The Worst of Times: Shamed by my own private perfidy on parade: Barry Unsworth

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
MY call-up papers arrived when I was 18, but I went to university first on the advice of my father, bless him, who felt that if you broke the chain of education, you would never get back to it.

I think he was wrong, but he meant well. Anyway, I went to university at Manchester and then went into the Army. Square bashing was six weeks of drill, PT and physical discomfort designed to iron out any independence or self-assertion; to reduce you to a uniform condition.

That was all right because not much was required - just to endure things - and we were all in the same boat.

After that, because I had a university degree, they asked me if I wanted a commission. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, had decided an acquaintance with metaphysical poetry and the novels of Henry James fitted one to be a leader of men.

I had not the slightest desire to command or exercise authority of any kind. I just wanted to get through my two years in an obscure and lowly way, without much being expected of me. But I said yes all the same.

In due course I became a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals and was stationed at Aldershot.

There was I, a natural civilian if ever there was one, basically subversive, introspective, a lover of solitude, and yet I fell so readily into an alien code of values. Even now, 40 years on, it seems astounding that I could have been so easily divided from my essential self. Astounding and shameful.

I was keenly aware of a sense of falsity, of putting on a performance in which I never believed. It was strongly there on morning parade when I inspected my platoon. I would find myself looking with an impertinent closeness at someone's face, and I would hear myself demanding in brusque and hectoring tones: 'Did you shave this morning, Smith?', or I would observe to the sergeant with me: 'This man's cap-badge is filthy, sergeant.' The sergeant would bellow: 'Sir]' and I would know that man would get hell later on.

And all the time I was ashamed of myself, because I knew the proceedings were idiotic and I was behaving like a shit.

The HQ mess was staffed entirely by senior officers. I was the only junior officer there, the only National Service man and the only man with a North Country accent and a working-class background.

The senior officers made jokes about me all the time. They developed the cod theory that I was some sort of extreme left-wing agitator and I became a butt for all kinds of snide political comments about being a bolshie.

It was a very formal mess. After dinner you could not leave the room until you had caught the senior officer's eye; you had to stand by the door and wait until he looked at you, then you would sort of click your heels and say: 'Permission to leave, Sir?' If he was in a bad mood or wanted to reduce you a bit, he would have you hanging about for a long time before he would notice you. This ridiculous ritual was repeated almost every evening.

Finally, I got absolutely fed-up and went absent without leave for about a week. I kicked around the place, not quite knowing what to do or where to go, and I had the military police out looking for me. I gave myself up to the adjutant, who put me under house arrest.

Eventually I was taken before the general and marched in without cap and without cane - when it's an ordinary soldier they take away his belt and his bootlaces, too.

The general asked me why I had done it. I remember standing rigidly to attention and saying: 'Sudden impulse, sir.' There was a long pause and he said: 'Was it a woman?' Again I said, staring straight over his head: 'Sudden impulse, sir.'

There was another long pause. And then he said: 'Unsworth, a man who fails in the Army will fail in life. Severely reprimanded, march out.' And that was it.

The oddest thing of all was when I finished my time, they asked if I would like to stay on: 'Why not make a career of it?' I remember saying to the commanding officer: 'I don't feel that it's my destiny.' And those were the last words I ever spoke to him or anyone else there.

That was one of the best days of my life, when I got out of that lot.

Barry Unsworth was joint winner of the Booker Prize last year with his novel 'Sacred Hunger', published by Hamish Hamilton.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments