VETERAN ON HOLIDAY

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 11:46

It is not customary (unless they speak first) for me to get into conversation with strangers. In the case of the Chelsea Pensioner, however, my writer’s appetite for usable material took command, and I made a casual remark about his being a long way from the Royal Military Hospital.

We were sharing a seat near Watch House Slip on Cowes Parade. Earlier that afternoon I had seen him with some fellow veterans modelling for an amateur photographer – no new role, he told me. Chelsea Pensioners, it would seem, rank with the mounted Guardsmen in Whitehall and the sentries at Buckingham Palace as popular targets for shutter-happy camera owners. Once he was photographed no less than eighty times in one day. His photograph, he averred, had world-wide distribution.

Lifting the end medal of the highly polished row that decorated his scarlet coat, he said it related to the first world war, and asked me to guess how his career started.

When I had given up, I learnt that he had been a sailor for five years – one of his voyages taking him to Russia. 1918 found him in minesweepers, engaged in making the seas once again safe for shipping.

Finding, presumably, that the Navy in peace-time did not offer enough excitement, he left it and joined the Army – starting a new life, fourteen years of which were spent in India, where at that time Auchinleck was serving as a brigadier.

He mentioned the Khyber Pass and Peshawar – romantic names that recalled Kipling’s India. If there had been more time, I should no doubt have heard some entertaining and useful tales.

Before leaving, he voiced his disapproval of the way in which Great Britain had thrown away the British Empire – sentiments with which I, with memories of the annual Empire Day celebrations of my schooldays, could easily sympathise.

Another grievance was caused by uniformed people who mistake Chelsea Pensioners for paupers, and having bought one a drink cannot conceal their surprise when the recipient wishes to reciprocate.

Speaking of his present way of life, he gave me the impression that the food and accommodation provided are highly satisfactory. He told me also that, apart from the daily routine, he and his colleagues receive numerous invitations to attend dinners and other social functions. Those where teetotal principles were in operation were, he implied, not eagerly sought after.

Rising, he announced his intention of walking to Gurnard, and looking not a day over sixty (although he must have been seventy or more) he marched off, as upright as a parking meter, black boots shining, and his immaculate uniform, a lens-worthy bit of tradition, in sharp contrast to the unremarkable clothing of the holiday crowds through which he made his military way.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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