Pick Up Your Parrots and Monkeys
Orion Publishing; Cassell Publications, 2004.
Soldier's tales are commonplace: but each is illuminating
in their own way. In this intensely personal testament,
William Pennington traces
his own military odyssey from boy soldier to hardened
gunner describing his accelerated personal and
moral development as a result of being an integral
part in the dramatic events in and surrounding
the second world war.
about serving in India shortly after taking the King's
shilling in 1934 in his hometown of Blackpool cover
familiar ground tramped by innumerable writers and
diarists. But Pennington's take on the love-hate
relationship of the British with a fascinating place
blighted by poverty, disease and sweltering heat
sings with genuine verisimilitude. Seeing the life
of the Raj through the eyes of a simple soul reveals
realities often obscured by more poetic, intellectual
or dramatic accounts.
As he moved from hill station to barracks via bazaars,
temples and brothels with the Royal Horse Artillery
either by foot, on horseback or on ridiculously crowded
trains, the author opens a window onto the world
of men whose disorientation and frustrations led
to responses ranging from bizarre behaviour and ribald
repartee to religious enlightenment. The social privations
and vicissitudes of a lonely life are laid bare for
all to see.
The pages tracking the years in India
as the world prepared for the war are undoubtedly the
strongest of the book peppered as they are with entertaining
examples of monsoon-sodden events, songs and conversations
that mix humour, pathos and tragedy almost in equal
Pennington takes a more formal line, however, in
describing how he joined the British Expeditionary
Force in Europe and then his return to India for
training in order to join the jungle war in Burma
fighting the Japanese. But his personality and almost
breathless desire to recreate the experience for
less experienced readers shines through. Ironically,
he was on the way to Hong Kong to defend the territory
when his guns were lost at sea and so was diverted
from meeting the Japanese army sooner.
comes across as proud and solid representative of the
fighting classes. He describes with candour the insubordinate,
racist, sexist attitudes of many of his compatriots,
many of which he shared, and despite his obvious respect
for his superiors he has the occasional pot-shot at
He is fond of quoting Kipling and the
narrative is peppered with clichs such as "the
white man's burden". But his belief in the justness
of the allied cause and his hatred of Japanese troops
are strongly-felt and central themes.
As a professional
soldier, Pennington found war dangerous and exciting
but is not blind to its ultimate futility. This engaging
epistle is an honest attempt to come to terms with
fundamental issues as they affect individuals. It is
a valiant and worthy attempt.
The title of the book
derives from the last order given to soldiers before
boarding the ship back to England. In fact many men
did keep pets to keep them company. If India could
be termed the former British Empire's `Jewel in the
Crown' then Pennington was one of its rough-cut gems.
July 6, 2004
Paul McGuire is a freelance author, writer and reviewer.
He is also Deputy Principal of Sha Tin Junior School.