Church parade or floor scrubbing
One morning the sergeant told us to fall in outside to be marched down to a chapel for church parade.
I told my fellow POC’s that I would stay in the billet because I was agnostic and not a Christian. The trainee stockbroker said in that case as a non-believer he would stay there, too.
Not long after the others were marched off to church parade, the sergeant returned to ask what we thought we were doing. I explained.
Our religious beliefs were of no concern he said, because a church parade was simply another parade, and all parades were compulsory. If we insisted on refusing to take part, he could easily find an empty billet where we could scrub the floor.
Oh well sergeant, I responded, if it was in effect simply another compulsory parade, I would of course attend. Absolutely, said the trainee stockbroker. And the sergeant marched us both down to the chapel to join the parade.
I feel it’s worth pointing out that at the time of writing this (aged 84) I have been a pantheist and not an agnostic for some years.
Pantheism stemmed from the belief of Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), that the universe and cosmos are identical to divinity – everything is what one might call God and there is no separate god. Spinoza did not use the word pantheism, which was coined in 1828 by German philosopher Karl Christian Kraus.
Among famous pantheists were Goethe, Tennyson, Claude Debussy, and Emerson.
It came clear to me that I was pantheist after concluding that some sort of intelligence must permeate everything for animals, insects, fungi, plants, even seeds to be able to evolve, adapt and communicate to survive, as shown on television and in books explaining recent research.
An example of the clique’s contempt for the working classes was the way they’d always greet Corporal Brown our physical training instructor when he arrived outside the gym with sneering smiles and a singsong chorus of “Good morning, Corporal Brown.” They clearly considered him to be working class.
At the start of one gym session Corporal Brown picked me out to try taking over as physical training instructor just for that session. Why me, I don’t know, but I was the only one on the course he ever detailed to do that.
I found I was good at disciplinary role playing. Everyone started smiling when I was chosen so I went up to one of them and rapped out: “Get that smirk off you face soldier! Do you want to run ten times round the barrack square? Don’t look at me when I’m talking to you. Now do 12 press ups while we continue our exercises.” He was of course one of the clique.
That penchant for disciplinary role playing would be useful later in my national service in Germany – British Army of the Rhine.
Earlier, soon after arriving on the course. I found myself in disciplinary mode without any intention of role playing.
I went into the communal shower and found that Tomkins had left it in a mess. So I stormed into the billet and rebuked him for his lack of consideration for the rest of us. So here was a 22-year-old in a parental role with someone who looked like a late teenager or 20-year-old.
Teaching the young plumber to march
Being selected in the gymnasium wasn’t the only time I was picked out to do something.
For instance, the captain once asked me to take aside the young plumber and see if I could help him improve his sloppy marching. I tried to do it sensitively. No-one else was asked to take anyone aside like that.
Similarly, the captain later asked me to help a young working-class regular recruit with good qualifications to settle in to the course. The clique of course was extremely hostile to him, and, despite my encouragement, their nastiness made him leave the course.
Once, while we were all on an arduous march, with heavy backpacks and carrying our rifles, the sergeant asked me if I would carry Farrington’s rifle as well as my own because he was exhausted and wilting. I agreed. After his rifle was returned to him, Farrington asked if he could carry mine as well as his own, in gratitude for my help. I said thanks but it wasn’t necessary.
Being picked out several times suggested that I must have been making an impression. Certainly, soon into the course I was able to impress by loading bullets into my rifle faster than anyone else during weapon training, through have practised it in the Royal Marine Reserve.
And the sergeant once told everyone to gather round to look at my gleaming boots as an example of how they should look after ‘bulling’. (Bulling meant sitting up into the early hours to shine up our boots by circular finger motions with a mixture of black polish and water.)
Race through the woodland
A good impression must also have presumably resulted from me beating the rest of them in a race through some woodland.
The captain, lieutenant and sergeant had devised and written down clues which, when followed correctly, took us POCs to a series of objects, like a pond and an old tree stump, and eventually to the outside of the copse where the officers and sergeant were waiting. All the others chose to run the route in pairs or threesomes, but I chose to do it alone – and finished well ahead of them all. Which is ironic in that later in life I became conscious of having a poor sense of direction. (An ominous fault for any officer.)
