Sunday, 9 March 2008


The army was nothing if not determined. Despite my bravura display of incompetence in losing bespectacled soldiers they persisted in the childlike belief that I had in me the golden qualities of an officer. This was despite an incident in which a squad of men I was drilling too quietly did not hear my command to “halt” and marched right off the barrack square, narrowly missing a captain quartermaster who ever after snickered nervously when he saw me. On the outdoor shooting range I not only missed the bull; I came within inches of hitting a cow.

They were deaf to reason...

They had tried to post me to a camp in Elgin, Morayshire, which trained potential officers for the Highland Division. I arrived at 6pm and at 8pm after a hurried meal I was on my way to Aldershot and a new posting to a unit which trained officers for the Royal Army Service Corps. I have always assumed the Kilted Ones must have heard of my cavalier way with valuable soldiers and lost their collected nerve. I further assume the Service Corps was very short of officers.

The Service Corps foolishly sent me to a War Office Selection Board designed to spot putative generals. It was even held in Saighton Camp in Chester, the scene of my earlier incompetence. Like Caesar, they ignored the augurs.

In those class-conscious days potential officers had to be socially acceptable. So there was a reception in the officers' mess where The Board assessed our social skills. At meal times a careful watch was kept on the way we handled knives and forks. I was criticised by another cadet, the son of a general, for holding my knife like a pen, I must stress that Hackett was a very decent chap who wanted to make sure I did not lose marks over it. Had he known that I came from a background where the underpant was the garment of cissies, I doubt he would have spoken to me. I know he was troubled that I went for a bAth rather than a BaRth. I have never felt more alien than I did amongst those public school boys, though I am bound to say that to a man they treated me as a friend.

But if the social mores were alien, the tests the board devised were from another galaxy. We were marched into an examination room and confronted with trays on which were round pegs and boards with square, triangular and round holes and a puzzling collection of Bakelite, metal and wire, which was obviously electrical.

“Right,” said a brisk major. “Assemble me a domestic light fitting from the parts before you.”

I had this sudden picture of a battlefield and myself commanding the remains of a platoon which had been under constant fire for days. A staff officer appears and draws a rudimentary map in the sand. Grimly he points:

“To the left of us are units of the Seventh Panzer Division. In the hills to the right is a division of Italian mountain troops. Immediately ahead, a battery of heavy artillery and a squadron of tanks is blocking off our rear.”

Through tightened lips, his eyes mere slits, he says, “There is only one thing to do.”

“What is that, noble officer and commander?” we chorus.

“Assemble me a domestic light fitting.”

From that moment in that classroom I found it very difficult to take the army seriously. As the years went by it became increasingly my attitude to life.

The odd thing was that I always got on well with officers, especially the aristocratic ones. Indeed, as a member of the working class since the 17th century when my ancestors slipped down the social ladder I always found the aristocrat easier to get on with than the old middle class which has everything to lose and clings pathetically to its world of residential grammar schools. I think that is because in the working class we have nothing to lose and in the upper class they have nothing to gain. The Middle Class clings to a position it never seems quite sure it should be maintaining. The Kwa Hais, as they were known in India.

My oldest friend, the 9th Baron Langford, was my commanding officer on the Air Lift, days he recalls with a well bred shudder which he first used when I set up a comfortable home in a giant packing case that had brought an aero engine to the base at Fassberg.

The Colonel has two precepts, “It Only Costs a Little More to Travel First Class” and “The Best Is Barely Good Enough”, and it was he who observed at 90, after beating cancer and sundry other ills, “Growing Old Is Not for Cissies”.

He is certainly not a cissy. When Singapore fell he escaped the Japanese by sailing a battered
dhow across the Bay of Bengal to Ceylon. It took a month and involved sailing through the Japanese Invasion Fleet.

More recently he was taking me on a tour of his stables at his home near Rhyl when a stallion bit him. Almost by reflex, he bit it back. And when I once drove him exuberantly into the path of an oncoming lorry he could only manage to reprove me with, “Do think of the death duties.”
He was hacking through a village in the Cwm near his home. A motorist who had been delayed in overtaking him called, “Anyone would think you owned this village.”

“As a matter of fact, madam, I do,” he said, raising his hat.

Being superior came early to him. As a young man he was complaining about an item he bought in Fortnum and Masons, grocers to the gentry. An elegant giant in faultless morning dress bore down on him. “Is something amiss, sir?” it enquired.

“And who might you be?” asked the Colonel.

“I am in charge of this floor,” the giant replied.

“Then I should get it swept. It’s filthy,” he was told.


Cambridgeshire fire brigade is at a loss to know what to do about a freelance fireman who has been turning up to emergencies with his own fire engine.
Ian Bowler bought his fire tender, complete with flashing lights, after completing a community fireman’s course run by the local council.
“A group of us felt we had been sat on the shelf after training so we formed our own unit,” he says. Bowler and his eight fellow amateur fire fighters have now promised that they will not attend any fires until asked by the authorities, but this may not be enough to satisfy the local fire brigade, which describes the matter as “a very strange case which we are still investigating.”