It was a moment of madness! At the tender age of 20, I was heading home from another deeply unsatisfying day working for a merchant bank and spotted an Army Recruiting Office with an open and inviting door. I wandered in, was given the sale job of the century and several hours later wandered out having ‘joined’ the British Army.
Arriving home I broached the subject with my parents expecting them to be horrified but much to my surprise, they were very enthusiastic and encouraging. (I now know that they thought it would teach me to be tidy, disciplined and organized – they realized pretty quickly that it would teach me to be none of the above!)
Two weeks later I was on a train headed north to Birmingham to attend a 3 day selection course at the Recruit Selection Center at Sutton Cold field. The purpose of this was to run all recruits through a series of tests – in order to determine how stupid they actually were; high IQ is not generally found in the military – and to place each recruit in the regiment that they were best suited to. It was also to give a flavor of military life and came with a final option of changing one’s mind about entering the Army.
Immediately upon arrival, we were all led off to a supply room and issued with khakis; the most uncomfortable material in the world. Within ten seconds of putting mine on, I was convinced that I was being eaten alive by a swarm of the most voracious fleas in the universe and was scratching myself vigorously with no cessation of hostilities. Itching and sore, I and the other 50 new recruits were marched to the Mess for a meal.
My first experience of Army cooking was a draw; I forced the food down and it forced its way back up about half an hour later. I came to the conclusion that Army cooks could fuck up cold corned beef out of a can and six years of experience proved that my theory was not only correct but understated.
After eating we were taken to a large room where we were given an introductory lecture by a serving officer and then an IQ test which was an insult to my intelligence but obviously (pained looks and much scratching of heads) not to the rest of the recruits. Handing the papers in we were then forced to listen to a series of brief presentations on the different branches of the Service.
After almost two days of this, I had come to the inescapable conclusion that the military was not for me and was about to opt out when I was given a booklet on the Intelligence Corps. I started reading and was transported into a world of intrigue, fast cars, gadgets, travel and beautiful girls (not necessarily in that order). It sounded perfect for me and I told myself that I would either get accepted into it or go out.
The last day came and we were given a sheet of paper on which to list our three choices of regiment in order of priority. I wrote down ‘Intelligence Corps’ on all three lines, handed it in and waited, patiently, for my name to be called and my ‘personal’ interview with a serving officer to discuss my choices and determine my fate!
At 2.15 I was summoned to my interview with a Captain from the Royal Irish Rangers. The Irish are to the British the same as the Polish are to the Americans so I immediately knew that I was considerably brighter than he was. He started off by acknowledging my desire to join the Intelligence Corps and then broke the news to me. “I’m terribly sorry but the Intelligence Corps is fully subscribed and there are no vacancies available.”
Not being one to give up easily, I replied “That’s not my understanding, Sir. My understanding is that the Intelligence Corps is always in need of trained linguists and I’m a polyglot”. (I should tell you that I spoke no languages fluently and only had a schoolboy’s knowledge of French. I should also confess that my using the word ‘polyglot’ was intentionally to confuse him).
“What’s a polyglot?”
“Somebody who speaks multiple languages fluently.”
“What languages do you speak then?”
“Serbo-Croat, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Czechoslovakian, Mandarin and Cantonese”, I replied without hesitation having reasoned that he just might have a knowledge of French and German, and could trip me up on those, but the likelihood of any Irishman speaking any one of the most difficult languages in the world was no close to nil that it would be almost impossible for him to test me. If he had, however, I would have given a wry grin and gone with Plan B, opting out and returning to civilian life. My assessment proved to be right
“Really,” he said, writing furiously. “How did you end up learning all those languages?”
“My father was a diplomat, Sir, and we lived all over the world, mostly in Iron Curtain countries.” Neither of those statements were true!
“Congratulations. I can definitely approve this and good luck”, said he, standing and offering me his hand.
I shook it firmly and left the room. Later that day I was on the train to Ashford to join the Intelligence Corps having not only run the biggest bluff of my life, and got away with it, but having realized that the old saying about ‘Bullshit baffles brains’ was eminently true in the British Army.
