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Book Review – Life of Choice: Parts 1 – 5

TBimage2A Life of Choice by Tom Benson is a five-part series about a young recruit to the Royal Corps of Signals of the British Army. In a bit of a departure from my usual blog format, the reader will find my individual reviews for each part of the series listed in chronological order. Apart from for the final part, the subsequent reviews to pt1 of the series are you will notice, shorter and less detailed, the reason being that I’d simply be repeating myself from the more overall review of pt1 in the series.

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There are many authors who have drawn on their past military experience to write both fictional and non-fiction accounts of their military careers and quite a few who have relied purely on research and their imagination.  

Quite often, though by no means IASDpicalways,  such books will either lack the authenticity of genuine military experience or be steeped in realism and authenticity only to be let down by the execution of the writing. A Life of Choice falls into neither category having been written by a man with not only over twenty years experience as a soldier, but who has also been perfecting his writing skills for the past ten years, having read and written in multiple genres. 

In addition to the above, Tom Benson is a founding member and contributor to the IASD Fb writing group and its accompanying website – www.indieauthorsupportanddiscussion.com

See also:

Twitter – @TomBensonWriter – Website – www.tombensonauthor.com

Blog – www.tombensoncreative.com

 

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A Life of Choice – Part One

Innocence and Inebriation

timberwolfamazonA trip down memory lane that has you rooting for the young would-be soldier… loved it!

pt1From what I understand this is the first of several parts to an ongoing saga of the life of a young serviceman. When Jim Faulkner joins the Royal Corps of Signals he does so as a shy and quiet teenager with little experience of the world beyond his native Glasgow. Through this story, the reader is immersed in the young would-be soldier’s training and those first tentative friendships formed, many of which would last a lifetime. It’s often claimed by those who served that joining the army is what made a man of them, and for many that’s true but what the author shows with equal emphasis is that it can just as easily lead to ruination; just as the young Jim Faulkner grows in confidence and into the man and soldier he wants to be, we also see him being drawn into the services drinking culture and hints at the problems that might bring with it in later years. There is also an excellent preface and first chapter that proceeds the start of our young character’s military career portraying a family background and life that might well have played a part in Jim Faulkner’s decision to join the British Army, a background that was indeed shared at least in parts by many of the young recruits of the day.

Written in the first person, the story has a very personal feel to it, enabling the reader to get to know Jim as a real flesh and blood person rather simply as a well-constructed character. The dialogue is entirely natural and the chronological way in which it’s portrayed and divided into twelve easily digestible chapters makes the story fluid and easy to read. There are many good things about being in the army as the author clearly shows but he doesn’t shy away from the negatives and hardships along the way. Another thing that impressed me was the author’s honesty in the events he portrays; he doesn’t exaggerate or sensationalise in pursuit of a more exciting or gripping story or try to give the impression that Jim is on course to be another Andy McCabe or other such well known military figure.

Although this is a fictional portrayal of Jim Faulkner’s early military training and experiences, the author has drawn heavily on both his own life and those of his immediate comrades of the time, making ‘A Life of Choice’ as authentic as any entirely factual biography. I was pleased to discover when reading this that it wasn’t just another ‘pull up a sandbag’ type account relying on the legendary squaddie humour and colourful language for it entertainment but actually a thoughtful and well-written account of those times; yes those elements are present but they are not exaggerated or over-emphasised, though when they are highlighted, it’s done to perfection…

“… The creases in his green denim trousers were sharper than the razor I’d used only the day before for the first time…”

“… Where I came from a steam iron was used to settle domestic disagreements…”

Anyone who has served as a regular in the army or even one of the other services will from the beginning see familiar elements of themselves and their own experiences and might well read this like a trip down memory lane, bringing back happy and sometimes not so happy times. For others, particularly those who may have had or have friends or family who served, this book provides an honest and, true to military life, humorous insight into army training and life and just a few of the many colourful characters. Beyond that though this is also a compelling coming of age story, of the journey from boy to man, accelerated by intense military training along with all the usual landmark experiences of a young man growing up fast – being away from home for the first time, the pain of first love and its loss, learning to drive (in a land rover as opposed to the usual little bubble type cars that most people learn to drive in), and trying to fit in with his peers and all the pitfalls that entails. The heart of this story commences from 1969 through to 1971 when the army then was a very different thing to what it is today, and again, Tom Benson portrays that here to perfection. By the end of this first instalment, Jim Faulkner has long since completed his basic training and is now a fully-fledged Signalman en-route to his first overseas posting to Germany. I look forward to reading about his further training and adventures …

