GEOFFREY FRANCIS VINE
I was born in Hampshire, England, on March 3, 1940, in a Royal Navy nursing home – .my father, Frank Vine, who had joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman during World War 1, was still in the service when World War 2 started, so had the “distinction” of serving in both wars. When I was born, he was a Chief Yeoman of Signals, the navy’s highest non-commissioned rank. Prior to my birth, he had been serving on the Murmansk convoys. He came home on leave a few days after I was born, saw me briefly, then was sent to the Far East where he served for the remainder of the war. I had a brother and a sister – Denis, who was 13 years older, and Daphne, who was 12 years older.
My parents had a house in Gosport, on the western shore of Portsmouth Harbour, just half a mile from the Royal Navy’s main munitions base which, of course, was an important target for German bombers. My mother, Winifred, effectively had to raise 3 children on her own until my father next returned home, which was not until late 1945. I can still remember being awoken by a commotion late at night, getting out of bed and going to the top of the stairs. The front door was open and there was a taxi at the gate. A stranger climbed out of the taxi lugging an enormous kitbag; my mother, brother and sister rushed down the front path and began hugging and kissing the stranger. It was nothing to do with me so I went back to bed and fell asleep, completely unaware of the cataclysmic change that had arrived.
That was not my earliest memory – the Germans made sure of that. There were nightly bombing raids as they tried to hit the munitions depot, eventually suceeding and the resulting blast blew out windows for several miles around. What I remember before that is waking each night when the air raid sirens shrieked their ghastly tune, getting out of my cot, going downstairs and waiting at the back door. It was my sister’s job to scoop me up and run down the path to the air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. It was an icily cold construction of concrete and iron sheets, covered with a thick layer of soil. It would not have saved us in the event of a direct hit but it did protect us when neighbouring houses were hit and debris rained from the sky.
I have no memory of my first encounter with a German airman so I have to rely on the tale my sister told me. She had taken me for a walk in my pram, one of the massive structures the size of a small boat with large wheels. I was only a few months old and at the stage where I lay flat, rather than sitting in an upright position. Daphne was pushing the pram along a country lane when, behind her, she heard the noise of a plane. The German was hedge-hopping (flying very low to avoid RAF attention), heading for the English Channel and safety. For reasons known only to that German pilot, he opened fire and his guns raked the otherwise empty lane. Daphne did the sensible thing, in my later view, and dived for the roadside ditch, leaving me in the pram in the roadway. One bullet hit my pram, passed a couple of inches above my prone body and exited at the other end. Had Daphne stayed holding the pram handle, she would have been hit and almost certainly killed. As it was, an extremely frightened Daphne ran home, pushing the pram as fast as she could, snatched me up and rushed indoors, bawling hysterically, and giving our mother a somewhat abbreviated account of the event. It was only later, when my mother went to bring my pram indoors that she saw the bullet holes and got the full story from Daphne. She was furious that Daphne had abandoned me and dived into the ditch and proceeded to give her daughter what Daphne later described as “the biggest hiding of my life”.
We all survived the war, physically if not psychologically – until I was about 12 or 13, I regularly awoke screaming at night from a recurring nightmare of being pursued by German soldiers. Living as we did on the South Coast, there had been the fear of a German invasion and somehow, at a very tender age, I had absorbed the wartime warnings to coastal residents to run if the Germans arrived. The nightmares really only ended when I joined the school cadet force and was issued with a .303 rifle, which I learned to fire with some skill. I can only suppose that I finally felt “empowered” to fight back. Winston Churchill would have been proud of me.
When my father was finally discharged from the navy after 28 years service, he moved sideways into a post with the Admiralty, eventually becoming Registrar of the Royal Fleet Reserve, stationed at HMS Daedalus, a Fleet Air Arm base a few miles from Gosport, outside a small village called Lee-on-the-Solent. My parents bought a house there in August 1946, living there for 25 years until my father retired and they moved to New Zealand.
