The Ear of Memory
WE started talking about our favourite sounds and almost at once came up against the difficulty of divorcing them from their associations. The bells of a caravan, children exchanging confidences, wild geese crying as they rise to fly inland, the rustle of the curtain going up on a first night, pipes in the distance, a motor-boat starting in the darkness—we had to admit that we did not love our sounds for themselves alone, but because they were the distinctive flavour of a sort of pâté maison for which experience of one kind or another had supplied the basic ingredients. In the course of the discussion someone, inevitably, advanced the claims of the sea, of waves breaking gently on a beach, and my mind slid a long way back into the past.
The major in the Scots Guards completed his survey and sat down on an impressive shooting-stick.
`Now, gentlemen,' he said, 'can anyone tell me what Mr. Scrimshank has forgotten?'
We gazed with a blankly judicious air at the dispositions of Henry's platoon, lying in the heather with that taxidermised look peculiar to guardsmen on field training and pointing their weapons at the Basingstoke Canal in a very steadfast manner.
`I don't like the way he's sited his anti-tank rifle, Sir,' some- body said rather desperately. He pointed to the weapon, or rather to a wooden model of it; it was widely believed that we should get a real one on mobilisation, if not before. The anti-tank rifle (called, we hoped after its inventor, Boys) was a sort of elephant gun with a long, slim, stylish barrel, quite capable of stopping a taxi at a hundred yards but not really much use against tanks.
`I dare say not.' said the major, `but he hasn't forgotten to site it. I want you to tell me something he's forgotten to do.'
He looked at his watch again. The performance of military duties after luncheon induced in him, as in many regular officers in the summer of 1939, a sense of maladjustment and disorientation. He rose, shutting the shooting-stick with an incisive snap.
`Mr. Scrimshank,' he said, 'you've forgotten to post an air sentry.'
Henry looked crestfallen.
`Now remember, gentlemen,' the major went on, 'in the next war aeroplanes are going to make a hell of a difference. A hell of a difference. if you go taking up positions without posting an air sentry, you'll be in trouble. You've got to have one man who's responsible for watching the sky and reporting the approach of enemy aircraft. Otherwise . .
He drew a lurid picture of what would happen if we neglected this precaution.
A few, months later, in Norway, in Belgium and in France, we were discovering that air sentries were not nearly as indis- pensable as we had been told they would be. Aeroplanes did not come suddenly upon us, flitting silently and unpredictably like woodcock down a ride. They made a din which could be heard a long way off, and as the din drew nearer not one but every man in a platoon watched the sky, thus causing much, time to be wasted and many needless anxieties to be entertained.
It was not until 1941, long after air sentries had been officially , done away with, that 1 actually posted one myself. He was a very nice man called Corporal Isted and there was something peculiar about his teeth, of which Records or some other worthy branch of the General Staff kept on sending me a sort of chart or diagram, heavily annotated. 'Kept on' is of course an exaggeration. I think what happened was that, possibly to lessen the risk of both diagrams of Corporal Isted's teeth falling into the enemy's hands at the same time, they sent the one of the upper jaw first, and the one of the lower jaw a, few days later. They are the only official communica- tions I remember receiving during the campaign in Greece.
This was over by the time Corporal Isted was called upon to' scan the blue lEgean sky for hostile aircraft, and we were on our way to Crete. Or rather we had been on our way until the early Edwardian steam yacht in which, with a strangely assorted company, we were embarked was bombed and sunk, stranding the survivors on a small island with several wounded on our hands. A caique from Crete sport- ingly came to our rescue, but the Luftwaffe dominated the sea during daylight and the caique's skipper, sensibly enough. would only attempt the return journey after dark.
For various cogent reasons this meant that first the wounded and then the other passengers, who included women and children, had to be rowed out and got on board the caique in the last hour before dusk; and although by that time most of the German bombers were on their way back to base there was a fairish risk of the caique being attacked while embarka- tion was going on. If this risk looked like developing, it was a matter of urgency to stop, and if possible to reverse. the cumbrous traffic between the island and the caique.
And so, because on the shore that almost-loveliest of sounds, the sea breaking gently on a beach, would kill the distant drone of the Heinkels or the Dorniers, the Pirbright doctrine became once more the, party line, and Corporal Isted, his long, fair, Kentish head alert against the paling azure of the sky, took station on a knoll overlooking the bay with my whistle in his hand.
We got away in the end, though I seem to remember that on the first night there was a hitch or possibly a flap and the poor stretcher cases had to be brought ashore again; but now, whenever I hear waves break caressingly upon a beach, I begin, instead of surrendering myself to their music, to worry vaguely about Corporal Isted's teeth. Perhaps these incon- sequent memories illustrate, though in an extreme form, the difficulty of separating sounds from their associations.