Dulce et decorum erat
When the Major confiscated the Evening Standard that began the end of my career. It was 8am in the Cyprus office where we all worked. Breakfast time. Saturday 23rd September. I had sent the paper down the line of my colleagues, who read it in hushed horror, for few listened to the radio before we began work. I’d just arrived back in time for work via the Austrian Airlines night flight to Larnaca, and so carried that rare thing: a current British newspaper. In Cyprus in 1989, long before satellite tv or internet existed, the British tv news arrived on video once a week.
The Major walked in, saw the Evening Standard and confiscated it, leaving the words ‘bad for morale’ fading in the gloom. I wondered who he thought he was but, then, he was a Major.
When you live abroad you carry in your mind a stylised vision of the place you’re from. For some it’s a bitter vision; for others romanticised. Mine, reinforced by being abroad in part to protect that vision, was the latter. After all, as the expression has it:
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” (1)
Friday – just the day before – had perturbed the vision I carried, of a quiet old and old-fashioned seaside town. Of proud coal-miners and the coal smoke that drifted over the town. Of proud military bands whose music drifted over the town: ‘A Lincolnshire Poacher’ and military marches. Of family and friends.
Friday – just yesterday – had been the last day of a week’s holiday home from Cyprus. Just after breakfast came the popping boom sound that suddenly unsettled: too loud for a car crash; unlikely to be a gas explosion.
The sirens revealed its extent soon enough. Both fire engines from Deal, immediate and close by. Then all the small town’s ambulances and police cars. Minutes later came sirens on the road from Sandwich. A few short minutes and more sirens drifted in faintly on the road from Dover. It could only be a bomb at the barracks.
My house remained familiar and quiet yet the air had changed. The breakfast show interrupted itself with news of an explosion in unfamiliar Deal. Reports of men killed and injured, it said.
So, did I have a choice? I could volunteer my services at the scene and perhaps justify being absent without leave: AWOL. Or, I could catch my Austrian Airlines flight to Larnaca in a few hours and do my duty: dulce et decorum est (2). Reluctantly I packed and left.
As we drove past that Friday, towers of cameras were already rising from Walmer’s grassy green, peering into the site. Platoons of tv people stood rehearsing pieces to camera for news bulletins around the world.
By the time I reached Heathrow, the Evening Standards shouted the event in huge headlines from every newsstand. I wondered why I was travelling to a distant garrison when my own home was so evidently threatened by political violence. And the next morning, less than 24 hours later, my reward for doing my duty, pointless as that already seemed to me, was to have the newspaper confiscated. When that paper went, so also went my former romantic vision of the world, and my place in it.
I resigned a few tricky months later. It is better, as a man, to stare reality straight in the eye than pretend it doesn’t exist for the sake of ‘morale’ and convenience. Then I set out on a new, unfamiliar path that has led to half a lifetime of rich experiences.
Eleven men were killed, 21 injured. The bombers were never caught. After a decent interval had elapsed, the government sold the barracks to property developers.
In happier times, here is the Royal Marine Band at Deal, on the end credits of the film ‘Thunderbirds are Go’ (1966). Marvel at the music and the crisp drill.
This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.
- The Shellscrape (Resolution & Temptation)
- Show Salute (Opportunity & Disruption)
- Dulce et Decorum Erat (Freedom & Confinement)
- Dancing on Fortress Walls (Honesty & Illusion)
- Inheriting a Relic (Vitality & Mortality)
- Karachi Hotel (Empathy & Judgmentalism)
- The Thunderclap (Courage & Fear)
- You need a bomb under your bed to get you up (Agency & Fatalism)
- On Meditation (Mindfulness & Confusion)