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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

15:  CHURCH

After Saturday night - Sunday. Only a service-man can hear the sighing content of that 'Sunday'. Airmen fall asleep the night before in inexhaustible wealth of leisure. Even, perhaps, we might lie in, tomorrow morning. But with the daylight some of the glamour had gone. Our blue clothes make us available for Church, and Church Parade is reputed the fiercest inspection of the week. At this Depot they also train officers in their duties. Do we not hear Stuffy, the fat drill-adjutant and ringmaster of our circus, telling them off before the filled parade-ground for faults of carriage or command? Does he not on Sundays allot to each a special examination? One to find so many dull boots; another to report men whose cap-badges are too high or too low (in our three weeks we have twice had to change our badges by order), another to scrutinise chins, and take the names of those which are stubbly. Training for them, punishment for us. Easy to avoid, that last crime? Not if your shaving has been in an unlit windy wash-house, mirrorless, with cold water at six in the morning while a dozen chaps shove for your place by the tap.

Because of such forebodings the reality of the parade seemed light. It rained so we belted the looseness of our great-coats round us, bayonets weighing down our left haunches (bayonets are essential for divine service), and the silly bodkin-sticks in our right hands. Many of us had never before done a church parade. We were shuffled into sections temporarily called 'flights' and marched down High Street, our iron-clad boots shambling, sliding and clinking on the muddied setts. No one could wish to keep step. The officers were new to us and shy of raising their voices in public, above the band and the clatter of traffic and the blanketing rain. Orders came down the files by word of mouth. The being conducted like cattle to market as a show between staring pavements was rarely horrible.

The much-restored fourteenth-century church was three parts full of our blue waves, on which the oddly-mobile heads rolled loosely, above the pew-backs. Mobile heads, for eyes were no longer chained to the front, and odd heads, in colour and shape: for all caps were off, a betrayal which never happened by day except as now, in church. Recruit-heads were clipped to the blood and pale as the scalp's pink. Even senior men were compelled to have pigs' bristles, like ours, at the neck: but on top their hair was very long, and greased tightly to their skulls, so as to fit inconspicuously under their caps. Airmen will risk any punishment rather than go cropped like soldiers. We claim warrant: are we not the 'air force?

To the clerics we should have looked promising listeners, because our rain-reddened ears stuck out very large and free below the furrow bitten into the scalp by the tight cap-band. But also bullet-heads and stuff-collared necks show a brutality which seems to scare men of God. Most of them take so for granted in their every word that we are particular sinners.

He was a feeble, throaty parson whose bookish face faded when our phalanx solidly sang the first hymn. Early in the morning my song shall rise to thee. Too early, our rising this morning. Reveille as usual: the weather a murky drizzle: no P.T.: breakfast an hour late. We had to loaf that hour, unnaturally, deflating our windy stomachs in wordless silence. The chanties which ordinarily made rhythmical the hour of kit-cleaning and sweeping hut were today chilled on our lips. Some did not even sweep up.

From the pew behind me rang out the rich Tyneside voice of Sailor, now casting down his golden crown about the glassy sea as gustily as yesterday he'd sung:

'The first to come was the Bosun's wife, and she was dressed in blue,
And in one corner of her cunt, she'd stowed the cutter's Crew!
She stowed the cutter's crew, my boys, the rowlocks and the oars,
And in the other corner, was the Air Force forming fours,

Singing "Wackja, the do ra-lay."
Her hair hung down from her cunt, Sir,
For
   She
     Was
       One
Of the good old Pompey whores!

'The next to come was the Gunner's wife, and she was dressed in russet,
And in one corner of her cunt, she stowed a twelve-inch turret!
She stowed those twelve-inch guns, my boys, also the shot and the shell,
And in the other corner, were the turret's crew as well!

'The next to come was the Captain's wife, and she was dressed in black,
And in one corner of her cunt, . . .'

The chuckle even now latent in Sailor's throat gave me a smiling picture of the confusion of dinted crowns in Heaven, when the saints had been dismissed off casting drill.

