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~Is that all there is?~
Heloise Goodley had a 'good job' in the city back in the days before the world decided to blame the banks for everything that went wrong leading many in her industry to have to re-evaluate their careers. She'd got a degree from an excellent university, sailed into a job with a leading firm and her prospects were gleaming. Each morning she put on a sharp suit and expensive, vertiginous heels and squeezed herself onto a crowded Tube carriage to head to work. Friends and family must have thought she was living the dream but something at the back of her mind was nagging away at her. That little voice of doubt was whispering "Is this really all there is to life?" Would her future consist of more suits, more heels and more spreadsheets or was there something else out there that might make life seem more interesting, more challenging and more worthwhile?
Her mind was fertile ground for the seed of an idea planted there by a friend of a friend who suggested a new direction. How about the army? How about officer training? It wasn't an obvious choice. Nobody in her family had ever been in the Forces except her Granddad who didn't exactly have too much choice in the matter. None of her friends had ever done it either. There was no precedent or role model but it certainly met the criteria of doing something different. It was good enough for princes and future kings so why not good enough for her? As someone motivated by challenge and success, there was something tempting about joining the best of the best. Goodley applied, passed the selection process and then told her family, quit her job and went to Sandhurst.
'An Officer and a Gentlewoman: The Making of a Female British Army Officer' is Goodley's personal account of her year in officer training. She explains at the end of the book that all the officer trainees were encouraged (for which you can read 'ordered') to keep a diary of their time there and that she won her intake's 'Diary Prize'. Perhaps one of the least prestigious of the prizes (it's not quite on a par with being the fastest over the assault course or the best and doing drill), she took her diary and used it as the basis for her book. The Army aren't stupid - she's a very good writer and her book is a credit both to her and to the organisation who recognised its worth.
I found the book absolutely fascinating. I think most people have wondered at one time or another about what it takes to be an officer and what tortures and abuse the Army put officer candidates through to mould them into the men and women who'll lead Britain's troops. I'll admit that the thought that Princes William and Harry went through the same training fills me with a tad more respect than I'd otherwise have for the two of them. You don't fake Sandhurst, you can't half-do it. This is astonishingly hard-core training. With 'An Officer and Gentlewoman' you no longer need to wonder what officers go through; you can read all about exactly how it feels to put yourself through a combination of hell on earth, cult-like brain-washing, and one of the best man-management training experiences all rolled into one. As someone who manages a large team by a mix of persuasion, cajoling and occasionally bribery and begging, I've often thought it must be rather refreshing to get what you want out of your direct reports just by shouting at the poor souls. Now that I know what you have to get through to be able to achieve a position that facilitates 'management by shouting loud', I'm happy to stick to my softer powers of persuasion.
The book takes us chronologically through her experience and the experiences of the women with whom she trained. She soon realises that she's at a disadvantage to most of her peers because almost all of them have at least some prior experience either via army youth groups, university cadet forces or things of that type. Many of the women are a lot younger but a lot more experienced than her. Those coming straight from school are perhaps more easily 'moulded' than those who've had time to learn to think for themselves and it's clear to see that an independent self-motivated and self-directed woman is going to struggle with being told to do stupid things.
~Is this the army or a weird cult?~
The first few weeks read like something from the manual from a brain-washing cult or an exercise in how to destroy the human spirit through bullying, sleep-deprivation and incessant repetition of annoying tasks. We can only sympathise with the routine of 'room inspections' that are seemingly designed to humiliate and break the spirit of the most conscientious would-be soldier. Do your socks 'smile' the right way? Is every spec of dust removed from every surface? Can you see your reflection in your shoes? Goodley soon realises that this is all a game and that no matter how well you prepare the inspectors will find a reason to empty your carefully prepared drawers all over the floor or the bed. Parade work and 'drill' seem to belong to an era when the ability to stun your enemy with your precision marching might have been deemed a weapon of war and are lost in an era of unmanned drones and helicopter gun ships. I don't imagine the Taliban turning tail and heading for the hills, muttering "Damn but they're good at marching round corners and waving their arms in time".
As the training progresses the candidates get less of the room inspections and plenty more of the push-ups and extreme physical training. They attend several 'manoeuvres' which involve waving at Gurkhas and lying in the mud rather a lot. Whilst Wales might not be a close analogue for Afghanistan, it's got plenty of miserable challenges of its own. One by one the weaker candidates drop out, those who remain band together to support each other knowing that ultimately nobody wins if anyone fails. The relationships formed are refreshing in their lack of competition and guile. Meanwhile in the 'real world' friendships are challenged by the changes Goodley has experienced. She's disdainful of the type of men she used to work with showing off and trying to chat her up in a bar. Telling them she's in the army gets a predictable "So are you a lesbian then?" but the would-be beau has already shot himself in the foot by bragging about the size of his bonus.
~Why do they do it?~
Whilst I enjoyed the book, and was both shocked and educated by the descriptions of Sandhurst training, I was often doubtful about just why Goodley was putting herself through such a thing. I got no particular sense of patriotic duty or an urge to defend the free world. The motivation was clearly not money or glory but I'm not entirely sure what it was unless she simply needed to 'test' herself with one of the toughest regimes in the world. I have no problem if that was the motivation but I don't fully understand how people could put themselves through such agonies without having a sense of duty and a passion to serve. There's also a moment when reports come back from Afghanistan of the first woman killed on duty and Goodley seems to be shocked and to consider that getting killed was not what she signed up for. Really? It's not the 1980s when you could sign up to swan around an army base in the Black Forest. She signed up with active conflict on-going in Afghanistan and Iraq. What did she suppose was the worst that could happen - a broken nail?
~Worth a Read~
'An Officer and a Gentlewoman' is a surprisingly good read and is - thankfully - very well written. Goodley has an interesting story to tell, can punctuate and can spell - I'm easily pleased and I don't ask for much more in an autobiography. It's a perfect read for anyone - male or female - considering going into the army and a comfortingly reassuring read for those of us who are much happier driving a desk and sleeping in a comfy bed. At least we can read this and reconfirm that we definitely would have been rubbish at officer training. I read mine on my kindle after buying this as one of their daily specials. I'm not sure I'd have paid full price but for around a pound I got great value.