10 JANUARY 2004, Page 44

Life outside

Michael Vestey

you would think that people who leave the armed forces for civilian life would be ideal employees: they understand discipline, leadership and what modern management jargon calls 'team building'. Strangely, though, many of the 17,000 who leave each year encounter difficulties in finding work. A new series on Radio Four, Civty Street (Fridays), has been talking to them about what it's like to suddenly find themselves in a world that, in the words of the presenter Michael Nicholson, 'takes no prisoners'.

He began with retired general Sir Robin Ross, former Commandant General of the Royal Marines, and his son Edward, who as a young major in the Royal Enniskillen Dragoon Guards was forced to resign after being diagnosed as having diabetes. They're the 14th and 15th generations of the family to serve in the armed forces. One of their ancestors, we heard, burnt down the White House in 1812. The general missed the Falklands war because he'd been sent to Cambridge to write a thesis about the history of combat. Despite his pleas to join the task force, he was told to finish his thesis. Although he found the period at Cambridge rewarding, he had to listen to the radio every night for news of the conflict. He didn't start to relax until his commando brigade went ashore. Some of the dons thought he must be a spy.

When he had to retire, he found the transition difficult, his defences lowered out of uniform. He could have become an arms manufacturer's consultant but he'd had enough of that by then. He looked towards commerce but found he didn't really understand it. He thought it was also lacking in trust and loyalty, the military virtues. He realised that servicemen and women should be given greater preparation for civilian life, perhaps being seconded to industry for six months. He went on cooking and computer courses, neither of which helped much. Then he was approached by a charity, the Soldiers, Sailors and Family Association, which looks after anyone who has served in the armed forces. Although he's the unpaid chairman, he loves the work.

Presumably, he was 60 when he retired. His son was only 28 when he left, He would have gone into the Marines like his father but he didn't have the required 20-20 vision. He served overseas and he spoke of it as the happiest period of his life. It was a blow to leave the army but he felt confident of finding work outside. The reality was, he said, 'unbelievably difficult'. The army doesn't prepare you for civilian life. Eventually, he set up his own business in Wiltshire manufacturing farm machinery. It was hard work and risky. He admitted, though, that he would still, six years after leaving the army, jump at the chance to go back.

Some forgotten and not-very-famous comedians appeared in a new series, Fred Housego's Unknowns, on Radio Four (Tuesdays). Housego is the London taxidriver who won Mastermind some years ago and who has since appeared on a number of radio programmes. One of his interests is comedy, and among his favourite performers are Jewish comics in America, some of whom were successful, others less so. I'd not heard of several of them, though I knew of Hennie Youngman whose catchphrase was, 'Take my wife — please!' One of his jokes was, 'You're looking at a guy who's been married for 49 years to the same woman. Where have I failed? In love with one woman for 49 years. If my wife finds out, she'll kill me.'

You've really got to hear the jokes to appreciate them and Youngman, as a nightclub comedian, knew how to tell them. He had a good line in doctor jokes, among them, 'Doctors, oh those doctors. I went to one and while he was examining me he grabbed me by the wallet and said, "Cough!"' Youngman didn't get the television break like Bob Hope and others of his generation.

Joe E. Lewis is another forgotten nightclub comedian, though he was far from unknown in his time; he was actually a famous 1920s radio star. There was even a film about him, The Joker Is Wild, starring Frank Sinatra. He liked one-liners: 'Behind every successful man is a surprised mother-in-law.' His speciality was playing the drunk, 'I'm not a big drinker. I just put away a lot of little ones. I'm not a steady drinker — because I shake too much.'

Many of these comedians were from New York and at weekends would follow the Jewish community's weekend exodus to the Catskill mountains and perform for them there.

Housego and his producer have managed to dig out recordings of these comics from the archives, and there seems to be a wealth of material. One of his subjects later in the series is Terry-Thomas, who isn't unknown or even forgotten, of course. Some of the films he appeared in are still shown on television.