Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

The day before Remembrance Sunday the people in Oxford Street told themselves to remember there were fewer than 50 shopping days until Christmas. Even in our down times, London is a formidable shopping Mecca: the people who weren’t in Oxford Street that day were possibly at the new Westfield Stratford City, a shopping mall the size of a small invadeable country, where even the security guards were impressed by the military effort being put into the laying of a red carpet for the premiere of the movie The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part One, for which fans, or Twihards, as we fans like to say, started queuing three days early. In the event, the movie’s female lead, Kristen Stewart, posed, according to Metro, ‘for red carpet photos wearing high heels with her sparkling black Roberto Cavalli dress and McQueen belt but changed into comfortable blue trainers before signing autographs’.

Everything’s an advertisement. But in Oxford Street, you might wonder what exactly was being advertised when several columns of soldiers came marching down the road. And what were the witnesses advertising when suddenly they froze and burst into a round of applause that lasted until the parade’s end? It’s one thing to remember soldiers for what they did long after they did it, but quite another to celebrate them – in a nationalistic, tearful way – for doing their job while the job has yet to be properly defined. In Britain, there is indeed a generalised sentimentality about the military. You only have to look at the songs. ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, written by Ivor Novello in his most famous but least typical moment, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ or ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, with the latter’s bittersweet invocation to London streets. The sense is strong, it has always been strong, of an unbreakable bond between ordinary citizens and their armed forces. Only nowadays it has something to do with the rigours of shopping.

On cue, a book has arrived to add to the fun. It’s not a masterpiece but it contains plenty of stuff to make a blaze. Inspired by its own website, the Official ARRSE Guide to the British Army (Bantam, £12.99) is not, it must be said, in any way the kind of text that Tommys would have sent home from the front. Rather, it is a rude, boisterous, boysy collection of hilarious truths about what the modern British army is really like, and what it sounds like when talking to itself. The editor is the mysterious (but no doubt highly decorated) Major Des Astor, and he gets us off to a gentle start. ‘The first time you meet members of the British army, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that rather than a big cohesive whole, what you’ve actually come across is a group of fiercely xenophobic independent tribes who all happen to buy their clothes at the same shop.’

No one gets off scot-free, especially the free Scots. (Speaking of the Scots Guards, ‘The Jocks’, we learn that ‘most of the Scots accents in the Officers’ Mess belong to the late entry officers’; the direct entry officers, who are actually Scots, are generally posh enough to make Brian Sewell sound a bit common.) The role of the armoured divisions is ‘all about driving around in huge fuck-off Challenger 2 main battle tanks, crushing screaming infantrymen beneath your tracks (many of whom will be members of enemy forces) and blowing large fatal holes in huge fuck-off enemy main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and vehicles of all descriptions. Which is fun.’ It turns out that having fun in the army is something of a priority. Most soldiers say they’re bored to death most of the time, which is probably why they are so gung-ho when the chance for action eventually comes. But mostly it’s neither war-war nor jaw-jaw, but fnar-fnar. Here’s a description of a former ration: ‘Tinned individual steak and kidney puddings … came with baked beans and tasted OK, but were primarily used on exercise for their amusement value as, when placed in a mess tin of water and heated, the tins would eventually detonate with spectacular effect, showering soldiers in the vicinity with hot fat, suet crust and some strange meat substitute.’ The boys called these ‘Babies’ Heads’.

Yet the book would also be a reliable guide to recruitment, kit, regiments and combat service support. It’s just that none of these things quite throws up the laughs. The rituals of survival in a club or sorority are often funny, and no less so in the British army, where the bid to look ‘ally’ is focused mainly on the kit. ‘Allyness … is best described as military fashion sense, i.e. wearing various non-issue items, or modifying issue clothing or equipment, in order to look subtly different from one’s peers.’ I haven’t seen this sort of thing done with dedication since I was at school, where the fatness of the knot in one’s tie, coupled with the deployment of badges featuring Altered Images or The Smiths, could render one an instant hero or a certified loser. Army dudes trying to look ally will make the most of non-issue smocks, beanies, sideburns, pace beads, jungle hats and bleached combat trousers. (If something looks particularly good, it looks ‘Gucci’.) Soldiers, like schoolchildren, have something of a prison mentality: you have to do what you can with the bare essentials, which is why many of our finest boys in uniform, or some ally version of the same, spend their evenings in the desert watching the Hexy-Telly. This is hexamine, a solid fuel that burns without leaving a residue. Soldiers often while away the evening hours staring into the blue flame, wishing it were The X Factor or the shopping channel. And nobody could accuse the Official ARRSE Guide of not being thorough: a whole page is devoted to the legend of the ‘wank sock’, a more or less waterproof receptacle ‘for the products of the British soldier’s occasional forays into the recesses of his dark imagination’.

My favourite line in army blather, however, is everything about the SAS. It has always been seen as a crack, tightly knit combo, but judging by the number of soldiers who claim to have served with it, it must contain something equivalent to the population of modern Tokyo. As the book has it, ‘all UK pubs are required by law to have one alcoholic regular who claims to be a member of the SAS and was Second Man on the Balcony at the Iranian Embassy.’ Plus: ‘All British soldiers have a mate who knows Andy McNab and thinks that he’s either a good bloke or a tosser.’ Plus: ‘All serving SAS soldiers are discreet, witty, down-to-earth good blokes; none of them are Waltish, swollen-headed, egotistical prima donnas with a hotline to the Daily Mirror’s defence correspondent.’ And finally: ‘SAS men are trained to eat Ferrero Rocher at ambassadors’ receptions without attracting attention.’

What’s not to love? ‘Waltish’, by the way, refers to the popular army habit of concocting stories about your service record. (It comes from Walter Mitty.) There have been a few famous examples, such as the man who knighted himself, a certain ‘Sir’ Alan McIlwraith, who did sterling work in the Balkans without once leaving the floor of a Scottish call-centre. For those trying to understand the new forms of belief – and make-believe – in this era of international movie premieres happening at East End shopping emporia, the ARRSE Guide might prove to be a philosophical as well as an entertainment investment. The book gives a full briefing on how to ‘Walt’ with confidence. For a start, one should be willing to believe that people will believe anything. And, second, you should possibly grow a moustache and pretend you once had friends called ‘Tug’ Wilson, ‘Strangely’ Brown, ‘Spud’ Murphy and ‘Spider’ Webb. Lovely blokes, the lot of them. Diamond geezers. Never backwards at coming forwards. Credit to their country.