoerotic.
Although all the ads sell the Navy as a kind of floating Crossfit, where you will harden your body and get fighting fit as one of its many attractions, ‘Modou’s story’ emphasises this much more. Handsome, muscular Modou appears shirtless for much of the 1.20 min ad -- the camera zooming in for an extreme close-up on his sweat-drenched back muscles rippling as he does pull-ups (0:54), even joining him in the shower.
As the posh chap on the soundtrack tells us:
“There is this urgent feeling that I must improve me. Now you may say I need some help in this process…”
At this very moment the very inspiring RN Physical Training Instructor’s encouraging hand touches Modou’s exhausted naked shoulder in the romantically-lit gym (0:37).
Modou’s story is one of mind and body -- but mostly body:
‘Apprentice. Qualifications. Personal bests. Modou got them all.’
The posh bloke speaking in spellbinding fashion is the late Alan Watts, an English philosopher and prominent Buddhist in California in the 1950s-60s. Yes, that’s right: a Buddhist is being used to sell the Royal Navy as a career option -- and a free personal trainer. (You can hear Watts’ fascinating and frequently hilarious original lecture ‘Improving Yourself’ used for this ad here: though be warned, there’s not a lot of diet or dead lift technique advice.)
Women have been allowed to serve on board RN ships since 1993 (and submarines since 2013) -- much to the distaste of some Navy wives. But male RN personnel still vastly outnumber women by a factor of nearly 10 to 1 and the RN is clearly targeting young male recruits much more than women.
There are though recruiting ads in this series specifically aimed at women -- and perhaps at advertising the RN’s modern credentials. ‘Tammi’s Story’ (‘Born in Croydon. Made in the Royal Navy’) doesn’t go for a biographical storyline but instead sells her desk job of Writer (the RN title for HR) as almost an amalgamation of the jobs done in the other ads -- “While the crew are looking after the ship, I’m looking after them”. A kind of action-packed maternalism.
Finally, as a reminder of what joining the Navy used to actually entail and perhaps where the ‘Join the Navy and feel a man’ jibe came from, here’s a documentary about the actual as opposed to advertised living conditions on board a 1950s USN destroyer: “70 men and their personal effects and miscellaneous ship’s equipment are accommodated in 800 square feet -- 11.5 square foot per man”.
They certainly don’t make men like that any more.
In the navy Yes, you can sail the seven seas In the navy Yes, you can put your mind at ease In the navy Come on people, fall an' make a stand In the navy, in the navy Can't you see we need a hand
The finest little bar on the Seven Seas is closing. After forty years of entertaining the sailors of the Royal Navy, Charles’ Hole in t’Wall in Gibraltar is shuttering its doors, bringing an end to a very special chapter in British maritime and marytime history.
This report from GBC gives some idea how much of an institution the bar and most particularly owner and star-attraction Charles have been for matelots on their ‘run ashore’ in Gib -- and how much they love their ‘lovely Charlie’.
Charlie's Hole In The Wall Closes - GBC News - 19.01.16
Here’s how I met Charles, back in the late Nineties. It was initially a disappointment to find the Fleet out and his bar deserted, but it turned out to be a great stroke of luck for me -- because it meant that I had the privilege of having lovely Charles all to myself:
Gibraltar, otherwise known as ‘The Rock’, is the full stop to the sentence of Europe. It has been besieged no less than fourteen times. The Ancients thought it was a pillar holding up the end of the World. In the Middle Ages Jews fled here from the red-hot instruments of the Spanish Inquisition. Aeons ago, the last survivors of the ancestors of Homo sapiens also retreated to this toothy promontory of the Iberian peninsula, lasting a few, increasingly lonely, thousand years more in the dark caves that abound here, before being finally snuffed out by Progress.
Even today, rare and exotic creatures survive here that have long since become extinct elsewhere in Continental Europe. Off one of the narrow, steep, cobbled streets, down some worn steps, there’s a dark cellar bar, that holds out against not only the Twenty First Century but much of the latter half of the Twentieth. This is the domain and refuge of the last of the Sea Queens, Lovely Charlie, landlocked in the last corner of the British Empire.
