Reality is now finely kicking in. I picked up my NUS card yesterday from the Students’ Union, less than a week to go until I become a full time student. But even more worrying than the prospect of becoming a stinking tax dodging student is the fact that in exactly one week I hit the big three zero. Most of my friends are looking forward to the conclusion of their twenties as it means that they are awarded an extra half a minute in their Army personal fitness test. But as my last day in the Army is the day after my birthday, I very much doubt I'll manage to squeeze in a quick PFT and experience the luxury of the full eleven minutes. Not that I've ever needed it of course!
I'd thought that I wasn't too apprehensive by the dirty thirties approaching, but I must confess over the last few weeks I’ve had a few wobbles. A couple of weekends ago I joined up with a group of Army chaps to watch a Rugby match in order to celebrate a former colleagues thirtieth. It was only when I left them that I realised I was in fact a little concerned at the prospect of hitting this next landmark. After the conclusion of Bath Vs London Irish I jumped onto the train and began to brood over my current situation. I've always been fairly objective about the fact that I'm leaving a secure job to pursue my new career, but it was only on the 18.13 to London Paddington that I began to truly panic about the bigger picture. The prospect of being an unemployed thirty year old student with very little to his name suddenly hit me. If I was remaining in the Army then I would currently be living a very comfortable lifestyle, with few debts, looking to buy a house, upgrading the car and trying to work out what unnecessary gadget to buy next. I must also confess it has crossed my mind on more than one occasion the thought of reconsidering my departure from the Army. Never to the point where I've thought seriously about signing my kit back out, but it has made me realise how easy it would be to walk back into a secure military career. Every time I think about getting back into uniform I soon realise that my uncertain financial future is the only thing that I find daunting and I soon snap out of it. Luckily the prospect of a new and exciting career coupled with moving into the unknown always re-ignites my enthusiasm (that and the prospect of fresher’s week!)
But unfortunately Fresher’s week isn’t all about drinking your own weight in beer whilst dressed as a school girl, there’s also a more serious side. Firstly I have to begin paying my fees, which is a rather thorny subject to say the least. Luckily being a service leaver I am somewhat at an advantage over my fellow students as the Army will contribute to my fees through the Enhanced Learning Credits scheme. I don’t think it’s widely known but this scheme will help you financially for up to ten years after you’ve left the service and for this assistance I am very grateful. But the most worrying aspect of next week is that I have to meet my shorthand lecturer. On the first day we have a meeting so that she can assess the progress we have made on the worksheets that were sent to us earlier this summer. I am a little concerned as it all still looks like squiggles and lines to me, but I’m hoping that it all falls into place over the next few days – fingers crossed.
Sorry this week’s blog is rather shorter than normal, but I am actually very concerned by the standard of my shorthand and I must get back to practising my lines and squiggles. Oh and of course I’ve got to go and pick up my school girl outfit.
The new term has begun, on Monday morning I cycled into Cardiff University for the first time. Before you start picturing me in an Army issue Gore-tex camouflaged jacket and Kevlar helmet I can confirm I was sporting a particularly fetching hi-vis vest and a shiny new cycling helmet instead. After a summer of attempting to learn shorthand I’ve finally begun my formal training. The lecturer, a former Policewoman, runs a tight ship to say the least, the Taliban have nothing on her. For all of you doubters who believe that I'll spend the next year having lie-ins and watching daytime TV take note. I've been in work before 9 o'clock each morning so far, attending two hours of shorthand torture each day plus a full schedule of lectures. Sadly current indicators would suggest this is a trend I’m going to have to get used to.
I’ve only been here a week but I’ve already made some interesting observations; people call each other by their first names, no one calls me sir and I am confirmed as the oldest student on my course! I think by now most of the course knows I used to be in the Army, I’ve tried my hardest to distance myself my former profession although I have had one or two slip ups. The beard I’ve been sporting was supposed to be my cover, it was working until I told one of the other students “to check her civvy email”, let it go James!
Although the course hasn’t really gathered any momentum yet we have had one or two interesting periods of interaction with the lecturers. During our introduction to one of the modules we were given some basic guidance and hints and tips for our future careers. One piece of advice that immediately stood out to me was to “leave your own views at home – be impartial”. I hope that not being biased to the military won’t be a challenge for me. We were shown the Wikileaks footage from an American Apache Attack Helicopter when a group of Reuters Journalists were engaged and killed. The majority of the audience were clearly shocked by this apparent massacre by the reckless Pilots. I found it difficult not to voice my opinions on the fact that the context of the contact was not shown. This coupled with the fact that the audience are aware that they are about to watch the shooting of innocent cameramen made it easy for them to judge. I found myself asking that if we were to show the video to a new audience would they be able to pick out the difference between a camera slung over someone’s shoulder and an AK-47? Or even a telephoto lens sticking out from a compound with a Rocket Propelled Grenade? The difference is that the Apache Pilots were looking for insurgents and believed they had seen them. Whilst I clearly don’t condone the killing of innocent civilians and especially journalists I can sympathise with the pilots and the choices they made. I hope that I can use my previous experience to ensure that I report in an impartial manner and ensure that the full story is always told.
