Sir Norman Fowler is chairman of the Conservative Party

I AM an Essex man. I was born in Essex, I spent my first 18 years at school in Essex, and when I came to do my National Service, in 1956, I joined the Essex Regiment (now long since disappeared). It was just before Suez. A number of us were chosen as potential officers, and I went to Eaton Hall in Chester, where I became an officer cadet.

I would regard the four months I spent there as probably the most difficult of my life, an enormous shock to the system. I became conscious that I had, in effect, lived a very sheltered life until then.

I had been at a day school where there had been no concerns about differences between one boy and another - whether his parents were rich or poor or middle- class or whatever. You might have

assessed people on whether they were bright, or good sports players, or good debaters, but certainly not on any other basis.

It was only when I got to Eaton Hall that I appreciated, literally for the first time - it hit one like a punch - that there were all kinds of other divisions. The talk in the barrack room was about what school you had been to: had you been to a public school or a grammar school, and not only that, but had you been to a good public school?

People tended to divide on that basis and so you were, as a grammar school boy, slightly at a disadvantage. Some people had a kind of assurance - no, an assumption - that their grouping was the only grouping, and really they didn't have a great deal of time for people who came from a different background.

For the first time, I came across the class system as far as Britain in the Fifties was concerned, a class based upon school. Quite interesting.

It was a difficult period for the country. People were passionately opposed to Suez, or passionately in favour, and there were quite a lot in the middle, which tended to be my view: you either did it or you didn't. And it dragged on. It took months.

I remember when we had the Falklands Cabinet 30 years later, thinking, 'My God, I hope they do better than what I remember at Suez.' In fact, they did spectacularly better, but one needs to remember what a shambles Suez was.

Of course, it's always seen as the time when things changed as far as Britain was concerned: a time when it was underlined that we had a new position in the world, we weren't the old world power.

Meanwhile, at Eaton Hall, we were racing round demonstrating keenness all the time, which is not exactly - for me, anyway - the happiest environment. Why? Because it's an artificial thing. It's putting people on parade every minute of the day. You are a great act, and unless you are careful you turn off and react against it, and I did react.

There was a marvellous period piece at half-term when you went in to your company commander, saluted and were given your half-term report, which you had to sign, then salute again and march out. My report said, 'He is content to drift through with a general attitude of amused tolerance', which I thought summarised my view of the place.

But I did have enough common sense to understand that this was not the report most likely to endear one to people on passing out, so I worked quite hard after that.

I felt a tremendous relief at moving on and I think, in the end, one had become wiser. I understood that the rather happy, contented and doubtless sheltered world of Chelmsford, 1956, was not actually the way of the world. I grew up.

It was a loss of innocence, I suppose.

(Photograph omitted)