- Contributed by
- Harold Pollins
- People in story:
- Harold Pollins
- Location of story:
- Penicuik and Aberdeen
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 November 2004
Lunch-time in the Sergeants’ Mess
Just after the war I spent the first few months as a Personnel Selection Sergeant in Scotland. Initially I was at Perth then I was transferred to the Royal Scots depot at Penicuik (pronounced Pennycook), near Edinburgh. On the first evening in the Sergeants’ mess an old Royal Scots Sergeant-Major saw my shoulder flashes, ’Queen’s’ - for The Queen’s Royal Regiment - and he asked me in a very broad Scottish accent. ’Ah. Queen’s. Were you at Quetta?’ with a remarkable glottal stop for the double ‘t‘.
I did remember that I had heard of the great earthquake at Quetta in India in 1934 and that British troops in India had helped in the rescue work. But I was a little surprised to hear him, thinking that he may have been there, for I‘m sure we had been told, in lectures by officers on regimental history, that the Queen‘s, being second of foot, were the senior regiment in India. The Royal Scots were the first of foot and according to that should not have been there. However, I didn‘t think along those lines at the time. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I was only ten years old in 1934.’
Yet that is not my story of lunch-time in the Sergeants‘ Mess.. For some reason, my posting to Penicuik lasted only a day or so, and in due course I found myself in Aberdeen at the Bridge of Don barracks, the depot of the Gordon Highlanders. I soon became acquainted with aspects of Aberdonian speech, one being something like ‘Fit ye’re daeing?’ meaning ‘What are you doing?’ I also found old copies of a regimental magazine and noticed in an issue of 1939 a report of recruiting for the regiment at a hiring fair in the county. I knew a little from my history studies that the annual hiring fair in agricultural districts was the occasion for young men (and women?) to be hired for the year, mainly for agriculture but also, it seemed, as opportunities for army recruitment. I was surprised to read that as I had thought that hiring fairs had died out before the First World War. One lives and learns.
The lunch-time business was this. I knew that I would be demobbed in the autumn of 1947 and was preparing myself to return to the London School of Economics to resume my studies. For the three and a half years I had spent in the army I don’t think I’d read much beyond the Daily Mirror and I thought I’d better prepare for university. On this particular Sunday, after lunch, I went into the Sergeants' Mess and settled down before the coal fire - it was a very comfortable barracks - with a book. I was wearing carpet slippers and at that time was smoking cigarettes through a holder. I was sipping a glass of sherry, bought at the Mess bar, and was reading a famous economic history book in a Penguin edition called ‘Religion and the Rise of Capitalism’, although not understanding a great deal.
I have a feeling that I was smoking a Turkish cigarette. I sat there, reading, drinking my sherry, and smoking. I gradually became aware that a small group of (mostly) regular, pre-war Sergeants were standing behind me. They were whispering, surprisingly, and pointing. What on earth, they seemed to be saying, is that exotic creature doing in our Mess? I may have blushed, but I affected to ignore them, and went on reading, smoking and drinking my sherry.
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