I would have probably never made a good soldier: myopic; cunning implement to make it appear I’m flat-footed; never had a fight; not a massive fan of foreign food (so overseas posting would have been out) and I’d probably have an allergic reaction to the uniform. (I don’t suit brown).
Having swapped schools after the middle term of my fourth year from Bec to Emanuel, the only consistent was the regular activities of the CCF (Combined Cadet Force). A chance for teenagers to dress up in military uniform several sizes too big, be shouted out by masters more often (and louder than normal) and to brandish weapons considered obsolete before the outbreak of the Boer War.
A group of us travelled via or from Balham every day en route to Clapham Junction. When it was CCF day travelling was like The Borrowers meets Dad’s Army.
CCF wasn’t compulsory at Emanuel, there were two alternatives: there was Scottish country dancing with the headmaster (not appealing in an all-boys school, although this was the man who was drunk during my entrance interview when he allowed me to join the school – it certainly wasn’t based on academic ability) or a thing called Taskforce.
Taskforce was organised by the Divinity master; it involved us pupils visiting old people near the school and doing good generally. Two of my classmates and I were sent to visit Mrs Tyler, who lived in a terrace house just off Lavender Hill, just past Clapham Junction Station.
Mrs Tyler was built like she was training to be England’s Strongest Woman, she was also the loveliest woman living in SW11 and a great sport. She was visited, regularly, by her daughter, who would also do her shopping. Our visit was, ostensibly, superfluous.
When we first arrived, she would get us to make a cup of tea – something three teenage boys could just about do in 1973 – and get the Custard Creams out her daughter had kindly supplied earlier.
Once settled, we would turn the TV on and watch the horse racing (at Mrs Tyler’s behest, I hasten to add) the entire afternoon. Nowadays, whenever I watch Channel 4 Racing I also get a waft of Custard Creams. And to think, we could have been running around the playing fields of Emanuel, face covered in dubbin and with a perpetual itching where you were never quite sure if it was the texture of the uniform or visitors from a previous occupant.
Mrs Tyler was so welcoming me and my mates visited her during our holidays. I even grew carrots for her in the ground outside my flat in Du Cane Court. I felt she’d probably done this when she was my age so I hoped home-grown carrots brought back the memories of hating Hitler.
Even though my friends were playing soldiers, sailors and airmen on the Elysian fields of Emanuel, I look back and think there was probably more chance of being shot walking up Lavender Hill to Mrs Tyler’s house than if we’d been behind the chapel at Emanuel pretending the music master was Himmler.
If I had have done CCF, I think, if I’d made it to Field Marshall, I’d have had Arding & Hobbs as my HQ. At least the carpets would have been of high quality.