A Good Day

Two weeks ago the family turned out to attend the Sovereign's Parade at Sandhurst where Commissioning Course 172 had their big day eleven months after being dropped off with ironing boards and what seemed like several hundredweight of kit. A fabulous day it was too, as are they all for anyone passing out from a training establishment be they a recruit or an officer cadet. It was also my wedding anniversary. Days in life, never mind marriage, don’t come much better.

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In his address, the CGS, General Nick Carter, said to the assembled cadets that he would give his rank, his way of life, such material possessions that he has to swap places with any of the young men and women on parade for the opportunity to do it all over again. Thirty six years after my own Sovereigns Parade I was thinking exactly the same thing. I suspect every other person there over the age of forty was too. 

Eddie & I being questioned by John Knott, the then Defence Secretary (1982)

Eddie & I being questioned by John Knott, the then Defence Secretary (1982)

The day was not without a touch of circular sentimentality for me. When I passed out I did so with a fellow called Eddie Edmonstone next to me. Eddie went off to the Scots Guards while I went off to the Gunners. Today Eddie was there to see his Godson commission into the SG’s, as did my boy. 
Like many, I enjoy musical theatre. The very best musical theatre though is to be found on the drill square and none is bigger, better or more emotionally charged than is Old College Square at Sandhurst. It was, no ordinary anniversary.

Back we are 36 years later to see the next generation march up the steps

Back we are 36 years later to see the next generation march up the steps

When We Were Young

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In a 180 degree turn in the near forty year drive to produce a better educated officer corps, the Commandant of Sandhurst, General Nanson recently suggested that many 18-year-olds feel that they should go to university because it is the “done” thing, and often have not considered alternative options. He said that when he was at Sandhurst, it was evenly split between university graduates and school-leavers, but now the vast majority, around four fifths, of Officer Cadets arrive with a degree. “You want to try and get youngsters in early and develop them yourself rather than [choosing from] an ever increasing pond of graduates.” 

That isn’t quite the whole story he was telling. He went on to explain in interviews that school-leavers who have been accepted for officer training at Sandhurst will be able to register for a BSc in Leadership and Strategic Studies. Once they have completed the undergraduate degree,  developed in partnership with the University of Reading, they can go on to complete a Masters. Officers will build up credits during their 12-month officer training course at Sandhurst, which will make up a third of the degree. They can complete the remaining two thirds over a four year period while they are a serving officer.

This approach falls into step with what is becoming a fashion among major employers such as Deloittes to hire 18 year olds and train them in-house. It is hardly a vindication of the university system which as we know from bountiful anecdotal evidence, is a hit and miss affair for most students with no quality control on delivery to speak of outside the sciences and engineering. 

General Nanson is obviously becoming like the rest of us in looking back with fond affection on the impossibly barking mad individuals with whom we trained and served. The intellectual level of Officer Cadet in New College, (the non graduate college at the time), was, shall we say, variable. The reasons for being there were just as diverse although most, simply wanted to serve and I don’t believe it to be any different with today’s cadets. The average age of cadets today is higher at 23 and I am certain they too have many characters in their ranks. The Army attracts them like a magnet. I do feel though, as every intake does, that my time was special. 

