Patrick Hennessey

The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, has been described as the ‘military memoir of the moment’ by The Times and an honest account of war that all politicians should read (by David Cameron, you know… the Prime Minister). So how did a young Grenadier Guardsman get his memoirs in print, and how did that help him establish a new civilian career? We caught up with Patrick during the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August…

WORDS: PAUL F COCKBURN

OK; You wrote an article for Spectator magazine on the books soldiers read on the front line. How did that lead to a book deal?
A literary agent guy phoned up, said he liked the article, and asked if I would like lunch? We got on really well, he was a really interesting — and interested — guy and we chatted through all the stuff that to me was obvious and part and parcel of life as a soldier, and to him was complete news. He found lots of it astonishing and interesting, and said I had to write a book about it.

I had no idea what to do, it was unchartered waters; so he said write a proposal, a couple of thousand words. I did that, and went away to the States to train the Marine Corps out in California. I came back a month later and he asked if I could take some time off work — we had 10 meetings with 10 different publishers, found the editor who we most thought ‘got‘ what we wanted to do, and suddenly everybody was slapping me on the back: “Congratulations, you’ve sold a book!” I was terrified because I hadn’t written anything yet Fortunately, a tour of duty in the Falklands came up so I had my little writing holiday.

That was lucky…
I was very lucky with the timing, the way the publisher came to me. I was also quite lucky in that publishers usually like things in nice neat boxes. You’ve got the ghost-written action stories, the journalists‘ thoughtful stories, the first-hand accounts, quite often by senior officers — the ‘my life in uniform‘ stories. My book didn’t really fall into any one of these; but there was still the novelty, for some of the publishers, that a solider was going to write it himself — ignoring that my academic background was in literature!

I wanted to write something that was worthwhile. Somebody once said that I should write the book because my experiences were extraordinary; well, they’re not actually. My experiences are very ordinary these days and that’s probably a good reason to do it.

There’s a point in the book when you say you finally felt like a soldier; have you had an equivalent ‘civilian again’ moment since leaving?
I think there’s an extent to which, once military, you’re always military — that can be a positive or negative thing. My hope is that it will be a positive thing. The friendships you make, the life-lessons you learn, the different perspective; my girlfriend used to get very cross with me because I didn’t get worried or get bothered about things, but it’s very difficult to get excited about everyday matters when you’ve seen some of the stuff out there — I think a bit of you wants the explosions.

The first time I went back out to Afghanistan as a civilian, I still felt very strongly connected to the Army; that was partly because I was ‘embedded’ with the Grenadiers, so it was like being back with the Guards. The most recent time — I went out three weeks ago — I was with 1 Scots. Now, the Army’s a small place in many respects — everybody knows everybody else, but I managed to spend two weeks in Helmand and didn’t bump into anybody I knew. The young jocks I was with had heard of me because of the book; some of the young officers had read the book, but they had joined after I’d left. Some of the more senior officers knew of the book but I’d never worked alongside them. That was probably one of the key moments when I was out there; I was back on the old stomping ground; I was surrounded by guys with rifles, out on patrol, getting ambushed, but I was very much a civilian with nothing to fire back with!

Why go back?
Since the book’s come out, I’ve been invited to comment on the news. As all soldiers did and do, I get a bit cross with people who sit in an armchair and speak like they know what they’re talking about. I can’t, with a straight face, go on Newsnight and talk about Afghanistan if I haven’t been there for two years. How the hell do I know what I’m talking about? It’s changed hugely.

For the better?
I think there are areas in which it has changed for the better; there are areas in which the progress hasn’t been as one would have hoped. I think it’s very difficult to make a judgement right now I was in Bagdad in 2006 in the middle of the Surge there; when you Surge, violence obviously goes up, incidents go up, casualties go up. We were being briefed on this and one of the Guardsmen, a very dry wit, said: “Just like tidying your room, isn’t it? It always gets messier before it gets tidier.” I think in Afghanistan we are in that messy period, so it would be unwise to make judgements while that’s going on. Looking two, three, four years down the line, I think my main concerns are the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police — that’s where the focus must be because, when we go home, they’re ‘the guys’!