The story doesn’t end here however! Some four weeks later I was on the parade ground trying to learn a drill routine with the rest of my squad when I was called out and taken to the CO’s office. I didn’t know what I had done but was pretty convinced I was in trouble. The CO wasted no time in getting to the point. “Private, you need to get your kit packed. You’ll be leaving for Prague within an hour.”
“Prague, Sir. Why me, Sir?”
“We need a Czech, Serbo-Croat, and aHungarian speaker immediately and you’re the only one we’ve got that’s available.”
“But I don’t speak those languages, Sir,” I said, inserting bewilderment into my voice. This wasn’t very difficult because bewilderment and absolute terror sound much the same!
He opened my file. “It says here that you speak Serbo-Croat, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Czechoslovakian, Mandarin and Cantonese”.
“But I don’t, Sir. I have no idea where they got that from, Sir!”
He looked at me closely, thought for a moment and then dismissed me with instructions to return to my squad. As I left the room and the door closed behind me, I heard an angry voice “What the fuck is going on …”
I was never again asked to speak any of the languages that I had claimed. To this day I have no idea whether they checked with the Irish Rangers officer or, if they did, if he remembered my interview. I strongly suspect that they realized what had happened and, if nothing else, applauded the initiative.
––– ASHFORD –––
Our basic training lasted a grueling six weeks during which time we were put through a physical hell of runs, route marches, obstacle courses and drill training. In between we were given classes on other military skills such as orienteering (map reading) which I found quite interesting. One class was devoted to finding your way in the wilderness without a compass and there are several ways that nature provides the information; the nave of a chapel always points to the East, etc.
That evening we were sitting in the NAAFI discussing the class over a beer when the youngest member of the squad arrived late. He was a nice kid named Jim but was very wet behind the ears and, in the time honored tradition of the British, I decided to wind him up.
“Hi Jim,” I said. “We were just talking about that lecture this afternoon about finding your way without a compass and I was telling the others that I couldn’t believe Corporal Biles had forgotten about using his gas lighter”.
He fell for it, hook, line and sinker! “What do mean his gas lighter?”
“Well, if you flick your lighter on, the flame always points North before it straightens up.”
“Bullshit,” he said.
“No, seriously. It’s well known. Something to do with the magnetic properties of butane gas. Ted knew about it too, didn’t you Ted?”
Ted was a real trooper and confirmed that I was right. Over the next few days, we kept bringing this phenomenon up and planted in Jim’s mind that he would get really good marks if he brought it to the Corporal’s attention. Finally, a week and a half later, the subject came back up in the classroom and we were quizzed as to what we remembered.
Having gone through all the ‘correct’ answers, I nudged Jim with my elbow. “Tell him, Jim,” I whispered.
He stood up. “Corporal,” he said “Did you know that if you flicked a gas lighter the flame always points North before it straightens up?”
Corporal Biles looked at him for a few seconds without saying anything. Then he looked at the rest of us who were rolling under the desks clutching our sides with laughter. “Lees. You are a poor, dumb motherfucker,” he said and then he cracked up too.
In hindsight it was cruel but oh god, it was funny!
Basic training is intended to get all recruits very fit and to that end they ran us off our feet for many hours each day. I actually enjoyed it which was especially surprising since I had always believed that God gave me legs so I could walk to a chair and sit down. Every evening after dinner I would run around the parade ground a few times; each 3 1/4 rotations was exactly a mile. I got up to 2 miles with ease and decided to go for 5 which I managed to achieve on my first attempt. Being high with elation that I had done it so easily, I went out the next night to do it again and got half way round the first lap before my calf muscles locked and I met the gravel with my face. I had to be carried to the medical center and excused any physical exercise for three days.
In our squad we had an unlikely military man. His name was Brian Ingledew, and he was from Derby in the north of England. Brian was very, very intelligent; he had a degree in advanced Mathematics and had taught it at ‘A’ level, spoke 14 or so languages fluently (yes, he really did) and could learn any language in a matter of weeks by simply reading a book on it and listening to a native speak it, but he had absolutely no common sense. Add to that the fact that he was overweight and uncoordinated – I should explain what I mean by uncoordinated! When most of us walk, our left arm goes forward at the same time as our right foot advances; with Brian his left foot went forward at the same time as his left arm. Not only did this look funny but it drove the drill sergeant to apoplexies of rage, and caused much derision to be leveled on his head by the other recruits.
