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Me and my National Service

Reflecting on his pre- and Army days, Brian Jarvis, 81, also recollects how moved he was by the 1969 film, Oh What a Lovely War. Its bitter-sweet reflections of WW1, and British attitudes and patriotism prevailing then, is often sentimental yet so evocative of songs that helped morale, and is now one of music’s lost age to younger readers. It was a time of what can I give, not what do I want or wish for. Brian said that at 21 he had three clear career wishes, and has attained them. There was a fourth but at 81, he thinks the moment has passed: to go into space and look back at this astonishing, beautiful Earth. He asks Silver Robin’s young readers: ‘What three wishes do you have now for your future?’

My nephew’s ears pricked up – “Did you fire at anyone, were you fired upon, did you shoot anyone?”

Over lunch with he and his Mum, how it arose I can’t recall, but I just happened to mention 1957-59 and my National Service in still-unsettled Cyprus.

He’s 18, just off to College, and I don’t think he knows anything about EOKA and the Turkish-Cyprus row which beset the then unspoiled and lovely Mediterranean paradise, direct-confrontation uneasily ending in the early Sixties. He is going to be in marketing, and he will be good. He is of today, attends those mass attendance music Festivals and has appeared on stages playing guitar and singing. He and his age will know little of WW1 and patriotism, nor why I was glad to be called up for National Service, in late 1957. I answered his questions: No, I did not fire on anyone. Yes, I was once fired upon, in Nicosia in Cyprus, when I was a volunteer weekly at the Forces’ radio station in the centre; there were whizzing bullets until the insurgents were driven off.

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Brians School Cricket team – students and staff. A successful season during the summer of 1958, having won 14, drawn 2 and lost just 3 games.

At 21-and-a-month (as Adrian Mole would say), I’d just won my spurs, by late 1957. This was after a life-determining near five-year-course, with seven other ‘Print rookies’, encompassing classroom and evening class College studies, with newsroom and ‘in the field’ training, to become a Proficiency Certificated newspaper reporter. Based in Cardiff, it was the first formal course of its kind in Britain. I was rather full of myself in celebration, though champagne was not offered, even thought of in 1957. Reality intruded when interviewed at an Army desk. I was asked, brusquely, ‘What part of Army do you want?’ Completely unknowing what it involved, I said “Intelligence”. He gazed calmly and said, “Oxford or Cambridge University graduates only. Next.” With my shorthand, typing and experience of newspaper pressured efficiency and flexibility, the Army’s in-built common-sense meant I was offered an instructor’s post. I became a classroom instructor soldier.

But first I underwent the four months slog of eye-opening, muscle-breaking and ‘right-attitude’ basic training. It was life-expanding, life-enhancing. I could and did appreciate the practical and many psychological aims of what was behind and underneath it all. The four months before I was posted to Cyprus were a shock to all our no-longer-civilian systems, even for this sports-fit 22 year old, especially for one who from early teens had a rather narrow idealism about my three wishful visions: newspaper reporter, Army, teacher.

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An off day

Ideals about Army life met reality, and at the Hampshire training barracks, it was tough yet for most of us a life-changing experience. I recommend Clint Eastwood’s film Heartbreak Ridge to get the picture of military discipline reforming ego’s, the arising of rough camaraderie and deepening soldiery mutual support. In Hampshire, we arose at 5 am each day, were yelled at for long hours till a final line-up and ‘fall OUT! It was continuous and repeating ‘square-dancing’ ie square-bashing, to attain military formation and discipline, under unforgiving drill instructors, for 100 a time of us National Servicemen. At occasional, almost civilised classrooms breaks (no shouting, questions were replied to seriously) we were taught Army ‘lore’ and honour, its traditions, weaponry, group field discipline, command, tactics, strategy. Otherwise, it was total subservience on the square and in the fields. I cowered under live round fire, waded through knee-high mud, kept in formation under pressure, learnt life’s lesson that ‘we all depend on each other’. It was the ultimate physical ‘Terminator-film’ nightmare. And most of us slept very well, no dreams, after collapsing each night into glorious bed; if that hadn’t been there I would gladly have slept on the primitive hut’s floor.

There was a different atmosphere, in the last month, when our hard, bossy, swearing Other Ranks instructors could see we were ‘broken in’ well. I survived, learned to have the self-confident disciplined bearing of a soldier; there was/is the understanding of the trained individual role for nation, ‘protecting the nation, protecting the nation’s interests’ – not easy for young people to see today. A clear view was there, intuitively understood, in my teen years, has never left me. It is so difficult, muddied, today for my beloved nephew. Deep in mud, in N.S. training? Bawled at while ‘squared up’ as though robots. And, as yet, no active violence experiences, as in having faced an insurgency even war situation? I watch the annual world-famous ‘Changing of the Guard’, Brit-style, and I am overcome. No-one wants a British Army, but today’s world situation demands it.

Memories. I was there, in a camp just outside ancient Nicosia for 20 months. Founded four centuries before Christ, its modern airport opened just a few years before me and my 50 comrades arrived in a bone-shaking propellered DC3.

Daily, it was 6 am to 12 mid-day stints, some evening classes. There were, from all over the Middle East, groups of about 12 ‘other ranks’ would-be typist-clerks for each six-week course. Other courses explored best-practice clerical structure office work with bossy Sergeants, even Warrant Officer ranks (when, for obvious reasons I was temporarily upgraded from lance-corporal to acting-sergeant). I created my own programme and lesson courses and I’m glad to say, it was a successful time, competing with hot classroom fatigue, open windowed and fan-cooled, as temperatures outside seared at over egg-frying 100 degrees. That heat outside was clear-sweat and bearable to us and I’ve played so much soccer and cricket, in protected Camp environments of course. I loved it, the heat this off-duty sportsman faced up to.

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Brian at the Famagusta camp in 1958, with an Army Austin Champ

Yet on the pitch, I was not truly off-duty in all those matches: a few hours, whole-hearted involvement, yet moments of awareness reminded me: a soldier-on-duty, always, in Cypriot insurgency times. My stay was in the relatively quiet period when opposing Greek-Turk factions had truce or curfew stilling the fighting each other and popping at us. Off-duty meant civvies and strolls through Nicosia’s fascinating streets, trips to Kyrenia beach or touring Famagusta, ancient deep harbour port city.

There was awareness too that my classroom-soldier role, my National Service was life and into-manhood changing. It’s called growing-up and maturing. I give thanks for the experience. I lived with, mixed with, made friends with hundreds of ‘others’, young and ‘different from ME’. Since then, the realisation that ‘We all depend on each other’ continues to deepen.

I was also told, by my RASC major-in-charge of the School, just weeks before I left: I want to put you in for Officer Training. No, sir, thank you, sir. Why not, he barked. I am a newspaper man, sir. You have allowed me to be a teacher. Instructor! he barked. Yes, sir – and I thank the Army. So you should, his final comment. I saluted and left the Army.

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