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Ginger, You're Barmy

de David Lodge

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Conscription has made Jonathan Browne and Mike 'Ginger' Brady prisoners of the British Army. But reckless, impulsive Mike and pragmatic Jonathan adopt radically different attitudes to this. Then one day Mike goes too far, with consequences that threaten to overturn Jonathan's cultivated detachment from the idiocies of military life.… (més)
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This was Lodge's second novel, drawing on his experience of National Service in the late fifties (but written when he was safely out of the clutches of the army again and conscription itself was being wound down). It tells the story of two young men who do their military service after studying English at London University. Mike ("Ginger") is a rebel, Catholic, red-haired, of Irish descent and always ready to challenge authority, whilst Jonathan, the narrator, is more of a survivor, an agnostic who is ready to learn to compromise his principles a bit to get what he wants from life. He's got a First where the cleverer Mike messed up his degree, and we soon realise that he's also ended up with Mike's girl.

The army is predictably awful, with a basic training programme at Catterick that focuses on breaking the spirit of the conscripts and occupying them with mindless and pointless tasks, mainly involving cleaning and polishing their equipment. The classic example are the boots, supplied by the manufacturer with a matt, waterproof finish that has presumably been specified for practical reasons by the army itself, but which have to be polished to a high-gloss finish to pass kit inspections. Naturally, the polishing process requires the soldiers to maltreat the leather in ways that destroy the waterproofing and ruin the boots for actual use. There is only the most minimal attention to actual military training, and everything takes at least three times as long as it needs to.

Graduates or school-leavers going on to university (for some reason, those going to Oxford and Cambridge do their military service beforehand, others go to university first) are automatically flagged as "potential officers", which means going into a selection process where they have to compete to show "leadership" Whatever this mysterious quality might be, I was fairly certain that I did not possess it. At Wozbee it was apparently assessed by one’s ability to handle a knife and fork and to cross a seven-foot ditch with two three-foot planks. I did not see myself excelling in either of these tests. Mike and Jonathan make a minor gesture of rebellion by asking not to be considered for this process. For Mike this is the first of a series of acts that will get him into more and more trouble with the authorities and eventually mess up his life completely; for Jonathan it marks the start of his recognition that army life is something one can survive, if one searches out the most comfortable path through it: All human activity was useless, but some kinds were more pleasant than others. The Army had taught me that much philosophy.

The book seems to be largely a response to the politician quoted in the last chapter extolling the virtues of National Service just as it is being wound down "National Service has done much to teach the younger generation independence, initiative, responsibility,—qualities which have stood this country in good stead in two World Wars." For Lodge, as for most of his contemporaries who actually did National Service in peacetime, what the army taught them was how to look busy while avoiding actual work as far as possible, and how to keep their heads down and stay out of trouble. If they came from an upper-class background, it taught them that arrogant self-assurance will get you everywhere; if they did not, it taught them that most people in positions of in authority were arrogant, brainless incompetents. And that you were free to think what you liked of them, as long as you saluted and said "Yes, sir!"

A book that is tilting against a long-dead institution, and with a certain period quaintness (in his afterword, Lodge is visibly amused at the way the publishers of this 1980s reissue have "restored" the pre-Chatterley bowdlerising of swearwords of the first edition — "fugg" and "c—t", etc. — which the 1970s edition had happily turned back into the real swearwords they were meant for). But very interesting. ( )
  thorold | Feb 15, 2020 |
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Ginger, you're barmy,
You'll never join the Army,
You'll never be a scout,
With your shirt hanging out,
Ginger, you're barmy
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For Mary
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Prologue. It is strange to read what I wrote three years ago.
'I feel worn out. I think I'll get ready for bed', said Pauline.
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Conscription has made Jonathan Browne and Mike 'Ginger' Brady prisoners of the British Army. But reckless, impulsive Mike and pragmatic Jonathan adopt radically different attitudes to this. Then one day Mike goes too far, with consequences that threaten to overturn Jonathan's cultivated detachment from the idiocies of military life.

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