Outward Bound, June 1953
Two days after the Queen’s coronation, with Mount Everest climbed and the Korean war showing signs of waning, I sailed from Southampton on a sunlit high tide bound for Hong Kong.
The preparations had been hectic, yet we were all so enthusiastic and caught up in excitement that any regrets at leaving home were pushed well into the background. Newly-fledged from Officer Training at Mons, my friends and I were preparing to make the most of our time as National Service subalterns. A Second Lieutenant at last, a glorious rank, an inflated sense of importance went with the new single ‘pip’ on the shoulders of our uniforms; the outward show of a successful passage through wearisome months of training – or else good bluffing. I had been trained as a Gunner officer in the Royal Artillery and was proud to belong to my regiment. We rather despised the blasé youths who besported themselves in tanks around the Aldershot moors, the smooth, sleek-voiced types, with predictable classy careers ahead of them. We gunners did not attempt to ape the pseudo-aristocratic manners of the cavalry but went our own way, less flashy and proud of our solid regimental achievements taught to us in history classes. Of course, there was no real dislike of the cavalry boys; they were charmers and good company. It was simply that already we were conditioned to a different loyalty.
The training at Mons had been effective and we were aware of the forceful confidence that had grown upon us, during our last month or so at the establishment. Out of my platoon, four of us were bound for the Far East. I had applied for Hong Kong after reading Han Suyin’s book, A Many Splendoured Thing, love in Hong Kong that is, and spent my time dreaming of the fabulous adventures that, doubtless, awaited me on the far side of the world. I came third in the Passing Out Parade list and this permitted me to select the posting of my choice. Some of my friends with family attachments or girls in tow, were loath to leave home but I had no such limitations. The Canal Zone was too dusty. The Far East had it all. A month’s leave had been spent putting together tropical equipment, sewing on the ‘pips’ and purchasing ‘blues’, formal dinner uniforms with their tropical ‘monkey jackets’, cummerbunds and other frivolities to be worn on elegant regimental mess nights.
On that momentous morning, I stood finally on deck watching the oily, green water widen between the ship and the quay, the military bands playing, rather sadly it seemed, and the telephone cables cast ashore as contact was broken. Below, on the quay, stood my father and mother; two small figures dwarfed by the huge cranes and the immense bulk of our ship; two figures, motionless, amid the portentous bustle of military police, hurrying officers, and the thumping, martial beat of the band; small and still and then waving, waving, as the ship detached itself from the quay and I waved in return. It was not an easy moment. The old, the stable, the secure, was being torn away, jettisoned on the quay, with the small grey figures diminishing, as the quay diminished, becoming dots, and then merging into the diffuse eddy of the waving crowd. The new, the unknown, the distinctly alarming lay ahead, together with the picking up of frightening little responsibilities. For a few moments I was near to tears. My friends had moved away from me as the departure approached and I was grateful to them.
Yet, for me, this farewell was not so poignant as for some. Most of the troops on board were bound for Korea and, although the festive mood of our departure had all the glory of a tattoo, there was already the grim undertone of that destiny awaiting some in the Korean hills. There was talk of peace but nothing was certain. The Far East was an active arena and, if for some of us, the distant prospect seemed remote, there was a flavour in the air of a crusade in which some must surely die.
Calshot Spit lightship, Cowes to port with slim yachts careering near us; some waved to us, others were grim at the race. We headed down the Solent, passed Hurst Castle and thence out into the Channel. So far, no duties, apart from constant attention to the raucous tannoy announcer and the fear of hearing our names called. I stood watching the sea with Chris. We had passed out together and had a common bond in our national service ineptitudes and a dread of being called upon to officiate in a task we knew nothing about. Chris was an intellectual and a musician with a wit as sharp as a compass point. We watched the sea and the gradual fading of England below a misty horizon. A cross-channel boat hooted us “Bon voyage” and the passengers were waving. A bell started clanging. Orders sprouted from the tannoy; our first lifeboat practice. We ran to our stations.
Gibraltar before dawn. Grey, misty, no sign of the Rock. A motor boat chugged out to us on sullen water. One man, ill, sent ashore. We did PT on the wet decks and wished for the sun.
Chris woke me up at 6.15 next morning. “Look – it’s Africa!” I looked through the small porthole of our cabin and, sure enough, there, away on the horizon, stretched a long range of fawn-coloured hills with a pale golden mist shimmering above them, fading into the cool, unblemished blue of the sky. Patches of vapour covered the sea and the rising sun, touching them with gold, threw their long shadows slantwise over the waters, the whole air a dance of blue and gold.
Soon we were entering a broad bay, lined by shining white villas and other buildings, Algiers. White domes of mosques rose among the houses and crowned the tree-clad slopes in the foreground. In the distance yellow green hills, dry-grass colour, stretched away on either side. A white skyscraper dominated the town, tall and thin with flanges jutting out in a star-shaped plan. This was the Government Building and above it flew the Tricolour of France.
We were stopping here to take on fuel and water because trouble in the Canal Zone made such operations difficult at Port Said. I went ashore with a group of subalterns. A magnificent promenade was flanked by modern hotels, gleaming white and blinking with a myriad blind-covered windows. We passed the prefecture, a Credit Lyonnais and moved into a covered arcade, mixing with a jostling throng. Soon we were in the Kasbah where history seemed reversed. Hidden from the skyscrapers, bars and reception halls of the European world, we found ourselves in twisting, narrow streets, winding through a picturesque puzzle of squalid alleyways and tiny shops. The pavements were littered with huddled Arab figures selling fruit, watches, wallets and fake jewellery, while others begged holding little tins or cupped hands before us and cuddling their long garments around them to expose emaciated limbs and festering sores. A small boy passed us, led by a little urchin half his size. He was blind, his eyes blistered and closed, his skin peeling and sore. One young man had a white cyst projecting half an inch before one of his eyes. Most of the labourers, wearing red fezzes and dungarees, rushed busily up and down the little streets. Others, presumably merchants of some standing, draped in clean, white clothes, with turbans on their heads and carrying knobbly sticks, strode majestically through the mob. We were pestered unmercifully by scores of the prettiest little boys all wheedling in winsome ways. One likely lad of about ten years surprised us with “Messieurs, messieurs – mademoiselle vous attend – mademoiselle – très très bonne – vous venez?” It was eleven hundred hours.
Two of us penetrated more deeply into the maze of the market where there were no Europeans to be seen. We were the targets for many eyes, some friendly and kindly, a few clearly not. Most cast us a dignified glance and went on with their work. An Arab was playing the skirling music of the Islamic world on an ancient phonograph. The food looked clean and there were few flies. A chicken had just been slaughtered and the blood, spewing from its cut throat, sputtered all over the pavement and scattered feathers drifted about upon it.
We had taken a pound each ashore in Algerian currency and I was determined to try my hand at bargaining. I chose a pleasant-looking vendor of wallets and squatted down beside him. “Combien?” It was two hundred francs but, on remonstration, the price fell to one hundred and seventy-five, then one hundred and fifty and I finally took it at one hundred. By this time a crowd had gathered. A veritable gallery of robed and curious Arabs surrounded us, jostling each other and peering over one another’s shoulders. The deal evidently pleased them for, as I stood up holding my wallet, they all grinned and smiled with friendly gestures and one old man patted me on the back. The seller also looked cheerful so, apparently, the “officier anglais” had been well rooked. Nevertheless we walked on feeling triumphant. I thought the Arabs singularly handsome, indeed proud-looking men and felt sure they would make interesting friends, if one began to understand and talk with them.
