I HAVE placed myself on a
war footing. While not constructing an anti-nuclear and
biological-weapon-resistant conservatory and a landscaped
decontamination fountain in the back garden or helping to knit sandbags
for the home front, I have been trying on gas masks.
The last time I did that was in the summer of 1939 when every member of
the population was given a mask and schoolchildren were,
loosely-speaking, shoehorned into them at mass classroom fittings.
War, it is said, is too serious to be left to generals and we children,
feeling that war was too serious to be taken seriously, found that when
we laughed - as many of us did - from our masks came curious, somewhat
rude crepitations that were made more emphatic when we took part in
mask-muffled, catarrhal and adenoidal renditions of Fight the Good Fight
and God Save the King.
This time I advanced to Leith Army Stores, in Edinburgh, to see the
latest fashions in anti-gas, biological, chemical and nuclear
protection. The shop seemed stocked with enough equipment for a couple
of British Army platoons: many soldiers recently bought replacements or
additions to their kit over the counter to maintain combat readiness.
Alas, high style has not yet reached the anti-terrorist world. The gas
masks I tried on were Russian (civilian pattern) created in a grey,
rubber material. They would not have matched my Clackmannan tweed sports
jacket and Herdwick wool tie. With large, circular eyepieces and a
protuberant green filter they made me resemble some newly-landed,
deep-sea creature thrashing about in the searing air. Doubtless
effective, if only for eight hours, they cost £15 and panic-stricken pur-chasers
snapped them up after the 9/11 terror attack in the United States.
I would have donned the all-purpose, NBC (nuclear, biological and
chemical) military suits (£25), but when Jason, the shopís helpful
manager, show-ed me a nifty cotton number, with carbon-activated lining
in autumnal camouflage colours, I realised that it clashed with my own
chromatic vibrations and rejected it since it would have made me feel
sartorially ill-at-ease at a time of global crisis.
So far, we Morrises have not been stockpiling provender but, slowly, we
are building up emergency supplies of pale, dry sherry and charcoal
health biscuits. I am also filling up bathroom cabinets with enough
cough expectorant and chest rubs "to see me out", as the Scots saying
"Trust your instincts. If you feel something is wrong, ring the police,
" advises the Home Office.
An observant and public-spirited friend, who did not want to be thought
over-suspicious, said he believed that code messages could be sent on
neighbourhood clothes-lines. A different-from-usual arrangement of
tights, pillow-slips and sheets could, he thought, be a signal for
vested terrorist interests to pull up their socks, or a sophisticated
plan to make Britain throw in the towel.
When I said I didnít think that would wash, he got shirty and left,
breathing in short pants.
Objectives were clearer in the Second World War. After Dunkirk, I joined
the Army Cadet Corps, which was being trained as a last,
liquorice-allsorts and sherbet dab defence line if it came to the
nut-crunch in a German invasion of this sweet land of liberty.
I was given a Martini Henry rifle, held together with wire, which had
served in the Victorian Afghan conflicts and at the Zulu War defence of
Rorkeís Drift. It was almost as tall as myself. People who saw me
trailing it along the ground commented morosely that I was not just a
scraping of the national barrel, but part of the barrel itself.
We were, of course, exhorted to go to our air-raid shelters when the
sabre-scarred, Prussian-monocled Germans flew over Edinburgh to bomb
Clydeside, but ours was invariably flooded so we had a choice of either
getting our spirits dampened or being blown to fragments. During
air-raids, the Morris family, like others, tended to stand at
high-and-dry windows and marvel at searchlights scissoring the sky and
anti-aircraft shells bursting like fireworks.
In that way, the war was fascinating, but all wars, no matter how just,
are crimes against humanity. The author and playwright, Alan Bennett
said: "I have never understood this liking for war. It panders to
instincts already catered for within the scope of any respectable
Many war-footing citizens will offer him hands of unflagging agreement.