Saturday, 13 November 2010

Soldiers of the King, Part Three

Continued from  HERE . 
We stopped in Malta for a night and luxuriated in a fine drizzle, the first rain I had seen for more than a year. On landing in England we were deposited in Tottenham Court Road underground station which was being used as a rather cosy holding camp.

There we heard the news that Lilibet had replaced Bertie, which  meant that I had become a Soldier of the Queen. This made me feel rather Victorian; I imagined myself and my men, bayonets fixed, red jackets with brass buttons gleaming in the African sun, advancing fearlessly under a shower of assegais, ready to give the Matabele horde a real pasting. But, of course, I would have been no use at that sort of thing.

The War Office Selection Board was not too difficult for me; my fellow candidates were mostly rather callow youths so although I lacked the aristocratic background of most of them my advanced age, deep tan and camel flashes gave me some kind of cachet which enabled me to compete. Anyway, I passed.

Then, finally, I found myself at last where I had been trying to get to for most of my military career, Mons Officer Cadet School, where I became one of the 40,000 cadets who passed through the hands of the legendary Regimental Sergeant-Major R Brittain, MBE, Coldstream Guards, a fearsome but basically kindly man. He had become the best-known soldier in the country, having appeared in a number of films, some in a character part and some as himself; he was very proud of this and if he saw eyes straying as he strolled down the ranks standing to attention he would bark "Don't look at me! If you want to see me, go to the pictures".

We spent a lot of time standing to attention and I still remember the mantra which tells you exactly how to assume the position:

It is worrying to think that there are now two generations of young and not-so-young men who have no idea how to do this; lacking this skill and some others, they will be absolutely nonplussed if they are ever called up to defend us from Mongol hordes, or a nuclear-armed rogue state, or whoever.

I enjoyed the fourteen weeks at Mons and after it was over not only was I able at last to put on the hat I had coveted for so long (I lashed out and had one made to measure; it cost me a weeks' pay) and the little stick, and at the passing-out parade I got to carry a (blunt) sword and give the order to fix bayonets.

But my pleasure in such glories was short-lived: the only really remarkable thing about my two years' National Service was that after all the messing about on the Suez Canal only ten weeks elapsed between gaining a commission and being demobbed.

[*I have just seen in newsreel film of Cameron's visit to Beijing a shot of the Guard of Honour in their very pretty uniforms, being inspected. They do not keep their eyes to the front at all, but turn their heads Mexican-wave fashion as he passes. This is impressive but slightly creepy.] 

No comments: