Sometimes I sit quietly, hard to believe I know, and consider just how lucky I am.
On Saturday I was invited to the Regimental Dinner Night of WO1 (RSM) Lance Halliwell, known to his friends as Mossy.
I’ve never met Mossy. The first time I ever heard his name was when Andrew asked me to read the speech he was asked to deliver at the ‘Dine Out’ It was a great speech, but probably not the best introduction to a man whom is so important to my partner. There was a lot of stories about poo. Goldfish bowls being pooed in, boots being pooed in. Essentially anything that could hold excrement was discussed in this speech.
I’d no real idea of what a Regimental Dinner Night was like. It was held at the Warrant Officer and Sergeants Mess. Those of you with any military experience will understand these do’s are full of etiquette. One requires a certain degree of elegance to fit in. Elegance isn’t exactly my strong point. I look the part. Then I open my mouth or pick up a carrot with my fingers or start discussing politics and religion. I’m not a ball dress kind of girl either. London do’s always called for cocktail dresses. God that was simple.
Choosing a dress for a Dine Out is bloody hard. Especially when you are a fashion free spirit like I am. I’m the girl that would happily turn up to an evening in a Lady GaGa meat dress. Fashion must have impact darling, else what is the point. In a Sargeant’s Mess a ball dress has to be to the floor. It can’t have a slit up the thigh, so my dress which drew inspiration from Angelina Jolie’s Leg was already a fail. No worries, I nipped round to Andy’s mum and she sewed it up. Only problem was I was left walking like a mermaid. Shoulders need to be covered at the top table. It’s all about class. Another area I struggle with.
Thankfully within 20 minutes of being at my mums we had created a subtle and elegant masterpiece. And one I could whip off at the end of the night without needing my own army on standby for an Evac call.
Our military get quite a bashing in the media. Some of you may remember the shocking email that was released discussing the infamous Jaffa Cake (Andy corrects me here and says it was a pink party wafer, the comedic value of that is far greater than the humble jaffa but I’m sticking to the facts this time) On the surface it did seem like a pretty ridiculous email. If I was at work and received an email from my boss bollocking me for serving the wrong biscuit and creating a long and passionate case for why a jaffa cake is not classed as a biscuit and why this is a repremandable offense, I’d be pretty pissed off. However in the civilian world we don’t go to work and have to accept that we are out ranked by a goat (Just for a record goats are ranked in the Army. I’m not entirely sure how they reach certain ranks, but it has been explained to me that if they poo on parade then they are demoted. Makes me wonder how Mossy got so far in his career) The point is, the Army is full of etiquettes and rules that in the Civilian world make absolutely no sense what-so-ever. However when you see them in situ, you realise that if they did things any different, so much would be lost.
I can guarantee you that most of you will never be present at a do like a Dine Out. Firstly, we were piped in to the room. A lovely young woman with a huge set of bagpipes led us through to the top table. I was rather pleased when I discovered that Andy had been shunted down onto the main table whilst I was firmly on the top table. It’s as if the Army had been briefed on the internal ranking of our relationship. I was also extremely lucky to be sitting next to Lt Col Jacqueline Fletcher. Probably one of the most inspirational women I’ve had the pleasure of talking to. Digressing slightly off point, all the colonels I have met in the British Army so far, have been women. Women whom are held in very high esteem by the soldiers under their command. However, returning to my current subject … After pulling my own chair out to sit down on, to be immediately frowned at by Andy so shoving it back in again, Andy helped me to sit. Earlier that day he’d asked me if I knew how to use all the different cutlery correctly “What? Like a knife and a fork? Yes, I think even I can manage that” He responded that he was referring to things such as a fish knife “I know how to use my fish knife. I use it to shove all the fish from my plate to yours, in a sort of sliding motion” he rolled his eyes. Thankfully, there wasn’t any implements I hadn’t seen before, aside from the serviette. I wanted to make a joke and shove the serviette down my top but thought better of it. The speech Andy was making was a pretty big deal and he wasn’t relaxed enough for me to be mocking his mess rituals.
