As we stood panting gently in the growing heat of the morning, we were informed of a new and exciting feature of the annual parade display. For this marvelous spectacle, only twenty-four of us would be chosen. With a little more organization based upon height, we had four teams of young men standing together and looking a little bewildered. Bottomley then cheerfully introduced each team to one of the coloured logs. Each was approximately sixteen feet long (I would be more precise, but I never seem to have a tape measure with me at such times) and painted in chequered patterns; one blue and white, one red and white, one yellow and one green. I presumed it was so that a) we didn’t lose them, or b) we didn’t accidentally wander off and use another team’s pole by mistake.
We carried the poles on shoulders – hence the height requirement – onto the very front of the parade square, at which point the remainder of our intake, until then kicking their exquisitely white heels and becoming increasingly bored, began to watch with interest – and with good reason. We lined up and then, after some instruction and very nervously, we began to throw and catch these two hundred and-something pound lumps of splintery wood. Straight up and down, over our heads – throwing it up on one side and spinning underneath it to catch it on the other side. We even dallied with testicular splinters and slid the bloody thing between our legs (yes really). Hopefully, you get the idea, because re-living this once is enough for me. It wasn’t the first time that I’d cursed evolution for giving me external gonads, and neither would it be the last.
It was all a bit dangerous and very silly but since Mr Bottomley was behind it, we complied without a word of complaint. The theory, as I understood it, was that we were providing a very important person (Sir Lionel) with a dazzling display of disciplined teamwork, something that was sure to amaze and delight both the great man and the attendant audience. They, incidentally, would be there in order to support their relative graduate and not watch a gang of badly dressed idiots fooling around with large painted logs. Instead of creating a marvellous spectacle, it felt like a rather pathetic and half-hearted exercise that belonged to the same era as our PT kit. On the plus side, I suppose I learned that multi-inch splinters can be every bit as painful as they look.
Once we’d finished throwing, juggling and shuffling our logs, we were lined up for a little competition: a thrilling race. This silliest of all silly ideas involved us shuffling the poles between our legs, over our heads and doing some other just-as-daft throwing stuff with them, before raising each pole vertically and having the most monkey-like member of each team shinny up to the very top of it, there to claim a glorious victory. Dennis, a remarkably hairy and wiry guy from my own class was, fittingly, chosen to be our team’s ‘monkey’. He had been a merchant seaman and was no doubt well practised at making his way up masts and yardarms etc. It didn’t really matter – just so long as it wasn’t me trying it. It was all very 1930s, very silly, and worst of all, it meant that when the exercise finished, I ended up looking directly up the voluminous shorts of one of the hairiest men I’d ever met. It wasn’t what I’d envisaged doing with this part of my life.
In deference to the well-established fact that modern politicians are quite happy to send people off to war/into harm’s way, yet detest the icky sight of blood, we were ordered not to injure ourselves lest we disturb Sir Lionel’s carefully established and in-no-way-cognac-infused equilibrium. Therefore, we had to be good at this…thing, whatever it was supposed to be. In other words, repetitive practice loomed large in our futures. Great, just great. Subsequent rehearsals for this display of dubious wisdom were inevitably fraught with injury; ranging from pretty darned impressive (six inches long) splinters to significant bruises, minor crush injuries abrasions, strains and sprains. I was fortunate to avoid any significant injury because my head usually got in the way first.
To me, this kind of upper-class ‘let’s entertain the great unwashed masses to prevent a revolution’ dickery was an anachronism. I very much doubted that any audience – apart, of course, from the Home Secretary, who would be privy to the arcane reasoning for such things – would be anything other than a little puzzled as to why trainee policemen were throwing telegraph poles around and shuffling them between their legs. I mean – have you ever seen your local constables demonstrate this skill? No, you haven’t, and for very good reason; that would be because only a very few were so carefully and specifically selected and trained to do so! It was probably comforting for the onlookers to consider that, should a power/telephone pole emergency break out in the high street, the brave expertise of the pole-shuffling squad was close at hand. Perhaps.
For the next month, we practised several times each week. Thankfully the summer weather that year was spectacular, and the sun always seemed to be shining as we went through the increasingly dull routine. The format was that we would troop onto the empty parade square in a single file with me at the back. Everyone would jog in step – harder than it sounds when we were all strung out in a very long line – to their allotted position. I was the last to come to a stop on that (freshly re-painted) dot directly in front of where Sir Lionel Nutbar would ultimately be seated in all his glorious, toffee-nosed political boredom.
After a short introduction speech which was comically ad-libbed by Mr Bottomley on each occasion, we were started with a single whistle peep, upon which we jumped from attention to a ‘stand-at-ease’ position. From that point, with the music blaring scratchily from a huge forty-year-old speaker cone – it looked suspiciously like the foghorn from an old battleship – on top of the adjacent building, it was all up to me to take everyone through the routine on tempo. They moved when I moved. I was counting to a rhythm, but it looked like I was making them all move; if only I had been, I could have had some fun, albeit at the expense of a career. If I screwed up, however, I would be taking everyone else – including Bottomley – with me. Memories of my marching ‘expertise’ occasionally reared their ugly heads and for a split second all control of my limbs would leave me but, fortunately, the routine was easy to remember and easy to perform. It almost became fun. As my confidence grew and my trepidation about being the focus for so many pairs of eyes receded, the universe rubbed its hands with glee and hatched its evil plan for me.