We sailed at 2 p.m. and cruised down the Algerian coastline. The sunshine was really wonderful!
Ship’s Duty Officer
“Look at the porpoises!” exclaimed one of my fellow subalterns. Actually they were dolphins, leaping in curves of perfect symmetry from the waters, their bodies gleaming grey above, silvery in the sun, and white below on belly and chest. Their heads ended in long, pointed beaks, full, I knew, of sharp piscatorial teeth and the speed of their movement was like flying. Prancing up from the waters, they shimmered a moment in the light before plunging into a deep wave’s side. There must have been thirty at least, cavorting and jumping from crest to trough aslant our bows.
I am tasting the joys of the Mediterranean for the first time, a sea between two continents. To the north lies Europe and to the south Africa, aloof and mysterious to me, even its name giving a foretaste of a possible adventure. We trail a green wake through blue waters, smoothing a path between billows. Storm petrels play, some fifty or more, over the waters with a buoyant flight like butterflies. The sea is never the same, every hour there comes over it some subtle change, like a shift of key in music or the nuance of mood in a poem. Observing it quietly and attentively is to become aware of a continual symphony rich in harmonies, an interplay between two main motifs derived respectively from sea and sky. In the evening, the sun, glancing low over the surface, strikes through the waves’ crests, colouring them a brilliant bottle green, above which little showers of spray form transitory rainbows. At sunset, each wave carries its own shadow over which the water curls, enclosing it and finally engulfing it, only to let it rise again as a reborn shade. At such a time, from the topmost decks, there is an almost intense awareness of distance. The eye travels further and again further out over the open sea, finding delight in every hollow until, rising above the thin edge of the world, gazing into unfathomable space, I follow the sun down.
Yesterday we began to do a little work which helped to remove the wet-rag headache the rising temperatures and enforced lassitude had brought upon me. I was Orderly Officer of the Day. The job entails accompanying various senior officers about the ship, inspecting the troopdecks, the men’s cafeteria, recreation rooms and lavatories. On this great ship of extraordinary complexity the experience was often bewildering. Luckily, in the motherly way of the army, I was supplied with an Orderly Sergeant who knew both the ship and the worries of newly-fledged subalterns very well. He was cooperative and friendly and let me into the troop’s opinions of the vessel.
Apparently they liked it and I supposed it was certainly more fun than the drab barracks of most depots in England. A number of older sergeants told me that, compared with other troopers, the Fowey was a floating palace. Yet to me the troopdecks seemed woefully crowded. Tiers of narrow bunks, three to a tier, stood in rows along the length of each troopdeck. About two yards separated the rows and there were larger passages at each end forming a central gangway. The lavatories and washrooms were spotlessly clean and rigorously inspected yet, in spite of open ports and a powerful ventilation system, the smell of sweat, made nauseating by the heat, was considerable. The troopdecks lay mostly deep in the body of the ship and often the ports had to be closed because of the seas. At night only the blowers saved the men from considerable discomfort due to smell and heat.
At 11.30 hours I went with my sergeant to visit the cells as part of the Orderly Officer’s official round. We descended several flights of steep steps and emerged among the entrails of the ship, well below the water line and infrequently lit by electric lamps. A sergeant major welcomed me with a not very smart salute, while the rest of the guardroom stood to attention. He handed me a ledger to sign but I decided to look around, rather than let him get away with a signature for nothing.
“Right,” I said, “I want to see the prisoners.”
“Yessir!” he said, perceptively more alert.
In the space of twelve hours, I came to realise that most of these floating visits by officers, to make some sort of an inspection, are a matter of staged effects. A reasonable presentation is made by the NCO with lots of “Yessir, Nosir, three bags full, Sir.” The officer signs and drifts away back to the upper reaches. Most of the sergeants and NCOs, although usually much older than the National Service officer, are simple folk who appreciated the joke of strong-handedness, especially if a touch of the film star is added to heighten the occasion. I found that so long as I presented a clear, decisive appearance all went well and people shot about the place but, should I have let the slightest note of indecision creep into my bearing or voice, then, at once, everything began to sag into slackness. I could feel it going!
The Guard Commander flung open the cells with a tremendous clatter and called the men inside up to attention. Squaring my shoulders I strode in. I went to each cell in turn.
“Any troubles? You? You? You?”
They really looked quite cheerful and of course there were no troubles, not a word. So, “Right, Sergeant Major!”
And that gentleman responded, “Stand at ease there, SHUN, stand at eeeaase! Lock ’em up Joe.”
I signed the book to the accompaniment of clanging steel doors and twisting keys. Feeling like some medieval sheriff followed by his jailer, I climbed back to daylight.
The ‘criminals’ had almost all been absentees from muster parades either at Southampton or at Algiers. Every cell was occupied, so the story of the unfortunate subaltern, newly-commissioned and given forty men to take to Germany, who arrived with only eighteen may well have been true!
During the evening rounds I came upon a large party of men, under a ferocious corporal, cleaning out the recreation rooms. I was not at all sure who they were and, in any case, it was time for them to be below decks. I spotted a stocky, rather grandiose sergeant, dressed a little out of the ordinary. He came to a magnificent attention, saluted courteously and asked if he could help.
“These men? Oh they’re defaulters, Sir. They work till I’m satisfied with them, that is to say, you and me, Sir... which won’t be till about midnight, Sir!”
I looked at my watch. It was about ten thirty and time to close the sergeants’ bar. I said so to the sergeant, who was now accompanying me. I discovered he was a special species of sergeant – a provo-sergeant, an intelligence that left me none the wiser. It was only after five minutes of agonised ransacking of my memory of military terms that I realised, of course, he was in charge of Military Police duties, and hence the defaulters. The sergeant consulted his watch too.
“I make it two minutes to go, Sir,” he said, politely but persuasively. I was amused and followed him into the bar. Somehow the door slammed and all heads turned my way.
“Last drinks gentlemen!”
At least five huge tankards followed one another through the open hatchway and the Provo-sergeant, who appeared to want an audience, stood me a drink.
“Light ale, thanks very much, Sergeant!”
“Right, Sir,” with resignation.
He told me he had been in the Special Air Service during the war, an especially daring variety of commando, the parachutists and glider men, and had been drafted into the Royal Scots from a cushy job, driving and conducting VIPs about the place. Yes, he liked the ship; it was the best of the four trips he had already made to the Far East; the men were well-fed and housed; but – the discipline – Sir – was poor. That was where he came in, he and the RSM. Mind you, it was not for lack of material, good stuff these boys, even the National Service men and that was a concession.
I mentioned that by the time he reached Korea life there could well be more peaceful. He regretted the thought. The regiment was highly trained. “If we have the luck to get a scrap the lads can show their mettle.” I supposed a trained and experienced regular soldier must yearn for some action, for some genuine context in which to test and prove himself. Several of the infantry subalterns with the Royal Scots had voiced the same sentiment for they too were volunteers, keyed to the ordeal they had accepted and looked for, confident and determined young men. Yet they were capable of a longer view and I suspected that, in spite of the upper lip, their disappointment was blended with relief. A man can never be so much of a man as he may at first appear.
