Thursday, 26 April 2012


On a dismal, murky, drizzling February morning in 1949, I joined a queue of very nervous, apprehensive male teenagers wearing only their underpants, waiting to be medically examined by army doctors in a cold Reading assembly hall. We were all due to serve our eighteen months National Service.
Unlike the others I was neither nervous nor apprehensive for I had only recently left Lancing College, a confident, arrogant snob with the undeniable knowledge that public school boys were reliable, superior human beings capable of overcoming any set back. Experiencing life as a soldier for a while could only benefit my future acting career which I was determined to follow. I also secretly knew that I was the son of a diplomat and had therefore inherited the advantageous talent of psychological manipulation which meant that I was obviously officer material and, therefore, looked forward to donning a smart uniform which would attract female women. The testosterone was rising.
 On top of that, my mother, forever guilt ridden for burdening me with the pretence that I wasn’t really who I was, attempted to give me even more confidence about going into the army by showing me old family photographs of the 1914 war. 

 Passed A1, I presented myself at the recruits’ barracks in Aldershot a few weeks later, immediately applied for a commission in the Intelligence Corps ( I was, after all bi-lingual ) and was duly sent for a second medical examination to make sure that I was fit enough to cope with the rigours of  the Officer Cadets Training Unit.
 I again proved to be extremely healthy until I came under the scrutiny of the ophthalmologist who asked me to read off the letters on the usual board without my glasses.
 'I can’t actually see the board sir,' I said, squinting to make sense of the white blur on a distant wall.
 'What’s that ? What ?' said he, stubbing out his cigarette. He picked up my spectacles, studied the lenses and turned to me stupefied. 'We can’t have individuals like you wandering about sightless on the battlefield. A serious error has been made. I’m afraid I must recommend that you be discharged from the army forthwith.
 I was removed from the recruit's barracks to the quarters of a Holding Platoon where I found myself among fierce Glaswegians, cocky Cockneys, tough Geordies and aggressive Scouses who were all being honourably discharged because they either had flat feet, asthma or were so simple minded that the military didn’t want them.
 While awaiting the discharge papers, we were given menial duties to keep our spirits up - cleaning latrines, collecting refuse, making officers’ beds - and when we went to the canteen for meals, we seemed to be regarded as lepers by the healthier soldiers.
 Ordered back to barracks early every evening, I was quite content to lie on my bunk and lose myself in a book. This irritated  the others who had no idea how to occupy their minds, most of whom were unsettled at having been rejected by the army which would have offered them a better life than the one they led back home. However, one illiterate character, fascinated by the joy I was clearly getting from sticking my nose in amongst the hundreds of pages he did not understand, asked if I could read him a story.
 'I can read you the whole book,' I said, 'A chapter a night, if you want.'
  And I did.
  Every night, before lights out, a score of miserable characters sat on their beds and on the floor around me as I read them Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Even better, at tea time in the canteen, I started plonking the piano and got them to sing along.
 The adrenalin rush when I did either of these things was very gratifying..I was performing of course, I was on stage with a captive audience dying for entertainment. My disappointment at not becoming an officer was replaced by the gratifying thought that a year and a half of my life would not be wasted. I would now go to RADA ( Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ) instead of OCTU ( Officer Cadets Training Unit ). My army career had lasted exactly three weeks.

 My return home was not that of a welcomed military hero.
 My non-father, believing he was rid of me for quite a while, was exasperated by the fact that I was once more foot loose and fancy free and instantly dismissed any ideas I had about acting. I would instead, he informed me, serve a sensible apprenticeship as a pork butcher in a salami factory abroad.
 My mother again begged me not to rock the boat, not to argue, not to oppose him as it would have been reasonable to do had I been his real son. .....and I realized I was doomed. 

Edyy Launay as a private in the French army with dogMy mother perched on a wrecked German tank when she was made to visit the 1914 battlefields with her in-laws

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