We sat to pray, and the emanations of wet wool and sweat gathered over us. Surely we were steeped in flesh. Before me stood the font, from whose quatrefoil panel into my face leered a mediaeval face, with ringed mouth and protruding tongue. Its lewdness somehow matched our prison-coloured lolling heads: while the padre read a lesson from Saint Paul, prating of the clash of flesh and spirit and of our duty to fight the body's manifold sins. The catalogue of these sins roused us to tick off on grubby fingers what novelties were left us to explore. For the rest we were just uncomprehending. Our ranks were too healthy to catch this diseased Greek antithesis of flesh and spirit. Unquestioned life is a harmony, though then not in the least Christian.

More relieving hymns, and then a sermon on prayer: the ejaculations, he said, of the soul in ecstasy labouring through joy and sorrow after God. Not half. I remembered Cook last night stumbling to a fall over the foot of my bed, and how he'd chokingly prayed 'God fuck me' thrice to the giggling hut. So do we pray. The padre, ignoring our life, ignored equally our language. Spiritually we were deaf one to the other: while around and us flowed the exquisite cadences of the Tudor service-book: a prose too good for him and too good for us. Generations ago the poor were brought up on Bible and prayer-book, and used such golden rhythms in their speech. Now for everyday they have a choppy prose, like rag-time; and for moments of emotion the melodrama of film-captions. To my ears these sound strained and literary: but they have soaked them to the bones in years of picture-going.

At last we were through with it and passing swiftly homeward up the street to the square, ready for dismissal. Alas, a shock awaited us. There stood the broken scowling Commandant, of whose guts good words might be spoken, reluctantly: but who had no humanity in him towards airmen. He ordered that our parade march past him in slow time. No officer dared speak to him, uninvited: so not even stout Stiffy could tell him we were in pan unsquadded recruits, whose drills had not begun. The first ranks older airmen, led the movement. Each flight behind copied the flight ahead: so the pattern quickly deteriorated. The officers did not know what orders to give. Flight tangled with flight, in line, in column, cross-wise. Some dressed right, some left. The flight commanders, not able to determine which was the directing flank, doubled imitatively this side and that like hares.

Our lot were certainly too forward: someone turned us about, marched us back and let us march, till we burst into the ranks of Flight 9. Our proper officer had a piping voice; so inevitably our distant men obeyed the roaring officer of the flight in rear. Suddenly we formed two deep: wrong: we had to be foured, and wheeled again. What we were doing the others were doing, busily. The press got so tight that we could move only pace by pace. The band's spirited conductor rose to the occasion with Chopin's funeral march. The 'Saul' would have been better, but to play it without a funeral is a service offence. The same judgment makes a crime of repeating 'Tommy here and Tommy there' in barracks.

The Commandant was beaten. With a wave of the arm he gave the maelstrom to Stiffy, limped to his car, and went. Over our heads rang out in the hugest voice of my life, Stiffy's shout, 'Royal Air Force: on your huts: MOVE.' It was the dismissal from P.T. 'When I say MOVE,' Sergeant Cunninghame had taught us, 'your feet don't touch the ground. You fly.' So the mob scattered as if high explosive had been fired in its heart, and after a minute the square was empty, but the huts volleying with laughter.

Only our Peters, the tall and soldierlike, who had been picked to hold the colours behind the Commandant was angry. 'The biggest balls-up ever. Stiffy was laughing like a cunt. If my old mob had seen it they'd have dropped dead. I've lost my last respect for the Air Force. The bloody colours were only a rag on a stick. Ours were silk, with honours. There isn't a spot of what they call "whores de combatte" about this crowd.'

Peters stood a little outside our ranks. His perfection of drill, and soldiering experience (fruits of a hidden two years in the Line), made him conceited with the picture of his grace standing out against our ungainliness. Also he got a parcel once - something to eat - and kept it to himself. Who could trust him, after that?

Corporal Abner warned us the orderly sergeant was prowling the huts to find men for fire-picket. So we nipped through the back door of our hut (which gave on to the grass) and across to the scruffy, friendly Y.M. There we sat and talked and laughed and drank tea and ate wads, awaiting dinner.




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