On Sunday morning the marching band of the Harborough RAF cadets passed by my window, on their way to church for the service to commemorate the Battle of Britain. I can think of several things I was compelled to do at school that I didn’t enjoy at the time and I don’t think did much me much good in retrospect but being in the CCF (which was compulsory) I did rather enjoy. I think I partly chose the RAF in preference to the Army because of its laxer reputation (there was less need to get your hair cut, for instance, a significant matter in 1975 or whenever it was), but also because I rather fancied wearing a cricket sweater and a spotted silk scarf under my uniform, which seemed to be permissible from what I had seen at the pictures. I never achieved this ambition, nor did I get to smoke a pipe or grow a rakish moustache, but I did eventually get to fly an aeroplane, which was some compensation.
A typical afternoon in the Corps would consist of about half an hour’s drill, followed by a session in the classroom being taught about the theory of flight. We also learnt to shoot (rather inaccurately, in my case). Eventually, after we had passed some kind of theory test, we got to spend a few days at an RAF base and had the chance to go up in a dual-control aircraft with a proper RAF instructor. When I went up I sat behind the pilot, he handled the take-off and landing, but would hand control over to me for a while when we were airborne and safely out of sight of other ‘planes. We flew up to Blackpool, rounded the tower and then headed back to Southport for tea. I did begin to appreciate what Yeats meant about slipping the surly bonds of earth (though I’m not convinced Yeats himself had ever been up in a ‘plane when he wrote that).
A boy with a taste for physical violence and mud might prefer the Army cadets, but I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending the RAF. One of my sisters, incidentally, has a son who she has always forbidden to have toy guns or soldiers. Quite inevitably, as soon as he was old enough, he has insisted on joining the Army cadets, and now spends his evenings doing bayonet practice and learning how to garrote sentries. If she had bought him a subscription to Shooting Times and a junior SAS outfit, of course, I imagine he would have joined the Peace Pledge Union and developed a passion for pressing wild flowers.
I did try to find a film clip to illustrate my point about the sweaters and scarves, but all I could find were Armstrong and Miller and Monty Python. (The parodies outlive the originals). But to give you a taste of life in the RAF here is a recruitment film from 1941. I’m not sure this would necessarily have attracted many recruits, consisting, as it does, entirely of drill. I think I could still just about manage some of this, if the call ever came. By the right …