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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Toil's nobility

Is the word "skiving" still current? I'm not sure. The last time I saw it mentioned seemed to suggest its definition had moved on. For me it means "avoiding work".

Skiving's peak usage in the UK occurred between the early fifties and the mid sixties. A time when young men were wrenched out of civilian life for two years, given hairy ill-fitting uniforms and employed often in repetitive and meaningless work which, the authorities pretended, gave Britain greater justification for acting out its diminished role on the world stage. As an alternative some of these unfortunates were sent to notoriously unstable places and got their heads shot off for their pains. The time of National Service, occasionally sub-titled National Disservice.

Faced with mind-blowingly dull work, many amateur soldiers and airmen (few ended up in the Royal Navy) took to skiving. An understandable displacement therapy. I did it myself. Supposedly guarding acres of offices, mainly unoccupied, I disappeared into the night, sat on a lav and read Animal Farm with an RAF torch.

The trouble was not all skivers took to Orwell. True skivers believed that any occupation - however restrictive - was preferable to the job they'd been told to do. Asked to sweep a room, your true skiver would boast at having avoided this by imprisoning himself in the broom closet for half an hour.

My concern with National Service was that the two years (60m seconds!) passed achingly slowly. And that 30 minutes in a broom closet might only enhance this sensation. Given the option I would have swept the room and accepted the jeers of my so-called co-servicemen on the grounds of my cowardice and truckling to authority.

I skive now. Play Solitaire when I should be writing. But that's different.

1 comment:

Avus said...

My comment on your last post may have sparked this posting, RR. At least, from your own comments, you were able to engage in thoroughly interesting and meaningful employment during your enforced two years. But then, you were part of the "Brylcream Boys"!

Most of us found it enduringly boring. The authorities, realizing that they had nothing really to occupy us, thought up idiotic ideas. I always remember, during training, that we were issued with folding wooden bedside chairs. These were painted with dark varnish. Apparently this was not on, so we spent many evenings scraping them with razor blades and then scrubbing them with water to which Brasso had been added. This brought them up beautifully, but we were then forbidden to sit on them as this would have reduced their pristinisity! (Is that a word?) All the chairs were sent back to store when we moved on. I wonder, were other servicemen employed revarnishing them for the next intake?

We were also issued with dull brown canvas gym shoes. We were told these must be black and shiny so much time was spent with Kiwi boot black transforming them. I could go on........

We all kept "demob charts" and religiously crossed off each day. Of course this only made the time to release seem more interminable. As you mention, some National Servicemen never reached that target having been killed in Korea or the various little wars of a rapidly dissolving empire. Thankfully National Service ended in 1962. It could never work in that form today (thank god).

In one way I gained from it. I had been a solitary boy, brought up in a country village. Being thrown in with the social mix from all over Britain was an eye opener and helped me to integrate and mature.