There were a number of other things the Provo-sergeant said but some of them, especially on the matter of women on board, had better not be elaborated upon. He would have liked to see them completely segregated and not “flitting about” all over the vessel distracting the men. Life on board a trooper was frustrating and the heat and motion stimulating enough without that. We closed the bar and bade each other good night. He saluted smartly and marched off to keep the defaulters moving. “The blighters never do a thing unless you keep chivvying ’em, Sir!”
The Empire Fowey stopped offshore in the huge harbour of Port Said, awaiting our turn to enter the narrow waterway of the Suez Canal. The Royal Scots battalion had their pipe band aboard and it played merrily on deck, as a number of officers from the Canal Zone force came aboard to greet us and wish us well.
Hoards of little green bum-boats began swarming alongside us like water beetles. They were filled with excited Egyptians, all trying to attract attention. Trade was poor, since orders had gone out prohibiting it, but, even so, a number of ropes dangled between ship and bum-boat and the little baskets containing goods for purchase came and went busily. Bargaining was brisk and prices absurdly high. Altercations were frequent and one especially rowdy one broke out, when a tommy’s beret fell overboard and was promptly donned by an Egyptian, who would not part with it without a reward. Words began flying and it was clear that the Egyptian’s knowledge of British Army adjectives was as good as the Scotsmen’s. The latter were not to be outdone however, and, amid loud booing, someone turned a fire hose on the boat concerned and a score of bright white balloons were flung over the side, to bounce insultingly on the wavelets between the boats. This impromptu adaptation of the Algiers issue of ‘French letters’ caused riotous mirth on the troopdecks and the Egyptians lost their composure and flew into little tempers. Three of them clambered up the anchor chain on to the fo’c’sle and, armed with knives, started prancing about there. A burly Scot lumbered up on to the platform and moved towards them in a crouch. For a minute they laughed and jeered at him but his advance was unhesitating and, suddenly, they bolted to the anchor chains and fled back down them, to the accompaniment of jeers and more white balloons.
Chris and I returned to our cabin and found a bum-boat a few feet below our port, with a jolly little man swaying to and fro, urging us to buy something. He particularly mentioned Turkish Delight so, after a brief hesitation, we had him throw us a rope with a basket, passed him down the money and examined our purchase. It was a nice little box wrapped up in cellophane with “Turkish Delight” written in large letters on the cover. We opened it in joyous anticipation but, alas, all we found within were a few rotten dates. We rushed to the porthole but, of course, he had gone. We cast the box overboard with suitable vocalisation and gestures.
The passage of the canal was impressive. At intervals cheering sunbathing troops lined the banks shouting “Get yer knees brown!” and other comments to which appropriate replies were given. Jeeps were everywhere, tearing along the road that ran parallel to the waterway, while the landscape braised and shimmered under the sun. A sudden sandstorm took us by surprise, fine dust infiltrated everywhere, even filling the books we were reading with dirt. A suffocating heat filled the ship, half stifling us and we sat about sweaty and dirty waiting for it to pass.
At dawn the following morning, I was on deck watching the sun glinting on the roofs of Suez and marvelling at the delicate beauty of a white minaret etched sharply against the brown hills and the clear sky. By breakfast time we were heading south towards the Red Sea with the temperature rising horribly. We prepared for the biggest heatwave any of us, new from England, had ever known.
Off Socotra, June 9th 1953
Today for the first time we have met the monsoon in earnest. All through the Red Sea, at Aden and on past Cape Gardafui, we had hot, sweaty weather, during which we could do little except drink gallons of lemon squash and search the decks vainly for a breeze. Away to starboard now looms a range of great, grey cliffs, often shrouded from our sight by a haze of flying spray. The wind whines in the rigging, roars about the masts and lifeboats and howls around the bridge and deckhouses. It is a ferocious sound, merciless, and full of power. Crested seas run at us lifting our prow, rolling us to port and then buffeting us with clouds of spun spray as the ship rights itself again. The sea is awash with white rollers combing along, with deep troughs of dark blue water between them. The spray whips over the lower decks, to the delight of many of the men who sense the exhilaration of the scene. The sun beams down and little rainbows ring us about, coming and going as the spray flies through the light.
All morning we have been advancing down the coast of Socotra. This is indeed a barren island, the hills end in tall cliffs or run down in valleys to meet the sea in high sand hills. There is little vegetation. Soon after lunch, we shall move beyond the shelter of these empty shores and face the full monsoon coming north across the open ocean. To the south there will be no land before Antarctica.
Yesterday, off Aden, it was calm, a slight swell and the sea as blue as a clean sky. I saw turtles, each about eighteen inches long, swim by the ship, miles from land, and shoals of large flying fish whipped up into the light breeze before our bows. They were magnificent creatures; the largest about ten inches long, blue green on top and snow-white below. The smaller species, which we had seen in the Red Sea, seemed to flutter their “wings” in flight, but these went gliding along on outstretched planes, flicking the water with the long, ventral lobe of the tail every now and then and giving a little flutter to gain height for a further glide.
We were all very glad, I think, to reach Aden. The passage of the Red Sea had been trying and the shores impressed us only by their aridity. Blithe BBC talk about desert islands is all very well in England but, on the first sight of a real one, the grim inhospitality of the lonely shores conjures up pictures of a desperate and, maybe, unavailing search for water and shade, the horror of a castaway’s life, for which even a gramophone cabinet of Beethoven could do little to alleviate. We sailed close to the coast of Arabia, passing between the narrow headlands and cliffs of Bab-el-Mendab, and then along sandy shores with brown and yellow cliffs, sometimes streaked a shining white with veins of quartz. Finally, we rounded a headland of unsurpassed ferocity; huge dunes and cliffs ran down into the sea and narrow valleys inland, filled with sand, stretched up towards a range of slopes strewn with rocks, above which jagged peaks rose severe and dark against the sky. In the more open valleys, the wind caught at the sand and whirled it into the air; streams of yellow dust blew like mists across the land and often for a little way out to sea. As we rounded the point a group of mountains faced us across a wide and sparkling bay. At their foot cuddled a number of large, white and shining buildings and, nearer the shore, many others, smaller. We could pick out green trees and shrubs around them but nowhere else, neither on hill nor shore, could we see any vegetation at all; everywhere only dry earth, bare, hard, blackish rocks or sands in shades of brown, grey or khaki. In the harbour lay a host of ships, several of the Blue Funnel Line and many foreign merchantmen, two or three Arab dhows and a tug, rather remarkably, flying a Danish flag.
Aden, being British, posed many more problems than Algiers before we were able to get ashore; there were forms to fill in and passes to obtain. When all was done, we sallied forth. The place is divided roughly into two parts, the town around the port and the ‘Crater’ which lies over the hill. Troops from the ship are not supposed to visit the Crater nor to go further inland and we had to obey this restricting regulation. There is a smart European quarter near the port and an Arab shantytown next to it. Three of us were in need of cummerbunds to go with our tropical dining kit. A little tailor, deliciously named Kut Kut, assured us he knew exactly what we wanted; of course he knew the correct colour for the Royal Artillery. Two hours later, we returned, to receive three resplendent scarlet cummerbunds and it was only on returning to the ship that we learned the RA colours to be electric blue!
We visited the Officers’ Club, very horsey and the drinks disgusting, but a swim in the swimming pool and the discovery of a little air-breathing hermit crab in a small seashell made the visit worthwhile.
The people in the streets intrigued me, Ethiopian and African faces mingled with Arab and Jew, an ethnological paradise. There were, of course, hordes of rapacious vendors. On a doorstep sat a little Arab.
