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12(c)

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« on: August 20, 2023, 12:49:22 pm »

WEEKS went by while this administrative blockage remained unbroken. My sergeants turned up with pretty fair regularity for the flying. They still looked like scarecrows, they still had no mess. Fortunately the weather improved and they got more regular flying. The weeks turned into months. They finished the course and either got through or failed.

Those who got through melted away somewhere or other, and those who failed made a second attempt Still the deadlock was unresolved. There was no mess for them, and day after day I was greeted with ‘Why the hell don’t you do something about that scruffy lot of yours?’ But the Wing Commander Flying was thoroughly satisfied. In two months, all had either passed or finally failed, and the dismal huts were empty. It was ironical---and typical of the atmosphere of that kind of camp at that stage of the war---that the next intake announced was to be naval flying cadets, in other words, officers-to-be. In half a week those huts were repainted and spruced up: the little rooms were completely refurnished and a mess was provided.

Meanwhile all too soon I was returned to Torquay and Air Commodore Sands. Here there was a new job for me. I was to be in charge of a newly opened wing in a newly taken-over hotel; it was to be devoted entirely to officers’ squadrons of assorted nationalities. My first intake was to be forty or fifty English regular Air Force Officers from the non-combatant branches who had volunteered to be re-mustered as Flying Crew. They were all making a considerable sacrifice; for in their own branches of Administration, Equipment and Technical, they were all Senior Officers, Squadron Leaders or above. Those who passed the various courses would lose their rank and start all over again as Pilot Officers (Flying), losing, too, all pay and seniority.

The rest of my intake consisted of 100 Polish Air Crew officers who had escaped to England, and were now being put through our flying training from the very start in order to learn our methods of navigation, gunnery and so on. There was, apparently, no way of them acquiring these elementary skills except by coming through the Initial training courses, designed, as they were, for brash English boys, whereas these men were all veterans of the Polish campaign, many decorated, many recovering from wounds.

I had just spent a couple of days settling these two lots into their quarters with the help, in the case of the Poles, of their Senior officer and Interpreter, when I had my first visit from, my first personal encounter with, Sands. A great, ugly, bullet-headed, red-faced bully of a man, he pushed into my office and flung his cap down on my desk, and shot out at me: ‘What about your bloody Poles?’

‘How do you mean. Sir?’

‘What are you doing about them?’

I explained that I had fixed up for them to join the necessary classes in navigation, gunnery, map-reading and aircraft recognition and arranged English lessons. I thought I’d done rather well. But he didn’t: ‘And what about their drill?’

It hadn’t occurred to me that this battered remnant of the Polish Air Force, with their wound stripes and their medals, would be treated as if they were new recruits coming into the RAF for the first time: nor even that he would want it. But I put it badly: ‘I don’t expect they’ll want to do drill, Sir.’

‘I don’t expect they’ll want to. But they bloody will, is that clear?’

‘Do you mean, Sir, that you want them to go through our ordinary drill course?’

‘Of course they’re going through our ordinary drill course. What do you think?’

‘I should have thought’

‘Don’t then. Just do what you’re told. They’re a lot of sloppy foreigners and they want smartening up. See to it. And those English too. Get them on the Square.’

And with that he left me. I was in a double quandary. First, I thought it was dotty putting a lot of high-ranking officers through our elementary drill course, and secondly I had a shrewd suspicion that they wouldn’t play. The English officers had already shown an open contempt for all the bullshit going on around them; and when I summoned their Senior officer and told him what Sands had said, he simply laughed; ‘Catch us doing drill!’ he said. ‘He can stick that.’ As he was four ranks senior to me, there wasn’t much I could say in reply.

Nor were my Poles any more co-operative. Very gently I told their Senior officer that the Air Commodore would appreciate it if they learned some English drill, to which he simply replied in his broad accent: ‘No drill.’

I tried to put what I understood to be Sands’ points of view. I explained how to Sands drill was the fons et origo of discipline. He was equally gentle in explaining to me: ‘In Poland is different. Polish officers already have discipline or they not officers. No drill.’

There didn’t seem much I could do about that, so I did nothing. At the end of the week Sands was on the telephone: ‘How about your bloody Poles? Are they drilling yet?’ He didn’t, I noticed, mention the English contingent.

