5. National Service 1955-572
It was 1954 when I left Monkton Combe, having stayed on the extra Christmas term to take the entrance scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge. I remember being up there for the exams and the interview, but details are hazy. I stayed in a room right at the far end of the curved brick building across the Cam, the room that a Cantrell had, friends from Blackheath. While waiting to be interviewed I was reading my Greek New Testament, and a chap looked over my shoulder and commented "Not a very good guide for your Greek style." I replied, "But a very good goude for life." He was Mark Santer. He mumbled something about Plato being a good alternative, but that was the only time I felt I got the better of him. We went through Classics and Theology together, and he was always the bright star, getting A grades throughout, and class 1 unfailingly.
But that belongs to the Cambridge chapter.
The only part of the exams I remember now (though I have my exam papers in filing cabinet still) was the general essay, when I chose The Victorian Age. As a non historian I took it as the chance to write an essay on how I felt partly the child of that age, having been brought up with books of my grandparents and learned to read with Reading Without Tears
Having gone back to school for the end of term, and taken part in my last Rag Concert, where I put on a rugby 'opera' using many of the first XV on stage - I had spent my spare time in Cambridge writing the music for that rather than revising Classics - I went home and waited for the Queens' result. They awarded me a Frodsham Exhibition, one down from a scholarship. Mark Santer got the scholarship. Of course.
My next but one step was clear now. I believe that I could have applied to have my National Service postponed and gone straight up to university, in which case I would never have done National Service, because it was abolished in the mean time. I'm very glad I went through with it. I was immature enough when I got to Queens' eventually, and would have been even more mouse-like if I'd gone straight up from school. Gap years are the equivalent these days.
I wasn't quite 18 so had to wait for my call-up papers. I spent the time playing the piano incessantly, I think, in the new vicarage in Blackheath, and got a temporary job in London, at the Crusaders' Union headquarters just by St Paul's Cathedral. The job, which paid £4 a week, was as assistant in the bookshop. The work was routine. I learned how to tie a parcel using a slip-knot to get the string tight. I was sometimes sent to the Dickensian alleys down by the Thames to a gold-blocker or a binder; those were fun. I had to help duplicate a periodic newsletter that went out to all the Crusader leaders, and while doing that was able to follow the confidential discussions netween the narrow and the less narrow parts of the CU. I think the girls' lot broke away at that time, thinking perhaps that the boys were too liberal, or vice versa.
I was sometimes left on my own during lunch hour, and that was when the shop was busiest, and at least once I felt quite pressured, with someone even shouting at me to get on with it, when I couldn't find something. But on the whole it was a gentle job. The man in charge of the bookshop was Ray, who was very active in a big class, and played football with the boys on Saturdays. Otherwise there were two men, the secretary and another, and two girls as typists. I had very little to do with them. They lived in a tiny cupboard-like room which stank of sweat and cheap scent, so I didn't relish spending time there.
During my months in London there was a train strike - so I cycled in - and a Billy Graham crusade, which I attended. I once, in the cafe I went to at lunchtime, even invited a total stranger to come; he said he would when they gave him the money Billy Graham got.
The rallies at Wembley were inspiring. Once I borrowed a choir ticket and sat with the choir. I didn't have the right music, so was lost most of the time, but it was thrilling to be one of several hundred basses. A preview of heaven? It will be tens of thousands there.
In June or July my National Service papers came: report to RAF Cardington in July. Here I shall insert what I wrote for another occasion, when I was invited to talk to a Chinese class in Sherborne School. Some of it is more relevant than the rest. I might prune it sometime.
Once upon a time when the world was young, the Second World War was over and the Cold War was at its height, with the bogeymen being Russia and China, a letter in a brown envelope came through my letterbox. It had a postal order for 4/6 (22 ½ p), a travel warrant, and a letter instructing me to report to RAF Cardington.
It was the beginning of my two years of National Service in the armed forces. The 4/6 was my first day's pay.
Cardington had a huge hangar, big enough to house an airship. It was once the airship base for this country. In 1955 it was the reception centre for 18-year-olds who had chosen the RAF rather than the Royal Navy or the Army. They were quite human there, I remember. They didn't shout at us. They issued us with our uniform, and we were told to make our own civilian clothes into a parcel and post them home. My mother told me that she shed a tear when my clothes arrived.
An NCO gave us a talk about discipline and obeying orders. He said "If an officer came into the room now and told me to stand on my head, I'd do it. I might complain about him afterwards, but I have to obey orders, and so do you."
