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 (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