23 Sep 2015

Brian Sewell on National Service

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Brian Sewell, 1931-2015

Conscription no longer exists in Britain any more than it does in America, but some of the oddest people, including the late homosexual art historian Brian Sewell, believed that the experience of military service did them a great deal of good.

From Outsider (the first volume of his autobiography):

In my young days boys were prepared for life by dancing lessins and National Service, and of the two I much preferred the latter. Oh the misery and discomfort, the crippling sense of inadequacy engendered by the hours spent in the compelling arms of a corseted dancing mistress learning the quickstep, the foxtrot and the tango – to these the ingenious bullyings of strutting Warrant Officers and corporals proved infinitely preferable.

What did I learn from National Service? I learned to shoot with a cold accuracy that surprised the men who taught me. I learned to ride a motorcycle and to drive almost everything the Army had on wheels. I learned to pitch a tent and dig a trench and wriggle at a snake’s pace on my belly. I learned, if I did not already have them, the habits of neatness and economy. ‘Any fool can be uncomfortable,’ said one of my instructors, a Captain in the Gloucesters, lately wounded in Korea, and I learned from him to make silk purses out of sows’ ears. These were practical things that have stood me in good stead, but the less definable things have served me even better. In the intimacy of my platoon it was as though we had sworn the marriage vow to obey, serve, love, honor and keep each other in sickness and in health. We learned lessons in loyalty and interdependence that wove the platoon together; we learned that the strength of a group of men is the strength of the weakest member and that the weakest can be made stronger with forethought and support. With modesty and squeamishness abandoned I learned that compliance is not an easy option, but often the only option in a particular set of circumstances that one can do, and sometimes must, do things about which one has almost overwhelming intellectual and moral reservations, or that are deeply offensive to one’s taste. I think I learned – it was never put to the test – that there was nothing I would not do, that needs must when the Devil drives. I believe this still to be so, though my choices now might be significantly different. I learned too, that separation from my dog was more painful than separation from my parents.

Most of a lifetime later I am so burdened with moral baggage that I have perhaps lost the ruthlessness the Army taught me, but for decades I believed that my two years of National Service had done me far more good than my three as an undergraduate, my eight at school and twenty on my knees in church. National Service revealed depths and darknesses in my soul that I was grudgingly glad to know were there; if I am now capable of making worthwhile moral judgements it is because I was for two brief years a soldier of sorts, not because I am an art historian, a lapsed Conservative, an agnostic Christian.


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