“Sirs! You see this naize pack of cards, fifty-two all different. Come, have see!”
Several of the lads were inspecting them, so I went to have a look. Sure enough, there were fifty two, all different nudes. Popular items! Last evening, in the smoking room, I noticed at least one party playing a discrete game with them.
Another Arab boy of about thirteen came up to me flashing his devilish eyes.
“Give me a shilling for my supper!” he demanded and then, as if amused by my expression of amazement for he looked remarkably healthy, or perhaps realising the impression made was a hopeless one, he burst out in a peal of laughter. All three of us and the boy ended up gurgling with amusement.
I could not imagine what the Arabs do with their women! In Algiers they were so shrouded the most one could see was half an eye. In Aden it was difficult enough to see even a single woman. Most mysterious – for I hardly thought the busy and rather ostentatiously healthy people suggested an absence of ladies. But wait – I remembered now. There was one dusky creature swinging her hips in a doorway. Some of the younger subalterns were straight from school and hardly dry. On seeing such sights they feigned blindness or else they really were unaware of the unmistakable signs of the lively port life we had been seeing all the way. Needless to say, the men were by no means blind and not at all reticent. For some of them the voyage was a progression from bed in one port to another in the next. If beds were not available, the nearest park or group of bushes was good enough for most of them. The tommies were not a vicious crowd and, animal delight apart, it was the spirit of adventure that sent them roaming, in their little groups of concentrated Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham or Liverpool, through the ports of the wide world.
Assistant Troopdeck Commander
Soon after leaving Algiers I had been appointed an Assistant Troopdeck Commander, thus becoming responsible for the occupation and well-being of some thirty men, a mixed bag of signallers, drivers, sappers and gunners. At first, if not exactly an ordeal, it was at least something of a strain. I had to give lectures in the morning or organise quizzes and military knowledge competitions. Before breakfast, I had to take PT classes for a quarter of an hour and, in addition, there were visits to the somewhat unsavoury troopdeck, pay parades and currency exchange to be effected on visiting a port.
I endeavoured to be as informal as possible with the men and I thought this had been reasonably successful and without detriment to my insecure position as a fresher subaltern. They responded quickly to any question about how they liked Algiers or what they did in Aden. One or two were bright lads and most of those had at least one stripe on their arms. So far everyone had shown himself to be friendly and revealed an appropriate, if unmerited, respect for me. Occasionally I cursed somebody who forgot his hat or who arrived on deck too untidily dressed to be passed over. Faults, once corrected, had not appeared again. Sometimes the man in question had disappeared and upon enquiry I found that he was in ‘jankers’; apparently a vigilant NCO policing system rapidly collected new recruits for the defaulters’ squads by noting the names of those corrected on parades. My sergeant was a stolid engineer and for weapon training I usually got an infantry sergeant to talk about the bren, sten or rifle.
In spite of the months of conditioning at Mons, when I first found myself operating within the army system, I found it outrageous. Who was I to order people about? It seemed a gross presumption. Although I was myself a beneficiary, I objected strongly to the great difference in the conditions under which the officers and the men travelled. Once I heard one man muttering to another something to the effect that “T’ bloody officers do nothing except drink whisky on t’ top deck,” a judgement by no means correct but containing the germ of a valid criticism. At every turn I found I tended to identify my own lot, my own sympathies and opinions with those of the men. This was not a genuine identification, but rather an instinctive siding with the weaker side in what seemed to be inter-class warfare. Furthermore, a National Service subaltern was clearly a member of an outgroup, when the majority of officers happened to be regulars. A National Service sense of isolation was justified more easily by feeling oneself to be one of the men rather than as one among an officer class to which one could not, and to which, in any case, one had little wish to belong.
After some time I began to see the military organisation in a clearer perspective. I realised that the respect I received was not at all to myself but to the role I was supposed to be fulfilling. The respect was for my peaked cap and the authority that a peaked cap could use when required. I occupied a position in a hierarchy and had to fit myself into the role prescribed by that position. The men, in turn, occupied their own positions. They were the effector units in the scheme. While I directed or taught, they put such direction into practice. I, in my turn, was no more than an effector unit in a plan drawn up at levels above me. The immensity of the military machine became apparent. The Provo-sergeant and his policemen dealt with recalcitrants and failures; a system within the first. Feedback controls limited the errors made and kept the whole in a steady state of “efficiency”. Efficiency is indeed the keyword in all military affairs. To be efficient is to rule one’s milieu and to avoid the suspicious glances of colonels. It seemed a reasonable sort of ant colony.
Yet, I asked myself, where in this great organisation did the individual personality have a role to play? At first it seemed to be of little account. I considered the individuals in my section. Not one bore the remotest resemblance to his neighbour in looks, alertness, bearing, response to questioning or in his attitude towards his companions. All, however, had a quality in common, not merely the mutual bond uniting people of a similar rank under a common regime, but also a collective psychological quality. They were all so obviously the workers of this world, derived from families of stokers, roundsmen, behind-the-counter men, clerks or, rising a little, small shop owners or tradesmen. These were the folk who, in whatever walk of life they found themselves, would put into practice plans formed by others and carry out actions originating from a higher source. The inequality of human material in class categories as well as individual ones became clearer to me.
I tried to compare the army with the civilian society from which it is drawn. Discipline brings with it a tidiness and compactness lacking in society at large. There are no trades’ unions in the army and ‘justice’ is administered directly and without argument by authority. Yet I doubt whether the expression of the personalities of individual men is any more restricted in the military than in civil life. Restrictions on individual expression from group or gang consciousness, Union loyalties or Hollywood conditioning are probably as significant, although not so obvious, as the effect of a military discipline supported by a military law which is at great pains to be scrupulously fair. Military ideals of personal smartness in dress, bearing, honesty and loyalty to barrack-room friends are genuine and of real value in the development of a late adolescent. There is also continuous advice on health and morality, of a simple common-sense kind, given at intervals by the Medical Officer and the Padre. Such ideas provide at least some reliable criteria for personal conduct and principles that are often absent in the wilder streets of our cities.
I am sure that sensible men, amenable to discipline but lacking any great powers of intelligence, dominance or native curiosity, are improved by the army life. Certainly, latent traits of leadership, companionableness and tolerance may well be brought to the fore. The National Service soldier, far from being restricted by army life was often improved by it and returned to his home environment a better citizen, more tolerant and understanding of his fellow men and the possessor of an established self-discipline and personal pride in appearance. In face of these conclusions I asked myself why it was that my first impressions were of class conflict, exploitation of lesser mortals by opinionated people of better schooling and the idea that life on the troopdeck was degrading to humanist principles.
The answer lies, I think, in understanding the opposition between real and ideal existence. Ideally, an individual should be free to mind his own business and be responsible for his own conduct and dealings with his neighbours. Organisations reduce freedom by the imposition of rules. The family or the tribe are natural organisations whereas complex military or civil structures, within which family life plays only a minor role, are not natural in the same sense. The happiest state of man is presumably that in which biological, psychological and religious needs are satisfied and in which opportunities are available for the practice and improvement of skills and interests. I sometimes picture the happy man, content with wife and family, in a home of their own devising, without luxuries but with friends and security in the immediate neighbourhood, freedom of opinion and reading matter, ability to read all that is within their capacity, to learn as much as they are able or desire and to understand these matters not only for the improvement of the conduct of life but also for the culture of mind and spirit. Beauty of landscape and means to travel are also essential for happiness that comes from broader development. Obviously, life within this great termite-like military structure falls far short of such an ideal.
