Written by Hazel Davis

In The News

How my ‘national service’ was the making of me

Prince Harry claims that 10 years in the army kept him out of trouble. Seemingly conveniently forgetting all the trouble he’s been in. But Hazel Davis thinks he might have a point about some form of compulsory giving-a-shit about your country.

National Service posterSo, Prince Harry wants to bring back national service. I know. BUT, loth as I am to suggest that advice offered by a yah-yah, strip-billiards-loving Nazi impersonator would in any way benefit young Jimmy on his Merseyside council estate, I think he’s got a point. Because I did national service and I bloody loved it.

Ok, it was entirely self-generated and I was working on a lovely farm in Scotland. But bear with me a minute…

I was an academically promising only child who had seriously gone off the rails as a teen, getting in with The Wrong Sort Of Boy in the sixth form and nearly ending my life at 17. I was also drinking a lot and would attend the almost weekly 18th birthday parties getting completely off my head and usually crying in the car park (occasionally having sex in them but you probably don’t need to know that). I left school having failed to apply for university and took a job in a clothes shop with a view to applying the following year once I sorted my head out.

“The farmer liked the cut of my jib and the fact I had dared to call in the first place. ‘OK,’ he said, “If we like you we’ll pay your fare.’”

Somewhere something inside my brain clicked and I knew I needed to get away. I had been to the Hebrides on holiday as a child and the idea of working on a farm seemed like the perfect escape. I told my mother; she sneered and it made me all the more determined to do it. So I rang the Isle of Mull Tourist Board and asked whether they knew of any farmers who might take a worker in exchange for food and board. Luckily the girl who answered knew just the fella and I called him. The farm belonged to a family of landed gentry and the biggest landowners on Mull. The farmer liked the cut of my jib and the fact I had dared to call in the first place. “OK,” he said, “If we like you we’ll pay your fare.”

In a nutshell, I really fucking hated it. At first. I was in a new place; I didn’t know a soul. I had moved in with a family a whole two social classes above me and I was being worked like a dog. Everyone there worked like a dog because you have to on a farm. They didn’t tolerate my self-indulgent teenage mood swings and they didn’t cut me ANY slack. They taught me that life on a farm goes on as usual, regardless of moods and scenes.

And it was brilliant. I learned how to do hard work and I learned my unimportance in the world. I emerged fit, happy, healthy and normal (I did!), much, I imagine, as some people do from the army. I also hand-reared a highland calf (who until last year was still alive).

Being away from home, having to suddenly fit in with a whole new way of life, not receiving regular cheques to help me pay for canoe trips up the Zambezi in a bandana, all of these things did more for my character and health than my eventual three years at university.

And though this is going to make me sound like Nigel Farage, I think everyone – boys and girls – should do a year ‘in service’ somewhere.

Unsurprisingly I haven’t thought this through FULLY but I reckon it would happen at 18 and board and lodgings and not much else would be paid. You could opt not to do it or to postpone it for health reasons or if you’re studying or have a particularly snazzy job or whatever. But ideally you’d do it at a later date. The cost to the country would probably be recouped in the building of happy, healthy, less self-absorbed teenagers who have a stake in the country because they have helped to make it nice.

The work wouldn’t necessarily include learning what to do in the event of a nuclear attack and how to deal with tear gas but could be wholesome, outdoorsy Good Hard Graft and totally stuff that helps the country, like maintaining municipal gardens and painting public buildings. There would be no stigma attached because everyone would have to do it.

“Nobody gave a shit about my inner turmoil. I was part of a greater good, that of making a whole farm work.”

And it’s good for the economy. When Germany abolished its national (compulsory) military service scheme, it replaced it with a hugely successful German Federal Voluntary Service. Prior to that, people not eligible for the military service did civilian service working in care homes and hospitals, forming an important part of the country’s economic backbone. I’m not suggesting, in a Big Society fashion, that this service would replace Actual Jobs because, let’s face it, it’s not like there’s not plenty to do in social care (and elsewhere). Pretty sure the NHS isn’t kicking its heels waiting for patients to rock up. But I AM suggesting that the country could be improved a bit by some form of compulsory giving-a-shit.

Prince Harry told a press conference that some of the guys he was in the army with were, “I mean naughty’s not the word – they were on a different level.” I know what he means. Well, I don’t. I was just probably A Bit Annoying when I went to Mull, rather than a carjacker or a wife-beater-in-the-making but I had to muck in. Literally. Nobody there was like me. Nobody gave a shit about my inner turmoil. I was part of a greater good, that of making a whole farm work. The experience saved my life and, like Harry, “I don’t know where I’d be now”. Well, he’d probably be living in a very nice flat in London, working in the City and I’d probably be writing (different) articles for websites but, you know. Our hearts are in the right place.


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Written by Hazel Davis

Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".