A bus came to take us to our basic training camp. There were several we could be sent to. Mine was Hednesford, on Cannock Chase to the north of Birmingham. It was closed soon after I left, and next used when a large number of refugees from Eastern Europe came to Britain. They complained that it was unfit for human habitation.
But when the bus drew up in Hednesford it was a glorious day in July, at the beginning of a heat-wave. The bus driver had transported many parties of new recruits, and he knew just what he was expected to do. He drew up so close to the edge of the road that we had to get out onto the grass verge. That gave the drill instructors the excuse to yell at us to "Get off the grass!" That was the first time we were shouted at, but not the last.
The next eight weeks were hard and hot work. When we drilled on the parade ground, the tarmac was almost melting. One drill instructor shouted: "Swing your arms when you're marching, or I'll tear them off and hit you with the soggy end!"
I didn't know what ordinary RAF life would be like. I thought that perhaps it would all be rather like Hednesford. So when someone told us that there was a chance of spending the next year or even two years learning Chinese, I jumped at the chance.
Those of us who volunteered were taken to a kind of classroom where two officers met us and gave us a language test. To make it fair to us all, they had made up a new language, and they gave us a few minutes to learn some words and rules, and then asked us to translate something from the new language into English. I think we all did well, and I think we were all accepted onto the course.
The course wasn't going to start until the end of September, so we were sent to various RAF stations to fill in time. At my station I found that the RAF wasn't all like Hednesford, but the jobs I was given to do were very, very dull. I was even more pleased that I was going to use my time learning something new. I didn't know anything about Chinese. I knew a bit of French, a bit more Latin and Greek - but Chinese?
The RAF course was at a station near Birmingham. I remember it as a grey, miserable place. We lived in a hut, around 25 of us in the one hut.
It was not a typical collection of young men. There was a lot of interest in classical music. One man discussed Tchaikowsky, and how strange it was that he was considered a great composer on the strength of so few generally-known works. In those days Radio 3 had not begun to broadcast, and the amount of music that even the keenest listener knew was much smaller than today. When we as a group heard that the opera La Traviata was going to be televised, the television room was packed.
Each morning and afternoon we were marched off to a barbed-wire enclosure where the classroom huts were. For some reason the RAF had decided that learning Chinese was to be a top secret mission. We had to sign the Official Secrets Act - and I don't know whether I really should be telling you what happened in that barbed wire enclosure, even now!
What actually happened was that an RAF officer, a Flight Lieutenant, taught us using a textbook adapted from an American army textbook. It was very practical. Among the first phrases we learned were Hoou che jann tsay naalii? (Where is the railway station?) With the answer Tzay nahlii. (There.) And perhaps even more useful: Tse suoo tzay naalii? (Where is the loo?) As I said, it was originally an American book. One of the changes they had made, they told us, was not to translate shiann tzay as 'right now', which the Americans did. They told us that Chinese has a different phrase for 'right now', which is jenq tsay.
The RAF officer did not teach us any characters. That was left to a dear elderly Chinese gentleman, Lii ShianSheng (Mr Li). I wish I had had more time learning from him. He must have come from Beeijing, I think, because he taught us not only how elegantly Chinese characters were written with a brush, but also how to pronounce some words in Beeijing fashion, with a erl. Shao haierl, if I remember, for shiao hairtz. When you were with him, you felt you were in contact with the old China of good manners and Confucian philosophy, everything just so. He taught us the proper way to ask someone's name: not What is your name? Nii shinq sherme? but Guay shinq? Honourable name, valuable name? And the answer is Humble name Parsons - Bii shinq Ba. Lii ShianSheng would never have any problem with discipline in a classroom. Everyone would understand that here was a gentleman - I think that Confucius simply used the term Ren (a Man) - and they would try to live up to his standards and please him.
I told you that we marched as a squad to and from the barbed wire compound. When we were learning our numbers, I used to practise them by saying them silently in time to our marching feet. The first day I could only manage one number on every second left foot. Then it was every left foot: Yi, - erl, - san, - syh, - wuu, - liou, - chi, - ba, - jeou, - shyr. Next day it was one number every pace: Yi, erl, san, syh, wuu, liou, chi, ba, jeou, shyr. When I discovered that nine and wine sounded the same in Chinese, jeou, I made what I thought was the clever remark: One over the eight. But the teacher told me that every class has someone who says that.
