13 The True History of Mr X

From the lately released naval papers, on which the most recent version of the Invergordon mutiny is based, it is not difficult to see why I was never court-martialled. Try as they might, the secret services could not produce evidence of a link between the leaders of the strike and any sinister organisation intent upon upsetting the country. The secret services did their best, but their best was a concoction of half-truths, lies and fabrications which would not have deceived an infant. Their report, it appears, was based mainly on information from an anonymous Mr X, who adroitly got it all from Wincott himself.

Mr X may impress others. He does not impress me. He served on Norfolk with me and was about as important as the `p` in pneumonia. However, let me tell the story as it happened.

Having checked in my bag and other belongings in the Sailors’ Mission on 3 November 1931, I took the midnight train to London, travelling in a full carriage, where the only female was a young woman whose face was vaguely familiar. I paid no attention to her. The male occupants of the carriage kept me busy with questions about Invergordon, still fresh in the minds of the British public, and it was only when we drew near to Paddington that the young woman leaned over to me and whispered `Do you know Terry Gentry?`

Then I recognised her. She was the wife of Terence Gentry, an able seaman on Norfolk who, we believed, had been invalided out of the Navy before Invergordon. I had seen her visiting the ship when it was at Devonport. When we left the train, we walked along the platform together and she told me that she, her husband and their small child were now living in London and that Gentry was working as an agent, for what she did not say. She gave me their address, somewhere on the Edgware Road, and, promising to call on them when possible, I went about my business.

My first call was at the offices of the old Daily Herald. I telephoned the paper and was invited to come along and meet a Mr Gideon Clerk. He received me in a very friendly manner and during the course of our long conversation said he would phone a naval contact. It turned out to be Admiral Dewar of Royal Oak notoriety.

It was in 1927 that the conflict aboard the Royal Oak, which came to be called the `Officers’ Mutiny`, took place in the Mediterranean. According to the official version it involved an admiral whose name was Collard and a captain whose name was Dewar and these two gentlemen so far forgot their gentlemanly obligations as to quarrel before witnesses, ending up by washing their dirty linen at a court-martial. When one officer objects to another calling a third `bugger`, one wonders what further ridicule they are prepared to inflict on the Royal Navy, a service with a world-wide reputation, the envy in those days of every other maritime power. At home and abroad scorn for the silliness of the `Officers’ Mutiny` was universal, but there was another side to the story, not officially recorded, unless the Admiralty has super-secret archives which no one is allowed to see. And this version, passed from mouth to mouth, illustrates my contention that the story excluded from the records may often be the true one. According to the unofficial version, the conflict between the high officers was only a portrayal of the general situation on the Royal Oak. Just before the incident which led to the court-martial, the captain had ordered the lower deck to be cleared so that he could address the men. The ship’s company crowded on to the deck, a fact which was, in itself, an intimation that something was wrong, because usually the men stand in ordered ranks. Then Captain Dewar added to the disorder by saying that the crew was mutinous, words he repeated several times. At that something happened which could never have taken place aboard a well-disciplined warship: from different parts of the crowd came that very impolite sound known as a raspberry. It was repeated again and again until finally the angry captain dismissed the men without having re-established order and himself disappeared below.

This same Dewar was now confronting me in the offices of the Daily Herald. He seemed very interested in my appearance at the newspaper offices and asked me to tell him the story of Invergordon as I knew it. I proceeded to do so. Suddenly he turned to Gideon Clerk and said, sounding both disappointed and annoyed, `But he cant tell me anymore than I know already!` With that he brought the interview to an end and said goodbye to both of us, shaking hands with Gideon Clerk and ignoring me.

It was later, when I was on the street, that the reason for the sudden change in atmosphere became clear to me. The admiral had not come to hear my story but for an entirely different purpose. Captain Dewar had, of course, been an intelligence officer when serving and no doubt still had his contacts. It was the intelligence officer who had conducted that interview, not an admiral interested in the affairs of the lower deck. Like most of his fellows he was obsessed with this idea of a secret organisation. It seemed that it had taken them like the Great Plague and that they, like the untutored doctors of the fourteenth century, were convinced that everybody was bound to get it one day or other. Later, when the official papers became public property, I discovered that the disease continued to hang around for a long time after Invergordon and that the maggots, who had been bloating themselves on taxpayers’ money existed for many months on the corpse of the decaying fable.

After paying a visit to some friends at a quiet little resort on the east coast, I returned to London, fixed myself a room in the Paddington area with a church-going landlady, and joined the `seekers`, that is the unfortunates looking for work.

