Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Len Chester: Bugle Boy

Bugle BoyLen Chester (also known as dovegreyreader’s father) was only fourteen when he joined the Royal Marines as a bugle boy - that is, a drummer signalling instructions and commands on his instrument, to anybody unfamiliar with the term as I was. It was May 1939: the worst or best possible time to join up, depending on how you look. Young Len went through a rigorous training and was then transferred to Scapa Flow in Scotland, where they were stationed for a long while before seeing any action. The boys had to make do with their meagre pay, get their small pleasures where they could, and endure excruciating boredom as well as a strict military routine, much of which makes little sense to an outsider’s eyes. The very real dangers they faced must have taken on a sense of the unreal in such an environment, and it must have been especially difficult for them to adjust to ordinary everyday life after spending their youth like this.

This brief book is more of an assortment of reminiscences and interesting trivia than a proper autobiography with a dramatic structure; Chester himself calls it ‘just a few events noted by a young boy who became a man long before his time and who lost his youth in the service of his country’. For somebody looking for a comprehensive work about the Royal Marines in World War II, it isn’t the right book; the point of view is very much that of a teenaged boy. The author doesn’t talk down from his vantage point of age and experience, and the teenager’s inexperience and youthful bravado shine through. I know very little about the subject – as I said above, I didn’t even know what ‘bugle boys’ did before I read this – and for me, this was an enjoyable introduction. (Ariadne reviewed Pamela Horn’s short book about Victorian ladies a while ago – these novella-length history books seem like an excellent idea to me, an antidote to the way of thinking that a work of non-fiction needs to be ‘definitive’ and cover every possible aspect of its subject matter. After all, OUP’s ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series is exceedingly popular, too.) On the other hand, for somebody who already knows the context through and through, this will doubtless provide an interesting new perspective.

Chester’s writing is unpretentious and accessible, and he sounds like a very likeable man. My guess is that he’s a gifted raconteur, as he certainly comes across as such in the book. Because of this, and because of teenage perspective mentioned above, I also thought Bugle Boy would make an excellent read for young boys. There is little of the kind of violence and suspense adolescents often seem to go for, but I’m convinced they would relate to the experiences of a youngster in so many ways just like them – only in most extraordinary circumstances.

Final Verdict: A quick, entertaining read – and when finished you feel like you’ve really got to know the person, always a plus in an autobiography.

Long Barn Books  2007  hardback  127 pp.  ISBN: 978190242129-2

5 comments on “Len Chester: Bugle Boy

  1. sequinonsea
    January 19, 2008

    Heard so much about this book in the local media. I’ll definitely look out for it in my bookshop. Great review!

  2. rosyb
    January 19, 2008

    You say that teenaged boys would like it, I am thinking it is the kind of thing my mother would enjoy as she has read a few memoirs of everyday experience in the 2nd World War – partly maybe as well to get closer in imagination to the experiences behind our own family memories and stories.

    It’s always a shock to realise how young everyone was as well. Facing the most profound of experiences and thoughts – when barely more than a child. I recently visited The Imperial War Museum for the first time ever with The Geek (keen to see all the machinery) and we came across one of the bombers his grandfather flew (and died in). I couldn’t get over how cramped and cold it must have been. 4-6 people cramped inside knowing they were almost certain to die. But the tanks were really nasty. For a claustrobic person like me. They looked like hell in a tincan.

  3. Jackie
    January 19, 2008

    The author must be quite gifted to be able to keep the adolescent viewpoint, so often we forget how that feels as we grow older. And what an unusual way to spend part of one’s life, especially at that age, not being a full-fledged soldier, yet not a regualr childhood. What remarkable memories that must’ve left.

  4. Ariadne
    January 21, 2008

    I would really like to read this from the POV of being a children’s writer – the voices of people who lived through events like this are invaluable, and should be preserved at all costs. I’ll be looking out for it.

  5. Mhairi
    January 22, 2008

    I really enjoy “little books” like these … especially ones written by people who aren’t what you might call writers by trade. There’s a freshness about them – an immediacy you don’t necessarily find in more formally structured books. I’d no idea what bugle boy was either … I’m amazed the children that young were in any way involved in the war. Extraordinary. Thank you.

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This entry was posted on January 19, 2008 by in Entries by Leena, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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