Monday, 3 October 2011




So how was it that I came to write a war story? Well, the First World War, the Great War as we called it, made an impact on my boyhood. It had been over for ten years before I arrived on the scene but men who had fought were often only thirty years older than me. Later I worked with some of them. I was friendly with their sons and daughters. They lived in our street, these men. And I heard occasional things. Not much. It wasn’t a generation to talk about such matters. My father and three of his brothers went to that war and all came home unscathed and never said much about it.

But we know more of it now. It’s recorded on grainy film. You see the soldiers in the trenches or crossing No-man’s Land. Sometimes they fall and lie for ever on the celluloid battlefield. And sometimes during a lull or a period behind the front line you see them sitting around chatting and smoking, laughing and playing football, engaging in horse-play and practical jokes. How could they be so calm? Were they all heroes?

In the book, Dexter is a hero. He has been decorated for bravery. But he deserts. Is he now a coward? Is he brave some days and not others? I wonder often about the nature of courage. Wonder how I might have fared in the Western Front slaughterhouse. Or in the brown dust of Afghanistan.

I’ve been lucky in my time. I’ve never faced danger. I’ve never had anyone firing a gun at me. I experienced a few air raids during the war but even they seem to have been ‘off-nights’ for enemy pilots. I only recall one significant raid and going the next morning to see the damage done to my school. But when I went into the services in 1946 the war had been over for a year. Some men of my age found themselves in Malaya fighting guerrillas and perhaps had I been a year or two younger I might have been in Korea. Lucky me.

But what about Little Ernie, a victim in my story, a timid, frightened little lad? Had we any right to expect more of him, given his nature? His character is based on people I later met during my days in the services. There were two in particular, both born to be victims, one a young man about my age, the other a regular serviceman in his forties, but a victim nevertheless, another outsider. 

I remember this older man – Rankin was his name - who was either ignored or who was the victim of our sly jokes. Here was I, just out of school, drinking my first beers, and leaning back and sneering at him, a man old enough to be my father. When we could distract him on the occasions he joined us in the bar – never by invitation, by the way - we used to flick our cigarette ash in his glass. He never seemed to notice. We waited for him to pass out because we had heard that that was the effect of ash in beer. Well, he never did pass out. But even so we laughed about our small cruelties.

The other one was a boy my age. He was in the same intake as me when we joined up. Steven Hope, as I call him here, was a slow, shuffling, little chap, not very bright, not over clean, nobody’s friend. Everybody laughed at him when they deigned to notice him. Nobody ever laughed with him. Couldn’t be bothered with him. But when one of the boys in my hut lost his gas cape – a punishable offence – without hesitation, he went to the neighbouring hut and took Steven Hope’s. Yet no-one ever thought of that as a cruel act or a theft. Nobody ever doubted that we were all bound by some indissoluble noble, comradely code.

I remember the day when, for reasons best known to the military mind, we were ordered to assemble in alphabetical order. A hundred of us, we had to sort ourselves out fairly briskly.

We organised ourselves in double-quick time and then the sergeant looked us over and his eye lit on Steven Hope.

‘You, lad, you in the right group?’

Steven looked bewildered and I don’t believe he made any answer.

The sergeant twitched his nostrils and flexed his shoulders..

‘What group is this?’ the sergeant asked another of us.

‘S, sergeant,’ was the reply.

‘S,’ the sergeant let the sound of that single letter sizzle like a boiling kettle. And he repeated the sound, now investing it with an interrogative element. ‘S.s.s.s.s?’

We all waited.

‘And you, lad,’ the sergeant turned his attention fully on Steven. ‘Still sure you’re in the right group, eh?’

Again Steven gave some kind of answer but what it was could not be heard..

The sergeant stretched himself up to his full height.

‘This group is the S group,’ he barked at Steven. ‘And your name, lad…your name is…?’

Some of us started to snigger but the sergeant silenced us with a look. But Steven suddenly looked more confident, taller, straighter. It was as though some magical transformation had overcome him. And many of us, as we later agreed, saw a daft boy grow into a man. He was sure of himself.

For the first time we heard him speak with any confidence.

‘Steven, sergeant,’ he answered.

At for that brief moment I felt sorry for him.

‘F…..g Steven,’ the sergeant bawled. ‘F….g Steven?’ He stopped as if unsure what to say next. ‘Then f…. off,’ he resumed, ‘and join the f….g H group.’

And now realising his error and even before joining the H group, Steven had returned to his normal unloved self and ever after he was the unit joke, the unit victim, the sacrificial lamb that all groups seem to need.

Unlike Ernie Grayson, Steven Hope was not shot for desertion. But all these years later, part of him and the older Rankin are to be found in the pages of a book.

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
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75% of the book’s profits go to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to remember Steven for a very long time! I hate to think that anyone is "born to be a victim," but your depiction really brings him to life. Looking forward to your next installment!