"You've got shit in your rifle."
"No I haven't sergeant, really I haven't."
"If I say you've got shit in your rifle, you've got shit in your rifle. WHAT HAVE YOU GOT?"
"I've got shit in my rifle, sergeant."
"Well don't just stand there, CLEAN IT OUT you horrible little man."
Some 50 years later it is difficult to recall accurately the trauma that this exchange, and several like it, caused in the mind of an innocent, ex-public schoolboy just beginning his National Service. The trauma was deliberate of course. I had been persuaded by my family to apply for the potential officers squad of the Coldstream Guards, and that was where I now was. Those in charge had quite rightly decided that we needed taking down as many pegs as possible during our basic training, and they were expert at it. Why anyone considered that I might be fit to become an officer in Her Majesty's army is hard to understand, except that I was well educated and spoke properly. I was totally ignorant of "Qualities of Leadership", and probably totally lacking as well.
But I was not alone. There were about 40 of us altogether, mostly from the same kind of background, and mostly as innocent and bewildered as me. During the first few weeks it soon became clear who were the ones the army would look upon as the good and great, who like me would just about be tolerated, and who were the unfortunate souls who would have to be driven so hard that they either fell into line or cracked up completely. One of us did crack up and was invalided out.
Sergeant Thornby was the smartest, fittest, hardest man I had ever met. I was terrified of him. He had only to look at me with his cold grey eyes for me to quiver in my boots and break into a sweat. He did not possess the legendary Sergeant-Major wit, but instead he used the English language as an instrument of torture with a subtlety that I have never experienced anywhere else. "I am going to eat you.. (pause).. FOR BREAKFAST". Opening his pace-stick, a fearsome weapon like a glorified pair of dividers, "I am going to push this thing as slowly as I can up your nostrils until your EYES FALL OUT OF THEIR SOCKETS..."
Sergeant Thornby was in charge. There was of course a commissioned officer somewhere in the background, but he spent every available hour driving up to London in his E-type Jaguar to a life that was a million miles away from ours. There were other sergeants, including Sergeant Burr, who loved to play the Old Soldier. The door to our barrack-room would fly open, to reveal Sergeant Burr, swaying slightly as he clutched the door-frame for support. He would break wind loudly, grin and announce "When oi drinks beer oi farts, and when oi farts oi knows oi's healthy." The only welcome alternative to Sergeant Thornby.
Life in the barrack-room consisted of everyone cleaning, scrubbing, spitting and polishing in dead silence, "sitting to attention" on their bed. This exercise was supervised by Trained Soldier Boggs, an ordinary private soldier given the doubtful privilege of sleeping in the same barrack-room, and charged with trying to make us presentable on parade next morning. He too was part of the peg-taking-down conspiracy. He would lie on his bed with his blanket over his head, occasionally raising one hand carrying a drooping Woodbine to his lips. To get his attention you had to march across, banging your heels into the wooden floorboards as hard as you possibly could. Slam to attention. Then at full blast: "Permission to speak, trained soldier please." "Wot?" "Permission to fall out for a slash, trained soldier please". "Yers". Turn smartly to the right, stamp your feet again and march out of the door.
And it worked. The exhausting drill sessions, the punishing route marches and assault courses, the humiliation of being made to wipe your less than perfect kit in the mud and start all over again, the constant fear of punishment parades and more drill - all this wore us down to the depths and then lifted us up again as a squad until we were intensely proud of our prowess at drill, our gleaming boots and uniforms, and our ability to do better than any other recruits in the whole camp. And yes, we even felt proud and emotional about the magnificent figure of our Sergeant Thornby striding along at the front of the squad at the final parade.We had a reunion the other day. It appears that Sergeant Thornby, having grown vastly overweight during a spell overseas as a Quartermaster-Sergeant, died early from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by too much drink. But the rest of us were all there, chucking the food about and giggling like schoolboys.....
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The only grandparent I knew at all well was my maternal grandfather. He was a lovely man, without an enemy in the world, who lived a wonderfully exciting and fulfilling life. Although he came from a social background which was roughly equivalent to mine, the story of his life is markedly different.
