Pompey and Psychiatry

Pompey Barracks – Portsmouth. After leaving the ship, in due course I reached barracks in Portsmouth to await another draft. It was the first time I had been there to stay for more than a couple of days and I soon discovered it was a world of its own.

Immediately on arrival in barracks everyone went through the ritual of keeping appointments at the various departments in which records of his career were held. These records followed the service men and women round the world and no matter how short the stay, or even if it was a return visit after only a brief departure, the tradition of the appointment was an essential part of the first few days. It was a game – that was for sure – as the appointments were more a ritual than having any serious intent, it was a game which was an amalgam of ‘The Stations of the Cross’ and Monopoly, and those who were good at the game, the nefarious rogues, who never went to sea, never did any work, they were the lost legion, who had, in their eyes, won the game. If they were very good they kept it up for the whole duration of the war, never having to pass ‘Go’, never going to ‘Jail’, just picking up their cash and cigarettes, drinking their tot and being bored out of their minds. The size of the constantly changing occupancy of the barracks was a factor in their favour

The key to failure was being bored. To be a single minded rogue requires ingenuity and intelligence, being part of a gang requires only obedience to the head rogue. The ones I came across were single, running their own rackets and trying to remain anonymous while being ostensibly part of the system. The real rogues were the ones on the strength who were never transferred and never drafted. Sometimes this was a bookkeeping error, sometimes as the result of greasing the right palm, but these men were legitimate members of the barracks and as such received their full pay, their rum ration, their cigarettes and even their leave.

A Brush With Psychiatry My first encounter with psychiatry was in my last year at school to find what I was best suited for. In Pompey Barracks I had my second, there the Psychiatrist was universally called the ‘trick-cyclist’. I was on my way round the Monopoly board. I had arrived at the building housing the medical staff where I was due for yet another cursory examination. There I sat in a queue waiting my turn while others were there for many reasons.

As I have previously said, I was a Wireless Mechanic, also only in for Hostilities Only, an HO, a new type of rating , dressed in what was picturesquely called ‘fore-and-aft rig’, a suit with shirt and tie and was generally ignored by the ‘real sailors’, who tended to talk to one another across an HO as if he was not there, and this happened at the medical wing. I recall that at least one of the men in the waiting room was handcuffed to a sailor in gaiters, which would indicate he was a prisoner in custody, he had offended in some way, committed a violent act, jumped ship, stolen, anything which could result in a sentence of imprisonment to be served either in a naval establishment or a civil jail. Men in this category were automatically sent to the ‘trick-cyclist’ for examination prior to arraignment.

The conversation between the man in handcuffs, and others there for the same reason but not under guard, was enlightening to someone who had barely heard of the word psychologist at that time, a not uncommon state as the profession was in its infancy – but not as far as these sailors were concerned. They not only knew why they were there, having in most cases been there before, they knew the questions which would be asked, could reel off the right answer for standard Rorschach tests, knew the various other tests they were to undergo and advised one another on the answers the psychiatrist would need to be given if they were to be declared unfit for duty at sea. It was a fascinating approach to delinquency, one I never forgot, but more, it was a salutary illustration of the triumph of experience over theory.

Categorized as Royal Navy

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