ACOUPLE of weeks ago a car, left by someone who was not a member, flared up like a Roman candle in the car park of the United Services Recreation Club.
The fire brigade came to put out the fire, the army came to see if the Irish Republican Army had started it and the car park attendant went. The owner returned from his shopping and claimed he had been interested in joining the club.
Appraised or not of the drama, the People's Liberation Army expressed exactly the same interest that week with a slightly different emphasis. It publicly told the Joint Liaison Group it wanted the club to join it, intact, after 1997.
So, the USRC, a potentially squillion-dollar land sale site for the Government was noticed at last. The Chinese say they want it but what exactly is it and how long have we had - whatever it may be? Only those members of the public who pass the USRC on the top of a bus along Gascoigne Road know a little of what goes on in there. They see a sward of manicured grass next to a Gurkha lorry park. At one edge, gweilos in white shorts and knee socks and hatted gweipohs in pleated skirts of tented dimensions roll bowling balls at nothing in particular. Without a bowling lane the balls wander off everywhere.
The passengers shake their heads. Crazy gweilos - and they sent men to the moon and invented horse racing. How could this be? I know. For seven years from 1978, I was a member. Not a serviceman, united or in disarray, my only recreation was to gargle forhours on cheap Pimms and sip greedily the one edible item on the dining room menu, an anarchic tomato soup into which was dispersed a great puddle of gin.
The USRC is still described as an officers' training club. If the PLA takes that at its face value, it will be in for a bigger shock than it had on the introduction of trouser creases.
Founded in 1911, the USRC had an unremarkable existence until the war when the Kempeitai brought it to the attention of the local population by using it as an execution centre. As the post-war years drifted by, its vast swimming pool surrounded by gardens, its four tennis courts, its eventually renovated clubhouse with two bars and two restaurants, not to mention the sacred bowling green, were gradually deserted by the officer class.
When an officer decided to use a club with civilians in it, he preferred the Jockey Club or the Yacht Club which, to this day, offered armed forces officers entrance-free membership for the duration of their posting and a more certain class of civilian than the kettle of odd fish that was bubbling over in the USRC.
The present club chairman, writing in the last newsletter, told his members of contingency plans for 1997, including transfer of membership to other clubs or, rather fancifully, ''the re-establishment of the USRC at another location''. Nissen huts on theSpratlys, perhaps.
''I wish to stress,'' he went on, ''that these are fall back positions - our intention is to stay where we are when the PLA comes marching in!'' Brave words from a soldier, fighting to the last in his tennis shorts with his back to the poolside bar? No, they come from a Mr Dave Thomas. Civilianisation has crept through the old club. It has resulted in the most blithe and unconscious colonial anomalies yet on more than a $1 billion of real estate potential.
What will the PLA officer see when he tramps the Shenzhen dust off his plimsolls past the revered bowling green into the vast main lounge? Four old trouts playing bridge who, without a second glance, will call to him: ''Four port and lemons, please, and some peanuts while you're at it.'' If he waited until the evening, a ''recovering'' comedian from the northern England club circuit might entertain him.
Past a notice board advertising second-hand carry cots and 12-year-old Mitsubishi Lancers (taxed till December. Good little runner) he will climb the stairs past period prints of uniforms of regiments not so much forgotten as never even heard of by the membership and into a splendid long bar overlooking the swimming pool.
At one end, district court judges used to drink where nobody who mattered could see them. Now gweilo solicitors whose triad clerks have bamboozled them out of control of the firm, drink there instead. At the other end, female spouse bowlers rumble in a knitting circle waiting for their menfolk to come back after a day of foraging for more than three-year contracts.
The bowlers are the civilian Pretorians and terrible power in the land at the USRC. They dispatched the last manager - a Macanese, poor devil - within a year. Other members live in suspicion and dread of the flash of the knee socks and sight of a jaw, jutting from years of staring at soundless slow-motion ''woods''.
On his way to the pool our PLA officer may detect the Sports Bar in the shrubbery. This bar, its walls lined with pictures of identical sports teams, and the Stone Bar, an open-fronted pill box of rock that serves the bowling green, have between them ensured that the USRC has been well and truly slewed away from top sporting honours.
Future PLA officer members will have to fight harder than any training has prepared them for to get a table around the pool on Sundays or a place on the Adult Lawn, so-called because the men roll their women on sun beds from one to another and watch bluemovies projected on the back of the gardener's shed.
From there, the guardians of the People's Revolution will be able to observe, rapt, the English lower to just about middle classes in imperial repose in the heartland of the club.
Great spreadings of their womenfolk who have borne babies for Britain will be giving stress tests to the poolside chairs and those still at reproduction age may use the solid stone tables for nappy-changing amidst plates of variations on a theme of sausage and chips.
If there is one thing the USRC has never been able to do, try as it might, it is cook. Perhaps it has something to do with the fung shui. The club was unusual before the war in having a swimming pool, let alone one of such a size and the Japanese found the deep end wall of it, drained, an ideal line up for firing squads.
In the summertime, children from questionable but unquestioning schools in England are deposited by parents around the pool for such long periods, dog kennel rates must be applied. The PLA chaps will observe that the children approach the parental tablesat regular intervals making roundly exaggerated lip movements, internationally recognisable as demands.
The child is then authorised to march to a service outlet to choose from a range of kiddy snacks that include ''Ninja Turtle'', ''Addams Family'', ''Snakes and Dinosaurs'' (sic) and ''Gummi Bears''.
These would never have been tolerated in the days of Wing Commander Matthews, once a senior RAF officer around Far Eastern aerodromes, acclaimed for his conjuring tricks and amateur production skills with stage musicals, and club manager for 12 years. Heflew the place on charm and Scottish aviation fuel, and forbade the club to serve breakfast, effectively keeping members out of the place until he'd got up. He ended the day with painfully inconclusive magical tricks involving matches in front of the fireplace for this friends and I miss him.
Other service background managers were left increasingly in a Rorke's Drift position surrounded by hundreds of civilians rattling their tennis racquets and waving their cheque books. Nowadays, at not much more than $10,000 down and $600 a month, wised-uplocal Chinese cannot believe their luck in access to so many underbooked tennis and squash courts.
An old guard member said of the PLA takeover: ''Perhaps they'll put a bit of tone back into the place''. They have a choice of doing that or adapting, or retreat as British officers of valiant regiments did before them in the face of the British petit bourgeois, settled like snoozing hippos, beside the pool, within hailing distance of a Cornish pastie in the green fields of South Kowloon.
Military History of the United States
United Services Recreation Club