NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT is an insider's account of life as a military wife; of life on the home front, in the fall-out zone of the modern Royal Air Force.
It's a memoir of my double life – a military wife who's also a journalist and writer. It’s a book about navigating irreconcilable conflict: of my own personal struggle, and of a world constantly at war.
It’s a meditation on what it is to be an independent, creative, artistic woman in the 21st Century – who’s also trying to play the traditional role of wife to a man in an old-fashioned institution, with the all the demands of etiquette and regulation that the military still upholds.
It’s a story about being unable to conform – despite desperately wanting to fit in.
The RAF was founded in 1918, towards the end of World War I. Almost a hundred years on there are very few female voices discussing the military from the inside, past or present.
The public perception of RAF wives is that we’re either married to a gun-toting maniac, or Biggles, or Prince William. My book smashes these stereotypes.
My husband was a junior officer when we married in September 2001. The nation was at peace as I walked up the aisle, but the world was at war before the honeymoon was over.
My new husband subsequently left for Iraq, and then Afghanistan. In all, he’s completed nine tours of duty in the past 15 years.
Keeping a marriage alive under these circumstances is tough, especially with the added pressure of becoming parents. Producing three children between deployments required military-style planning.
Military bases are hotbeds for gossip, rivalry and infidelity. Living on ‘the patch’ is like living at work, with hundreds of colleagues as neighbours: fences are low and tensions are high.
Being a military wife is isolating and lonely at times. There are reunions and homecomings. And there’s culture shock – of suddenly sharing your bed, your home, your children and your life with someone who’s been missing (often with little contact) for six months. Longing for your husband to return safely, and then struggling to cope when he does is devastating.
Military wives provide a barometer by which we can measure women’s changing, or unchanging, place in society. I’ve read letters and diaries from the wives and lovers of airmen in both World Wars and the Falklands and I’ve found that humanity is constant: a hundred years on and we’re still loving, we’re still grieving, we’re still fighting.
I also write about other authors, like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, who interrogate women’s lives and the wider notions of society, patriarchy and domesticity. Indeed, this book is based on my correspondence with one of these authors and my editor, Rachel Cusk.
News from the Home Front is written in fragments; snapshots of military life. Every vignette is themed, but they do not appear in chronological order. Because military life involves frequent – and often long – periods of separation from loved ones, I wanted to embed the fragmented nature of daily life in the structure of my work. Life does not run seamlessly in the forces – time is not a linear concept in my experience – and it does not appear so in News from the Home Front.
Similarly, the location of each chapter shifts and moves, mirroring the lack of control that military families face with regard to where they live: I have been forced to move to new locations with as little as three weeks notice. The narrative – constantly uprooted and displaced – is unnerving at first, but as the book progresses it becomes clear that is doesn’t actually matter where the story is set: the joys and horrors of life are relentless and continue no matter where you are.
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NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT
On ceramic plates and cupcakes
There is a body in the hall. I step over it when I open the front door. I wrestle it aside so I can put little shoes – sizes five, seven and ten – in the cupboard. The corresponding feet are innocent and skip over the dead weight. I kneel beside it. It’s cold to the touch and I wonder how long it’ll be here this time.
Jon is on two days’ notice to deploy. He’s been on two days’ notice for ten days, his body armour guarding our house. It stands upright, to attention, waiting to be made flesh. My husband’s blood and breath will bring it to life. I hate it, but I examine it – I want to make it less human.
It’s made of a densely-woven metallic fabric. The layers are laminated together for strength, designed to resist stabs and slashes. It’s engineered to catch and deform bullets, to absorb their destructive energy. There are thick, contoured ceramic plates which slip into pockets positioned over vital organs; extra protection for the neck and shoulders, heart and lungs, abdomen, spine and lower back.
The ceramic plates are smooth and heavy and I try to figure out which piece goes where, like a grotesque jigsaw. Once complete, it looks enormous, too large to fit a human. I think of the statues in Florence, the colossal representations of men, and I think of Michelangelo scratching away at the marble, adding muscles and veins. This armour looks big enough for David, I decide.
I am compelled to try it on, but I struggle to lift it, so I lay it gently down and try to crawl inside. I tuck my head and arms in, and as I sit up it slides onto my shoulders. It compresses my chest so I can’t fill my lungs properly and my breathing becomes shallow. I pick up the helmet and notice that Jon has written his name and blood group in permanent ink across the front. I put it on and do up the chinstrap. I’m bulletproof, but I don’t feel safe.
I have to write this feeling, so my enhanced body and I lurch for the laptop so we can describe how we feel. Jon comes home to find me sitting at the kitchen table wearing every scrap of kit that he left in the hall, weeping over the keyboard.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asks.
The life of an RAF wife isn’t all about coffee mornings and baking cakes, but sometimes there’s just no escape. Last week I made a dozen cupcakes for a charity fundraiser at the community centre on base. My children are always eager to help in the kitchen, and between them they managed to tip half a bottle of yellow food colouring into the icing sugar. Instead of the subtle, creamy icing I anticipated, we had bright, canary yellow icing.
When I took them to the community centre and handed them over to the woman organising the cake sale, she looked at me aghast.
“They’re yellow,” she said.
“Yes, the kids did a great job helping me.”
“But we’re raising money for people with liver disease.”
“Well, hopefully someone will buy them,” I said.
“But they’re yellow,” she repeated.
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant until I looked around at all the posters of children suffering from liver disease, bright yellow from head to foot with jaundice.
By the end of the week, news of my ‘jaundice cupcakes for liver disease’ gaffe had gone all round the base. My reputation as a subversive baker spread faster than margarine at afternoon tea. I joked at Ladies Poker Night that I’ll bake anything as long as it’s not politically correct. I told them I was thinking of rebranding myself as Mary Berry’s nemesis, a baking antihero: the ultimate anti-caking agent.
To my surprise, a Brigadier’s wife from down the road asked me to make a dog poo cake for her husband. I assumed she wanted a dog poo-shaped cake made of chocolate sponge, not a dog poo in a cake. I didn’t ask her why her husband deserved a dog poo cake. I never thought I would become known for making novelty cakes. Next time we move I think I’ll keep my baking superpowers quiet. I’ll whip up a Victoria Sponge for a good cause if required, but I won’t advertise my catering skills. It’s a label I’m happy to lose. I rather hope my writing is enjoyed as much my amusing cake repertoire: I prefer writing to baking.
To fill the time between coffee-mornings and afternoon teas, I’ve been reading TS Eliot. I haven’t read the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock for at least ten years. It’s such a different poem now; I feel the words more acutely. ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons’ feels so apt these days, only I seem to be measuring out my life in cupcakes.
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