I told him what the interpreter, who was also the Senior officer, had said. ‘I don’t care what he says. Drill they must and drill they will. Just get it done.’

All very well. But what could I do? I appealed to the Station Commander and he came across and talked sternly to the Polish interpreter. The Pole listened silently, and then simply concluded the  interview with his favourite two English words: ‘No drill.’

‘You must just do your best,’ the Station Commander said off-handedly, as he went, defeated, away.

Sands took to ringing up every other day, getting more and more abusive until as last he ended up: ‘I shall be over there in a couple of days, and if they aren’t on the square, I’ll have your stripes.’

Something clearly had to be done, and I thought of a dodge. I asked the Polish officer to come and see me, and as he came in he gave his most charming smile and said: ‘No drill!’

‘No, of course not,’ I said. ‘We’ve agreed on that. But will you do something for me, something very small?’

‘I see,’ he said warily.

I explained that---made up, rather, the story that---Sands was coming over for a special inspection. He might even be bringing an Air Marshall or a minor royalty. This would mean a special parade, and for such special parades there were a few special words of command which they would have to obey. Would they let my sergeant just teach them those? The Pole looked all round this suggestion cautiously to see where the snag was, but at last, after a lot of hesitation and condition-making, he agreed. How long would it take? ‘Oh no time at all---say twenty minutes every morning for a week.’

‘Very well, we come tomorrow morning.’

So it was that when Sands arrived early the very next morning to catch us out, and threw down his cap with his customary query: ‘Where are your bloody Poles?’

I could look him between the eyes and answer as insolently as I dared: ‘On parade, Sir.’

‘On parade? Where?’

‘On the drill square, Sir.’

‘Are they indeed?’ he said disbelievingly. ‘We’ll go and see.’ And out he marched onto the drill square; and there they were, more or less in a straight line learning a few words of command from my sergeant.

I’ll have a talk to ‘em,’ Sands commanded. ‘Stand ‘em at ease.’ And he proceeded to give one of his famous dissertations on the fundamental value of discipline in an Air Force. How no Air Force, with proper discipline, could possibly lose (grossly implying that their defeat had been due entirely to this lack of Sands discipline). ‘Drill! Drill! Drill!’ he bawled. ‘That’s what you fellows need. It’ll stiffen you up, and when you meet the enemy (as if these veterans hadn’t met more of the enemy in this war than he had), you’ll see how right I was. Very well, now, any questions?’ There was a blank silence which didn’t please him. ‘Somebody must have a question?’

Still no questions, which enabled me to march smartly across to him and give my best salute: ‘They don’t understand English, Sir.’

‘Bloody fools!’ (How he reminded me at such times of my father.) ‘Have they an interpreter?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘Tell him to translate what I’ve said.’ I arranged for this, and I was told later that the interpreter had muttered that the old buffer was boring on about drill; they could forget it. When the pseudo-translation was done, Sands swaggered along to make an inspection. He stalked down the ranks looking disapprovingly at their casual clothes, customary to pilots. Presently he stopped at a rather older man, with two medals and three wound stripes, a sad and pasty-looking Pole. ‘Did you understand my speech?’ he asked. There was no answer. ‘Did you understand your interpreter? Did you agree with what I said?’ There was another silence. ‘Well, answer, man!’ he said.

And at last he was answered: ‘No understand,’ said the sad and pasty Pole.

I thought Sands was going to hit him. But he swung round at the last minute and shouted at me: Take that man off this course! Send him home! He’s just a fucking idiot!’ Then turning on his heel, he stalked away from us. But he was really defeated. We never had much trouble from him again. And as for taking the man off the course, I had no power to do so.

There was a melancholy sequel to my two undistinguished years under Sands. I went on leave after this last incident, to London, to a flat I had been lent. And the very first time, after I had settled myself, that I emerged from this flat into the street, I burst into tears. I wasn’t feeling upset, indeed I was feeling rather gay at the prospect of fifteen days away from it all. But all the same and for no accountable reason I found myself howling. I turned round and darted back into the flat, and the sobbing ceased. What on earth was the matter? I couldn’t make it out. I took a large whisky, and tried again. The same thing happened. The moment I was in public, those humiliating tears and sobs began again. I retreated indoors.

