The Definitive History of the Surname STABLES in Yorkshire

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The Autobiography of Brian Stables (Part 10)



This is the tenth part of Brian Stables's fascinating and very funny autobiography, which is written in his own words.

Brian was born in Tickhill in 1929 and emigrated to Canada in 1976. He is currently serialising his life story for us.

He has also provided a superb collection of photographs to accompany his story. Click the photo for a larger image.







Brian Stables, Fort Canning, Singapore.

In early 1956 I found myself packing my kitbag for yet another posting, but still in the Far East. I boarded ship at Kure and set off to Malaya, but once again, just as I was getting organized and interested in jungle training, I had to re-pack and move again. Understandably, the authorities in Singapore realized they could not possibly manage without me, and I was posted to HQ District at Fort Canning, Singapore.

It was here that I made acquaintance with the Goundry family, and also a young man I shall name Colin Edwards both of these contacts would shape my life at a later date, but I was not to know that at that time.

Again I was employed in an administrative role, and I began to enjoy it, I thought it far superior to roughing it as tank crew in some bleak and benighted training area in Germany, which was where my Regiment was stationed at the time. There was much to do, the Communist Terrorists were very active up country and there was a great deal of unrest with the ‘Merdeka’ riots becoming quite troublesome.

I, like all members of the British Forces who were stationed there, was occasionally called upon to help in controlling street riots and enforcing a curfew when the local population began to really get out of hand.

It was a tad ironic that the only time I got beaten up by the bad guys, was when there was supposed to be an interval of calm in between the periods of ‘civil unrest’, as the troubles were called in those days. We were easy targets for we went about unarmed and, for the most part, except when on duty, wore civilian clothes.

Like always, there is ever a lighter side to life, all you have to do is look for it.  I spent more time in the mess than I had in previous postings, partly because it was a much livelier place than that to which I had been used to, with lady guests, wives, daughters and girl friends of members, all taking part in social activities. you became interested in the wonderful tropical fishes and sea life, your (so- called) friends were for ever plugging up the air way on the snorkel!  

We had regular dance nights, usually Saturdays and they were quite enjoyable.  I was able to get around the City quite easily for we were situated in a good central position. The night spots, as in any great oriental city, were always throbbing with life, and there were plenty of excellent beaches with safe swimming. I tried my hand with a snorkel devise, the only problem being; as soon as you became interested in the wonderful tropical fishes and sea life, your (so- called) friends were for ever plugging up the air way on the snorkel!

To me, there was so much history in every corner, the ambience of Somerset Maugham telling the stories of the Federated Malay States was ever in my mind, and I am sure had that gentleman been able to visit the City in the 1950s he would not have been as disorientated as he would be today, (2003).

There was a feeling of impermanence, It was common knowledge that the colony was to be handed over to self rule; I just wanted to enjoy what I recognized as being a turning point of history, something that was about to be lost for ever. The only other transference of power that I had experienced, had been the end of the League of Nations mandate of Palestine, and that had been quite acrimonious.

Here, on the island, (as opposed to the Malay States to the North) there were merely problems between different factions that wished to rule after the British had left; it was not particularly aimed at us, although we did get in the way sometimes!

One of the biggest impacts on my sensibilities was the feeling of dread when I entered the prison at Changi. I had to attend to some business there and I must admit to a feeling of relief when I got back in my Land Rover. The atmosphere was appalling, I have read of the Japanese atrocities perpetrated at this place, indeed, I have spoken to some survivors, and here it was, some nine years later, and the feeling of malevolence was still overpowering,

I awoke to see his daughter, Valerie, walking through the room – and fell in love right there.

Without doubt my biggest emotional challenge came one particular Sunday lunchtime when my friend George Goundry invited me into his home, I had been indulging a trifle too much and, (ever the ideal guest) had fallen asleep on his couch.

I awoke to see his daughter, Valerie, walking through the room – and fell in love right there. I cannot explain it, of all the tricks that fate plays upon us poor mortals, it had to have me falling head over heels in love with a fifteen year old school girl, a “Bobby Soxer” for Pete’s sake. I could not believe it, I really fought against it. I instantly recognized I was at a turning point, that my life would never be the same again, and in this, I (later) discovered, I was right!

I realized (or thought I did) that the most I could hope for was a sort of reciprocal ‘teen age crush’ which would last, if I was lucky, until she met with someone her own age. Ever the optimist, I soldiered on.

