I first interviewed John in March 2002 and was struck by the fact that, despite his acquired aversion to all things military, he still has something of the clipped and precise manner that one stereotypically expects of the officer corps. I was due to interview John again, this time at his base in the West Country in 2003 but he was posted to Iraq just before the outbreak of the war and our appointment had to be postponed and so this narrative is based on a single interview plus supplementary notes alone.
John was born into an air force family and experienced the rootlessness of constantly moving from posting to posting.
We moved around quite a lot. My father was in the air force as well, so I spent the first few years of my life in Germany and then I think we went to Malta for a while, which is where my mother is from. Then we settled back in various parts of the UK. It was a fairly unstable upbringing, stable in terms of family support but not in terms of moving around. I don’t think we stopped, until I was about ten or eleven, in one location. By then we had had fifteen houses, I think it was. But it was a very happy childhood in the sense that I had loving parents and a younger sister, who is three years younger than me. The usual sibling rivalry, but apart from that we were very close, all three of us, and we went to see my mother’s family once a year in Malta for the summer. We went to see my father’s parents, who were in Hereford, quite regularly. The constant moving also gave John a very different experience of school from those recounted in other stories where they tend to symbolise the rootedness and localness of childhood.
School was very odd. I can’t really remember much about it. I was a ‘late starter’, I think is the word. My parents were constantly called in because I was day dreaming. I found solace in art really, just in drawing and reading. I picked up maths late. I went to a lot of military schools, a lot of local schools. I moved around a lot and it was only when we stopped in Hereford again that I did the ‘eleven-plus’, which I didn’t do too well at. Then I realised that by year two I didn’t slip back. I was in the top class for everything and my maths was up there and I did my O levels early and came on from there really. Despite the sense of not belonging in any one place, John’s family settled in Hereford long enough for him to go to a single secondary school until the age of sixteen and then to do A levels at a local sixth form college. John ascribes his decision to join the military to a need to belong.
I felt a bit of a lost soul, which is why I joined the military, because I wanted some identity in one organisation and it offered you a ready made identity and it was important and jolly nice. I wanted to be pilot and I joined as a pilot. It was all very exciting to me. I loved aircraft and I enjoyed the early years moving around. It was only after I got married and had children that I started to think to myself, ‘This is not quite my bag’, both in terms of military lifestyle and the instability. Increasingly now, with only a few years left on my option point, I think to myself ‘Why am I desperately unhappy and what is going on? Why do I feel so unstable?’ My son is being affected by it, so, what a silly thing to do, why did I do it?’ John recounts how he quickly felt that he did not belong, that he was different from those around him.
I realised that I was slightly different. I was enjoying the excitement of it but everybody else had aircraft posters on their walls, I had pictures of Kim Wilde and Madonna and read different books to them. They used to take ‘the Mickey’ out of me; ‘Why aren’t you interested in air shows?’ But it was just my job wasn’t it? I felt that there was something more out there and I needed to be doing it. John never did become a pilot although he started to train as one; the lustre of it quickly wore off for him.
I got a sixth form scholarship, which meant that the military paid while I was doing my A levels, and a part of that was a flying scholarship, which meant you could get your pilot’s licence. So I did that and discovered that again it wasn’t quite my thing. I just couldn’t get excited about it. You take off, you fly around and you land, and there is not a lot going on. So I went for ‘supply and movements’, which includes management and personnel. John discovered a nascent identity as a manager away from the more operational aspects of the air force and it is from this point on in his working life that John thinks of his work as essentially managerial.
I was enjoying the management. I was enjoying the banter and all the interaction of people working with me and for me. Certainly I was doing OK at it and I couldn’t keep to flying as I couldn’t be bothered to go through all that.