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My Cardiff

Dr Verner Bickley, MBE

Dr Verner Bickley, MBE, is a writer, broadcaster and actor. He is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Hong Kong and Chairman of the English-Speaking Union in Hong Kong. Here he recounts his days at Cardiff in 1944 amidst World War II

Dr Verner Bickley, MBE

Dr Verner Bickley, MBE

At the beginning of April 1944 - still just 17 years old - I packed a suitcase and boarded a London, Northern and Eastern train for Cardiff. I had been accepted for a University Naval Division Course at the University.

I was apprehensive. Although I had been away from home before for Scout camps and holidays, there were too many unknowns to face on this occasion. I had received some information about the course. But what would it be like? Could I deal with it? What would be the outcome?

The University Naval Division course in Cardiff was divided between academic work of approximately first year university level and naval training. My academic subjects were English, French and History. The lectures were interesting, although some members of the staff were on temporary appointments, since many of the “regulars” were away on War service.

In addition to the academic and naval work each day, we were instructed to perform evening fire-watching duties once a week, on a roster system. On occasions, we were joined in this task by members of the academic staff. One night, I was privileged to stand on the roof of one of the buildings with Professor E.C. Llewellyn of the English Department. He was an engaging character, a keen golfer who could tell numerous racy jokes about the game - and other matters - in Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.

The course at Cardiff was very packed and there was little leisure time. The evenings were occupied with preparation for the academic classes in French, English and History and by study of the books prescribed for Naval training. In addition to the Seaman’s Manual, these included the Navigation Manual and “KR and AI”, otherwise known as King’s Rules and Admiralty Instructions.

Understandably, the Cardiff of 1944 was not the Cardiff of 2008. In 1944 there was no Millennium Stadium, neither was there a Wales Millennium Centre. There was no National Assembly and capital city status had not been confirmed. The Cardiff Bay area, Bute Street and Tiger Bay were places to stay away from or to pass through at speed. The docks still exported coal and they certainly did not provide a home for smart restaurants and cafes, as they do today.

During our six months of study and training in Cardiff, we were preoccupied with anxieties and concerns which in a more global context would be regarded as insignificant. Could this essay be completed on time? Would one remember the differences between carvel and clinker? Could we explain why certain 17th century poets are classified as “metaphysical,” and why? What is a “cocked hat fix?” It seemed imperative that we were able to find the correct answers to such questions.

At that time I was then living in Aberdare Hall. Aberdare Hall is a residence for female students, but at that time it was emptied of its regular occupants for the summer. The food was good by wartime standards and one could (and did) always go back for “seconds” and “thirds.” We were ready for it all after a gruelling day in the classroom, on the “ranch” for field training, pulling a whaler round Cardiff harbour, or racing a 12 foot sailing dinghy.

The Naval Division Course led to a commission in the Executive Branch. Cardiff wasn’t my first choice of university for the course, but perhaps not paying full attention to the preferences of its new recruits, the Navy decided that I should go to Cardiff. I have never regretted it.

This is an extract taken from Dr Bickley’s autobiography ‘Footfalls Echo in the Memory’ is published in 2009 by Radcliffe Press, an imprint of I.B. Taurus and Co, Ltd.

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