Pick Up a Gun

Small Voice Calling > The Echo > Pick Up a Gun

“The adverts in the papers solicit soldiers for the army.”

There was no careers advice at Thornleigh, at least none that came my way. It was just assumed that one did A Levels and went to university. Whilst I was in the fifth form, my brother was at university. He had passed his eleven plus and followed the established route. I hadn’t, and my parents thought it best I leave school and start a career. Had you asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I wouldn’t have had a clue. So quite what made Dad think I might be ‘officer material’, is a mystery. Except, perhaps, that he thought the Army might be the making of me. Or maybe he hadn’t thought anything until he saw the advertisement for Welbeck in The Daily Telegraph.

Welbeck College was a sixth form college run by the Army for aspiring officers. Successful students would go on to Sandhurst for officer training. The selection board was at Saighton Camp in Chester. My train was late and the Sergeant who met me at the station made sure I knew it was all my fault and would I please get on the lorry where all the other boys were waiting. Or words to that effect.

First on the agenda was the medical. The doctor had me strip down to my underpants and stand to attention. ‘Straighten yourself up boy’, he called from behind his desk. I thought I was standing up straight, but I made an extra effort to look tall and manly. ‘On your left, straighten your left.’ I pushed my left foot into the floor and raised my left shoulder. Then he came over and straightened the left leg of my underpants with a disapproving sigh.

Next were the tests. Some sums, some writing and some coloured dots and mind games.

Finally, the interview. Lots of pips on shoulders.

Pip 1: ‘What paper does your father read?’

‘The Telegraph, Sir.’

Pip 2: ‘How does your father vote?’

‘Tory, Sir.’

Pip 1: ‘Why does he vote Tory?’

‘Because he reads the Telegraph, Sir.’

Pip 2: ‘Why does he read the Telegraph?’

‘Because he’s a Tory, Sir.’

I was not selected.

The way that Sergeant shouted
It’s just to drive you crazy
I was luckier than many
For I got released in time
Now they tell me I’m a free man
But sometimes I still doubt it
For the more I think about it
Freedom’s just a state of mind
That they keep with the gun

From ‘Pick Up A Gun’ by Ralph McTell
Full lyrics in ‘Time’s Poems’, p 148