Memoirs 1936–2011

Chapter 2 1946 - 1953 School in the South

The Berkhamsted School Combined Cadet Force Band. I am the Drum Major and approaching the apogee of my enthusiasm for military matters.

“No Father’s guardian Hand my Youth Maintain’d, Called forth my Virtues, and from Vice restrain’d.”
Richard Savage.

My parents’ decision to return together to India was taken at short notice, so they had little time to make arrangements for me. I was 9 years old, and they hastily sought a boarding school which would accept me in the middle of the academic year; Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire was the first to offer me a place. It has its own Junior or Prep School attached, and therefore was able to take me at the age of 9, so in the spring of 1946 that is where I was sent.

My trunk was packed according to the requirements of the lists the school had provided (2 pr. grey flannel shorts; 2 grey flannel jackets; 6 grey flannel shirts; 2 pr. black shoes; one school tie etc. etc. and off you go). I took the train south to London alone, with enough for a taxi fare from King’s Cross to Euston (but with nothing left for a tip, which resulted in a torrent of abuse from the driver). At Euston the porters would cry out “Any more for Snob’s ‘ill?” as we struggled aboard the train with our bulging suitcases, wretched and vulnerable in our shapeless grey shorts and school caps.

Train journeys at this time were a nightmare. The carriages were invariably jam packed so that I always had to sit on my suitcase in the corridor. There were no refreshments other than those my grandmother had made up for me, and the tired, worn out old steam engines, suffering still from inadequate war time maintenance, took from 6 to 8 hours to make the journey to London. I would sit there in misery, dreading the arrival and hating the journey.
Soon after I left for my first term at school our house was let, and eventually sold. We never lived in it again.

Berkhamsted was at that time known as an “old fashioned” school. By this it was meant that its attitude and methods had changed little since the Edwardian period, and the then Headmaster kept it so. There were all of the institutions of the traditional public school, most of which have long since been abandoned. There was a built in official system of fagging, whereby new boys had to act as servants to the older boys and do their bidding; there was bullying, and a fumbling homosexuality which, while frowned upon, was thought an inevitable part of a public school education,  “the advantages of which” stuttered my Housemaster on one occasion, “outweigh the disadvantages”.  It was in any case thought infinitely preferable to heterosexual relationships with the few females who might be found available.

My own efforts in this direction seemed inevitably to be unsuccessful. One object of universal adolescent desire was Valerie Jones, the School House butler’s daughter. She had particularly large and well-formed breasts which jutted, proudly unsupported by a brassiere, under the tight sweaters which she inevitably wore. When she ran across the quadrangle, which she seemed to do with suspicious regularity, they bounced so vigorously that she was obliged to restrain them with spread hands. This naturally created a great deal of tension in our community, and I suppose I should be proud that, like the triumphant sperm which first reaches the egg resting on the desert wastes of the uterus, I was the boy who managed to make an assignation with Valerie. We met in the long grass near the ruins of Berkharasted Castle, once the favourite residence of the Black Prince. Alas I was not able to joust as no doubt he would have done, for one touch of the forbidden fruit left me overcome, unmanned, and subsumed with embarrassed guilt, these emotions passing over me in quick succession and leaving me incapable of pursuing my advantage.

On another occasion I met on the Common a tall fresh faced girl called Alison, a keen and expert golfer whose white ankle socks and precise backswing magnetised me into her orbit. It was arranged that I should go to her house for tea the following Sunday, and so I did. As I sat alone on the sofa in her parents’ living room waiting for her, her six year old sister appeared in the doorway, and began to jump up and down, chanting over and over again, “Gerald’s come to woo Alison! 
Gerald’s come to woo Alison.”

This I found extremely embarrassing, but I affected to ignore the little monster - whereupon she, determined at all costs to affect me, picked up the family cat and threw it at me. Hurtling through the air like a heavy powder puff embedded with needles, it whizzed over my shoulder and in passing tore a sizeable piece of flesh off my earlobe with one of its desperately outstretched claws. Blood immediately gouted from my wound, dripping onto my collar and staining my jacket.

Ineffectively I held my handkerchief to it, assuring Alison’s mother - who had just entered with the tea tray - that it was nothing, nothing at all. I never returned to the house, and gave up my pursuit of Alison.