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Life of Choice – Part Two 

Paths & Progression

timberwolfamazonAnother first-class effort blending fact and fiction, bringing to life Jim’s continuing story … Looking forward to pt3!

pt2This is a fine continuation from pt1 of this series. Unlike the shy and reserved Jim Faulkner of before, our young recruit is now much more typical of your average young squaddie – a likeable and promising soldier but also a hard drinking, smoking, self-assured, and after a few trips to sample the local off-camp nightlife, a more ‘worldly’ young man. We also see much more of Jim Faulkner’s struggle to balance the demands of a military career with those of his personal life and relationships.

After having a established a reputation for being fond of a drink (or ten) there is a poignant and moving episode early on where an older comrade, Mick, pulls Jim aside and uses himself as an example of the dangers of falling into the heavy drinking culture of army life, subtly warning him of the danger of missed opportunities and promotion, and not ending up the same way. Another touching and perhaps prophetic moment is Jim Faulkner’s encounter with an older woman whilst on leave, promising to mention and remember her in his memoirs should he ever decide to write them. 

In pt1 the author took the time to explain most of the military terminology, and so, much of that used here needs no further explaining. There is, of course, a lot more used in this second part (now that Jim is ‘doing the job for real’ even if he is still learning), which the author doesn’t explain, but given this series is about a man’s life and experiences in both his military and personal life rather than just a ‘who’s who’ and ‘what’s what’ of the army, it really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment and flow of events. 

Although another fine instalment, this chapter of Jim Faulkner’s life doesn’t (for me) quite live up to that of the first part (more a 4.8 or 9 than an easy 5*). This is no reflection of the writing or content, but possibly more to do with my own experience; much of the book here includes a lot of what I would call the nitty gritty of army life and Jim’s first overseas posting, much of it quite specific to his own regiment/trade, and I found myself skimming over some parts of it – for a civilian reader (or indeed a fellow signalman), I imagine this aspect would have held greater interest, so ironically, this may be an instance of a non-military reader enjoying this part of the series more than their ex-military conterparts (scaleys excepted of course lol). In stark contrast to this, Jim Faulkner sees for the first time some of the sharp-end of military service on the streets of Belfast, where pretty much everyone who toured there did more than their share of front-line soldiering and patrols – whatever your trade or regiment, everyone doubled as infantrymen too.

Overall, another first-class effort blending fact and fiction, bringing Jim’s story to life, and again, countless memories for some and providing a moving and realistic account of military life for others. It’s good to read a genuinely authentic ‘fictional’ military memoir, one that many a reader will see echoes of themselves in rather than some ridiculously unbelievable story better suited to tv sensationalism. By the end of this second part, we see the clear struggle between Jim’s determination to be the best soldier he possibly can, and his overfondness of alcohol and the more unsavoury aspects of army life, and we leave him at a point not knowing which side of the struggle will determine his future career … looking forward to pt3!

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Life of Choice – Part Three

On and Off the Rails

timberwolfamazonA real nostalgic treat for anyone who served back in the 70s, this series just gets better and better!

pt3Following his transfer to Londonderry, Jim Faulkner is proving himself an enthusiastic and extremely capable soldier, both in his trade and at the sharp of soldering. Though not lacking female attention, he’s still a bit of a walking disaster area when it comes to women, and despite the overall progress he’s making in his career, still manages the occasional screw-up just as most of us did. Screw-ups aside though, by now, Jim is not only an experienced signalman and soldier but is demonstrating clear leadership skills and promotion potential in all manner of ways, the latter being long overdue but for his continuing alcohol issues – a transfer to Berlin sees his progress continue, but in true Jim Faulkner style, he allows his drinking issues to once again bring his entire career into question. Thankfully, this latest setback is softened by good news in another area of his life. 