Then I visited Gentry. He, his wife and child were living in one room over a newsagent’s shop, and by the disorderly look of it, Gentry’s agency business was giving very weak returns. I asked if there might be an opening for me in this agency. I fancied myself as a talker, although my Leicester accent was very prominent and, to avoid looking foolish, I had dispensed with aitches altogether. He seemed reluctant to introduce me to the secrets of his trade or to explain why his work was so irregular. Soon I discovered that it was a racket. For next to nothing he bought tea-dust from a tea-packing works, packed it in impressive-looking packages and hawked it round small enterprises and the houses of retired businessmen, whom he talked into buying a packet at a fabulous price with the promise of a £2 bonus if, when he returned in two weeks’ time, they gave him a letter of recommendation for the `company`. Of course he never returned and they got no bonuses.

When I next visited the Gentrys they looked very down in the dumps. His persuasive powers had deserted him, the racket was not paying dividends and the landlady, tired of asking him when the rent was coming, had given them notice to quit. They changed to another, cheaper, and of course smaller, room and, to pay the deposit, I lent him five shillings from my meagre savings.

About that time I was coming home one evening when I was attracted by the speakers at Hyde Park Corner. One of them, obviously a Communist, was talking about the Invergordon mutiny, which he was sure was the blood brother of the Baltic Fleet revolt in 1917. He maintained that the only reason the sailors had not ditched a huge weight of gold braid was the absence of real political leadership. Anyway I introduced myself to this speaker and he invited me to a meeting near Paddington Labour Exchange, where I was now an honorary member. With Gentry I turned up at a meeting and said a few words, after which this person took me to a rather shabby-looking office, equipped with even shabbier furniture.

A young chap who was there introduced himself as Alum Thomas, secretary of the International Labour Defence, a Communist front organisation, whose purpose was to defend people accused of political offences. Through a door at one corner was another room, occupied by another front organisation. Although I had not invited him, Gentry was still tagging along with me. On our entry the young man talked first to him and told him to leave the place and never come back, whilst I was told to leave my naval papers, which would be returned to me the next day, and meanwhile to stick around. That night I was taken to a crowded meeting somewhere in Shoreditch. Very soon I was appearing at regular meetings for the Communist Party although I was not a member.

Some days after my introduction to the Communist Party, Gentry came to my room and asked me to put him up for a little while. He had done a midnight flit from his lodgings and sent his wife and child back to Plymouth. Always the good Samaritan I spoke to my landlady, who promptly agreed and as promptly raised the rent.

I was returning home late almost every evening and one evening, when I was very late, my landlady met me at the bottom of the stairs. With her best church-going frown on her face she informed me that a guest was in my room with the other er, er, gentleman. Gentry and this guest were sitting before the fire and he immediately presented her to me as his cousin, but by the look of her I guessed she was cousin first, second or third, to about half the men of the district. I told Gentry to take her out and hand her over to any spare cousins who might be hanging about.

Fortunately I was due to go to my friends on the east coast the next day, so I closed up the room and disposes of Gentry.

The folks I visited had, besides other possessions, a neat little café, and early every Sunday a regular customer called for his usual breakfast of tea and toast. It happened that I was sitting before the fire of the family dining-room when the bell rang that Sunday. The dear old lady who ran the place went out to answer the summons and I went with her. The regular visitor turned out to be a slight, neatly dressed gentleman somewhere about fifty who greeted us with a very charming smile and in a rather pleasant and cultured voice. After ordering the usual he took a seat at one of the empty tables. It was then I noticed the dog-caller, and having seen that face above a dog-collar in almost every newspaper of the country for days on end, I had no trouble in guessing that here was the Reverend Harold Davidson, the Vicar of Stiffkey (pronounced Stukey, which stopped the low wits from making crude puns). We began to talk. Instead of a high-pressure mixture of Casanova and Don Juan, which the charges against him led one to believe he was, here was the type of man who could be pictured with a group of children in some local church, timidly saying `Now children, shall we dust the hymn-books?` I was amazed. The man was charming. True, it has been said `Charm is one of the most dangerous gifts of nature`, but he smiled in a very disarming manner and did not lose his smile all during our talk. When he said without pathos, without emphasis, `Do you think I am guilty?` I answered `No`, and I still believe it.

On my return to London Gentry had disappeared and I began to work in the offices of the International Labour Defence organisation and to speak at meetings, for which I was very much in demand. I had a little room for which I had to pay ten shillings a week, so when one of the young men doing clerical work in the office suggested I should room with him, I welcomed it. His room was bigger and more convenient, but what was attractive was the financial arrangement: the tow of us would between us pay the fifteen shillings rent. However, as I had guessed, there was a snag. There were several candidates for the room and if I wanted it, I had to take it immediately, on an evening when I happened to have a big meeting and would not be free before 11 pm.

We managed to overcome the problem. It was arranged that he would bring the key to the office and I would bring my suitcase which he would take home, leaving me to make my own way to the room after the meeting ended, around 11 pm. I was extremely surprised to waken in the new room next morning and find two gentlemen sitting on a small couch looking at my bed and waiting for me to regain consciousness. It did not take me long to put a professional label on them, for although they did not have big feet they had the inevitable bowlers in their hands.

