North Yorkshire solider reveals funny side of British army life
War books are usually bestsellers but few of them present the ordinary soldier's life without epic tales of, sometimes, overblown Boy's Own heroics.
Now an ex-officer in the famed Parachute regiment who lives in North Yorkshire is bucking the trend.
Having swapped life as a professional solder in the British Army after 28 years for the tranquility of village life in Hampsthwaite, Gordon Muirhead has now published Three Decades of Duty, a thought-provoking book which shows the military in a revealing new light.
The motto of ‘the paras’ is “Utrinque paratus” which translates as “ready for anything.”
It’s a motto which proved to be entirely accurate for a man who gained his military parachute wings at 17 in 1981 and was awarded the MBE on leaving the army in the rank of major in 2009.
Neither the sweeping, fact-filled histories of academic Antony Beevor nor dramatic tales of derring-do by former SAS sergeant Andy McNab, Three Decades of Duty shows the army as it really is.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Gordon’s frank reminiscences are packed with good humour.
From Kabul to Aldershot, amid the danger and the explosions, there are hilarious tales of hi-jink and wind-ups, amazing comaraderie and old-fashioned punch-ups, all told in a direct but matter of fact way by this proud Scot who spent two years as regimental sergeant major of 2nd Battlion The Parachute Regiment - among other things.
Gordon, 52, said: “All you see in the national papers about the army is stories about soldiers with post traumatic stress or housing problems. I had a great time in the army. I really loved it
“We do work in dangerous, pretty grim situations but there’s always someone cracking a joke. I wrote the book so that civilians could see the funnier side of modern life in the military and give ex-serving members a trip down memory lane.”
Very far from a vanity project, the 323 pages are readable and well-written and published by Vanguard Press, a reputable publishing house in Cambridge.
Talking to the cheery and calm Gordon over a coffee, who was born in Ayr, it soon becomes bvious this is a man who saw and did it all in in his decades of service to his nation, including a time as an officer cadet instructor at Sandhurst.
Gordon said: “People I know did get hurt when I was in the Paras. A few of my comrades were killed in Northern Ireland. I got shot at myself when I was there. You learn to live with it.
“The book is real. It does have some bad moments among all the funny tales but my attitude when anything happened was always “thank goodness it wasn’t me.”
Married to wife Janice with two daughters, Gordon moved to the village of Hampsthwaite 11 years ago.
He’d gotten to know the area after being stationed for a time at the Army Foundation College near Killinghall.
Gordon said: “I was there for two years and fell in love with the area, including Harrogate.
“We decided to settle here for good when the kids reached the age for secondary school.”
It’s hard to describe to prospective book purchasers what Three Decades of Duty is like, there have been so few precendents for this unique piece of war writing.
Imagine Welsh author Leslie Thomas’s The Virgin Soldiers (1966) which was considering shockingly revealing, at the time - but with a gentler tone and no domestic storylines.
Or, perhaps, Spike Milligan’s bestselling Second World War memoir Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971) without the late comic genius’s surrealistic view of life.
An entertaining and enlightening read, Three Decades of Duty is divided into distinct chapters with specific themes - Training, In Barracks, Exercises, On Operations, Off Duty and In Glorious Memory.
How on earth did he get away with writing a book so revealing?
Didn’t the ‘top brass’ try to intervene?
“I told my old ‘boss’ in the army who’d written a book himself what I was doing and he gave me some advice and a list of possible publishers.
“The most important thing wasn’t to name the comrades I was writing about. You need army permission if you are going to do that.
“That’s why I keep on referring to ‘Corporal X’ and ‘Sergeant Y’ and so on in the book.”
If it wasn’t for a career break as a logistics procurement manager for a security firm in Iraq, Gordon may never have put pen to paper.
After all his tours of duty, from desert to arctic wastes, jungle to urban warfare, he found Baghdad, well, a bit of a ‘doddle’, especially after his tour at Kandahar in Afghanistan.
“Whereas the army deliberately goes to the dangerous areas, the aim of security is to avoid them.
“Some areas there were being bombed every day.
“The army motto is “find, fix, destroy” but the security motto is “avoid, protect, escape.
“At one point in Kandahar I ended up face down on the floor of the Green Bean cafe during a rocket attack. If you try to run you risk getting hit by shrapnel.
“I turned to a comrade who was also on the floor and said to him “if I get killed, I don’t want it to be in a coffee shop.” He started laughing, then I did to.”
So far reaction to Gordon’s book has been very good with strong reviews on Amazon.
There’s been no response yet from any of his former comrades but, with Three Decades of Duty on sale now in selected Waterstones shops, it’s probably only a matter of time.
However Gordon’s new life as a published author does or doesn’t take him, there’s one thing he remains utterly certain about - his loyalty to the British Army.
“I’m hugely grateful to the British Army for providing me with a fantastic career which took me all around the world to some very interesting places - and some not so interesting places where dangerous people sometimes lived!”