The Army and the Dance

A posting to Northern Ireland with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

A newly commissioned subaltern can easily develop a crick in the neck from taking too many surreptitious glances at the brand new pips on his shoulders which signify the fact that he has the Queen’s Commission.  All regiments pride themselves on their differences from the others, and a particular foible of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was their use of minute versions of these badges of rank - tiny dark objects, which nevertheless seemed to their new wearer to flash and beam like an overworked lighthouse.  To have this authority at the age of 19 was an heady pleasure, even though the first engagement for all young officers after Sandhurst was with their peers for yet more training, this time at the various specialist schools appropriate to their future employment - in my case, the School of Infantry at Warminster, with its stark badge of an unsheathed bayonet and its equally uncompromising motto ‘Follow Me’ - which I later used as the title of a whole series of abstract sculptures made between 1969 and 1973.

Thus the moment of joining of the regiment of choice was delayed, and instead yet more arduous training embarked upon.  Much of it was conducted on Salisbury Plain, most memorably around the ghost village of Imber, which was forcibly depopulated in 1939 so that it could become part of the Training Area.  It was used for street fighting practice and occasional bombardment by artillery; but it retained a unique character in being truly a village undeveloped since the pre-war period, with church and manor, shop and pub still evident though much damaged.  The church and graveyard were wired off as a ‘no go’ area, but this did not prevent the occasional artillery shell from striking them.  There was a strange aura of preserved dereliction about the place, and each year a rapidly diminishing number of the original inhabitants made a peaceful pilgrimage of protest to their old home.

In the spring of 1955 I embarked at Stranraer to join the 1st Battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers at Palace Barracks in Holywood, Northern Ireland.

The old pre-war attitude to newly commissioned subalterns - that is, that they were beneath contempt and should not be addressed and certainly not conversed with for a year or two – still held sway but was beginning to be eroded by the insouciance of the National Service officers, who had neither the time nor the inclination for such conscientiously crusty behaviour.  Nevertheless my greeting was minimal (if adequate) and I quickly learnt that junior officers should not initiate conversations and that discussion of all but the most innocuous subjects was considered distasteful. 

The old rule that shop, politics and women were never to be mentioned was also adhered to pretty well, which left us precious little to talk about.

These conventions were by that time beginning to fall into disuse; but even so the army of the 1950s was a very different organisation from that which it is now.  Many of the field officers had joined before the Second World War, when officers were expected to attend to their military duties only in the mornings, the afternoons being reserved entirely for recreation.  Value, therefore, was placed upon an amateur rather than a professional approach.  Keenness or enthusiasms were still frowned upon in certain places, and style often mattered more than substance.

In the view of some more senior officers, there was not only officer-like behaviour, but there were officer-like artefacts as well.  For instance, in Northern Ireland our colonel took a young second lieutenant out onto the steps of the officers’ mess one day, pointed at his small red Wolsey Hornet sports car, and said,

“That is not an officer-like car.”

He then swivelled his gaze, and pointing to a 3 litre Bentley belonging to one of the captains, he said,

“That is an officer-like car.”

The implication was that the second lieutenant should get rid of his Wolsey as soon as possible, whether or not he could afford a Bentley.  The 1950s were a desperately snobbish time.  Nancy Mitford’s book ‘U and Non-U’, which dissected and graded nuances of behaviour, was read by thousands with a serious devotion, thus turning her from a satirist into an educator.

The first occasion on which Adam Hope, the other newly joined subaltern, and I were taken notice of was after dinner on our first Mess Dinner Night.  These dinners were more formal than the usual nightly ones, and were held once a week.  Sometimes a couple of guests were invited - colonels from other regiments, or the Brigadier (never any females).  We wore our Mess Kit, which consisted of short red jackets with facings and waistcoats of gosling green (the regimental colour), stiff shirts and wing collars, black bow ties, and blue No. 1 dress trousers with the broad red stripe of the Infantry.  The Field Officers - majors and above - wore tight overall trousers which often displayed their tummies to advantage, and spurs which jangled as they walked.  The Regimental Band played during dinner, and after the Loyal Toast had been drunk, the port passed round, and the Band dismissed, Adam and I were subjected to a violent initiation.