The brick walls and vaulted ceiling of Charles’ domain are completely covered in battered Royal Navy Ensign flags. All of them have personal messages scrawled across them in Secondary Modern hands: ‘To Lovely Charlie, from the lads on HMS Sheffield -- We think you’re magic!’ (dated 1981, the year before it was sunk by an Argentine Exocet in The Falklands); ‘Donkey Nob Was Here – 1979’’; and ‘Royal Marine Commandos do it in boats – 1989’. Signed photos of sunburnt, laughing young men with cans of lager in their hands and their arms around each other’s shoulders cover the wall next to the bar, together with postcards from Hong Kong, Belize, Brunei, Germany and Kuwait.
Tonight however Charles’ Hole in t’Wall bar -- the finest bar on the Seven Seas -- is completely empty, except for Charles himself, a well-preserved, handsome middle-aged man with glittery ear-studs and immaculate hair, sitting at the bar, and his snoozing big black labrador, heavy eyelids sagging. ‘Well, come in, luv,’ he says, happy to see a face. ‘Sorry it’s so quiet tonight. The Fleet’s out. Mind, it always fookin’ is these days! Are you a matelot? ‘No? What’s that you say? You’re looking for one? Aren’t we all, luv!’ he laughs, and gets me a bottled beer.
‘It was best when the frontier with Spain was closed,’ he reminisces, in his effortlessly camp but strangely butch Gibraltarian English, comically spiked with some coarse, regional Brit expressions he’s obviously picked up from his clientele. ‘When Franco shut the border in 1967 that was the beginning of twenty years of bloody bliss, y’know. When hundreds of sailors have been out at sea for weeks and they dock here, they’re not going to let the fact that there aren’t enough single women on Gib to make a football team stop them having a fookin’ good time, luv!’
‘And they didn’t mind their mates finding out; they’d just say, “I bet you had a fookin’ good time with Charlie gobblin’ yer last night!” and everybody would laugh. Of course, who gobbled whom wasn’t always the way they painted it – but that was something private between me and them. Things aren’t the same now. I still get offers – but they’re much more furtive; they’re afraid that everyone will think they’re gay just because they had a bit of fun with Charles. And then in 1987 they only went and opened the fookin’ frontier, didn’t they? Now most of the lads head off for the bright lights of Marbella. I can’t compete with dolly-birds and disco, can I luv?’
‘But it isn’t about sex,’ explains Charles, sipping a mineral water (he’s teetotal). ‘It’s the company. The camaraderie. It’s my duty to run this bar! I’m a legend in the Royal Navy, y’know. I’ve been to Portsmouth and Plymouth. They treated me like a real Queen. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for me. I was really moved. I was in Edinburgh once, and a lad came up to me and said, “It’s Lovely Charlie, isn’t it!’ He was very sweet. He whispered, “Look, Charles, you can’t wear that much jewellery around here. They won’t understand”.’
‘I’m passed down, father to son. I had an eighteen-year-old sailor come in here last month, his first time. He said: “That door’s new,” pointing to that door over there to the pool-room which I had installed about ten year ago. “How did you know that?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, ‘my dad’s got a picture of him sitting on your knee. It was the year before he met me mam.”
‘They like to tell the newbies that they’re going to sell them to me for a round of drinks, y’know. Of course, that doesn’t happen. I’d never take advantage. But they like to wind up the youngsters. One lad came here with his Dad – the Navy has a Father’s week where they fly fathers who were in the Navy out here to travel home on board ship with their sons. He said: “Well, ‘ere you go Charles, you can ‘ave your wicked way wiv ‘im if you keep the drinks comin’!” I laughed and said, “Well, you’re his dad, so I suppose that makes it legal!” You should have seen the poor boy’s face!’
‘Oh yes, occasionally you get trouble-makers. They come here saying how much they “’ate fookin’ queers”. Everyone goes quiet because they know he’s going to get a tongue lashing from me. I usually say something like, “And I ‘ate fookin’ ugly cunts like you, luv!” Everyone usually pisses themselves laughing. And usually,’ adds Charles, winking, ‘they end up staying the night…’.
‘I can’t go on forever, though y’know. I’m not as young as I used to be. But the matelots, bless ‘em, they don’t notice any of this decay! They always say, “Oh, Charlie, you never change!” and I say to them, “Well, no, but the wattage does!” Charles laughs. ‘Every year a bit less. I started off here with 100W bulbs. Now I’m down to 10W. And tinted!’
‘What’s that? Why do the lads love me so? Oh it’s because they know I love them,’ he explains with a shrug. ‘And I’m always here. Unlike barmaids, I don’t regard them as a problem or as a meal-ticket. And, of course,’ he smiles, winking, ‘they do like my outrageous behaviour. They always insist that I wear all my jewellery when they come to visit.’
A few hours and a crate of beer later I’m staggering back to my hotel and can’t help thinking that the reason the sailors treat Charles like a star is simply because they recognise one when they see one. ‘Lovely Charlie’ is, well, lovely. And priceless. When he finally calls last orders, or runs out of wattage, a little but precious piece of British maritime and marytime history will be lost forever.
This piece was originally published back in 2000 (and collected here), but I’m very happy to report that Charles is still going full steam ahead, and so is a recently-refurbished Charles’ Hole-in-the-Wall bar -- he’s even upped the wattage! (Castle Street, Gibraltar; opens at 9pm.)
UPDATE Jan 2015:
After forty years quenching the thirst of the Royal Navy, Charles’ world famous Hole in T’Wall Bar is closing. But Charles’ matelot fans are giving it a jolly Jack tar send-off -- and showing Charles how much they luv ‘im. GBC ran a feature on the closure, which includes footage from the bar -- and a rather wonderful big framed photo of what looks a lot like Charles in drag (that I somehow seemed to miss during my visit):
Charlie's Hole In The Wall Closes - GBC News - 19.01.16
The Navy that once ruled the waves, the global maritime force on which the sun never set, and gave the world some of the most romantic not to mention fetishistically ingenious uniforms ever devised, seems destined to become ‘nothing more than a coastal defence force’.
It’s also predicted that at least one of the remaining three UK naval ports – Plymouth, Portsmouth, Rosyth – is due to close forever.
Nevertheless, the terminal decline of the Royal Navy has been going on for many years now. As the article below (written for The Observer Magazine just before the invasion of Iraq in 2002, but never published) about an evening spent on Plymouth’s famous Union Street details, the colourful, salty tradition of the English naval town has already been mothballed. And what’s the point of a navy without drunken sailors?
Forgive me if I seem somewhat sentimental about the demise of Winston Churchill’s ‘naval traditions’. But then, doesn’t every nice girl – and naughty boy – love a sailor?
Edwardian matelots sleeping off their run ashore on Plymouth Hoe
Union Street Blues
As Britannia girds her loins to take on Saddam, Mark Simpson spends an evening patrolling the streets of Plymouth trying to savour the salty, rough-and-ready – and sadly, fast fading – flavour of a traditional English naval town.
WHERE, AS QUENTIN Crisp might have asked, can you find a drunken sailor these days?
You might be forgiven for thinking that Plymouth, the famous Naval port in South Devon, from whence Drake sailed to trounce the Armada, the Task Force departed to see off the Argies, and home port for most of what’s left of today’s Royal Navy, might be a good place to start.
But drunken sailors are proving a little elusive this evening, even though I’ve recruited an expert on finding them: Provost Marshall Terry Burns RN. ‘The Navy won’t tolerate drunkenness,’ Mr Burns, the Navy’s Chief of Police tells me flatly, as we drive in his unmarked car up and down Plymouth’s notorious, celebrated Union Street looking for inebriated matelots and bootnecks (sailors and Marines to you).