Once again, this latest chapter in Jim Faulkner’s life is another real nostalgic treat for anyone who served back in the 70s, and just as much so for those simply wanting to see how Jim’s life and military career progress following the rather sour note at which he left it at the end of pt2. It’s full of all the usual shenanigans and scrapes many a single young squaddie got into at the time, but beneath some of the more unsavoury episodes of Jim’s life and career, he’s showing himself to be a thoroughly decent man with a sense of fair play, loyalty, and consideration for others. As you would also expect, there’s a fair helping of squaddie humour and outrageous anecdotes, though no doubt, nostalgic for many readers … this series just gets better and better (despite an earlier reference to the best regiment in the British Army being ‘planks’ …lol!).

 

Life of Choice – Part Four

Onwards and Upward

timberwolfamazonMy favourite part of the series so far, our young recruit has become the man & soldier he was meant to be!

pt4Jim Faulkner has come a long way in his life and career since that first day as a shy and probably a tad scared young recruit. By now though, Jim has a good number of years’ service under his belt, and for the first time, things are going well for him both professionally and in his personal life. But it’s not been an easy journey – overcoming a near alcoholic booze dependency, a court-martial, and a spell in the guardroom, some would say the now not so young Jim Faulkner had done well to ride the many ups and downs of his life, many of which could easily have ended his military career before it had a chance to progress.

Berlin has proved to be a new start for Jim; older and a little wiser, maturity and a settled domestic life, we now get to see much more of the real man behind the squaddie stereotype bravado and mischief-making, and indeed the career potential that was so evident earlier in his career. Amid all the good things going on in Jim’s life, there’s still lots of little dramas and humour filled episodes, especially when bumping into old friends from past postings. I must admit, I’ve probably enjoyed this latest part the most; fitter, healthier, and more responsible, it’s clear, Jim Faulkner is thoroughly enjoying life as a soldier and family man, and the esteem in which he’s now held by those both above and below him in rank. Looking forward to reading pt5, the next, and sadly final part to this addictive story.

 

Life of Choice – Part Five

Back and Forward

timberwolfamazonImpossible to praise this series too highly, an epic of military memories & humour … gutted that it’s finally come to an end.

pt5Well, who would have thought it, Jim Faulkner’s career has come full circle as he seeks to pass on his skills and experience to new recruits, most less than half his age. Reminiscent of the past though, Jim isn’t afraid of making enemies of those of higher rank, and isn’t about to compromise his standards in any new role. 

Despite Jim’s added maturity, this part is no less filled with laugh out loud moments, like when Jim and a mate are practising their drill instruction technique on some trees (yes, you read that right – trees), imagining them to be young untrained recruits, or when he makes one of his open day first-aid demonstrations a little ‘too’ realistic for the unprepared. There are also glimpses into some of the imaginative ways some NCOs used to deal with issues such as bullying and discipline, where our now ‘training instructor, Sgt Faulkner’ uses his discretion and judgment of character to ‘delegate’ the solving of it in one instance.

Another thing that impressed me in this final part was the sombre reminder of the more serious side of soldering. In earlier parts, Jim served tours in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles,’ as nasty and dangerous a war as any other despite it not being officially acknowledged as such. We see too his reaction to further IRA atrocities in Germany and the UK during the 80s. Towards the end of this final part, Jim’s has to prepare for his overseas posting as part of the British contingent during the first Gulf War, but it’s not just the detail of the military side of the preparation that strikes home, but heart-rending tasks such as trying to reassure a little boy that he mustn’t worry about his dad going to war, urging him to be brave and look after his mum. And let’s not forget those last letters home should the worst happen, the ones you hope and pray will never be delivered – for some of those soldiers sent to the Gulf, those letters were to be delivered. As we see from Jim Faulkner’s career, life as a squaddie is filled with humour, military training, sometimes boredom, new challenges, and a host of other things, but underlying it all, a soldier may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, just as so many have and will again in the future. Thankfully, Jim Faulkner did survive, enjoying 23 years service, a somewhat longer career than his own father’s prediction it wouldn’t last beyond his basic training.