It was, I feel, an awareness of this difference that brought me a certain feeling of revulsion. Indeed to some extent the termites are revolting, not as individuals but as a collective, pullulating all over the ship, giving and obeying orders, with a kind of mental trophallaxis motivated by fear of punishment. Yet this is a real world not an ideal one; we generally presume that the termites exist in order that ideals elsewhere may survive.
More emotionally than rationally, it seemed to me that this condition of humanity, this condemnation to suffering for the maintenance and realisation of the ideals of others, was an infinitely pathetic one. Sometimes, from one of the higher decks, I looked down on the men sprawled about on the lower decks like caged animals. I could see the fragile humanity of their bodies, the structure of limb and chest, some appearing strong and others weak and poorly formed. There, too, was the incipient patchy hair on their bodies, symbolic of physical pride and anticipatory of desire. The sight filled me with a wearying sadness, the feeling that all the grand intentions of man, the lesser intentions of individuals, the many separate and personally valid motivations towards the “good” were in the end cut off short by some other characteristic of the human condition; that man’s noblest ideals were in the end frustrated by the realities of each individual’s life.
Perhaps this sensation of pathos in life sees further than the strictly rational mood, penetrating into the mysteries of universal existence rather than dealing with immediate problems. The army, it seems, is an essential reality and within its falling short of the ideal there is none the less much that is good for the individual soldier, and especially perhaps for the national serviceman. It is a true saying that there is no such thing as a bad soldier, only a bad officer. Bad officering leads to poor discipline with discontented men leading an unnatural life without family roots and this, of course, is destructive to citizenship. Such destruction must always be the care and duty of the officer to avoid.
I know so little of officers and officering that it seems presumptuous to criticise or invent theories, especially from my unexalted rank of subaltern. Yet, since soldiering is for me a temporary duty to my country rather than a profession, any observations I make, doubtless lacking value from the professional’s viewpoint, may nevertheless have the value of an opinion unbiased by close membership of the system. I am in the army for only a short time and it is inevitable that I shall record my impressions. I am like that.
So, what then of the officers? There are plenty on board ranging from the Lieutenant Colonel downwards. Most of them are bound for Korea with the Royal Scots and one or two have already done a spell there. One infantry lieutenant has been mentioned in despatches. Although there are several naval officers on board and one RAF type, the majority are military. Among the regulars and apart from the four gunner subalterns from my Pass Out at Mons, there is a fair sprinkling of national service subalterns. The majority of captains and majors conform to type pretty well. They are strongly-built, hearty men, friendly enough but liable to be opinionated or even a little pompous. The ‘authoritarian personality’ is common enough in the less distinguished officer ranks of the army. Their principle aim in life appears to be the endeavour to make oneself as comfortable and as genial as possible. Most are well-read men of considerable perception but they lack any great flexibility of mind. Almost all have a characteristic manner of speaking and a professional bias that insinuates itself into all aspects of life.
The chief evening activities in the smoke room are poker dice, canasta, bridge or other card games with matches as counters and a copious flow of drinks from lemon squash to double whiskies. Conversation, if not on military matters, appears superficial, although not without interest and conducted with animation. There are of course cliques for the occupation of the few young ladies’ favours and other cliques dominated by the more matriarchal officers’ wives. The senior officers keep themselves largely to themselves and restrict their talking to their own small circle. Any conversation with us is limited and one-sided, since they like to remain on their official pedestals. As national service officers, I suspect we are objects of a friendly scorn yet, at the same time, of a veiled envy. We do our best but can never quite achieve the military aplomb of the regulars and most of our interests, music, poetry, philosophy and such-like, which loom up, snatchily, in our conversations, seem to mystify them. On one occasion I heard it remarked without malice, “Ha, these young chaps – you never quite know where you are with them!” It is simply a measure of our occupational difference, I suppose.
As a class, the regular subalterns ape the fashions and ideals given them at Sandhurst. Heartiness, athletics, machine-like efficiency and the aim to be a ‘bloke among blokes’ seem the most important of these. They are certainly first-rate at all of these and we mere novices cannot shine beside them. One of them regrets the absence of a university education but, for the most part, they are content with an enjoyable, healthy life, with a prospect of excitement. The magnificent uniforms lend themselves almost slyly to that air of affectation and overt lifemanship that is never quite absent from a gathering of officers. No army officer I have met so far has, at first sight, been a bore; to say this of so marked an occupational type is certainly a compliment.
Chris and I find ourselves together on this troopdeck lark. Naturally there are other senior officers around to help us. Our immediate senior is a regular lieutenant, a healthy, good-living lad, brusque and quick in authority, friendly with the men and always a confident master of a situation. Chris and I have had cause many times to be grateful for his quick-thinking good humour. Our troop commander is a jovial type who sets up a programme on Sunday night and does precious little else for the rest of the week, leaving us three to cope. He is always available if needed, however. The following Monday, he relapses back into total idleness, when we get a new troopdeck commander in the shape of an infantry major.
The Royal Scots padre is a charming man, short in stature but rich in human virtues, generating friendship, yet shrewd in dealing with men and officers alike. The other evening, sitting together with a Royal Scots subaltern and a national service doctor, the padre initiated a long discussion on the relation between biology and religion. I reviewed in simple terms the theories of natural selection in classical Darwinism. The padre amazed me with his completely anthropocentric vision of the relation between the Universe and God and I felt great doubt regarding the value of theological training in our time. Another evening, we sat together waiting for one of the gramophone concerts, arranged periodically for the officers and their wives. After a day of military jargon, these were pleasant little events. We were about to hear a piece by Ravel, when the padre turned to me and said, “The officer likes to feel he is listening to something good, something classical, but he likes it to the accompaniment of clinking glasses and merry chatter!”
On Sunday evenings, he organised a hymn-singing hour for the men. It took place on the port deck, with the men lolling on the decking or propping themselves against the rescue rafts. Beyond the ship’s rails the sea lay silent under a moon and we rose and fell in steady motion, the sound of the water revealing our forward speed. He had a good attendance, and after one such event was over he remarked that it was a good thing no officers had come, since white shirts and cummerbunds might have put the men out of tune. I agreed. We went strolling together on the top deck under the stars, the Southern Cross lying on the horizon to starboard.
The Indian Ocean
In spite of the heavy swell the Indian Ocean is wonderful. Now that we have settled down to a steady routine, life aboard is not difficult and much of our time is free. We sunbathe on the top deck, play deck quoits and other games and do a great deal of reading. I am mastering Plato’s Republic and digesting a book about Hong Kong. Sometimes I join Chris at the piano, where he plays to us with characteristic off-hand brilliance. We while away the evening in drink and discussion. Chris is teaching me to play chess and we are into our thirteenth game. I have not come near to beating him yet. One day he took four of us on at once and beat us all, the scoundrel! Another time he took on the entire room, moving around from table to table without losing a single game.
Have I told you about our two Lascar waiters at table? One, a small, wizened monkey of a man, was all smiles the whole way from Southampton to Aden. The other, a fuzzy head, dark and sinister, looked as if he would knife us all quite happily at the first opportunity. As soon as we entered the Indian Ocean and began to roll, the smiling one turned glum looking murderous and irritable, while the other blossomed into a toothy smile and even cracked a joke or two.
