JLS (jlsjlsjls) wrote,

Even-day series again!

I mentioned George Macdonald Fraser's "The Pyrates" earlier in this sequence; today he's back again. This time it's for his series of delightful short stories about a Highland regiment in post-WWII North Africa. The tales are autobiographical fiction based on Fraser's own military service; they're incredibly funny, and will greatly expand your vocabulary (and not in the way you think I mean). From "McAuslan in the Rough":
On the other six days of the week reveille was sounded in the conventional way at six, by a bugler on the distant square playing the famous "Charlie, Charlie, get out of bed". If you were a pampered brute of an officer, you used to turn over, mumbling happily, and at six-thirty your orderly would come in with a mug of tea, open the shutters, lay out your kit, and give you the news of the day while you drank, smoked, and coughed contentedly.
But on Fridays it was very different. Then the duty of sounding reveille devolved on the battalion's pipes and drums, who were bound to march round the entire barrack area, playing full blast. The trouble was, in a spirit of schadenfreud comparable with that of the Durham orderly sergeant's, they used to assemble in dead silence immediately outside the junior subalterns' quarters, inflate their beastly bags without so much as a warning sigh, poise their drum-sticks without the suspicion of a click, and then, at a signal from that godforsaken demented little kelpie of a pipe-sergeant, burst thunderously into the squealing cacophony and earsplitting drum rolls of "Hey, Johnnie Cope, are ye waukin' yet?"
Now, "Johnnie Cope" is one of the most magnificent sounds ever to issue from musical instruments. It is the Highlanders' war clarion, the tune that is played before battle, the wild music that is supposed to quicken the blood of the mountain man and freeze the foe in his tracks. It commemorates the day two and a quarter centuries ago when the broadswords came whirling out of the mist at Prestonpans to fall on Major-General John Cope's redcoats and cut them to ribbons in something under five minutes. I once watched the Seaforths go in behind it against a Japanese-held village, and saw for the first time that phenomenon which you can't really appreciate until you have seen it -- the unbelievable speed with which Highland troops can accelerate a slow, almost leisurely advance into an all-out charge. And I've heard it at military funerals, after "Lovat's "Lament" or "Flowers of the Forest", and never failed to be moved by it. Well played, it is a savage, wonderful sound, unlike any other pipe march -- this, probably, because it doesn't truly belong to the Army, but to the fighting tails of the old clansmen before the government had the sense to get them into uniforms.
But whatever it does, for the Jocks or to the enemy, at the proper time and occasion, its effect at 6 a.m. on a refined and highly-strung subaltern who is dreaming of Rita Hayworth is devastating. The first time I got it, full blast at a range of six feet or so, through a thin shutter, with twenty pipers tearing their lungs out and a dozen side-drums crashing into the thunderous rhythm, I came out of bed like a galvanised ferret, blankets and all, under the impression that the Jocks had Risen, or that the MacLeods were coming to settle things with me and my kinsfolk at long last. My room-mate, a cultured youth of nervous disposition, shot bolt upright from his pillow with a wordless scream, and sat gibbering that the Yanks had dropped the Bomb, and, as usual, in the wrong place. For a few deafening moments we just absorbed it, with the furniture shuddering and the whole room in apparent danger of collapse, and then I flung open the shutters and rebuked the musicians, who were counter-marching outside.
Well, you try arguing with a pipe-band some time, and see what it gets you. And you cannot, if you are a young officer with any notions of dignity, hie yourself out in pyjamas and bandy words with a towering drum-major, and him resplendent in leopard skin and white spats, at that hour in the morning. So we had to endure it, while they regaled us with "The White Cockade" and the "Braes of Mar", before marching off to the strains of "Highland Laddie", and my room-mate said it had done something to his inner ear, and he doubted if he would ever be able to stand on one leg or ride a bicycle again.

The three volumes of Fraser's Highland Regiment tales (also known as the McAuslan stories for a soldier who appears in many of them) are, in order:
The General Danced At Dawn
McAuslan in the Rough
The Sheikh and the Dustbin
Tags: reading

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