Army life

Who on Earth is Tom Baker?  An Autobiography

© Tom Baker 1997

Excerpt from chapter 10

And so at the interviews with the company sergeant-major, who had heard about my bent for God, it was decided that I should become the curator of the camp museum. This was quite a small building near the guardhouse and contained all sorts of nostalgia from the old days. The Medical Corps was very proud of the number of VCs it had won and one of these was on show. There were also souvenirs from old wars, like samples of long-forgotten brands of cigarettes and blood-stained field bandages from former campaigns. All this stuff was in glass cases and the heavy-duty linoleum was highly polished and this reminded me of church. There were no chairs and no books either; and, unfortunately for me, there were no visitors. I might as well have been a lighthouse keeper. The hours were from 9.30 a.m. till 8 p.m. with two hours off in the afternoon.

The keys of this museum were kept in the guardhouse and had to be signed in and out by the curator once a day. The Regimental Police who held the keys and supervised discipline around the entrance to the camp were notoriously keen.

The word keen in the army had a deeply pejorative meaning in the 1950s, especially when applied to regimental policemen. They had a wonderful job; all they had to do was look us over at every minute of the day and if they didn’t like what they saw then they were authorized to give us hell. They were the sort of men who were so keen that they never sat down on duty in case they spoiled the creases in their trousers. They were a picture of lunatic smartness. As for posture, the word clockwork comes to mind. They used so much starch when they ironed their trousers that even their fly buttons were inaccessible. This meant that bladders pleading to be emptied and bowels squeaking for release were ruthlessly snubbed. This refusal to recognize the legitimate demands of nature led to them feeling very uncomfortable. And the pain led the policemen to feel very angry. And this meant that any innocent young soldier coming into the guardroom was likely to be shredded by furious Redcaps who were bursting for a piss. Their movements were very jerky. The policemen’s movements, I mean.

The whole aim of the average regimental policeman was to instil terror into any passing soldier by his fiercesome aspect. He would give the impression he had an iron railing up his arse and that it was giving him gip. His cap – no beret for him, far too friendly – was pulled over his eyes so that he had to look up to the sky to see whom he was talking to. They also had a vile habit of standing very close to you, nose to nose, and asking daft questions, “What are you doing in Singapore, soldier?”
To which you might say: “But I’m not in Singapore, Corporal.”
To which he would say, “Oh, we’ve got a right one here, I can see. Good at geography, are we? Got a keen sense of direction, have we?”
I’d say: “No, Corporal, I’ve got no sense of direction at all.” “Then how do you know you’re not in Singapore, then?”
“I don’t know whether I’m in Singapore or not, Corporal.”
“But you just told me that you weren’t in Singapore,” would snarl the red-capped Jesuit, tilting his head and slyly smirking at his victim. “What do you know, soldier?”
“Nothing, Corporal.”

And so it would go on till he was bored or spotted another victim over my shoulder. He would nod and I’d be able to enter the guardhouse to ask for the key to the museum that nobody came to. As I went in, I saw at a glance and with a gaping anus that there were five Redcaps standing about the place. For the merest split second there was quiet as they saw me. And then they all started to scream at me at once:

“Come here.” “Get out.” “Mark time.” “About turn.” “Where’s your brown paybook?” And then all together, “Get out, get out, you horrible man.” And another one, “Come here, come here.”

With my highly developed longing to be a martyr I tried to obey all these orders as they came at me. This was what they wanted and their pleasure grew as I pirouetted, came forward, went backwards and about turned, all at the same time. Even when they called me back, I realized they were enjoying it and I tried to anticipate their orders; like a frantic, crazed dervish, I spun and retreated, fumbling in my pocket at the same time to produce my brown paybook. They were appalled at the intensity of my co-operation. As perfectly common sadists and gobshites they found my performance just too much to bear. “Stand still,” they screamed, “stand still.” But I couldn’t stand still. I whirled and hopped and grappled with my top-left pocket which gave them the idea I might be on the verge of an infarction. Swiftly they seized me and shook me out of my ecstasy. “What d’you want?” came the coarse voices from far away. I looked at my tormentors and seeing concern in their faces, I piled on the agony. “I’m so sorry, Sergeant,” I muttered to the corporal, who seemed pleased at his sudden promotion from me. “It must be nerves, did I disturb you?” And it worked. Instead of kicking me all the way back to the billet, they calmed down, gave me the key and said: “Off you go soldier. Off you go soldier!” It was positively affectionate. So off I went.

Read an excerpt from chapter 13

Available as a Kindle in the UK Click on the cover

Available as a kindle on Click on the cover