I always get a bit jittery (nervous) around this time of the year because my mind goes back to the time long ago, after I'd left school when I first set foot in a building one winter time. It is well known as a tourist attraction but it has quite a different meaning for me.
To most people the Tower of London is just another historic building that they have visited along with thousands of others but to me it has a particular significance for it was inside its grey ramparts that I was once obliged to spend three chilly months. Not I hasten to add as an imprisoned traitor or master spy but as a soldier doing part of my military service with a London regiment. And on revisiting the Tower as a tourist the other day I recalled memories of my sojourn there and stopped to think of the many expressions in English that owe their origin to thearmy, past and present.
Before I joined up, I had been given plenty of advice on how to behave in the army. If you kept your mouth shut and your eyes open I was told, then that was half the battle, that was the secret of success on becoming a soldier. A neighbour of ours who was supposed to be quite a big shot in some ministry department, he had an important job there, assured me that the army would make a man of me. But personally I thought all these well wishers were rather fighting a losing battle, wasting their time as far as I was concerned because I couldn't see myself fitting into the military routine. Still, it was up to me to win my spurs, to prove my worth. As I said goodbye to the manager of the firm where I had a part-time job, he told me I'd thoroughly enjoy my square bashing, the initial training in drill and marching and in no time at all I'd feel fighting fit, extremely healthy. And so there I was entering the Tower for the start of my new career.
I was a little surprised at the compliment I received from the sergeant on the shortness of my hair but that was only a flash in the pan, a temporary success, considering the remarks I was later to hear passed. This same sergeant in fact was a bit of a turncoat really, what you might call a double-dealer, as it so happened. He was quite friendly to us all while we were still in civvies, in our civilian clothes, but he soon showed his other side once we were gathered in the barrack room dressed in uniform. And I'm sure if I quoted hia actual words, everyone would be up in arms, they'd all be protesting to english-test.net. Suffice it to say he was not the sort of person to cross swords with, to argue with. He advised us to aim high, to be ambitious and try and feel proud of the uniform we now wore. One of our number actually dared to express an opinion in the middle of the sergeant's little speech but he soon beat a hasty retreat, gave up the attempt, when the sergeant warned him of the dangers of stepping out of line, of not doing as the others did.
After our first night's sleep in the barrack room interrupted continually by the hooting of ships on the Thames outside, we were awakened by the bugle announcing reveille. In both senses of the expression most of us were certainly raw recruits, complete novices, for we fondly imagined we could have a bit of a lie in. It came as a bombshell to me, a great surprise, that I had to jump out of bed the minute reveille had finished playing. But an even greater shock awaited us. Our barrack room floor, the sergeant roared at us, was not clean enough by a long shot, by a great deal, and the following morning we would have to get up at 6 instead of 6.30. This shattering piece of news had the effect of making us close our ranks, we decided to join in a united action. And after our first exhausting day we set to, to give the floor a magnificent shine. One of the squad even went as far as to guarantee that the sergeant would be delighted with our efforts.
But personally I thought this was jumping the gun a bit, being rather premature. And events proved me right. The sergeant was not satisfied that morning, nor the next, nor the next. And soon we were rising at 4.30 a.m. The sergeant certainly did stick to his guns, he did persevere, because he had to get up early too to come and see that wretched floor. The night before we had to get up at 4, we held a council of war, we met to decide on a definite plan of action. No one had any ideas at first and then one young Londoner said he'd noticed a large tin that had been left behind in his locker. It was just a shot in the dark, there was just a remote chance, he said,that it might contain polish. We rushed to the tin, prised it open and applied its polish to the barrack room floor-giving it a mirror-like finish.
Certain of victory, sure of success, in the morning, we retired for a brief night's sleep. At 4 precisely the door was flung open, the sergeant strode into the room, slid several feet on one leg and landed flat on his back. I'd love to tell you the language the sergeant used but if I did that, it would mean revealing a military secret and honestly I have absolutely no wish to spend another night in that cold, grim tower.
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