So why did I have such a short time with Mr Lii? Well, after a few weeks - four or perhaps six - they made us sit an exam. We were told that the top 12 in the exam results would go to London University to study there for the rest to our two years' National Service. The rest would stay living in the hut and learning surrounded by barbed wire, and then would be sent to Hong Kong to listen in to Chinese air force pilots talking over their radios. I'd love to have gone to Hong Kong, but the prospect of The School of Oriental and African Studies was even more appealing. So like most of the others I revised hard and did my very best in the exam, and 12 of us were sent to London.
I met most of the 12 a year or two ago at a reunion. One had run the Yorkshire Water Authority. Another had been Professor of Chinese Art at SOAS (Roderick Whitfield); another had been Professor of Art at Southampton (John Sweetman); another had been Professor of Chinese at Leeds (Don Rimmington). So that RAF course hadn't done them any harm.
All the London-based language students from the forces were together in a naval establishment called HMS Furse House. In a previous incarnation it had been the South Kensington Hotel. Most of the linguists were studying Russian, and worked ev harder than we did. We were all treated as officer cadets, and the few regular NCOs called us 'Sir' when they gave us orders. There were occasional Mess Nights, when we had a special meal and port was passed round afterwards, and for those nights, and our rare evenings on duty at the main door, we had to wear uniform. The rest of the time we wore civvies. The feeling of freedom after a series of RAF camps was great. The ex-hotel was divided into two, and the other section was for female RN personnel. We had little contact with them, and I don't know what they were doing in London; part of naval headquarters staff, perhaps.
We worked hard. We had started in London a little late for the beginning of the University year, in October, and at the end of our first year we were to take the Civil Service Preliminary exam. That meant learning 1200 characters for the written exams, as well as having an oral. The characters in those days were all the traditional ones, not the simplified kind. So many strokes to learn for some of them! We learned the radicals by number. If I remember rightly, muh, a tree, was number 75. We were told that Chinese people wouldn't know the number of a radical, any more than you or I would know that N is the 14th letter of the alphabet. They learn to know which radical comes after which; but we learned the numbers. It did help, when we had to look a word up in the dictionary.
We used a textbook with a name inspired by an old Chinese textbook, the Chyan Tze Wen. (1,000 Character Classic) Ours was called Chyan Tze Keh - 1000 Character Book.
It used a system of writing Chinese in ordinary letters called Gwoyuu Luomaatzeh - Guoyuu Romanised. And it very cunningly incorporated the tones in the spelling. No extra signs as in Pin Yin. The rules were complicated. But as an example, mha, ma (?), maa (horse), mah (scold). You doubled the vowel to show third tone. We were told that when we next passed a big chemist we would be tempted to pronounce its name as Boo - tse. Once you learn the rules and they become second nature, it's a good system. You learn the tone of a character automatically.
Just as I remember the first few phrases that I learned in the camp outside Birmingham, so I remember the first couple of sentences from Chyan Tze Keh. Woo tsorng woo-de iize shanq jann-chii-lai. Woo tzoo daw hei baan ... Woo tzay heibann shanq shiee tzeh. (I get up from my chair. I go to the blackboard. I write characters on the blackboard.) By the way, the transliteration I use here is not the official one. It's a special teaching system which cleverly varies the spelling to indicate the tone.
Our course of 12 young men had a room in SOAS specially kept for us, where we had all our lessons, except for the weekly one-to-one oral lesson that took place in a little room leading off it. My favourite teacher was a very small lady, Mrs Liou, Liou Taytay, and I used to look forward to my weekly chat with her. She was a Christian, and we used to swap stories about the sermons that we had heard the previous Sunday - mostly speaking in Chinese, but occasionally using a bit of English, because we were more interested in the subject than in practising the language. A few of us were lucky enough to be invited to supper with Mrs Liou and her husband. He was an artist, and hadn't bothered to learn a great deal of English, so we all had to use our Chinese for real. That's the best way to learn.
But we had other techniques for learning. Every morning and evening we had a half hour tube journey on the Piccadilly line. Wonderful time for learning characters. We all had several hundred small cards, the size of business cards, in our pockets each day. On one side of each card we wrote a character. On the other side we wrote the meaning, and the sound of the character. We kept writing new cards as we reached each new chapter of ChyanTze Keh with its vocabulary.
Each morning we started off with all the new cards in one pocket, held together with a rubber band. We went through them on the tube train, one by one. If we remembered a character from last night's learning, and could write it with our fingers in the air (the other passengers must have thought we were mad), then it went into the other pocket. We went through our dwindling set of cards again and again, until they were all known and in the other pocket. I recommend this method to you.
We had just a few lessons in Classical Chinese. It is very different from the modern language. We struggled through a few stories in the old language, but I suppose we weren't very good at it, and the course was supposed to be practical, so the teachers didn't persist for long.