“Wot, no more today, Sir? O zat is a very bad thing. And you, Sir. Curry? Entrée perhaps? Very good Sir. Very good indeed!”
At the very stern of the ship, live a number of Lascar hands. They spread their mats on the open deck of an evening and proceed to smoke their long and curly hookahs. They come from obscure villages in the north-west of India and show a great interest in the sternpost musketry. Squads of soldiers visit the stern and shoot live at balloons thrown into the water. It is tricky shooting and excellent practice. The ship’s Second Officer remarked to me the other day that the Lascars were itching to get their hands on some rifles to compete with the soldiery and that, in all probability, they would beat our lads into a cocked hat into the bargain.
Tonight we shall have a film on the rear deck and will sit there under the stars. Afterwards, I shall walk on the top deck studying them and listening to the sea, experiencing it dividing as we sweep through it and washing turbulently together again into the distance astern. Up there is silence and I can be alone. Afterwards, I shall turn in. We are as bronzed as Greeks and sleep like dogs.
It was a delight to watch the tree-lined shores of Ceylon heave themselves over the horizon. To see greenery again was magical. The long oceanic swells went roaring up the sandy beaches in lines of mountainous surf. Behind the sands, there were calm lagoons and clusters of steeply-roofed native huts gripping the ground. To the north of Colombo, the jungle ran right down to the shore and a dense wall of vegetation waved and shimmered there, the tall trunks of thousands of coconut palm trees each letting their leaves stream like a girl’s hair in the wind. As the ship closed on the land, the colours became more intense, the palms darker and silhouetted against the sky.
“We shall have to be tourists,” said Chris.
“I am afraid so and it’ll have to be in a taxi too!”
We went ashore in a giant landing craft because the ship was moored some way out in the harbour. The first excitement was, of course, the people, rushing everywhere, with a hooting of frantically driven cars, the steady tread of overladen ox wagons and the cries of innumerable rickshaw men. The ox wagons were intriguing. A rickety platform on two wheels was surmounted by a high, wickerwork cover. A heavy shaft and cross-piece was attached to the patient beast of docile appearance and odd humps. They were quiet little animals, not much larger than donkeys but they could move at a respectable speed pulling tremendous loads.
Rich smells scented the air, food, flowers and the sweet sweat of vegetation in the parks. At Aden, life had seemed a bare, tenuous thing, here it gallivanted before the eyes, warm, damp and luxuriant. How different the people seemed from Europeans, a fact not at all hidden by the many modern buildings. The pullulation in the streets had a quite novel feeling to it and the cries and brightly-coloured clothes were all confused, in a turmoil of fleeting figures, dodging between the latest car and the oldest wagon. There were very few white men about and, far from finding this at all disquieting, I welcomed it. The slight, brown people impressed me at once with their friendliness, their smiles and their obvious pride in their new-found freedom, their houses of parliament and their premier and also in their membership of the Commonwealth. The film A Queen is Crowned was being shown at one of the cinemas and, as we drove by in the heat of the mid-afternoon, I could see an immense queue waiting to go in.
We had an evening meal in the YMCA and the waiter told us that he had been in England when the King died. He brought out his identity card to show us his lodgings’ address in London. All the time I felt immensely glad that this beautiful place really belonged to its inhabitants. It seemed so natural and right that this should be so. Our driver, a jolly, twinkly-eyed and rather wizened little man told us of his likes and dislikes. The Americans were not in his favour. We passed the American Embassy and he remarked, “Amelican Emblassy-nasty,” which entranced us. We could not get him to be explicit, yet when we saw a number of Yankee sailors from some destroyers in the harbour, in port on their way home from Korea, their loud demanding voices seemed harsh and carried far over the traffic. The Ceylonese had perfect manners; they were quiet, self-possessed, even reserved; except, of course, when they were trying to sell something. The remarks in our little army guide to Eastern places and people seem very true; the Oriental admires self-possession and a quiet, authoritative bearing. Loud-mouthed people and irresponsible appearance do not impress and that was where the Americans failed, I think.
We visited two temples. The first set some way down a side street not far from the docks, was Hindu and therefore Tamil. The driver, evidently a Ceylonese Buddhist, was not keen to stop there but the architecture looked so remarkable that I insisted. The driver told us it was very old and it certainly appeared so. A stone pyramid without a top rose above a metal, studded door. It was a sugar cake of a structure, with innumerable alcoves carved upon it in intricate detail. Two gaudily-painted statues stood on either side of the door with ferocious faces, like something out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting or the Mexican Art Exhibition. Above them were hosts of fearsome creatures, dragons, fanged serpents, dogs with bared teeth, the raw materials of nightmares. High walls beset with narrow, barred windows extended from the doorway. Within, I could see a bell tower, again covered with intricate carving. A robed figure, no doubt scenting money, appeared and bade us climb up on some railings to look in. In the dim light, beyond the iron bars, I could make out a pillared hall along one side of which stood two ornate altars bearing two intricate metal figures. Two rather odd bundles on the floor were recumbent men. One looked up at me and glared, while the other lay curled up, a ragged mass of skin and clothing, below the altar. The driver informed us that services to Siva the Destroyer were held within and often services for the “evil one” too. While we were looking around, he kept well away, clearly disapproving of the place.
Driving out of town, we were delighted by the residences of the government officials; elaborate little bungalows with extensive loggias and airy, half-shuttered windows. They were in all colours, browns, greens, blues, greys and each set in a very English style garden. Everywhere, we enjoyed the huge trees, luxuriant foliage and intensely-coloured flowers. The most common was the jacaranda, a large tree like an acacia, bushy with a cloud of delicate yellow flowers all over its crown. At nearly every corner and in the glorious parks, we saw the flame of the forest trees, fantastic under the weight of their scarlet flowers and delicate air-floating leaves. We admired a great banyan tree, with its myriad supporting trunks running from branch to earth. A small boy ran up and threw a handful of blossoms into the car. They resembled the heads of arum lilies but grow on trees and emit a perfume rich and tantalising – passion flowers.
Under the banyan, we found a snake charmer, who showed us two rather dopey-looking cobras that swayed from their boxes to the tune of his flute. They had had their fangs drawn and, although he did his stuff well, I did not think he was a master of his craft. He did some cunning little tricks with woollen balls that vanished and appeared again with a disconcerting rapidity. A small crowd of boys and young policemen gathered around us and we all sat and joked, watching the tricks for a quarter of an hour or more. The charges were not excessive.
We drove on along some magnificent avenues of flowering trees to the great Buddhist temple well outside the city. We parked in a courtyard surrounded by tall trees, and walked across soft sand to the temple. It was a white, polygonal building, with the main structure towering above numerous side chapels. An arcaded ambulatory led around the outside, with little sanctuaries commemorating various incidents in the life of the Buddha, a peaceful and holy spot. Beyond the arches of the ambulatory stood a great bo tree, bowing under the weight of its foliage, its thick trunk warped with age. Somewhere within its depths a bell-like bird call sounded, a strange cry, like a piping upon a flute begun and then left hanging upon a stillness. We left our shoes in the porchway and, led by a bare-footed temple guide, padded over gaily coloured tiles and through a tall archway to the sanctuary. An immense statue of the Buddha, seated in his curious, cross-legged posture upon a lotus, rose above a flower-strewn altar. He was twenty-three feet high and painted in the most vivid colours, yellows, whites, black and gold. The benign but inscrutable face looked down upon us from high up in a dome, painted all over with intricate patterns. On either side of the main figure stood others representing his disciples while, upon the surface of the vault, gods and goddesses were ranged representing abstract virtues. Two huge and hideous Hindu gods stood on guard beside the doorway. The whole scheme of decoration was amazing, yet entirely without meaning for me. I could detect no spirituality there, it was all too brazen. I felt, however, that visiting it in the way we did gave us little time to pause, wonder or understand. Being tourists, as tourists we reaped.
