Saturday, 12 January 2013
FAREWELL TO ARMS
When it wants to be rude the army has a way of falling back on the Alphabet as a weapon.
Paratroopers who jibbed at jumping out of a moving aeroplane carried forever after on their documents the letters L.M.F. which stood for Lack of Moral Fibre. My lack of moral fibre was too obvious to be remarked. The best I managed was R.T.U. which was Returned to Unit. Quite an achievement on the Berlin Airlift, which the army used as a dump for what it quaintly called Undesirables. More, I was also sent away from airfields at Fassberg, Celle and Wunsdorf in turn before the army ran out of airfields to exile me to and RTUed me to HQ 7th Armoured Division in Celle.
That was it. I decided to go into military business on my own account. I swapped my tam o' shanter for a beret without a badge, got a fraulein to embroider me a flash to go on my epaulettes which read “Official Army Observer”. Thus bedecked, I presented myself as “civilian attached to the army with the honorary rank, for purposes of rations and accommodation, of sergeant”.
There was a saying amongst the more gullible soldiery: “You cannot beat the army.” Rubbish. I reckon in my short stay I got the best of three falls.
Certainly the army believed I was a “civilian attached” for nearly a year before the truth came out. Fortunately the RSM was an Irish guardsman with a head of polished bone who only had a vague idea about the work of Public Relations. To him PR equated with Provost. It all happened rather quickly. In the morning I was a layabout and technically a deserter of standing; by lunchtime I was re-kilted, tam o' shantered, brightly polished and Provost Sgt of HQ 7th Armoured Division. At 19, I was the youngest provost sergeant in the British army and by a mile the most relaxed. My own experience of durance vile disposed me in favour of the prisoners. Mine were allowed evenings out, accompanied by a regimental policeman for whose beer they paid .
The army may have ended its war against the Germans in 1945. I was a still skirmishing against the army until 1949. To be fair, the army won. I was court martialled twice in the last six weeks of my service, also, as far as I know, a Rhine Army record. Firstly for disobeying an order and being rude to the RSM, secondly for stealing W.D. property. It happened like this. I handed in a second-hand kilt my mother had bought for two pounds, secreting my issue kilt which was eleven and a half yards of black market potential. The RSM had his revenge. 7th Armoured was cavalry and, so far as I knew, a hundred miles from the nearest Highland regiment. He found an elderly Argyll captain and asked him if the kilt was Government issue. The Captain did his best. “Of course it is. There is the regimental number,” he said.
The RSM was determined. “Can you tell from the number when it was issued?"
The officer looked at me with sad apology. “1918,” he said.
I always think the army was hasty in its judgement of me. In turn, it had my deep devotion in all matters other than discipline. It tried so hard to be helpful.
In Kings Rules and Regulations there was an example of how to give evidence which is the funniest prose I have ever read:
"Sir. As I was passing the regimental stables I heard the sound of an ammunition boot coming into contact with the flank of a horse. Proceeding stablewards, I observed 01746 Private Snooks A kicking a horse, the property of the War Office.
"When I reprimanded him he took forage caps one, also WD property, from his head and dashed it to the ground where he proceeded to jump on it, saying: "You may do what you will, I will soldier no more."
My discharge book read: “Sgt Skidmore was an exemplary NCO.” The “Sgt” was crossed out and substituted with “Corporal” which in turn was crossed out. The final version read “Private Skidmore was an exemplary NCO.”
Twenty years later there was a sequel. By this time I had become a freelance reporter in Chester, a garrison city. Every Friday I gave lunch to contacts. One week it was senior policemen, the next the Rural Dean and Cathedral Canons ,the next departmental heads of the County Council. But the lunch I enjoyed most was for the two majors who ran the army PR unit. One morning they asked me to do a favour. They wanted to bring in an officer newly posted. They explained they couldn’t find out anything about his history and asked me to try.
Brian, as he insisted I call him, was a half colonel, an extremely amiable man. As we sat over our brandies I asked him what was his favourite Command. His eyes moistened as he recalled: “I was commanding officer of the 3rd Military Corrective Establishment in Bielefeld."
“Know it well Brian,” I told him. "I had the honour to serve under you in 1948.”
“Oh Skiddy,” he said, “were we kind to you?”
That is the odd thing about the army. I had to admit they were.
THE EIGHTH AGE OF ACHE
For the general assemblage of letters no one approaches Shakespeare. He is the Tower of Babel with stained glass windows on every floor. But stand on me, the man is no mathematician. Seven Ages of Man? EIGHT, and still counting.
Forget mewling and puking, ignore playing hookey. Dismiss bearded like a pard, whatever that is. A sighing furnace I will give him. A world too wide for his shrunk shank? Oh, if only that were true. Twenty-one airborne stone give him the lie. Spectacles on nose, pouch at side, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. I have done all that.
Not a word, you notice, about falling over. These days I do it all the time. Show me an escalator and I will show you a prone position. Wet grass and I am as Nureyev in modified leap.
This week in a city of dreaming spires I spiralled, ambushed by a kerb no bigger than an agate stone on the forefinger of an alderman. A crowd scattered before my stately edifice as I crumbled like a mill chimney, or, more accurately, a pot still.
I have a certain expertise in the architecture of falling over. You begin with a fond farewell to the perpendicular, the next and most graceful move is a panic stricken hover. Walking stick at the High Port, cap dislodged, spectacles awry, you plummet like a stout Stuka dive bomber, finally to sprawl like a homing pancake.
And that is when you discover how badly this country needs immigrants. In Peterborough two Indians, a Turk and assorted Poles combined to snatch me from the ravening jaws of an escalator. This week Poles were once again in the vanguard rushing to retrieve me from a recumbent posture. Thanks are also due to a brace of Pakistani ladies and a gentleman I took to be a forgiving Iraqi, which was pretty decent of him when you think what we have done to his country.
VIVE LA DIFFERENCE, say I. If it weren’t for immigrants, I could be lying there yet.