Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: Colin Shindler
Price (RRP): £16.99
Fifty years ago National Service came to an end, to the joy of hundreds of thousands of young British men awaiting their call-up papers, and to the regret of the Colonel Blimp brigade who felt that the institution was an essential bulwark against the moral decline of the country’s youth (think swinging late-fifties and sixties, mods and rockers and the decline of deference) and the looming and destabilising end of empire.
I missed National Service by a hair’s breadth, applying for deferment until I had finished at Oxford and then seeing it ended just as I graduated. But I had several cousins who had to dodge rioters’ bricks in Egypt and EOKA bullets in Cyprus. Whether it did them any good I was unable to tell.
Despite some uninspiring and unoriginal introductory material of his own, Colin Shindler’s interviews with a wide range of ex-conscripts form the bulk of this book, and very interesting they are too, if not revelatory. One common theme is the issue of class, as working-class boys were brought into intimate barrack room contact with public school products and faced upper class officers and overbearing (and sometimes hysterical) sergeant majors.
Another theme is the impact of service in strange and often exotic places like Aden, Malaya, Kenya, even occupied Germany, especially for a generation yet to enjoy cheap holidays on the Costa Brava, and more used to Blackpool than the Suez zone or the Persian Gulf.
Recruits were also brought into potentially violent contact with a host of ethnicities and political movements among imperial subjects of which they had hitherto no experience on the streets of Middlesborough or Glasgow and whom they had mostly been taught by their communities and the popular press to despise – or at least distrust.
Above all, the book bears witness to the sheer variety, cussedness, and inventiveness of humanity during the Cold War years.
Professor Denis Judd’s books George VI and Empire have recently been reissued in updated versions by IB Tauris