I’m guessing the author will never reveal the exact ratio of fact to fiction here, but I’d say, though there’s clearly an element of fiction to make for a more readable and chronological series, it’s definitely weighted in favour of the former. For anyone who’s ever served, every part of this series will bring back memories, some with a smile and others with a shudder of when they were in the s*** or on the wrong end of a bollocking. But this isn’t just a trip down memory lane for ex-squaddies – parents, partners, and children of servicemen too will enjoy the many insights into military life, perhaps understanding their mum or dad, husband, wife, son or daughter just a little better. And lastly, anyone who enjoys rooting for the underdog, laughing at no small helping of mischief-making and devilment, or immersing themselves in a life full of ups and downs and lived to the full will not be disappointed with the story of Jim Faulkner. 

 

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Click Here for Tom Benson’s many other novels, short story anthologies, and poetry collections on his Amazon Author page.

 

Click pic below for Tom Benson’ IASD profile page and additional info:

TBiasd

A Cold Reception…

Preface: I must admit to cheating a little on this one; Most of what follows here is actually taken from my novel in progress, ‘Blue Murder’, but with a little editing and a few interjections here and there, I do think (hope) it makes for an interesting stand alone piece. Thanks for reading…..

Prison itself is not the problem, nor even the prospect of losing one’s liberty, even for many years. It’s the fear of prison, fear of the unknown, the uncertainty, and what we expect it to be like. There od course other considerations: separation from one’s family, loss of friends, career, and way of life, but for the man who has never been to prison such fears are secondary to the fear of what will happen to him, of just not knowing.     

          The ‘first timer’, more so when he spends time on bail, will torture himself with worry, picturing visions of his worst perceptions, convincing himself that every bad thing he’s ever been told or heard about prison is true, will come true; come the day of sentencing you think you’re about to enter the gates of Hell. No need to be confronted with the adage Abandon hope, all ye who enter these gates, hope will already have given way to despair.

          And it gets worse long before it gets better. Even the strongest of men are broken by its prospect, separation from what they know, exchanged for what they don’t. The closest analogy is that of a child’s first day at school. He wonders why he’s being plunged into a strange new world, new surroundings, figures of authority, unfamiliar faces, and no one to guide him through the nightmare ahead, the horrors to come. It’s something we’ve all been through. But by the day’s end, that frightened child, his initial fears, that sense of isolation, will have all but disappeared, replaced by a lively youngster full of exuberant chatter, and new friends, reassured by gentle words of comfort from sympathetic listeners, his fears a forgotten memory.

           It is here the analogy ends abruptly! The prisoner’s first day does not end, but carries on long into the night, surrounded not by those who care, but by those who don’t. And how different that first day is…!

It was a bit like my first day at school, old and Victorian looking, massive and imposing, frightening almost to a four-year old. But this was different. This was terrifying. Man a I now was, I knew the world I was leaving behind was one I’d be a long time in seeing again. The hug pair of wooden gates dwarfed me as I squinted through the tinted glass of the narrow slit windows of the prison van, or sweat-box as it’s often called on account of its tiny one-man .box like compartments. Moments later I was on the other side of those huge wooden gates. this was real, no one telling everything would be alright. Just a grim sense foreboding as the bus pulled to a halt. I tried not to think about what lay in store.

What hit me first was the age of the buildings, seemingly accentuated by years of decay and neglect, as evidenced by the vast tracts of chipped brickwork, rusty iron bars, and filth strewn pathways. But it was an impression, quickly replaced by something worse – the sight of several surly looking, powerfully built officers, screws as they later become known to me, going about their business, awaiting the arrival of more bodies, waiting for me…

With barely a word I was ushered out of the bus, my cuffs removed while one of the other screws unloaded the personal property boxes of some of the others who were arriving rom other prisons. How many years would it be before I too was the owner of such boxes I wondered, not that I was given much time to ponder the thought before ‘escorted’ along a short gravel path. I couldn’t help noticing how many pigeons there were; shabby moth-eaten looking creatures, fighting over a variety of scraps and discarded rooting bits of food thrown from out of the many cell bars I could see as we made our way to the reception block. what would that be like?… again  I wondered…

