It all really began when I realised I didn't want to be 'Something in The City' like my brother Don. He was on Earls Court Station wearing his City uniform: dark grey pinstriped suit, tightly furled umbrella, black briefcase and a bowler hat. He didn't see me. By then he was a junior executive with Spicer Brothers, the paper people in New Bridge Street in the City of London. This was thanks to the nepotism of Uncle Bob, a director of Spicers.

It had been a long haul for Don, starting as a lumberjack as far as you can go into Eastern Europe without getting involved with Cossacks. Then down a wide river, living on a huge log raft to the pulping mills and so on through all the stages of paper making to a gent's City suiting. But not for me.

Doubtless there were other uncles lined up ready to push me into a business I would undoubtedly hate, for which I needed no academic qualifications, and which would end with a chairman's handshake and a mantelpiece chiming clock.

Meanwhile Hitler was providing other incentives. It was evident from newspapers, radio commentators and even to me - an intellectual flea-weight - that the man wasn't going to stop at Czechoslovakia. Born during World War One, I'd heard too many horror-stories of trench warfare and consequently feared the possibilities of conscription and of finding myself an infantryman. Rather than that happening I decided to join a military service of my own choice.

A fishing trip on the gentle swell of Lyme Regis Bay quickly convinced me that promotion in the Navy was unlikely to be rapid if I spent most of the time with my head over the side of the ship praying for death. I investigated the Royal Air Force. For any jobs other than digging latrines or emptying cookhouse slops, one apparently needed skill as an engineer or preferably a university degree.

By far the youngest of five siblings, I'd spent much of my earlier years devising my own solitary amusements and was by now a mini-rebel, not yet in need of psychiatric counselling but seldom toeing the strict lines of suburban tennis-club behaviour. Fortunately brother-in-law Harry, knowing of my dilemma sought advice from his own brother, a regimental sergeant major in the Royal Engineers.

A short session with him and I learned somewhat abruptly that a few weeks in the REs would either make me or break me, and if the former I'd be given every opportunity to excel in any of its many disciplines, be paid according to ability and if promoted be totally in charge of any project I was ordered to undertake. But first I had to persuade the Corps to accept me.

The Army Recruiting Office was housed in a large echoing building in a small side street off Whitehall. The exterior was tastefully decorated with layers of varying coloured Victorian lavatory brick. I entered through large glass-panelled doors and found myself in a room the size of a tennis court smelling of a powerful disinfectant. The only furniture was a Dickensian high wooden desk and a chair. The only occupant, a blue-uniformed figure sitting on the chair, arms on the desk, balding head on his arms -- asleep.

The recruiting sergeant was snoring loudly and rhythmically. It seemed a pity to awake him. Indeed, was it wise to? Did one's Army career start auspiciously by waking a sergeant?

I was scarcely old enough to make anything like a mature assessment of the situation, so I crept back into the street and entered again with enough noise to serve its purpose but without getting me into trouble.

This time I found him stretching his arms, yawning and smelling strongly of whisky.

"Yes, young man, what can I do for you?" with gruff politeness.

The pre-war Army was not over-particular about the backgrounds of its recruits. Many joined to seek obscurity or to avoid maintenance for children they had fathered within or without the sanctity of marriage. It was also not unknown for magistrates to offer young offenders the choice of six months in gaol or joining the Army.

I still cannot think why I was wearing a good three-piece suit, made by another uncle, a West End tailor. I was also carrying a handsome leather weekend suitcase with my initials engraved on the lid; de rigueur for the school life I'd so recently left. A further essential in those days, was a trilby hat. My first mistakes.

"I was thinking of joining the Army," I said conversationally, hoping that perhaps we could discuss the matter in a friendly way, rather as if I were toying with the idea of buying a cabin cruiser and wanted to learn more about its seaworthiness before getting down to the delicate subject of price.

The recruiting sergeant's attitude changed with the speed of light.

"Ah, then you'll be joining the Staffordshire Regiment," he pronounced, with no chance of an option.

"No, I want to join the Royal Engineers."

"Think again, young man. The Staffords is the finest regiment in the British Army. A bright young fellah like you could go a long way in the Staffs. You'd see the world, and like I said, there's not another regiment to touch 'em," indicating a metal badge on his collar with a tobacco-stained forefinger.

"No," I repeated. "I want to join the Royal Engineers."

"Well," he rasped, bitterly offended. "They wont 'ave you unless you've got a trade. You're too short. Come over 'ere and let's measure you. There, see? Five foot seven. You're not tall enough if you 'avent got a trade."

"What sort of trade?"

"Well, a brickie, a carpenter, an artificer . . . "

"Anything else?"

"Well, I suppose they'd let you in if you was a clerk," grudgingly.

"What do I have to do to become a clerk?"

Thinking he'd worn down my resistance with the menial status of clerical work he started again on the Staffordshires. So I picked up my suitcase and made for the door. I decided to find a recruiting office outside London.

"All-right. All-right. Hold it," he called. So I held it. "To be a clerk you'd 'ave to be able to type, write an essay on something and do some arithmetical sums."

So I thanked him for his time and trouble, said I'd be back one day and went home.

