EVERY MORNING on my way to a casual job, Artexing a ceiling for a mate, I had to walk past the Army Recruiting Centre in Acton and it seemed to beckon me in. I knew my destiny lay through those doors. I was 23 years old, punk had been and gone and come to nothing. It was a great disappointment because I thought we were going to change the world: the Clash by playing songs and me by going to Clash gigs.
The band I had been in for a couple of years had just broken up. We'd been based in Oundle, east Northamptonshire - not quite the headquarters of rock. You only needed short hair and straight trousers to be the Kings of Punk. However, I'd been an important person to the youth of that town, so returning to live at my mother's in Barking was a big comedown. The Artex would drop onto my face and I thought: I can't be doing with this. However, all I was educated to do was work at the Ford motor company at Dagenham. I'd been taken to the main body plant a couple of times by the careers officer from school and it was like Hades. Looking at the faces of the men, I knew I could never hack it; not being skilled with my hands, I would have just been working the line - forever.
However, I'd run out of other options and was turning into an oik: no good to nobody. So finally walking through the door of that Army Recruiting Centre, I felt back in control again. I'd stopped drifting. I told the officer I had two conditions: "I want to drive a tank and I don't want to go to Northern Ireland." Strangely enough, I'd chosen the Irish Hussars, which actually were a tank regiment; being Irish, they also didn't do tours of duty in Northern Ireland. So I signed up for nine years.
My decision was not just out of the blue - a number of things contributed. Thatcher had been elected, Reagan had just got in, Brezhnev had died and martial law had been declared in Poland. I was convinced something was coming to a head and thought: "where do I want to be when the big one goes off? Sitting on my arse in Barking, watching Nationwide, or actually be there, know it's going to happen and go in the first half hour?" I decided I didn't want to be left behind searching for my mum in the rubble.
Looking back, I also think I needed something to measure myself against. My father had died in 1976 when I was 18 years old. It took a year and half for the lung cancer to kill him, just as I was old enough to square up to him. He'd been a tank driver in the Second World War, staying in India until partition, and it was very much part of my childhood. His death was the day that childhood ended. I gathered everything out of my room and put it in the attic. It was so tragic, I had just wanted it behind me.
Not being the athletic type, I failed my medical and was sent to a special place in Sutton Coldfield for four weeks PE until I could do enough chin- ups to make the grade. It was a laugh. So it was not until I'd got to Catterick in Yorkshire that I realised I'd made a cock-up. It was another planet, I don't think I'd ever been that far north. I felt very culturally isolated; when Bob Marley died, I asked the corporal to stay up and watch the tribute on TV. His death was really tragic but no one else gave a hoot. What's more, having shown an affinity to black culture, I was scapegoated.
After the first couple of days, some of the lads decided they wanted out and left. The sergeant explained how at the end of the 90 days, we could sign ourselves out, but to give the army a proper try. It made perfect sense to me. I needed something to push against and this was exactly what I asked for - it was sink or swim.
There was so much pent-up sexuality with all these young guys around that a Nolans' album in the NAAFI shop took on deeply significant proportions. While supposedly looking at the Marmite, my daily visit was not complete without copping a butchers at the cover, particularly Bernadette. (Recently, while on holiday at Weymouth, I saw the Nolans were on the pier with Cannon and Ball; it all came back to me.) Eventually, the officers brought up the subject of "clearing your custard" and for the last month of the course, each Sunday lunch time we could buy a porno mag. We were advised: "don't all buy the same one, you idiots, with four guys together in a room they could last you the week!" In close proximity to other people, you learn some important things. Until I was in the Boy Scouts, I thought I was the only person in the entire world who masturbated!
I had a bit of a lip on me, so surprise, surprise, my bootlaces and belt were taken off me and I was marched down the block house a couple of times. I remember being in the classroom when they told us what to do on the battlefield if there was a nuclear explosion. For radiation fall-out, we were told to dig a shallow trench and put 14 inches of earth over the top of us. So I piped up: "Is that so the pioneer corps can just come along and put a headstone down?" I thought it was a perfectly rational point!
Although most people wouldn't think of me as a natural for the British Army, I was almost the best recruit! But I decided it was not for me and bought myself out. Walking out of Catterick, I felt sorted. I'd had to live on my wits and come out on top. I wouldn't recommend it to anybody as a sabbatical but it did focus me; where else did I get the courage to get up on stage and perform on my own?
I felt I finally had something to measure myself against my dad. He enjoyed the armed forces and was good at it and so was I. Fathers are difficult creatures and when they're not around, it's even harder. But I could now say: "Look what I've done, Dad. I'm not a total time-waster." So my time in the army made me feel closer to him. For a long time, I didn't think about or talk about him to anyone, but now I find myself on a rainy day in Dorset at Boddington Tank Museum with my little boy showing him the model his grandfather drove and the Chieftain I was training to drive.
I never realised how complex I was until my biographer made me think about myself. However, it is our contradictions which make us interesting. I know being in the army is not politically correct, but life is not PC, and if you want to defeat your enemy, first learn their songs. Recently, I walked past the Army Recruiting Centre in Acton, but it has been knocked down to make way for a supermarket. Is that progress?
Billy Bragg's official biography, `Still Suitable for Miners' written by Andrew Collins, is published by Virgin, priced pounds 12.99. His latest album, `Mermaid Avenue', is on East West records and he tours from 20 October until 14 November
Andrew G Marshall
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