‘We have much stricter standards than the civilian police,’ he explains, practised eyes scanning the streets for unseaworthiness. ‘If we see a sailor who looks like he’s had one too many, we’ll ‘ave a word with ‘im – or,’ he winks at me, ‘put ‘im somewhere for the night where ‘e can’t get into trouble!’
No one wants to argue with Provost Marshall Burns, a man who could certainly convince several over-merry Marines – with one meaty hand tied behind his burly back – that their evening has reached something of a hiatus. But isn’t getting bladdered, I suggest, very tentatively, one of the few pleasures a matelot, cooped up on board ship for months on end breathing other people’s farts can have on his ‘run ashore’? Isn’t it in fact a sailor’s duty – to tradition, to England, to anyone interested in bedding one of them – to get completely steaming?
“Ah, but you have to remember, Mark,” explains the Provost Marshall patiently, “that discipline is everything in HM Forces – without it you’re just a rabble! You’re always on duty in the Forces, even when you’re off-duty”. A persuasive argument, but not exactly a slogan to solve the current recruitment problem the Armed Forces face.
Of course, the main reason why drunken sailors are difficult to find is that, alas, there just aren’t very many sailors these days. In Plymouth – or ‘Guz’, as matelots like to call it – the biggest Naval port in England, the number of bell-bottoms is only a fraction of what it was ten years ago, before the Cold War ‘peace dividend’ took its toll on the Royal Navy and those fantastically fetishistically-designed uniforms. Of those that are left, many are gone for most of the year as ships stay away from their home port much longer than they used to, being supplied at sea to save on costs – even before the current ‘war against terrorism’ put half the Royal Navy on permanent standby in the Indian Ocean. And while most Marines would like to pretend they aren’t part of the Navy (typical bootneck joke: What do marines and submarines have in common? Answer: They both carry sailors), there are also fewer bootnecks around in Plymouth these days to put the fear of god into matelots.
As a measure of just how ‘Guz’ has changed, today there are more students here than servicemen, and the University has overtaken the Navy as the biggest employer in the town – something that will no doubt bring a cheer to pacifists, educationalists and bicycle thieves everywhere, but hasn’t something also been lost? Isn’t another piece of ‘England’ disappearing forever? After the end of Empire and the Cold War, is Britannia’s last great Naval port losing its salty traditions and becoming just yet another post-everything bland Provincial town full of shiftless students, call centres and multiplex leisure parks? And do you have to have a taste for ‘skate’ (another, more culinary epithet for sailors) to even care?
The Provost Marshall’s driver executes an impeccable and rapid three-point-turn in a car park and bombs back down Union Street known once, when it was full of spit-and-sawdust pubs catering to sailors on the run-ashore, as the ‘Servicemen’s Playground’ (i.e. it was where you went if you wanted to play with servicemen). We zoom past boarded-up pubs and shops, past trendy dance clubs, cacophonous sirens luring student loans onto the rocks, past the tattoo parlour, once doing a roaring trade in ‘England Forever’ designs, now catering for Pammy Anderson barbed wire facsimiles and past the Palace Theatre (now the Dance Academy). So majestic amongst so much rubble and riff-raff – no matter how many times you see it, you can’t help but do a double-take, as if you had just seen Alistair Sim tottering down the street in full drag. With its ornate façade decorated with stirring splendid frescoes depicting the vanquishing of the original ‘Argies’ in the form of the Armada, it looks itself like a once-proud Elizabethan ship-o-the-line now run-aground on some wasteland at the end of Union Street.
‘Is there much trouble between students and matelots’, I ask Mr Burns. ‘Any resentment about the way they’ve taken over their patch?’ ‘No, not really,’ says Mr Burns. ‘Servicemen are very tolerant on the whole – you have to be if you’re living on top of one another.’ ‘Yes,’ I reply, trying not to sound arch, ‘I can imagine.’ Looking at the gelled and cropped young people, male and female, queuing to take the Millennium Disco’s ‘All you can drink and eat for £12’ offer at its word (though probably only borrowing this repast – returning it later, no doubt, with interest, doubled over), I wonder how he tells students apart from sailors.