It culminated in each of us being blindfolded and slid fast along the top of the mahogany dining table, to crash off the end upon our noses, and find upon ripping off our bloody blindfolds that we were surrounded by flames, produced by various people holding burning newspapers around our heads.

By the end of my time in the Army such habits had more or less died out; National Servicemen would not put up with them.

Even so, there would often be violent games after dinner, and on one occasion I remember an unfortunate conjunction between a human flame-thrower who was using brandy as his inflammable liquid, and a horseback fight, which resulted in the shirt of one of the riders being set on fire and he quite badly burnt.

My first duty on joining my regiment was an unpleasant one.  An officer from a Scottish regiment was under arrest awaiting a court martial, and he was housed in a room in our mess.  Because he had attempted to commit suicide his shoelaces had been removed and he was allowed a razor only while actually shaving, during which he was closely watched.  His plight was sad and undignified, and rendered more so by the fact that he was in his late forties with the better part of a military career behind him; while we who in turn watched over him were callow youths in our late teens, for no more senior officer wanted to engage in such an unwholesome employment and it was therefore shuffled off on to the most junior ranks.  He was a Quartermaster Captain - that is to say, he had spent most of his time in the ranks, ascending to the highest non-commissioned rank before being commissioned.  Officers promoted in this way were seldom if ever given duties in the front line, but generally had control of supplies and administration.  This man had been in command of a transit camp for soldiers’ families who were waiting for accommodation to become available so that they might join their husbands.  He had had an affair with one of his proteges, the wife of a sergeant.  While this was obviously a gross betrayal of his responsibility to both the sergeant in question and of his position, it seemed to me sad that the actual charge which he faced was that of ‘conduct unbecoming’ for after all he had only been decreed an officer and a gentleman a few years before.  Prior to this and for far longer he had been considered the social equal of the sergeant - and as a quartermaster he was even now by no means completely accepted as an equal by the other members of an officers’ mess.  But the army sets its rules, and then sticks to them, just as an abstract painter or a conceptual artist must describe the parameters in which he will work, and not transgress them.

I suppose this first year of commissioned service represents the apogee of my military career.  I was still committed to the idea of being a soldier; disenchantment had not begun; and I was not aware of alternatives and the possible richness of life outside the army.  I was at the peak of my training and my platoon sergeant, Sgt. Kilkenny, was one of the old type, old enough to be my father and clever enough to run things as he knew they should be run, and at the same time give the impression that it was I who was making all of the judgements and decisions.  I willingly co-operated in this illusion since I knew it was the time honoured method by which young officers learnt the realities of their trade. Thus Sgt. Kilkenny would say to me, “I expect you want the platoon formed up for inspection at 0800 hours, Sir,” or “Shall I send the men to the cookhouse for their meal now, Sir,” and so subtly arrange and implement most of each day’s programme according to his experience.  Sergeants like this are a thing of the past now; in the modern Army they are often younger than their platoon commanders.  These older men made a much more useful contribution however well trained the new sergeant may be, because they were experienced and mature enough to bring to their job a paternal and caring attitude towards the soldiers, with a deeper authority and which, if solidly based, gave out a greater degree of confidence.

In the 1950s, the political situation in Northern Ireland was calm, though I am sure that some of the activities in which the authorities were indulging at that time were to some degree responsible for the dreadful events which were to occur later.  There were no worries about security; soldiers could move about and join in the social life of the community, in or out of uniform.  The IRA limited its occasional acts of violence to inanimate targets, such as remotely sited electricity transformers.  No-one was killed or wounded on either side during the entire two years which I spent there. But intelligence reports told us that the old IRA leadership, who remembered the Troubles and abhorred extreme violence, were gradually surrendering their authority to a new more impatient, violent, ruthless and committed group; and this proved to be the case.