This became most evident after commissioning when cadets go on to complete training specific to their Arms. The Infantry go to Brecon to dig more holes in the ground, the Cavalry to Bovington, the Gunners to Larkhill and so on before all are finally posted for regimental duty. As a Gunner I went to Larkhill to join Royal Artillery Young Officers Course 108. I’m not sure if nearly 400 years of Gunner history had prepared the regiment for YO’s 108. For sure and for certain, nothing prepared me for my mess bills on YO’s 108 which every month seemed to include an improbable figure for ‘damages,’  which made the ‘wines,’ column look like a rounding error. I was reminiscing just the other day with a fellow 108 alumini. We joked that given the number of ‘interviews without coffee,’ that we amassed how extraordinary it was that many of the course went on to achieve reasonably high rank, serve in special forces and even today continue to challenge orthodoxy and dullness. Happy days. Although I didn’t think so when I found myself one night clinging to a brick wall while standing on a third floor window ledge of the YO’s Annex. The YO standing next to me was nonchalantly chatting away while sipping his beer. He was speculating on the survivability of jumping and making it across the concrete below to the grass verge some yards distant. The police officers wandering up and down the corridor inside narrowed our optionality somewhat bringing immediate and fresh meaning to the phrase, ‘between a rock and a hard place.’ It seemed to us that the constabulary was overreacting a bit to finding a university officer tied naked to a sign post on the impact area but they probably hadn’t taken into consideration that he was earlier, being a bit too full of himself. Some people just can’t take a joke. I wasn’t involved in the ‘damage resulting from racing around the polished Mess tables in spurs,' incident nor was I involved in the ‘poaching of Colonel Jasper’s pheasants,' incident. I was there when we reassembled one officers entire bedroom on the flat roof with him still fast asleep in bed and I saw, and survived, ’the ‘bangers and rockets,’ incident. A story so far fetched that it can only be retold between those who were present but remains in the junior league when compared to the officer in 50 Missile Regiment who stuck a nuclear simulator up a chimney-breast and detonated it during a dinner night destroying not only the chimney but a considerable portion of the Mess and all of his career.

RA Mess, Larkhill

RA Mess, Larkhill

In fact, and on reflection, the YO’s course was something of a nursery preparing us for some very senior practical jokes and ‘incidents,’ that one witnessed in the regiments. I was reminded just last weekend of one such night. At a May Ball in Kirton-in-Lindsey the Mess Sergeant was faced with a problem which he solved with quick thinking ingenuity. It was a huge Ball and the Mess staff needed to gather all the starter plates, all 500 hundred of them, wash and dry them and have them ready for the Eton mess or whatever was being served for pudding. Then, a bad thing happened. “Sir, can I have a word please. The waters stopped working, we don’t have any water for the washing up Sir.’ ‘Well sort it out Sergeant M, find some bloody water,’ said my host who had organised the thing. So Sergeant M did. Two minutes later two Mess staff ambled through the dining room unfurling a dirty great fire hose behind them and disappeared through the door into the kitchen. They came back into the dining room seconds later just after the call went out, ‘Water On!’ “Water On,’ echoed from down the corridor. The hose filled and suddenly all hell broke loose in the kitchen as a Mess waiter was flung from pillar to post around the kitchen hanging on for dear life to the end of the powerful hose. Someone hadn’t remembered his fire drills. The fun really started when the hose, with Mess waiter attached, appeared in the dining room flying around like an unguided missile until someone had the sense to shut the water off. Not much of the crockery or indeed the Eton mess survived. Oddly, I had quite forgotten that incident and recalled the night more for the moment the CO’s wife put her stiletto heel through the bouncy castle. Odd the things you remember really.

King Abdullah of Jordan Nails It

Former Officer Cadet His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan represented the Queen and was the Reviewing Officer at the Sovereign's Parade on Friday. He gave as good an address as any you will hear at a pass out parade. Good advice there..... for all young men and women, military or not. 

For A Few Minutes...

First day; the beautiful drive from Staff College Gate to Old College

We drove to Sandhurst yesterday with one of the boys for the start of his Commissioning Course. Eighteen hour days for the next five weeks before we next see him won’t do him any harm. The 2,000 volt emotional field emanating from the mothers, wives and girlfriends in the chapel when the Commandant gave some welcoming words was palpable. The emotion radiating from the mothers, wives and girlfriends didn’t though, come anywhere close to how I felt. If I could have signed up there and then and done it all over again I would have done so in a heartbeat. It is though, thirty five years since I walked through those hallowed gates on my first day…… thirty five years. I loved every single minute of it. I honestly believe the air at Sandhurst is different to anywhere else in the world. Just being there instills in you belief, a positive mental attitude and an optimism about life. For a few minutes in the Chapel today, I was twenty again and yes, I do bloody miss it. So, for any other old lags out there, here’s a clip (above), of the beautiful drive from Staff College Gate up to Old College……. (bit dull for anyone else but those who know the feeling… know).

