Cat Stevens, the Gin Factory, the Bomb Squad, the IRA and Me
In the northern summer of 1973, The Baroness
and I were living in St Paul’s Cray in Kent. I was a contract computer operator, with an agency called Knight Operation
Support supplying me with my contracts.
Those who have read previous chapters of my story
will remember that The Baroness is the name I have been using for the woman who was my girlfriend at that time. I have not
seen her for several years, and have not asked for her permission to use her name in this story. I call her The Baroness because
some years after we broke up she married and did, in fact, become a Baroness.
Our living arrangements and my employment in
London both need some explanation. Before leaving the Australian Record Company in Sydney, I trained the computer operator
who would be my replacement. He was a newly arrived Londoner, who recommended that I contact Knight’s, and also suggested
that I should contact his father, a doctor from St Paul’s Cray. I took up both of his suggestions. Knight’s agreed
to be my agent, and the doctor invited The Baroness and me to stay at his house, rent-free. The doctor’s house was such
a prominent local landmark that, as I recall, its address was simply: “The White House, St Paul’s Cray.”
Having offered us free accommodation, he then announced that he and his girlfriend (who was the same age as his son) were
going sailing in the Mediterranean, and he wanted The Baroness and me to house-sit indefinitely until they returned. So, within
weeks of arriving in London, I had secure and well paid employment, and free accommodation in a huge Tudor-style house in
a posh suburb. Talk about landing on your feet! The doctor and his girlfriend were away for more than three months, the only
down side being that on my watch a fox got into the backyard and killed all six of the doctor’s ducks.
One of my first contract jobs was at Tanqueray
Gordon, manufacturer of Gordon’s gin and other alcohol products. It was located at the Angel, Islington, an easy commute
from St Paul’s Cray. The computer was an archaic Honeywell machine, from the time before the existence of keyboards.
All instructions had to be entered in machine language, in octal (base eight) format, using a control panel comprising seven
sets of three buttons, each one containing a one, a two and a four, which allowed the operator to enter up to seven digits
at a time, each being from 0 to 7. Entered in the right format, these numbers made up an octal language that made the computer
do the operator’s bidding. Although it was a pain in the neck to work in this way, it was a blessing in disguise, because
there was a shortage of operators who could still operate these ancient machines, and this experience meant that there would
always be an abundance of work for me. The experience of entering instructions directly in machine language also gave me a
great advantage when I worked on more modern machines, because I had a better understanding than the average operator of how
the computer worked.
At Tanqueray Gordon, I worked on permanent evening
shift. I got along particularly well with a young Irish Manchester United supporter who worked with me. One night he asked
me to do him a favour. Manchester United were coming to London to play a midweek, evening game, and he wanted me to cover
for him while he took off and went to the game. I agreed to this arrangement, confident that I could do the shift on my own.
As evening shift operators we were quite autonomous and undisturbed, so there was a very strong chance that nobody would notice
that one of us was missing.
The Manchester United bunk-off scam went off
without a hitch, and my Irish friend promised to do the same for me should the opportunity arise. And a few weeks later, it
did indeed arise. Cat Stevens was due to play at Drury Lane Theatre on a night when I was working, and The Baroness was particularly
keen to see him. I bought the tickets, and conspired with my workmate to take a few hours off while he covered for me. I decided
to drive The Baroness’s car to work, then take the tube to Drury Lane, meet The Baroness there, see the show, take the
tube back to Angel station, and then The Baroness could drive herself home and I could go back to work. What could possibly
At any other time, everything might have worked
exactly as planned. But this was London in 1973, the IRA was planting bombs in public places all over the city, and Londoners
were on extreme terrorist alert. I parked the The Baroness’s car in a pub car park just across the road from the gin
factory, and after closing time the car park emptied out, leaving just one car. When The Baroness first arrived in England
she had stayed with relatives in Folkestone, on the south coast. That is where she bought her little Austin 1100, which was
registered to her at that Folkestone address. When a paranoid local resident spotted a single car she had never seen before,
standing alone in a pub car park, long after closing time, she decided that the prudent thing to do was to call the police.
The police made inquiries, and discovered that the car was registered to a woman in Folkestone, but a man had been seen parking
it in Islington, walking away from it in the afternoon, and had obviously left it there for many hours without coming back
for it. That was enough for the Metropolitan Policed to call in the bomb squad. The bomb squad decided that having a car in
the middle of an empty car park, with lots of space around it, made their decision too easy. They would simply blow it up.
Fortunately for me, the local police talked them out of it. It would involve too much work for them and the Fire Brigade,
evacuating locals in the middle of the night and cleaning up the mess afterwards. So instead the car was impounded, taken
to Kings Cross police station, stripped down and thoroughly searched.
In their attempts to find out who had parked
and deserted a car in the pub car park, the police did a door to door search of the area. This led them to the gin factory,
where it was discovered that I was missing. It also led to the boss of Tanqueray Gordon being woken and told about the car,
the search, and one of his computer operators being missing. He was not amused. His first reaction was to sack me. When told
that he didn’t have to sack me because I was a contract operator and not an employee, he apparently said “so much
the better. Just get rid of him.” So I was released from my contract with Tanqueray Gordon, while still sitting in the
Drury Lane Theatre listening to Cat Stevens, oblivious to the turmoil I had caused.
After the show, The Baroness and I returned to
where I had parked the car, only to find the car missing and the car park still surrounded by police barriers. So it was with
some trepidation that I went back to the computer room at Tanqueray Gordon. There my Irish colleague related the whole saga
to me, we said our goodbyes, and The Baroness and I went off to Kings Cross police station. There we had the embarrassing
experience of sitting in an office while a police officer pulled from a bag everything that had been in the car. Item by item
every personal belonging and every lolly wrapper or other small piece of rubbish off the floor was ticked off a list and handed
to us with equal solemnity.
Strange as it may seem, this incident had no
impact whatsoever on my work as a contract operator. I told Knights what had happened, and that I would like to take advantage
of my temporary lack of a job to take a trip around Scotland. They assured me that there would be another contract waiting
for me when I got back to London, and they even offered to find me contracts in other cities if I wanted to keep on travelling.
So life went on for me. Somehow I have never quite been able to take seriously the fact that I had, for one night, been a
terrorism suspect. In London in 1973, Cat Stevens, the IRA, the Bomb Squad and the gin factory gave me one of the most memorable
experiences, and potential dinner party stories, of my life.