The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Foundations of the Twenty-First Century

An extract

Sunday 9 April 1989

The train ran on time, setting off at six-fifteen and pulling into Waterloo Station precisely on schedule, at eleven thirty-one, after a journey of five hours and sixteen minutes. It could never have happened in Grandfather's day, as Mother would say if she were here.

I spent most of the journey watching the other passengers. There were only a dozen of us for the College, and of course we have no uniforms, which I suspect was a source of some grief to a few of the others. It is certainly a paradox that some of the most distinguished branches of the folk community services must adopt the most undistinguished appearance in order to function; I'm certain that several in our party were grieving at the loss of their cadet uniforms - those absurd red-and-whites which two months ago they couldn't wait to shed, and which would draw jeers of "Baby beef!" and "Tenderloin!" from any soldier in sight.

Still, I must admit that the twelve of us standing on the platform in our civilian clothes can hardly have been an inspiring vision. We were all dressed in our best, of course, and as the son of Harold Cullen and the grandson of Sidney Cullen I was better dressed than many; but I still felt a pang of relief that no-one from the garrison was there to see us off, let alone share the journey with us. Even the guard's and porters' uniforms seemed to embody a certain enviable authority.

Robertson suggested that we turn our anonymity to advantage by monitoring the passengers in one carriage each. Several of us immediately agreed, although some of the young cadets took a little more persuading. They seemed to think they would be expected to carry out an arrest or two by the time we got to London, and Robertson had to expend considerable time and patience explaining that it would simply be an amusing exercise to break the monotony of the trip, and good practice besides.

My own carriage was nearly empty. A pair of businessmen in expensive suits looked up at me as I entered, then resumed their conversation, the fleshy middle-aged one apparently lecturing the fleshy young one about the inefficiency of some aspect of the preparations for the Centennial. My German was adequate for as much as I could hear; but even the elder one was speaking in a rather low tone, so that once the train started I could barely hear a word. The only other passengers, aside from myself, were an elderly woman with two children and a soldier apparently on his way back from leave. The children, a boy and a girl both wearing Young Folk armbands, were about twelve and nine, too young to be the woman's own; possibly she was their grandmother. All three seemed subdued and, as far as I was able to observe, they never so much as noticed my presence. The soldier, an infantry corporal, was lounging with his feet on the seat opposite. He had put his pack beside him, next to the window, and had his arm around it as though it were a child. He dozed for most of the trip, opening his eyes only when his ticket was inspected and he was requested to take his boots off the seat.

At Crewe more people got on: four men in RAF uniform, who immediately started playing cards, and two civilian families with half a dozen children between them. The families were acquainted with each other, the grandmother joined in the conversation, and I gathered that they were on their way to London for the Centennial; the old woman made a remark about it being impossible to celebrate properly in the provinces. She used the word jubilee, and one of the men corrected her; but I remember little else.

The other cadets had similar experiences. Robertson told me later, after we were billeted, that his carriage was so packed with tourists he could barely be sure of their numbers, let alone their nationalities or descriptions. "I hope they give us cameras for the job," he said. "Or at least let us take notes."
"Of course they won't let us take notes," I said. "When did you last see anyone taking notes in public?"
"They'll train us to do it unobtrusively."
"They're more likely to train our memories," I said. "Teach us how to tell who we should watch and who we can afford to ignore, and then train our memories to hold the proper information."

We have been billeted in a private flat because all the students' barracks have been requisitioned for the tourists. An official from the College met us at Waterloo and hurried us all onto a bus, along with several other parties of cadets, before we had time to get our bearings. When the bus was full, he switched on a microphone and informed us, in as many words, that the overfulfilment of the residency situation has rendered unavoidable the utilisation of appropriate lodgings from the civilian sector. We were reminded of the importance of taking our responsibilities seriously, and told that we would be driven to our various lodgings, where we would be permitted to rest for the remainder of the day; following which our orders are to report to the College at precisely three o'clock tomorrow afternoon for the start of our induction.

The civilians who provide the lodgings are actually veterans of the armed forces and the folk community services who have volunteered their rooms and receive payment from the authorities for housing us. Robertson and I are sharing one bedroom in this rather small, dark flat, while another bedroom is occupied by Greenwood and another cadet whose name I don't know. Although there has been no time for any but the most cursory introductions, our landlord seems an interesting type. He is in his late sixties or early seventies: certainly old enough to remember the War, and quite possibly old enough to have taken part, if not in the fighting, then at least in the work of national revitalisation which followed.

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