A Crazy Life – Part 1 (Prelude to Thailand)
Many friends in South-East Asia have said to me over the years ‘You should write a book about your life and adventures’. And so, with spare time now available, I’ve decided to do just that. When you read my stories, please remember that they are not fiction, but all facts down to the very last detail, with no exaggerations of events.
In this first chapter, I need to provide some background details to my life before Thailand.
I am the youngest child of 3 brothers, raised in a middle-class, academic family, in a middle-class town somewhere in middle England. My two elder brothers were definitely more intelligent than me, obtaining Bachelor and then Doctorates from Cambridge University, and studying under the renowned Professor Hawking.
As for me, I flunked my A levels, and facing prolonged study to try to get an acceptable grade in French so I could enter university, I made a paradigm shift in my career aspirations, and signed up to a 3-year technician course in Electronics at Loughborough Technical College.
Actually, the choice was made easy for me. At that time, my local government authority gave a generous grant to vocational students. By joining the electronics course, I would have all my course fees paid, plus board and lodging, plus a reasonable weekly allowance.
There was another reason for my interest in this electronics course. Although I had intended to study French and Italian at university, a hobby that consumed my every available moment was pirate radio. Numerous pirate (unlicenced) radio stations exist to the present day, beaming out their particular genre of music across the airways of most cities in the UK, and similar stations exist in other countries.
Although only in my late teens, I was a well-established member of the local pirate radio station. I was a DJ, playing dub reggae music during my one-hour program, a music type that I still enjoy to this day. But my main role was as the technical engineer, responsible for building and operating the short wave and medium wave radio transmitters that our station used to transmit their signal across the city.
In the mid-‘70s, valve transmitters were the norm, requiring a power supply of up to 1,000 volts to generate the radio signal. My vocational study at the technical college provided me with the knowledge to build more reliable and powerful radio transmitters.
The improvement in our station’s signal using my transmitters did not go unnoticed by the Post Office authorities who were responsible for closing down any illegal radio stations. We would typically operate our transmitter from a rural area that lay close to the city. On many occasions, transmissions would be abruptly curtailed as the Post Office guys tracked us down by location -inding our radio signal. Then it was ‘everyman for himself’. I would grab the transmitter and run like hell!
As I was a healthy teenager, I could always outrun the Post Office staff. But my DJ friends were somewhat more ‘portly’ than me, and inevitably ended up being caught and subsequently summoned to court and fined for their misdemeanors.
My track record of never being caught came to an end one evening when the authorities knocked on the door of my parents’ house. A stern warning followed with threats of court action if I continued to build and operate my illegal radio transmitters. ‘Why don’t you get your radio ham licence? Then you can build and operate your transmitters legally’, suggested one of the Post Office guys.
And so it was that I took a trip down to London, sat the City & Guilds radio amateur licencing exam, and soon had a shiny new amateur call sign – G6JFY.
There was only one small problem about being a radio ham. I found the conversation on the amateur bands tediously boring. ‘Yes old man, this is G6 blah blah blah, I’m using an Icom IC2E with an extended J antenna. Your signal is 5 and 4………’
I had the ham licence, but the first time that I actually started to enjoy ham radio was when I moved to Thailand and got my Thai ham licence.
But I digress. Keen to build on my technical skills, I soon found myself involved with something much more exciting than land-based pirate radio – offshore pirate radio.
At that time, there were several ‘rust-bucket’ ships moored off the coast of England and Belgium. In the 60’s, there were some famous offshore radio stations operating from ships and the disused, war-time forts in the Thames Estuary. These stations closed down in 1967 when the Marine Offences Act was passed in the UK which outlawed the stations.
But in the 70’s, new pirate stations sprung up, such as Radio Caroline (which existed in the 60’s), as well as Radio North Sea International, Radio Atlantis and the popular Dutch station Radio Veronica.
Through my contacts with land-based pirate radio stations in London, (Radio Jackie), I landed a job in my college long vacation as the transmitter engineer and occasional DJ on a Belgian pirate station called Radio Delmare (radio of the sea). This station operated from what is known as a ‘hulk’, meaning that it was a boat without an engine, anchored about 20 km off the coast of Belgium.
After being ferried out to this vessel, I found that the radio station was operated by just 2 people, neither who had a clue about the radio transmitter on board, nor any knowledge of seamanship. Our hulk was anchored using a single steel cable, and there was no ship-to-shore radio, of course, no mobile phone in those days, no captain, nothing.
There was also a rather limited choice of food and drink on board. There were precisely 3 items ==> Heineken beer, white rice and peanut butter.
That was it!
My daily food intake (and that of the 2 Belgian crew), was to cook the white rice, pour peanut butter over it, and then wash it down with copious amounts of lukewarm Heineken beer.
The galley for eating was a small area next to the tiny radio studio. Behind the studio was the radio transmitter, a 1KW Marconi valve unit, with 9-inch tall valves that glowed like candles in the night. And behind the transmitter was the large diesel generator that powered everything on board.
One problem was that the generator vented its fumes inside the hulk. So I and my companions were continuously throwing up from the nauseating diesel fumes.
After a couple of months on board this ‘lunatic’ place to spend my college break, I was finally able to get back to solid ground in Belgium. Since the hulk had no ballast (a slight oversight by the crew), and therefore continuously bobbed about like a kid’s top, it took me some hours before I could actually walk after landing in Belgium.
I returned to college and successfully completed my Higher National Certificate course. Encouraged by this success, I moved to London and continued with further study, obtaining a Higher National Diploma in Radio Communications. I followed this up with a First Class Honours degree in Electronics & Communications, and finally completed my academic study with a Master’s degree in Microwave Communications from London University.
My 7 years of academic study had paid off, and I secured my first employment with British Telecom at a very decent salary (for that era) of 13,000 pounds a year. I was 26 years old.
Over the next few years, my career advanced rapidly. I soon changed from permanent employment to work as a freelance contractor, since not only was the pay much higher, it also allowed me to obtain a mortgage to buy my first house on the outskirts of London. I got married and settled down to a reasonably affluent lifestyle, enjoying several overseas holidays each year, ski-ing in the Pyrenee mountains in France, (where I had a holiday home), or horse-riding each weekend on Exmoor in the west of England, (where I had yet another holiday home).
Life was good, and I made the assumption that so many others in a similar position had made before me – that the money would just keep rolling in. I saved nothing, moving from contract job to contract job, working on highly-paid contracts in Belgium, France and Spain. Life was on a roll and there wasn’t much that could stop me – and I should add, my English wife, who relished in this free-spending lifestyle as much as I did.
Or so I thought. Something that I had never considered would creep up on me in the coming years and change my extravagant lifestyle completely, causing me to abandon my home, wife and well-paid career in the UK for the distant shores of Thailand.
Subsequent events in that country would see me reduced to abject poverty, relying on friends for food and lodging. Those events, I believe made me a stronger and better person, and eventually led me to my current life of teaching and volunteer work in some of the poorest areas of Myanmar.
The author can be contacted at : [email protected]