It was too depressing . Nothing I could have imagined. The word ‘reception’ seemed an odd choice of name for it, implying a place of welcome, to help you settle in. At least that’s what I thought; I was wrong.. herded into a communal cell like so many cattle with no idea how long I’d be there, too afraid to ask one of the others what to expect. Twenty minutes later or thereabouts another screw came and opened us up, but only to ask if any of us wanted a meal and a cup of tea. Some humanity at least? I hadn’t eaten all day, and was surprised when most of the others refused. But I could see why when I saw what was being offered, a revolting swill, a mixture of over-boiled cabbage and potatoes, a meat pie that would have been greatly improved if the kitchen staff had bothered to cook it first, and finally, the traditional mushy peas, some sort of green slime reminiscent of something out of a ‘Spielberg’ movie. Now I understood.

Never have been to prison, the procedures and routine were all new to me despite the many well-meaning tips and bits of advice from mates and acquaintances, many of whom had spent the odd stint ‘inside’ themselves. But nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead, an ordeal which had already began from that moment I’d stepped off the prison bus…  Walk this way, walk that way, wait here, stand over there… I might just as well have been an item of stock they didn’t have room for and weren’t quite sure what to do with. I was as though every last detail had been carefully worked out with me in mind; of course, I was wrong, I wasn’t that important. Nonetheless, a deliberate and systematic procedure to humiliate and degrade… it was a procedure I was only vaguely aware of from T.V. and other people’s accounts but this was real: first they wrote down my details; name, date of birth, marital status, dependants, and so on. Then came the doctor’s ‘examination’, a tersely word with a white-coat just to confirm I was still alive and well enough to cope with whatever else was in store – they ere making sure I wasn’t suicidal and likely to cause them all manner of laborious paperwork by going and harming or topping myself or the like closely followed the check on all my personal belongings before sealing them in a plastic bag. Then it was to be the final humiliation, the ritual and literal stripping away of everything that is you… in this case, me…

First it was my clothes they took, right there in front of whoever happened to be about; screws, other cons, anyone… shivering with cold and disgust, and fear, I removed most of my clothes and dropped them into a heap on the floor.

“And the socks,” a voice commanded.

I took them off and stood barefoot on the cold stone floor.

“Open your mouth…. Wider… Say ‘ah’… Again, say ‘a-a-h.. Now raise your tongue.”

Like some horse trader, one of the screws inserted two of his latex gloved fingers  into my mouth, stretching one cheek, then the other until he was convinced there was nothing hidden.; then he checked my ears, pulling them back, checking my hair at the same time. Then I was told to spread my hands to show there was nothing concealed between my fingers, and to swing my arms as a final check that  my armpits were equally devoid of contraband.

I felt self-conscious at first but the feeling soon passed, realising just how unimportant I was to them. There I stood, naked but for one small token to modesty, a towel wrapped about my waist. Then, in that same flat, irrefutable tone as before, he ordered:

“Take your penis in your hand..”

Stunned and further disgusted, I let the towel fall to the floor…

“Turn back the foreskin.. Move it up and to the left.. now to the right… Right, you can let it go now.” But the ordeal was not over yet:

“Turn your back to me.. Straddle your legs. Wider… Bend down and touch the floor… Legs wider…Stretch your buttocks with your hands… Right, now squat. Quickly! Again!”

It wasn’t just my body they were stripping, but my very identity, reducing it bit by bit, wiping clean until I was just one more flesh covered statistic with a number, my name serving as little more now than a cross reference to the past.. I was now RP 2019.

Having suffered and put up with every humiliation, I stood in dejected silence as the screw handed me another towel, nodding at me to proceed along the counter. It was frightening to feel that way, but even more disturbing was not only how easy it been to strip away the last remnants of my personality, who I was, but how completely powerless I was to resist…

“Reynolds RP 2019. Sign here, here, and then again at the bottom to state that your property sheet’s all correct.” I obeyed without question, not bothering with even a cursory glance to check if indeed it was correct. I no longer cared, and judging from his manner, neither did he.

