Boom Gates

The guardroom corporal clanged the boom gate into place behind me. Released, I left the camp and trudged up the Sussex country lane to a bus and train, and home to Mum and Dad. A June afternoon in 1965, it was a month since my twenty-first birthday and I was a civilian for the first time since November 1962. And one of the first things I was going to do was see Oh What A Lovely War!, a bitter-sweet prospect considering my buffeting of the last unpleasant two and half years. Goodbye and good riddance to the Intelligence Corps. Hello again, Civvy Street.

Forty-seven years later, I found myself, also alone, passing through another boom gate of theirs, one that rose and sank at the press of an unseen button, soundlessly. Why was I here? We had moved to a small town in Bedfordshire in order to be nearer our grandchildren, and I discovered that my old corps was now a few miles away, and that they had a museum. I suppose I was curious, wondering about myself and the scars of that naive encounter of the 1960s.

An elderly museum volunteer escorted me from the gate to a rebarbative, one-storey building. Outside was a large board whose banner blared Share the Secret! On the way, I had seen a squad of marching young soldiers and … some were women. Astonishing. Not in my time. Inside, my chaperone introduced me to a short, elderly, fair-haired man in a crumpled suit and faded regimental tie.

‘Good afternoon Mr Yates,’ he said. ‘Alan Edwards.’

Lilt. Welsh.

‘Hello.’ Looking round at the exhibits, I ventured, as if I couldn’t wait to get it out, ‘I was in the Corps in the mid-sixties. I do feel rather strange being here after all that time.’

Alan himself had been in the Corps since the fifties as an officer and immediately I put bad memories between us, couldn’t help it, all that saluting stuff. He struck up with a history of the Corps, which I had known little about when I served, quietly and carefully giving words to the displays. Here a large, glass terrarium with a life-size SOE woman hugging a sub-machine gun, her head and eyes thrown back, looking for danger in the night; there a single, blancoed gaiter belonging to a hero; another a rusty metal canister used by the IRA as a bomb. In the photo interpretation room, ‘I know them, they’re stereoscopes,’ I cried. ‘You can estimate the height of buildings using those, in 3D.’ Alan smiled. The only photograph of wartime-built Maresfield camp where I had trained, was disappointingly of the officer’s mess, where I was once drinks steward, and got extra pay. The unhurried tour took two hours, Alan unfailingly interesting, unflaggingly amusing.

‘Would you like to visit the Corps archive, Chris?’

And I really don’t know why, but that’s where we went, and where my retired life unexpectedly changed. Here was another flat-roofed, nondescript, building, blinds firmly drawn against nature’s light. Although he had been the Corps historian for over ten years, Alan was not supposed to take visitors to the archive, whose three cramped rooms were run by Joyce, the archivist. Politely accommodating my innocent presence, she glowered at him while he busied making tea. An officer, serving me tea. I looked around at desks of untidy piles of books, papers, some delicate, yellowing foolscap, not an inch of wall showing between tall metal bookshelves. Untended computer monitors mutely waited for their keyboards to be fingered.

Alan showed me some document, explaining it was an enquiry from a former serviceman about old comrades and could the archive put him in touch with them. A common enquiry, as I was to discover.

‘I wonder if he’s a sergeant major I worked for in 1964,’ I said.

‘Oh that’s Micky––,’ Alan said. ‘Did you know Micky?’

‘Well, it was not usual for privates to call warrant officers by their first name,’ I said.

An academic, quietly researching in a corner of the archive, sniggered. Alan didn’t hear that, or even all I said, for he was a little deaf.

‘Where were you in Germany?’ he asked, remembering what I had said in the museum.

‘Hubbelrath, with the Guards.’

‘Ah, the Guards. I understand.’ Alan nodded slowly, and in that moment something moved me closer to him.

Later, as I was leaving, he asked, ‘How would you like to work here, Chris?’

I write this seven years later.

(Alan had met former Private Chris Yates, BA, M Litt, Boys Brigade, civil servant, regular soldier, driver’s mate, labourer, HR manager, senior lecturer, home tutor, Samaritan listener, lifelong fretter. I met retired Major Alan Edwards, OBE, B.Sc., Boy Scout, national serviceman, regular soldier, colonial policeman, civil servant, historian, teacher of English to immigrants, raconteur, server of Christmas dinner to the homeless.)

I work in the archive one day a week. On arrival, and when he could remember the door combination, Alan would throw open the door, delivering a ‘Wie geht’s’ or a ‘Habari ya asubuhi‘ or a ‘Bore da’ to me toiling at a desk. Whatever the task, he would have a joke for it.  Whatever my question, he gave his entire attention to me, no matter the time, no matter how important his own work. Until my problem was solved, we were locked in pure enquiry. Some of Alan’s palpable love for his Corps would waft towards me; I couldn’t share his love but I could take pleasure from his.

Although he had had a distinguished career, receiving his OBE for broadly unreportable work in Washington, he was self-effacing and would often say, ‘If I didn’t come first, at least I got into the first three.’

Another volunteer, a former Corps national serviceman would sometimes attend; he and Alan bantered, at ease with each other’s persiflage. Mistakenly, I thought that Peter had been an officer but he said, ‘Oh no, I was a sergeant, not like Alan; majors were ten a penny when I was in the Corps.’ Unsure of my ground, I smiled weakly.

Later, the archivist asked me if I’d like to interview Alan, officially get down his service life, ‘Just for an hour’. Something I jumped at. We ended up together for six hours, Alan talking into a recording machine that I constantly fiddled with, praying it was working. A career soldier since the early 1950s and later the Corps historian, there was much to record about this gentle little Welshman who had played in many of the endgames of Empire. For example, when on leave from foreign parts, he was given to taking long journeys home by car and boat.

‘Once I was stood down in Kenya and took a slow boat, but round the Cape see, not Suez. A knockabout freighter with the captain suffering a few passengers.’

This is why it took several hours.

‘I’d always wanted to go to St Helena,’ he said, ‘and we tied up there in the evening, and the passengers were going ashore the next day to see it all. But the crew had a party on board that night.’

‘The crew?’ Weren’t you a passenger?’

‘Well, we were not supposed to fraternise, but that night I was the only non-crew member at the party.’

Resigned, I asked him how it went.

‘Chris,’ his blue eyes on me intently, and spacing his syllables ‘it was a party beyond belief.’ At which I nodded in soldierly communion.

‘And St Helena?’

‘Got to bed at about 8, half an hour later the passengers couldn’t wake me so they went ashore. Zonked out all day in my pit, I was. Never saw St Helena.’

Alan started to slow up, leaving uneaten sandwiches on cabinets, crumbs over his pullover, undrunk coffee, sometimes he forgot people’s names, paltered over the simplest of enquiries. The boss got worried. Dementia was mentioned. One day he did not come in and his wife phoned to say that he couldn’t, ever. I never saw him again.

His sad, corporeal demise was simultaneous with my own late-life ascent of archival skill and re-interest in the Corps. With a life that had already been full, for me it was like Concord’s second take-off, soaring upwards from a runway in the air. His museum tour had delightfully hooked me into the archive; his good humour and knowledge kept me there.

Alan inhabits the archive still. Several years after he left and died, we still call where he sat: ‘Alan’s desk’. His signature, initials, and neat, handwritten notes are ubiquitous. Only the crumbs are gone.

He’s just got to meet me and show me round after I go through that Final boom-gate.