For about eighteen months or so we shared some happy times on the beach, at the cinema, in the mess and at the swimming pool. There were visits to Night clubs and restaurants in Singapore city: These latter were usually accompanied by her mother, (Vera) and her Dad, (George) I genuinely felt it could not possibly last.     

We were, we are, opposites.  I am happy in my own company and interested in tangible things, I am an observer. Val is a person who gets involved, she was, and is, every inch a girl, vivacious, outgoing and full of life and laughter, she enjoys good company and spiritual things, she knows who she is, and is her own person, she is fun to be with. Like I said, we were, (and still are) opposites.

During my time at Fort Canning I only saw the commanding officer three times, once to welcome me aboard, once to say farewell, and one other occasion that came right out of blue.

“I am not volunteering for this one sir. I don’t know the first thing about banquets... I’m a tank commander sir.” 

I was just finishing breakfast one morning when I got a message that the CO wished to see me ASAP. Mentally reviewing my deeds over the past few days I could not see too much that could be found at fault, so it was with a light heart that I reported to his office.

“Ah there you are” he said, showing no surprise.
"Yes sir” I said.

Scintillating conversation, so far, I thought.

“What do you know about the duties of officers mess steward?”
“Nothing sir”
“Good, you see we have this little problem, the senior officers mess steward at Tanglin Park has just been arrested [1] and we don’t have a replacement”.

There was what I now recognize as, a ‘pregnant pause’.

 “It occurred to me,” he continued, it being clear that no reply was forthcoming,  “that you, being in the Lancers would be versatile, and not only that, you would very likely have a posh tropical dress uniform with chain mail on your shoulders and with skull and crossbones badges, all over you, am I right?”
“Oh yes sir”
“Good, good, you see the problem is”, his lips twitched, “the problem is,” he repeated, “there is a banquet laid on for tomorrow night, with lots of VIPs invited, and not a damn thing has been done to organize it up until now”
“I am not volunteering for this one sir. I don’t know the first thing about banquets”. I emphasized the point; “I’m a tank commander sir,” nailing it down, just in case he did not grasp my argument.
“Well yes, I can understand that, however, you may not have noticed it, but we don’t have any tanks here, besides which, there is no one else I can send that has your brass neck, and then of course, there is one other way of looking at it, you will be leaving here in about six months time and I was just wondering what interesting things I could write up on your report at that time”
“On second thoughts sir, it sounds like an excellent opportunity to expand my knowledge; I think I will volunteer after all sir”
“Oh thank you, that’s very good of you, of course you will have to keep an eye on your present duties in your spare time, but I am sure that you will cope alright”

I could see he was enjoying himself; “now,” he continued, “just get over there, organize the banquet and then run the place for a couple of weeks until we can get someone else to relieve you, there’s a good chap.”

A quick packing job, and straightening out of my office affairs, off I went.

...I was a tad surprised when I discovered a young woman fast asleep in my bed. I would have been delighted about this at a previous time and place...

I arrived at the park full of trepidation but keen to get started. I met up with the ‘Number one boy ‘ the civilian Chinese employee who was the person in charge of the civilian staff, and I must say he was glad to see me.

He took me through to my quarters and I was a tad surprised when I discovered a young woman fast asleep in my bed, I would have been delighted about this at a previous time and place but now that I had met Val I just could not reconcile myself to the situation.

It turned out that she was the previous chap’s fiancée and she had not yet been apprised of his misfortune. I woke her up and broke the sad news, then sadly watched her as she reluctantly got out of bed and dressed.  I waved her farewell whilst wondering what the hell was wrong with me.

I investigated the situation regarding the banquet and was appalled to discover that not only was a menu not prepared, but nothing, with the exception of a military band for the evening had been arranged.  I was quite surprised, and relieved, when the Band Master phoned me to tie up details, I got the impression he was surprised at the change of Mess Steward. I phoned the mess secretary who also seemed happy to hear from me, he came down and we had a chat, after which I received carte blanche authority to organize events.

The first thing I did was to ‘liberate’ a case of spirits out of the bar stock and make a visit to a catering warrant officer whom I knew through my contacts in the R.A.O.B., who, surprise, surprise, just happened to be stationed in an army camp about a mile down the road.

I dumped the box on his desk and intimated that I had a problem; furthermore I was looking for some help. He peered into the box, and with a huge smile, asked if he could possibly be allowed the privilege of knowing what my problem was? Within half an hour we had a menu organized. 

By the following morning the cards were printed and the food purchased.  It all cost premium prices but when you have premium people organizing things you should expect that!

...he was a fully qualified gourmet chef who did not have a lot of chances to be given a free hand with such a banquet as this one... He obviously enjoyed this opportunity to express his artistry without supervision...