Lee-on-the-Solent was a magical place for a small boy and his friends to grow up. The beaches and cliffs housed crumbling wartime defence bunkers in which we could play all manner of games. There were fields with plenty of rabbits, which we learned to catch with wire snares, skin and gut, and sell to housewives eager to have fresh meat for the table because rationing meant meat from the butcher was scarce. I recall we charged 2s 6d for a small rabbit and 5s for a large one, a considerable income for small boys at that time. Nine years later when I began my first job after leaving school, my weekly wage before tax was only £3 2s 6d, equal to a dozen rabbits! We small boys might have gone on to become affluent entrepreneurs had myxamatosis not intervened.
The other big attraction was the Royal Marine training ground, which included a 1000yd shooting range (where I later learned to shoot accurately as a cadet). Its barbed wire fences were no deterrent to boys eager to hunt for discarded live ammunition and grenades. How we survived unscathed I will never know.
At age 11, I was catapulted from Lee-on-the-Solent’s small primary school into the much larger world of Price’s School at nearby Fareham. It had been a private Church of England boys school since its founding by William Price back in the early 18th century, but postwar educational reforms in Britain introduced the concept of elite grammar schools and Price’s entered the state system as the top-ranked of these schools in southern Hampshire. The problem was that as the only boy in my village who had passed the 11-plus exams necessary to get into such a school, I was in effect cut off from my childhood friends. I think this was a big factor in my rebelliousness at Price’s.
During my first week there, we had a lot of rain. At morning break on about the fourth day, I had been kicking a tennis ball around in the somewhat muddy quad. As the bell summoned us back to our classroom, I wandered along bouncing the tennis ball off the corridor wall, catching it and so on. I had no way of knowing the wall had been repainted before term began and being without eyes in the back of my head, failed to see the series of muddy splotches on the pristine wall behind me. Alas, it did not escape the beady eye of a prefect, who promptly reported my crime. I was marched before the headmaster, who announced that he would have to do something he had never done before – cane a new boy. By the time I left Price’s 7 years later, I held the school record for the number of canings any one boy had received.
I was a troublemaker, no doubt about it, but I was also academically a high achiever. I owe to my masters at Price’s a rich enjoyment of history and theology and, to one or two masters, I owe my determination never to bow to abusive authority.
By the time I reached the 7th form, my rebelliousness unfortunately outstripped any credit I had earned from being top of the class and I was threatened with expulsion. That same week, I saw an advertisement in our local daily newspaper, the Portsmouth Evening News, for an apprentice reporter (yes, really; it entailed my father signing a deed of apprenticeship). My Uncle Sid was Head Printer on the Fleet Street newspaper, the Daily Mail and some years before, when I was staying with his family during the holidays, he took me up to London to show me round the enormous Mail office. The high point of the evening should have been my introduction to the newspaper’s owner, Viscount Rothermere, something I still recall vividly, but what really fascinated me was being left in the care of the Foreign Editor who, over the space of the next hour or so, telephoned his reporters in various farflung countries and, in answer to my constant questions, had to point out these countries on the world map on his office wall. By the time Uncle Sid came back to collect me, I was hooked: I wanted to be a reporter. So I applied for the Evening News job. There were, as I was told at interview, 26 applicants and my letter went to the bottom of the heap as the editor thought I seemed most unsuitable. Luckily for me, after interviewing them, he rejected the other 25. After this lengthy delay, I was summoned to the head office. The interview lived up to the editor’s assessment of my application. Somewhat despairingly, I suspect, he eventually demanded: “Can you give me one reason why I should hire you?” Equally despairingly, I blurted out: “My Uncle Sid is the Head Printer on the Daily Mail”. The editor beamed. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier, boy. Your uncle is a Fleet Street legend! When can you start?” Which just proves that there is nothing wrong with a little name-dropping in a job interview.
Thereafter, life became a blur of classes: typing and shorthand, for which the paper paid private tutors, and study for the national Diploma in Journalism, which involved such subjects as law, English grammar, at least one foreign language and on-the-job training. The result was 15-hour days and a thorough introduction to journalism.
After a happy four years learning the craft, I was off to London, where every young journalist yearned to be in those days. I went into a role as chief reporter for a magazine group and, in my spare time, reporting for a jazz magazine, which meant many a late night in smoky little clubs lapping up the music and getting the chance to interview such legends as John Dankworth, Cleo Laine, Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and the indomitable George Melly.
