MY wife's uncle's daughter is taking riding lessons. I mention this startling news item because it reminds me how I finally convinced the rest of the world that I was truly not a military man. I don't quite know how it got into their heads, but my parents suddenly decided I might like to learn to ride. So serious was this notion, that a pair of jhodpurs was purchased on my behalf. (A hint of some fatal lack of serious ambition toward horsemanship on my part may be deduced from a complete incapacity today to spell jodhpoors - jogpurrs?) My lessons duly began.
Actually I was not entirely new to horses. A very favorite aunt, who lived in Norfolk, was a keen owner of horses and ponies. She even had an anachronistic pony-trap which we used to pile into, jogging creekily along the lanes. And I sat bumpily on one of her ponies or horses now and then, to be clip-clopped down the village, (Auntie Jo holding the leading rein) to call on Mrs. Dye and fetch the milk and the groceries.
It sounds superbly idyllic now - and, in fact, I think it was. I distinctly recall the stable aroma - that gloriously steamy mix of hay, manure, and the old, flank-rubbed wood of the stalls. The great sand mound just outside the stable, like a mysterious mountain, contained hundreds of beets. Feeding them to that snuffling, horse-mouth, which seemed so enormous - balancing the round root on the flat of my hand and enormously relieved when those massive teeth, emerging from the curled-back lip, crunched hungrily into the crisp flesh of the vegetable and not into the delicate flesh of my fingers - was a small excitement that persists in the memory like an old tune.
But my teenage riding lessons were different. We lived at that time, in an area over-run by soldiery. A local barracks. Camps every few miles. Twenty minutes away was Aldershot, proudly announcing as you entered it that it was The Home of the British Army.
The sign made you almost feel like standing smartly to attention - only I, emphatically, did not. I was, by then, experiencing quite enough of that kind of mindless obedience in the ``Corps'' at boarding school. This weekly dressing-up in khahki (can't spell that either) and stomping around on a parade ground was a kind of a carry-over from the days when gentlemen were early instilled with the concept of being turned into ``officer material'' and of going off to fight for Queen and Country. I had nothing against Q and C, but I was very aware I would not be an Asset in an Army.
``Corps,'' the wry joke went, was ``voluntary'' but ``all boys must join.'' It was quite dreadful. Its discomforts and absurdities were legion, all designed, presumably, to ``make a man'' of one. After a year or two of such training, including vain attempts to grasp map-reading, we were all made to take an exam called ``Cert.A Part 1.''
``Cert.A Part 1'' was famous. It was famous for being ridiculously easy to pass. No one had ever been known to fail it. Until, that is, the year I took it. Fortunately, I was one of several dodos. Talk about laughing stock! Later I became proud of this achievement: to fail the universe's simplest proto-military test was a sign (I concluded) of extraordinary astuteness, and I was rather ashamed that at the second attempt I passed it.
This pass meant that I had to shout orders at groups of boys in the parade ground. By the Left Quick March! Left-Right! Left-Right! A-bout....
And herein lay the catch. To be successful at the business of marching people about the place in serried ranks, one needs to know when to start them off, when to turn them round, and when to bring them to a standstill. My platoon was heading rapidly for the flower bed in front of the headmaster's study. ``A-bout...'' I yelled, but on which foot, oh heavens, should one yell ``Turn''??
``A-bout ... TURN!! One-two-three, One-two-three, One!'' What followed was, to understate it, mayhem. Some of the boys knew that if the order was given on the wrong foot, then it was their duty to ignore it and march valiantly on to death or victory. Others, however, felt probably, it would be best to obey the order even though it was wrong. Thus did order change in an instant to chaos.
Some of the young soldiery plowed on with automatic zeal, over the salvias and petunias and lobelia and white alyssum and the zinnias and the asters, the marigolds and the antirrhinums, on, on regardless of horticulture. The others, after temporary discombobulation, formed into a loose-knit, gappy kind of group and quick-footed it oppositely.
I still don't know if my helpless dissolution into laughter was certifiable hysteria - but I think the school's military establishment may have decided after that to give me less consequential duties.
Which brings me (though probably not you) back to the riding lessons. These were vacation affairs. But because of the strong army presence near our home, the chosen instructor, to my dismay, turned out to be a military man. If I hoped for a moment that, because he loved horses, this would make him half human, I was soon disenchanted.
``Now!'' he exclaimed (he never said, he only exclaimed), ``NOW!! First! You will! Learn! To sit! Properly!''
Up on the horse I sat, but it wasn't properly. The horse sensed this immediately, and was not over pleased. I could tell, as we circled the paddock, that it did so with disdain. Its eyes, and its ears, looked distinctly disdainful. Its tail agreed. I could hear it. The instructor stood in the middle and exclaimed: ``NOW! Stick your calves in! STICK YOUR CALVES IN!!''
I didn't remember my Norfolk Aunt telling me anything about calves, but I stuck them hard. ``Stick you calves in!'' he barked. It was as if I hadn't done a thing.... Round we went, my calves in anguish, and I tried at the same time to bounce up and down correctly.
The horse thought even less of this than he did of compressive calves, and the instructor was not amused either. I never could get hold of bouncing. Was I meant to come down as the horse went up, or vice versa? I tried to ask, but all that Soldier said was: ``Don't worry about that now! Stick your....'' Yes.
After three lessons, each identical with the other, and therefore suggesting no progress at all in my ability to show a horse who was master, I began to despair a bit. Then I made a mistake. I took the dog with me to the lesson one afternoon. Apart from the calves business, the instructor had tried hard to instill in me one other important idea: this was that he was very good with animals. ``Never had an animal disobey me!'' he exclaimed. ``Never! Stick your calves in!''
Now, with the dog and the horse to control (not to mention me) I had unwittingly put his claim to the test. The lesson was not a success. The dog kept getting up and ambling about. The horse, bored with circus-circling, went over to investigate the dog. My calves hung loose and wide. The military presence was not overjoyed by all this free perambulation, and his face grew reddish. Eventually he terminated instructions early. ``Right!'' he exclaimed. ``Never! Bring a dog! To a riding lesson! Again! Never! Your next lesson! Is on Sunday! Good dog!''
On Sunday - dogless - I arrived and waited. No instructor appeared. Just three strapping blokes, sleek haired, on suavely groomed horse flesh - ``officer material'' if ever. ``Unable to come,'' intoned one, scarcely parting his lips, ``ride out with us instead....'' And off they went at a smart canter, me behind. My horse was happy to be out of the paddock, and I clung on for dear life as he danced merrily through birchwoods, up and down sandbanks.
Naturally the reader will here be expecting the delightful worst, but I have to disappoint. The horse did not suddenly rear up with wild abandon or gallop furiously off. Nor did I fall off. But as Shakespeare exclaimed, ``The readiness is all!'' - and I wasn't ready for that free-range ride. In fact it must have decided me that I wasn't for riding, and riding wasn't for me, because I recall no further lessons, or exploits on horseback.
I was not (though I do admit now to a slight sense of regret about it) cavalry material - and, fortunately for everyone concerned, a year or two afterwards, compulsory military service in Britain ended; it was one month before I was due to be ``called up.'' It was one of our government's more judicious decisions.