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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

12:  STOCK-TAKING

When you are very fit, square is only the hardest work: but if you are the least bit less than well it is very, very painful, a torture drawn out day after day till you grow better or succumb. The square holds all our life now. We do not see the wintry river, the bare trees, and the camp's country quietness.

Even for me, her chief servant, the moon is finished. She has not shined so brightly just of late: it has rained and wet clothes are a penalty to hut-dwellers: it has been too cold for loitering and only in leisure can a man appreciate his moon. But these are excuses only. The reason is that we now live for drill with arms and foot-drill and ceremonial and P.T. You'll see us practising movements after roll-call, in stockinged feet, between the beds. Our talk is of training: we have lost all private views. Only in the evenings we are sometimes merry, and always noisy, round the hut-stoves which we make to glow hotly with storm-wood and stolen coal. But too many go to sleep at eight o'clock out of weariness.

In our chatter we still speak hopefully of the R.A.F. as a prospect, assuming that Depot is an ordeal which earns liberty for unchased work, ahead. It must be better ahead for England's flying would be bankrupt, now, if all her airmen wasted all their time, like us. The laboured nerve-strain of the constant supervision and checking and abuse and punishment of squad-life has ironed the last eagerness out of us: or rather has covered it, for I suspect that essentially we retain our inbred selves and secretly remember our dreams.

Nobby is miserable. We keep him company, afraid that he wishes to destroy himself. Lofty talks of being bought out, for he is too physically loose to control his arms and legs in drill and so is always under punishment. Six are in hospital: but the forty others are of an undaunted sturdiness. We hang together, trustily, except over the dividing of food at table. Then hunger intervenes: and airmen fall easily to its mistrust, having been mostly poor with the poverty which breeds ungenerous suspicion. Most of us unconsciously favour ourselves when we are dividing: unless I'm on and I consciously serve myself short. No virtue there. Like the Lady of Shalott I prefer my world backwards in the mirror.

We grumble at the food, and those grumble loudest who have never before had enough to eat, and that little also ill-cooked. Such grumbles are part of our universal pretence towards past gentility. Really the raw food is excellent and the cooking what airmen deserve. We wolf our food-lumps too runningly to taste a flavour. So also those who enlisted in rags do most complain of the ill-cut and shoddy uniform: while others of us think it wonderful that anyone should reckon us worth dressing free. White has turned himself into our hut tailor (his father and mother deal in worn clothes), and for a weekly tariff which Suits our pay he creases everybody's trousers with the knife-edge that Stuffy demands.

Our talks are of the pictures or of football cups and leagues; when they are not of shop. That day the Coalition fell I lay and listened till lights out, to hear much of Chelsea Arsenal, but never a word of Lloyd George. Sometimes (and it's best then) men will bandy the arcana of their trades; fitters and electricians are nearly incomprehensible but so keenly alive as to be infective, like Jew traders chaffering in Yiddish.

The very succinct existence wakens opposite cravings. They come fingering my books, yearning over the foreign ones as some cypher that would make them rich. To my relatively-educated judgment they bring little problems of religion and natural history and science. I find pathos in these unthinking and unthought difficulties: but as regularly they frighten me with the bed-rock sureness of their opinions' background. An idea (as of the normality of marriage, which gives the man a natural, cheap, sure and ready bed-partner), if they have grown up with it, has become already, at their age of twenty, enthroned and unchallengeable, by mere use. They prefer supine belief to active doubt.

Still the key of Hut 4 remains laughter: the laughter of shallow water. Everywhere there's the noise of games, tricks, back-chat, advices, helps, councils, confidences, complaints: and laughs behind the gravest of all these. The noise is infernal. Our jazz band is very posh of its kind, because Madden leads it with his mandoline. He is supported by two coal-pans, the fire buckets, five tissued combs, two shovels, the stove doors, five locker lids and vocal incidents. The louder it is the louder they sing, the more they leap about their beds, strike half-arm balances, do hand-springs and neck-rolls, or wrestle doggily over the floors and iron-bound boxes. There's hardly a night without its mirthful accident of blood-letting.




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