Saturday, August 4, 2007

Trust and obey1

David Lodge's second novel, Ginger, You're Barmy, was first published in England in 1962. "It is," he explained in his introduction to the 1982 edition, "'about' peacetime National Service, as an institution and as an experience—one which most young men born between, say, 1928 and 1941, underwent." (Lodge was born in 1935.) The novel's narrator is Jonathan Browne, who, like Lodge, "was drafted into the Royal Armoured Corps shortly after obtaining [his] B.A. in English Language and Literature at London University." Like almost all of his later novels that I have read, this one too makes pointed use of religious themes:
One Sunday we had a Church parade. I presumed that even the Army would not compel me to attend church, and said so to [Corporal] Baker, with a certain challenging note in my voice which was probably my undoing.
      "You can presume what you fugging2 well like," he replied. "You'll parade with the rest of the squad. After the inspection, fall out and report to me. We'll find you something to do while the others are saying their prayers."
      When I reported to him he sent me over to the cookhouse. If there is a God, and if, as some say, He whiles away the long light evenings of eternity devising choice punishments for His creatures, He need not hesitate over selecting my particular hell. It would be an everlasting cookhouse fatigue. By the end of that Sunday I was almost weeping with misery and a sense of injustice. Whereas those on the Church parade were free (relatively speaking) by noon, I slaved all day in that stinking, greasy cookhouse. It was an old building, irremediably dirty: platoons of soldiers could not have scrubbed it clean, though the Cook Sergeant nearly drove me and my companions into the tiled floor in the attempt. I remember kicking a hot water pipe in sheer wretchedness and frustration, and the shudder of disgust that shook me as a swarm of cockroaches scuttled out over the wall. I kicked and kicked at the pipes in a masochistic frenzy until the wall was alive with the repulsive vermin. Then I retched into a nearby sink. I went over to the Cook Sergeant and said pleadingly: "I've just been sick. I feel ill. Can I leave?" He looked at my white face and gave permission with a contemptuous jerk of his head. Blessing him, I staggered weakly back to the hut, and collapsed on to my bed. Mike [Brady, the "Ginger" of the title] was less sympathetic than I expected. "You can now count yourself one of the glorious martyrs for Agnosticism," he said. Percy, sitting on the same bed, laughed. Their visit to church seemed to have put them in good spirits.
      "At the moment I'd cheerfully become a Jehovah's Witness, if it would get me out of cookhouse fatigues," I said savagely.
      "A very good idea," he replied. "Being a Jehovah's Witness would get you out of the Army altogether. They're conscientious objectors."
      "That's the religion for me," I said.
      "My brother-in-law was a Jehovah's Witness, but it didn't get him out of the Army," observed the soldier on the bed opposite to mine...
      "What happened to your brother-in-law then?" inquired Mike.
      "Well, it was in the war, like. And they wouldn't let our Ernie be a conscious objector. But Ernie said he weren't going to put on a bloody uniform no matter what they did. So they sent him to this training depot, and he wouldn't put on his uniform. So they put him in this cell in his underclothes, and threw in his uniform. It were winter, like, and they reckoned he'd be so cold he'd have to put the uniform on."...
      "And did he?"
      "Did he fugg. When they opened the cell next morning our Ernie were still in his underclothes; and on the table were his uniform—all in pieces."
      "What d'you mean, all in pieces?"
      "He'd spent the whole night taking his uniform to pieces. He never tore nothing mind you. He bit through the seams with his teeth. His socks were two balls of wool. He said with a bit more time he would have taken his boots to pieces. He could've too. He was in the boot trade."
      The story pleased us immensely.
      "They should put up a statue to that man," said Mike reverently.
      "What happened to him eventually?" I asked.
      "A few days after they came and told him his ma had been killed by a Jerry bomb. Went fuggin mad he did. Couldn't get his uniform on quick enough. Joined the paratroopers and finished the war with thirteen medals."... [pp. 63-65]

...Badmore [where Browne is stationed to serve out his clerkship] was, and always would be, the despair of any sergeant-major, because the sergeant-major is a man who works in the medium of outward appearance. His object is to make every man look identical, because if all men look alike, they will act alike, and eventually think, or rather, not-think alike. But the sergeant-major must have a basic structure of uniformity to work on. Without this he is like a theologian without dogma. The analogy is not inapposite. A regiment is like a religion. Its dogma governs the way its members wear their lanyards, the angle they wear their berets, the manner in which they perform the movements of drill. As in [Cardinal John Henry] Newman's theory of religious doctrine, developments may occur. It is the responsibility of the sergeant-major, as of the theologian, to control and rationalize such developments, to distinguish genuine developments from heresies, and ruthlessly to suppress the latter.... [p. 70]

"...Now I want you to tell me why you want to be an officer." [Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Lancing] smiled encouragingly.
      "I feel in rather a false position at the moment, sir," I replied. "Because the fact is I don't want to be an officer." The C.O.'s smile vanished abruptly. I continued: "I told Lieutenant Booth-Henderson last week, but my name appeared on Orders for this interview, and Corporal Baker told me I should attend it."
      ..."Well now, Browne, suppose you tell me why you have changed your mind?"
      ..."Well, sir, I'll be quite frank with you. I don't like the Army. I know I'm stuck with it for two years, but I'm sure I shall continue to dislike it. I don't see how I could possibly be an officer with that point of view. Don't you agree, sir?"
      "What don't you like about the Army?"
      "Almost everything, sir."
      ...The C.O. began to look rather angry.
      "Now look here, I've been in the Army for twenty-five years. You've been in it for four weeks. I think you've got a lot of nerve to sit there and say the Army's all wrong."
      "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to be impertinent. I quite understand that my position must seem inexplicable to you." I began to get into my stride. "I suppose it's my education. I've been encouraged to question everything, to form an independent judgment. In the Army one has to accept orders without questioning them. I feel that if I were to hope to become an officer I would have to give up too many principles."
      "When you're older, Browne, you'll discover that there must be some sort of authority which is obeyed without question...." [pp. 90-92]
  1. The hymn "Trust and Obey" was ingrained into my adolescent head as thoroughly as any other song sung at the Assembly of God Church I attended during the very years of David Lodge's national service. Its words by John H. Sammis (1887) included the refrain:
    Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
    To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
          — Courtesy of Moody Bible Institute
  2. Lodge noted in the 1982 introduction: "Working within the conventions of the day, I adopted Norman Mailer's expedient, in The Naked and the Dead, of representing the most common of the four-letter words as 'fugg'..."

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