‘My life was odd before it began’

Andy Rosholm-Olesen at home with her pet dog
Andy Rosholm-Olesen at home with her pet dog
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A lesbian running the bowls club? Good grief! Whatever next. You can almost hear a spluttering Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells sharpening his nib before penning a letter to The Times in protest.

But Andy Rosholm-Olesen managed it and was quite open about her sexuality when she first became vice-president and then, the following year, club president at the Hayling Island club.

When I was 16 I knew I was different but wasn’t really sure how or why. Then I joined the army and suddenly I realised I was confused because I was gay

‘Nobody seemed to turn a hair. I think everybody knew I was a lesbian. I certainly did not hide it,’ says Andy who retired to live with her partner at Hayling a decade ago.

‘It just shows how much times have changed, doesn’t it?,’ says the 68-year-old.

‘When I was 16 I knew I was different but wasn’t really sure how or why. Then I joined the army and suddenly I realised I was confused because I was gay. But back then, in the early 1960s you daren’t admit to it, especially if you were in the services. Today they welcome gay men and lesbians with open arms.’

Andy had joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps the day before her seventeenth birthday. ‘There was a dance and when I walked into the room there were lots of women standing around the edges, but on the dance floor there were couples, couples of women, dancing very intimately.

‘It was a lightbulb moment. Suddenly everything clicked and I realised that was me.’

But it would be several years before she felt comfortable enough to reveal herself to society in general, her army career behind her.

Andy is a warm, welcoming and funny woman with bags of energy and a wicked sense of humour.

She has led a remarkable life, one which she has now captured with great candour in her autobiography More Than Once Around the Block.

She’s worked in the control room for the fire brigade in Lancashire, been a clippie on London’s buses, a switchboard operator for the New Zealand High commission, operated a weighbridge and played darts in the West Indies with two of the sport’s greats.

Oh and she had the nerve to cadge a drink from one of the Kray twins (she’s not sure whether it was Ronnie or Reggie).

It was perhaps apt that with sex and sexuality playing such a key part in her life that it would be EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey which persuaded her to write her own story.

Andy says: ‘I brought home all three books one day out of curiosity. I suppose bits in the first one were a bit titivating but the second two were utter rubbish so I thought I’d have a go. Throughout my life, whenever I’ve told any of my anecdotes to friends, they always seemed to say I ought to write a book about it all and I reached the stage where I too thought I’d had a pretty interesting and unusual life.’

Her book, like Andy, is shot through with fun but is tinged with sadness and heartache too. Like the moment as a terrified teenager she decided to tell her mother she was a lesbian.

‘There had been boyfriends, but nothing physical ever happened. I always shied away from that. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but gradually I realised why.

‘I was so worried about telling my mum that I took a friend with me, a straight friend, who pretended to be my girlfriend.

‘I just blurted it out: ‘‘Mum I’m bent,’’ I said. You can’t imagine using that word now can you? I couldn’t believe her reaction. She was very calm and simply said: ‘‘Are you the butch one or the fem one?’’.

‘And then she confessed that she too was gay.’

Andy’s autobiography begins before she was born.

Her father was Danish, a fisherman on trawlers. Her mother came from Fleetwood, Lancashire, at that time along with Hull and Grimsby, a leading deep sea fishing port.

Andy says: ‘My father was washed overboard in Icelandic waters and was picked up by a Russian trawler. He was eventually sent to an internment camp in Kent because the British authorities thought he was a Russian spy, but they eventually realised he wasn’t and he returned to fishing. That’s how he ended up in Fleetwood and met my mother.’

Andy’s childhood was spent moving between the Lancashire town and Hull and Grimsby as her father’s work dictated. But the marriage didn’t last.

‘I left school at 15 and went through most of the seasonal jobs that Fleetwood had to offer before joining the WRAC and trained for the Royal Signals.

‘I loved the army but because I was a good swimmer I spent most of my time training in the pool and competing for Southern Command.’

But when she was posted to Malta she was involved in a tragedy which ultimately ended her army career.

‘I was swimming with two men in the sea and we got caught in some kind of whirlpool. I managed to get one of the lads out, but the other drowned.’ Andy was given a Royal Humane Society Award for her bravery, but the incident left her deeply scarred.

‘I got very depressed and from that moment I did everything possible to get out even though I’d signed on for 22 years. In hindsight I wish I’d been able to stay in because it was a great life.’

She went to live in London and took various jobs including one as the manageress of a Jewish bakers in Golders Green. Four years later she moved to Manchester and got a job in the control room with Lancashire County Fire Brigade.

‘By this time I’d decided to be totally honest about my sexuality with anyone who asked. So it all came out at the fire brigade interview. I thought I’d blown it but they said they liked my honesty and I got the job.’

Andy moved back to London and got a job on the switchboard of The New Zealand High Commission, a position which lasted 12 years. ‘By this time I was loving the gay scene in London, going to all the clubs and having a high old time of it, but when I hit 40 I decided to have a complete change and work for London Transport on the buses as both a clippie [a bus conductress] and, for a short time, a driver. It was a job I loved.’

What Andy also loved was darts: ‘I’ve played all my life for pub teams and travelled to venues all over the country to play, but an opportunity cropped up for me and my partner to make two visits to Barbados for an international tournament with Eric Bristow and Cliff Lazarenko who were captaining the two sides.

‘They were the biggest names in the sport at the time and we had marvellous, memorable times with them.’

And then came retirement and Hayling Island and a new sport – bowls.

‘Like most people I’d always thought of it as a game for old people, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I loved it and loved being a member of the Hayling club, but I think I only really became vice-president by accident because nobody else wanted to do the public speaking that went with it.’

And it was partly through the friends she made there that she was persuaded to write her story.

‘My travels through life have required a great sense of humour throughout my ups and downs and despite the downs I hope people will enjoy all the funny things which have happened to me.

‘And perhaps any young people looking to come out and admit they are gay might find something useful in my story too,’

A chat with the Krays

One of the myriad tales Andy Rosholm-Olesen recounts is the day she cadged a drink from one of the Kray twins at the bar of a seedy drinking club in Soho in the 1960s.

‘The place was packed. I went to the loo, but when I came back the place was empty. This usually meant one thing, that we’d been raided by the police. But on this occasion there was no sign of the police.’

Instead she noticed two men standing at the bar in front of a terrified barman. Their arrival had obviously cleared the bar in an instant.

Andy adds: ‘The barman was a little gay chap and he was as white as a sheet, just staring at these two men.

‘I’d had a fair bit to drink so I thought nothing about plonking myself down at the bar. That’s when I noticed one of the men pull out a bottle of whisky from his jacket.

‘I had a coke so I asked the man to pour some of his whisky into my glass which he did. The barman obviously thought the end of the world was about to come, but it was fine, nothing happened.

‘It was only afterwards I was told I’d just asked one of the Kray twins for a drink. I haven’t a clue which one it was, but it turned out the other man was Mad Frankie Fraser.’

Fraser, who died last year aged 90, was known as an enforcer, meting out violence on behalf of the Krays and the Richardson gang in the 1960s.

By the time he left prison for the final time in 1989, he had served a total of 42 years for a range of offences.

n More Than Once Around the Block by Andy Rosholm-Olesen is available as a Kindle book price £2.64.