John Walsh: Tales of the City

The Marines don't have a monopoly on tough initiations. Just look at interior designers
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The Independent Online

Marines - they think they're so hard, don't they? So manly, so much tougher than the rest, such a law unto themselves endurance-wise. You can hear them bragging in pubs: the 32 weeks of basic training, the freezing parade-ground at 5am, the 15-mile run with 60 lbs of luggage (so useful next time you're at Stansted Airport), the barbed-wire crawl, the nine-feet hurdle-clamber, the sergeant-major's fragrant breath.

And now, thanks to the News of the World, we discover what happens when you emerge from all the training - how they show their admiration for your hardiness by putting you in a muddy field, stark naked, with 11 other men and tell you to beat one another's brains out, until some superior figure, seemingly dressed in a Grayson Perry frock, kicks you in the face and leaves you semi-conscious, or rather, just conscious enough to be able to puke.

All the fuss in the papers because of a little horseplay and blood and loss of consciousness in a field in Dorset. You can tell how un-dismayed the Army are about it. "This has nothing to do with training," harrumphs Colonel Bob Stewart, the guy once in charge of the British Army in Bosnia. "If it was some kind of party, the fun ended pretty quickly."

A true Army man, you see, can spot that what was captured on film wasn't a vicious burst of enforced sadism but "some kind of party." Admittedly, there was no Oyster Bay Sauvignon, no rendition of "Mambo Number 5" and no cocktail sausages (unless I'm very confused by the photos) but it was a party nonetheless. Because initiation ceremonies are really a terrific hoot. No really. They feature at the entry level of all kinds of professions.

You probably think journalists have an easy time starting a new job - you think they're shown their desk and given a computer, a telephone and a wad of expenses forms to get them going. What you didn't know is that, on their first day, they're dragged to the canteen by the entire staff, stripped, smeared with gravy from the Unidentifiable Hotpot, made to stand on a table in their undies in front of everyone and recite, "I Am The Very Model of a Modern Features Editor" while being pelted with bananas.

Newsreaders don't pick up that look of suave unflappability just anywhere, you know. They have to earn it. When their two-day training is complete, they are routinely stripped, hosed down with Jeyes Fluid, strapped to a revolving target and have hatchets thrown at them for half an hour by indefatigably smiling studio managers with clipboards. After that, they're ready for anything.

You might think dental hygienists would be too fragrant to take part in such mayhem, but you'd be wrong. On her first morning, the new girl is forced to ram two long Cavity Probes up her nostrils until they bleed copiously. She is then carried round a horrible waiting-room reeking of Pledge Beeswax while threads of dental floss are wound round her buttock region and pulled tight.

The blander the job, the more imaginative is the initiation. It's well known that smart young Oxbridge chaps starting at Price Waterhouse Coopers Lybrand laughingly undergo a traditional ordeal on their first morning: each is ordered to remove his Hugo Boss suit, strapped on to a giant abacus and has his head pounded by wooden balls whizzing along the wires, while being simultaneously impaled on a broom handle smeared with baby oil and chilli.

Bereavement counsellors are initiated by being strapped onto a operating theatre table and having a laser-emitting device like the one in Goldfinger slowly inch up their thighs. Lifestyle consultants like Carole Caplin may seem to have an easy life - but on their first day in the job, they have to wrestle with a starving, five-foot black panther on a tiny, slippery ledge on the 50th floor of Canary Wharf Tower, while singing a passable rendition of "Goodbye" from The White Horse Inn.

So the Marines don't have a monopoly on tough initiation ceremonies. Oh dear me, no. In fact, they look like a crowd of pussies next to some people I know from the world of interior design. It's not all beer and skittles, you know, down at Osborne & Little ...

Cutting edge

When my laptop was stolen from my garden shed recently, with a lot of chapters of a novel trapped inside, many kind-hearted folk sent me sympathetic e-mails, together with a slightly harsh tongue-clicking noise which said, "You did store everything from the laptop on a CD/hard drive/ mainframe/ Nasa command module, didn't you, you dingbat?"

And yes, most of it was saved, but I lost 5,000 words of half-baked, first-draft experimentation. For a month I sulked, and told myself I could never reproduce the first careless rapture of composition. Then I stopped being pathetic, bought a new laptop and got back in the saddle. And a kind friend gave me this wonderful thing - a USB port, so hi-tech it can store 100,000 words of genius, and so small it slots on to the end of a key- ring. Jean-Claud Van Damm, I was impressed. Meeting a friend at a book launch, I flourished it dramatically and said - "Look, I've got my entire novel safe in my pocket."

To which the friend said, "Oh, a USB? Yeah, I've got lots of stuff stored on mine too." I tried to impress other people. They'd got one too. All of them. They'd it for, ooh, months. So, in some cases, had their children. "It's how they transfer their Computer Studies homework, John," they explained kindly.

Imagine my chagrin. I was fired up by a technical device for the first time since I bought my first DVD, I was preening myself as an Early Adopter of cutting-edge Whatsitology, only to find everyone in the world had got there before me. Next week I shall get my revenge. I shall show off my new discovery. It's a Gooseberry.