The plumber may have been a poor marcher, but all the rest of us worked hard together to achieve the admirable standard of marching by those on the course ahead of us. They were much more precise than anything I had seen either with the Royal Marine Reserve or in basic training. Fairly soon we were marching as precisely as them, with boots going rat-tat-tat in unison as we halted.
Personally, I had found in the Royal Marine Reserve that I enjoyed marching – for the team spirit, and as a sort of meditation, focusing the mind away from everyday problems.
On leave – leading to a dislocation
Travelling from Aldershot to my parent’s home in Newcastle was too complicated and, for me, expensive, during short periods of leave, so I intended to remain in barracks. However, both Farrington and the jazz trumpeter kindly took me to their homes during such leaves.
Farrington to stay with his kindly mother in a country cottage, and the trumpeter to stay with his wife and two little daughters in their London area flat.
I made his children laugh so that later they would ask if Uncle Mike would be coming back, and I went with the trumpeter to watch him playing at a gig with a jazz band.
He also took me to visit a friend and his family in a suburban house. As was the tradition at the time, we three men went to a pub for a while, leaving the young women to chat together. When our conversation turned to politics it became clear that the other two had views much more conservative than mine. They seemed slightly dismayed when it emerged that mine were left of centre (influenced by reading the New Statesman magazine).
Back at his flat the trumpeter said he had been invited to sit in with the Ken Colyer band, wouldn’t be able to get me into the gig, and as his wife would be with him, I would have to return alone to the barracks. The band was hugely popular so I realised there might not be a seat for me. But I also privately speculated that my relative political radicalism might have prejudiced him against me somewhat.
That radicalism – though not very left wing – stood out at the regular discussions that were held as part of the POC course. The comments of all the others were in contrast either conservative or Conservative. Because the captain never suggested I tone down my views I assumed, naively, I would also be able to talk as freely during possible discussions at the War Office Selection Board. In retrospect I feel he should have warned me not to sound even slightly radical while there.
Home on longer leave
When I was about to go home on a longer leave, the course’s tough-looking sergeant major tried to make me miss my train to Newcastle by keeping working on various unnecessary tasks. This was his revenge for me having recently refused his request to baby sit for him and his wife, having done it for him once before. He sat smiling, enthroned as it were and surrounded by obsequious corporals, his ‘minions’, while I worked.
“Excuse me, sir. Could I go now, I have a train to catch to go on leave to Newcastle, my home town.?”
“Oh no, Private Jamieson. You have to clear up that mess in the corner there.”
Grins all round from his minions.
It may have been on that leave that I went into a pub near Grey’s Monument in Newcastle and was surprised to find there a member of the parallel POC course, a journalist who had worked for the South Shields Gazette, and clearly also on leave.
He embarrassedly introduced me to an older civilian called Leo. I then recalled that the pub was known to be a favourite with the gay community. I also recalled his close friend on his course, also a journalist, having told me how much he loved the voice of Judy Garland, an icon with the gay community.
On that leave at a jazz club an Evening Chronicle journalist suggested he, another young man and I go on to a party being held by a friend in the High Heaton suburb. “Will that be all right?” I asked. “Oh yes, he’s a friend.”
It wasn’t – because there was a shortage of girls at the party and we told, rather aggressively, to leave. On our way out a young man grabbed me, totally unnecessarily by my collar to swing me out of the door. As a reflex my fist shot out and punched him in the face. His mates immediately poured out of the door, shove me over the front gate and dislocated my shoulder and started fighting with my companions.
“All right,” I shouted from the ground several times. “I’m hurt and can’t retaliate so just let us go.”
And, to our great relief, they did.
As we walked through High Heaton in the direction of my parents’ flat in Heaton, I had to keep a hand behind my head to support my pained shoulder. My companions whistled the Colonel Bogey March as British prisoners of war had done in the then famous film The Bridge on the River Kwai – in one scene, I think, with hands behind heads.
At my parents’ flat my mother looked up and said accusingly: “You’ve been fighting!”
Actually, the only time I’ve ever been in a fight.
I told the hospital doctor who pushed my shoulder back into place that I had done it slipping off a kerb – which I also said on returning to the POC course. I entered the billet with my arm in a sling – stealing the thunder from Farrington, who was enjoying being centre of attention with a wrapped-up thumb dislocated while tickling his girlfriend back home.