My battlefields were the departments of a Victorian emporium that had somehow survived into the age of rock and roll and gave me my first job as a trainee shop assistant at the age of 17.
My mentors were three elderly men who had worked in this establishment all their lives. But their battlefields had been the mud and horror of the Western Front. I re-lived that war through their memories.
This is the centenary year of the start of what was called The Great War and I count myself fortunate to have know those three unassuming gentlemen from another age, veterans who had actually fought in what was known as the war to end all wars. It didn't, of course.
Back in 1914, they had been young blokes with no other thoughts than courting, marriage and a steady job. They had without hesitation answered Kitchener's call and all three volunteered to serve. Before they knew it, they were in the muck and bullets of France, keeping their heads down and doing their duty.
The old fashioned emporium where I met them was William Shields in the Cheshire market town of Altrincham. A sort of Grace Brothers from Are You Being Served? It was run by brothers Vernon and Oliver Shields, known to the staff as Mr Vernon and Mr Oliver. Carpets and rugs, jewellery, haberdashery, men's outfitting, made to measure tailoring, ladies fashion, with one wing solely for overalls stacked in brown paper parcels from floor to ceiling. It had a pawnshop at the back.
I worked there for a year, until breaking into journalism, and loved every minute. Fred Pearson, with white hair and milk bottle spectacles, ran men's outfitting and taught me the correct way to tie parcels and snap string with just your fingers. This was necessary because it was two months before I was ceremoniously presented with my own small pair of scissors in a leather wallet by Mr Oliver.
Fred put me in charge of men's overalls so he no longer had to use the ladder to the top shelves.
Mr Twiss was a dapper chap whose domain was the carpet department. I helped out when he wanted to nip off for a fag, which was frequently. Dewdrop, a small chap who looked like he had escaped from a Grimms fairy tale, ran the pawnshop. I gave him his nickname because of the permanent dewdrop on the end of his nose.
Fred was the trio's story teller. He told of life before the war, when they joined the store straight from school. I followed them as they volunteered, went through training with them and into service at the front. I realised I was listening to history.
The men were modest and self deprecating. Fred talked of a grand football match they enjoyed between officers and men before they went up to the front. “Half those officers were killed,” he added, as a sad but matter-of-fact postscript.
Mr Twiss escaped being blown up when he was guarding an ammunition dump because at the crucial moment a shell landed, he had nipped off for a fag. No wonder he was fond of the habit.
I once made a disparaging remark about Dewdrop and Fred warned me never to make assumptions.
The bent old man had been a machinegunner and during a German assault he held the line alone as it began to break. He stayed at his post and kept up an unbroken rate of fire that checked the enemy advance and gave his comrades time to rally. He got a medal for bravery but never once talked about it.
It's more than half a century since I met those gentlemen who are now long gone. The memories remain vivid and I count myself privileged that I was able to hear history first hand. They were ordinary heroes, as most soldiers are, and I have never forgotten them or their part in the Great War that started 100 years ago. And ever since, I have tried not to make assumptions about old men.