We operated in support of the civil authorities, particularly as embodied by the notorious B specials, auxiliary part-time police who were invariably Protestant.  Even to my politically naive self it seemed that many of our actions were arbitrary and on the mainland of the UK would have been impossible - such as, for instance, searching houses without a warrant simply on the instruction of the B special.  Though we were never oppressive, violent or cruel, these invasions of the privacy of the people’s homes (during which we never found a single weapon) made an enormous contribution to the feelings of resentment and inequity among the Catholic population.

Two events in particular stuck in my mind.  Once in which we searched an abandoned farmhouse which proved to be empty, except for a cascade of stiff white paper shirt collars of the 1920s’ style, mingled with piles of religious tracts, and the mummified corpse of the family cat lying apparently asleep in front of the empty grate of the sitting room fireplace.  On another occasion, and again on the instruction of the B special we were escorting, we emptied a remote village hall where a Republican dance was being held.  As the people filed out of the building, one man was found to have a rude poem about the B specials sticking out of his top pocket.  The policeman patted him down, and a rattling noise came from his jacket pocket.  Thinking immediately of the favourite weapon of the Teddy boy, I said, “It’s a bicycle chain. Take it out.” When the man did so, we saw that it was a rosary.

It would be pleasant to suggest that some sort of moral disgust with these activities was what prompted my growing disillusion with the Army, but that is not the case.  I was simply bored with the life and the milieu, and at the same time and with increasing rapidity, even in the limited possibilities of the Army in N. Ireland, new horizons were opening up for me.

Our ineffectual pursuit of the IRA continued.  By this time it had begun to seem more like a myth than a reality; the Orange marches proceeded unimpeded in their garish and noisy vainglory through the mean streets of Belfast, and the Catholics were quiet and contained in their resentment. Our patrols went out each night and each night returned empty handed.  Only one note of discord disturbed the somnolent serenity of the military round, and that was the presence of National Servicemen, unwilling two-year conscripts, who, like the wandering sea-rat in the Wind in the Willows, seemed to say:

“Take the Adventure! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome stop forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!”

It was difficult to feel proud of your achievement in having become a Regular army officer after two years of arduous training and study, when you were surrounded by other Second lieutenants who had been commissioned in a mere six months and who could, if they wished, continue to serve after their obligatory period of conscription was completed. What made it worse was the knowledge that while they carried out their duties with skill and enthusiasm most of them had no intention of staying on and were actively looking forward to a different more serious and more rewarding career beyond the military. For them the Army was merely an interlude.

Other ranks, too, served unwillingly; most committed themselves to the army so long as they were in it, and all now seem to look back on it with affection; but some were determined and incorrigible misfits.  There were suicides among National Service conscripts, and sometimes eruptions of frustration which culminated in extreme violence and which often achieved the satisfactory end (to both the army and the individual in question) of a discharge from the service.  One such occurred on a night when I was Duty Officer.  The Duty Sergeant came to fetch me, saying that there was a disturbance in the NAAFI.  When we got there we found it empty except for the defiant and bloodstained crouching figure of a soldier.  He was a gypsy.  The discipline of military life had finally become unbearable to him, and he had snapped. He had overturned all of the furniture, smashed the windows, and slashed his wrists with the broken glass.  He had then waved his arms about, covering the ceiling, walls and floor with long gouts of blood.  By then the other soldiers present had fled.  He took one look at me and screamed “You’re ganner stick me wi that sword!” I restrained the sergeant and the guard from laying hands on him, and eventually managed to persuade him to walk quietly by himself, with us following at a discreet distance, to the guardroom, where he was put in a cell and, quite soon, discharged from the Army.

Thus the unanimity of purpose and the cohesive commitment of Sandhurst was violated.  A sort of Pandora’s box had been opened, and who knew what might fly out of it?

That autumn the Festival Ballet came to Belfast on tour.  I had never been to the ballet before, and the warm and sentimental drawing of Coppelia won me over completely, so that I believed the toymaker, his village, the honest peasants, and above all in Coppelia herself, to be a far greater reality than that which surrounded me on a daily basis.

