"By their fruits ye shall know them."

Index for this page:
1. Synopsis.
2. School & early days.
3. In the R.A.F.
4. Miner.
5. Social worker.

Harry Haines was born in Essex in 1919, lived in Portsmouth until he was ten, then moved to London and left school aged fourteen. In 1939 he joined the R.A.F., was demobbed in 1946, and worked as a miner at Donisthorpe Colliery for twenty years. Then after a two year course as Leicester University, he became a social worker, and ended as Team Leader in Portsmouth. His poems have appeared in “The Listener”, “The New Statesman”, “Tribune”, “The Sunday Observer”, and “Harper’s Bazaar” in the USA, amongst others, and have been read on several BBC radio programmes. He has written over 200 poems, 29 of which are in this website. He has an anthology of his poems already in print, and a new anthology is due out this September (2011). He is married to Vera, a survivor of Auschwitz, who has written movingly of her life.

J.A. “Tell me about your school days.”
H.H. “I wasn’t a very bright pupil; in fact I was pretty dull I suppose, because I spent most of my time looking out of the window and thinking of other things, and not taking notice of what the teacher was saying. So, on one occasion, this sour old teacher told me to come out and stand in the corner, and then she proceeded to put a dunce’s hat on my head, and I stood in this corner looking at the bloody wall ’til the lesson ended. That was one experience.”
“I left school when I was 14, as you did in those days. My family weren’t educationally aware in anyway. All they wanted - no, I’m not blaming them mind you, I mean this was the working-class idea - that you go out to work and start earning a living; you know, earning some money to keep you. I mean my parents were very good, very loving ...”

JA: “What literature do you particularly like?”

H.H. “I’ve read all my life. I remember my mother complaining ‘I hope you’ll not be reading when your aunt comes for tea’. I’ve read all the great poetry; that goes without saying. I’ve read most of the great novels, and particularly like Dostoevsky, especially his last, ‘The Brothers Karamazov; I still rate him as the best author I have ever read, and prefer him to Tolstoy. I also like Conrad’s novels, perhaps partly because he was a great sailor as well as a great writer. My favourite dramatist is probably Shaw - I’ve read all his plays and the prefaces to them, which I thought were in some cases better than the plays themselves. I’ve read quite a lot of philosophy; English, French, German ... all in English of course. And of course, in the process, I’ve read a lot of crap.”

J.A. “As a young man, didn’t you join the R.A.F.? Tell me about that.”

H.H. “And then I joined the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force]. As I say, I wanted to be a pilot. With leaving school at fourteen of course, that was impossible. But when I was young, I thought that because I wanted it, I could get it.”
“But anyway, there was a sergeant pilot, he was only a little man and not very young either, and he was a Hendon air display pilot apparently - I learnt this later [Note: Hendon aerodrome was an important and historic air base in North London, 7 miles north west of Charing Cross; between the Wars it hosted the Royal Air Force Display, which was as important as Ascot and Epsom during the London Season.] - and I pestered him to take me up for a flight. I’d never been up in an aeroplane before, and I desperately wanted to, so eventually he said ‘All right kid, get yourself a parachute.’ So I went to the parachute store and asked them for a parachute; and they could see I was a first timer, and they said to me ‘OK son, if it doesn’t work bring it back’, which was a stock answer I suppose for these people. Anyway, I went out to the aeroplane with my parachute, because in the Audax or the Hart, the rear cockpit was for a machine gunner. [Note: Both were made by Hawker. The Hart was a two-seater biplane light bomber. The pilot operated a Vickers machine gun, and the observer a single Lewis gun on a ring mount, both guns being of .303 inch calibre. The Audax was a Hart variant designed for army-co-operation role]. This plane obviously didn’t have a gun on. But the way the gunner worked, he had to stand up, and to keep him safe, there was a strop coming from the floor which clipped onto his parachute harness between his legs. Anyway, this pilot made sure I had this strop fixed properly. After that he got into the cockpit and took off. He got to about probably 200 feet, may be less; it seemed much less than that; and he did a slow roll. There was I hanging on the end of this strop, hanging onto the sides of the cockpit, and frightened out of my life. The bloody plane rolled over, and then he proceeded to do aerobatics, which were loop-the-loops, slow rolls ... but the worst thing was when he shut the engine down and we lost flying speed, because then you dropped, actually dropped, like a stone. When I was in the pits going down in the lifts, it sometimes reminded me of that, because, you know, that is very sudden.”

J.A. “Weren’t you an air gunner at one stage?”

