TTGU, Ep. 2, Ch. 15 – My New Surroundings
The seemingly easy-going camp did have its familiar Army structure, of course. When on duty – and sometimes even off it – we played the Army-game. We obeyed NCOs and saluted officers. But all of us knew that it was all play-acting.
We had both a Company Sergeant-Major and a Regimental Sergeant-Major. The RSM (a rank known throughout the British Army as “The Tara”) was a cheerful sort of chap and said to be the youngest RSM in the Army. He didn’t yell at us in the way his fellow RSM had done on the training-camp back in Blighty.
The CSM, too, was very different from Ampie. He was waiting for his return home and his demob. Though he maintained discipline and we regarded him as a figure of authority, he earned our respect by his manner rather than his loud voice. He was part of the Christian group on the camp and they met each Sunday in one of the billets. The Garrison Church was a few miles away in Kuala Lumpur, so very few lads stationed outside the city ever bothered to go. The camp’s Christian group couldn’t go out and bring others into the fold – it was illegal in Malaya, a Muslim country, to do so. The land itself was a great midge-modge of religions as it stood at an international crossroads.
I cannot for the life of me remember the names of either of those two!
Our Commanding Officer – whose name I also forget – was a Colonel Blimp type of man. Short, balding and plump, he was fairly reclusive. When we had a parade, he watched it from behind a tree. So the real officer-ing was done by those of lower rank and the colonel’s aide-de-camp, Major Mahon, really ran the place.
On the camp were, as on every Army establishment, things to keep the boredom at bay when we were off-duty.
Near our company lines stood two not-very-big corrugated-iron huts, side by side. The right-hand one was the char-wallah’s, where you could buy cups of tea or coffee or soft drinks and big buns with a choice of fillings: peanut-butter or fried egg. The proprietor was a Pakistani, a nice, easy going chap, and a deeply religious Muslim. We called him “George” because he called every one of us that.
“Hello, George”, he would say. “What you want today? I got tea, I got coffee, I got buns, I got Jimmy Kelly and good for belly, George.” It never varied. Even cramped round the few tables in there, it was a complete change from things military and more of a social centre than the NAAFI.
The next-door hut was run by a Hindu who, due to his advancing years, we called “Pop”. These fellows must have had proper names but generations of Tommies never bothered to find out. Pop sold a few things which were useful to us – boot-polish, Brasso, Duraglit – and lots of souvenirs for us to send home. Those goods were cheap, and I think I sent a few things home.
George and Pop were good friends, despite their religious differences. Malaya seemed to be happily accepting of multi-culturalism, and a person’s religion seemed to create no animosities.
Also on the camp was the dhobi. This was a totally by-hand laundry run by men, all of the same family, who were Muslims and bearded. There was a young lad there who worked hard and seemed to be about ten years of age. We gave them a tough time, always complaining that our clothes weren’t properly laundered or something. But their rates were cheap, and it only cost a little extra to have one’s OGs done via “the flying dhobi”. That meant that they were starched and pressed immaculately, all perfect for parades – and feeling most uncomfortable due to their starching!
In the NAAFI, there was a juke-box with only slightly out-of-date pop-records. These were, of course, 45s. Once, there appeared a modern-jazz disc on there: John Coltrane blowing his tenor-sax like a good ‘un. Everyone expected me, the resident jazzman, to play that every time I went in there, but I never did. One lad seemed to be a Coltrane fan and very often would put lots of money into the slot so that his hero’s sounds went on for a very long time. Nobody stopped him doing that: he was a big, tough Londoner. Whenever I hear John Coltrane these days, I remember that NAAFI, that juke-box and that soldier.
Occasionally, we were visited by a Chinese man on a three-wheeled pedal-cycle converted to carry a cool-box from which he sold ice-cream. He had to pedal all the way from KL, so the ices were a bit drippy whey he got to us. But we bought them from that unhygienic set-up. We called him “Freemo”.
All that was the extent of the camp’s social life.
There was, too, a local Hindu who came to the camp a couple of times a week to cut our hair. I don’t think he had a name, but he had two styles for us to choose from: short back and sides or crew-cut. I stuck to the crew-cut I’d had when I first got to our training-camp in Blighty.
There was one other, and important, man among the local labour. We called him “Johnson” and he earned his living as a boot-black. He was a big Tamil Indian, a Christian, and I really enjoyed chatting with him about all sorts of things. It helped to remind me of civilian life.
* * * * *