Our hut is a fair microcosm of unemployed England: not of unemployable England, for the strict R.A.F. standards refuse the last levels of the social structure. Yet a man's enlisting is his acknowledgment of defeat by life. Amongst a hundred serving men you will not find one whole and happy. Each has a lesion, a hurt open or concealed, in his late history. Some of us here had no money and no trade, and were too proud to join the ranks of labour's unskilled. Some faltered at their jobs, and lost them. The heart-break of seeking work (for which each day's vain tramp unfitted them yet further) had driven many into the feeble satisfaction of 'getting in'. Some have blacked their characters and hereby dodge shame or the police court. Others have been tangled with women or rejected by women and are revenging the ill-usage of society upon their smarting selves. Yet aloud we all claim achievement, moneyed relatives, a colourful past.
We include 'lads' and their shady equivalent, the hard case. Also the soft and silly: the vain: the old soldier, who is lost without the nails of service: the fallen officer, sharply contemptuous of our raw company, yet trying to be well-fellow and not proud. Such a novice dips too willingly at the dirty jobs, while the experienced wage-slave stands by, grumbling.
The dressy artisans, alternately allured and repelled by our unlimited profession, dawdle for days over their trade tests, hoping some accident will make up their minds. Our Glasgow blacksmith, given only bread for tea one day in dining hail, cried, 'Aam gaen whame,' muddled his trial-job and was instantly turned down. That last afternoon he spent spluttering crazy non-intelligible confidences at every one of us. A dumpy lad he was, with tear-stained fat cheeks, and so glad to have failed. 'Dry bread,' he would quiver half-hourly with a sob in his throat. Simple-minded, like a child; but stiff-minded, too, and dirty; very Scotch.
The 'axed' Devonport apprentices, just out of their papers, despise our mob. They have worked in a shop with men. Two barmen sleep beside Boyne, ex-captain in the K.R.R. Opposite lies the naval suburb: - a Marconi operator, R.N. and two able seamen, by their own tale. Ordinary seamen, perhaps. Sailors talk foul and are good everyday sorts. The G.W.R. machinist rejected all kindness, and swilled beer solitarily. There were chauffeurs (read 'vanmen') enlisted for lorry work: some dapper-handed clerks, sighing at the purgatory of drill between them and their quiet stools-to-be: a small tradesman out of Hoxton, cherishing his overdrawn bank book as proof of those better days: photographers, mechanics, broken men; bright lads from school, via errand-running. Most are very fit, many keen on their fresh start here, away from reputation. All are alert when they have a shilling in pocket, and nothing for the while to do.
Men move in or out of our hut daily, so that it flickers with changing faces. We gain a sense of nomadity. No one dare say, 'Here I will sleep tonight, and this I will do on the morrow,' for we exist at call.
Our leading spirits are China and Sailor, Sailor taking the curt title because he is more of a sailor than all the naval pretenders put together. A lithe, vibrant ex-signaller of the war-time, quick-silvery even when he (seldom) stands still. Not tall but nervous on his feet, a Tynesider who has seen many ships and ports and should be qualified as a hard case. Yet good-humour bubbles out of him and in drink he is embodied kindness. With his fists he is a master. His voice renders his frequent bursts of song our delight, for even in speech it is of a purring richness with a chuckle of reckless mirth latent in the throat behind his soberest word. Sailor's vitality made him leader of our hut after the first hour.
China, his sudden pal, is a stocky Camberwell costermonger, with the accent of a stage Cockney. Since childhood he has fought for himself and taken many knocks, but no care about them. He is sure that safety means to be rough among the town's roughs. His deathly-white face is smooth as if waxed, the bulging pale eyes seem lidless like a snake's, and out of their fixedness he stares balefully. He is knowing. When Sailor starts a rag, China produces a superb haw-haw voice that takes off the officer-type into pure joy, with a subtle depth of mimicry. He is always President in our mock courts-martial.
Normally his speech is a prolonged snarl, as filely-grating as his pal's is melodious. China has said 'fuck' so often, inlaying it monotonously after every second word of his speech with so immense an aspirated 'f', that his lips have pouted to it in a curve which sneers across his face like the sound-hole of a fiddle's belly. Sailor and China, the irrepressibles, fascinate me with the attraction of unlikeness: for I think I fear animal spirits more than anything in the world. My melancholy approaches me nearer to our sombre conscientious hut-corporal, whom everybody hates for his little swearing and inelasticity. But he is old, and years, with their repetition, sap the fun from any care-full man.