I worked with a dozen men from different European countries in Libya, teaching conscripts of the Air Defence Forces. My job was to teach them English. German and Swiss men taught them mechanical and electrical skills.
There were few women anywhere near us. The camp boss’s wife stayed for a few weeks and left appalled at the behaviour of men towards her. One nudged her into the swimming pool one night, fully clothed without checking first that she could swim. I think it was probably her morning recollections of how she shrieked at us that decided her to leave.
This was a good time for me. It wasn’t a wholesome or natural environment. It was very tense and argumentative. You could walk into the canteen in the morning and judge the moods of the other men – how well they had slept, how anxious they were about whether their women were waiting for them – just by the darkness of their expressions.
Some men just don’t function until they have had coffee.
Sometimes when men yelled at each other, they couldn’t help laughing too. Walter the cook had asked me to send roses to his ex wife for her birthday when I was on leave in Geneva. They were still friends. She had even visited him in the camp.
The florist in Geneva said I could buy a dozen roses at their prices and the florist in Jersey, where she lived, would adjust the numbers to suit the price.
Walter was waiting for me when I came back to the camp.
“What the fuck have you done? You sent her sixty fucking roses.”
Some men smouldered quietly. Denis told me one day that he saw a scorpion in his ice cream.
What was good for me about that period was that it counterbalanced previous periods, like my religious phase in India. Where that had been a return to childhood to resample domination by a religious fascist, this was a return to the playground, to reassess my natural placing in masculine pecking orders. At school I had virtually volunteered for the lowest place, because I was small and could not fight. In among the heavy and frustrated men on the Taguira work camp, I placed myself more easily close to the top, or at least around the middle, because big hefty men liked me.
We lived in a camp near the coast. We had our prefabricated living quarters, two bedrooms in each with a bathroom between, so that you wouldn’t hear your neighbour wanking, but you would hear him having a shit.
We worked about twenty miles away in compounds that looked like ordinary English schools built in the Sixties, with their big glass windows and boarded walls.
One of the ways in which I had endeared myself to some of the men was by writing spoof notices for the staff board. Most of us were annoyed by the real ones, warning us that there was a shortage of pencils, for instance. I did one in which I pretended to be the Chief Executive from Zurich, setting a shot spots competition. This was my protest at the failure of the laundry system to wash out the semen stains from the sheets. And you could always tell by the semen stains you got back that these weren’t the same sheets that you had sent to the wash. You always knew your own.
I had the CE in Zurich imagine that these stains formed fortuitous images of small animals or even European countries. I offered a prize for the best identification of a shot spot with a recognisable object.
We travelled every day by Peugeot station wagons to army camps where we taught.
These were brutal places. The first day we arrived we saw a dozen boys in army fatigues being bunny hopped across the yard.
“They are putting on a show for us”, said Geoff, a skinny lad from New Zealand who lived in a constant fret.
They weren’t. They were always punishing somebody.
After mid morning break on my first day I asked one of the brighter lads, Sanousi, where the boy he had been sitting beside had gone. Why was he not back in class?
“Broken leg”, said Sanousi.
“Running in corridor”, said a tubby lump beside him.
Had he fallen and hurt himself?
No, he had been beaten for running in the corridor and now he couldn’t walk.
The standard punishment, I learnt, was to have two larger soldiers lift you upside down, with your feet fed through a loop wrapped along a stick and beat the soles of your bare feet.
Sanousi’s desk mate was in bed recovering from such a beating.
A worse punishment was to be made walk across the tarmac yard on your bare knees. One day I saw five boys put through this, with an officer walking behind to kick the soles of their feet so that their knees would scrape the rough surface.
And a common punishment was for a boy to be made stand in full combat gear in the hot sun, perhaps with his boots slung from his neck and his stinking socks in them, sometimes after being hosed down and made to roll in the sand. He would be stood there until he dropped and left to lie there afterwards if the officers judged that he had dropped too soon.
The officers who supervised these punishments seemed decent but bored men. I would never send any boy to the officers for bad behaviour, though some of the other teachers adapted quickly to the system. They could control a class; I couldn’t.
After a time I realised that I had to make some concession to established order I would just be the weakest, most easily defied authority figure in the school. So I would put disruptive boys out of the class and leave them to survive the officers as best they could. If they didn’t get caught, that was fine. They weren’t disrupting my class. If they did get caught and came back limping, then that was something they had brought on themselves.
Though they lived in a harsh environment, the boys themselves were sensitive and gentle. One day I met wee Khalifa after arms training. He was dragging a Self Loading Rifle along behind him, holding it by the barrel. As a child I had had a better sense of how to hold a gun, from playing with toys. I had loved to nurse my rifle and posture with it. Khalifa hadn’t the least inclination to do that.
One day in the language laboratory I told them that I could show them my country. I played The Lonesome Boatman into their headphones and said: Listen carefully. You will see the cliff over the sea. You will see a gull soaring out from the land and high over the waves. That is Ireland”.
They sat hushed listening to the mellow flute, then one of the boys came alive, shooting his hand up.
“Mr Malky! Mr Malky! I can see it”.
One day the officers called a tear gas exercise. The boys were taken out into the yard and made stand with their gas masks off while grenades were let off around them. They had to wait for the order to don the masks. Streams of yellow and red gas poured up from spots on the yard and drifted across through the school windows.
“We can’t work in these conditions”, I said. “I am taking the teachers out”.
“Ah, you are not man enough for this”, said the officer in charge that day.
He was very amused.
He thought we would have been proud to accept the opportunity to show that we could endure being gassed by substances we knew nothing of.
There were three ranks of officer running these camps, distinguished by the number of stars on their epaulets, the lowest with one, the highest with three. Three star officers were so highly ranked that we almost never saw them or dealt directly with them.
All of the boys on their days off dressed like generals in fancy uniforms with braid and big epaulets, when they were allowed to hitch hike into Tripoli.
I wonder how they are now.