At peak hours, Oxford Circus Tube station in London is now so busy that they often shut the steel accordion gates at all four entrances and the crowd backs up, filling the pavement and milling into the roadway. The other evening, returning from my constitutional swim in the Marshall Street baths, I was struck by this noteworthy phenomenon: cheek-by-bluing- jowl with the lowing herd of quiescent commuters, I watched a young woman using both her pinioned hands to text a long message on her phone, as the gates were opened and the tight pack carried her inexorably down the steep, rain-slicked steps and into the bowels of the earth. Was this sheer sangfroid, I wondered, or simply a faith in the inherent orderliness of the British mob? After all, any number of manias might have gripped these clenched folk while she concentrated on her tapping and toggling – she could easily have slipped and been trampled by Evening Standard readers; a fate, I’m sure you’ll agree, far worse than death.
This little vignette of contemporary urban life returned to me a few nights later as, stopping my bike in Hyde Park to light a maximally high-tar cigarette, I was overwhelmed by a platoon of office workers being quick-jogged past me; at the rear was a superannuated squaddie wearing camouflage trousers and carrying a heavy pack on his back, who as he ran up and down shouted orders at them: “Tighten up, now! Come on, keep moving!” I’d witnessed this phenomenon before – and I dare say you have, as well. British Military Fitness (BMF) now holds sessions at over 100 venues around the country; as it so appositely puts it on its website, it has “nine parks in and around Birmingham”, four in Edinburgh, and so on. This bizarre territorial expansion is likely to continue: after all, Major Robin Cope, who started BMF in 1999, held his first outdoor fitness class with a mere three recruits and, given the subsequent rapid advance, we can look forward to no dog-shit-bedizened scrap of public space being without its tracksuited occupiers by, say, 2025.
What a strange invasion it is. It was said of Field Marshal Montgomery that he hung a sign on the flap of his HQ tent during the desert campaign that read, “I’m 99 per cent fit – are you?” But I doubt even his fervidly repressed imagination could have dreamed up the spectacle of 20 or 30 flabby arses rising and falling as one, as their possessors are inveighed at by their hireling commanders to hump the muddy ground.
I’m not so fanatic an individualist that I can’t understand the appeal of getting fit in this way but it’s one thing to voluntarily join an association of like-minded sports folk and quite another to pay for the privilege of being treated like a grunt. Besides, what have these people been all day if not under orders? Like the young woman at Oxford Circus, they’ve been moved by the crowd, their feet scarcely touching the ground, from mortgaged home to wage-slaving work, and now they’re in a darkened park being further molested. It’s a hardy perennial in the British political park that what the anomic youth need is a bit of military discipline. While cost – far more than public objection – is a bar to bringing back national service, the coalition seeks to continue the long-running bout in which flyweight Britain is tag-teamed with the heavyweight hegemon by putting reservist amateurs in the ring.
Still, while BMF is around, no one need fear a decline in national morale, nor an inability to field fighting-fit computer programmers and estate agents should the balloon happen to go up. In Hyde Park, puffing on my fag, I asked a camo-man who was locking the BMF van why his fellow instructors always seemed to carry heavy packs. I expected him to say they were full of rocks, to show the doughy what it was like to be 99 per cent doughty – but he only barked at me, “Water!” before breaking into a run.
After the First World War, quite a number of ex-army types sought to strengthen the national backbone by forming political organisations that drilled in public parks, in uniform. Eventually, the government had to crack down on them – but it seems that BMF is above the law when it comes to being paramilitary; perhaps because its uniforms are so risible but more probably because its fanatical ideology represents no threat to our supine and flabby state whatsoever.