Leslie Thomas, Stand Up Virgin Soldiers (1975, Arrow Books 2005)
This is the third novel in Leslie Thomas’s Virgin Soldiers trilogy – drawing on his National Service experience as a non-combatant stationed in Singapore in the 1950s. The original Virgin Soldiers, published in 1966 (here’s my blog post) and made into a film three years later, was pretty much a novel equivalent of much verse produced by soldiers in the trenches – it had the smell of reality about it, but didn’t press too seriously at the experience of being soldier. The emphasis was on the young soldiers’ camaraderie and relatively innocent sexual adventures. The casual sexism, racism and homophobia, though not necessarily endorsed, went largely unchallenged, and there was just enough war stuff to remind the reader of the underlying reality. Times had changed by 1975 when this book was published: the US–Vietnam War was dragging to an end, on television M*A*S*H was in its third and fourth seasons, and feminist voices were being heard. In Australia, Eric Bogle’s ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ had been around for four years, though John Schumann and Redgum’s ‘God help me / I was only nineteen’ was still 10 years away. The book, while still mainly featuring jolly japes among the non-combatants, takes a darker turn than its predecessors: we see glimpses of what lies behind the Chinese prostitute’s cheerful façade; a character who shares many qualities with The Hurt Locker‘s protagonist is seen as anything but a hero; the muted homophobic humour is repudiated in a climactic scene, and so on.
The Arrow paperback I read was published in 2005. Perhaps a clue to the book’s longevity lies in the marginal notes in my copy, which was once held by the Oxfordshire Library Service in England. When a character reflects on the awkwardness of the rifles issued to British soldiers, the annotator writes, in pencil so light as to be barely legible, ‘Must have the Nº 4. Nº 5 much better (shorter)’. Later, in a combat scene, the same hand writes, ‘Ah, a Nº 5.’ It seems that at least one reader was led to the book by the nostalgic pleasures offered by its non-soapboxing rootedness in experience.
The Art Student asked, over-casually, ‘How come you’re reading something called Stand Up Virgin Soldiers?’ There were any number of possible answers, all of them true, but what kept me reading was also a kind of nostalgia. When I was the age of the book’s main characters I was in training in a Catholic religious order: we had crosscut saws where they had rifles, and prayed to the Virgin Mary where they vied for the favours of nurses and/or prostitutes, but there are whole pages here that could be describing interactions among us novices. The way the authority figures are caricatured reminds me vividly of the merciless way our wags would impersonate the Brother Master and especially the Brother Bursar. The narrator even refers at least once to ‘the monastic life of the barrack room’. I could elaborate, but it’s LoSoRhyMo, so here goes:
Sonnet 10: They were only nineteen
God help all nineteen year old men
in dorms and barracks and the cells
of gaols and monasteries, and then
help all the rest whose heavens or hells
have called or driven them to places
where they have just each other’s faces –
no sister, grannie, auntie, mother,
no uncle, father, just each other.
The quartermaster’s store has rats,
they sing to keep their spirits high
and laugh because they don’t dare cry.
Rats as big as pussy cats.
Their eyes are dim they cannot see
with luck they’ll soon be sixty-three.
Just in case I’m talking a secret language here, I might quote the chorus of ‘The Quartermaster’s Store’, sung on many a bus trip:
My eyes are dim I cannot see
I did not bring my specs with me
I did no-ot bring, my-y specs … with … me.