Thursday has now passed and I think I’m over the shock of becoming a year older, I have now officially left my twenties behind me and I’m beginning to embrace my fourth decade. How did I celebrate this milestone you may be asking? A day spent drinking tequila in the Student’s Union you might think? Perhaps even a pub crawl through Cardiff City centre? I’m afraid not. I decided to spend my Birthday learning shorthand and attending a question and answer session taken by Nick Clegg. Luckily for us the Deputy Prime Minister was visiting Cardiff and as students studying journalism we were clearly encouraged to attend. It was very interesting to see how he responded to questions from a young audience; he presented himself well and managed to answer all of the questions in a classically non-controversial manner. It perhaps also demonstrated how in the space of one short year someone such as Nick Clegg has been propelled into the media spotlight following his surprising rise in status. I only hope that my career over the next twelve months will take off in an equally dramatic fashion.
Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few weeks but I've been pre-occupied by the whirlwind that has been the first few weeks of my course. Suddenly I've had to grasp the concepts of not only traditional Journalism but the emerging field that is social media.
I've always thought that I've been fairly current when it comes to the internet, but over the last few weeks I've realised that I've been living in the dark ages! We are encouraged to use Twitter and all manner of Internet tools as well as Tweet during lectures (tweetingbanksy if you’re interested!) Coming from an organisation where the use of mobile phone is very much frowned upon during lectures or meetings, I’m now faced with being told off for not playing with my mobile.
As part of the course we are assigned fields of Journalism to follow and develop. For example; Politics, Crime, Education etc. Strangely enough I've been assigned defence. My first story has been following the Cambrian Patrol and in particular the debut of a team of German Army reservists.
I met up with them at the home of 104 Regt RA(V) in Newport where they had been staying and interviewed to them before they departed for Sennybridge. I then interviewed them again over a beer in Cardiff Bay when they had returned from the event. They were slightly disheartened not to have completed the patrol but were keen to attempt the challenge again next year. I can officially announce that the mighty Welsh terrain and "baby’s heads" defeated the German Army! If you don't know what baby’s heads are then I suggest you take a walk through the Welsh hills at night. When you get bored of picking yourself up off the ground after tripping over the large clumps of grass you'll understand what they are.
I also drove up to Sennybridge last Wednesday to watch one of the stands on the patrol. I spoke to some of the Directing Staff and gathered some audio to accompany the interviews. The stand I went to see was the night ambush and I managed to record some really good audio of machine gun fire whilst I tried to describe the scene. I asked the D.S how the foreign teams had performed and which teams had impressed them the most. I was surprised to hear that apparently Bristol University Officer Training Corps had impressed, these students are getting everywhere! Well done Bristol, I’m not sure if Wales UOTC entered a team but if they did I’m sure they were as equally impressive.
I’ve just had a very interesting chat with one of my lecturers; he was keen to see how I’m settling into the course. He wanted to find out how I was coping with being a student as he is aware that I’d given up a secure job to pursue a new career in journalism.
I reassured him that I was enjoying the course and I was still happy that I had made the right decision. I told him about the wobbles I’d had over the long summer, but that I was now over the worst of them. The beginning of the course already seems a long time ago and we’ve now all settled into the daily routine.
One thing I have begun to notice is that at times I get quite frustrated with no longer being in charge. I suppose it’s only natural that after being employed in a position of authority for so long, the reality of being a lowly student can at times be rather shocking! At these moments I have to take a deep breath, remember that I didn’t have to shave this morning, I’m not wearing camouflaged pyjamas and try not to have an Officer’s Mess style rant.
One part of my former life that’s still ongoing is that of fitness. I’ve really embraced my civvy fitness regime. I cycle into work; I go to the University Gym twice a week (which makes me feel very old) and I go running around Roath Park every other day. Anyone who knew me whilst I was in the Army will now be chuckling I’m sure! I’ve never really struggled with fitness but it’s fair to say I’ve never really embraced it. I think it’s an overreaction to make sure that I don’t turn into a “fat civvy”.
I think I’m fitter at the moment than I have been in years, so much so that I’ve even entered the London Marathon next year. Watch this space for pleas for sponsorship.
The blogosphere has well and truly got it's claws into me. This blog is now one of four that I contribute to weekly. A year ago my only daily interaction with technology was logging onto my DII account (the military computer network) and ignoring emails from the various senior Officers in my Regiment.
Then I visited Cardiff University for the first time where I was told that I needed to embrace all things geeky. To me, blogs and twitter had been something that Stephen Fry and Lilly Allen did, certainly not the realm of a Captain in the Royal Regiment of Artillery. So after speaking to the students in Cardiff I logged onto Twitter and began to immerse myself into the world of online social media.
