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Humiliation of the British defeat at Suez


Advantages of being a public school boy in the army
Anthony Howard Writer
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I joined the army in January 1956... national serviceman. Joined the East Surrey Regiment, called up to, because I suppose that was where we were living. We were living in Epsom at the time, which is Surrey. Kingston Barracks, gloomy place. And did my basic training, not at Kingston, oddly enough. This is one of the myths about national service. People go on saying it even now: ‘The great thing about national service was you learned how the other half lived, all people mingling together’. Nuts to that. Totally untrue. After I think about a week or ten days, possibly, at Kingston Barracks, all those boys who’d been to public school and it basically was that... was the divide, were plucked out and taken down to Canterbury for the Leadership Squad or the Home Counties Brigade, I think. And we weren’t the only ones. It wasn’t just the Surreys. The Royal West Kents were there and that kind of thing. And we were plucked out and just separated from the others as being potential officer material. And, you know, there were, I think, very few grammar school boys, there were, sort of, Wykehamists and Harrovians and me from Westminster and stuff, and we did our basic training basically segregated from the general run of recruits and being, sort of, held in readiness to go to the War Office Selection Board, which you went to after, I think, about 12 weeks in the army, which was a place called Barton Stacey in Hampshire. And you were, sort of, confronted by a quite grand, sort of, dining area. Well, they see if you can handle a knife and a fork and that kind of thing. And then there was this awful kind of thing with planks, and, sort of... not really an assault course, but sort of putting things together: barrels across rivers and the rest of it. I was absolutely hopeless at that kind of thing, no good at all. But I think I decided early on that the thing to do was to look as if you were in charge and to shout out, ‘Come on number five, pull yourself together’, kind of thing.

And so I somehow managed to get through the War Office Selection Board, which was actually a miracle because I had written that… one of the… you had to write an essay, among other things and I wrote an essay about the colour bar, I think, saying, you know, I was against it in a, sort of, typical wet liberal way, and there was a major in the Grenadiers and he had this essay in front of him and I went into this interview with him and he said, ‘Sit down, Howard, sit down'. And I sat down. He said, ‘I want to put something to you'. He said, ‘You’re in church, your sister’s coming up the aisle and there’s a black man waiting for her at the altar. What are you going to do about it?’ I said, ‘Well, I won’t do anything about it’. He said, ‘You won’t do anything about it?’ And so I thought I’d blown it all at that point but luckily I think I gave a talk on something. You had to give a five-minute lecturette or something and that went reasonably well. So anyway, I came out of Eaton Hall... I came out of Wasby and then I had to go back to Kingston Barracks, not to Canterbury, where I was made... because I was waiting for a vacancy to occur at the officer cadet school at Eaton Hall... and I then had the most power I had in the army, I think. They made me post corporal and that meant that I saw everyone’s letters. And on the very first day, I realised what my power was, because the regimental sergeant major, a terrifying man who, sort of, frightened the life out of me in the ten days I was there before, said, ‘Come in laddie. And I want to say to you, laddie, if you see a letter with that writing on it, it comes straight to me in the orderly room, you understand? It doesn’t go to the married quarters'. And I thought, whoa, I know what that was about. And so from that moment on, I lived a charmed life, really. And it wasn’t only him but I think everyone was slightly, sort of the same, you know. But it was a very easy, cushy number. I had to go down once a week, I think, to turn the… there was a book of remembrance in the Kingston Parish Church and one of my duties was to go down there and turn the page of this book and undo the glass case. It was a very cushy number. And then we went to… I went up to Eaton Hall in about May, I think, of 1956. It was a very strange life, in that Eaton Hall was almost kind of a country house hotel at one side and then a sort of really rough and pretty beastly kind of disciplinary atmosphere at the other. And we had, sort of, every morning we had sort of drills, being shouted at and all the rest of it. And then, in the afternoon, you could go and sort of play on Eaton Hall’s tennis courts and it was a very strange amalgamation of two styles of living. We weren’t within the hall itself, we lived in a hovel, Nissen hut, actually. But, you know, there was a quite nice platoon commander we had, had some grand name as long as his gun, probably, something like Edgerton-Wharburton, or something like Captain Edgerton or something like that. And he was okay but I don’t think he approved of me much. I was older than the others because I’d been to Oxford. I was 21 or 22 and most of the others were 18 or 19.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Kingston Barracks, Home Counties Brigade, Westminster School, War Office Selection Board, Barton Stacey, Eton Hall, National Service, East Surrey Regiment

Duration: 5 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 24 November 2009