One of the very few employers in the UK that will still take on musicians (as musicians) as full-time employees in a mode fairly recognisable to more conventional sectors (despite the live-in, uniformed, Official Secrets aspects), is the military. I’ve written before about how even the coveted permanent symphony orchestra posts generally leave their holders seeking out some freelance or teaching work to top up their income; and while cruise line or overseas hotel residency work is very much full-time, it is usually in fixed-term contracts no more than a few months long, no guarantee of renewal of further work. I’ve also written before about how I spent literally months teasing with the idea of applying to join the Forces string orchestra, before eventually deciding I couldn’t face standard initial military training or life as a soldier, even if it meant I was able to play music for a living.
Last night I did a gig for the Forces – viola in a string quartet, background music for an officers’ ball (so-called) during arrival / champagne and another set during dinner. At one part of a large barracks and complex on the edge of the sizeable military-controlled zone that is Salisbury Plain.
I hated it. There were probably contributing factors that weren’t to do with the locale, employer and atmosphere, but I certainly didn’t like those either.
I went to an all boys (state, academically selective, just to keep things complicated) secondary school, and was picked on almost throughout my time in school, though rarely in a directly physical way. The whole time I was on site, I think the male-dominated, loud, laddish, overconfident, very physical atmosphere reminded me of the (quite literally) rugby-playing end of my school – except that being army officers, everyone was twice the size. I’m 5’9″ (or 10 depending how straight I’m standing), slight and a bit self-conscious about it (probably really because I’ve never been strong or well-coordinated or enjoyed physical exertion in itself). A part of my brain was preparing to get mocked if not downright beaten up all evening, and wanting not to be noticed.
But you can’t just not be noticed in an army camp of course. You have to sign in, be checked off a list, receive a visitor’s badge, be escorted to the relevant bit of the site (fortunately this took the practical form of a lift there with my ‘escort’!), report to Capt Such-and-such and generally follow the rules. And of course the gate to the site has two guards – perfectly reasonable, unthreatening, relaxed and indeed helpful blokes, but carrying 3-foot long black guns of some kind. With the paint worn off in places; clearly used (even if not for actually shooting anyone), not symbolic.
Again perhaps to do with my schooldays, or perhaps actually just the consequence rather than the cause of being a gut pacifist, my response to violence real or implied is almost always to imagine it being done to me. I had to go through central London shortly after 7/7; it was the first time I’d seen gun-carrying police in the flesh, and instead of feeling protected I was actively (illogically and against conscious thought of course) scared of being shot. So too as I walked from playing back to main gate (in the dark, on my own, carrying a rather anonymous-looking black case with my viola in it), my mind would not stop playing with the notion of encountering a suspicious and trigger-happy night guard on the way.
Of course none of my fears were realised and the only problem I actually encountered getting back was caused by train companies not the military (which can have another post to itself). But given the anxiety levels of the whole experience for me, I think I can safely say I would never have made a soldier and, for all the financial and personal insecurity of a freelance lifestyle by comparison, I’m glad I didn’t try.