Another favourite passage: The Account of ‘Captain Grief’

I have been often asked by various people what I do with the books I have acquired in the course of a long and industrious career of reading. The answer is obvious, blindingly obvious — I read them again and then again whenever the fancy takes me.

I can estimate the next response.  How can one read a book again? Well, I will refrain from any direct comment on the high intellect of those posing such queries, but only say there are some books – well most books I have read – that contain plots or even passages that one – a discerning reader, I must specify – is drawn to again and again.

Let me give you an example.  Here is a passage from one of my most favourite authors, George MacDonald Fraser’s account of his service on the Burma front during the Second World War. “Quartered Safe Out Here”, though dealing with a dark and violent period, has these flashes which make it stand out in its genre. Have a look yourself……

~~~~ “By the way,” said the major, “d’ you know anything about this anti-tank gun, the Piat?”

I said I did; I’d been trained in its use in England, although I’d never fired it.

“At least you’ll know one end from t’other,” he said, “which is more than anyone else does. We’ve had one in store for a bit, but no one’s mentioned it until now. Corporal, give us the file marked Piat. Yes… there’s been a request for one from -.” He mentioned an unpronounceable village which I’d never heard of. “About twenty miles up the road, small unit near the river. They also want an instructor. Let’s see, you’ve still got a week in hand…. well, why not? Take it up, show ’em how it works, and either bring it back yourself or leave it with them and fetch a receipt. But make it clear that you’ve to be back here inside a week – here, I’ll give you a chit for their O.C.” He squinted at the file and gave a barking laugh. “A captain whose name, to judge from his bloody awful writing, is Grief. Well, he should know…”

Pleased at the prospect of change, and escaping from the orbit of a company sergeant-major who had proved himself a dab hand at finding work for idle lance-corporals to do, I went to renew acquaintance with the projector, infantry, anti-tank, commonly called the Piat. It was the British equivalent of the American bazooka, and might have been designed by Heath Robinson after a drunken dinner of lobster au gratin. It’s not easy to describe, and I may have forgotten some of its finer points, such as its exact measurements, but I’ll do my best.

From memory, then, it consisted of about four feet of six-inch steel pipe……. (well, the engineers and arms buffs among you might be interested but since this post is not on anti-tank weapons of WW-II, I will skip the remaining description which you can catch in the book (pgs 294-95 of the HarperCollins edition) and get back to the basic narrative)…. The whole contraption weighed about a ton, and the bombs came in a case of three; if you were Goliath you might have carried the Piat and two cases.

Like many British inventions, it looked improbable, unwieldy, and unsafe – and it worked. The principle was that…..  (I don’t think is required here, but if you are interested pg. 295, second para from top).

I drew it from the stores with four cases of bombs – all they had – refreshed my memory by stripping and reassembling it, and hopped a truck next morning. I also took my rifle and fifty rounds, as per regulations, plus my kukri and a couple of grenades; if there was trouble I wanted some real weaponry handy.

The monsoon had eased by now, and it was a pleasant hour’s drive to the village where there was a battered jeep waiting, with a Burmese driver. We loaded the Piat abroad and bounced away on a sunlit track past paddy-fields which were calm silver lakes fringed by scrub and jungle, and another hour brought us to a little collection of huts half-hidden by undergrowth on the edge of nowhere, which was the operational base of the officer I always think of as “Captain Grief” – and I call him that now because he may still be about, and I don’t want him suing me or trying to kill me or, even worse, seeking me out for a jovial reunion.

To be continued……

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