Clement Atlee On Epsom Downs

Those of the Television Era would not appreciate the shock of misconception suffered when brought face to face with a politician whose appearance and mien have been conjured from only newspaper articles, radio interviews and radio comment, when there was no TV. Recently, all we see is the top few of our leaders and their cohorts . Prior to then they were constantly in the public eye, on TV, in newspapers and magazine. We could assess their physique, their mien, whether they were arrogant, self-seeking or evasive. In 1940 it was a matter of forming an impression on little or no true evidence. Such was the shock I received when, in the Home Guard I was paraded for the benefit of politics, patriotism and publicity.

One day Skipper informed us that on the following weekend we would be going for an exercise on Epsom Downs. End of story. In those days everything was secret, so what we would be doing on Epsom Downs would be a mystery until we did it. The only part of the weekend which stands out is the time we spent parading in front of the stands awaiting the arrival of Atlee, the Deputy Prime Minister. The day was as hot as I have experienced, one of those scorchers typical of the South East, which are not helped by being slightly humid. Standing there in our battledress serge, with a tin hat on, awful leather puttees and heavy, studded black boots, one could feel the perspiration running down the spine.

There used to be a macho tradition in the Guards Regiments that if a soldier fainted flat on his face while on dress parade, he was left there until the order was given to cart him off. I’m assuming the logistics of the alternative, of people rushing about being compassionate, was less important than keeping the ranks nice and tidy just as the King (as he was then) was about to take the salute. Actually, if one thinks of the size of the spectacle and the complication of the manoeuvres at the Trooping of the Colour, if a couple of them did collapse and his mates did rush about, there really could be chaos. It also had something to do with malingering, making sure the soldiers really did faint. I understand that if they fainted they were on a charge; – such is the way of the army, or was then. There we were, then, hundreds of us lined, up in the heat, being made tostand at ease, stand easy, and all the other ways soldiers have to¬† stand including presenting arms, all in the interests of making us smart and keeping us alert, in the sweltering heat. Every now and then there would be an almighty crash. Some poor sod had hit the dirt. Then nothing; we were on parade after all, even if the criminal who had the temerity to faint was only a clerk out of ‘Rents’ doing his bit for K & C. Minutes would elapse and then someone would gather him up and his day of glory would be over, our torture would continue.

Atlee was heard to arrive several hours late and the remnants of us could not have cared less by that time. We were drilled for his delectation and then he sauntered down the ranks peering at us and stopping to say words of encouragement to men with campaign medals from the First World War. It was at this point I became disillusioned with politicians for all time. I have since read and been told that Atlee was a very clever and astute man. I saw someone entirely different. I saw a small, hunched, unprepossessing man with a glazed stare, tired and feigning interest unconvincingly. What a waste of time for both of us,

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