Why polish a drawing pin?

2009-12-16 00:00

WITNESS readers probably know David Pike best as a regular reviewer on these pages, or from his working days as a professor of classics on the local university campus. But now his reviewing boot is on the other foot: he has written a book.

My Part in the Downfall: Staying Civil in the Rhodesian War, is Pike’s somewhat irreverent memoir of his time as a soldier in the then Rhodesian army in the early seventies. But this is no nostalgia-fuelled, macho reminiscence. “I hated it,” says Pike when asked if he can think of any positives from his military career. “I suppose I came through it in one piece, and without going any madder than I am. And you do find out things about yourself in the army — how much you can stand. But that’s all.”

Pike was older than most of his ­fellow conscripts. After boarding school at Kearsney, he went to university, first in Rhodesia and then in Britain. So when he returned to his home country to his first university lecturing job and got called up, he was in his mid-twenties. “I was with people years younger than me. So apart from being lonely, I was the odd man out in this group of teenagers. And their conversation drove me crazy.” According to Pike, it was all either about cars, parts of cars or female anatomy.

The military, particularly back in the seventies, was an exclusively male environment. “There was nothing to represent the other half of the human race at all,” says Pike. “People talked about women all the time, in the crudest terms, but there were none there. I’m no prude, but I found it nauseating. It may be changing now, but I would always have thought that women had more sense than to be involved in armies.”

Despite the underlying horrors, and the ever-present sense of danger, the book is often very funny. Quoting from it at its recent launch, Pike’s long-time university colleague Peter Tennant said: “While armies may be funny, wars are not”. It was a nasty war, a civil war, which Pike points out that the Romans called “an unholy war”. “But the sight of grown men polishing drawing pins to stick in a noticeboard is ludicrous. I don’t think I found it funny when I was in it, but in retrospect ...”

I have to ask. Why on earth would anyone polish a drawing pin? “Well, the army would have an answer. ­Attention to detail. Your survival in a war zone may depend on attention to detail. But we didn’t actually have to do it. It was a way of keeping out of trouble — we had the smartest noticeboard in the company.” There’s no doubt: armies are funny.

But why write this now, nearly 40 years on? “It’s partly to do with being retired. When I retired I wanted to write: it’s been simmering away. It started with me telling silly stories about my army life to my colleagues. Maybe one of them suggested that I should get it down. It is potentially ­interesting material that I seem to ­remember a lot about. And it was a traumatic experience in my life.”

Pike talks about the “diseducation” aspect of the army, the way it aims to stop people thinking for themselves, and how, when a conscript returns to civilian life, he is a misfit, even if he had been, as Pike saw himself, a misfit in the army.

“It happens because soldiers have gone through experiences that non-soldiers have never had. I would talk to people and I could see their eyes glazing — partly with embarrassment because what I was talking about was totally outside their experience. And when you have spent weeks in the bush where nothing matters ­except survival, things that used to matter, suburban concerns, don’t matter any more. It creates a gulf.”

And the other gulf, which My Part in the Downfall illustrates very clearly, is that between the absurdity of polishing drawing pins or having to learn to put a puttee round a footless sock and the fact that people, on both sides, are dying violently. It is all there in this short, very readable book.


• My Part in the Downfall by David Pike is available from the author at pikedavey@gmail.com or 033  386 4959. Or visit Boutique Books at www.boutiquebooks.co.za


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