Forces Favourites

I grew up an Air Force brat. By that I mean my father was in the British Royal Air Force and where he went, well generally, so did we. Camp followers in the days before camp meant something else.

Father had a gift for languages and, during the war when stationed in Egypt, he learned Arabic; something the Air Force never let him forget as he was posted from one Middle Eastern outpost to another. Egypt, Iraq, Aden, Bahrain and Oman he was there and often so too was his family.

Aden I remember well. The highlights of the week were two: the air conditioned meat store where we all congregated after church on Sunday morning and the BBC Overseas Service on the short wave radio – 52 meter band usually but only at certain times of the day.

Air conditioning was virtually unknown in the 1950’s, at least in the British Empire. The Government House had it and so did the meat store, the rest of us put up with ceiling fans and cooling breezes from the Gulf of Aden.

Music to me was either provided by a military band, a stereo gram in the Sergeants Mess on Sundays or the BBC coming in between static on an old Grundig radio.

It was mandatory to listen to “Forces Favourites” in case someone from back home requested a song for you. Frankly there was more chance of winning the lotto – for the thousands who wrote they only selected 10 as each part of the Empire got its 30 minutes a month (unless you were in Germany which got an hour a week- sheer luxury). Needless to say the Payne family never rated a mention but you had to listen – just in case.

The songs still live with me. Guy Mitchell “Red Sails in the Sunset” not to mention Jo Stafford “Shrimp Boats are a coming”, Nat King Cole and “Mona Lisa, “O My Papa” with Eddie Fisher, Bing Crosby “White Christmas” when it was 110 in the shade, Frankie Lane “High Noon” and dear darling Doris Day with “The Deadwood Stage” coming for ever over the hill.

Then there was Jo Stafford – again – with her version of “You belong to me” – the song that had all for most of the soldiers, sailors and airmen perched on this strategic rock surrounded by Arabs who wanted them and us gone.

For variety there was Mario Lanza (“Drink, drink drink to lips that are red and sweet as the fruit on the tree” – Mum what does that mean?) and Britain’s own Forces sweetheart – Vera Lynn with “Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover”. The BBC always ended with a touch of the classics – Rossini’s “William Tell” overture was the favourite.

Of all of them however the one with the biggest squirm factor was the “Twelfth of Never”. It came late in our stay in Aden but once it hit the airwaves it was the one every soldier doing his national service requested for the girl back home – who had probably forgotten him anyway.

The plaintiff voice of Johnny Mathis brings back the memories of sitting on a balcony watching the ship sailing into the sunset bound for better and more exciting places than this dry outpost of the British Empire at the bottom of the Red Sea. We were halfway between the rest of the world and home and “Forces Favourites” was a tenuous link, a hope that one day we might make it back home too.

As I wrote a memory flooded back. When you had just arrived in Aden you started thinking about leaving. You never spoke in years (unless it was five or more), it was always in months “only 24 months, 12 months” but somewhere around 6 months in the came the weeks – 22 weeks and counting. It was that sort of place.

And when we got back we discovered that rock and roll had been in for years and we never knew. That’s another story.

Tom Jones and Me
Music and My Life


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