At school beating with the cane was the final and not unusual punishment for infringements of discipline. It was carried out by both masters and by those boys who had reached the rank of prefect. This superficial brutality was directed towards instilling those standards of behaviour which produced what used to be called a gentleman - modesty, .good manners, thoughtfulness, kindness, concern for the opposite sex, and, strangely enough, protection of the younger, weaker and worse off members of society. There was no question but that an ideal model for acceptable behaviour was firmly presented; most of us failed to reach the standard proposed, but at least it was there, almost palpably, before us.

This archaic mould, which had tempered the absolute authority of Empire, gave us an ingrained sense of our own superiority which was entirely without foundation, and at the same time rendered us hopelessly ill-equipped for survival in the modern world.

It was necessary for me to make considerable adjustments, in order to adapt to this new environment which was in every sense so far from what I was accustomed to. My parents were gone for at least a year, and my home was gone. My grandmother had charge of me, but she had no home of her own and at the end of each term I had to write to ask where I should send my trunk; my grandmother lived with my maiden aunt whose work involved frequent moves between Edinburgh, London and Newcastle and so there were constant changes of address as new furnished accommodation was found as it was required. Not the least of my problems was my Novocastrian accent, whose short vowels were unfamiliar to the middle class youths from the Home Counties who constituted most of the boys at Berkhamsted. On this account alone I was unmercifully bullied and tormented; for a while it seemed I had only to open my mouth to speak in order to draw down upon my head the most furious and infuriating mockery which developed instantly into physical attack if I ventured to retaliate at all.

On the other hand, during my first year I gained a certain amount of status because my mother occasionally sent me exotic insects which she had captured in her garden, and her surviving brother who was also in India, impressed everyone at school by his gift of two badly damaged and meaty cobras which he had beaten to death with his walking stick. They arrived preserved in a jar of mentholated spirits - I don’t know how it survived the long and difficult journey intact - and were much admired until one day I opened the jar. The smell was so absolutely foul that I threw the whole lot away. This uncle, who had spent his youth as a whaler, vanishing for long periods and surviving wet and cold and brutal conditions in the arctic circle, was childless and therefore a constant source to me of unusual objects - at first whales’ teeth and whale bone, and later flexible sandstone, strange carvings, ammonites, and a particularly large collection of butterflies which arrived almost entirely eaten by the colony of ants which had travelled with them, using them as a sort of packed lunch for the journey.

My first beating, very soon after my arrival at Berkhamsted, occurred as a result of this treatment. A very large boy called Wiener - the son of refugees from Austria - was physically tormenting me in the changing room, and in desperation I shouted at him “You bloody Jew”, which is an expression I had heard my mother use but the implications of which I did not understand at all. Immediately the Housemaster, Colonel Campbell, who had overheard this, ordered me to get dressed, marched me to his study, and gave me six strokes with the cane which he kept on top of his writing desk, of which I had been told and which indeed I had glimpsed when sitting in his study at our first meeting a week or two before. From then on I was beaten fairly frequently for one reason or another, until I became too senior for such things, and indeed as Prefect and Head of my House I found myself administering beatings instead of receiving them.

For eventually I did settle in to the ways of the school. The education it offered was a solid grounding in traditional subjects taught in traditional ways. None of the masters stood out to me as an heroically inspired teacher; but they all did their job well and I received from them a thorough grounding in literature from Chaucer to Hopkins and a sense of grammar and spelling (in my case by reading good examples, for I could not abide deconstructing sentences grammatically). Geography was taught from a world map still mostly pink. History ceased in 1914. The French I was taught up to 0 level still enables me to get about in France; mathematics and basic Latin I received, and a smattering of science, which was not a subject taken as seriously as it is now. Sports were played constantly, mostly Rugby and cricket, but not with the egocentric and boastful hysteria of today; and there was chapel every day, and twice on Sunday, and House prayers every night, at which a prefect would, Chapter by Chapter, plough through the Old Testament, missing out (much to our chagrin) the dirty bits. The rolling cadence of the King James Bible and the profound poetry of the psalms became an integral part of the fabric of our young lives, and we were the unwilling sleepwalking recipients of a “vision of order for the whole of things as well as the key to the rest of Western art, the greatest of which were in one way or another responsive to the Bible”1.There was an unexpressed but no less powerful feeling that sense had been made of creation, and that there was an answer to every practical and moral question if one looked hard enough. We had been given the key, and if we wished to open the door we were able to do so.

