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…


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.

Resettlement In The Rainbow Nation

Part First World country, part emerging nation, South Africa has potential if your resettlement ambitions are more along the lines of a ranch than a semi. But this multicultural ‘Rainbow Nation’ is not without its challenges…

South Africa is located at the very southern tip of the African continent, with 1,739 miles of coastline dipping one foot in the Atlantic and the other in the Indian Ocean. Land borders are shared with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland.

The country is classified by the UN as a middle-income country. It has abundant natural resources, a well-developed infrastructure, and is noted for financial, legal, communications and transport sectors that have all developed in the past decade. In 2007, South Africa was ranked 25th in the world in terms of its GDP, and has become a leading player in not just African but also the world stage.

South Africa has 11 official languages (Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu) – only Bolivia and India have more! However, English is the main language of commerce, science and international relations.

The vast majority (79.3%) of the country’s 48 million people are black, with the rest made up of white (9.1%), coloured (9%) and Asian (2/6%) citizens.
South Africa is a constitutional democracy with relatively strong historical links with the UK. The Union of South Africa was a dominion of Great Britain from 1910 until 1961 when it declared itself a republic. The country was readmitted to the Commonwealth in 1994 following the end of the apartheid system.

The official capital is Pretoria, although legislative and judicial spheres are based elsewhere (Cape Town and Bloemfontein, respectively). Beyond these cities there is widespread poverty and, since 2004, the country has seen thousands of popular protests, some violent – many have been organised from the shanty towns surrounding the main cities.

South Africa is a country of stark contrasts. Four areas – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Pretoria/Johannesburg – are the nation’s economic powerhouses but, outside of these spheres of influence, many South Africans still live in severe poverty – despite the efforts of successive governments following the end of apartheid. Only a few areas have bucked the trend and have seen rapid growth in recent years – these include Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay Rustenburg area, Nelspruit area, Bloemfontein, Cape West Coast and the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast.

Unemployment is a real problem for South Africans and has continued to worsen in recent years, generally along racial lines. In 1995 the average white household earned four times the average black household; five years later, the average was six times. This is still a country in flux after the huge cultural shift seen at the end of apartheid; there’s still some distance left to run. That said, affirmative action policies have seen a rise in black economic wealth and an emerging black middle class.

With the South African Rand (ZAR) worth around 8p you should be able to afford the odd bottle of Chardonnay. Average house prices are highest in the North and in West Johannesburg at roughly ZAR 1,322,279 (£105,000). There are plenty of opportunities in South Africa for a very comfortable resettlement; and companies as diverse as Barclays and Vodafone are beginning to see the country as a prime business location.

For many years successive governments did little or nothing to combat the spread of HIV and Aids in South Africa, leading to the death of an estimated 250,000 people in 2008 alone. Under the leadership of Kgalema Motlanthe, this has begun to change, but the country’s largely Roman Catholic population still makes the use of contraception controversial.

In general, however, the country’s public health service is over subscribed and underfunded; those who can afford it have turned to a flourishing hi-tech private healthcare system, furthering the gap between rich and poor.

Like many other African nations, South Africa has experienced a ‘brain drain’ during the last 20 years, reflecting the aspiration amongst certain racial groups and also ongoing fears about crime levels and violence. Crime against the farming community has continued to be a major problem. Middle-class South Africans often seek the better security of gated communities.

South Africans love sport – in particular soccer, rugby union and cricket – and the outdoor life. Perhaps this is because of the country’s large open spaces and a relatively temperate climate (between 8°C in June and 28°C in February). Although soccer commands the greatest following among the young, other sports like basketball, surfing and skateboarding are increasingly popular.

Another factor could be that South Africans were, for decades, starved of international competition as a result of numerous apartheid-inspired boycotts. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup (which they won at the first attempt), the 2003 Cricket World Cup and the 2007 World Twenty20 Championship. South Africa will, of course, be the host nation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup – the first time the prestigious event has been held on African soil.

The persistent sunshine aside, South Africans were found to be the eighth most optimistic people in the world, according to a survey by Gallup in 2005.

Johannesburg: (also known as Jozi or Jo’burg) is recognised as one of the most popular and affordable cities for immigrants. It is the largest and wealthiest city in South Africa, with the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Sub-Saharan Africa. While not officially one of South Africa’s three capitals, it’s home to the Constitutional Court – South Africa’s highest legal institution.

Cape Town: the provincial capital of the Western Cape is the country’s largest city (in terms of area, if not population), and most popular tourist destination. It’s also the legislative capital of South Africa, home to the National Parliament and many government offices. The city is famed for Table Mountain, which looks over the city, and its harbour.

Durban: the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal is the busiest port in Africa, and also a major centre for tourism thanks to its subtropical climate and beaches. Durban is the third most populous city in South Africa, forming part of the Thekwini metropolitan municipality. It is renowned as being a safe city with a good atmosphere.

Germiston: established in the early days of the country’s gold rush, this was by 1921 home to the world’s largest gold refinery, the Rand Refinery. This is South Africa’s sixth-largest city, its biggest railway junction and the seat of the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality which includes much of the East Rand.

Pretoria: located in the northern part of Gauteng Province, this serves as the country’s administrative centre and de facto national capital. Regarded as a leafy, sedate city, Pretoria sits in a warm, sheltered valley surrounded by the hills of the Magaliesberg range that ensure that temperatures here are invariably a few degrees warmer than Johannesburg.

Port Elizabeth: situated in the Eastern Cape Province, the city is often known by the shortened name PE and nicknamed ‘The Friendly City’ or ‘The Windy City’. It is one of the major seaports in South Africa and, unsurprisingly, is also known as Africa’s Water sport Capital, and is part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality which has a population of more than 1.3 million people.

A chattering bird builds no nest.
A fool is a wise man’s ladder.
A termite grows up in dry wood, and yet comes to maturity.
Abundance does not spread; famine does.
Almost is not eaten.
An Elder does not break wind in public, but in a latrine.
As great birds die the eggs rot.
Before you milk a cow tie it up.
Behold the iguana puffing itself out to make itself a man.
By pounding the dough the bread will rise.

. . .

Requirements for immigration to South Africa are subject to change, and each application is treated as an individual case.

While looking to encourage foreign investment, South Africa nevertheless is looking for immigrants who are ‘seriously committed to investing their assets, skills and experience for the benefit of themselves and the people of South Africa’. Basic requirements are that you should be of good character, be unlikely to harm the welfare of the country and not follow an unskilled or semi-skilled occupation for which there are already sufficient people in South Africa to meet the country’s needs. Applications should usually be made in your country of residence (in the UK, through the South African High Commission), although you can apply while in South Africa on a valid work permit, are married to (or are the child of) a South African citizen.

South African High Commission
020 7451 7299,