Arithmetical sums were a dark cloud on my horizon. Although I'd been to a boarding school I had successfully avoided sitting any examinations whatsoever, floating on the cherished philosophy that Dad-Will-Provide. The question of arithmetical sums I put behind me; a problem to be sorted out later. Meanwhile I hired a typewriter, borrowed a library book on typing and with a packet of plain paper set to work learning touch-typing. After a few weeks I reckoned I was about fifty-one per cent efficient. Burrowing deep into my mathematical ignorance I calculated that this made me just above average.

Once more I entered the Whitehall recruiting office. The same sergeant was still there, this time reading The News of The World. Our reunion was scarcely joyous, but at least we recognised each other.

"You, again then?"

"Yes." I agreed.

"Still set on the Engineers?"


"Well, come into the office and I'll find you the test papers."

The office was small and airless. A single window looked out onto a blank whitewashed wall six feet away. The test (as he'd said) comprised an essay, typing and maths. The essay was a doddle. Two lined foolscap pages were required on some forgettable subject merely to evaluate my command of the English language. The typing test was to copy a lurid passage from The News of The World, which did much to educate me on the sexual mores of the Establishment. The rigid class structure then extant, when even the Daily Mirror was a respectable family newspaper, meant that nobody really cared nor knew what other people were up to - except through the pages of The News of The World on Sundays.

The typewriter, a huge early Olivetti production-model looked indestructible. Great strength was needed to operate the keyboard. The typeface arms were housed in twin turrets that thudded down with enormous impact, shaking the table and rattling the window; every b,d,o,p, and q perforating the paper. Otherwise, no problems.

My worries began when I encountered the maths paper. Simple addition had never been a real problem. But here, men with differing aptitudes started filling a leaking cistern against the clock with buckets of water. Other idiots were loading sacks of grain of different metric weights, where the eventual load had to be calculated to so many decimal points. What I had feared, started to happen. A heavy grey mist formed before my eyes and my brain turned to a substance not unlike cold porridge. I just sat and tried to think.

Time passed.

At the moment when inspiration struck, a head appeared around the door.

"Finished yet?"

I stood up. "Not quite; just a bit of maths to write up, but since its lunch time, I'd like to go out for a bite and finish when I come back, Okay?"

"Okay then, but only for an hour."

An hour, I knew should be ample. A quantity-surveying cousin who worked at the Westminster end of Victoria Street was only a few minutes' walk away, and to him I took my problems.

"Good heavens, Bob," he exclaimed, "but this is kid's stuff."

"Maybe for kids, but not for me. I used the margins and end papers of my maths books learning to draw," I confessed.

Equipped with the reasoning and the answers I returned to Whitehall, completed my test papers and handed them over. The sergeant examined them gloomily.

"Alright," he muttered, "I suppose they're just about good enough. Now I've got to enlist you and send you off to Brompton Barracks at Chatham." Licking an indelible pencil he asked me my personal details and completed a form.

"Sign here," he said, which I did. He then paid me the equivalent of the Queen's shilling, about four and six, my first day's pay. He stood to a shaky attention.

"Right then, Thwaites. You're in the Army now and you call me Sergeant. Understood?"


"Yes, what?"

"Er, yes, Sergeant."

"Right. And now I've got a little job for you. Follow me."

We entered a long narrow room with tiled flooring. Along one side stretched an endless line of robust lavatory cubicles with heavy wooden doors all ajar at the same military angle.

"You can take off that poncy bleedin' jacket and roll up yer sleeves. Ere's a bucket, scrubbing brush and soap. There's a tap for yer water (cold), and now you can scrub out all them latrines."

I had been warned that in the Army I would be subjected to severe discipline that I would have to learn to live with. And this was something I was prepared to accept. But scrubbing out lavatories within minutes of being inducted seemed to be an injustice, even victimization, since they were all spotless and clean enough to have been scrubbed out daily since being installed, and never used. But this was the Army and there was nothing I could do but get on with it. Bugger the Staffordshires, I thought.

Eventually the sergeant appeared. "Put yer coat on and do yer hair. We'll walk round to Charing Cross Station and I'll put you on a train fer Chatham." Put me on a train, indeed! As a child too young to travel alone, I had frequently gone to stay with relations in Devonshire, being put on a train 'in care of the guard', who was suitably encouraged to ensure I alighted at Axminster, where I'd be met. The prospect of being accompanied by someone who resembled more a prison officer or an elderly policeman in a crumpled blue uniform appalled me. However I donned my coat and hat picked up my suitcase and we set off on the short walk to the station. Turning into Villiers Street I noticed the Buttery of the Charing Cross Hotel was open.

"Would you care for a beer, Sergeant?" nodding towards the entrance.

"Well, I don't mind if I do."

So I bought him a pint of something and sipped experimentally at the froth of a weak shandy. Once seated, I argued that it would be simpler for me to see myself off to Chatham since I had no intention of deserting this early in my career.

"Ah'mm. I suppose it would be all right. You'll 'ave to take this railway warrant and exchange it for a ticket; and at Chatham the Barracks is only a mile or so away. It's an easy walk, or you could take a bus. I've 'phoned them to expect you."

He handed me the warrant. I thanked him.

"I think I'd better be off then," I said. "But how about another beer?"

"Well, thank you. Yes please."

I fetched another pint and placed it on the table in front of him.

He stood up. "Thank you, sir," he said.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007