As one would expect in such an environment, Art as a subject was not considered serious or useful and the two periods per week devoted to it were treated by all of the boys as free time, during which our kindly but ineffective Art master (the only one on the dais on Founder’s Day who did not wear an academic gown) vainly attempted to keep order. My ignorance (and indeed that of virtually all of the rest of the school) was so profound as to be unique and special. Although Botticelli prints (Primavera and the Birth of Venus) adorned our dining room walls, I had not heard of Van Gogh or Cezanne, or indeed any other artist except perhaps Leonardo and Michelangelo, until long after I left school.
But art had not by then become the fashionable preoccupation it is nowadays. No money could be made from it. In order to pursue it, one had to follow a difficult and arduous course in which the first sacrifice was personal security - as I was much later to discover. Most people did not find this an attractive prospect.

My strategy for survival in this at first hostile environment and in the alienating circumstances of my private life was escapist. Not through any of the masters, but by browsing among the oldest books in the school library, I somehow discovered the middle ages. No doubt some gene inherited from my grandfather Foster, the curio collector, was responsible for this. My first discovery was a fascinating account of the Knights Templar from their rise from principled poverty to their fall from corrupt wealth and power. Thereafter I became engrossed in the study of this period, and it provided me with a fantasy life. I romanticised the past; I would not have liked the gross realities. My view of the time was essentially a pre-Raphaelite one. My studies caused me to travel around churches in the holidays sketching effigies and making brass rubbings, to join the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne and go on their field trips and read their proceedings, and to meet many eccentrics with similar pre-occupations, notably the wonderful R. Coulson Scorrer who lived in a council house in Newcastle surrounded by great suits of armour and wrote articles for the most learned periodicals as the world’s leading expert on armour.

I was deeply attracted to the powerful abstractions, graphic imagery and arcane logic of heraldry, and studied it quite seriously. Its mysterious beauty became a major influence on the abstract sculpture I produced in the late 1960s.

After a year in India my parents returned to Britain and my end of term trunk was directed to a cottage they had rented in Hampshire. It had only two bedrooms, but it was half-timbered and thatched and dated from the sixteenth century, and it had a well-kept garden. It was a charming backdrop against which their deteriorating relationship was punctuated by violent rows. They went out nearly every night, leaving me alone in the house. I would ensconce myself in an armchair, armed with a rusty naval cutlass from the walls, and a large jug of orange juice, and plough steadily through the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was the only reading material the owners had left behind. My parents seldom read books. My one excitement was a collapsible rubber-skinned canoe with sails which they had bought for me and which I sailed on the river and eventually in Southampton Water.  On one occasion, accompanied by a friend from school, and quite by accident, I crossed to the Isle of Wight, and had to spend the night there. This caused a certain amount of consternation, but I was quite proud of the deed, since I was reading Arthur Ransome books at a tremendous rate at this time and the adventure seemed exactly the sort of thing that the enviable children of the perfect family he described would have undertaken.

Later when my mother had moved back to Newcastle, I kept the canoe upturned in the backyard of our house, and when occasionally a school friend would come to stay we would walk it bodily down through the city to the Tyne, and launch it from some decaying river steps or slimy ramp, from which we would paddle and sail among derelict decaying docks and slipways, surrounded by countless used condoms floating about us deposited there by the outfall of sewers, the knotted ones more buoyant than the rest. This represented a forlorn attempt to partake of the ambience of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with only the most limited resources available.

The final paroxysm in my parents’ marriage took place at Christmas in 1949, when I was thirteen. Late at night on Christmas Eve my mother came in to my bedroom, shook me awake, and pulled me into her own room, where a woman - a friend of hers who had been present at dinner the night before - lay in her bed. Beside it stood my father, looking rather sheepish, and under the circumstances rather oddly wearing a pair of dark blue silk pyjamas. Later my mother said that they had had dinner together, and that she had fallen asleep in her chair. She had eventually awoken and gone upstairs to discover the other two in this compromising situation. How she herself came to be in her nightdress and dressing gown was never explained.

This awkward and unpleasant situation soon developed into a noisy and undignified scuffle at the top of the stairs, during which my mother fell down them without seriously injuring herself. The fact that my father was left holding the detached sleeve of her dressing gown makes it seem unlikely that he pushed her, but rather that he was trying to prevent her fall. She triumphantly took it as an assault, and barricaded herself in my room, clutching me and sobbing all night long in my narrow bed. From time to time my father banged on the bolted door, begging her to come out and finally crying out in desperation,

“What’s going on in there - a spot of incest?”

It was a rotten Christmas.

