Catterick Garrison
Hebden Bridge
Sowerby Bridge
Ich Bin Ein Britischer Soldat: Hip Hind Hook By Nigel Pantling
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
I have clear memories of the BBC Light Programme’s Family Favourites slot broadcasting messages from British Forces Posted Overseas. A weekly show, enabling service personnel to get in touch with their families in the UK against a backdrop of popular ‘requests’, the programme provided a no doubt valuable hub for communication long before the advent of social media.

If the brief connection brightened the day for battalions of young soldiers in foreign parts, for me as a listening kid it meant ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’, ‘Little white bull’ and ‘My boomerang won’t come back’. But also the wonderful new names to savour alongside the catch-all BFPO handle: Gibraltar, Akrotiri, Westfalen...

...and Fallingbostel, which became more meaningful to me much later, when the protracted dream of childhood breached the wall of reality. A friend of mine had grown up a child of the military in the British Army of the Rhine of the late sixties. His father, of whose clipped parade ground barking Brendan could perform a pitch-perfect parody, was a Sergeant in the 15th/19th Hussars, then based at Bad Fallingbostel.

Nigel Pantling
I render this little memory only because Nigel Pantling’s remarkable new collection of poems, Hip Hind Hook, gives a fleeting mention to that very location in the effortlessly witty ‘Detente’, and later, one suspects indirectly, in the painfully observed ‘Major K.’ Pantling was a serving officer in the Royal Artillery of the early seventies, and if he prudently avoids the naming of names in what amounts to a kind of autobiography, it seems likely that he served at this garrison at some point.

A rare and valuable thing to find a poet of this ilk with such unique experience; rarer still, one whose purview of interest is specifically focused on a place and historical period. Pantling’s subject is the British Army of the Rhine, that apparently immovable fixture of postwar German life, whose traction was predicated entirely on defending the Iron Curtain against the huge Warsaw Pact forces amassed to the East.

That the subtexts of his theme – the largely unseen Soviet armies, the volatility of world geo-politics, the hair-trigger brinksmanship of the Cold War – are mostly extraneous to Pantling’s coolly-wrought ‘local’ observations lends an unsettling gravitas to his narrative, in conspicuous absentia. Beyond the wall of mundane routine, methodical ignominy and rigid military hierarchies lies a spectacularly palpable threat, against which sustained defence is as questionable as the Maginot Line:

‘The woods are dense it’s true, but then the Ardennes were,
thirty years ago. And i’ve sailed the Weser: I could tack
from bank to bank in seconds. It won’t hold them back.’ (‘Old Soldier’s Warning’)

And the whole is overlain with a plethora of satisfying ironies which begin to look unavoidable in the stringent context of this counterpoint: the presence of invisible armies in the near distance re-shapes our perception of Pantling’s army on the western side of the curtain, makes of their combined armour a plate-glass window.

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Pantling’s style of exposition does not need the embellishment of conventional poetic devices, only precision of observation: we learn a great deal more from the direct rendering of idiosyncrasy, here, than we ever could from metaphor.

And there is something startlingly apposite about the fitting of occupational experience to form of presentation; something direct which gives the reader an immediate grasp of both character and the unique experience of soldiering. In the rarified immediacy of regimental agenda, the sharp end of behaviour may be pragmatically mediated, ignored when not dangerous, or utilised as though a skill.

The aloof priggishness of New Scientist-reading ‘Second Lieutenant N.’ is tolerated because he is ‘good with his soldiers’, whilst the anachronistic near-lunacy of ‘Captain A.’ (‘he sits wearing a fez, smoking a hookah’) is later made good in his natural habitat of the ‘Trucial Oman Scouts’, where his obsession with Arabia is satisfied, and his insouciant profligacy mitigated by ‘lower Mess bills’.

Meanwhile the kleptomania of ‘Bombardier B.’ – ‘he could have been a magician in another life’ – militates against the idea of career progress:

‘Sadly, he can make things disappear too,
which gets in the way of further promotion.’