H.H. “Yeah; this was when I was stationed at Cirencester. Yeah .... Because they thought that the Germans would invade us. All the way round the airfield trenches had been dug, and we were supposed to go out and man these trenches in case parachutists came down and invaded. Fortunately it never happened, but because they got so panicky about the invasion, what they wanted to do was, in the Audaxes and Harts I think, to have aircrew, that is pilot and an air gunner standing in the rear cockpit, and if the invading aeroplanes came along, we were supposed to engage them in battle, I suppose. Fortunately we never did, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, because I mean the speed of an Audax was probably about 130 miles an hour, and the German aeroplanes were much faster; and fighters ... we wouldn’t have stood a chance, no chance at all. Anyway, fortunately it didn’t happen. And I think the authorities thought we wouldn’t stand a chance, because they told us that when we went to the airfield where we were going to be stationed, we only had to take one pair of pants, two pairs of socks, and a clean shirt [chuckles]. And I thought to myself ‘Christ, they don’t expect us to last a long time if that’s all the clothes we have’. But when you’re young you don’t really think of those things do you. I mean, it is not a case of bravery is it, it’s a case of not thinking, mostly.
And then I went to the Middle East, first off to Egypt. Now when we were going, we were the first convoy to go back through the Mediterranean. And as we passed Gibraltar, I was standing on deck talking to somebody else, and in the distance there was a frigate, and suddenly this frigate put its nose down and dived under the water. Now I turned to this chap and said ‘F-ing hell, did you see that’. And then the sirens went, and we are all battened down below, and typically, a crowd of working-class men, virtually, well I don’t know, really, whether they were all working class, but by the sound of the language they were. There were a few wry jokes, but no panic, and suddenly one of these aircraft - I think they were Italian aircraft carrying torpedoes - anyway, one of ’em came round and it clipped its wing on the bridge of our ship, and pancake-crashed onto the foredeck of the boat. Well you can imagine the noise an aeroplane crashing onto a steel boat and then going into the sea - the noise it made was horrendous. Still there was no panic. A few wry jokes, you know ... we could hear the Bofor guns firing on the top deck from our ship. I was very proud to be a working-class Englishman - so resilient they are ... amazing.”

J.A. “What would have happened if you’d have taken a torpedo at that stage?”

H.H. “Well, we would’ve been dead wouldn’t we; we couldn’t’ve have got out; we were actually battened down - well you know what battened down means on a ship. So, no way, no. But as I say, those men behaved impeccably, and I was very proud to be an Englishman, very proud to be one of them.
Two thirds of the ships in the convoy we were told later, were sunk before we eventually got into Alexandria. Well all the lights were on. Amazing; we hadn’t seen lights on when we were in England for, what, nearly three years for God’s sake, and so it was miraculous from that point of view. But we went into Alexandria with a list to starboard - quite considerable - because the bloody thing leaked like a sieve. It was an old South American ship called the SS Almanzora, I’ll always remember that name, and, yeah, we went into Alexandria.”

J.A. “Why was it leaking?”

H.H. “Because this plane crashed on the deck and opened up the seams; I imagine that’s why it was; no other reason; didn’t leak before. I mean we pissed around in the Atlantic for about over a fortnight. In fact that was the only time I ate well on that bloody boat, because everybody else was sick, I wasn’t, so I was very fortunate in that respect [laughs]. Yeah ....”

J.A. “After being demobbed [demobilized] from the R.A.F. after the 2nd World War, didn’t you become a coal miner for about 20 years?”

H.H “It was all very mechanised in the later days when I was a miner, and I drove a machine - what they called a “continuous miner”, and what we were doing was making new headings. I drove it, and there was a team of three of us; there were two other men who didn’t actually drive the machine, but put up the props as we moved forward, and controlled the coal coming from the small conveyor belt of the machine onto the main conveyor belt, and they also moved up the main conveyor belt as we moved up.
But one day we ... we had very powerful lights because the dust was horrendous, and in fact I wore a mask because the dust was so bad; perhaps that’s why I got away with not having pneumoconiosis, I don’t know. Anyway, one day, one of the chaps on the conveyor belt flashed his light at me, and I looked, and he pointed up, and you could see, actually see, the roof slowly coming down - just like that. So I switched off the machine and ran. I was about 10 yards behind them, but I caught the buggers up [laughs long] ... well if you’re in a panic and you’re in a hurry. It took us over a week to dig that machine out, so you can imagine what it was like, what it would have been like if we had’ve been caught, if we hadn’t ran fast enough.”

J.A. “How did you get into Social Services?”

