I’ve never felt comfortable around the military.There was a cadet corps at my school in South London and, every Monday afternoon, the playgrounds would be filled with boys I’d spent the morning swopping football cards and shoving into the tuck shop queue with suddenly transformed into uniformed personnel, marching and drilling. If they were lucky, they got to get their hands on some weapons in the armoury concealed in the underground car park. I was having none of it. I was a conchie. I did ‘Community Service’ instead, visiting a lonely old man, and felt smugly virtuous about it in a self-righteous 70s leftie sort of way. (A friend of mine wangled an even better skive. His old man died, he didn’t tell anyone and just went home early on Mondays.) Next to being sent to boarding school, my greatest terror growing up was that I would be conscripted into the Army. The only war that overlapped with my being of military age was the Falklands, and I remember hoping that, if the whole thing escalated, my Spanish A-Level might secure me a safe desk job in Intelligence. In truth, the only people with anything to gain from my conscription would have been the enemy: averse to confrontation and competition, bored and uneasy with more than one heterosexual man at a time, and hopelessly unmechanical, I’m pretty much designed not to be a soldier.
But there is a whole world, out there, the world of the military, quite distinctive from the civilian world. Never has this world been brought home to me more powerfully and more truthfully than last week at Richmond Theatre when I saw The Two Worlds of Charlie F.
Though the play bears the name of Owen Sheers, the lyrical Welsh poet and novelist, he is only the curator of the words and memories of the men and women who made the play with him. The first image of the play is of a man with a stump of a leg leaning on his crutches, talking to us. Only this isn’t a clever piece of artifice by the make up department. This is a real stump on a real man, who was blown up in Afghanistan. He’s telling his own story. Later he’s joined by two other men who have had both legs blown off. The company is a blend of professional actors and army veterans. Sometimes the joins show, but that only strengthens the manifest authenticity of the performances. There is not a story as such, more a series of scenes illustrating different aspects of army life: why and how they joined up, the rigours of basic training, the importance of letters from home, what seeing action is like, the moment they were wounded, the mental as well as the physical scars, and finally, and most importantly, how hospital becomes another version of basic training, preparing them for the toughest mission of all; re-entering civilian life as a disabled person. There is none of the ‘Help for Heroes’ sentimentalisation of the military here: they swear, use porn a lot and take an almost sexual pleasure in killing. The war can take a sometimes fatal toll on their relationships; one man speaks of waking from a nightmare to punch his girlfriend in the face. And yet they are loyal, and loving, and above all human. As Charlie F. says in his last speech: ‘There aren’t two worlds; there is only one, and you’d better believe it.’
The Two Worlds of Charlie F. makes soldiers part of our world, our one world.It’s left London now and is touring the country; but it’s worth a journey to catch it.