I intended to become a combat soldier with a Yorkshire regiment, or maybe even a Paratrooper.
I had a battery of tests during basic training. I passed out as a soldier near the top of my platoon.
At the end of basic training I was allocated to the Pay Corps!
I was not happy with that decision because I had intended to become a combat soldier.
Being young and stupid I mouthed off, expressing my displeasure.
My training sergeant had a kindly private word with me.
“Listen, you little cretin.”
Political correctness was not common in England at that time, and certainly not in the Army.
“You don’t know how lucky you are!
“You are going to be paid almost the same money as a combat soldier but you will have nine to five hours, every weekend off, every night in a comfy bed, no marching in the rain and snow, no sentry duty, no heavy packs, and no bastard shooting at you. You are not going to be freezing cold, boiling hot, or scared shitless for your life.
“When you have done your twelve years you can walk into a job as a pay clerk in a factory and you can have a good life.
“You are made for life.
“You are [rude word] lucky and you are too [a different rude word] stupid to realise it.”
In those days it was quite normal for a sergeant to swear at a young squaddie. I had several times seen sergeants punch young squaddies. The sergeant was simply giving me friendly guidance.
I shut up.
The Pay Corps had exams. If you passed your exams you were paid better and you had a much better chance of promotion.
I found the exams very easy. Within eighteen months I had passed every exam they had for me.
Maths and Accountancy and Taxation exams are wonderful exams where your answers are either right or wrong. I averaged 96%, close to the Pay Corps record.
I was promoted to lance-corporal as soon as I turned eighteen.
The office I was posted to as a lance-corporal was in Catterick Barracks. There were no corporals. I was under a sergeant. The sergeant was under an officer who was based near Leeds and who never visited.
Sergeant Simkins was a nice guy. He was sick a lot, and in practice I ran the Catterick pay office.
There was a routine inspection. Sergeant Simkins was off sick yet again.
The inspecting Major saw that this office was being run by only a lance-corporal. I had been operating without any supervision for two months including making all the returns at financial year end.
The Major grilled me for it seemed an hour on the minutiae of the Pay As You Earn taxation system and Pay Corps procedures.
I answered everything perfectly.
The first time the Major smiled was when I answered.
“I don’t know, sir. That’s not in the Manual, sir!”
It was in the update to the Manual that arrived a few days later.
The second time the Major smiled was when I answered “No, sir” to the question,
“Are you Irish?”
Why the heck should being Irish or not being Irish be relevant to my job as an Army pay clerk?
I puzzled about that question for a while and then I forgot about it.
I had already learned that officers think differently to ordinary people. Officers seem to be in a world of their own. Soldiers are doers and officers are planners and organisers. That is the polite way to express our different roles.
A week later I was called to London, to Pay Corps Headquarters. I had been there once before, for a training course. It was the Major again.
“Hewson. You are causing us problems.”
I was surprised. I thought that I had done pretty well, covering for Sergeant Simkins during his periods of incapacity.
“I am sorry, sir.
“How am I causing problems?”
“The office you are running is a sergeant post. Sergeant Simkins is a good man, but he is sick. I am posting a sergeant to run the Catterick office.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Which leaves me the problem of what to do with you.”
I said nothing. I had not thought about leaving my cushy job in Catterick. I was enjoying it too much.
“Are you married?”
“Do you have a sick mother, an hysterical girlfriend, or a neurotic pet to tie you to England?”
This sounded good. At that time the British Army had bases in Germany, in Cyprus, and in Hong Kong. I would accept any of those postings happily.
“What do you think about Northern Ireland?”
This was not good.
The British Army had been in “the Troubles” of Northern Ireland since 1968. We did not enjoy them.
This was why the Major had asked “Are you Irish?” when he had visited. People who were Irish were not posted to Northern Ireland.
“I gather it is a nice place to leave, sir.”
The Major smiled grimly.
“Northern Ireland needs a Pay Corps sergeant, mainly to do pay audits and to answer queries.
“Every sergeant I have has more than twelve years service.
“Any of them could get a better paid job as a civilian pay clerk tomorrow.
“I have no sergeants willing to go to Northern Ireland, and there are none whom I can force to go there.
“Some of my corporals cannot be trusted to work alone.
“My good corporals all have sick mothers, anxious pets, or suicidal wives. Two corporals said that they would buy themselves out rather than serve in Northern Ireland.”
There was a silence.
I pondered his problem.
I could tell that Lance-Corporal Hewson was going to Northern Ireland. There was nothing I could do about it. It was as inevitable as a train wreck in slow motion.
“The post is a sergeant post.
“Would you like to serve two years in Northern Ireland as a sergeant?”
This was a double promotion, from lance-corporal to corporal and from corporal to sergeant.
I would normally be over thirty before becoming a sergeant in the Pay Corps. At twenty, thirty is half a lifetime away.
I was an ambitious young man with no ties. I had no choice about going to Northern Ireland, anyway.
I accepted the promotion.
In Northern Ireland I never left the barracks except to go in an Army vehicle to conduct a Unit pay audit. I had a lot of time on my hands.
The Major telephoned me once a week to make sure that I had no problems, but otherwise he left me alone.
I had stopped drinking when I joined the Army. When I turned eighteen and I was legally allowed to drink, I could not be bothered.