This glowing experience prompted two actions; first, and as an echo of my earlier attempt to pursue the actress in London, I wrote to the prima ballerina, Belinda Wright, and asked if I might meet her.  Secondly, I decided that it was not too late for me to learn a musical instrument.  After much thought and I think quite humbly, I decided on the castanets.  I thought that they might be within my reach technically, and at the same time they seemed to have those elements of exoticism and sexual frenzy which were so obviously missing from my life.  Accordingly, I purchased a pair and soon found out how difficult they are to manipulate.  Undaunted, I carried them about with me and practised with them whenever the opportunity offered.  This irritated a lot of my brother officers.

Almost immediately a reply came from Belinda Wright, inviting me to come to her dressing room the following evening after the performance.

You can be sure that I finished dinner in the Mess as quickly as was decently possible that night, and presented myself at the stage door of the theatre with alacrity, from which I was ushered into the dressing room corridors.

Being always aware that time is finite and not to be wasted, I had taken my castanets with me and was practising on them in the privacy of my overcoat pocket.  Mary Maguire, a local balletomane friend of Belinda’s, was sent out into the passage to look for me, and on returning to the dressing room apparently came out with the memorable line “There’s someone there who might be him - does he play the castanets?”

Belinda was extremely kind to me.  She recognised the depth and sincerity of my enthusiasm for her art, and arranged for me to come to rehearsals and practice sessions, and also to stand in the wings to watch during the performances.  Anton Dolin, who had danced with Diaghilev, was the Ballet Master.  He wore a wide brimmed Borsalino hat with the brim turned up on one side and down on the other, a camel hair coat slung over his shoulders like a cloak, and he carried an ebony cane with silver mounts.  He went into passionate rages, hurling deadly insults at principal dancers and beautiful young girls from the corps de ballet in a most satisfactory manner, just like one of our more imaginative sergeant majors.  But there the similarity ended; the parade ground seemed like a bed of nettles and dockers when compared with the luxuriant and cultivated exotica of the ballet stage.

The biggest revelation to me came when I watched the performance from the wings for the first time, for only then is one made aware of the athleticism required in performance.  On stage all is grace, poise, and elegance; but as soon as the dancers come off stage, and are shielded from the gaze of the public, they collapse against the wall or on the floor, gasping for breath and pouring with sweat like athletes at the end of a gruelling race.  It is the height of artifice, perfectly realised.  By the end of a week of watching I had become completely mesmerised, and decided that my whole life hitherto had been a mistake, and that I must become a dancer.

Mary Maguire introduced me to the inevitable old lady dancing teacher who had been with Ballet Rambert at least one of which seemed in those days to be present in every city, and I began to learn my plies, jetes, and eventually to string steps together in sequence.  I kept my tights and shoes carefully hidden in my room in the Mess, and no-one ever knew my destination when I headed off on my motorcyle every night that I was free to do so.  I cannot imagine what would have happened had I been discovered.

I had started late - I was nineteen - but I was very fit and there was a shortage of male dancers at that time.  I was told that it would not be impossible for me to reach the professional stage, if only I could get out of the Army.  But I still had at least four years to serve.

Thus my hunger for experience was assuaged in a careless and accidental manner; any palatable morsel of knowledge that happened to land in front of me I picked up, investigated and consumed; but there was no deliberate direction in my quest, and I had no-one to instruct me.  On the whole the National Service officers had been more elaborately educated than had the Regulars; but still they tended to be trained in accountancy, the law, or estate management.  What I needed, though of course I did not know it at the time, was dialogue with someone who had a liberal arts background and an ambition to be creative.  And against all the odds (for such qualifications were not much appreciated in the British Army of the 1950s) such a person appeared.  It is strange indeed that Ian Carr took a National Service commission; he is now a famous jazz musician and writer, and has always held a left wing position.  Even back then he was recognisable as he is now, and that perhaps is why in group photographs he looks almost like a political commissar in the Russian Army, fundamentally different from his brother officers who surrounded him.

I first met him in Belfast in April 1957, after I had been pursuing my dance studies for almost a year.  Late one evening I went into the Duty Officer’s room to use the telephone.  As was often the case, Ian had arrived that day and immediately had been given the task of Duty Officer, an irksome one which involved dozing fully dressed all night on a camp bed in the office, and rising at frequent intervals to inspect the guard.  We began talking then and have never really ceased.