War Office Selection Board
At the end of the POC course and while waiting to go before the War Office Selection Board – known as WOSBEE – some of us took the sergeant to see a stage version of West Side Story in London’s West End.
To be accurate, I recall a second sergeant with a middle class or upper-class accent who sometimes chatted with members of what I have called the clique, who also had middle class or upper-class accents. (An obsession with accents?) I was never aware of any function he had on the course – anything he did specifically – so I haven’t included him in the preceding narrative.
If I am somewhat obsessed with accents, it may well be due to the following
As an Evening Chronicle office boy on my way to becoming a junior reporter in my late teens, I was told by the news editor (in what I took to be a Yorkshire accent): “You’ll have to tone down your Geordie accent love if you want to be a reporter.” I did, to an extent.
Then in the 1970s I had an article headlined Vowel Pest in the Guardian newspaper about a Hamburg recording studio deciding that, because of my northern English vowels, they could not use me on a recording for teaching English to German children.
And later in the 70s, while training at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation to be a newsreader on its international shortwave service, I was asked by the trainer – in a Canadian accent – if I could reduce my already-toned-down Geordie into something closer to a colleague’s posh accent. I refused and went on to be a regular newsreader on air.)
Back to the run-up to WOSBEE
I was taken before a table of officers to have a report read out on my progress on the POC course.
It was, to use the cliché, glowing, with the only rider that there had been a small weakness on the practical side.
I was told that, based on the report, I should have no problem in ‘passing’ the War Office Selection Board, that is, being selected to become an officer cadet for training at Mons Officer Cadet School.
In fact, I failed!
The elderly brigadier who gave me final feedback on why I failed, used the word ‘wet’ to described some of my actions, though he added that I also shown great perseverance and determination in other activities. He also said: “You seem to be something of an angry young man.” After a pause: “Though that’s perhaps a bit harsh.”
In fact, the description pleased me greatly as a group of my favourite novelists had been become widely known in the 1950s as angry young men – John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, John Brain, and John Wain. All – according to Britannica – “had expressed scorn and disaffection with the established socio-political order of the country. They were also impatient and resentful especially with what they perceived as the hypocrisy and mediocrity of the upper and middle classes.”
Probably, I now suspect, the kind of upper- and middle-class officers who had been my WOSBEE adjudicators.
The planks test
It was clear to me that by “wet” the Brigadier would be describing my appalling performance on the first task. It comprised criss-crossed planks supported about a foot above the ground. Step on any plank painted red and you’d be considered to have been killed.
My task was to lead some candidates across the planks to safety. I simply could not see how to lead them across without one or more stepping on a fatally red plank, presumably not meant to happen. I spent so long trying unsuccessfully to solve the conundrum – absolutely reluctant to have any of my team ‘killed’ – that one of them asked, should he start leading. “Good man,” I said, trying to sound authoritative, and he went ahead. I have no memory of whether or how he kept the rest of us ‘safe’.
Someone later told me that among any who had been at a private school’s army cadet section of its Combined Cadet Force would almost certainly have had the advantage of practising such plank-based tasks. So, I asked myself why such practise had not been part of the POC course.
The determination description must have referred to my performance on the arduous assault course. Its concluding task was to swing by rope from one high up platform to another at some distance. Hampered by remaining pain from the dislocated shoulder (what I would later jokingly refer to as my war wound), I twice failed to land on the distant platform, but managed it at the third attempt through shear clear determination.
The brigadier showed some interest in my designation as agnostic, saying could not recall any great commander who did not believe in God, and asked why I was agnostic and my parents’ attitude towards it.
I don’t recall my no doubt superficial replies but there seemed no time or point in describing how I’d been slightly shocked and intrigued when my mother told me in my later teens that she was in effect agnostic, without using the word. I had previously assumed that they were both believers (my father was in fact), as they had married in church and been happy for me to go to a Methodist Sunday school with friends, after their religious parents suggested I do so.
After this personal revelation, I decided that no-one could possibly know whether there was a god, and I somehow felt so satisfied and fulfilled by this conclusion that, at the age of 20, I had a major feature in the Newcastle-based Journal newspaper headlined Why I don’t believe in God, with an article replying by the Christian features editor.
WOSBEE also included making a presentation on a self-selected topic. My initial roommate was a likeable young man nervous at the prospect of his presentation. I agreed to his request for me to check over his written presentation after he learned I had been a newspaper reporter and sub-editor.
I feel I made a good presentation but don’t know whether my topic, the annual leek growing competition among working-class allotment holders at Ashington, Northumberland, would have appealed to the presumably non-working-class adjudicators.
‘You should have passed’
(That roommate, incidentally, passed WOSBEE, but when I happened to meet him some time later, he said he was thinking of dropping out of Mons Office Cadet School because it was so tough. (I thought, rightly or wrongly, I wouldn’t have dropped out.)
On returning, despondent, to the POC unit I was interviewed by the captain who said (posh): You are a twit Jamieson. You should have passed! You must promise me to try again.”
When I expressed reluctance, he kept insisting, so I pretended to agree.
I suggested to him that the “angry young man” description may have stemmed from my relatively left-of-centre views in interviews, as well as in contrast to all the other candidates’ conformist or conservative opinions during a discussion group.
He said, well just as in a civilian job interview it would surely have been best to say what you thought you were expected to say.
I was despondent at the likelihood that I would now likely have to spend the next couple of years or so as a clerk doing boring office work. Among the main functions of the Royal Army Service Corps were barracks administration and transport supplies, and I was a non-driver. (In 1965 the RASC’s functions would be divided between other corps.)
For a while I worked in a store supplying NCOs with equipment, together with a skinny working-class lad who described how as a civilian he had hidden from his older brother in a doorway in case he beat him up for kissing the brother’s girlfriend. We had lunches in the other-ranks canteen together with his friend who was persistently silent. I also had to take messages by bicycle between barracks.
Joining Army Public Relations
Eventually the captain sent me to London for an interview to possibly transfer to the Education Corps as a teacher. The interviewers said I talked fluently, but the Education Corps stopped taking national servicemen before I received their decision.
The captain then sent me for a successful interview to join Army Public Relations. The interviewers asked whether I would prefer to work in Cyprus or British Army of the Rhine. I had no hesitation in choosing West Germany, having a German GCE O-level and having enjoyed two school trips to Germany. The first, as early as 1951, was hiking and hostelling through the still war-scarred Rhineland with German schoolchildren – so innovative that a representative from Chancellor Adenauer’s government took us Geordie schoolboys for a meal at a Cologne restaurant.
I was delighted to be accepted into Army Public Relations – far more fitting to my skills and temperament than being a commissioned officer or a Royal Marine. The outcome persuaded me that in future I would assume that if I worked hard to achieve a specific goal, even if I didn’t achieve it, I would expect to achieve something as good or preferable. A personal philosophy of life, as it were.
I was administratively transferred to the General Service Corps, which is for specialists not allocated to a regiment or corps and flew in a military planeload of army personnel to West Germany – the first time I had flown.