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Anthony Powell

Soldier's Art

ONE

When, at the start of the whole business, I bought an army greatcoat, it was at one of those places in the neighbourhood of Shaftesbury Avenue, where, as well as officers’ kit and outfits for sport, they hire or sell theatrical costume. The atmosphere within, heavy with menace like an oriental bazaar, hinted at clandestine bargains, furtive even if not unlawful commerce, heightening the tension of an already novel undertaking. The deal was negotiated in an upper room, dark and mysterious, draped with skiing gear and riding-breeches, in the background of which, behind the glass windows of a high display case, two headless trunks stood rigidly at attention. One of these effigies wore Harlequin’s diagonally spangled tights; the other, scarlet full-dress uniform of some infantry regiment, allegorical figures, so it seemed, symbolising dualisms of the antithetical stock-in trade surrounding them … Civil and Military … Work and Play … Detachment and Involvement … Tragedy and Comedy … War and Peace … Life and Death …

An assistant, bent, elderly, bearded, with the congruous demeanour of a Levantine trader, bore the greatcoat out of a secret recess in the shadows and reverently invested me within its double-breasted, brass-buttoned, stiffly pleated khaki folds. He fastened the front with rapid bony fingers, doing up the laps to the throat; then stepped back a couple of paces to judge the effect. In a three-sided full-length looking-glass nearby I, too, critically examined the back view of the coat’s shot-at-dawn cut, aware at the same time that soon, like Alice, I was to pass, as it were by virtue of these habiliments, through its panes into a world no less enigmatic.

“How’s that, sir?”

“All right, I think.”

“Might be made for you.”

“Not a bad fit.”

Loosening now quite slowly the buttons, one by one, he paused as if considering some matter, and gazed intently.

“I believe I know your face,” he said.

“You do?”

“Was it The Middle Watch?”

“Was what the middle watch?”

“The show I saw you in.”

I have absolutely no histrionic talent, none at all, a constitutional handicap in almost all the undertakings of life; but then, after all, plenty of actors possess little enough. There was no reason why he should not suppose the Stage to be my profession as well as any other. Identification with something a shade more profound than a farce of yesteryear treating boisterously of gun-room life in the Royal Navy might have been more gratifying to self-esteem, but too much personal definition at such a point would have been ponderous, out of place. Accepting the classification, however sobering, I did no more than deny having played in that particular knockabout. He helped me out of the sleeves, gravely shaking straight their creases.

“What’s this one for?” he asked.

“Which one?”

“The overcoat — if I might make bold to enquire?”

“Just the war.”

“Ah,” he said attentively. “The War …”

It was clear he had remained unflustered by recent public events, at the age he had reached perhaps disillusioned with the commonplaces of life; too keen a theatre-goer to spare time for any but the columns of dramatic criticism, however indifferently written, permitting no international crises from the news pages to cloud the keenness of aesthetic consideration. That was an understandable outlook.

“I’ll bear the show in mind,” he said.

“Do, please.”

“And the address?”

“I’ll take it with me.”

Time was short. Now that the curtain had gone up once more on this old favourite — The War — in which, so it appeared, I had been cast for a walk on part, what days were left before joining my unit would be required for dress rehearsal. Cues must not be missed. The more one thought of it, the more apt seemed the metaphor. Besides, clothes, if not the whole man, are a large part of him, especially when it comes to uniform. In a minute or two the parcel, rather a bulky one, was in my hands.-

“Tried to make a neat job of it,” he said, “though I expect the theatre’s only round the corner from here.”

“The theatre of war?”

He looked puzzled for a second, then, recognising a mummer’s obscure quip, nodded several times in appreciation.

“And I’ll wish you a good run,” he said, clasping together his old lean hands, as if in applause.

“Thanks.”

“Good day, sir, and thank you.”

I left the shop, allowing a final glance to fall on the pair of flamboyantly liveried dummies presiding from their glass prison over the sombre vistas of coat-hangers suspending tweed and whipcord. On second thoughts, the headless figures were perhaps not antithetical at all, on the contrary, represented “Honour and Wit, fore-damned they sit,” to whom the Devil had referred in the poem. Here, it was true, they stood rather than sat, but precise posture was a minor matter. The point was that their clothes were just right; while headlessness — like depicting Love or Justice blindfold — might well signify the inexorable preordination of twin destinies that even war could not alter. Indeed, war, likely to offer both attributes unlimited range of expression, would also intensify, rather than abate, their ultimate fatality. Musing on this surmise in the pale, grudging sunshine of London in December, a light wan yet intimate, I recognised the off-licence ever memorable for the bottle of port — could the fluid be so designated — that Moreland and I, centuries before, had bought with such high hopes that Sunday afternoon, later so dismally failed to drink.

Looking back from a disturbed, though at the same time monotonous present, those Moreland days seemed positively Arcadian. Even the threatening arbitrament of war (the Prime Minister’s rather ornate phrase in his broadcast) had lent a certain macabre excitement to the weeks leading up to the purchase of the greatcoat. Now, some fourteen months later, that day seemed scarcely less remote than the immolation of the port bottle. The last heard of Moreland — from one of Isobel’s letters — was that a musical job had taken him to Edinburgh. Even that information had been sent long ago, soon after my own arrival at Division. Since then I had served a million years at these Headquarters, come to possess no life but the army, no master but Widmerpool, no table companions but Biggs and Soper.

Meanwhile, the war itself had passed through various phases, some of them uncomfortable enough: France in defeat: Europe overrun: invasion imminent: the blitz opened over London. In this last aspect — more specifically — Isobel reported, too, a direct hit on Barnby’s frescoes in the Donners-Brebner Building, a pictorial memory dim as Barnby himself, now Camouflage Officer on some distant R.A.F. station. Latterly, things had looked up a trifle, in the Western Desert, for example, but in general the situation remained capable of considerable improvement before being regarded as in the least satisfactory. F Mess — defined by Widmerpool as “low, though not the final dregs of the Divisional Staff” — did not at all alter a sense that much was wrong with the world.

After our first local blitz — when they killed a thousand people, at that stage of the war regarded as quite a large number for a provincial city in a single night — Major-General Liddament, the Divisional Commander, ordered the Defence Platoon (of which I had temporary charge) to mount brens within the billeting area between the sounding of Air-raid Warning and All Clear. This was just a drill, in practice no shooting envisaged, unless exceptional circumstances — dive-bombing, for example — were to arise; Command, of course, operating normal anti-aircraft batteries. Announced by the melancholy dirge of sirens, like ritual wailings at barbarous obsequies, the German planes used to arrive shortly before midnight — it was a long way to come — turning up in principle about half an hour after sleep had descended. They would fly across the town at comparatively high altitude, then, wheeling lower, hum fussily back on their tracks, sometimes dropping an incendiary or two, for luck, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Mess, before passing on to the more serious business of lodging high explosive on docks and shipyards. These circlings over the harbour lasted until it was time to return. On such nights, after weapons were back in the armoury, sections dismissed to the barrack-room, not much residue of sleep was to be recaptured.

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