Then came the winter of 1962-63. Snow and ice shut down London. For the best part of three months, my flat had no running water, meaning no hot drinks, no washing, no toilet. Life, frankly, was hell. In desperation, I started reading the job adverts in World’s Press News, the industry bible, because I was sure there must be an opening for me in somewhere with a nicer climate. After interviews, I ended up with three job offers in countries I knew absolutely nothing about, took a stab and found myself hired as a reporter by the Otago Daily Times in a place called Dunedin. I tried going to my local library but the search for any information about the city defeated the librarian. Undeterred, a few days before my 23rd birthday, my parents took me to Southampton to board the Southern Cross and I was on my way.
The voyage was just what I needed – fresh sea air, sunshine, good food and cheap drinks. I hit New Zealand a new man right on Easter 1963. OK, so everything – literally everything – was closed for the holiday and, after London, Dunedin seemed a boring little village. But I soon had a sunny little flat to call home and if, occasionally, I pondered the wisdom of my choice, I had only to recall crawling over snow and ice to get to the underground in London to quickly decide Dunedin was without doubt the better choice.
The next two and a-half years shot by. Life was never dull on the ODT and later in 1963 I found myself on my way to Communist China on an official tour as a journalist. Western journalists were not usually tolerated there but this visit to attend the National Day celebrations on October 1 in Peking (now Beijing) and tour other major cities was arranged through trade union connections (I had been an active union member in England and was even more active in New Zealand) and I was officially a guest of the Chinese Journalists Union.
The highlights of the visit was meeting Mao Tse-tung. In Peking, I, along with several other journalists from Communist countries, had been invited to dinner by the Prime Minister, Chao En-lai, at his official residence. From memory, there were about 16 of us present. Part way through a lengthy dinner (formal dinners in China lasted anywhere from 35 to 50 small courses) uniformed, armed men began filing into the large dining room until they completely encircled it. “Don’t worry,” the Prime Minister said in English, “this will be Chairman Mao.” And there he was. Chou introduced each one of us by name and, for the only time in my life, I got to shake hands with a world leader.
Of course, a Westerner going into China at that time was of immense interest to the intelligence services, who since time immaterial have been happy to make use of journalists. So, before leaving, I was whistled up to Wellington and taken to the small house that was then SIS headquarters, there to be briefed on matters and people they wanted me to watch out for. At that time, all the Chinese airports were for duel civilian/military use so I was expected to learn the outlines of military aircraft and, as my flight came in to land, stare frantically out of the window trying to count how many planes of which kind. All of this had to be committed to memory as nothing could be written down. As I discovered, my hotel room and luggage were being searched each day so I could not even make notes later and hide them in my suitcase.
Back in New Zealand, debriefings by the security service seemed to go on for months. They always took place in a seedy little hotel in the centre of Dunedin. I would receive a phone call giving me a time and a room number and there, waiting for me, would be a seedy little man in a shabby macintosh. A lot of the questions were repetitive but other times I would be told the CIA or MI6 wanted to know had I met so-and-so in China and what could I recall about him. Once I had to recall how well or otherwise did Chairman Mao seem, what did he say to me (not a word!) and then there would be similar questions about other Chinese leaders that I might or might not have met.
Somewhere along the line, I must have ticked the right boxes and been adjudged sound because other little SIS jobs came along, particularly involving the University of Otago where there was a very strong Communist cadre on the staff tasked with recruiting promising graduates heading for public service.
Life in Dunedin never did return to “normal” because in the course of doing odd jobs for radio and television programmes, I met a bubbly young vision mixer called Gillian Barclay and we married in 1965. Later that year, we moved to England so Gillian could meet my family and we lived in London for two years. I worked as chief sub-editor for a suburban newspaper group and Gillian was at the much more important Independent Television News. Gillian loved being there but I hated London’s foul weather and smog and agitated until eventually we moved back to New Zealand, where I went back to the ODT, becoming deputy chief sub-editor to the legendary Dave Hay. My parents followed a few months later when my father retired and they settled in Milton, close to my mother-in-law. In 1970, our daughter Bettina was born and our family was complete.