TO SELL A BOOK
I had received from Frank Harley a circular about our unit history (ie To The Green Fields Beyond-Shawn O'Leary), and as I was in Paris and not far from the Army museum I thought "These fellows should have a copy". So I went to sell them one.
Do you remember those dusky gentlemen, about seven feet tall, who tried to surrender to us in the olive groves near Beirut? They appeared in the night and all you could see was a white smile towering above you. I'm sure it was a son of one of these who was on duty at the Museum.
I had done my homework and had furbished the whole three words of my French. Have you ever tried to say "bibliotheque" about fifty times, even if you haven't been looking pernod in its yellow eyeballs. Eventually however the ebony giant read me loud and clear and escorted me here and there until he could hand me over to an executive type who spoke no English. Gravely I placed the circular on his desk and waited. Gravely he ploughed through it. His face lit up and murmuring "Excusez moi" he disappeared with Harley's literary masterpiece. He returned in a few minutes, all smiles, and handed me a card on which someone had written "Army Museum. Non. Ministrie de la Guerre. Oui." I am dismissed.
Next day I trot off early to the Boulevard de St. Germain to locate the biblioteque du Ministrie de la Guerre. It seems about five miles long and of course I took the Metro to the wrong end, so that by the time I found the Ministry it was lunch time. I am told "Please return at 1430 hours." At 1430 hours I am back, a ham sandwich contained within. I am given a form to fill in. Wouldn't you know it? It is in French. And I can't intelligently fill in a form in English. Manfully I faced the task with the aid of the little tourist's dictionaire I always carry in my hip pocket. The result seems to satisfy the little man behind the grille. He seems unhappy, though, about "purpose of visit?" to which I have written in English "To sell a book" With the rapidity of a Hotchkiss he demanded something else of me, but despite his attempts to assist himself by waving arms, bits of paper, pens and pencils, I cannot understand what he wants.
Suddenly a very well dressed gentleman miraculously appears at my elbow. In cultured tones he said in English. "He required your identification card. As you are speaking in English I suggest you offer him your passport." Little man inspects passport, seems satisfied and disappears. I thank the very well dressed gentleman who says "If you have any trouble I will see you get to the minister." I reply "Good Heavens! I don't want to see the Minister. I only want to sell a book." A look of slight pain afflicts his features and, while he thinks this one out, the little man returns and stentoriously calls my name from my elbow. When I return from my leap upwards he presents me with my application form now covered with stamps, seals and signatures and looking very imposing. My well dressed benefactor requests that I follow him. I fall into step and we march down a long corridor where my companion speaks to the Sergeant of the guard. The Sergeant salutes him, then salutes me, I bow. The very well dressed gentleman bows to me. I bow to him. The Corporal bows to the Sergeant. The Sergeant bows to us all. Athletically, I return the compliment. My back has begun to ache. I decide to end it all. In my best Parisian accent I murmur "Merci" to my mentor. He replies faultlessly "It has been a pleasure to be of assistance to you". The Corporal salutes again and bows, then indicated that I follow him. I bestow a final bow on the Sergeant who salutes me. The Corporal marches briskly along unendless corridors. My back is breaking and my bearing not as martial as it was when I entered the building. We meet several chic little typistes. My back is so bent that I cannot raise my head to lift my gaze above the hems of their minis.
Finally the Corporal raps on a door about one kilometre down the corridor and I am ushered in to meet Mademoiselle Leuour, boss of the Bibliotheque, who is tiny, vivacious, delightful, not quite as old as I and without a word of English. Hesitantly I produce Frank's circular. With crinkled brow she studies it and attempts to read it aloud. "To thee green fields beyond", she reads. "What are these greenfields?" I feel like a real estate salesman "It's nothing. Just a name." This seems to satisfy her and she reads on "By Shawnohleearee. Who he." I think to myself "How do you explain him to a little old lady in Paris", then give the game away. "N'importe" I tell her. "Just another Aussie nong." She seems suitably impressed. "Ah, tres magnifique." I wonder what she thinks a nong is.
She pushes on to the next line: "Forewards by His Excellency Sir Roden Cutler V.C., K.C.M.G., K.C.V.O., C.B.E., Gouverneur de N.S.W. and Major General Sir T.N. Dougherty C.B.E., D.S.O. and bar, E.D.. I stab each title with my finger and Mademoiselle is delighted. She is even more delighted when I assure her "They should have had the Croix de Guerre, too."
We continue our French - English mutual assistance pact and come to the words "...and the Vichy French in the mountains of Syria." Swiftly I move into action. I site my 25-pounders on the book shelf; the Kelly Gang, already mounted, clatters from behind a desk; my captured Renault tanks rumble out from the fire-place and, in a flash the bibliotheque is a battle field. I leap behind the door boom booming. Pocketa - cheep rattles my automatic fire and wham explode my mines. Mademoiselle is swept into a corner as the lead flies. Tactfully I declare a draw and extricate her from cover. Again she is impressed.
We continue with the circular. Mlle. Leuour pounces on the word "Commando". I blacken my face, creep up behind her and demonstrate my unarmed combat. Mademoiselle is not impressed.
In the burly - burly of action my dictionaire has fallen to the floor. Mademoiselle pounces on it and, thumbing through it, explains that the Ministrie de la Geurre doesn't go around with the purchase price of unit histories in its pocket. I should leave the circular for the budget appropriation. I say I will do this.
I can with intense mental effort count to only four in French, so I am not quite sure whether Mademoiselle has said that I will have to wait four months for the budget or that she requires four copies of the circular. I have only one. I leave this with her and she pounces on the name at the end of the page. "Frankarlee. Who he?"
I cannot do less for Frank than I did for Shawn. "N'importe. Just another Aussie nong."
Her eyes dance and her face lights up. I have made her day. In the space of an hour she has brushed briefly with two aussie nongs.
I knew now that she was on our side and that France will hear of our Regiment.
Angus Robinson (Cav Capers, 4 April 1975)