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FIGHTING MEN

and the Affluence of Incohol

“Wenn de bier is in de man

Is de wyshet in de kan”

“When the beer is in the man, the wisdom is in the can”. - Old saying, Low German.

 There is not much wisdom to be found in this article, I'm afraid. Just a series of snapshots through history of a continuing catalogue of stupidity and depravity. I nearly fell out of bed laughing as I was planning it.

 I am choosing to start, like old-fashioned school history books, with the Battle of Hastings (1066), at which Guillaume le Bâtard, Duke of Normandy, established himself as King William I of England. In those days, common soldiers were, in their daytime jobs, agricultural labourers. When required by their feudal superiors, they would take their tools to the village blacksmith to be sharpened into offensive weapons and have longer handles fitted. They would march to meet the enemy army, be tanked up on alcohol, then instructed to charge. The winners were the ones left occupying the battlefield. Success was attributed to God, though one suspects that God would not have approved (Exodus 20 vii). How William assured himself of victory is instructive. He arranged for his troops to spend the night before the battle praying. The Saxons did the normal thing and spent the night drinking. Then in the morning, when the Saxons charged, the Normans held themselves carefully back and refused to engage. Eventually, the ill effects of a night's drinking kicked in, and the Normans charged the broken-down and hung-over Saxons.

 If the Saxons had been drinking mead, which they may well have done, the effects would have been even worse. I remember once drinking a skinful of mead, having been encouraged to do so by some bare-breasted waitresses at a pseudo-mediaeval banquet. They were such nice girls, I thought; quite irresistible. (What they thought of me is a different matter). Anyway, the day after I would gladly have asked a Norman knight to stick his lance through me and end my suffering.

 A similar occurrence was crucial to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Cortés and his ragtag band, having landed at what is now Veracruz, had to cross the independent state of Tlaxcala in order to reach Tenochtitlan, or Mexico City as it is now called. The Tlaxcalans relied on the services of an adjacent tribe called the Otomí to defend their territory. They decided to invoke this alliance to attack the Spanish, but the Spanish, who had the services of an excellent interpreter, were ready for them. The Otomí were known to ingest a certain mushroom that made them fearless and oblivious to pain. (This was the Europeans' first encounter with peyote). Cortés, with all the sagacity of a local government solicitor that had been his original occupation, asked if this drug had any side effects. Yes, he was told, after a few hours the ingesters developed diarrhoea and horrible stomach cramps. So the Spanish bottled up the Otomí in a ravine and waited until the after-effects took hold. The Tlaxcalans were so impressed that they recruited the Spanish to help them in their perennial fight against the Imperial army. Though the Mexican Empire was destroyed, the State of Tlaxcala still exists; you can find it on the map due East of Mexico City.

 About twenty years ago twelve members of the Oxford Morris Men were invited to New Mexico to take part in a folk dance festival.

 “That must have cost a lot”, I observed, knowing that the last time I had anything to do with them their sole resources amounted to 39p, 10 Norwegian øre, a trouser button and some pieces of ribbon that were too short to make armbands with. “Who paid for it?”

 “NASA, of course.”

 “Do they know?”

 “Of course not.”

Thus the American taxpayers' view of NASA as a bottomless pit down which their hard earned money is thrown was shown to have some validity. Anyway, during the festivities a Native American went up to our chaps, who were busy pouring United States taxpayers' money down their gullets, and announced:

 “You limeys are as soft as shit.”

 “Indeed, my man, what gives you the authority to make such a bold assertion?”

 “This time last year, three of our men were shot dead in a dance, and the rest of us didn't even break step.”

The explanation was that while the morris dancers were fortifying themselves with beer, the Native Americans were doped with peyote.

 At the end of the war in the Pacific, my economics tutor had been an officer in His Majesty's Australian Army. He found himself in charge of a small Indonesian island, from which any Japanese had long gone, together with two other Australian soldiers. They entertained themselves by brewing palm wine and distilling it, as soldiers anywhere would do. While under the influence, they conceived the idea of fitting wings to their Jeep and flying it. Fitting wings was relatively easy; building a suitable ramp was more onerous. But at last, with a suitable priming of palm spirit, they were ready to fly. The three of them drove as fast as they could down the ramp, shot over the lip, and crashed in the jungle. The result was a court-martial for wantonly destroying army property.

 A colleague of mine in Local Government had served in the Royal Marines through the war. He told me that he had fought on six continents, though he had never seen the enemy.

