Another rifle through the khaki issue
Friday 31 January 1997
I was tested, like all other boys, on the shooting range to see if I had any natural ability. "Don't pull the trigger - squeeze it! Fire only when the gun is still! Pull the butt gently into your shoulder!" I obeyed all these instructions perfectly and still turned in bad scores, so I was turned out. Nobody was happier than I was. I had no desire to be a good shot. (Actually, I think I had already decided that when I was about seven. My friend Philip Riddell had a much older brother Ian who had been given an air gun for his birthday. We begged him to demonstrate it for us. He went out with us into the garden and looked round for a target.
"How about those sparrows in that tree?"
Fine, we said. He fired. All the sparrows scattered except one, which he had fortuitously hit. We went to look at the bird, as it lay on the ground. It was still breathing but obviously fast dying from its bloody wounds. I was horribly shocked by the reality of actually shooting something living, and have never wanted to repeat the experience. I don't know what the opposite of blood lust is, but I have got it.
Of course, the question of military training at a Scottish school was not quite as unclouded as it would be elsewhere. Military training means training to fight an enemy. But who would be the enemy? The Russians? The English? That's not quite as fanciful as it sounds. There was a healthy anti-English feeling abroad at the school which sometimes emerged into the open. I was once set upon with fists by a big Perthshire farmer's son called Sandy Thomson, who, when I asked him why he was beating me up, said: "Because you're English!" After that we became good friends and indeed united as free-thinkers against a boy called Emslie, who came from Plymouth Brethren stock in the Orkneys. (I thus learnt the vital lesson that the best if not only way to conquer the Scots is to divide them against each other.)
The English/Scottish divide was not imaginary. Nearby the school ran an old rutted lane which was still known as Wade's Road, being one of the military roads built by General Wade to speed troops to any Scottish uprising. I have never seen anything similar in England later than a Roman road, yet here next to the school was a symbol of English occupation only 200 years old. And we went to different history lessons depending on our nationality. Those of us aiming at English universities did general European history. The ones aiming for Scottish university entrance went off for their own lessons and came back talking about the doings of Montrose and the Covenanters. Why, it affected even the games at school. All the main sporting activities were compulsory except cricket which was still seen as an English game.
Anyway, by the time I got to Oxford the whole experience of cadets and guns had left me a lifelong non-combatant, so it was probably as well that I just avoided National Service. I asked one of the college servants one day what exactly was the difference between us and the National Service lot.
"They had a much higher standard of practical joke, sir," he said. "I remember one time the dean of the college - a rather unpopular man - woke up to find that his entire staircase from top to bottom was filled with barbed wire and he couldn't get out. Moreover, the barbed wire was laid according to commando principles in such a way that only commandos could remove it. As it happened, there were several ex-commandos in the college who had a grudge against the dean, so we went to look for them, but they just happened to have gone to London for the day. The dean couldn't leave his room until they returned that evening. Oh yes, National Service has its advantages ..."
All right. Military training improves practical jokes. But not a lot else.
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