The Lost Boys

Supposedly clever people in positions of responsibility and influence in politics and the media are getting themselves into something of a lather about the introduction of more grammar schools. The debate is characterised with the usual entrenched political dogma from all the usual suspects but it does not deserve the attention and focus that it is receiving in the context of the broader educational debate. Just as we might have anticipated, in circling the wagons around grammar schools areas of more immediate concern are simply being ignored.  That is, they are all arguing about the wrong question.

I have suggested on this blog many times over the past six years that social mobility is more challenged now than at any time since the late seventies. Simply put, those who did well over the past thirty odd years pulled the ladder up behind them. While more grammar schools might  contribute to correcting the imbalance they are not in themselves a complete answer and they will not suit all areas of the country. Nor will they address the festering problem of the poor white and black working class who have increasingly found themselves to be excluded from what one might call normal life aspirations. In practice, new grammar schools are likely to fill up with a mix of middle class and ambitious and bright immigrant children. Nothing wrong with that in itself and indeed, the influence of bright Asian kids, (and a considerable financial shot in the arm from City based charities), has probably helped the academies in London improve their performance to the point where they are leading the way forward for the state sector nationally. We should embrace and applaud their success and acknowledge that there is no one size fits all solution in a country of 68m people. 

Nor is the ritual beating up of the public school sector an answer to anything except to polish the worn and beaten credentials of droopy eyed class warriors. Within their own means, public schools contribute greatly to the public good not least in terms of pushing innovation in education which in time filters into and throughout the state sector. Apart from their considerable advantages in terms of facilities and keeping their students in a disciplined learning environment for longer, (a local school close by ends their school day at 3:15pm three days a week and 2:20pm on the other two days...... unbelievable. As it happens, this Academy is doing well, how much better could it do?), public schools are fortunate in attracting a pool of considerable talent at the headmaster level. Easily the most important and critical component of a school is the head. As Napoleon said, 'there are no bad soldiers, only bad officers.'

The answer to our national educational debate comes in five parts.

First, things are not as bad as they are  reflected to be by Westminster windbags and their media drones. Schools seem, to me at least, to be in better shape than was the case twenty years ago and that is a good thing. Moreover, today's generation never cease to impress. They are more worldly, sharper, brighter and engaging than are all who have gone before. We simply need to add refinement, focus and a leg up for the dispossessed to  go to the next level.

Second, a rich mix of comprehensives, public schools, academies, grammar schools, University Technical Colleges (championed by Kenneth Baker), and specialist academies, (for example languages and sciences which already exist), with each acknowledging the place of the others and interaction between them all is where the answer lies. Which-one-where will be driven by local resources and local preference with government help and direction only on an 'as required,' basis. 

Third, and this is the single most important part of this post, schools must address their teaching to fit the world the students are entering. The question isn't 'where are we teaching?' but 'what are we teaching?' It is shameful for example that most schools, from our very best down, still do not teach children how to code. While some prep and primary schools have the right idea and teach basic coding almost as a language rather than a technical subject we are woeful as a nation in elevating the subject and giving it the importance it deserves and demands in 2016. For a nation which built it's prosperity on engineering we have simply lost the plot. How ridiculous is it that students leave school for university not knowing the basics of Excel, that most basic of tools in any workplace. Having achieved success in propelling maths to its rightful place of importance in the school system over the past fifteen years it is wasteful not to teach the subjects like computer science for which it is most useful and most pertinent.

Fourth, grab the universities by the balls, squeeze and twist until they start doing their jobs to an acceptable standard which offers value for the money they take from students. Some courses at some universities do offer a good value proposition, most do not. Four hours of lectures a week, half of which are usually done by a heavily accented Phd student from the Ukraine is not acceptable. If they expended as much energy in creating a rounded education with good pastoral care as they seem to do in encouraging students to drink their own body weight in cheap white spirits in their first week we would be in infinitely better shape. 

Fifth, what do we do about the Lost Boys, those who already find themselves in care, in correctional facilities or those who are on their way to life behind barbed wire but just haven't yet been caught? I have a plan.

Up until about ten years ago a Sandhurst institution existed which had the purpose of taking young officer cadets who were thought to be not quite ready for the full commissioning course. With a focus on adventure training Rowallan Company emphasised leadership, fitness, self reliance and communication skills to help cadets quickly mature. Those who passed invariably went on to do well at the Academy and after commissioning. 

We could do the same with what I call the 'Lost Boys,' in a demilitarised version of Rowallan and use old military facilities to house it before they are all sold off. Take 30 young men with all manner of black marks against them, a remote location, six instructors and a couple of academic staff and in 24, possibly 16 weeks you could turn their lives around sufficiently to give them a shot at reentering the mainstream. At the end their street-smart knowledge would be turned into a self reliance and confidence that could be applied to any environment. Think of it as a poor man's Gordonstoun meets Rowallan. This would be the deal. Complete the course and your record is struck clean. You get a shot at applying for military service and they will forgive your past misdemeanours but only if you pass the course and the entrance requirements for the service of your choice, (we're short of recruits by the way), or a government approved apprenticeship scheme. If you take the apprenticeship option you must join the Reserves for three years. After three years you are your own man. Abscond or fail (through indifference not injury), and you go straight back from where you came; end of second chance.

Think it's a long shot? I happen to think not and I'm absolutely not thinking along the lines of some reality television boot camp set up. The approach is much more intelligent than that yet remains a simple one. The thing is, while everyone is running round in circles arguing about one type of school or another it is not addressing a pretty key issue. Or are we just going to accept an exploding prison population and pretend the problem isn't there? The instructors are out there, the facilities and kit are there and there are teaching staff, retired or otherwise, who would put their hands up. The big roadblock here would be attempting to get three different government departments to agree on a policy, (probably never been done before), and getting on with it out of the glare of the media.

I had a great uncle who won an Oscar for his part in making the Dirty Dozen. Perhaps it's time to make it happen in real life but by using the outdoors and books rather than weapons and uniforms, for the good of the individual and the greater good of us all.

is this the best we can do....... seriously?

is this the best we can do....... seriously?

 

 

 

 

 

A Special Day

The years rolled back on Friday when I had the joy of going to my Godson’s Pass Out Parade at the Army Training Centre, Pirbright.  So much has changed in the Army since ‘my day,’ and yet so little.

Organisationally it looks a different world. Gone are the old Divisional and Corps training Depots and now it looks as if they had a lucky dip when a civil servant put his hand in a bag of cap badges, pulled a few out and said, ‘right, we’ll send this lot to Pirbright, next......’ Gunners, Sappers, Life Guards, Armoured Corp, Signals, Logistic Corp, Int Corps; even the Corps of Army Music all train together. What hasn’t changed one jot though is the Army’s capacity to take a bunch of ragged civvies from all over the country, from different backgrounds, with varying, or indeed no interests, with different family stories and in just fourteen weeks march them off the square as a cohesive and fit group of young people with a collective and personal sense of purpose, pride and achievement.

I take my hat off to every man and women Jack of them. They’ve just joined a special club, the best club in the world and whatever else they do in their lives, no one will ever be able to take that away from them. They deserve respect and thanks. To put their hands up and pledge to put themselves in harms way on our behalf is not something that every comes easily to every citizen.

It was illuminating to watch former soldiers amongst the parents, friends and family who came to watch the parade. As they got out of their cars and heard the familiar sounds and sights of recruits being drilled and beasted around the barracks stomachs were held in, their backs straightened and they began to walk with more assured poise; home on familiar turf, it all comes flowing back.

Now, that their Phase 1 basic training is complete and the young soldiers can dress themselves and point themselves in the right direction, they will head off to their own disciplines to begin learning what their day job is all about.

As I watched the parade, which was only spoiled by the young corporal who whipped up the spectators beforehand encouraging them to shout, whistle and cheer at every opportunity, (why don’t he and his colleagues appreciate the balletic majesty of good drill with added tone from the Band of The Life Guards?; it’s not Britain's Got Talent), I thought of my own Passing Out Parade. The  parade, at the Scottish Infantry Depot, Glencorse in December 1978 went, by all accounts, very well. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it. While the lads were marching off to the Pipes & Drums I was lying in a hospital bed at the Eye Infirmary in Edinburgh having been injured by a colleagues ejected empty brass case on the last attack of the final Battle Camp at Otterburn a couple of days earlier. A 10,000 to 1 piece of bad luck. As soon as it happened, with the end of 18 weeks of basic training just 100 yards away, I fell to the ground in agony. My Platoon Sergeant from the Black Watch ran up and started kicking me screaming ‘don’t be fxcking idle sonny, get yer arse up the hill.’ He clocked that there might be something wrong when I stood up and started running in the wrong direction, blind with both eyes closed up. Six hours later, and in some discomfort,  I arrived at the hospital.

