Harry's Story: Episode Two
In this four part series, our founder Phil Stedman recounts stories from his father, Harry Stedman's incredible life...
At 17 he gets into the army. It’s a real pot luck thing in the army, when you're doing national service - my uncle wanted to travel the world and never got further than Cheshire. My dad was shipped to Egypt and just loved it. He thrived on it.
He was in the military police, so he'd go out rounding up drunk soldiers or picking them up dead out of the gutter. He said that used to occur quite a lot. I think he quite liked that film-noir view of his world, living on the edge in the underworld of the city with the gangsters, and there always were gangsters in the army. Always bad people. Just because it was the British army doesn’t mean that it wasn’t full of bad people. It was not a very safe place to be, but at the same time very exciting.
"The soldiers used to hate guard duty. It was probably about the only time that you could get killed..."
My dad would talk about how he'd do guard duty at night. It was a bit like the IRA in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, whereby in theory there was peace, but the Egyptians wanted the British out, so they’d just take pot-shots at you.
A few of his mates had got shot, and I remember asking as a kid ‘what was it like to get shot, Dad?’ and he always said, ‘Well, I wasn’t shot myself, but it was very painful’. I always wanted more details. ‘What’s it like when the bullet goes in, Dad?’ He would describe how “it was like a poker, a hot poker”.
Rocks would come over the wall with paper wrapped on them, he would open the paper up and it would have a cartoon of a soldier being stabbed to death by four local fellas. That was your worst nightmare, that you would get taken out in the middle of the night.
"It was all about drinking and women and fighting..."
In Libya he got a job as a bus conductor. I always thought it was like Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday driving around on a double decker, but they were basically reconditioned army lorries to drive the locals and soldiers around.
Libya was the described as the Paris of the East, and you get these images of Sammy Davis Jr or Frank Sinatra in tuxedos and dickie bows, but I don’t think that was the kind of life that my dad knew in Libya. I think it was all about drinking, women and fighting.
"The Paris of the East" - Independence Square, Tripoli, 1950s
There was no clean place to wash or go to the bathroom, there would just be this long plank over a trough with holes in it. The place just seemed to be overridden with pestilence. He would always talk about the rats being bigger than cats, and the bread was always full of beetles - you couldn’t get rid of the beetles out of the flour, so you would just cook them and eat them. I think he thought it was disgusting, but at the same time it had an excitement and a charm about it.
"He never picked or chose, he just took it on full-blast and lived it as it was...."
Imagine standing on the edge of Liverpool and looking out to the sea at this fascinating world out there. He just sucked it up and he took it all on, exactly as it was. I always think that was amazing about my dad. He never picked or chose, he just took it on full-blast and lived it as it was.
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