Brian was also a very sonorous and boring person to listen to as his voice was a complete monotone and it was not unknown for everyone to get up and leave the table the moment he arrived. He also snored very loudly and was unwakeable – we even poured cold water on his head one night with no affect.
I cannot remember who instigated it, but I strongly suspect it was I, and one foggy night we, that is the other recruits and I, decided that we had had enough of the snoring and we carried Brian, in his bed, out to the center of the parade ground in the middle of the night and left him sleeping out there with his clothes locker and bedside table neatly arranged. The guard, conveniently, overlooked this apparition until first light when he was discovered by the drill sergeant. We all paid a price for this jape but it was worth it.
Another time we got some liquid skin and poured it into the keyhole of Brian’s locker padlock and laughed ourselves silly watching him, in a inebriated state, try and fit the key into the lock for half an hour.
In my squad, there was a lad from the East End of London. A real cockney, his name was Mick and he hated me for some unknown reason and did everything possible to pick a fight. One day I got back to my billet only to find that he had upended my locker and made a complete mess. I put everything back the way it was and carried on, much to his frustration. A week later he got discharged/transferred out when a surprise inspection found a ‘gay’ magazine under some towels in his locker.
Every Wednesday at noon, we had to go the NAAFI to attend an hour of religious instruction given by one of the local parish priests. I have always had an aversion to organized religion and really resented being lectured to by one of its representatives. During our third session, I decided to argue with every point the priest raised and managed to get the better of him for the best part of an hour. It ended with him screaming at the top of his voice “You are the spawn of the devil!” I replied by saying that I was sure that my mother would be glad to know that! and walking out of the room.
Needless to say he went straight to the CO’s office and complained about my behavior. I was duly summoned for an explanation. I explained to the CO that there was nothing in Queen’s Regs that said I had to listen silently to a ‘civvie’ (note how much of a military man I had become by this time) postulating about something that I had absolutely no belief in, and that I would enter into a debate with the priest each week unless specifically ordered not to. (I knew that they couldn’t do this; it would have been a breach of Queen’s Regs.) For the rest of my time at Ashford I was excused attending the session and spent many happy Wednesday mornings lying on my bunk and reading.
I gained notoriety and a six week graduation delay by pouring a pan of burning fat over my left hand in an attempt to stop the guardhouse from burning down. Foolishly I had grabbed the edge of the pan with a towel thinking that I could carry it outside but the towel burned through very quickly and everything spilled. It was the first time in my life that I had an out-of-body experience and I clearly remember looking down on myself screaming in pain. Fortunately, and almost miraculously, the hand cleared up without any trace of scar tissue and it is only on a really hot humid day that the burn marks can be seen. To this day I cannot understand why I didn’t let the guardhouse burn!
I gained another four week graduation delay by being unable to master the intricacies of marching in step on the parade ground and, for my sins, got sent over to Imphal Barracks in Yorkshire for a month’s course. When I got there I discovered that all the others who had been sent there were overweight and unfit and by the end of the first day I had been put in charge of running them around the countryside. It was a wonderful time, full of laughs and, at weekends, drives around the Yorkshire Dales; truly God’s country; in a rental car which we did everything possible to wreck; one day we found a road with dozens of humpback bridges and we raced along the road, like Steve McQueen in Bullitt, taking off at every bridge and coming down with a thud that jolted us, and surely destroyed the suspension of the Ford Escort we were driving. At night we went into York itself to explore the town and marvel at its quaint streets with names like Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate.
Returning to Ashford, I arrived a few days ahead of the annual Remembrance Day parade, a quasi-religious ceremony to commemorate those who had given their lives for their country during the two World Wars. If my memory serves me correctly we had a church ceremony to attend in the morning; I was always excused these as I refused to go into Church and was quite happy to stand outside for the duration of the service; the CO found this unacceptable so I got an exemption which sometimes meant I had to stand guard duty and sometimes not.
