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Culture in Uniform

by Norman Zacour
A civilized, perhaps old-fashioned, view of life in uniform
was reflected in the Royal Air Force classification of
“Musician”. This was a category comparable to such other
“trades” as Rigger, Fitter, Cook, MT Driver, Clerk, and the
like. Of course, there’s nothing surprising about musicians
in uniform; they were needed to fill the military bands
that played the marches behind which the rest of us
occasionally strode on public parade. But here we were
late in 1942, on an airfield near Topcliffe in Yorkshire
which we were in the act of taking over from the RAF,
grateful that they had left a staff to handle things until
our own personnel arrived in sufficient numbers from
Canada. A large wave of these, including me, had recently
arrived on the over-crowded Queen Elizabeth, its
construction not quite finished before being pressed into
service as a troop ship. There were 17,000 people on
board. I can still remember our stateroom on A deck,
promising luxury with an indented wall surrounded by
muted, indirect lighting, designed to embrace the head of
a large bed – the sort of thing we only saw in movies.
What we really had to sleep in, however, were six triple-
decker bunks for eighteen of us to squeeze into. At least
we had a private bathroom, even if it didn’t have a door!

Oh yes, musicians … among the many RAF staff who
stayed on with us at Topcliffe during the transition were
two musicians, a violinist and a pianist, real pros. Their
function, apparently, was to entertain and so raise the
morale of the rest of us. None of your simple pop tunes,
mind you. Each week the two of them would visit in turn
the Airmen’s Mess, the Sergeants’ Mess, and the Officers’
Mess, to playa half hour or so of classical music – lots of
stock items often heard those days in tea rooms, but also
some spirited performances of things like Pablo de
Sarasate’s Zapateado from his Spanish Dances – no small
feat, that.

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My only experience of anything faintly comparable was
back in Camp Borden a couple of years earlier, where the
record player in the Airmen’s Mess actually had a
recording of Sibet~l’n.’ Finlandia, a stirring piece of classical
music keeping strange company with the popular tunes of
the day. Surprisingly, it was played more frequently than
any of the other records, even the most popular song of
the year, “Oh Johnny”, sung by Wee Bonny Baker.
Remember her?

Anyway, some might snicker at the attempt to bolster the
morale of the troops with bits of classical music. Indeed,
Sarasate and his like could hardly hold their own against
the big band recordings of the time, like Glen Miller’s
“That Old Black Magic”. But in retrospect I have to marvel
at the influence of the many cultural activities that
continued to flourish under the most difficult conditions,
and the earnestness of those who sought to bring them
to men and women in uniform. For example, the Navy,
Army, Air Force Institute (NAAFI) in England arranged
popular entertainments that often went far beyond song
and dance affairs. I can thank the NAAFI for the first live
play I ever saw, George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak
House
. It was a satire, a witty but serious play about
serious things. What especially thrilled me was that it
starred Robert Donat, whom I had seen in Goodbye, Mr.
Chips,
a very popular movie that you may remember used
to turn up occasionally on late night TV. After closing in
London, Heartbreak House had gone on the road,
sponsored by the NAAFI, to play at military bases
throughout England. I recall Donat’s feigned concern
about whether the ham sandwiches we fed him in the
mess after the performance reflected our view of his
performance, a mild joke he must have used many times
before. I also remember his very sincere interest in
watching the planes takes off on a bombing mission later
in the evening.

But what I remember most of all was the cultural
missionary work and continued even outside of official
circles. I suspect that there were many who had

experiences similar to my own. My introduction to the
historical monuments that surrounded us in Yorkshire
came at the hand of three older officers, who felt for
some reason that they could never forgive themselves if
they didn’t introduce me to medieval monasticism by
dragging me through the remains of Fountains Abbey.
Nowadays the ruins of this famous Cistercian monastery
are carefully guarded, but at that time we saw no fences,
no caretakers (they were busy elsewhere) – just grass,
trees and the remains of stone structures hollowed out
by time, open to anyone to wander about freely. I also
got a good dose of medieval architecture from my
instructors via that mighty fortress of medieval divinity,
York Minster, and also spent some time admiring the
splendours of Ripon Cathedral. That’s where I met my
first misericord – you know, those curious half-seats with
biblical figures carved on the underside, which leg-weary
choristers could lean against or half-sit on when they had
to stand through a long service.

Then too, there was live theatre – repertory theatre, they
called it. It had been usual for many cities in England to
support a resident rep company, often presenting a
different play each week, either a revival from the full
range of classics or, if given the chance, a new play the
rights for which might have been recently released after a
West End or Broadway run. There was just such a
company in York, easily reached by bus from all of the
Canadian airfields, scattered about as they were just
north of the city. To boys raised on weekly Saturday
afternoon 10 cent movies, usually starring Tom Mix, Ken
Maynard, or Hoot Gibson, it was certainly different, but it
played on sensitivities we never knew we had.

And there was opera! Our Staff Sergeant Major twisted
my arm to join him in seeing the Sadler Wells Opera
company, also playing in York. The Sadler Wells Theatre
was in London, but it had to be closed because of the
bombing. The company itself, however, never quit. Now
homeless, it simply went on a five-year tour of the
provinces. All its productions were in English translation,

 

to attract audiences unfamiliar with opera. I confess, I
wasn’t very enthusiastic about the Sergeant Major’s
invitation. While I had learned in the mess bar all the words
to “On Ilkley ~~Ioor”, I had the usual prejudices of the
musically ignorant, and only gave in because I felt that it
didn’t pay to irritate those of higher rank. The work we
went to see was called The Marriage of Figaro, about which
I knew nothing. But when the lights went down and the
overture began, darned if I wasn’t suddenly at home in
Winnipeg, listening to one of my father’s records on the old
Victrola, which my brother and I used to fool around with,
changing its speed and the like. The familiar music was
both a shock and magical moment, while we were suddenly
dazzled by the brightly lit stage when the screen went up,
with Susanna sitting at a mirror trying on a new hat for her
upcoming wedding, and Figaro, down on his knees,
measuring space for the nuptial bed. They were both
singing, Susanna crying in a bright voice “how do you like
my new hat”, while Figaro, paying her no attention
whatsoever, went on measuring the floor and singing in a
rich baritone “four feet, five feet … “. It was a delightful
moment, soon to be followed, some of you may remember,
by a wild plot of jealousy, revenge, and frustrated seduction
all wrapped up in the gorgeous music.

This was culture? I was hooked!

 

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