Ironically, although the Forces are extremely unfashionable these days, and, War on Terror and imminent invasion of Iraq or no, are seen as some kind of absurd anachronism by most young people, short hair and tattoos are very much a la mode – even for boys. Not to mention the fact that young people these days like to get as drunk as… sailors used to. ‘Oh,’ Burns reassures me, ‘when you’ve been in the job as long as I have you can just tell’.
‘By the way’, he adds, ‘I hope you don’t think that we’re killjoys. We stop drunken matelots for their own good. Before they get into serious trouble. You see, Mark, at the end of the day we’re all sailors – and sailors look out for one another, and offer each other a helping hand, y’know?’ ‘I know’, I say. ‘But what do the matelots think of the kindly Provost Marshall’s generous protection and concern?’ Mr Burns laughs. ‘That’s a good question. A very good question indeed. Hmm. We’re not the most popular people in town. But most of them are OK about us. When we let ‘em out of the cell the next morning they usually go: “’ope I wasn’t too much trouble last night lads!”
“We ‘ate the fuckin’ Provost!” Steve, a Marine in his early twenties sporting a dead-giveaway Commando Comic chin and drinking pints of Fosters with his mates is cheerfully shouting in my ear. We’re in the Prince Regent, a busy, beery, warm very loud disco pub popular with servicemen, servicewomen and their admirers at the start of Union Street. ‘Mind, they’re only doing their job, I suppose,’ he adds reluctantly. Steve, originally from Worcester but now posted at a Royal Marine base in Bickleigh, just north of Plymouth, is spending his ‘beer vouchers’ (as bootnecks and matelots like to call their pay-packet) and he seems to be getting rather drunk to me, but the Provost Marshall isn’t with me to judge, so I can’t be sure. It’s packed in here, but everyone’s friendly; a Robbie Williams record comes on and everyone sings along, smiling, holding their beer-bottles in the air: ‘I don’t want to rock, DJ/but you’re making me feel so nice’.
Does Steve like Union Street? “Oh yeah, it’s got a great atmosphere – it’s the heart of Plymouth mate!” What does he think of students? “Not much. Don’t have anything to do with them. If you want to find some, they’ll all be down the Millennium later, pukin’ up.” He’s less tolerant of matelots. “Fuckin’ ‘ate ‘em. They treat us like shit when we’re on board ship.” Ever get into fights with them, like in the good old days? I ask eagerly, thinking of Anthony Newley’s spiffing pub brawls with matelots in the WW II classic film ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’: “Nah, the fuckin’ Provost would be all over us before we even got started”. Another naval tradition bites the dust.
John, 22, originally from London, is a gunner on a frigate. “I joined to see the world, and I’ve seen it now, so I’m leaving. The Navy’s not the future – well, not for me anyway.” What does he think of bootnecks? “Hate ‘em. They’re cement-heads.” Students? “Oh, we just leave them to puke over themselves.” Is he drunk yet? “I’m workin’ on it mate” he grins, necking a bottle of Metz.
Like many Navy recruits these days, Nick, 19, a tall, slightly intense sonar-operator, joined up because he didn’t get enough A-levels to go to University. “But now I’m in I’m very proud to be a matelot,” he declares, looking me straight in the eye. “Yeah, I’d’ve loved to go to Uni and become a doctor but I didn’t, so here I am.” He likes Guz, and says he doesn’t mind the students, but recently got into a row with his sister’s student boyfriend. “He kept saying how we didn’t need a Navy any more. I think he thought I was a loser. I told him that I was defending people like him. Thing is – I know this is a wanky thing to say these days – but I’d die for my country, I really would. Well…,” he pauses. “I’d definitely die for my mates. Yeah I’d die for them no question.” Perhaps it was just the Smirnoff Ice talking, but it’s a sober truth that in civvie street you think it the height of camaraderie if your mates don’t stab you in the back for your job/girlfriend/shoes.