A friend came round in answer to the telephone, and I tried again with him. It was no good. The publicity of the street immediately brought on the crying jag. After two days in which I could never get beyond the front door, we decided something must be done. I rang up the Air Ministry Unit at Kingsway, made an appointment with a doctor, and set off in a taxi, in floods of tears.

What was so odd about it was that with one part of my mind I could laugh at the absurdity of the situation. I had nothing particular to cry about, yet I couldn’t stop.

The Air Ministry doctor-on-duty was an unimaginative, uninterested young man, comparatively new to his profession, I imagine. He watched the noisy demonstration of grief welling up from my unconscious with distaste.

‘What’s the matter, then?’

BooHoo! BooHoo! ‘Nothing at all. But I just can’t stop crying!’

‘There must be some reason, mustn’t there?’

BooHoo! BooHoo! ‘I can’t imagine what it is.’

‘Girl trouble?’

‘No.’

‘Money?’

‘No.’

‘Well, it must be something, mustn’t it?’

‘That’s what’s so funny,’ I managed, half laughing as the tears poured down. ‘There seems to be no reason.’

He gave it up. ‘Better wait here.’ Out he went and came back with a colleague. I saw them in the
adjoining room, watching me through the glass half of the door, and shaking their heads. ‘We'd better get you into hospital,’ he said when he came in again; and began ringing round. But no single one of the RAF dotty hospitals had a vacancy. I went steadily on crying. He scratched his head. ‘I’ve an idea,’ he then said. ‘There’s a Board today and there’ll be a Psycho on it. You’d better see him.’

I couldn’t explain any better to the psychiatrist what I felt, for I didn’t feel sad, or unhappy or disturbed. Bevond this outer layer of tears I was laughing half the time. What was it about? Nothing and everything. The world? That was dear Desmond MacCarthy’s explanation when a year or two later I was telling him I was under a psychiatrist---a thing he disapproved of. It was in the crowded Holborn Restaurant, a place much patronised by sober and respectable City men whose quiet luncheons were rudely interupted by Desmond’s response: ‘What is there wrong about crying that you need a psychiatrist? Look at the world. CRY! CRY! CRY!’

At Kingsway the psychiatrist took a more realistic view. He was a reader of the New Statesman and happened to know my name. He also knew of Sands. ‘You'd better take six months leave,’ he said after talking soothingly but enthusiastically about writing and the old life. ‘I’ll put you in touch with a good psychiatrist and I wouldn’t think of going back to the RAF. You’d be much better back working on your paper.’

By the end of the six months, I was discharged. I felt it to be ignominious, if a relief. I didn’t like to think of myself as the kind of person who couldn’t, when others were putting up with so much worse, stand up to boredom and what was, after all, only petty persecution. I had never been the sort of person who gave in, had I? But it was no use arguing. Evidently I was, for I relapsed into what they used to call a nervous breakdown, and entrusted myself to the analyst’s couch for many months. There I wrestled with the problems touched on in these pages, but found it on the whole a disappointing experience. I expected too much, no doubt; I certainly didn’t find a solution, much less a cure. Yet it did in fact have one positive result which at the time I was inclined to underestimate. It enabled me to recover sufficiently to resume my old job at the New Statesman, and do it well enough to take over, in due course, the Literary Editorship and the Dramatic Criticism. I was particularly lucky to have been associated with this paper, for the New Statesman of that time was a kind of family, and a very benevolent one, too. Evidently what I needed was a stable and benevolent family and I found it there. I found, as well, not only one, but two beneficent father-figures in Raymond Mortimer, the literary editor, and Kingsley Martin, the editor. So un-alike in most ways, they shared, as father-figures, several traits; they were both encouraging but critical, permissive but not undisciplined. Raymond Mortimer with whom I at first worked more closely, had inherited from Desmond MacCarthy the role of Tutor to his contributors. He scrutinised one’s offerings as closely as a good schoolmaster might, never allowing a slipshod phrase to pass, but generous in praise, too.

Kingsley Martin could always be relied on, I soon found, to save one from one’s mistakes, to advise without dictating, and to back one up in any difficulty. Later he was to fight strenuously and successfully on my behalf when an important member of the Board who was also a playwright spent a whole year trying to get rid of me as the dramatic critic. I don’t think it fanciful to say that such fathership was just what I had missed all this time, and that its exercise by these two, at this, the lowest ebb of my life, restored my nerve.

THE END
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