Happy Sunday. By the way, do we ever protest against a foreign leader? Really? Just because he/she comes over here? In numbers? How can one man and one man’s administration cause so much angst that people from a foreign country have to give up a Saturday to say ‘bog off’? One of the placards said “I don’t normally protest, but come on…”. Another… ‘feed him to the Corgis.’ Perfect.
On a different note, I thought you might be interested in an article I’ve submitted to the military’s pension magazine. Here it is – and have a good Sunday. At least today we’ll be rid of His Trumpkiness. I don’t think he’ll be coming back anytime soon. He does love to be loved, you know.
Beware. There’s a heretic on the loose.
A quick résumé. Man joins the Army at 18, works reasonably hard, does lots of stuff – ticks boxes, commands his father’s battalion, stays married to the same woman and then … surely, sees it through to 55, buys a house in Suffolk (or Wiltshire), becomes chairman of the parish council and spends his days walking his garden whilst tending to his black lab? The perfect model of tweed, corduroy and Viyella?
Uh, well, no. Okay, so I am married to the same woman. And I did command my dad’s battalion. But at 44 I put my beret in the top drawer and became a teacher of mathematics at a school in sleepy Somerset. I still struggle to explain to myself why that happened. I guess much of it was about my need to break the mould. Both Claire (still my first wife) and I are Army brats. She was an Army nurse. I went away to the Army sixth-form college and was beasted around Sandhurst’s square at the tender age of 18. We were more institutionalised than a pair of Broadmoor inmates. And yet, as time went on, we could imagine something other than the well-trodden path to our future little cottage in Wotton-under-Fire, just down the khaki-brick road.
Also, we were both tired. It is true to say that I had not spent as long away from my family as most – my medals dangling bashfully in a single row. But the Army knows how to take a couple of kilogrammes of flesh. Don’t misunderstand me, it is a fabulous institution. It looked after the pair of us as if I were its only employee and Claire its only unpaid social worker. But, ‘no’ is not a word in its lexicon, and it encourages you to grin and bear it. And, as I left, the 150,000 strong behemoth that I joined to face down Brezhnev and 3 Shock Army was leaner than a whippet, and heading for more cuts. I’m not uncomfortable admitting that I was shattered. So, with absolutely no qualifications at all other than armed with a mantra that I would treat all my students like little soldiers, I became a teacher.
I’m quite good at maths. I’m also confident on my feet – you know, “Come on chaps…follow me”. How difficult could teaching be?
I was rubbish. No, it’s true. You can have the confidence of ten men but, until you get a grip of the syllabus, learn the tricks of the trade in the classroom (like: don’t smile before half-term) and suffer the exam cycle, confidence counts for not a great deal. You also have to remember that, having reached a rank where you have a small team of people to whom you can delegate wantonly, as a teacher you are at the bottom of the food chain. Okay, if you have a bad day you can take it out on your pupils, but there are few other privileges. If you want a minibus to take the kids somewhere, not only do you have to book it yourself, you have to drive it as well.
And being a teacher is tough; the classroom an unforgiving place. Your pupils may look as innocent as a bunch of well-trained Naples pickpockets but, underneath their angelic facade, they’re a pack of hyenas. Kids can exploit chinks in armour better than an immaculately-placed arrow. And where else in the workplace is your output as starkly associated with your own competence than on exam results day? If Johnny doesn’t get the ‘A’ he needs to get into the university of his choice, then put on your body armour as Mum and Dad will want to know why. There is no hiding place. And it is tremendously hard work, day after day of classroom theatre where you are actor, stage manager, director, choreographer and make-up artist.
Is it rewarding? Oh yes – undoubtedly so. There is no feeling anywhere near close to watching young people improve in and enjoy your subject. Seeing them ‘get things’ which previously were as mysterious and opaque as a distant planet is something close to magical. As such, I can’t recommend teaching enough as a second career, I really can’t. Provided you’re happy to sweep the floors and order the pack lunches.
A few years in, and with Claire a houseparent (and uncomfortably outranking me), I made it onto the School’s senior team with responsibility for staff training, the non-academic programme and a bellyful of jobs that no one else wanted. And I did become an adequate teacher. But none of this was without effort … there’s a theme emerging here. So, after eight years of teaching we decided to transition to Stage Three of our lives: do nothing.
My Dad never understood why I left the Army. So he completely dismissed the notion of Claire and I loading up a motorcaravan and disappearing into the sunset, pursued by a cloud of unburnt diesel. To be fair he had a point; we had no plan other than to decompress. The Army had taken the wheels off; the School had burnt out the alternator and removed the wiper blades. We were exhausted and seeing family members and good pals struggling with life-threatening illness, we decided we’d take our chances on vagrancy. And, wow, it was fun.
Actually, it still is fun. Four years later we have just moved into a two-up, two-down in Bristol, but we still travel extensively in our charabanc. The intervening years were, without doubt, the best of our lives. Europe is a big place. And over La Manche they do love and cater for motorhomes. With a multitude of would-be foreign pals, we spent four years browning our knees and shaking hands with the most delightful of non-Brits.
Phew. Done that. Now take stock.
At 56 I have, from a old-fashioned taxman’s perspective, about ten years’ productive work in me. And that strikes a chord with some people. Other than the withering ‘oh’ (accompanied by a face that looks like it’s just chewed on a lemon) when you tell them that you’re living in a motorhome, the most popular comment is along the lines of, ‘So, you don’t work, then?’. You can see the cogs turning. That means my taxes are paying for you?
Mmmm. Not contributing is certainly not the reason why I am actually working – of sorts – doing two things. It’s more doing things that I enjoy. First, I mentor headteachers and senior school staff on leadership. It may surprise you that headteachers get no formal leadership training before they take the helm of a school. Some of them need help. I do what I can.
Second, and this surprised the bejeezus out of me, it’s writing novels that has caught my imagination. During our extended sojourn I have written four thrillers: Unsuspecting Hero, Fuelling the Fire, The Innocence of Trust and For Good Men To Do Nothing. The series has Sam Green as the main protagonist, ‘a sort of female version of Jack Reacher but more edgy and much more prone to tears’. Even if I say so myself, all four books have received a good number of very positive reviews – please check them out. And I am about to embark on the fifth of the series which, I hope, will be out next year.
Do we regret any of the choices we have made? If I had stayed in the Army my time would be up and I would be haplessly looking for a job. A security consultant maybe? A small house in the country and a seat on the parish council? My own stool in the local pub? All of these are laudable ambitions and in so many ways I wish that worked for the pair of us. But. I really love the writing – and I’m fond of the leadership training and trying to make a difference where I can. So I guess we have no regrets. We wouldn’t have missed a moment of our time in the Army, or at the School, but we don’t miss any of it for a moment.
What next? Currently the plan is ‘more of the same’. [For the record I am just finishing a 6-month part-time stint at a state school in Bristol. That is an altogether different story. Maybe for another time …] I’m waiting to see how my latest novel goes down in the market, and I have the plot for the next in the series firmly in my head. That will take us through to next summer by which time we might be longing to settle down, get a red setter, buy some secateurs and volunteer to be the secretary of the village flower show.
But somehow, I doubt it.