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  • Published 5.03.04

Pick up your Parrots and Monkeys and Fall in Facing the boat By William Pennington, Cassell, £ 10.95

The incredible 12-word title of this book (with a 8-word subtitle to boot) is itself a long story cut short. Through this military command, once shouted at battle-worn gora soldiers catching their ship back home, William Pennington presents an image to his reader which is also central to his own story — the loneliness of the white soldier in India. The sahib soldier in this malodorous, human-infested country was far more vulnerable than anywhere else in the colonies, cut off as he was from its teeming populace by his colour, language, culture and disposition. This constant state of isolation, Pennington suggests, forced him to take refuge in the love of his pets, in the hastily done “jig-jig” (intercourse) with the native prostitutes, a fling or two with Anglo-Indian girls or the group ribaldry that was an indispensable part of his life in the barracks.

A boy-soldier serving the British army as trumpeter in the First Regiment, Royal House Artillery and the perilous North-West Frontier in the last days of the raj, Pennington looks at this life with a degree of detachment that sometimes surprises. Yes, he is there with the men when they traipse their way through Chandni Chowk during the Delhi Durbar, teasing hawkers, bargaining with them; he is there on the nightly jaunts to the black bibis’ hovels, or singing in a thunderous chorus about a “bloody great Madrasi” who’s got “hair on her belly like the palms that grow at Delhi”. Yet Pennington keeps his distance.

This good boy-soldier from Blackpool has neither pets (at least he doesn’t talk about them), nor girls. He doesn’t have too many friends either. Friends are discussed in general, and their friendliness, but Pennington is too busy trying to match the swiftly changing history of the world with the story of his own rather uneventful sojourn in India as a young soldier that he forgets to take things a little less seriously.

The pattern is repeated in his reminiscences about his soldierly duties in France and England, which is why descriptions of drills or journeys sometimes stretch for pages. Yet, though dispassionate, Pennington is a keen observer. His succinct comments about the quintessential “Indian smell”, its railways, roads, road habits and beggars never fail to amuse and sadden.

Pennington’s sense of drama and a personal touch come through in his long Burma campaign as a forward observation officer, where his artillery skills are honed on the Japanese. The narrative here is gripping, as the guiles of the enemy and the treacherous terrain challenge the instincts of even the bravest. Pennington’s recollection in this section are excellent — imagine the British and Japanese fighting a pitched battle for days in the tennis courts of a local governor in Kohima in 1944-45, or the Gurkha soldiers playing football with the head of the Japanese they had only just severed with their kukri.

But there are other images of the times which refuse to go — those of the “returned empties” going back home after a failed search for husbands in the British military or civil service in India, or that of the president of Bombay council, demanding a trumpet be sounded during the serving of each course of dinner.

Adding to Pennington’s image of the lonely Tommy is his disgust with the latter’s exploitation by the British crown — the minuscule pay, hard life and the complete nonchalance of the monarch. Pennington’s dislike for Prince Edward and his American wife is remarkable. But overriding it all is his pride in being able to see India and serve there. Despite the smells, the squalor, and the deprivation, he loved it. Haven’t we heard that before?