Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The book does what it says on the tin. It describes the experience of enduring the commissioning course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst from a female perspective. It was well received in hardback last year, and the pb is due out 17 January. The author was inspired to write it whilst on her first tour in Afghanistan, and it is closely based on the diary which every cadet is forced to write during their time at the RMA.
Nonetheless the book shows that she has the underlying dry wit to succeed in the Army. Her arrival there is quite serendipitous. Beginning to loathe her job in a major bank at Canary Wharf (shades of Jake Wood in Among You), she is at a loss as to where to redirect her career. Fortuitously, she meets a Para officer at a dinner party, who declares she would really suit the Army. There is barely a military corpuscle in her blood: she had avoided the CCF at school, swerved the OTC at Uni, and her immediate family are resolutely civilian.
So for someone who is predisposed to Clarins rather than cam cream, it all came as a bit of a shock. Goodley has a good turn of phrase – “saving Ryan’s privates” (possibly not original that one), “fribbling tedium”, “one-sided Escher-like hill”…. She survives the beasting of the first half of the Sandhurst year through her intelligence, her appreciation of the absurd, and (at least by the low standards of bankers) being remarkably grounded.
It would be fair to say she did not strike up a great rapport with CSM Porter:
“One morning, as I unwittingly performed a Prussian goosestep, at the halt he swooped in, darting across the parade square as if he owned it, halting sharply in front of me. He swung his pace stick into a hover, a hair’s breadth from the tip of my nose, and forced his scrotum through a mangle as he released the most high pitched squeal.
“What the f… was that , Miss Goodley? If you can’t sort out your shagging legs, I’m going to break them both. Then I’ll ram this pace stick up your f…… nose and use it to flick you into the lake. You useless idiot”.”
One of several episodes that give the reader some twisted amusement. In a later account – which will make any parent wince with embarrassment - she explains the root of her problem:
[on a day when parents were welcome at a service at the RMA chapel] “My father …. could not resist the urge to execute some Nazi-style marching, demonstrating for SSgt Cox and CSM Porter that my drill ineptitude was not due to personal ineptitude but the fault of my unfortunate genetics.”
Although handicapped with having two left feet, Heloise is thankful that she had put in some work on her physical fitness before arrival at the Berkshire pleasure park. At 28 – old by the standards of most Sandhurst candidates – she also benefits from greater emotional maturity than some of her colleagues. This is needed as the course progresses into the longer exercises in the field, or rather on the mountain – as the Army demonstrates its skill in finding the most inclement microclimate available within our shores at any given time of year. Goodley’s feet become a metaphor for her body. Initially she finds the issue boots excruciating – as do most normal mortals. Towards the end of her year, they merit no further comment, yet when on parole she finds using her former heels nigh on impossible. The Army has shaped her body and her mind.
Goodley takes few prisoners. When various regiments come to showcase their merits to the Sandhurst cadets, the cavalrymen (whom women are not permitted to join) are dismissed with a stiletto (and hoisted by their own petard):
“Capt Flashman outstretched his arms and welcomed us inside. We filed past him through the doors for what we knew would be another pointless forty-five minutes of boyish bravado and a DVD of tanks to a Vangelis soundtrack, wishing we could just be allowed the sleep we so desperately needed instead. Inside the Wellington Room two further swashbuckling cads waited to greet us in equally vulgar cords and knitwear combo, their backs to a video projection of Challenger II tanks blowing smoke and dust across a German plain.
‘So ladies’, said number two Harry Flashman, clasping his hands together in a clap. ‘Well I guess none of you are actually allowed to join the cavalry, are you? So you won’t get to know us by day, but by God I can tell you, you’ll want to know us by night.’”
Captain Trunchbull, the company commander, is clearly a fictionalised character. Possibly wisely for her subsequent career, Goodley has presumably decided to distil the characteristics of one or two instructors she encountered (& loathed) into a composite ( and possibly unidentifiable) personage.
Some malapropisms and errors that escaped in the HB edition have now been excised, others remain (“jibed around a buoy” is the American spelling). Some of the recalled dialogue sounds a bit stilted. The book has clearly been written and published with the sanction of the MoD. This probably accounts for this reader feeling from time to time that there is a degree of corporate PR behind it all. Officer & a Gentlewoman will after all prove a useful tool in encouraging more women to consider an Army career – they comprise 8% of the workforce already, but with the shift in responsibilities (eg the growth in cyber warfare capability) it is easy to see this proportion growing further.
O & G focuses almost solely on the Sandhurst experience. I would have like to have heard about her transition to a useful member of her regiment (the Army Air Corps) and her development as a Lieutenant. The book’s opening chapter describes her arrival in Afghanistan for the first time (and the last chapter mentions her mid tour R&R flight when the dying body of Lt Mark Evison was also on the aircraft – see Death of a Soldier). But there could have been more chapters on putting the Sandhurst tribulations into context. Overall though this is a colourful and useful addition to the bookshelf. I can see it particularly appealing to female Daily Mail readers.
An Officer & a Gentlewoman The Making of a Female British Army Officer
Heloise Goodley, Constable 2012
...she escaped the tedium of the "world's local bank" at Canary Wharf