“Through that door and get yourself a shower, then back here to collect your kit.”

Again I obeyed. The showers were a large open communal type, enough to accommodate maybe 20 men. Three other cons were also showering, some distance apart as you would expect. One of them briefly glanced in my direction, and then looked away again. The water was loop warm at best, the floor tiling grimly stained and cracked in in various places. I showered quickly. Ten minutes later I was back at the reception counter as ordered. My ‘kit’, as it was called, was the  mismatched bundle of prison-issue clothing I’d be wearing from now on, along with some clean bedding items for whatever cell I would be allocated. I was then ushered to a communal cell for another twenty minutes being opened up again…

“Okay you lot, this way,” some other screw beckoned. We followed him in the direction of what I later learned was ;E; Wing., through dimly lit narrow passage way, until we reached what I suspected must be one of the main wings, a huge gloomy hall, again dimly lit but light enough to see that it reached up three or four levels with numerous cell doors on each, every one of which was shut.

There were a few screws dotted about, but otherwise the place looked deserted. It was a first and misleading impression though, knowing as I did that behind each and every one of those doors probably there a prisoner, each with his life and memories and a story to tell.. just like me…

Eventually we came to a circular, open area called the ‘The Centre’, from which I could see another four halls all radiating out from it like some satanic pentagon, each exactly the same as the one we’d just walked along. It was now that the escorting screw sternly emphasized that we were to walk round the Centre, never across it! Only officers were afforded that privilege. Yet another petty rule I couldn’t see the point of. It was a relief when we finally made it to ‘E’ wing and allocated our cell numbers. Mine was 1:34 on the ‘ones’ as it was called on account of it being on the ground floor.

At least I would be on my own and not two’d up with some homicidal maniac I thought with some relief, noting there was only the one bed in the drab twelve by eight foot cell…

“Well, this is it. You’ll find a prison rule book on the table. Make sure you read it!”

Before I could turn to reply the door slammed shut. The sound of the lock mechanism sent a cold, convulsive shiver throughout my entire body. I threw my kit across the bare mattress of the bed and stared at he four graffiti defaced walls, totally numbed for the moment. It was several minutes before my thoughts began to make any sense again. I wished they hadn’t… With a determined effort, I set about making up my bed, sorting my kit and arranging what few possessions I’d been allowed to keep with me, in a vain effort to personalize the empty vacuum that was to be my home. Vain indeed though; there was no disguising its bleak emptiness. I was tired and defeated, afraid almost to get undressed for bed, afraid of experiencing again the humiliation of the past few hours even though I was alone now. I’d been prepared to defend what I’d done, my life, my morals. Never had imagined anything so simple, so dull, and so irresistible as the cold hard reality of the  past few hours. The people who’d received me were brutal, petty-minded low-grade officials: Little Hittlerites in the making, as uninterested in me as in my supposed crime, but alert and watchful for the slightest rule infringement, things I hadn’t even thought of and thereby unprepared for, watchful for the slightest sign of resistance. But what would resistance mean, I wondered, and what good would it do me? With every step I had taken, every screw I’d met, on a different context each time concessions had been required of me, so trifling compared to the long battle ahead that there seemed little point in making a stand – yet taken as a whole, the systematic procedure of breaking you down, breaking me down, was as effective as any you could imagine.

It was all too real. I didn’t want it to be. I switched off the naked bulb, hoping to extinguish the reality as easily as the light. At last I was able to muster the strength to undress and climb into bed. But even in the dead of night there was no escape from where I was. My eyes focused on the far side of the opposite wall. It was illuminated by a stream of light emanating from one of the external security watch-towers, casting a silhouette of the bars through the tiny window above my head, a shadowy, nightly reminder of my captivity for more years than I care to remember now.

I’ve heard it’s not so bad these days, that they try to ease the blow and not through you in at the deep end as it were. I hope that’s true, that your reception is warmer than mine…

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