Sydney Crocker was born in 1864 into a family with strong military traditions. He had two elder sisters, and he was the second of six brothers. His father was a Surgeon-General who served all over the world, including in the Crimean War. Nobody in his family ever considered any career other than the Army, and the five sons (one brother died early) all joined the Army and went to Sandhurst. Before that time his life was one long preparation for the military, with very little time for anything else. As his father was constantly overseas, he never had a settled childhood or a home he could really look upon as his own. He was born in Barbados, and was always either at a boarding school in England, or travelling with great difficulty to join his mother somewhere, or being billeted out with friends or relations. He never complained about his childhood, and was very close to all his immediate family. In those days anyone with the rank of Surgeon-General was reasonably well off, and so the every day life of the boy was largely organised round several domestic servants, including, when he was very young, a nanny.
My own life story starts quite differently. My father was a reasonably successful London solicitor, and I had just one brother who was three years older than me. My early life was led entirely in England, and apart from a nanny for a very short period there were no such luxuries as domestic servants in the household. I was only four when the Second World War began, and the family stayed in one place, except for a forced move when a German bomb fell on the house. I was sent to private boarding-schools and received an academically excellent education, but unlike my grandfather I left school with no clear idea of what I wanted to do. The only thing I was clear about was that a military life was not for me, a decision reinforced by two years of National Service.
A military life was however all that my grandfather had ever dreamed about. After Sandhurst he found himself in charge of a company of mounted Ghurkas in Burma, and soon joined the Indian Army with the famous 9th Bengal Lancers. At one time he and his four brothers had all reached the rank of major: two in the British Army, two in the Indian Army and one in the Royal Marines. My grandfather then become the Commanding Officer of his regiment which had been renamed the 9th Hodson's Horse. Reading the list of his campaigns and exploits is like reading some pages of romantic fiction. He served in countless places with glamorous names such as The Chitral, Umballa, Bangalore, Risalpur, The North-West Frontier, Afghanistan and finally Mesopotamia (now Iraq). When he was on the North-West Frontier he used to go chasing Afghan raiders every Tuesday and Thursday. I have seen photos of the prisoners he took, grinning at the camera and looking just like Osama bin Laden. I remember him telling me that Afghanistan was an impossible place, that no-one would ever conquer it, that every village was at daggers drawn (literally) with every other village and that the Afghan people with whom he had to deal were unpleasant and cruel. However when not actually soldiering my grandfather spent most of his time playing polo, becoming one of the best players in India.
People who knew him at that time say he was not blessed with many brains, but he was hugely popular amongst his fellows. In later life he would amuse us with stories about how he used to crack open walnuts on the mess table with his forehead, and how he used to dive out of the express train which did not stop at his local station, landing on his hands and turning a somersault in front of the astonished people on the platform. He obviously had plenty of leadership qualities because by the time he retired in 1920 he held the rank of Brigadier-General.
The contrast between this life and the life of a middlingly successful computer man in the 1960s 70s and 80s is enormous. I consider my working life to have been interesting, and enjoyable, but it sounds positively humdrum when compared to my grandfather's. Although I do not share a love of things military or horsey, I like to think that I have inherited some of his ability to enjoy life and his never failing good humour. We have both had a share of personal tragedy in our lives, but like me he seems to have got over it and bounced back. His first marriage was a disaster so he never had more than one child, my mother. His second wife was a great wit and beauty, but she gradually went completely insane.
I suppose my life after retirement is more like my grandfather's lifestyle than at any other time. When he retired he eventually settled in a small house near the South Coast, and the highlight of his life, and of my early childhood, became the annual summer holiday visit of his daughter and her family. There was nothing very remarkable about these visits, except that grandfather and grandsons revelled in each other's company and were supremely happy. When he got too old to look after himself he came to live with us for the last few years of his life.
Looking back on it, it is not only the life stories that are so very different, but also the day-to-day mode of living. I remember an old lady of about the same age as my grandfather saying that she remembered seeing the first "safety bicycle" as she called it, and also the first sputnik. This colossal advance in technological achievement in just two generations is the main reason why the differences in our two lives are greater than the parallels.
And the future? Who knows in what inter-planetary space-station my grandson will one day be dictating the comparison of the lives of himself and his grandfather into what transcribing device for what strange lunar university? If his life is one half as interesting as his grandfather's grandfather's, it will make for fascinating reading.
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