We then had an hour and a half for lunch before the afternoon parade and were allowed off-base during the break. Four of us went to Charing to a pub called ‘The Chequers’ which served wonderful beer and food and we were jarring away when I looked at my watch and realized that we had forgotten the time and had ten minutes to get back for the parade. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that we were 12 miles away on country roads.
Panic ensued; being late for anything was a week’s extra guard duty and being late for a parade was time in the guardhouse. We ran for my car and hurtled off as quickly as I could accelerate. Soon we were up to 80 mph around narrow country lanes with twisty corners, but we were making good time and finally got to the last leg of the journey with 4 minutes to spare and 4 minutes to go. The road went steeply downhill and curved sharply to the right. At the bottom of the hill, right on the corner, was a lovely old pub, and outside the pub sat an elderly couple in their vintage Rolls Royce drinking champagne. I saw their looks of pleasure and enjoyment turn to consternation as they spotted my car heading towards them at about 100 mph. They then changed to terror as I put the car into a four wheel drift and slid sideways at them waiting for the moment when I could put the power back on and make the turn. At a guess I would say we missed them by 12”; certainly their champagne glasses went flying as they dived for cover but I made the turn and we were home free with 3 minutes to cover 2 miles.
I drove onto the base and straight onto the back of the parade ground where all the cars were parked. Ahead of us I could see everybody starting to line up and then I spotted an open file in the row of parked cars with a space in the very front row. Still at speed I headed for it, hit the brakes and locked them. The car shot forward and came to a dead stop in perfect position. As we leaped out we smelt burning rubber and looking back saw the residue clearly ruining the perfectly clean parade ground. “Oh shit,” I said as we ran for our positions.
A few moments later we were in line and the Company Sergeant Major began his pre-inspection. When he got to me, he straightened my tie and leaned forward. “Got shares in Goodyear, do you?” he asked menacingly.
“No, Sir,” I barked in reply.
“You’ve made a mess of my parade ground, Private,” he said “and if those marks are still on there when I come in tomorrow morning, you and all your squad will be peeling potatoes and doing extra guard duty for the next month. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”
The four of us spent a long night scrubbing those marks clear. In the end I think we resorted to a brush and toothpaste.
My tenure at Ashford involved 2 nights in jail; I was framed!
The first incident happened when I went up to London one evening with another recruit to see a Beethoven concert at the Royal Albert Hall. They were performing Beethoven’s 9th, the Choral Symphony, and it was fabulous. Afterwards we had gone out for a couple of beers and missed the last train back. Phoning the duty officer to report in, we were instructed to go to a nearby police station where they would put us up for the night; which they did – in a jail cell that I remember as being extremely cold, clammy and uncomfortable That’s how I spent my first night in the clink.
The second time I actually did get arrested for ‘Attempted Breaking and Entering’. We had been taking a photography course and our assignment for the evening had been to get some low light shots. After wandering around Ashford, taking lots of boring photographs of a very boring town (and believe me when I tell you that Ashford was/is one of the most boring towns ever built). I decided that we’d get some good shots, and had one of my buddies ready to photograph me standing in front of a jeweller’s window, with a brick in my left hand ready to throw it through the glass. Unfortunately a patrolling police car happened by at that time and promptly handcuffed me and took me away. My buddies thought this was hilarious, got some great shots of my arrest, eventually reported it in and the Duty Officer had me released.
A year after arriving at Ashford, I graduated or, as they call it in the Army, passed out. I have an old photograph of myself in full uniform being inspected; I was as skinny as a rake, had a moustache and my uniform, although pressed perfectly, still looked like a sack of shit. With the best will in the world, I looked ridiculous.
The night before we had, in the time honored tradition of the Army, had run up a pair of long johns on the flagpole, and had hauled a cannon up onto the roof of the depot. We had considered putting the CO’s car up there but had come to the conclusion that he might not have found it amusing.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading or listening to this chapter as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and recording it.
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