Today on May 6th 1959—exactly 65 years ago I joined the RMBS
— best decision of my life.

by Adrian Brett


“Obviously more keen on his music than his academic studies”

How I recall those words written on my school report by some school master— whose judgment and opinion was to propel me to make the most important decision of my life….to leave home…after all my father had left home at 15 to join the Royal Navy at HMS Ganges in 1929. Like so many returning to civilian life after a tough war he was typically stern and distant, having observed considerable action as a gunner during WW2 and surviving the sinking of his ship, ‘HMS Southampton’ in 1941. He was typically morose and withdrawn as so many returning servicemen were. No such thing as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder then. These returning heroes never spoke of their horrific experiences and my mother knew nothing of the internal pain that my father and others experienced when they came back to Britain.On receiving my school report he remarked ‘Good mind to pack you off to the Royal Marines where you will get so much music you will be fed up with it’…….

I pondered his words. Here was an opportunity to receive the musical education that I craved for and which was not possible on the Isle of Wight, which was years behind the rest of the UK in everything. My school, which had moved to new premises and re-named Carisbrooke Grammar School, did not have a music master. The one period of ‘music’ consisted of the art master banging out the hymn that had been sung that morning and each row of desks would have to sing it and be judged. Of course with my voice my row always won which did give me some satisfaction and a little fame. How I hated that school. If I left home and joined the Royal Marines I could continue the musical training which had started in Deal at the age of 8 years as a chorister in St. Leonard’s Parish Church choir in the town in which I grew up.


I was so determined now that I could foresee an escape from my situation that I sent away for all of the details of life in the Royal Marines Band Service and a glossy brochure arrived. I was very impressed and duly applied to join, which of course required the consent of my parents as I was only 13 years old! I was summoned to the Royal Naval barracks just across the Solent in Portsmouth for a thorough medical examination and to sit the educational tests. Having passed these I awaited news of my musical assessment which would take place in London at the Royal Academy of Music. I am certain I did all of this myself as I cannot recall my mother coming to Portsmouth or London. I was worried about the audition but had prepared an impressive and technically demanding recorder solo and the first movement of a Clementi piano sonatina. The studio in RAM was very large and the gentleman conducting the audition seemed pleasant and welcoming. He gave me several aural tests, which were no problem for me, and then asked what I wished to play. Anxious to impress with my well-practised and difficult recorder solo I answered: “The recorder, sir!” His answer was devastating. “Ah good…then we will hear the piano!”

I never got to play the recorder. Afterwards I was told the instrument category was flute and piano so I imagine he thought as I had a reasonable command of the piano, and played the recorder, learning the flute would not be too much of a problem. Little did he realise that my very advanced recorder technique, which he had not heard, would be instantly applied to the flute once I got an instrument into my hands.

After the audition I had to wait a week or so to discover if I had been accepted and, when it eventually arrived confirming my application to join, I had to wait a while as I was only 13 years old and one had to be 14 years to enlist—an astonishing fact in retrospect. How could anyone at 14 years of age truly realise the significance of a binding contract that signed away their life to the age of 27 years? A few years later when the reality and severity of my decision dawned upon me it was too late. I was trapped.

I have a vivid memory of my father driving me to the tiny railway station at Cowes on the first leg of my journey back to Deal, the town of my birth and in which I had grown up and had my first musical successes. I recall his exact words to me too as they remained in my mind for a few years until their significance became apparent two years later.

“ Well son. you are now starting your life proper. Be friendly with everyone, son, but don’t have special friends. Be everything to everybody.”

I took the ferry from Ryde to Portsmouth and made my way to the Royal Naval Barracks to be attested into service and ‘take the Queen’s shilling’ as it was known from the time when newly recruited men were given a shilling on signing on. I travelled to Waterloo Station and crossed over to Waterloo East to catch the train to Deal—a procedure that was to become very familiar over the next 7 years. There were a few other young boys on the train who I found later to have signed on for service that day too but in different locations. We were met at Deal station by an NCO in uniform and taken to the barracks.


