Just Testing - Derek Robinson - National Service

Originally published in 1985 by Collins Harvill

In Derek’s words (from 1985):

Until 1960, every man who was eighteen and British and medically fit had to do two years’ military service. (it went up from eighteen months when the Korean War broke out.) At that time, National Servicemen made up the bulk of the armed forces, especially the Army. Some men deferred their call-up until they had been to university or finished their apprenticeship, by which time they were 22 or 23. This raised the average age, but not by much: most National Servicemen went in at 18 and came out at 20. To understand National Service, you must understand the 1950s.

Britain was still recovering from the Second World War. The great never-had-it-so-good sea change of the 1960s has not begun; what Britain was recovering towards was a kind of restoration of the 1930s. television was still nowhere, the cinema everywhere. Foreign holidays were for the rich. Cars were a largely middle-class privilege. Ordinary people never ‘ate out’. Rationing had ended only yesterday. The social structure was still pretty rigid. I remember in 1958 going to a wedding. I was wearing Moss Bros full fig and tails. I was in the refreshment room at Victoria Station, drinking a cup of team when a working man got up and offered me his seat. At first, I thought he was taking the mickey (as we said in those days), but I soon saw that the offer was genuine: he felt it was improper that I, dressed as I was, should stand while he sat. It made him uncomfortable.

I took the seat he offered. The British were an obedient lot then. Schoolboys always said ‘sir’, sometimes more than once “Sir, sir, is it true, sir, what Brown says, sir?”). The rule at my state school was that all staff, both male and female, must be called ‘sir’. The fact that I saw nothing odd about this just goes to underline my unquestioning respect for authority, especially masculine authority.

Thus, in one regard, joining the RAF was easy: I simply went on saying ‘sir’ in the same automatic way to a different authority. In another respect it was culture shock on the grand scale. Like virtually all my fellow-conscripts this was the first time I had left home, apart from Boy Scout camps, and none of us was prepared for the blank, stony indifference with which were treated. It was worse than contempt. The first order I was given in the RAF was: “Fuck off.” The tone was flat and empty; it didn’t have the strength to be insulting. The order came from an old sweat of an LAC to whom I had handed my call-up papers. He said the same to everyone. I suppose he thought it was an appropriate way to move us to the next stage of the induction process, and he was probably right.

It probably did me no harm, as a cocky 19-year-old, to be cut down to size and knocked into shape. But what new shape was I being made to fit? It turned out to be an old-fashioned pattern. The RAF, in the 1950s, had barely realised that it was in the jet age. You just had to look at us. We wore ammunition boots whose toecaps were supposed to be bulled to a shine we could shave in. Our uniforms were ill-fitting and made of a hairy serge that lost its crease at the mention of rain. Of all the Services, the RAF should have valued technical excellence above everything else; yet often the greatest attention was given to duties that owed their existence to the Edwardian Army. I served at stations where CO’s Inspection mattered more than anything else.

Every item of kit had to be laid out on one’s bed in a precise pattern: spare socks exactly here, buttonstick exactly there, waterbottle exactly parallel with buttonstick, and so on. (Why did airmen have waterbottles? Nobody knew. It was just something else to keep clean.) One CO was fanatical about this precision. If an item displeased him by a millimetre it went out of the window. I knew some regulars who kept complete duplicate sets of kit, never worn, to be used solely for CO’s inspection. Each items of clothing was immaculately folded around cardboard stiffeners, ready to be laid out like playing cards. That particular trick seems to me an apt metaphor for the ritual irrelevance of RAF life. Once we were trained, our work often turned out to be non-work or even anti-work. The truth was that there were far too many National Servicemen with far too little to do: but of course, this must not be admitted, and so we developed a kind of polished brainlessness to disguise the fact.

I think the turning point in my understanding of National Service came when a corporal ordered me to sweep the operations room floor. Ten minutes later, I was just about to get rid of my little heap of dust when he stopped me. “Don’t do that,” he muttered. “If they see you standing around doing nothing, I’ll have to find you another job. Try and keep sort of, you know, spreading it about.” So, for the next hour I distributed and redistributed that dust, while seriously pretending to accumulate it. Tat is what I mean by polished brainlessness. It makes you feel that you are irrelevant and that the Service is pointless. It does not encourage you to ask questions or expect information or to assume that what is going on makes sense.

If I had been sent to Christmas Island, or Maralinga, or Monte Bello (and I might have been sent; I was in the right age group) that would have been that. I would have gone without question and when I got there I would have done as I was told – and if I was told very little about why I was doing it, that would have come as no surprise. I was just an airman, just a National Serviceman. They had more of us than they knew what to do with.

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