So, on your discharge, did you step out onto civvy street as a published author?
Yes; you’ve got this very long period between when you decide to leave and you finally step off as a civilian, so I think my last day taking the Queen’s Shilling was 31 March last year, and then the book came out in June.

By then you had decided on a civilian legal career.
Originally, I didn’t think I could afford it — it’s very expensive to requalify and, when I handed my papers in, it wasn’t really on my mind. What made it possible for me was the book, so that was a sea-change.

Showing how bad my powers of foresight are, I had a couple of job offers with big banks in the City — if I’d taken those, I would have been made redundant almost immediately! I had also looked at organisations like the Halo Trust, who do land-mine clearance, as I still had a very strong appetite to be involved in the parts of the world that I’d been involved with in the Army. It was my family and friends who pointed out that one of the reasons why I’d decided to leave was becasue I wanted to spend a bit more time at home and have the London life that I hadn’t had for the last five years. If I’d joined one of those organisations, I was going to be away for even longer. So, in fairness to that objective, it was probably best to try something a bit more stable. It was the book that meant I could afford to take the year out that trying to become a lawyer would entail.

How are you finding the training?
I’ve passed the exams; that’s the key thing. There were a couple of other military in my class; a former Scots Guard Sergeant and a still serving Royal Marine Major — the course was being paid for by the Marines so he could join the Navy Legal Service. That’s a very interesting way of going through; he gets a very good qualification, and the Navy gets a minimum six years from a good, bright barrister.

What we all found amusingly, was that the guys who came up to law school straight from university were still very much in that student mentality; whereas, because we’d all paid for it out of our own pockets and all came from a Services background, we were always on time for class and a bit more organised and reliable. We had these mock interviews; five minutes before, me and the other guardsmen were polishing up our shoes. “You look really smart,” they said — well, yes, it’s an interview!

How did you find the Resettlement process?
It’s a difficult system because it has to cater for extremes. I was very lucky; good schooling, went to university and I knew what career I was going into — everything was set. I probably didn’t need that much help, but the facilities that were provided, the CV writing, were useful. The only thing — and this might have changed so, if I’m out of date, I apologise to the guys who administer it — was that I found it almost impossible to use my Enhanced Learning Credits. You would think the Bar course is the definition of what they were designed for, but I found it hugely inflexible, paper-bound, and bureaucratic. I thought what we’re trying to do is make it as easy as possible for guys to retrain, and this system’s a nonsense.

The Bar course is bloody expensive — £15,000 — and Enhanced Learning Credits only work if you pay, get a receipt, then claim it back. Well, most people pay the Bar Course in increments, so you don’t get a receipt till the end — just little niggles like that, I think, we can still get a bit better. Also, in 2010, a fax is not the be all and end all.

So, with a legal career beckoning, will we see another book from you?
I’ve been resisting the idea of writing professionally, because I think the best writing comes from experience; I think that’s why a lot of modern novels are rather introspective! I have various ideas in the pipeline, and Penguin Books are interested, to do something more focused on the Afghan National Army.

There’s a lot of material about Afghanistan out there now, much more than when I wrote the book, but the conversation in this country is very much focused on our involvement. I don’t think you can understand what we’re doing, you can’t understand the problems and the conflict and the country without referring back to the Afghan people.

I was hugely privileged to work with the Afghan National Army. Every time I’ve been out there, I’ve spent time with the soldiers and their stories are incredible; the sacrifices they make… well, ours pale in comparison.

It’s a question of time; what I don’t want to be a servant with two masters. I want to be able to focus fully on whatever I’m doing.

Last Question: What books do soldiers read on the front line?
I still find it really interesting; there’s still this very strange cross-section. I’ve just finished reading Mattahorn by Karl Marlantes, a very decorated Vietnam war veteran who for 30 years couldn’t write his memoirs. He’s finally published a novel this year; it’s not a memoir, but it’s obviously semi-autobiographical. I recommended somebody take with them to Afghanistan, and a friend asked: “Why on earth would you take this harrowing visceral account of conflict in one part of the world to conflict in another?” I think people like to have touchstones, they like to have references; back in Iraq and we had Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

At the other extreme you’ve got the complete escapism. I always liked to have Alice In Wonderland, or Evelyn Waugh — obviously about as far away as you can get. There’s merit to that escape.

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