The catering WO came over the next day and took charge of the kitchen for me. I realized afterwards I was doing him a huge favour, for he was a fully qualified gourmet chef who did not have a lot of chances to be given a free hand with such a banquet as this one turned out to be. He obviously enjoyed this opportunity to express his artistry without supervision, but I was too wrapped up in other problems, organizing the staff and the band etc…

Regrettably I do not remember the actual dishes, I wish I did, because it caused a lot of most favourable comments whilst being served and consumed, but I do remember the rumble of discontent when the members got their bills!

The up side of this were the words of praise I received, (before the bills came in) for having organized such a splendid extravaganza, indeed the General Officer Commanding called me over to him at the end of the meal, he knew of the background to this situation and quizzed me on my ‘obvious’ culinary background. He tried to get me to tell him how I had managed it, for he had half expected the evening to be a total débacle.

Naturally I did not confess the total truth; I just said that as I was a member of the 17th/21st Lancers I was surprised that he was surprised that it was such a success. This made him laugh so much that he forgot to pursue his question, so I just accepted the congratulations as being my due! I had made such an impression they wished me to stay on, but the wise man always knows when to leave the stage.

The only dark note during those few weeks was when I had to reclaim the army quarters situated in the park which were designated for mess staff, and now occupied by a multitude of their multifarious relatives. It really did disturb me to evacuate them from what they obviously had assumed to be their homes for the past few months. That is life I guess.

Racial prejudice, surprising to me, was not so much between the British and the locals, as I had witnessed in Egypt, but seemed to me it was more between the people themselves. Not only were the; Chinese / Malay / Indian / Eurasian, ethnic groups at loggerheads but also groups within groups. To me, it was the Indian caste system that was the most publicly conspicuous.

It seems a paradox that being someone’s personal servant should be liberating... just for once he was not being abused according to the capricious whim of someone else. 

When one has an understanding of the religious background to this; the belief in re-incarnation and the conviction that what you do in this life will affect your next life on earth, it does make a kind of sense, although I personally do not agree with that philosophy, I can at least understand it, for it gives one an incentive to try and improve an understanding of an infinite being whilst obeying the rules of a civilized life, and it works for them.

I was brought into this convoluted underworld when I noticed one particular (civilian) member of my staff always getting the dirty jobs to do, and when I investigated this, I discovered that he belonged to the ‘untouchable’ (Indian) caste, and therefore the people who were of a higher caste, (which was everyone) always dumped the less pleasant jobs on to him.

It is easy enough to know how the world should be run, but when confronted by a system that is ingrained and has remained unaltered for many centuries, it is difficult to change it. Not impossible, but difficult; a challenge.

My solution, which only lasted whilst I was there of course, was to appoint him as my personal servant; this was probably illegal, so I did not complicate things by checking on the legality issue.

It seems a paradox that being someone’s personal servant should be liberating, but when matched against the alternatives, he probably enjoyed this as being the happiest period of his life to date; just for once he was not being abused according to the capricious whim of someone else. He certainly had an easier job than I had. It was little enough, but it was a contribution!

As always, in the world I lived in, it was soon time to say farewell to friends and start anew. As 1957 drew to a close it was my time to go, and, as I boarded the troopship I was full of mixed emotions. I had decided that it was unproductive, indeed unfair, to keep in touch with Val, she was young and I was ten, almost eleven years her senior, I reasoned that the love I felt for her had to be expressed by ensuring that she had the opportunity to make her own mind up once she reached a more mature age. I gave it much agonized thought, and I said my goodbyes as quickly as I could. We both tried to keep it light, but obviously there were hidden emotions in the background.  

This was the way of our world as we both knew it, impermanence was the only constant, continually meeting new people, making and losing friends, meeting challenges and overcoming ones own vulnerabilities in the best way one could, you were literally on your own. There was no one to give advice and counsel alternatives; we just ‘got on with it’.

I travelled back to England, making all the usual stops on the way, I spent a month with my parents plus doing a little traveling around on my own, I managed trips to Ireland and to the Channel Islands and then it was time to return to my Regiment in Germany, and once again buckle down to some real soldiering.

It was time to be brought up to date with the latest developments regarding how to kill people and survive in an age of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.

 It was time to return to the reality, as we lived it, in the ‘Cold War’.  

Read the next installment: Tying The Knot

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[1] The fellow had been placed under civil arrest, accused of attempting to blackmail a rubber plantation manager.


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Last modified: May 10, 2010