I was pleasantly surprised when a string quartet started playing. They played throughout our whole meal. It was beautiful. I suddenly felt like I was in Downton Abbey. FINALLY a situation where I can use my Lady Mary voice. Things were starting to go my way.
One of the most important things to remember is that until the top table are eating, no one else can eat. This is a wonderful power when your hungry boyfriend who has spent the last 6 months mocking you is sitting to your left and not on the top table. However, I was kind on this occasion.
Now, one of the things Andy chose not to tell me until very last minute was about the comfort break. “What’s the comfort break all about” I asked “Well that’s so you can go to the loo” Wait. You mean I can’t go to the loo? Until the comfort break?? The Army are indeed savage.
I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those people that is fine until I am told I can’t do something. Had I not known about this rule, I wouldn’t have needed the loo. However now I was condemned to an evening of bladder awareness. Every glass of wine I drank came with a sort of mental measure of my bladder. I wasn’t alone. Mossy’s mum and I had discussed our contempt at this rule. It became our go to conversation throughout the evening if either of us looked alone at all.
Passing the port is another area a woman like me can come unstuck. Women don’t pour their own. It is always and only to be passed to the left and it is never allowed to leave the table. This is fine whilst the decanter is full, but the poor man opposite Andy had to extract the last glass from the bottom of the decanter without allowing it to leave the table. I watched him struggle for a while then imagined how much easier it would be if he’d just been born a different gender.
The toasts happen. Best to just follow everyone else’s lead on this. We toasted the Queen. We toasted Princess Ann and then the men toasted something. I wasn’t listening. I was too aware at this point that I needed a wee. I ate cheese crackers in a desperate attempt to dry myself out a bit.
The Corps of Drums were incredible. Lights out, candles blown out, we find ourselves in complete darkness as the drummers come in. My heart filled. It was completely beautiful. They drum with illuminated sticks, that’s why you have to have the lights out. At least that’s what Andy told me. And I was a little disappointed not to be told some great and inspiring historic reason. They just look cool I think.
It was at this point that I realised just what an incredible evening I was a part of and it struck me how many of the people around the table this is ‘normal’ too. I make a mental note to NEVER take this for granted.
Military life is funny. It’s a privileged life, sitting at evenings like this. You cannot buy your way into the mess, power cannot get you into a mess. You earn the right. You have to work, following orders, meticulously. Being reprimanded for failing to sew your name into your pants, accepting a bollocking for serving the Major, Jaffa Cakes instead of Digestives, accepting a life where, no matter how successful you are there will always be someone issuing you orders, telling you reaching your potential isn’t enough and guiding you to constantly pursue excellence, pushing you to constantly do better, be faster, stronger. It is a hard life. A very hard life. Not just for those who choose to serve but for the families of those who serve. Accepting a normal day is a rarity, knowing re posting means you could end up in different countries, acknowledging there will come a day where you have to sit, life on pause, as your loved one heads out to war. It’s not a life for the faint hearted, for the needy. But sitting here, listening to this room of friends talking about their RSM, Mossy, I realise just how special our Armed Forces are.
We need to treasure our Armed Forces. To acknowledge the eccentricities of high ranking goats and illegal biscuits. To understand that this is a very special family with a very special job.
To protect. To serve.
I have yet to meet a member of the Armed Forces who hasn’t fascinated me.
I want to thank everyone in 25 Regiment RLC for letting me in to their world for an evening. Extending special thanks to Mossy and Frances. I think the students at any school Mossy works for are incredibly lucky and a lot of that can be attributed to a life spent serving our country. I’d also like to thank Lt Col Jaqueline Fletcher. A woman I will remember for a long time for being able to juggle being a Mother, a wife and keeping rule of an incredible bunch of soldiers yet remaining completely down to earth. And of course, to Andy, for sharing his world with me for an evening and continuing to make me so proud to be a part of something so British and so fabulous.