Over the road, in a ghastly split-level Wetherspoons the size of a car-ferry, but with less ambience, some students (the piercings give them away) drinking Alcopops know that time’s on their side. “We avoid the Service pubs,” a girl in green cargo pants explains. “Which is no great loss because they’re usually dives anyway.” What do they think of Union Street? “Oh, it’s shit, isn’t it?” says her friend. “But there’s not really anywhere else to go, apart from the Barbican [the harbour/marina area] which is a bit twee and the Warner Village, which is a bit naff.”
Just like scores of other English towns, Plymouth now has a ‘leisure park’, complete with the usual parking, multiplex, fast-food chains and bars, on the outskirts of town, some way from Union Street. It’s just like every other you’ve visited – which is I suppose the point – and there’s nothing here that speaks of Plymouth, or its rich social and seafaring history. Many businesses on Union Street complain the Warner Village is sucking money away from the Street with loss-leader drink promotions financed out of deep corporate pockets and hastening its decline.
Which is bad news for Plymouth, as the history of Union Street is inseparable from the history of the City itself. Built in 1815, Union Street provided a marshland link between the three towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport – creating the modern City of Plymouth. Initially a middle-class area, the expansion of the docks at Stonehouse brought legions of labourers and then dockers looking for cheap accommodation. Then it began to attract large numbers of jolly Jack Tars on the ‘run-ashore’: parched matelots back from weeks or months at sea would traditionally try to down a pint in every pub on Union Street – most not managing to make it down one side, let alone back up the other.
In the 1970s and 80s disco brought young people from the Plymouth estates, and saw gruesome violence erupt as football gangs picked fights with Servicemen out of boredom and jealousy at their pay-packets (Plymouth was once one of the roughest towns in England: a friend who grew up there then was beaten up daily by schoolmates simply for having long hair – and this was the Seventies). Then, in the early Nineties, Union Street was briefly the centre of the South West’s rave scene, coach loads of young people from Devon and Cornwall turning up to pop pills and dance the weekend away. Today Union Street still has 29 licensed premises, and attracts around 10,000 punters at weekends, but it seems to have lost it’s way; before 10pm when the pubs and clubs get busy, Union Street looks tatty, dilapidated and deserted.
There have been public meetings about what to do with Union Street. Improvement grants totalling £3M have been made available by the local council, English Partnerships and the EU (the tattoo parlour was given £27,000 to restore its 1820s frontage), but no one seems to know quite what to do with the old strumpet or what will become of her. Much of The Street seems to be headed for the breakers yard. The Royal Sovereign, a well-known Union Street pub named after a legendary RN battleship (and also famous locally for being run for many years by a gay man and lesbian man-wife couple) was recently sold for just £6000. ‘If I’d known I’d have put in a bid myself,’ confesses Chris Robinson, local historian and author of a fascinating book about Plymouth’s main thoroughfare called Union Street. “Quite a bargain for a piece of Union Street history,” he says.
Robinson thinks that the Plymouth’s future as well as its past may be inextricably bound to the fate of Union Street. ‘Now the Navy is in decline, Plymouth faces an uncertain future,’ he predicts. ‘The Admiralty stopped other industries coming here – it didn’t want to compete for manpower. Ford was going to build a factory here in the 1920s but was blocked. Apart from the University, the main employer is Telewest, a cable TV and communications company, and call centres.’ Robinson has a slightly fanciful idea that Plymouth could become the new Silicon Valley: ‘property prices are very cheap, the scenery is fantastic and the quality of life is second to none.’
BACK IN 1943, even before the war ended, a very badly bombed Plymouth thought it knew what the future held. The Plan for Plymouth – which razed more properties than the Luftwaffe – turned the centre of the historic town into something of a prototype for East Berlin, with a grandiose, windswept city centre Precinct area, complete with fountains, flagpoles, modernist sculptures, shops and municipal buildings, sweeping from the station all the way up to the seafront. (Now, nearly sixty years on, Plymouth Council is undertaking a radical restructuring of Precinct under the Urban Design Framework, which plans to modernise it – hopefully without losing its neo-Stalinist charm). Most of the residents in the city centre were decanted into new satellite estates where they seem to have been quietly forgotten. As was Union Street. “In this plan Union Street was meant to become a dual-carriageway,’ explains Robinson. “Property was cleared to make way for it, but it never happened – thankfully.”