It was a bit of a lonely and worrying time. Stuck in a bed with pressure bandages over my eyes and nothing to do. I could smoke which seems a bit odd now but then was perfectly normal. The Padre came to see me with two books, Moby Dick and a Robert Chandler novel which were somewhat redundant given the pressure bandages on the lacerated cornea. My only other friend at the time was Laura the Night Nurse who I was sure looked something between Grace Kelly and Julie Christie. I never actually saw her and when her shifts abruptly changed that was it.  Eventually the eye thing heeled well enough for me to stay in the Army and life went on. Still, it would have been nice to make the parade..... and to meet Laura the Night Nurse.

Pass Out Parade at Woolwich in 1986. Few old friends there..... including Stu McFayden who was the Adjutant, sadly no longer with us and Steve Cook who very much is. 157 Gunner recruits passing out in one parade; wouldn't see that these days - Army has halved in size.

Notwithstanding the iconic Sovereign’s Parade at Sandhurst which was just a very special day, the next Pass Out parade I made was at the RA Barracks at Woolwich as a Troop Commander. There is something especially rewarding being part of the small team that takes those civilians in on Day 1 and marches them off four months later as soldiers, their lives changed for the good one hopes, forever. The parade ground at Woolwich is a sacred place; hallowed ground. As Busty the Mess hall porter used to proudly proclaim to visitors, ‘this is the longest façade in Europe and a light aircraft has landed and taken off from this square.’ Obviously, after 300 years as our spiritual home it was too good to be true with today's parsimonious politicians and Gunners now train at Pirbright, the rest of the Regiment has gone to Larkhill and the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment enjoy the biggest upgrade of their lives in being stationed there with the odd Guards company on public duties. 

So, we used to play hockey on that square on Wednesday sports afternoons, (that was the non football players so me and a few other girlie wimps who couldn't kick a fitba). It hurt like a bastard when the ball skittered off the ground and scudded into your knee or shins like a high velocity bouncing bomb. But nothing in life, and I mean nothing, comes close to the feeling that surges through your veins when you march on behind the Pipes & Drums. 

I'll always regret not having made that original Pass Out parade though. Sure, I did bigger and more impressive ones afterward but that one would have been special. Now indulge me here. I couldn't find a clip of a pass out parade at Glencorse, (which is no longer a training depot), so we're going to watch a clip of 2 SCOTS (RHF), who are stationed there and their homecoming parade in 2013. What can I say, there are Jocks, a Pipe Band and lots of rain so it looks and sounds the part. The square at Glencorse incidentally is, I think, one of the prettiest in the Army. Won't mean much to anyone except the half dozen afficionado's of drill squares out there and excepting that horrible new building someone has recently stuck on the East side it really is quite striking. I think I might write a book one day.... 'Famous Army Drill Squares and the Characters That Made Them So.' If they've published books on roundabouts and of fishing huts then Drill Squares will be in good company and after all, if it makes six of us happy then that's enough.

Proud Father Day

One of those proud father days on Saturday when one of the boys passed out of Sandhurst on his Reserve Commissioning Course. I remember only bits of my own parade there yet remember all of the Chapel service before. Sitting in the beautiful Memorial Chapel, singing some of our great hymns in an atmosphere charged with sincerity as cadets are reminded by the Chaplain of the solemnity of their sacred duty to their men, it is difficult not to feel stirred if not overawed for one is surrounded on every panel of the Chapel by the names of cadets who gave their lives in the Great War and there are a very, very great many of them.  

