Pompey Bar Room Banter 4: Loco Eric, Part II

Continuing his trip down the memory lane of Portsmouth pubs, John Oke Bartlett reminisces over his time at the Fifth Hants on Albert Road, and the local characters he met there. Read Part I here.

Another practice that seems to have died out somewhat was the frequent and regular visitation of the ‘Sally Army’ to the Fifth Hants, the sole purpose of which as far as I could see was to raise cash by guilt, moral manipulation, and artifice. At the time, selling copies of the War Cry to unsuspecting punters must have seemed like a contradictory but relatively soft touch. On the upside, at least the money went to a good cause. It was during one such sally into ‘the dens of depravity and iniquity’ that I first met Eric.

One cold winter’s evening, much to my amusement and my fellow demon drinkers in the bar, the door flew open and in walked a ‘Sally Army’ lady dressed in her finery; black tunic and skirt, topped off with the traditional bonnet. As this was prior to the advent of ‘kiss-a-grams’ there seemed nothing untoward, especially as these nightly visits in the mid to late seventies were quite commonplace and besides, nobody really minded anyway. Indeed, the evening wouldn’t have been quite the same without the momentary blast of cold air and the ferreting around for some loose change. However, on this occasion, things were slightly different.

Stepping straight up to Eric, this particular ‘Sally Army’ lady, brimming with confidence and purpose, planted a big, sloppy, wet kiss on Eric’s unsuspecting but resigned lips, all the while calling out, ‘My baby! My baby!’ One’s mother can be so embarrassing.

Once the hugger mugger of the occasion had subsided and the general amusement had died down, I was able to fall into the first of many conversations with my new-found friend, Eric. It turned out Eric was a great raconteur and teller of tales. Personally, I have always sought out such people for their wit, amusement and general bonhomie and in Eric, all of this was in great abundance.

Certainly, no fool, Eric was a character that people either loved or disliked in equal measures. Probably hated by some sections of society for his manner of telling it like it is. In my observations of life, honest as it is, this is a character trait that some people don’t always find endearing. In many ways, Eric is a modern day ‘everyman’, full of entrenched but considered and knowledgeable opinions which he is not frightened to share. Equipped with an innate intelligence and aptitude, coupled with a fine sense of humour, Eric had worked in a variety of occupations. He spent a short time as a ‘Bobby on the beat’ which didn’t last for very long. He travelled the world working in the Navy, Army & Air Force Institute and a number of other occupations.

As a young man, Eric had secured a position as a railway guard and being new to the job was assigned to working on the goods trains. To enable the railway to function properly, rolling stock must be moved about the system so that carriages and trucks are in the right place at the right time. Much of this essential work is carried out after the last passenger train has departed.

On one particularly cold midwinter’s night, Eric was the guard on a long goods train of some thirty trucks. Eric was travelling in an ex Great Western Railway goods van more commonly known as the ‘Brake’. The rough and ready coachwork was made entirely of wooden planks with a single veranda at one end. These old antiquated GWR trucks were more popular than other designs as they featured a larger stove, making them slightly more comfortable. The usual procedure was to first scrounge some coal from the yard and light the stove to warm up the Brake. The locomotive was normally a powerful ‘type 2’ diesel engine, weighing in at some 74 tons. The first ten trucks had a braking system that was connected to the engine, the remainder were unbraced or loose coupled which was the reason for the Brake, or Guard’s Van, at the back.

Once the train had been checked and under way, there was little more for the guard to do other than to keep an eye on things and get a brew going. The inside was much like any other guard’s van, functional and uncluttered, grubby, dark and, apart from the stove, devoid of any luxuries. Eric watched the red-hot embers of the fire in the stove and was looking forward to his brew, which was just beginning to come to the boil. But, something wasn’t quite right. Like an abruptly released, overstretched elastic band, Eric’s consciousness jerked back into awareness.

Searching round for the cause of the new paint aroma, his eyes followed the line of the stove pipe to the roof and to his horror he realised the wood around the hot metal pipe was ablaze. To reduce the noise of the rattling chimney, some bright spark had stuffed newspaper around the pipe and now it had caught fire. Yellow fingers of flame were eagerly flickering and devouring the dry wood and extending their reach across the ceiling. In desperation, Eric flung the half a pint of boiling water at the conflagration, nearly scalding himself in the process.

Somehow, he needed to contact the driver. The manual says ‘attract the driver’s attention by winding the brake on and off’. Ah-ha! Salvation! Well perhaps not, the heavy-duty diesel locomotive was thirty trucks away and completely impervious to his efforts. What to do? By now the heat and smoke was so intense that Eric had to retreat to the veranda. This might have been slightly to his advantage if the Brake had been facing the other way around but now he found himself in a rolling stock sandwich. The only thing he could do was to try and signal to the driver by turning the side lamps from white to red. In reality of course, the chances of the driver checking the rear of the train were fairly remote.

Eric’s predicament was looking bleak and, as the Brake became more and more like an inferno, was becoming bleaker by the minute. He could jump for it but the train, in the pitch black, was travelling more than 45 mph, a speed that could do more than damage your health. Stanchions, positioned every ten yards for the overhead electric cables, were also a risk he didn’t want to try out. If he didn’t break every bone in his body on the embankment, he could easily, like a cartoon character, impale himself on the cold, steel, Triffid-like structures along the track. His only option was to turn his hand-held light to red and frantically wave it in the dark, in the forlorn attempt at attracting attention. Colwich signal box flashed by, followed by Lichfield. At Tamworth luck was finally on his side. The train was signalled into a siding loop and brought to a standstill. In the nick of time, Eric instantly leapt from the clutches of the fire that was rapidly engulfing the Brake.

The driver, none too pleased at being diverted onto the sidings, was making his way down the side of the train when he yelled ‘what the bloody hell is going…’ This was truncated into a ‘bloody hell’ as he saw the full extent of the inferno. The Brake was beyond saving so they uncoupled it and let it burn. Having momentarily re-lived the tale, Eric turned to me and sardonically said ‘I always checked the chimney after that!’

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.