I walked up the old stone stairs into a small room on the top floor. Entering this old and tall building I reflected on my day, the important and binding contract I had signed that morning and how it initiated my personal journey towards an independent life, away from the confines and tension which surrounded me at home. I convinced myself that the desire to be a musician was the sole reason for the radical move to leave home aged 14 years and 2 months.

The travel from the Isle of Wight had been long and tiring but here I was once more in the town I knew so well and where I had grown up, had my first musical successes, and lived my first 12 years. I was relieved to be shown a bed in the corner of the room with a long mattress with blankets and pillows rolled up at the head. Opposite were four similar areas, all with a bed. Seated on a simple tubular steel chair I reflected on my day. A tall empty metal locker towered over me but, unknown at the time, it would house everything that I possessed to make me what I had decided to be—a musician in HM Royal Marines. It was May 6th 1959.

I was soon joined by three other young boys who had clearly made a similar decision.

“Eeyup lad! ‘ows tha’goin’? Owt’oop?”

“Pardon me”, I tentatively replied, not having understood a word the short blond haired boy had said.

“Wey aye man…Gang well?”…another strange voice uttered from a much older red-haired youth opposite. What had I done? Where was I? What were these strange languages?

It was obvious these room-mates had made the same decision that I had and it immediately occurred to me that for them the experience of leaving home may well have been more traumatic than it had been for me as, after all, I was returning to the town of my birth and which I knew so well. This local knowledge proved to be very useful in my early days of being accepted in this new environment and news travels fast. A local boy had joined. What did he know about the town? Who did he know? I was soon approached by several older boys, much older boys from the New Block opposite. They all wanted to know about one subject—how many girls did I know in Deal? Which ones had a reputation and track record for romantic ‘adventure’……

Now having been a star boy soprano I was very well known to the young girls who were in the Girl Guides at St. Leonard’s Church and there were also those who I had been to school with. Quite soon I discovered that when these older boys from the barracks were in the town and trying to chat up the local talent the mention of my name afforded an instant introduction to the girls they wanted to know. My name became a social bridge to young romance——and it made me popular in my new environment.

The first six weeks were basic training where for the most part we learned how to drill. Our squad instructor was Cpl. Philips, a pleasant enough man who had joined himself at 15 to be a bugler but transferred at 17 and a half to become a Royal Marine. His couple of years as a Junior Bugler were an advantage over the other recruits who joined at 18 and Cpl Philips was proud to wear on his shoulder the coveted ‘Kings Badge’ for being the finest recruit on completion of training at Commando Training Centre Royal Marines in Lympstone, Devon. We were duly impressed that our squad instructor was so special as no other NCO wore the badge. I was very shocked when talking about discipline and other matters he announced to us that ‘some of you have already been in trouble with the police’——I was shocked. Who were these miscreants? Could one of them be in my room?

The very short fair-haired boy, whose broad South Yorkshire accent was incomprehensible to me at first meeting, was called Jack Arbery. He was a most friendly and warm person. He played the bass trombone, which was hard to imagine considering his diminutive size at 4ft 10inches, and had been in the Dinnington Colliery Band—a mining village near Sheffield. Many young boys who were accepted in the Royal Marines came from brass bands in the North or from the Salvation Army where tuition on brass instruments was given. The boy next to Jack, Dave Clegg, had come from the Salvation Army and was to be a solo cornet player. Kind, gentle with a great sense of humour and a fine player I later discovered. He came from Yorkshire too and was a delightful person once I got to know him. Opposite me was the red-haired older boy, Les Evans, whose speech was just as difficult to understand as the others as he had a very strong Geordie accent coming from the North East. At first I was very wary of him as he was two years older than me but eventually we became good friends and I still meet him from time to time when he is in England from his home in North Cyprus.

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