The almost feudal status of the town meant that Plymouth was, like its sailors, ‘looked after’ and protected from market forces and even the Eighties itself: the Task Force saved Thatcher, so Plymouth was saved from Thatcher. Plymouth has a retro feel to it which also gives is a very human face. “After London, Plymouth is the biggest city South of Birmingham,” says Robinson. “But actually it’s the biggest village in England – and it’s one of the reasons why I like living here. People have time for friendships.”
Perhaps this is why cab drivers banter affectionately on the radio like overgrown schoolboys: “Shurrup big ears” my driver on the way from the station told his Controller. And because they do it in that lilting West Country burr, the absolute antithesis of the hard, cynical sound of Estuary English, the sleazy South East’s lingua franca, you don’t much care whether they get you to your destination on time (they usually do – the roads are blissfully empty by London standards). But this lazy, ambitionless charm is precisely what threatens Plymouth’s future. Young people are moving away in droves. “Plymouth hasn’t produced a single pop group,” sighs Robinson, who has children of his own, one of whom is a regular at nightclubs on Union Street. “Wayne Sleep and Michael Ball are the nearest things we have to pop stars – no wonder the kids are leaving!”
Back on Union Street at the Two Trees, a little further along from the Prince Regent, another disco-pub popular with Forces drinkers, Sarah, a 19-year-old blond lass from Devonport who works as a Navy nurse is sipping a bottle of pink Bacardi Breezer. “I hate Union Street,” she complains affectionately. “I’d leave Plymouth at the drop of a hat,” she adds, not very convincingly. What does she think of military men? “Hate them too. My last boyfriend was in the Navy and I said never again. But,’ she laughs, “here I am, looking for another!” They must have something going for them then. “Yeah,” she snorts. “Pay day.”
The evening wears on and the crowd migrates further down Union Street (being careful to walk straight in case the Provost drives past) to Jesters nightclub, known locally as ‘The Parachute Club’ because as one matelot explained, “you’re guaranteed a jump”. Two pounds in, three pounds a pint, disco on two levels (trance upstairs, pop downstairs) and a fairground punching machine in the front bar. What more could you want on a Friday night? Nick the sonar operator who wanted to be a doctor is here, dancing away with some mates to Geri Halliwell’s ‘It’s Raining Men’ (I know he wanted to die for his mates, but still…). John the bootneck with the chin is also here, I can’t ask whether he’s plastered yet, as he’s energetically snogging Sarah the nurse, over by the cigarette machine.
As chucking-out-and-up time approaches, I rejoin the Provost Marshall’s mobile search for drunken sailors and Marines on the Street, but still without much luck. There are plenty of people who can’t and in fact have no intention of holding their drink – literally spilling out onto the streets; but Mr Burns reassures me they’re only students. Over the police radio we hear about an incident where a man has been attacked by an assailant who “cut his buttocks with a sword.” Alas, despite the promising mention of a martial weapon, this is a civilian crime – not one requiring the presence of the Provost Marshall. Finally, Mr Burns spots a young man with cropped hair, in a white short-sleeves shirt weaving down the street, obviously worse for wear, propped up either side by a couple of similar-looking mates. ‘Here we go!’ Burns announces as we pull up sharply. “We’ve got one!”
Unfortunately, the drunken lad is not a sailor at all but in fact another bloody student. Which should have been obvious by the way his friends deserted him the moment the burly Provost appeared. As a civilian, the lad is beyond the Provost Marshall’s jurisdiction – and protection. Reluctantly, Mr Burns has to abandon him to his fate and the disinterest of the civilian authorities. No night in the brig for him – he isn’t part of the maritime brotherhood and Mr Burns isn’t his Patriarch, and so the lad wobbles off uncertainly into the night.