In our second year, our target was to know 4,000 characters. By then our pockets were bulging with character cards each day. We left Chyan Tze Keh and went on to a more advanced reader. And we were given new tasks.
Three aspects of our course seemed very difficult to me: newspaper headlines, listening to the radio news, and tsao shu, grass script.
Have you ever wondered what a foreigner would make of the headlines in British newspapers? The TRUTH about Gordon's 2p tax cut from the Daily Mail. Who is Gordon? Lampard free to quit Blues. (Mail) What are Blues? University sports heroes? A fit of depression? How would our foreigner think of Chelsea football club?
Maxine: I still love Huntley (The Sun) Who is Maxine? Who is Huntley?
Chinese newspaper headlines present similar problems. In my time at SOAS a big news story was the British invasion of Egypt over the Suez Canal - Suyisher YunHer. Yun - Her = transport river, so canal. The headlines soon called it Su Her. Easy, once you knew. The UK PM was Anthony Eden, Ai Dung. He became just Ai - and I can't remember what character they used for his name. I wouldn't be able to begin to read the headlines in Ren Min Ryh Bao (The People's Daily) now. I wonder how you get on?
Then there was the radio news. Every Friday afternoon the lecturers went home early, and left us with a tape recorder, and a cassette of the news in Chinese to listen to and translate. I think they expected each one of us to listen and make our individual translation after one or two hearings, but that wasn't realistic. Some of the class skived off for an early weekend, leaving a group of four or five of us to listen again and again to the tape, and to use our combined brain power to get some sense out of the news bulletin.
The nearest I get to that now is watching Mandarin films on TV, and trying to match up the English subtitles with the Chinese dialogue. I find that in most of the films, the actors speak very clearly, so there's really no excuse for me. I wonder if you ever get the chance to watch Chinese films?
The last difficult task was grass script. I said that we had to learn traditional characters. The Chinese government was only just beginning to issue lists of simplified characters. We felt quite brave when we simplified the character gwo, for instance, putting the King character (wang, is it?) inside instead of the full symbol.
But we also met writing where a whole character could be reduced to one curve of a brush stroke. Tsao shu, grass script. For us, interpreting grass script was a matter of guesswork. Once you recognised one character, or thought you recognised it, then it was easier to guess the next one. I still have my exam papers for the final Civil Service Interpretership, and I can't imagine now how I ever passed them. Still, we nearly all passed, and I can boast that I got a better mark than the three men who went on to be professors!
But if you don't use a language, it trickles out of your brain. And I didn't use Mandarin. You won't have the excuse that I had, that very few people that I met in Chinese restaurants for instance spoke Mandarin. Cantonese was far more common. Cantonese speakers seemed to travel more than Mandarin speakers, for some reason. But now that Mandarin is taught to every school-child in mainland China, I believe, there will be very many more people for you to talk to, even without leaving this country.
There is another reason why I forgot almost all my Chinese. When our two years of National Service were ending, we were sent to some RAF station near London to hand in all our textbooks, and our precious dictionaries. I imagined that they would be needed for the next Chinese course. I vividly remember queuing up to give the pile of books to some AC (aircraftsman) behind a counter. I was worried, because I had mislaid one of my readers. I needn't have worried. When I said I'd lost the book, the AC said "It doesn't matter. They're all going to be burned." By that time it was too late to save my lovely dictionary, and the other books that would have helped me keep up my knowledge of the language. Some of my course-mates had been more worldly-wise, and had conveniently 'lost' their dictionaries at least. That was when I suddenly lost any faith I had in our armed forces. If they spent two years and many thousand pounds training me to be an interpreter, and they made me join the RAFVR as an officer so that they could call me back in case my sklls were needed, then it was sheer stupidity not to call us back for a week's refresher course every year, and more than stupidity to take away our books, just so that they could be burned.
But am I glad that I spent two years of my life on Chinese? Certainly. It is so exciting to think that if you know both English and Chinese you can probably be understood by more than half the people in the world. Chinese of some kind is spoken by a fifth of the world's population, I believe, and that fifth is becoming more and more important to the rest of the world, as China develops and becomes the manufacturer of the world.
China has always been the centre of the world for the Chinese - Jong Gwo, Jong Hwa, as you know well, means the middle country, the centre of everything. The Chinese have been civilised for many centuries longer than the rest of us. If they spent hundreds of years enjoying gunpowder in fireworks rather than blowing each other up with it, good for them! Prnting, banknotes, they were old hat in China by the time they were 'invented' in Europe.
