I don’t know if other countries besides Britain have anything like Army and Navy stores – they specialize in selling off surplus or second hand clothing and equipment from the services. Go in there and you rub shoulders with a strange group of people – the hard up looking for cheap warm hard-wearing clothes, the outdoor sports crowd looking for camping gear, and slightly seedy military enthusiasts. And these days you might run into me.
There is no end to the things that kids can teach you. I have held a pretty jaundiced view of our great British military tradition, and done my fair share of marching and demonstrating on various anti-warfare causes. So when my son came home and announced that he wanted to attend air cadets two nights a week after school I was appalled. I only agreed because I didn’t think he would last ten minutes: one taste of discipline and he would be out on his ear.
Except it didn’t work out that way. My son, who has a history of bucking any authority, absolutely adores military discipline. He excels at cadets, he wins awards there, he gets involved in anything and everything they do. He goes camping with them in the snow, he flies gliders, he shoots guns, and he stays up all night on exercises. He helps out raising funds, he does voluntary work, he plays in the band. And he has amazing experiences – he interviewed an army medic who had just come back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and he is hoping to visit Gibraltar this summer. It is what a teenager like him needs – very clear boundaries, a certain amount of physical danger, and reward for his enthusiasm and boundless energy.
My views began to change when I first saw him in dress uniform – what boy doesn’t look handsome in uniform? What mother’s heart doesn’t swell a little with pride? The first parade I attended seemed silly and pompous, but by the second I had begun to appreciate how difficult it was to get the kids to march so smartly in step. Some weekends seem to be spent driving him about the countryside to one RAF airbase or another. And if I have a few minutes in my lunchhour at work, I’ll pop down to the Army and Navy store at the end of my street, to pick up a mess tin or a thermal vest for his next camp.