The Chameleon Theory Seven years old, now inured to Africa, I adopted a chameleon. We watched one another, daily, although it mostly watched insects – as dinner – from a bush beside the front door. I was enthralled by the stillness of this ugly creature, its strange jerky movements, and the speed of the rapier-like thrust of its long tongue. It was probably there because the door had an insect screen and at nightfall the light from inside attracted insects, an electric larder. My father kept repeating that old cliché. “Do you want to know how to drive a chameleon mad? Set it on a tartan rug’. I spent some part of every day watching the mostly motionless, bulky body supported on its spindly legs, change hue as the sun moved round, wondering if it really could assume the pattern of a tartan. Years later I devised the Chameleon Theory which states that an individual, in the presence of strangers and acquaintances, changes his identity by an amount proportional to his degree of insecurity. The ‘telephone voice’ is a common example. where the accent changes as soon as the instrument is lifted.
The theory was formulated on that horrendous ‘first day’ as a sailor. I was instructed to report to the recruiting office and there joined about five other sheepish youngsters with a general air of quiet trepidation and no idea what awaited them. I remember we hung about quite a lot, a foretaste of long periods of hanging about to come. We did some form filling, were sworn in, given travel warrants and some documentation, and then were sent on our way to Skegness via Victoria. The change in one of our number as soon as we were clear of the recruiting office was amazing.
Another chap and I chatted quietly. One man was quiet to the point of being stolid and kept himself to himself, but there was one, Smith, who made the trip a real event. The further the train went the further from home we all were, which seemed irrelevant to the rest of us, but it was having a marked effect on the man in question. I would guess he had a Chameleon Factor of about 90%. He started by making a great play of offering cigarettes and lighting up with a great flourish. This he followed with expletives interspersed with bawdy comments and by the time we reached Victoria, no real distance, his language was appalling, and he was beginning to assume what he believed were the attributes of Jolly Jack Tar, I had the impression that even his gait had a roll to it, but that was only the curtain raiser.
We crossed London to Liverpool Street Station and a long delay. Smith insisted we should all adjourn to the Salvation Army canteen supplying tea and food on one of the platforms, for servicemen passing through, Smith by now was convinced he was a sailor through and through even in civvies. Servicemen rarely wore civvies in early 1941, they would have been excess baggage we could all do without, our issued kit was more than enough when it included a hammock and bedding. We were stupid enough, or too reticent to object when this idiot over-ruled us. We felt extremely self-conscious at presenting ourselves for free meals when we still thought of ourselves as civilians. We wanted to go to the buffet but apathy and his persistence won the day. I can still feel the embarrassment as this idiot sat shouting his bragging, implying we were all well seasoned sailors on leave, fooling no one but himself, but including us by implication in his shoddy fantasy world. Even when later he was in uniform and went ‘ashore’, (the Navy’s name for leave from any base be it afloat or concrete) he implied he was always just back off convoy with tales of derring-do. No one believed him as the people of Skegness would know he was from the Butlin’s camp, Life in the services, and especially the Navy is a very intimate experience and tolerance is paramount for the general good .