The Colombo zoo is set within a garden paradise. Little hills and miniature valleys abound and delicious lawns are cool under the trees, jacaranda, bougainvillea and hibiscus abound together with cannon ball blossoms and temple blooms. Here, too, the bell-voiced bird sounds from the shade and, on the top of one tree, stood a secretary bird, pensive and aloof. The elephant dance in a small amphitheatre was about to begin and we joined a small crowd of graceful Ceylonese, two Yankee sailors and a very old Englishman. To the music of a flute, the elephants danced and gyrated and one of them played the mouth organ held to its lips by its trunk. In one trick, the biggest elephant lay down upon its trainer and followed this by walking over him, resting a foot meditatively on his back for a second.
The Ceylonese people took their pleasure quietly in the garden, almost without chatter. Again, I felt a pleasure that here, perhaps, the past predacity of white imperialists were being forgotten as the people began to manage their own affairs. There have been civilisations older and wiser than ours and probably our only superiority lies in technology and, in Britain at least, some gift for stable democratic government. Perhaps it is dangerous to take first impressions at face value, but I have seen enough to want to return.
Only the money mania in the streets begins to pall after a few hours. Things are pressed upon one everywhere and beggars are numerous. Sometimes it was as painful to refuse as to give. In the evening, a local lad took us through a maze of shops in search of a snake charmer’s flute. Loudspeakers shook the narrow streets with exciting music from Radio Ceylon and we stepped carefully around sleepers on the pavement and avoided the occasional beggar, bowing away at us from the dark shadows between the shacks. The shadows of the ox carts and rickshaw runners went weaving over the rubbish-strewn pavements, while small flames from little cans of oil guttered on table tops and boxes where foodstuffs were on sale. The air was pungent and, among the decaying fragments under our feet, we saw a sinister arthropodal creature go scuttling for shelter.
Two men rowed us back to the ship. They stood in the boat facing the bow in the manner of the country, the lights of the vessels glistening on their finely-muscled backs. We passed under anchor chains, along the sides of tramp steamers, freighters and liners, while an American sailor, who came along with us, told us about his life aboard a small destroyer. As we came alongside it, he said, “But gee – I guess I’m tired of the sea. You should just feel this old tin can in a roll!” We sympathised and, climbing the gangway of our big ship, went straight to our bunks.
The Straits of Malacca, June 29th 1953
We are steaming steadily between narrow shoals, pale green water between patches of a deeper brownish blue. The coast of Malaya lies in the distance to port; flat, tree-lined with a rocky promontory visible astern. We have seen much of the coast of Sumatra, mountainous and jungly but with many cultivated plantations. Birds are few but sooty terns circle us from time to time. This morning a Mosquito (aircraft) zoomed low over us, our first welcome to Singapore. The mention of mosquitoes reminds me that we have to start taking Paludrine prophylactic tablets against malaria today, since these insects can reach us from the shore.
The character of our voyage is changing. Last night we had a very happy ship’s concert, some fine singers and one or two excellent comedians. The night before had been the fancy dress ball. I designed a futuristic evening dress, which ended up looking like something out of Aladdin. The prize went to a group of Iroquois Indians, who came on in bikinis and war paint, as fancily undressed as anyone could imagine. The dance was fun but could have been better organised; it took the MC until ten thirty to decide on a Paul Jones.1 Generally, it was more of a spontaneous riot from start to finish than a dance. When the party ended, the ship’s colonel made a short speech bidding goodbye to the ladies, who were to leave us at Singapore. He went on in a sombre note:
“This party concludes a period in our voyage, one that I think all of us have enjoyed very much, a pleasure cruise halfway around the world! At Singapore, the commanding officer of the Royal Scots will fly on to Korea to prepare for the take-over at the front. We know that the battalion will take over from the Black Watch on the Hook and it has been an honour to travel with them into action. When we leave Singapore we shall be in radio silence, entering the war zone.”
There seems no doubt that within a month these men, whom I have come to know quite well, will be fighting on one of the most vital positions of the Korean battle front. We have all read about the heroic stand of the Black Watch on this shattered mound of a hill called the Hook. There is something very stirring, yet infinitely pathetic, in the determination with which the young infantry subalterns face the possibility of their ordeal. The smooth passage of the ship now seems fatalistic, driving us on to a confrontation which, although I shall not have to face it, nevertheless becomes almost mine, as I listen to the quiet, self-possessed, cold-blooded yet human deliberations of those preparing for action. The men, plucked out of their Edinburgh lives, will be thrown, innocent of any offence, barring those inherent in all of us, into a battle from which, it is inevitable, some will not come home again. I feel conscious of an evil working its way to a culminating death orgy among desolate hills.
I have not found in anyone a hatred of the enemy; only a determination to uphold freedom and democracy, even at the expense of life. A few, the hardened campaigners, show a genuine pleasurable anticipation. I was too young to experience the last war but now I understand what it costs to look ahead to battle. Sometimes I feel I am no more than a playboy soldier, that I ought to have some part in what these men will know, that, in an act of sharing, I should know what now I only observe. Yet service has led me to a safer place and it is no cowardice to admit that I am thankful for it.
Last night, playing Socrates, I questioned the Royal Scots padre concerning religion among the officers and men. He seemed saddened by the puzzled agnosticism shown by many officers. Their education was sufficient to breed doubt, he told me, but their occupation was unlikely to allow them time, nor the literary and cultural means to test or renew their childhood belief. Of course this was not true of all, he added. The men, he found, were more sentimental at heart than religious, but being closer to the earth, they were easier to talk to. Soon he will be doing his job behind the lines – he made me think of Woodbine Willie.
China Sea, June 30th 1953
Some twenty hours out of Singapore, Chris and I were lying on our bunks, blowing through our ‘flutes’ from Colombo, when the wind began whistling in through the porthole. It had been overcast all morning but now we saw a huge sheet of grey cloud, stretching from sea to sky, sweeping towards us. A wall of flying rain, streaking over the waves so powerfully as to flatten them and whip off their crests in a continuous stream of flying spray, hurled itself on us hitting us with a great blow – force eight at least. In a moment, water was pouring out of the scuppers, running half an inch deep over the decks, flooding in through the deck doors, making runnels along the passageways and washing into several cabins. It poured in through any open ports and went leaping and jumping like water from a hose, off the lifeboats, sunshade tarpaulins, derricks and masts. The ship heeled over in the full broadside, water pouring off decks and roofs down into the sea. Visibility fell to nothing, lightening flashes lit us with a momentary brilliant light, thunder rolled, and our great foghorn boomed out a warning that we were sailing blind. Then, almost as quickly, the gale died away. The white pillar of rain disappeared into the distance, the ship righted herself and we stopped our demented hooting. A naval officer remarked that you never knew what the weather might do in these waters.
Conversations come back to me, word ripples, leaf murmurs, children’s voices. The officers talk platoon attacks, relief at the line, medical treatment, the padre’s role. Snatches emerge in my memory.
“What would you say to a dying man, Padre?”