By then I was saving my pay so that I might one day have the deposit saved to buy a house. I smoked a few cigarettes each day, mainly out of boredom. Cigarettes were cheap in the Army.
In the Army the sergeants mess together. We look after each other.
I was the youngest sergeant in our barracks by a long way. The other sergeants were good to me.
My Londonderry barracks had a firing range. They call the city “Derry” now but it was “Londonderry” in my time there.
In basic training I had been taught to strip down a rifle. The Armoury sergeant was happy to teach me to strip down and to repair all the other weapons.
I couldn’t play with mortars and anti-tank weapons because of the cost of the ammunition but I learned to strip them down and to repair and to reassemble them. I played with everything smaller. I played for hours in the armoury and on the firing range each week, and it was all free.
The PT sergeant was happy that I actually wanted to use the gym. He planned an exercise programme for me that would gradually make me pretty fit.
A side effect of the stomach crunches and the press-ups was that I did not want much in my stomach. I drank no alcohol and I ate only moderately. A lot of soldiers use chocolate bars but I stopped eating sweets.
I was so bored that I started studying correspondence courses.
I studied maths and science subjects because I had enjoyed those at school. I also studied for an external qualification in book-keeping because I was not sure how transferable my Army qualifications were.
I had more or less decided to leave the Army after serving my twelve years engagement. As the law stood at that time my twelve year engagement began on my eighteenth birthday. My years of service as a boy soldier did not count. I had nine and a half years left to serve.
An Education Officer gave me English classes. The clever man would give me a book to read, and a week later we would discuss the book.
The Education Officer would write a sentence, and then write it again changing the punctuation or the word order slightly. We would discuss the change in meaning that these very small changes made.
One of the first changes was “Venetian blind” and “blind Venetian”.
Another was “I’m always pleased to see you’re back again” and “I’m always pleased to see your back again”. Two sentences that sound very similar but with very different meanings.
I don’t remember the others now.
The Education Officer gave me a book on grammar and he had me read a chapter between each lesson. That is how I learned what an infinitive is.
I learned not to split infinitives. Then I learned when it is appropriate to split an infinitive.
The Education Officer also gave me logic puzzles. I had never seen these before. I enjoyed logic puzzles.
A few weeks after the shooting, I was transferred to a military hospital in England.
The Education Officer at the new hospital was not inspiring. I had to do a lot more for myself. Looking back, maybe that Education Officer was less useless than I had thought at the time.
The Pay Corps Major who was still my line manager came to visit me in hospital once I was back in England.
Everyone in the Army is delighted that a Pay Corps Sergeant did what I did.
The Major told me that there is now a joke in the Army,
“More mardy-arsed than a Pays Corps sergeant”
Apparently it started as a comedian’s joke at an Army concert and it has spread through the Army. “Mardy-arsed” means “sore arsed”.
In the Pay Corps a young sergeant with a Military Medal would be a very unusual beast. Technically speaking the officers should not salute me.
The officers would be uncomfortable around me.
The Major told me that whatever happens I will not return to the Pay Corps.
I might be transferred to training young soldiers. Aged only twenty with sergeant’s stripes and the Military Medal I would be a role model for recruits.
When I was fifteen I had thought that the combat infantry was the place to be. I had been cross that my arithmetic skills had taken me to the Pay Corps rather than to the Light Infantry.
Now I had seen how the combat soldiers operated.
I could follow the life of a combat soldier. I no longer wished to do it. There were very long periods of boredom, long periods of tension, and perhaps minutes of actual combat in a year. And in some years there was no combat at all, just training.
It is different now because the Army is so understaffed in relation to Britain’s needs, but I am talking about the situation as it was then.
I had grown up in my five years in the Army. It was time to build a future.
I had done well to be a sergeant at twenty. I would make Warrant Officer before thirty. I could enter Sandhurst now and become an officer.
Or I could leave the Army and become an accountant. This would involve three years at University where there would be lots of intelligent slightly younger young women.
The Army had been good for me. The Army had been good to me. I had grown up from an uneducated uncouth boy soldier to a decorated sergeant with the opportunity of a career as an officer.
The Army would give me a good reference beyond the MM. The best reference was that in less than five years I had gone from raw recruit to sergeant, a journey that normally takes at least ten years.
I decided to leave the Army now.
That was the decision that transformed my life.
I had met a number of graduate officers. They were intelligent, but they were no more intelligent than me.
I decided to read for a degree in Accountancy.
How could I read for a degree without qualifications?
Once I told the Army that I wished to read for a degree, strings were pulled.
I had an interview at Leeds University outside the normal interview cycle. The Accounts admissions tutor was a former Army officer who had been invalided out because of wounds. The tutor told me that with my practical experience and work ethic and obvious intelligence I would knock spots off most of his students.
I had passed the Pay Corps exams very highly. Much to my surprise the admissions tutor told me that passing the Army exams at 96% was as good as good A levels for university admission purposes.
The admissions tutor expected me to earn a First or at worst a 2:1, so he had no problem admitting me.
At that time I had no idea what a First or a 2:1 was. That is how ignorant I was!
It would help the admissions tutor if I passed the exams for which I was studying, but he was making an unconditional offer based upon what I had already achieved.
That put me on my honour to do well, and so I did.