Patrick Hennessey was a founder member of the Junior Officers’ Reading Club, formed when the Grenadier Guards toured Iraq in 2006. He is the author of The Junior Officers’ Reading Club — the story of how a ‘wise-arse Thatcherite kid’ became a thoughtful soldier. It is among the best examples of British military witness written since 1945. Hennessey, now a barrister, has recently penned a sequel of sorts, called Kandak: Fighting With Afghans. It is published by Penguin tomorrow. He has answered this week’s Shelf Life questionnaire.
1) What are you reading at the moment?
I’m finally getting round to reading Life and Fate which is, so far, living up to its impressive reputation.
2) As a child, what did you read under the covers?
I know that it used to take quite a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine to get me to go to sleep at all. Once I was a bit older and had mastered the torch-in-the-mouth technique, predictably enough, I loved Roald Dahl and (although it was more difficult to turn the pages under the covers) the Asterix books.
3) Has a book ever made you cry, and if so which one?
There is an entry in the Duff Cooper Diaries, after Duff’s stag dinner in the Savoy (I think it was). It’s 1919 and Duff observes, almost matter-of-factly, that all his closest friends, everyone he would have invited to his stag-do had he been getting married in 1914, had died in the war. It’s one of the most understated but chilling observations of quite how much that generation was destroyed by the war and as a fellow Grenadier (and recent ‘stag’) it stopped me in my tracks.
4) You are about to be put into solitary confinement for a year and allowed to take three books. What would you choose?
Assuming that I’m not allowed to take the whole OED (which would be amazing but probably cheating and, depending on the size of the cell, might take up a bit too much room), H. A. Guerber’s The Myths of Greece and Rome for comfort, The Oxford Book of English Verse for variety and Don Quixote which I might finally get round to finishing.
5) Which literary character would you most like to sleep with?
This is a really tantalising question — there are so of those historical beauties who inspired such ridiculous feats of devotion that you’d surely want to know what all the fuss was about: the likes of Salome, Helen of Troy, Zuleika Dobson etc. I do remember having a massive crush on Bess, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter in Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’ which, in retrospect, I’m sure we were too young to be reading in prep school, but if it has to be just one then it would have to be Iris Storm owner of the eponymous The Green Hat and the ultimate glamorous, tragic heroine (with a great car).
6) If you could write a self-help book, what would you call it?
I’m not a great believer in self-help books and even if I was I’m not sure I’d trust myself to give other people advice. Then again Buying this Book Probably Won’t Help You is hardly likely to leap to the top of the bestseller charts.
7) Michael Gove has asked you to rewrite the GCSE English Literature syllabus. Which book, which play, and which poem would you make compulsory reading?
I hated being patronised at school and I’m sure most other children do — there shouldn’t be such a thing as a piece of literature which is ‘too difficult’ to study when you’re 15 and I think the rewards of being made to grapple with something superficially difficult invariably outweigh the effort required. The Canterbury Tales is an obvious choice, the richness of language alone would justify its inclusion on any syllabus, but it’s the universality of it which I think is equally important, a glorious, brilliant and bawdy snapshot of the English. There’s a question as to whether it’s a book or a poem — I think I’d include it as a book in order to be able to include Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ as the poem; to my mind the most haunting and poignant of war poems. It’s then simply a question of which Shakespeare play and here I’d pick Much Ado About Nothing which has energy but also an alluring darkness beneath the surface. Hamlet can wait till A-level.
8) Which party from literature would you most like to have attended?
Another almost unbearable question (especially for someone like me who suffers from terrible FOMO: fear of missing out). Gatsby’s parties sound pretty fun and some of those massive 19th century balls (Tolstoy, Thackeray etc.) were obviously pretty lavish, but for sheer spectacle and curiosity (and Polar Bears and an orchestra conducted by Strauss) Satan’s Rout in The Master and Margarita sounds like quite a bash.
9) What would you title your memoirs?
In a way both Kandak and The Junior Officer’s Reading Club are memoirs so I’ve already had two bites at this particular cherry. No idea what will come next.
10) Which literary character do you dream of playing?
Harry Flashman certainly seems to have a lot of fun.
11) What book would you give to a lover?
12) Spying Mein Kampf or Dan Brown on someone’s bookshelf can spell havoc for a friendship. What’s your literary dealbreaker?
The real deal-breaker would probably be no books at all. Having said the Twilight books would fall squarely into the Dan Brown camp and (topically) any 50 Shades type rubbish would show a worrying lack of imagination. I think the real deal-breaker would be too much ghost-written crap: with very few exceptions, if you can’t write it yourself it probably shouldn’t be written.
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