I did not question their presence or ask how they knew where to find me, when nobody except my friend and myself was aware that I had moved to this room. They did all the talking, what there was of it. Their chief, the man in charge at Bayswater police station, would like to see me, they said. Of course, they reminded me, I was not compelled to go: It was entirely voluntary. And of course, I reminded them, if I refused, they would come the next day with a piece of paper ordering me to go. They mutely agreed to my `of course`, and I got dressed. They had a car waiting and off we went.

The chief, who was wearing civilian clothes, started a conversation about Gentry, leading up to the inquiry whether he and I had had any talk about a rather brutal murder of a twelve-year-old girl in a Bayswater basement. I said we had talked about the matter in the way people do when such things are blazoned across the front pages of newspapers. There were more questions. Where had Gentry been on such-and-such a date? Was he ever in an excited state? Was he secretive? Then I was sent home and heard nothing more about the business.

Shortly after that, when I had joined the Communist Party, I was sent down to Portsmouth and then Plymouth on a speaking tour, and there I met Mr X.

In Plymouth I was housed for my stay in a room over a shop and the first meeting arranged for me was held in a small hall in Devonport where, in my more frivolous days, I had spent my evenings dancing. The hall was full but only one man in the audience was in naval uniform. It was Gentry. After the meeting he approached me and expressed great satisfaction at seeing me the speaker for the evening. Then he told me in brief the story of his return to uniform.

He began his story sotto voce, as if he were a little ashamed. He had not been invalided out of the service, but was a deserter. His cousin in Paddington, it appeared, had given him a present of which in his penniless state he could not be cured, so he had turned himself in the Navy. Where the cure for that kind of present is quick and efficient. Then he received another present, ninety days’ detention for desertion. Of course neither of these presents was the sort one puts on the mantelpiece for public admiration, but he was very anxious to tell me all the details. I was most touched, but the questions I kept to myself were: `Since when have such cousins given anything gratis? Where did Gentry get the money to buy himself such presents?` For he never had a penny of his own those few days he was at my place. The answers were clear to me but I let him continue with his story.

He was now serving his detention in the White City but had been allowed out because his mother was very ill, as proof of which he promptly produced a telegram announcing the emergency. I almost burst out laughing. Either he was very badly coached or they had grossly underestimated my brain power. The telegram was written in ink with neither time nor place of despatch, just a blank form and the writing. For all that, I kept myself under control, sympathised with him about the illness of his mother and promised to see him about.

As I left the house next morning with the local Communist secretary I saw an obvious Special Branch man standing just a few yards away. When we moved off he followed. He made no attempt to cover himself, just plunged after us some five yards or so behind. We then decided to part to establish which of us he was interested in. If he continued to follow me, I was to inform the secretary by telephone and cut short our programme of activities for the day.

He did continue to follow me. After about an hour of this shadowed progress, I went to keep an appointment with a young lady whom I had been on friendly terms with before I left the Navy. After all, Devonport was my port division and in my dancing days I had made quite a number of friends. When we met I pointed out my unsolicited bodyguard and described what had been happening. She clapped her hands with excitement. `How wonderful!` she said, `Let’s go everywhere and see if he comes after us.` We walked round every floor of the local Selfridges, examining goods in every department; so did he. From there we went to a continuous performance cinema; he sat just behind. From there to a tea shop; he came in too. And everywhere the three of us went he kept the same distance, as if he had been instructed never to let the space between us by any more or less than five yards.

At about 6 pm I parted with my friend, promising to be at her house that evening. I turned down a narrow street running parallel to the main street in Plymouth, and there, by a pub, I saw Gentry, approaching me from the side, with his head down, as if this were an accidental meeting. He greeted me effusively, nodded at the pub door and suggested taking a glass of beer. I did not refuse. I was getting only seventeen and sixpence from the state, so why not add a few state coppers to the total, if only in kind? It was over this state-paid glass of beer that the real conspiracy began. Looking round with the exaggerated secrecy of a ham actor, Gentry squeezed out of one side of his mouth the words, `If you have any leaflets or anything to distribute in the barracks, give them to me. I’ll get them in for you`.

`OK,` I said, looking round in the same ham actor manner. `There’s a piss house across the street. Let’s nip over there and we can talk.` It was empty when we came in, but the clump of heavy boots dashing up to the entrance stopped me socking Gentry and landing him right in the excrement. I told him to go to his ailing mother, and walked out alone; but the tail still stuck. However, by means of the old motorbus switch, which was very easy in Plymouth then, I lost him and spent a pleasant evening in delightful company.

So Terence Gentry, deserter, small-time crook, whoremonger and syphilitic, went down in the annals of naval history as `Mr X`, an undercover, ocean-going James Bond, who exposed to the British Secret Service the nefarious plot of Wincott. I have perhaps devoted a lot of time and space to a figure who did not even rate the honour of being burnt on a bonfire on the Fifth of November. But he is an example of the sources of information the Admiralty were prepared to use in the panic caused by Invergordon.