© Noel Harrower 2015
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YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW - Part One
                                                     COPYRIGHT                        Noel Harrower                                                                   I remember the day I left home with all the crispness of a November morning, but it wasn’t November: it was August. High summer for some: November for me. The end of my boyhood, my schooldays and my first job as a library assistant in Manchester - The end of my first life, and the beginning of my second. I was eighteen, and I’d received my call up papers. Along with thousands of other young men like me, today was the day that I began my two-year term of National Service. It was 1950. The war with Germany was over, but there was another one raging in Korea, and British troops were fighting terrorists in Malaysia and Burma. Would I be involved in these places? I’d no idea. All I knew was that I had to go on a train to Aldershot and present myself  at somewhere called Oudenarde Barracks in Farnborough. As I sat beside my father on the corporation bus there seemed nothing to say – nothing or everything. Perhaps they are the same at times like this and you can’t say everything, so you say nothing. I sat in silence watching the lamp-posts go by. The bus to Manchester seemed to carry me through my life. I passed Grangethorpe Drive, the road I lived in until I was nine, when the bombing got so bad that we’d moved further out to Heaton Moor. Audrey still lived in Grangethorpe Drive. She was the bossy little girl who lived opposite and expected me to do whatever she wanted. She said she would marry me. but I said I’d never get married, and secretly thought that if I did have to marry Audrey, I’d keep her in a cage. We had started school at the same time. I remembered our mothers walking along the street that day with Audrey and me following and wondering what school would be like. I’d not seen Audrey for years. Perhaps, if she got on the bus, I wouldn’t recognise her. We passed the Kingsway cinema where occasionally we had gone to the pictures. We passed by the stop for Manchester Grammar School where my elder brother, Roy, had gone. It was the dream school that I hadn’t even sniffed at. We’d gone to watch Roy play cricket there. How I hated that elite matey-ness in which I had no part. Gardens got smaller as we moved into town. Then they disappeared altogether as the roads got grimier; rows of Coronation Streets interspersed with pubs and gaunt  churches. We passed Shakespeare Street, where Roy would leave the bus for the University, on wet days when he did’nt cycle. I remembered that he’d done three years National Service in the RAF, and been part of the occupation force there, just after the war. Perhaps, they’d send me to Germany too. We passed Ardwick Green, with the Hippodrome, where we’d both gone with our parents to watch pantomimes. Eventually, it was time to get off. London Road Station loomed on the horizon. The clock read 8.45, and the place was awash with 18-year-old youths – tall and gangling, short and stocky, well dressed young men, scruffy louts, lads with mufflers, or sporting college blazers. An announcement was being made that a special train for Aldershot was waiting on platform nine. There were a few tearful mums but most of the lads had organised things better than that and like me had said goodbye at home. Some others had a dad with them. My father greeted a colleague of his from the Town Hall who had also come with his son. Tom and I shook hands. We had never met before, but our fathers had arranged to meet on the platform. “It’ll be better for them to go with someone else,” they had both agreed, and yes, it did help, although at first all we said was “Hello”. The train suddenly hooted and a military policeman appeared and shouted “All aboard.”   “Good luck, and remember to write and give us an address as soon as you can. Mother will be waiting.”  A shake of hands, and Tom and I scrambled forward towards the scrum at the nearest door. We fought our way along the wooden corridor, looking for a compartment with two spare seats. It took a long time to find one and by then both dads were lost in a sea of faces. I slung my bag onto the luggage rack. We looked at our travelling companions – one was wearing a Manchester United scarf, another was pulling at a cigarette. Looking past the rear end of a third, who was shouting something through the window, I saw a sickly looking lad with spots on his face. Suddenly there was another hoot. The youth who was looking through the window sat down and I took his place. I could not see anyone I knew, but I waved goodbye to my boyhood and the retreating mosaic of faces, which were soon swallowed up in the dark belly of the station. I stayed until the great archway had past over my head. When I sat down the Manchester United supporter offered me a cigarette. “No thanks mate,” I heard myself saying. “I don’t smoke.” He looked relieved and put the packet carefully away. Through the grimy window, engine sheds, mills and old factory buildings juddered by. Later there were lines of little houses puffing smoke through a regiment of chimneys. On we steamed to areas where there were gardens and playing fields, and then open countryside. I sat back and looked at my companions. “Where you goin’ to?” asked Tom. “Somewhere called Oudenarde barracks, Farnborough.” I told him. ”I’m going to Farnborough,” he said, “but my barracks are called Malplaque.” “Sounds as if we’re going to fight the seven-year war,” I joked, but no one laughed. “Where’s that, Korea?” asked the spotty youth. After a pause, Tom said. “I could do with a coffee. Anyone else coming?”   