“Is the Church blessing sufficient for a man who has never understood Christianity? Would you be able to comfort him according to his belief and needs? Suppose you had a dying communist, what would you say to him?”
And other matters, other questions.
“Hallo, National Service?”
“Oxford – history.”
“Oh, I don’t know, business I expect.”
Later he told me:
“So many of us infantry subalterns know so little about war. I’m lucky, too young for the front at the moment. They have given me three months in Honkers first and maybe by then a truce will have been signed. It is obvious the Chinese are as fed up with it as we are. All this is a last minute bust up. They can afford to lose lives for they value life much less than we do. Each individual means so much more to us, not only in terms of manpower but also from an ethical perspective. You see, it would be terrible for our parents if, just now, at the end of the fight – well – it’s so easy to expose oneself to danger when one knows so little about it. And again it’s such a bloody, silly, pointless war now. Oh yes. Two years ago it was terribly important – but hardly now. Both sides are changing plans – back to the cold war I suppose. All we are heading for is an aftermath of an outmoded history.”
In the first-class lounge someone said,
“Let’s go to the music room.”
“Fool! There isn’t one!”
“I know there isn’t. I mean let’s go to the piano.”
“You know Brahms’ Fourth in E?”
“I call that subjective music, a spiritual aspiration, a searching for a kind of transcendence, trying to reach another world.”
“But what of Mozart, isn’t he subjective too?”
“True, his music flows and eddies in the sunlight, an affirmation of joy in life and in music, forgetfulness of reality. But the mood of his absorption is different.”
“Well – Bach?”
One of the lads in my squad was taken ill this morning and I had him carried to the MI room. Bilious upset and feeling sick, the results of shore leave probably. Later I went down to the troopdeck to visit him and found that several others were ill in the same way. They said they had had some bad meat for lunch the previous day. I had a chat with one of them, a pleasant northern country lad. How they seemed to appreciate informality! Sometimes it makes me strangely sad to visit the troopdeck without my hat on. You hear little scraps of personal ambition and difficulties. The lad said, “Thank you, Sir!” when I left him to return from the ill-ventilated deck to the spacious, cool lounges of the first class. How I appreciated the privacy and rest that these rooms afford but, equally, how unfair these gross differences in comfort seem and I often feel guilt within me. I did not deserve his thanks. I felt myself a triviality in a trivial world; only the sick men in their stuffy bunks had any significance.
After inspection parade I asked him,
“How do you like the trip, Signalman?”
“Oh, s’awright, Sir, not so bad, I suppose.”
“The Army certainly sends you places, doesn’t it?”
“Does that, Sir – but I’d rather be back in Blighty any day. Korea is such a bloody way off. Better’d be at home with the gal.”
And he gave me the resigned grin of the soldier. The ways of the authorities who rule our fates are indeed like those of the gods.
The Gods very subtly fashion
Madness upon sadness upon Earth
Nor knowing in any wise compassion
Nor holding pity of any worth.
I sometimes imagined myself heading north across China in a train bound for Korea; another subaltern in a different uniform. What would we be saying, I and my changed companions? I felt we would be saying very much the same things and our companionship would have much the same quality.
If evil lies in neither party from where does it come? Where does hate come from? Do I underestimate our enemy?
In my squad we have both an Abbot and a Costello! Pay parades are apt to be amusing.
“SIR!” – crash to attention.
“SIR!” – crash to attention.
Sniggers all round.
We also have an extraordinary humorist by the name of Engledew. One day, after an instruction period, I asked him to explain how to find north by the Pole Star. He pursed his lips, got slowly to his feet, and everyone noticed his daringly shabby attire and the neckerchief hanging soddenly around his neck. There was a dramatic pause.
“Well, Sir, as Oi sees it – it’s like this.” Long pause and some anticipatory chuckles.
“You see this ’ere ’at?” He took off his beret and held it crown forward facing his audience.
“This ’ere ’at represents the ’eavens and screwed into it, as a manna o speaking, are several stars. Now, there’s two of them shiners wots called the pointers – thats ’ere say. Now, ’ere there’s another woppa wots called the Northern or Pole Star cos ’e stands up proppa dolly-like above the North Pole. Nah, imagine this ’ere ’eaven a revolving round.” His cap spins in his fingers. “Now, the only one wot’s still is that there Pole Star wot I was telling yer abaht, the fella wot stands up straight like above the...”
“That’s enough, Engledew, thank you, a most demonstrative answer!”
“Yussah, very good Sah!” Crash to attention, crash to ease. Engledew subsides to the deck leaving the squad bursting with half-suppressed mirth.
“Cor, ’e’s a card ’e is, a regular comijin!” said someone.
At pay parade much of the usually strict formality is relaxed. We do it on the troopdecks and the lads come up just as they are to take their money; not so Engledew, however. At other times, the idlest and scruffiest of individuals, at pay parade he proves himself a regular bullshitter. The paying officer shouts his name.
“Saah!” – an enormous bellow.
“Pay and book correct – Sah!” Crash, crash, vast, spotless boots upon the floor, everyone else in plimsolls, and, finally, an immaculate Guardsman’s salute. Even Sergeant Major Brittain at Mons could not have complained.
“Cor, ’e’s a card ’e is, regular nutter!”
Then there’s Sergeant Slaptock, the sergeant in charge of Chris’s squad, a lean, sour-looking man, who shows the greatest disinclination to do anything. At parade times, my section is usually more or less all present due to the strenuous efforts of my sergeant. But not so section C; in their training area, a small space between a derrick and two lifeboats, I usually see firstly Chris looking harassed; secondly Sergeant Slaptock spitting over the side; and thirdly five men biting their nails or playing cards.
One day Chris said, “Sergeant Slaptock at 11.30 hours tomorrow you will take a period of rifle instruction. Quite easy, I expect no more than bolt action practice.” The sergeant mumbled something about being an engineer and not ruddy PBI. Anyway, half an hour later, he decided he was in the army after all and went up to Chris with a grand crashing of boots and saluted.
“Oh, yes, Sergeant?”
“Sah, I will take that period, Sah!”
“Oh will you, Sergeant? I’m so glad. Thank you so much. That will be all I think!”
Eventually we discovered the sergeant’s soft spot and the probable cause of his lassitude. It was as if the pages of the Man Management notes we had taken at Mons, and spent much time giggling over, had come to life. Obeying the usual rules for friendly approaches to sergeants, we asked him, casually, one day, how his family was.
“Well, Sir, there’s the youngest, sickening for the German measles she is, the eldest had it last week but the wife’s all right, bless her.” Out came the inevitable wallet and we were treated to a private viewing of his wife and two jolly little girls. He was all smiles, filled with a renewed zest for life. He expanded his theme. He was living for the day when his family could join him in Japan. I asked him how he had enjoyed the stop at Singapore. “Very good, Sir, thank you. I got some nice presents for the wife.” Chris told me he had taken a considerable sum ashore. We laughed no more at those notes.
One morning no sergeant arrived to take the PT parade at 7 a.m. It was Sgt. Slaptock’s turn. Later Chris asked him, “What happened at PT this morning, Sergeant?”
“I was there, Sir.”
“Where?” Chris asked, flabbergasted.
“Chasing them up from below, Sir!”
The dear man did not know that, contrary to our usual practice, Chris had himself gone down to the troopdeck that morning and chased the men up. Never mind, it was not worth doing anything about it.
Hong Kong on Thursday!