I did not realise it at the time, but I was receiving a perfect early conditioning for an artist - I was being driven into introspection, given no opportunity for complacency or even peace, and obliged by pain and ugliness to create another and better reality.

Soon after that my father was posted to Germany, and he did not take my mother with him. Their marriage, such as it was, was over and after that I did not see or hear from him until I was twenty years old. He would not reply to my letters, nor did he take notice of my birthdays or of Christmas. It was as if as far as he was concerned I ceased to exist, except for the fact that he continued to pay my school fees. All communication with him was carried out through the firm of solicitors in Newcastle which he and my grandfather had always employed. From time to time I would go to their offices and try to discuss this sorry state of affairs with them, not understanding that to them he was their client, and I a potential adversary. They kept communication to a bare minimum, and without emotion I felt the lack of a father very deeply, particularly in my middle teens, but it became increasingly obvious to me that this was the status quo and that I would have to accept it as such.

So I tried as best I could to make my life as I imagined it would have been if my family was complete and properly functioning. For seven pounds I bought an ancient twelve bore hammergun with badly pitted Damascus barrels. A strange rattling sound would come from beneath the rib when the gun was tilted as some small detached piece of metal made its way in the direction of gravity. Although it was not nitro proofed I fired many modern cartridges through it without it bursting, usually at rabbits on a remote hill farm on Hadrian’s Wall where I had, through the gun shop, got permission to shoot. I would travel by bus along the Roman Military Road, and then make my way on foot for the last few miles up to the farm, which had rag rugs made of nylons, a loudly ticking grandfather clock in the stone-flagged kitchen, and a high backed wooden bench seat at the fire side, all of which had been there since they were new. They were not the affectations of nostalgia. The family were kind and generous to me, clinging as they were to a barebones existence, sheep farming on the springy windswept grass of the Northumbrian hills.

Somehow, I can’t remember how, I met an eccentric hill walker whose passion it was to walk after hares on the uplands. (Hares run in wide circles, so it is not such a far fetched idea as at first it might seem.) He took me to the really remote valleys and farmhouses of Allandale. We would walk wherever the hare took us, watching its course and following it high up across the moors. His boots, old fashioned and quite heavy, were a marvel of the shoemaker’s art, and he kept them waterproof with goose grease that he collected himself from the cooking pan.

One day I was in the gun shop buying cartridges and as usual asking if there was anywhere I could shoot rabbits and pigeons, when an old lady standing nearby overheard me and said immediately that I could come and have a try at the pigeons on her land any time I liked. She was Miss Eve Adamson, who with her sister Miss Muriel, lived at Linden Hall near Longhorsley. Eve had always been the wilder and more adventurous of these two beautiful sisters, both of whom had lost their fiancés in the first World War and who remained unmarried. They lived in Edwardian splendour at Linden Hall, a pale golden sandstone foursquare building designed by the great Northumbrian neo-classical architect John Dobson.   The severe and uncompromisingly beautiful external geometry of the building as usual caused problems with the layout and lighting of its interior, which are elegantly solved by a generously proportioned central atrium. This rises to the full height of the building, and is lit by a glass dome. It contains the main staircase, and around it are arranged the living rooms on the ground floor, and the bedrooms above. A perfectly preserved ha-ha allows open views across the countryside beyond the house, and at the same time prevents livestock from approaching the plantings which surround it. Miss Muriel ran the estate with a firm but kind hand, while Miss Eve would spend some of her time travelling or at their house in London. About twenty years earlier she had acquired a protégé, a young actor, whom she helped and encouraged in his career. My mother attached herself to the two sisters as soon as I returned to school. Though Miss Muriel would have little to do with her, Miss Eve was characteristically kind and eventually my mother established herself as a sort of occasional companion/housekeeper to her whenever she was at her London house.  My mother put the darkest possible interpretation on the relationship between Miss Eve and her actor friend, and used her position to investigate it as closely as possible, triumphantly reporting such intimate items as stains on the sheets whenever he visited the house and stayed overnight, and constantly trying to discover and report anything which might discredit him. It was obvious even to me that she entertained an ambition to see me take this man’s place, if not in Miss Eve’s bed, then at least in her will. I was very upset at the way the situation had changed. I enjoyed my occasional visits to Linden Hall during the school holidays, where I would wait in dark woods in the growing dusk for the pigeons to clatter in to roost, and then go and warm myself at the fire in a small sitting room with the Misses Adamson, having tea and crumpets before catching the bus back to Newcastle. This innocent and charming hospitality was, I soon realised, being circled by a dark wolf, invisible beyond the warm light of the domestic scene; a disappointed and resentful wolf, using dreadful weapons in a pathetic attempt to gain advantage, and to take from these two kind old ladies. The wolf was my mother.

