Now that warmer weather is here I like to travel about the base on my bicycle, and found that I faced a problem. I didn’t have my small backpack with me and I needed to transport my iPad. How was I to do it?

Fortunately, Queen and Country have clothed me with fairly capacious side pockets in my trousers. Would the iPad fit?


This solution would only be useful in garrison. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it in the field, but then again, I doubt I’d take my iPad into the field. But as I cycled around that day, I recalled reading the late Paul Fussell’s book Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in World War Two, and how his description of the “Penguin pocket”. British and Commonwealth troops were issued with serge battledreaa uniforms that had a pocket above the left knee suitable for carrying an entrenching tool (though I’ve never seen period photos showing this use for the pocket, it seems jolly uncomfortable when going prone suddenly), a field dressing, or similar kit. Because the pocket was perfectly sized to carry one of the ubiquitous Penguin paperbacks that sustained literary minded soldiers in the field, it was named the Penguin pocket.

My inner historian found that a pleasing echo of the past, and I suspect that Fussell might have found it amusing, though I heard him speak once in the late 1980s and he seemed a bit of a curmudgeon to me, so who knows. I was reminded of a Major I knew at Suffield who told me once while climbing a mountain that as a young officer in the early 1990s he took two barrack boxes of books with him to Yugoslavia, and of them all his favourite was an anthology of poems chosen and loved by the British General Wavell. It was called Other Men’s Flowers and was published in 1944. I suspect it occupied more than a few Penguin pockets. There was a lovely piece by Ian Jack in the Guardian from 2005 on Wavell, his book, and the lost art of memorizing verse which you can find here.

If I were to deploy somewhere for a long spell I would probably take a few print books with me, but would likely opt to stuff my iPad with as many ebooks as possible and take my chances. And I would take some comfort in the fact that I was part of a long tradition of soldiers who found space, somewhere in their kit, for that weapon most capable of keeping the mind and soul alive, the book.

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