We were discussing wit. I uttered a self-evident truth which proved gratifyingly controversial. Of all the people I encounter, the soldiers are much the funniest. I took no prisoners among those who tried to disagree, merely telling them to get out more and find themselves in decent company.
Military humour is an abiding delight. It may be that not every reader has read George MacDonald Fraser’s three McAuslan books (he also wrote the Flashman series and Quartered Safe Out Here, about the Burma campaign, said to be Prince Philip’s favourite book). Quartered Safe is a war memoir of the highest order, while the McAuslans put our author up there with Wodehouse. Some of the finest comic writing in English, they will also help to teach a nervous new subaltern how to handle his platoon. Yet there should be a caveat, for they will make you laugh out loud. If you read one in public, people will think that you have St Vitus’s Dance. If you are holding a drink, you will spill it. But even without reaching the heights of McAuslan, every soldier I know has a wonderful repertoire of stories.
There is an obvious explanation. Jokes relieve stress, and soldiers have plenty of that, not only in combat. Imagine the exactitude demanded by the Queen’s Birthday Parade. Lines of men apparently quick-marching straight at one another: one misstep and Horseguards could implode in chaos, like a Highland reel if I am taking part. So should you have lunch at the Cavalry Club with a couple of chaps who spent much of their morning in a rehearsal, expect lots of merriment as they unwind. Those who reel with me risk bruised shins. Lunches with paraders have a similar hazard: sore tummy muscles, the aftermath of glorious laughter.
The thought of sore stomachs made me think of the late Sir George Burns. General George was one of the most distinguished -Coldstreamers of the post-war era, and certainly the best known. After a formidable war he went on to command London District and was Colonel of the Coldstream for some decades. He rode at the Birthday Parade well past the age at which generals normally conclude that discretion is the better part of horsemanship. This feat was the more remarkable in that he not only used seniority to excuse himself from rehearsals; he had never really learned to ride. A large man, his posture on horseback induced among the cavalry a mixture of fou rire and apoplexy. Fortunately, the horses which stoically bore him always seemed to know their way around Horseguards.
He had another habit that brought senior NCOs to the verge of a nervous breakdown. He was chronically untidy. Before the great parade, he would be batmanned into resplendent kit. But the General would decide that there was just time for another cup of coffee. Even without the excuse of reading McAuslan, he would promptly spill half of it down the front of his uniform.
One day, he summoned the medics and admitted to gut ache. The doctors were worried; it had clearly gone on for some time. It was decided to open him up. When that happened, anxiety gave way to amusement. Over the centuries, many of the brutal and licentious have suffered encounters with lead, but General George was surely unique. A greedy man, he always wolfed his food which consisted, whenever possible, of game. Fifty-six lead pellets were found in his stomach.
If you are inclined to sprinkle lead on your victuals, there may be a prophylactic. Appropriately enough, it comes from Condom: an Armagnac from the producteurs de la cave de Condom. It may not be easy to find in England, but if you should be in Condom, do not miss the local cooperative. With the power and subtlety of a proper Armagnac, it would surely help to ease lead shot into the chitterlings.
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