My mother took various jobs, at first living with my grandmother wherever she was at the time. On one ghastly and memorable occasion she went to Germany to attempt to win my father back. This was a total failure and on her return she sat by the fire in my grandmother’s living room in her dressing gown for an entire two weeks, weeping and in an uncontrollable depression as the full implication of her circumstances forcibly struck home.

From that moment on I became a sort of surrogate husband in her eyes, an object of extreme possessiveness and constant criticism; an accoutrement or accessory to her own self, on which she fixated with increasing hysteria.

When I was 15 my mother returned to Newcastle and bought a terrace house in an area of late Victorian development known as Jesmond. Because of her extremely difficult financial circumstances she had to take in lodgers, known by her euphemistically as Paying Guests. Life at school had prepared me for close daily contact with strangers, so the holidays were not particularly difficult, though obviously we would both have preferred more privacy. The house had only one bathroom. Our lodgers were an oddly assorted crew. In the ground floor lived Dr Pick from Vienna, an avid stamp collector who was the VD specialist at the city hospital. He seldom emerged from his room. Who knows what tragedy had stilled him. Next to him was Mr Lynch, a sad middle aged Irishman who wanted to be a dentist and who repeatedly failed his final examinations, but kept on returning for further study each year. In one of the attic rooms was an aging actor, the mainstay of the local Repertory Company; the young female lead lived in the other room. Though by now my sexuality was urgent and vibrant, I did not dare to explore the possibilities of this promisingly louche young woman, though in retrospect I am sure my approach would not have been rebuffed. Life sometimes seems to consist only of lost opportunities. My mother, quite accurately, suspected that there was a ‘relationship’ between these two Bohemians, and objected to this - on what grounds I am not sure. She was, I think, fascinated by him and perhaps even saw him as a possibility for herself, but I think he thought her a bit of a joke. Frightened of his articulacy and attracted by his flamboyance, she unwisely initiated a feud with him which was conducted entirely by notes. It began in the bathroom, where she had left a card on which was written “PLEASE LEAVE THIS BATHROOM AS YOU WOULD WISH TO FIND IT.” He countered with “PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE NOTES ABOUT THE PLACE LIKE THE LANDLADY OF A SEASIDE BOARDING HOUSE.” She then wrote “AS I HAVE NEVER BEEN IN A SEASIDE BOARDING HOUSE I WOULDN’T KNOW ABOUT SUCH THINGS.” and so on. When finally he and his paramour moved on to better things, they left propped up in his room a large, crudely executed but unmistakably clear drawing of him standing naked while she knelt at his feet, her head pressed into his crotch. I could not make out what she was doing there, but my mother was triumphantly offended.

Others came and went, but this group was certainly the most memorable.

It was fortunate that next door to us lived Roger and Florence Garside. They became very good friends to me in particular, at that awkward and difficult time in a boy’s life when good sense and sympathetic understanding can do so much to ease the passage into manhood. Roger Garside taught psychology at the University, and his father had been a painter. Several of his father’s works hung in the house; classic London School townscapes of the 20s and 30s, honestly observed and honestly executed. Florence, his wife, was a black-haired deep voiced woman who affected long strings of beads and intense conversation, inhaling deeply on her cigarette. Her effect was bluestocking and Bloomsbury, and I think she found the Newcastle of that time an unsympathetic and frustrating environment. I cannot imagine that she ever found anyone there to converse with at her own intellectual level. But she bore it well, running her house and her husband with a cheerful but intense authority, which had no doubt been perfected during the war, when she had reached the rank of sergeant in the A.T.S. She gave me quite different and more intimate accounts of wartime separation than that which I had observed in my parents. One couple she knew she saw in bed, on the morning of the day they separated. “They had been making love so fiercely, my dear, that their brows were covered with perspiration!”, with an ascending almost squeaky note on the last word she spoke. On the other hand, she told me that when dear Roger was ordered overseas they were so devastated that they “couldn’t do anything, they just lay there”.

