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Strange Interlude

Brighton resident, Peter Batten, writes about another time, another place…

In the spring of 1952 the normal progression of my life was interrupted. I had just secured a place at University, so I decided to leave school and begin my two years of National Service.

I was enrolled in the RAF and on 19 May I travelled to Padgate in Lancashire to begin my basic training. This was not a pleasant experience, but, as a promising cricketer, I was able to get several days off to play for RAF teams. About two weeks before the end of the training period I was told to report to the officer in charge. He told me that the Air Ministry staff had looked at my records and noted that I had A levels in French and Latin. They were recruiting airmen for a new course in Russian because it was expected that we would soon be at war. They would like to add me to their list. I agreed. Thus began a strange period in my life.

On 1 August I travelled to Bodmin, in Cornwall, to begin 8 weeks of an intensive introductory course in Russian. Each day began with a parade at 8.30am, and from 9am it was Russian, Russian, Russian – grammar, conversation, reading, history, aircraft. I did manage a few weekend trips on the local railway to the beautiful harbour of Fowey and even played in a football league match against a very rugged Cornish team, but the Russian was relentless. At the end of the course we were assessed. You could be placed in one of three categories: 1. a possible interpreter; 2. useful as a translator; 3. useless. I was selected as interpreter material. This meant that my life became even stranger. After a week’s leave I was told to report to a unit in Cambridge, to begin a year-long course in the Department of Slavonic Studies. In order to avoid attracting attention in Cambridge we were issued with civilian clothes. This meant that during the year the only day on which I wore my uniform was Coronation Day! Unfortunately for me, and several others beginning the course, there was no accommodation available in Cambridge. We were billeted in a house on the outskirts of Newmarket and had to travel to Cambridge each day on the bus. This situation lasted for three months, until the RAF could purchase some houses in Cambridge.

Russian studies in Cambridge were even more intense than in Bodmin. The days were filled with grammar, conversation, history lectures, all in Russian. Each week ended with a test on Friday morning, which we had to pass in order to remain on the course. After that we were paid and free for the weekend. I read somewhere recently that the writer Michael Frayn, who was on the course before me, claimed that this exam was very demanding. I really cannot agree. When you have spent so many hours each day learning Russian as a job, you should be able tackle any reasonable test. The great bonus for us was the chance to live in Cambridge and enjoy University life. There was so much to do. Beside all that I was very active in table-tennis at the time and travelled across quite a lot of East Anglia playing matches. I was also becoming obsessed with Jazz, but that is another story.

After the year in Cambridge I returned to Bodmin to prepare for the Civil Service Interpreter’s exams, which included a very long and intense oral test. Although I was fairly lazy during the last few months I did manage to qualify as an interpreter, with a distinction in oral. I had only a few weeks of my National Service left, so I was given an admin job to see out my time. On 19 May 1954 my strange interlude ended and I was able to resume the life I had planned. In the years that followed I did not develop my Russian, because my major foreign language is French. However, I have sometimes taught Russian, including some A level Russian literature. I also grew to love the plays of Chekov and I have often discussed them with adult education classes.

I wonder whether there are any other former National Service linguists in Brighton and Hove. It would be interesting to hear their experiences.

Peter Batten

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