H.H. “Well firstly, I went on a day release course at Nottingham University, and this eventually lasted for three years. It was organised by the Union actually, and it was supposed to be on politics and economics, which I know bugger all about, fortunately, but anyway I got on this course, and I asked him if he could arrange having literature, because that was what I was really interested in, and eventually we got round to having literature. Then I went on a Social Services course at Leicester University for two years; I mean, I didn’t expect to get into University. That’s where I met my wife Vera, she was teaching psychology, and that’s when I fell for her. Anyway, one of the first lectures I went to was on psychology, and my present wife was lecturing on psychology, and, I don’t know why, but I liked what I saw, of course, and what she said, and I turned to the man beside me, and I said, ‘she’s mine’. Really; I don’t know why I said it. I know now why I said it, but then I didn’t have a clue why I said it. But of course, I pursued that thought. Ah, yeah, that’s it.”

J.A. “When you were a social worker, I understand one of your jobs was to run a scheme for young people whom no one else could really handle. What was your scheme for ‘lairy’ adolescents.” [Note: one of his innovative schemes was to take them to the opera]

H.H. “Well, that came later. I eventually became Deputy Area Officer in Portsmouth, and then a new law came out saying that we should treat children in a certain way, and delinquent kids - give them things to do to occupy them and treat them, as children should be treated. Anyway, I took over this job for Hampshire, and we ran many groups - horse-riding, mountain climbing ... but mostly sailing. And of course, by that time I was a competent sailor; I’d sailed a great deal. And I could even do celestial navigation - think of that! With my education as well. But I read a book by some woman explaining how to do it, and that’s how I learnt it. In those days I used to go on the Churchill [sailing ship and scheme] with the Ocean Youth Club. The Ocean Youth Club had a paid skipper, but the mates were volunteers, like me. And on the Churchill, there was a paid skipper, a paid first mate, that’s right, a paid engineer, a paid cook, and a paid bo’s’n. And they took a lot of kids. I was what they called a watch officer; we took one of the three watches. And we had 12 kids, no 13 kids - one was a leader, and the 12 other kids - to take the watches. It was quite good fun actually.”

J.A. “What about the time you sailed down to Falmouth to see one of your 'graduates'.”

H.H. “Why, hardly a graduate. That was Peter 'T', his name was, he was a big lout of a lad. He had apparently hit his teacher in his school and been expelled. I think he was 15 going on 16, but he was a big lad, so probably hurt the teacher. But anyway he was expelled from school, so we took him on sailing, and I took him sailing quite a lot, and he was a good lad. Actually, I didn’t have to control the kids, he did, because he was a big lad and all the kids respected him. And I could hear him on the foredeck, explaining to the kids exactly in the same words I’d used to him. And, um, eventually I got him a place in a college at Falmouth on a boat-building course, that’s right, yeah. And a couple of years later, no no, a year later, he came to me, he came back to see his grandfather who still lived in Portsmouth, and he came into my office, and he brought me a little picture to hang on my wall, of a sailing boat, and then he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeve, and said ‘Waddaya think of that then’. [laughs]. I’ll always remember his voice ‘Waddaya think of that then’. And on his arm he had tattooed a sailing boat, with underneath the name ‘Sea Fever’, which was the name of my boat. I was really choked up, because that was a very nice gesture. He was a good kid really, a bit rough .... But about two years afterwards, when he’d actually graduated from this college as a boat builder, and worked for a boat builder, doing the job properly, because he became quite a skilled craftsman, I phoned up his landlady and asked her if she could ask him to come and meet me. So I told her, I was in the next river after Falmouth - it’s only about three miles from Falmouth, uh, there is a little place called Frenchman’s Creek; some woman wrote a book called Frenchman’s Creek, didn’t she, I can’t remember her name ....”

J.A. “Daphne du Maurier.”

H.H. “Daphne du Maurier, yeah, that’s right. Anyway, I was anchored in there, and I said to the landlady, tell him I’ll be in the pub, at, not Frenchman’s Creek, whatever the name of the river is [Note: ‘Frenchman's Creek’ is up the Helford River on the south coast of Cornwall] and she said she would tell him. So I went to this pub, and he came, came up in a motorcar, well, and we had a beer together. And then he suddenly said ‘And where’s yer crew then’. I said ‘I’ve come down on my own’. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘I don’t like that’, he said. He thought a bit, and then he said ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll take three days off work and help you sail the boat back’. That was the kind of kid he was, really a good kid, despite being a delinquent, but really a good kid. Yeah [sighs].”