The honest and intelligent conversation, and sincere and thoughtful interest which they both, but particularly Florence, took in my affairs was the most important influence of my adolescence, and one that preserved my sanity and gave me a glimpse of the life of the mind and the advantages of emotional honesty. Whenever I was in trouble or in doubt, or when my mother’s possessive and oppressive railing was driving me to despair, it was to Florence Garside that I turned for help and support. When I had my first fumbling sexual experience in the back of a car, and then spent three weeks in desperate panic until the girl reported the safe arrival of her period - (with my telephoning her every day it is surprising that she deigned to inform me of anything) - it was in Florence that I confided my fears, and it was her in her gruff voice who told me “Gerald, do not go anywhere near a girl without a contraceptive, whatever time of the month it is”. This was advice I later ignored, causing a crisis in my life.

My chivalric interests had been to some extent sublimated when I reached the age of 13 and moved from the Junior to the Senior school, because at that point I was, like all of the other boys, obliged to join the Combined Cadet Force. It is true that a handful of the weaker boys elected instead to join the Boy Scouts, which was the only other option available, but this small group was treated with disdain by the overwhelming majority who became miniature soldiers.

From the very first moment I was attracted by the accoutrements and activities of the military life as it was expressed to us one afternoon per week, and for a whole week of cadet camp during the summer holidays.   I loved the uniform, the drill and ceremonial, the tactics, the weapons and the fieldcraft. 1 rose swiftly through the ranks of the Berkhamsted contingent as each year passed.

My private historical studies began to extend beyond the middle ages. I would copy out great long tracts of military significance, such as one written in the seventeenth century entitled ‘On Why the Pike is the more Honourable Weapon than the Musket’ - (answer - because in order to trail a 16 foot long pike you had to be of strong and substantial build and besides the weak little musketeers hid behind the pike men in order to reload) - or this gem from an obscure German military autobiography which evidently meant a lot to me at the time:

“So at last I became a Hussar –

I was Beside Myself with Joy.”

My enthusiasm was intense. On one occasion I begged the school sergeant major to let me clean all of the 300 rifles in the Armoury.  When I had got to about the 70th, he came in to me, patted me on the shoulder in an avuncular way, and said “Give it up now, lad, you’ll break your heart.”  I became drum major of the newly formed band, won the Trophy for the best night patrol, became Senior Under Officer, and won the Sword of Honour. Throughout this period I steadily read my way through the literature of the First World War, including and most particularly the anti-war writers such as Siegfied Sassoon and Robert Graves, and the net result of it all was that I was determined to join the Army, and became convinced that a military life would be my future.

There were of course other factors involved besides my obsession with the Cadets. I knew vaguely about my grandfather’s death and my father had remained in the Army after the war; there was no-one to dissuade me or point out the realities of my choice; and above all no other ambition or desire had thus far presented itself to me, and I dreaded the vacuum which would be caused by any indecision about my future. I thought (and still think) that it is preferable to do almost anything rather than to sit and wait for some inspiration to present itself, and after the chaos and uncertainty of life at home the organised existence of the army seemed attractive to me, a refuge where sudden emotional outbursts and tirades from my mother would be non-existent, and life would be calm and orderly. It also gave me an honourable reason for living far away from her - and I was penniless.

Thus it was that at the age of seventeen between the hurdles of ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, I took the Civil Service Examination. I found it extremely easy. I thought I had finished one of the three hour papers in two hours; when I got outside the examination hall (with no chance of returning) I discovered that my watch was wrong and that in fact I had finished it in just one hour. In spite of this I came first in the examination results for all of the Army entrants of that year. Nowadays quite different standards are applied; candidates for commissions have usually already been to university and are much older and more mature. Ours was the age of the callow young subaltern who learnt on the job, and grew up in it too (hopefully).

The next hurdle was the Regular Commissions Board examination. This was conducted at the School of Infantry at Warminster and consisted of a 3-day series of tests designed to ascertain whether or not the candidate would make a good officer. The famous highlights of this experience were two - the embarrassing question asked in interview, “Why do you think you should be an officer?” (Correct answer: “Because that, I believe, is the best way in which I can serve my country, Sir.”) and the Initiative Test, in which a group of 5 candidates are given two short planks and an oil drum and asked to devise a way to cross a stream with them - a stream too wide for any combination of the 3 items to span. The idea is that the examiners will be able to see how the group works, who takes charge, and so on. Like many military activities it is extremely boring and to this day when I have insomnia I do not count sheep, but instead think about 2 short planks and an oil drum, and fall asleep immediately.

  1. Allan Bloom:  "The Closing of the American Mind" p.58, Simon and Schuster, N.Y. 1987 (back)