Dress Advice For Young Officers

 

........... and moving on we have Col Barry Jenkins RA to thank for this jaunty reminder on dress and turnout. Let's face it, we're all getting a bit slack. I'm disappointed he didn't allude to hats though. Hats and when and where to wear them can be something of a sartorial minefield for the young officer although I would guess that the requirement for a young officer to have a trilby in his locker is much diminished since my day. Actually, not many of us had one even then and then we only wore them for the Gunner Point to Point............ Anyway, bat on Barry; it's splendid stuff,

 

"Please pass to all RA Staff at RMAS – Ty

Adjutants, Thank you for supporting Officer Recruiting events this term and, specifically, for sending your Young Officers to host the RMAS Officer Cadets at next week's Expression of Interest Evening and Ex ARTY OBSERVER.

I am taking this opportunity to remind you of the importance of your subalterns presenting the correct image of the Royal Artillery at these events. The individual officers have already received their instructions which include specific details on dress; however, I do expect the regiments to take responsibility for ensuring that these instructions are adhered to.

Dress Guidance

Please find below some sartorial pointers for your subalterns on hosting duties and indeed all your officers (M&F) who may wish to consider the more general dress points found below:

  • (M)A good, clean well pressed suit with a Gunner Zigzag tie for the men and (F) suits with the Gunner brooch (worn on the left lapel) for the ladies.
  • Only the middle button of a 3 button (M) suit is fastened. It is a coat not a tunic. If your suit has a belt, so be it, but a slim elegant leather suit belt and not a Harley Davidson Buckle Belt is to accompany it.
  • (M) Long socks that do not show your flaky, spindly hairy twiglet like shin and absolutely not a selection of ghastly cartoon characters. There is nothing evenly remotely funny about having Poundland crackers fight for your custom as your tailor.
  • Black (after 7 pm) brogue/Oxford type shoes, polished and in good repair or a good quality slip on loafer are fine, but anything resembling 4WD with a heavy tread and a big fat square toe won’t do justice to your well cut suit…you wouldn’t put ketchup on a Dover sole. As a rough rule of thumb, if your footwear is in anyway similar to that seen on a Balkans’ coffee shop waiter then Q4 applies.
  • The shirt must be pressed and if wearing a suit (or blazer) then it shouldn’t have a pocket and MUST fit correctly at the neck. Pockets carry Cross pens as used by NASA scientists and whilst we are a technical/combat arm we aren’t there yet. Black, red or other dark ‘Emo’ colours are to be swiftly and safely consigned to the Camp Esperanca deep hole recycling facility.
  • Double cuff shirts are not mandatory; however, the quality of the shirt is the main factor. If you must wear a silvery/grey Gary Lineker number then make sure it is a really good one and wear it with confidence. If however, it looks like a nylon prop from the OPTAG dressing up box then recycle it (safely) and go traditional with a Jermyn Street number.
  • The tie should be correctly tied, close to the collar and checked regularly. The knot must not be big fat Grange Hill special or be seen adorning the neck of a semi finalist on the Apprentice (M&F). The tie should just reach over the waist belt, not 6 inches above or below.
  • You are to be freshly shaved when attending any evening function and enough has been said about sideburns. Make up (F) should not be over excessive and most importantly, hair should be tidy and presentable. The whole ‘train crash survivor’ clambering up the embankment look. is unattractive and inelegant.
  • Oh yes, diving watches/laptop/GPS type watches furiously scrunched up against your shirt cuff look awful. Try and use a thin elegant dress watch – even Sekonda has some relatively pleasant ones.. The same type of gShock watch is cracking for CS95 but should not be worn with SD, black tie or mess dress.

These are elements of dress guidance and they are not hard and fast, Edwardian or even particularly contemporary but they just set a rough line on where our YOs should be heading. We are a broad church and we should not exclusively ape the armed wing of Boden, Primark, Fat Face or New and Lingwood, but I am constantly amazed by what some think is acceptable dress. It is not just the quality but the untidy scruffy manner in which it is worn –this must sharpen up. I would rather discover a Gunner officer through his witty, polite and engaging conversation than clocking his cloning through his dress, but please disseminate this lick of polish onto our fantastic, brave and impressive cohort of young officers.

Whilst light hearted pse pass on these tips– if in doubt follow TRHs Princes William and Harry for civilian clothing direction (all apart from that one off tea cosy incident)."

 

Colonel Barry has probably done more for Gunner officer recruitment with that memo since Montgomery enlightened the rest of the world on how cool Gunners are!