By studying Chinese language and culture we can get to know something rich and strange. We may never become good enough to read Horng Lou Meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber) in the original, but even to read some of these famous books in English translation means more when we know something of their original language.
If you are a Christian, you may be glad to know that the Christian church is growing at an amazing rate in China, even though it is persecuted. You may like to try the New Testament in Chinese. St John's Gospel, for instance, begins: Tay chu yeou Daw. Daw yu Shang Dih torng tzay. Daw jiow shy Shang Dih. St John in English talks about 'the Word was with God and the Word was God.' In Greek it's Logos, the Word. My Chinese version uses the word Daw, the Way, the word that gives us the philosophy of Daoism. Christianity has been around in China for a long time. There is an inscription that shows that Christians (Nestorians) reached China only two hundred years or so after Jesus was born. Then the RC Jesuits came in the 16th century and made themselves valuable to the Emperor. They reinterpreted the Christian message in Chinese terms - hence Daw, the Word; and the word for God, Tian Dih (Emperor of the Sky) or Shanq Dih (The Emperor Above).
For myself, the joy of learning Chinese has been the pleasure of learning a language that is entirely different from all the others I've tried to learn. French, German, Italian, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Polish, all have similar structures. The nouns have singular and plural forms. The verbs change their endings to show tenses and persons. Chinese words are what they are, and stay the same, whatever the sentence.
I delight in the way nouns are built up. Tzy lai shoei bii, for instance. Self come water brush. Are fountain pens still used anywhere? And Huoo che, fire-chariot, train. Tzy shing che, self-go-chariot, bicycle.
I love to think that Tian An Men Square must mean Gate of Heavenly Peace. And that gate of heavenly peace was the scene of the massacre of students and workers. To know that Hong Kong, Shiang Gaang, is the fragrant harbour, to understand that Beei Jing and Nan Jing are cities in the north and the south.
So as I look back 50 years to my last Chinese lesson, and I envy you now learning. I hope you love the language as much as I do, and that you will keep it up much better than I did.
To finish the National Service chapter, there are a few things that I didn't include in that talk to Sherborne.
Being in London meant that there was easy access to all the music and theatre there. We were only a short wlk from the Albert Hall, so I went to many Proms.
With John Sweetman I saw The Ring at Covent Garden, an experience never to be forgotten. I am very glad indeed that I caught a traditional production, rather than the conceptual, minimalist stuff that has been in fashion almost ever since, let alone the deliberatly ugly production in a sewage works or something that they showed on TV. This one had a proper dragon's tail coming out of Fafner's cave, and wonderful magic fire surrounding Siegfried (projected) and a thrilling journey down into the bowels of the earth, with the rock rushing upwards as we all fell together. The only thing John and I missed, from our perches in the very top seats in the house, was the sight of the gods in Valhalla being burned at the end. That scene was too high up at the back of the stage.
Not long after seeing The Ring I saw The Magic Flute, and was amazed how short it was - by comparison. Things happened in minutes rather than in half-hours. I also remember Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, and Britten's Miraculous Mandarin, not often done. I never went to a musical at that time - too snooty. So I missed some wonderful productions.
The play I remember seeing was Camino Real, a strange piece by Tennessee Williams I think, where the word Real gradually changed from its Spanish to its English pronunciation, changing meaning from 'royal' to 'real.'
Every university vacation the RAF arranged for us to visit an RAF station belonging to a different Command - Bomber Command, Fighter, Training.. Sometimes we had to work hard. I remember bing lectured about bombers. Fighter Command was a station in south Wales where they really didn't want us around, so they provided a bus to take us to the seaside most days, and left us there! Then they made an effort and took us each up individually in a piston engine two-seater. The pilots tried to make us scared. One lad pointed out that one engine had stopped, and pilot advised him to be ready to bale out. My pilot made much too steep an approach when landing, I think looking back, but I was so new to it all that I thought it must be normal.
We noticed the fighter pilots in the mess, training on jets of course. They were tense all the time.
At the end of our course, after we'd taken the final exam, we were sent on an Officer Training Course for commissioning into the Volunteer Reserve. It was not a proper course at all. Our drill was abysmal, lectures were not plentiful. All I remember, apart from being ashamed of my fellow cadets for their bad marching - years in the CCF had made me try to march smartly at all times - was the session when we each had to give a five minute talk. Mine was on The Language of Music.
Well, we were debobbed, with a demob suit which was pretty useless for anything, and we were given Pilot Officer's stripes to sew onto our uniform. I never did.