So now almost exactly a year later I Tweet during lectures, I write blog posts concerning the future of Journalism (www.jamesedwardbanks.wordpress.com). I try and make sensible observations about defence issues or simply about ladies knitting hats for soldiers in Afghanistan (www.jamesbanksdefence.wordpress.com ).
But of course the most important blog is my British Forces News blog! Although I'm not assessed on this one so it does tend to be less constructive, apologies.
As I've mentioned before I have been assigned the subject of defence to cover during my studies at Cardiff. A big part of this has been developing a defence blog (www.jamesbanksdefence.wordpress.com), and it's a lot harder than I first imagined.
Throughout my military career I've tried to not concern myself too much with analysing defence policy, why you may ask? Cowardice in some respects, I imagine. It's a lot easier to bury your head in the sand and just get on with the job, rather than debating with yourself the issues of day. Not that I didn't listen to the news. I just mean to say that when I returned to my room in the evening I preferred to watch something mind numbingly simple rather than reading into the latest debates concerning defence cuts. Admittedly this may of left me out of the intellectual fireside chats with the Commanding Officer. But I could always find a lonely Major at the bar, usually drinking cider and black (diesel), clinging onto his/her youth, with whom to make polite conversation (you know who you are!)
But now that I've left the Army everything has changed. I've found myself becoming increasingly interested by defence policy and MOD cuts. I would never have seen myself as someone that would be glued to the Strategic Defence and Security Review. But there I was last month, tweeting every comment or cut, I even read the 1998 SDR and compared the two. Shockingly keen.
The difficult part I've found, is trying to make my findings make sense and add value to what has been announced or occurred in the world of defence. Which is not easy, far too often I feel that I sound like I'm trying to create conspiracies and rumours rather than analysing and reporting.
Over the last few weeks though, my posts have gone in a slightly different direction. My recent stories have covered a number of lighter issues, from a delightful lady knitting hats for Welsh soldiers in Afghanistan to fundraising events for The Royal British Legion. Maybe not as impressive to the Colonel sipping port by the fire, but much more fun to discuss when the diesel is flowing and your teeth are stained purple.
Unless you've been living under a rock this week you'll be aware that university tuition fees are somewhat headline news at the moment. No, I'm not about to condone the actions of the moronic crowd that stormed Millbank last week and no, I wasn't there!
I doubt there were many post-graduate students amongst the crowd that day, as we are all too busy to take a day trip to London. That, and the fact that I don't want to waste anytime missing a course that has cost me around six thousand pounds.
But I'm one of the lucky ones. The Army paid for me to get a very mediocre undergraduate degree. Which at the time I did not appreciate at all, and maybe if I'd of been paying for it I might have worked a little harder? After chatting to my fellow post grads this week I've realised once again that I am one of the lucky few.
After completing nine years of pensionable service I received a resettlement grant, which has enabled me to fund myself for a year of study. This coupled with the enhanced learning credits that have already paid £2000 towards the cost of my course has enabled me to hopefully leave in June with little or no debt. This is vastly different to a lot of my colleagues who are taking out large loans to fund themselves over the forthcoming months, and as a result of these expenses we all take our course very seriously.
I certainly don't think University should be a privilege reserved for the wealthy upper classes, but I do appreciate that we have lived beyond our means for too long. If we still lived in an elitist society similar to that which existed a hundred years ago then I certainly wouldn't have a degree and definitely wouldn’t have been allowed entry into Sandhurst, except maybe to deliver the milk. So for that I am extremely grateful. But I do wonder if sometimes we take things for granted and as a result don't appreciate them as much as we should.
I don't know what the answer is to our current financial storm, but I am certain of one thing. We will not find the solution by smashing windows, storming buildings and throwing fire extinguishers from rooftops.
I’ve turned from a happy go lucky student to a grumpy thirty year old in the last two weeks. The gimmick of being a mature student has now worn off and it’s now turned into just hard graft.
The course is still great, but I’m finding myself becoming increasingly grumpy. The pinnacle of my grumpiness was triggered by the recent cold spell. I was walking home from University pushing my bike as it was too snowy to cycle, when I was brutally assaulted. Yes I had a snow ball thrown at me! Now you’d think I’d take this in my stride, it’s just a snowball James, where’s the harm? But oh no, new grumpy James found the guilty students and de-briefed them, leaving them in no doubt that I was a very angry old man.
On a slightly more positive note, I did have my first two audio reports broadcast on BFBS Radio in Northern Ireland last week, which was very satisfying. Even more satisfying was the fact that someone heard them and commented about them to me on Facebook.
I’m currently in the process of organising my work placement for over Christmas, it’s not essential to the course, but I think I need to go and sample the real world again. The course is fantastic but I’m struggling with the being a student part at the moment, luckily it’s only for a year. Once this is finished then I can officially be classed as unemployed!
My other blogs are still going well, especially www.jamesbanksdefence.wordpress.com which has had almost a thousand hits this month. It’s very reassuring to know people are actually reading your work, although I think most my friends just click on it to see whether they’ve been mentioned or not.