‘I blocked it all out, I never talked about the army’
Only now is an ex-Para coming to terms with mental scars he has had for 50 years
24 January, 2019 — By Tom Foot
“I WAS a witness to torture, where someone was tortured to death, out in the scrubland in the Yemen. A civilian. And I had never spoken about it.”
Neil Davies, who has lived on Chalk Farm estate in Ferdinand Street for 40 years, is opening up about brutal memories kept in a mental vault for most of his adult life.
The former child miner, blacklisted construction worker, squatter, teacher, housing estate chairman, soldier- turned-Troops Out campaigner – and this week a published novelist – was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at St Pancras Hospital veterans clinic six years ago.
It was only then that he began to understand the complexities of the mental scars he had been carrying from formative years spent in foreign conflicts.
The young soldier, centre
“I remember thinking this is wrong,” the 72- year-old says. “I’ve got to say something. It has haunted me. Why did I not say something? I was 17.
“I was one of the last soldiers out of the Yemen. A lot of people were killed there when the British were withdrawing.
“Some days I’d see 100 bodies being dragged away in carts, pulled by camels. Old men and women, girls, children. I clammed up about it for so long but I can talk about it now… sometimes.
“What I did for most of my life was block it all out, completely. I never talked about the army. I lived in a kind of cul-de-sac of emotions, where you don’t want to go one way or the other.
“Personal relationships, friendships – always moving on. I was constantly thinking: I don’t want to go there.”
He conjures up romantic memories of army life, of solidarity, competitive sports and black humour – a mixture hat has confused him.
Neil Davies on Chalk Farm estate: “I lived in a kind of cul-de-sac of emotions”
“There was a time when I was invited to a village meal and they served up meat with a sheep’s eye for me, as the guest,” he says.
“I swallowed it whole. And I remember walking out of that tent after and there was a hole in the ground with a guy in it, and they’d cut his hand off for thieving. There was a sense of honour and a sense of barbarism all around you – you felt conflicted all the time.”
Mr Davies joined the Paras on his 17th birthday, looking for “a way out” from a life down the coalmines in his home village in north Wales.
“It’s dark, wet and damp,” he says. “You get to the coalface and everyone is pissing and shitting and eating where they stand. There’s no toilets. It stinks, dirty black hands and faces with the whites of their eyes shining. It would freak Dante out.”
One day walking on the moors he saw an army parachute exercise he describes as “guys coming out of this plane like these white orchids blossoming in the sky”.
“And as they drifted down I could hear them giving banter to each other. Lots of laughter. That whole romance of jumping out of a plane, rather than going down that hole in a ground really stuck with me. I joined the army as a way out.”
After leaving the army with a spinal injury, he worked in his mid-20s on construction sites, becoming a union rep and active organiser.
Blacklisted from building sites across the country, he ended up in Camden in the mid-1970s, homeless and squatting derelict flats near Finchley Road tube.
He used to wash at the Heath ponds in the morning.
After a political meeting at the old Hampstead Town Hall he joined the International Socialists and toured Northern Ireland with the Troops Out movement as an ex-Para.
He then campaigned with the Liverpool dockers and the Anti-Nazi League, determined to drive the National Front out of Camden.
He says: “At that time around here, the exchange of ideas was extraordinary. You could only get that from, how I can say, the socialist strata of society? London was open then. It was much freer than it is now. You go on a demo and get chatting to someone and they’d become your mate.”
Mr Davies has lost count of the number of pickets and protests he has been on, but it is perhaps on Chalk Farm estate where he has had the biggest impact, as a long-standing chairman of the tenant management organisation.
“I first moved in under the council’s Pioneer scheme,” he says. “I had to get rid of the squatters there and I could have the tenancy.
“They were hard types you know, into Charles Manson and all that. But I explained to them they had to leave.
“We had a lot of trouble on this estate but it’s so different now. People talk to each other.
“The kids, some were wanting to be jihadis, drug dealers. But we spoke to them, it’s changed now.”
He has helped organise street art murals, nightly light shows, gates to stop drugs deals, a garden and vegetable patch.
All this has helped young or disaffected tenants feel pride and ownership of the estate.
His novel, Falling Soldiers, begins in a top-floor flat, where former soldier Eddie is “hanging by his fingertips from the balcony”, in a half-hearted suicide attempt.
“That was me,” Mr Davies says. “I was drunk, and I thought I could either have fallen and died, or climb back up. I thought I’ve really hit the bottom. I’ve got to sort myself out. The next day I went for a run to try and sort myself out, but got 400 yards and collapsed. I’m now working with soldiers [at St Pancras] who haven’t got to that stage.”
Speaking about how PTSD opens up “neural pathways” that “give off a physiological response”, he adds: “Basically, as soon as you get something that reminds you of the terror of warfare, your body goes into overdrive. I start sweating, I want to run, dive or duck. If I had a rifle, I’d want to hold it.
“I used to get extreme anxiety while talking to people. Now, I know what’s happening and I calm myself down. Normally, I just get a load of books and read for two days. I’m reading a great book now about the unanswered questions of the universe.”
Mr Davies said he had witnessed Monday morning’s lunar eclipse over the estate and “had wanted to howl”, adding: “I really believe the moon affects people’s moods.”
In November, after work with a soldiers’ theatre group, he performed a piece he had written at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank.
“I did seven minutes on the stage about being under fire and the speech by Titus Andronicus to the Roman Senate,” he says. “They wanted a salute to Shakespeare. I did this whole thing about a fire-fight in Aden, relating it to the speech.
“It’s night, there’s a battle going, I hear this noise behind me and I think my mate’s been shot dead – he’s 18, and I’m 19. But he’s just wanking, and he says to me: ‘I’m trying my left hand – I hear it feels like the real thing. Come on Neil, before we die.’ And I turned to the audience and said: ‘That’s probably why I have PTSD’ – and the whole Globe erupted in laughter.”
The Titus Andronicus speech goes:
Hear me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay!
For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent
In dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept;
For all my blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed;
For all the frosty nights that I have watch’d;
And for these bitter tears, which now you see
Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks;
Be pitiful to my condemned sons,
Whose souls are not corrupted as ’tis thought.
For two and twenty sons I never wept,
Because they died in honour’s lofty bed.
“There were 22 in my platoon,” says Mr Davies.
- His new novel, Falling Soldiers, is available at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town and also from online from publisher Brigand www.brigand.london