Monday, May 2, 2011

Respirators Will Be Worn; Mercer’s Café

Wells scrawls a signature in pencil and beneath it embarks on a series of crosses.  I count forty-six.   Wells searches among my papers for an envelope, sticks it down, writes SWALK on the flap.  RUNNER is called out in the voice of the CQMS.  Williams, flinging away his fag, lopes off along the corridor;  Wells starts on a long yarn about his cousin who has inherited a hundred pounds and how he can go about tapping her.  My head is empty of ideas.  

         Now there is a sudden speeding-up of work, people run in and out, with papers to be sent off, the Education Officer drops two letters in front of me,  the PT Sergeant wants a sports programme typed, a lieutenant asks me how to spell loofah.  

        Wells picked up a magazine of mine and opening it is faced at once with a reproduction of a painting by Dali.  What the deleted’s this? he says.  It’s a picture. Yerce, but  what’s it  meant to be?


        A scraping of rifle butts on the landing advertises the presence of men waiting outside the CSM’s for their leave passes.  It must be ten o’clock.  Thank God for that.  At half-past I can slip out for a break.  A sudden shout goes up.  One of the passes, supposedly for seven days, is found to be made out for fourteen.  A row begins, the guardroom is mentioned.  The CSM gets the best of it, the man doesn’t get his pass, Wells gives up Dali as a bad job. Can he post  his letter?  Yes but don’t forget to come back.  Garn whatcher take me for.


         I examine the postage book.  Somewhere there’s been a ballsup.  I count my remaining money and stamps.  I’m a shilling short.  I go over the account day by day, it goes back weeks.  The total adds up wrong, I’m in a whirl.  Suddenly a slip of paper hitherto unnoticed catches my eye, Respirators will be worn by all ranks today from 1030 till 1115 hours.  That makes me pause.  Respirators?  Three-quarters of an hour?  Not bloody likely.  I grab my cap and the two letters dumped by the Education Officer and make for the stairs.  There is no official break time for office personnel:  mine is known as going to post.  I do in fact go there but afterwards.  First I go to Mercer’s Café.  It’s down on the Front by the Pier and is civilian, that is to say although patronized mainly by the troops there are tablecloths and the atmosphere is not that of a canteen.  A stag’s head, antlers on the wall, a banner: PLEASE BRING YOUR OWN BAGS AND PAPER.  Black coffee can be obtained and it is good.  Also chocolate cakes and hot doughnuts.  There is a downstairs room for the officers where everything costs more.  Once we had a subaltern of socialistic views who objected to the implied class distinction and also to the twopence extra on tea; for two mornings he sat upstairs with the other ranks but we damn well soon showed him what was what and after that he too went below with his brother officers.

        There are two wicker armchairs in the corner:  if you’re lucky and arrive early enough you can bag one of them.  I am and I do.  I drink coffee, dust sugar from fingers,  start to write this sketch.

Reader Note:  This is an except from Julian MacLaren-Ross's 1942 sketch entitled "Respirators Will Be Worn; Mercer’s Café", which is part of a longer (but still short) piece called "Are You Happy In Your Work?", which was originally published in the October 1943 issue of The Saturday Book, one of the popular, high-circulation literary magazines that flourished in the Great Britain during the Second World War when paper shortages put a crimp into more "standard" publishing of novels and other, longer works.  Maclaren-Ross's Army sketches established his literary reputation and were his first truly popular publications. They are as lifelike and enjoyable to read today as when they were originally written and paint a vivid portrait of life in the ranks on the British home front.  Maclaren-Ross's funny, but ruefully melancholy stories paint strong pictures of  the variety of soldiers' and officers' personalities, British regional and social distinctions and the unvarying maddening bureaucracy that eventually sent MacLaren-Ross AWOL and then to the "glass house" (military psychiatric hospital) because of the frustration he felt on account of not being allowed to do what he considered more substantial war work.  Eventually, following his discharge from the service in 1943, he wound up in London doing screenwriting alongside Dylan Thomas for a company engaged in producing war propaganda films for the government.  This experience produced a couple of entertaining chapters in Memoirs Of The Forties, which was published posthumously in 1965. For other examples of Julian MacLaren-Ross's work, please see here and here.  Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to acquire an autograph letter by MacLaren-Ross in his remarkably -- practically impossibly -- small neat handwriting that was inscribed on light blue note paper using the famous gold fountain pen he used to compose all his novels, stories, radio plays and literary reviews.  A legacy from his father, MacLaren-Ross called it The Hooded Monster.  When times were hard for him, as they often were, it was the valuable possession he pawned most reluctantly.


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