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'Any fool can be uncomfortable'


Valuable lessons learned in the army
Brian Sewell Writer
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But there were always, I think, really rather valuable things to learn, because you were 21 boys in a barrack room, and you sleep together, and you eat together, and you bathe and shave and shit together. You have no privacy. You could occasionally hear other boys sobbing themselves to sleep. You could occasionally hear the regular creak of a boy who was bringing himself to orgasm, though most of us were far too exhausted to do that. You have no privacy.

And some commissioned or non-commissioned officer will storm in at any moment and disrupt what peace and quiet you have in the evening, when you’re polishing your boots and your buckles, and blancoing your gaiters and other things.

And you will have terrible episodes when you’ve spent hours tidying your bed and learning to fold your blankets immaculately. Boxing your bed, I think it was called. No, boxing your blankets. You had to fold your blankets to exactly the same size within a millimetre, and then pile them on top of each other so that you had a box of blankets. That was a pain in the arse. And you really needed two people to do it. So the thing to do was to share with the man immediately beside you. You know, I’ll help you, you help me. And that extended to things like sewing on buttons. I had no difficulty sewing on buttons, so I could, as it were, exchange that skill for something which was less to my taste and abilities. And it was curious... you’d have a boy from a very working class background having a really dyed-in-the-wool attitude towards things like sewing on a button. If you could sew on a button, that’s women’s work, so you’re a poofter. All you can do is say, wait and see. You’ll have to do it in the end. You might as well start now. Get rid of your attitude. But there. Deeply uncomfortable, but actually very useful. In the end, it teaches you to endure anything. It also teaches you that you have something in your soul which is steely hard, and which will come to your rescue from time to time.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: blancoing, gaiters, National Service

Duration: 3 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013