From banter to dark reflection

PATRICK HENNESSEY read English at Oxford before joining the Grenadier Guards at the age of 22, going to Sandhurst, seeing spells guarding Buckingham Palace and in Bosnia before serving in Iraq and seeing some of the fiercest fighting in decades in Afghanistan.

Born in 1982, he belongs to a generation of uniformed men and women who would, as he puts it, “do more and see more in five years than our fathers and uncles had packed into 22 on manoeuvres in Germany and rioting in Ulster”.

Brought up on a diet of video games and adventure sports, today’s young recruits – to the British army at least – seem to view war as a slightly more extreme version of paintballing, whose only purpose is to provide them with an adrenalin high.

This memoir provides a testosterone-charged portrait of survival in isolated and vulnerable outposts under constant attack by tough and resourceful enemies. It is suffused with a craving for the heat of battle. But most of all, he longs to fire real bullets at real people “in glorious and chaotic anger”.

The Reading Club of the book’s title was originally founded to stave off the boredom of duty in Iraq. He and young officer friends would lounge around sunbathing in boxer shorts, holding impromptu seminars on the relative merits of The Iliad over Catch 22. The club continued to function intermittently during the relentless fighting in Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Under siege in Sangin, Hennessey read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It triggered nostalgic pangs for the weekend parties back home in England. He yearns to be able to “spin real tales to the girls I wanted to fancy me… and the boys I wanted to be jealous of me”. But he also knew that, if he got there, home would bring an ache to be back under fire.

Some of Hennessey’s flashbacks after leaving the British army seem to be borrowed from a bad Vietnam movie but a literary soldier, especially one still in his 20s, is something to be treasured.

There is an inevitability about the reality-check which comes of seeing comrades killed and grotesquely injured. As the book progresses he begins to show genuine trauma over the repeated losses of fellow soldiers, and anger at how little those in civilian life comprehend. In the end, this is what makes the book worth reading: it reveals the huge gulf in understanding between those who have fought in uniform and those who have not.

In observing the transformation from flippant banter to dark reflection, the reader is taken on a journey from irritation to comprehension and, finally, to respect. These passages are some of the most important and affecting in what ultimately proves to be a very fine book, a powerful despatch from the frontline.

By turns sensitive and thoughtful but also unapologetic about the “heroic” things his company had done, this memoir of a young soldier’s life is required reading for anyone with relatives in uniform, or anyone thinking about entering military life.


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