There is real sardonic wit in Pantling’s frequent character vignettes: all condensed into twelve sharp lines, and each of which renders individuality in three dimensions, conferring humanity on character in an environment where will and volition are often subsumed.

In the opening poem, ‘Marching In with the Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant’, the eponymous NCO becomes narrator, describing in meticulous detail, the pitfalls and two-handed benefits of an officer’s introduction to married quarters. The description is army methodical and hilarious, cheerfully underlining hierarchies of privilege:

‘I’m sorry about the carpet, Sir, I know it only covers three quarters of the floor.
You have to be a major before it reaches the walls.’

Discipline and method give structure to intractable, potentially catastrophic circumstances, and often become inured for life in those who have served. My own father (Africa, Italy in world war two; eleven years service) polished his shoes to patent mirrors and never left the house without a tie.

That Pantling’s poetry is prosaic in the very best sense – it is impervious to prolixity and introspection – is a product, perhaps, of that same sense of proportion. In places, such stylistic directness yields a greater clarity of understanding than knots of metaphorical complexity.

Extrapolate a gallows grin

Ordered poems open a window on the vagaries of ‘war games’, on impromptu mobilisation and on intra-regimental dynamics where trivial errors may have huge consequences. Pantling’s own knowledge and experience vouchsafe an authenticity of voice, which, in turn, enables the reader to extrapolate a gallows grin from misjudged calculation, and from the irony of military exercises conducted in anticipation of a war against numerically overwhelming enemy forces.

The self-effacingly witty ‘Tactical Exercise Without Troops’ envisages (recalls?) a war game with no central protagonists where a game of pretence is necessarily a fight with shadows – ‘When I tell him I’ve spotted an enemy patrol (invisible, of course)’. Bearing its own absurd momentum, the charade concludes with misdirected ‘shellfire’ and an ironic reaction of authentic anger:

‘then wait and watch
for make-believe shells from guns that aren’t there to hit an imaginary scud

until my IG swears, and turning asks what grid I gave the guns.
You bloody fool. Your shells are landing on our own troops.

Pantling’s observational focus is redeemed from laconic detachment by the presence of occasional poised touches which subvert expectation; you don’t anticipate heart in this terrain. Such moments of emotional engagement add a further dimension of exquisite tenderness to a narrative infused with the kind of paradoxes which inhere to the relentless and non-negotiable routines of military service. And they are invariably glimpsed, as if taking the narrator by surprise. Otherwise incidental, the first blossoming of infidelity is espied in the deftest of touches both literal and figurative, after a game of tennis:

‘He was wearing his watch on the arm nearest to her,
and as she leaned forward to read the time
she tucked her falling hair behind her ear,
took his hand, and lightly, so lightly,
ran her fingers along the inside of his wrist.’
(‘Mixed Doubles’)

And, in another captured moment in ‘Detente’, the consummation, the Entspannung of a German woman and an English soldier, parodies the coming together of nations.

Finest of all is the deeply considered and affecting reflection of ‘Stammlager 311c’. In this poem, the narrator imputes an integrity to young soldiers visiting Bergen-Belsen - a reticence to offend locals who may not want, with thirty intervening years of pained hindsight, to rake over the coals of complicity or memory – that they could not possess. And at the narrative denouement, which might fittingly have concluded Pantling’s superb collection, his concession amounts to a recognition that words, in any case, fail us all before the tragic enormity of the Final Solution.

‘The truth is that few of us knew much about Bergen-Belsen:
perhaps that Anne Frank had died there, or that Pierrepoint

had hanged the Commandant. Even fewer visited to observe
the burned huts, the mass graves, the guilty silence of the birds.’

We should be grateful for this poet’s rare but profoundly moving lyrical bursts. They are glittering treasures in a minefield.

Hip Hind Hook is published by smithǀ doorstop

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Ich Bin Ein Britischer Soldat: Hip Hind Hook By Nigel Pantling, 10th January 2019, 9:45 AM