“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” So wrote a distant cousin of mine, Lucy Maude Montgomery, in Anne of Green Gables. Indeed; and the beginning of October always brings back memories à la recherche du temps perdu. (Well, forgive me: I am writing this in France – and I tend to forget what a profound effect my first boss, Canon Methuen Clarke who was a huge fan of Proust, had on me more than fifty years ago.)
The memories of which I write are quite disconnected – and doubtless of very little interest to anyone but me, in which case I apologize for wasting your time and I invite you to move on quickly to better things.
The first memory concerns the tiny village of Water Newton, set so peacefully on the banks of the River Nene in Huntingdonshire. My father took us there on summer
vacations several times in the early 1950s. Apart from the village itself, there were lovely places to visit quite near. A short walk across fields took us to Castor, a small country town whose very name reveals its Roman origins. And here, where Hereward the Wake led local resistance in the 11th century to the Norman Conquest, is the glory of Peterborough Cathedral — where the mortal remains of Queen Catherine of Aragon, first wife of King Henry VIII, still lie, and where in 1960, I was ordained to the ministry of the Church of England.
What (if you are still with me), you may well be asking has this to do with October? My dear late sister – whose birthday falls in October, incidentally — and I learned to fish in the river at Water Newton, and we spent idyllic evenings together until sunset by the gently flowing Nene. But here’s the October thing. Close by the river, thus providing a backdrop to our angling hours, is the ancient village parish church. It is dedicated to St Remigius, Bishop of Rheims who converted Clovis I, King of the Franks, in 496 AD – the only church in England uniquely so dedicated – whose feast day is October 1.
And now, in what follows, the alliteration and assonance are entirely coincidental: Remigius, Rheims – and now REME, the acronym for the British Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. When, in the summer of 1953, I underwent a preliminary medical exam and interview prior to my military servive, I was asked in which regiment or corps I would prefer to serve. I said that I would like to be in the Royal Artillery, largely because my Uncle Allan had served in it and had been killed in Belgium in June 1917 (all but a century ago now) and because my father had fought in the Canadian Royal Artillery in that same “Great” (dreadful) War. (He served in the Second World War, with distiction, as a chaplain in the Royal Air Force.)
Notwithstanding my expressed preference in this matter, my call-up papers when they came summoned me in September 1953 to report to REME. I could not have been less suited, by education, skills or temperament. It was not surprising: it was standing joke that if one’s civilian life had been as a bricklayer one would be deployed to the Catering Corps (and the Intelligence Corps was an oxymoron).
But, in the event, it all worked out well. After two weeks of basic training, I was sent to the REME unit at Honiton in Devon where potential commissioned officers were selected and prepared for Officer Cadet School. All that led, in due course, to Mons Officer Cadet School and to commissioning by Her Majesty as a (very junior) officer in the British Army. But that’s another story and another time.
What, meanwhile, of October? I arrived at Honiton – a lovely place, in beautiful Devon — towards the end of September. I have many memories of it (among them, one of an evening at a local pub playing a drinking game called Cardinal Puff and watching a Sergeant Major who could remove crown tops from beer bottles with his teeth). But I also have a vivid recollection of October 1 that year. On that day, the entire unit marched, with bands playing and flags flying, from the barracks outside the town to the parish church in the center – because it was “REME Day”, commemorating the foundation of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers on October 1, 1942.
So: “The end of the summer is not the end of the world. Here’s to October…” as A.A. Milne (1882–1956) said, perhaps to Winnie the Pooh, in A Word for Autumn.