The school trip that saved my life

    3 September 2020

    At 13 I found myself in the Combined Cadet Force. I think at that point — too old for toys, too young for boys — annoying my mother was my favoured vocation. She is a historian with expertise in fascism. It appalled her when I said I would do anything for a uniform and a biscuit. So, with the superb antennae of an adolescent girl seeking to vex her mother (when I told her I was a lesbian she laughed at me) I walked into the hut in the corner of the quad in my minor public school — you can do a lot worse than a minor public school — and announced that I was ready to join the army and where did I sign?

    My grandfather was in the army. Or at least I think he was. At the time of my army enthusiasm I wrote to the Green Howards, who were apparently his regiment, and asked for details of his service. They replied that they had never heard of him, but they sent me a very nice letter and a regimental badge. My mother said it must have been a clerical error. I thought it was more likely he was in black ops.

    Thus emboldened, I decided to continue this family tradition and join the CCF to irritate my mother. I was in the army section. I like green. I had a heavy jumper with elbow patches, hideous trousers that clung to my thighs and bagged below the knee, a beret, boots of remarkable solidity and a badge. At last, for the tiny Jew, a belonging. I spent a lot of time arranging my beret and making faces to scare ‘the enemy’. My friend, meanwhile, joined the RAF section. I have no idea why as we did not have a school aeroplane — it was a minor public school — but I was envious of her skirt. It was azure. I was not allowed a skirt. Apparently, it would impede me on manoeuvres.

    I was no real use to the army in my bedroom in Kingston upon Thames thinking about Wham! so I signed up for the CCF field trip to Aldershot. My mother agreed to it with a sigh as long as European history: even warriors know when they are beaten. She had not let me be a Brownie even though I begged her: it was my turn now. We set off on the coach, ready to camp, light fires and crawl on our knees through mud. Mr Stribley was in charge. He was a fat, jolly man who had been in the navy. He wore a naval jumper to school and taught religious studies. I like to imagine he had almost been a monk before he was a naval officer and a teacher, but he liked women too much. I can’t imagine him resisting temptation for long. He ended up marrying a parent.

    We drove out to Aldershot and straight into the Great Storm of 1987: the one that felled 15 million trees and turned Sevenoaks into Oneoak. We didn’t know it until nightfall. We camped in the woods, burnt gross food from tin cans and went to bed. We didn’t hear the storm until Mr Stribley stuck his head into our tent after midnight and told us to get up because the wind was 80 mph and it was too much fun to sleep through. He marched us up to the top of a hill, produced a rifle and let us take it in turns to fire it into the storm. It was brilliant. There is something very human about trying to shoot hurricane-force winds. This went on for several hours.

    I suppose Mr Stribley was only keeping us alive but, fat, jolly man that he was, he didn’t tell us that. He just told us to keep firing at the wind. Eventually we went back to bed, very exhilarated. When we woke up, lots of trees had fallen over and we were still alive. We packed up and had breakfast and drove back to school with currency you never bring home from the French trip and rarely find at all in Surrey: a story to tell. Our parents had been very worried about us. Even fathers were at the coach stop. The same night the tree in our front garden had fallen through my window so I suppose my membership of the CCF saved my life.

    If that is true, I did not show my gratitude; or perhaps I did. (When investigating a decommissioned Hezbollah tunnel with the IDF years later, I banged my head while talking about Golda Meir.) I didn’t stay. I was racing towards sexual immaturity and the knowledge that my CCF uniform would impede my search for bad men. I felt after the night in the Great Storm that I had probably had the best of the CCF — the joy in the wind. I never made it to Cadet Regimental Sergeant Major. I chose iconoclasm instead.