I joined him in the long trail through the corridor and after that we both felt we were friends. When the train pulled in at Aldershot, all hell let loose. Sergeants, corporals and military police lined the platform like prison warders. “Hurry, hurry, shake a leg,” they shouted. Outside was a line of open-backed army vehicles. Placards were held up with the names of different barracks. I lost Tom in the scrum, as I headed for  Oudenarde. A few minutes later we were herded into the vehicles, and the rear door was bolted. The engine revved and we were nearly all thrown to the floor. Suddenly, we were swirling through the country lanes of Surrey, and holding on the bars above our heads as we swayed at every turning. Many people had tried to tell us what it would be like when we first joined. They were all wrong. Conditions change. My brother, Roy, had spent a fortnight standing in queues when he had been drafted into the RAF. That was within weeks of the end of the war and medicals, interviews, uniforms and equipment had all to be arranged for the new recruits replacing the war-time soldiers. Roy told me how slow and boring the first week would be. We arrived at 4.0.p.m. and we never stopped running until 11 that night. Everything happened at break-neck speed. First, we were marched to the cookhouse for a rapid talk by our commanding officer, and were each issued with a mug of tea, which we scarcely had time to gulp down before we were marched at the double to the quarter-master stores, where we had to take off our outer garments and scramble into denims. They came in two sizes, large and small. We had to grab a beret and then start swapping head-wear with the others around us to find an approximate fitting, and then squeeze our feet into new uncomfortable boots, while our corporal shouted, “Hurry up, you idle bastards. Never seen such a shower!” Then we were marched to our barrack-room, told to claim a bed, dump our civvy clothes and luggage on it and belt out double quick. Next, we were marched to the hairdressers where a line of amateur barbers shaved our locks, then to a cookhouse to be issued with a knife, fork and spoon, a metal dish and a hurried meal, before a dash to the tailors to be measured for uniforms and so it went on. The next two weeks were spent in a lather of terror. Some of the corporals were new recruits, only a month or two in service. Everyone seemed to be frightened of the man above him – corporals of sergeants, sergeants of sergeant-majors etc. This week’s intake were at the bottom of the pile, and being a little lad of five foot two, it seemed to me, that I was the barrack room joke. There always had to be one! The objective was to cow us, and it worked. On reflection the authorities did an incredible job, knocking thousands of young lads into shape in so short a time, but we had no time for reflection. It worked with most but some were crumpled in the process. Each day began at six o’clock with the duty corporal flinging open the barrack room door, and yelling us out of bed. Anyone not on the floor and starting to dress in one minute had his bed overturned by our barrack room corporal. A scramble for the toilet and washroom was followed by a frogmarch to the cookhouse, where we queued for food. As soon as the corporal had finished eating, we were all ordered out again and marched back, at-the-double, to the barrackroom. Half an hour later we were all on an inspection parade, where buttons and brasses, belt and boots were studied, first by the corporal and then by the sergeant. Then came a round of square bashing, rifle drill, gymnastics, and more inspections. We learned to march, salute, shoulder and present arms and shoot our enfield rifles  at targets on the range. My heart sank at the thought that, in a war, the target would be another soldier. The lads got by with bragging, swearing profusely and bullying the runts, but the strange thing was, it was usually the most uncouth youth who had his boots shining best through the technique of spit and polish. My barrack had lads from all over the UK, from the London docklands to the Gorbals in Glasgow, and from Newcastle to Birmingham. Thick dialects meant that they struggled to understand each other, but a common parlance of foul language saw them through. I was often a butt of their humour, with my neat manners and clean tongue. They called me “clerkie” because I could read and write reasonably well. I told them I was’nt a clerk, I was a library assistant and they laughed hilariously. The first time I tried to assert myself, I came a cropper. The corporal told us that we all had to sign our names in a book. We lined up to do this, but when it was my turn, I asked what it was I signing. “Sorry corporal, I can’t sign something I have’nt read,” I said. He pushed his face into mine. “If I say sign, you flaming sign, you short arsed little bastard.” “But I must know…” I began. “What are you?” demanded the corporal, and I had to repeat what he had said I was and I duly signed my name, feeling myself a coward. When the last man had signed, the corporal slammed the book to, and as he left the room, he turned and said menacingly, “You’ve all signed on for an extra two years. You’re regular soldiers now.” Was this a joke, or was it true? The barrack room was in a ferment and some of us had a sleepless night, worrying about the future and if we had a right to complain.  The next day, I saw the book on the table in the corporal’s room. He wasn’t around. Nervously, I slipped through the door, and crossed the floor. I picked it up and looked at the front cover. It was a list of names of men who’d had their weekly shower. Later, we had tests to do in English, arithmetic and manual dexterity, and were interviewed by an officer about the trade we’d like to train for. I was pleased to find that I was assigned to do office duties. I was “clerkie” after all. After two hectic weeks, there was a passing out parade and then I was posted to Blackdown camp to do a course of army office training. Blackdown was a considerable improvement, although the barracks were bitterly cold. Our instructor. Sergeant Parr, was a good humoured man. Here I learned to type and do routine office duties. The man who had a bed opposite mine was a friendly clown called Ray Cooney, a young professional actor, whom I had once seen perform on stage at Southport in a farce called “Life with father”. Ray, who later went on to perform in his own Whitehall farces, like “Stand by your bedouin”, provided a welcome  light-hearted touch to the camp. After another passing out parade, I received a new posting, and in three weeks’ time, I was home on embarkation leave, saying farewell to family and friends before I set out on a voyage which would take me abroad for the first time in my life. I had been posted to Egypt.                             ------------------------------------------------------------
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