 “Who did you fight, then?”

 “Americans”.

Their system was that when their ship called in at a port, the marines would look for a dockyard bar where there was a good chance of finding American marines. If they did, the first thing was to glare at the Americans and wait for the magic words: “Limey Bastards”. If the Americans were slow, they would give their own signal: “Yankee Bastards”. They did not have a lot of time for these politenesses, because all the other customers would have slipped away, and the barman would already have summoned the military police. So the fighting had to be short and sweet. Fortunately the NCO in charge of the Royal Marines, appropriately called Mr Savage, was a rockfisted veteran of years of brawling in bars. Our man, who was just a teenager and not allowed, however much he pleaded, to join in the fighting, was given the job of laying out the unconscious Americans in a neat row.

 Talking of Military Police, I once spent several hours in the delightful company of a charming old man who was as close as you could find to a match for Mr Godfrey in Dad's Army. He even lived in a country cottage with roses round the door. But it turned out that this sweet old gentleman had been in the Military Police. He kept me entertained with stories of alcohol-fuelled depravity. I particularly liked his story of how his Military Police motorcycle display team formed a human pyramid at a big show, and the whole thing collapsed because they were all drunk. My elderly friend had been cashiered from the Military Police for being caught very publicly in flagrante delicto with the Tattooed Lady from a fairground. What offended the court-martial most was that, though he had removed the rest of his clothing, he had neglected to take off his red cap.

 English rugby clubs, when going to play friendlies in Scotland, make it their business to take crates of Buckfast Wine. This is the nearest thing to methylated spirits that is sold as a potable beverage. The reason is that the Scots will swap it case for case for Laphroaig, which is a very expensive single malt whisky, one of the greatest achievements of the distiller's art. That does not look like the sort of bargain that Scots would make. But the Scots in turn sell “Buckie” at a profit to football supporters, because it makes them fighting mad and puts them in the right mood for watching a football match. In England the nearest equivalent is a certain canned lager called “Wifebeater”, but it is called that because the imbiber, having seen his team lose, will go home and beat his wife. It is not intended to induce savagery during the actual match.

   My own contribution to the efficiency of Her Majesty's Fighting Services is very limited. The year was, if I remember right, 1975. I drove a carload of morris dancers from Oxford to Liverpool to take part in the Isle of Man Tour. We stabled my car in the garage of the friend of a friend, and caught the nine o'clock ferry to Douglas on a Sunday morning. The bar opened once we were outside the three-mile limit, and we duly took our seats in it for a quiet chat and some modest refreshment. In the opposite corner were some squaddies. John H, one of our number, came back from the bar and said:

 “Just watch those soldiers. They do whatever I do.”

Sure enough, the soldiers were giving us the hard stare. Whenever John H touched his glass to his lips, the soldiers did likewise, while continuing to look as hostile as they could. So John H swallowed the rest of his pint, and the soldiers swallowed the rest of theirs. Then we went back to the bar to replenish, we grinning, and the soldiers giving us the hard stare. The same thing happened. The soldiers would immediately match whatever we drank, whether it was just one sip or half a glass. The situation developed as one would imagine. I think it was John H who started downing pints in one. He was not what you would call an aggressive drinker, but he could usually be relied on to be in at the finish. If I remember right, once we equipped ourselves with two pints each and downed them in single draughts one after the other. Of course, we were in civilian clothes; no doubt the Army Manual warns soldiers against getting into drinking competitions with morris dancers.

 At midday the ferry tied up at Douglas, and the passengers disembarked. The morris men were, it has to be said, rather drunk. So much so, that we had to cling to each other in pairs so that three legs out of four made a tripod at all times. Such enforced intimacy usually encourages singing, singing of such a sort that the performers have a much higher estimate of its quality than the general public. The men who had come to pick us up were extremely indignant. Firstly, on the Island the pubs shut on Sunday, and here we were exceedingly drunk. Secondly, they had earmarked for us the job of erecting the tents, but all we were fit for was to sit in a field and giggle. However, at least we were in a field miles from anywhere and not being a nuisance to anybody. For the soldiers, it was a different matter. The purser organised crew members to carry them off the boat horizontally, two men to each soldier, and lay them neatly side by side on the jetty for collection. They were all unconscious and soaked in vomit and stale beer. Presumably they were on their way to a training camp. I should love to know what the sergeant said when they were unloaded.

Contacts

Email (admin): JimW@mough.co.uk
Email (wisdom of the aged): JohnW@mough.co.uk