Saturday, November 12, 2005

What a Mess!

An unique local institution
One of my public roles is that of Chaplain to the United Services Mess, a unique
Cardiff institution which provides a place of hospitality with bar and restaurant facilities for personnel of the Armed services, active and retired, in the centre of town. Mess members come to church for an annual service ni the summer, and I attend formal dinners to say grace. The Mess been in existence for over 90 years, and its first president was Lord Tredegar, who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, as a young subaltern. The Mess building consists of two upper storeys, opposite James Howell’s department store entered by a staircase – it was probably offices or legal chambers at one time – crammed with military memorabilia, a real treasure house for historians and afficionadi.
The ground floor of the building is a trendy pub. The site was once a glassworks, and its former name was The Glassworks. Why ‘they’, whoever ‘they’ are, changed the name to ‘Copa’ I can’t imagine. I guess it’s in line with the policy of evacuating all the character from a place to enforce conformity to the company’s marketing norms. The Mess is all character, unique, irreplaceable. But so it seems are its ageing members. Modern military personell move around a great deal and don’t get much time to settle in places or meet for lunch or a quiet evening pint in town. As a result the pub downstairs does the better trade, and the tireless chairman of the Mess keeps exhorting his members ‘Use it or lose it!’

A politically correct break with precedent
The Mess comes into its own on special occasions, putting on receptions for ship’s companies, or visiting miltary dignatories, and of course November is a special month. This year’s annual Mess dinner was on Armistice Day, with over 250 mess members banqueting at the Angel Hotel in the presence of the Duke of York, who charmed everyone with an entertaining and funny speech after the meal laden with toast, martial music and acts of recollection, full military style. It was an unique occasion in one particular way.

One several occasions in recent years annual meetings have debated whether or not female military personnel should be admitted as members instead of as guests. There are often members’ wives at functions in the Mess, so it’s not quite a female exclusion zone. But it is a club run by men mostly for men. Ties are worn and smoking is allowed everywhere. Redolent of another age altogether and entirely politically uncorrect, in the best stubborn old codger tradition.
However, Royal protocol had to be observed. Among the other honoured guests were the Chief Constable, a woman and the Mayor, also a woman. Even the deputy Mayor is a woman this year, so not a hint of compromise was going to be possible. To crown it all, the Prince’s aide-de-camp was a tall beautiful woman soldier in regimental scarlet Mess uniform. The honour of having a senior Royal visitor was enough for the committe to sacrifice the rules for this occasion. The next AGM will be interesting, to say the least.
I wish I had more time to spend at the Mess socialising, simply because the interesting people who go there, with many lifetimes of stories to tell of what it was really like to go to war. I feel something of an impostor. The only uniform I ever wore was that of the Boy Scouts, although as a teenager I wanted to join the RAF and fly planes. But that was before I got the anti-nuke message. Listening to many Mess members, I find most not at all eager to see this generation of young men go to battle. They still remember what it was like.

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