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Interview: Robert Perryment, former soldier, author

03 July 2020

‘I’ve decided that the pen is mightier than the sword’

I joined the Parachute Regiment when I was 17. It seemed the right thing to do at the time. I was working for Enfield Cables as a young corrosion technologist — and making the coffee. My line manager had been a National Serviceman in the Parachute Regiment, and was called back, as a reservist, and was part of the regiment that parachuted into Suez to try to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. I took over all his experiments and assignments, and my horizons were lifted beyond anything that I could have imagined before.

My boss came back, suntanned and resplendent in his red beret and camouflage smock, a hero to the country, and I went back to making the coffee. I listened to his stories of challenge to achieve the highest standards in physical fitness, and the discipline to remain resolute when faced with danger.

My future was going to be National Service in a year’s time: “If it moves, salute it; if it stands still, whitewash it.” I found out that, if I was prepared to sign on for three years, I could apply to the Parachute Regiment. I was a fit kid: I boxed for Ally Pally [Alexandra Palace], ran cross-country for Orion Harriers in Epping Forest, and played rugby for the Old Cestrians.

I was the baby of the intake and treated as such; but I had prepared well. I soon got to understand the psychology of the instructors. When a hill looms on your horizon and the lactic acid is making your legs feel like lead, they will call: “Last one to the top buys the beers.” My aim was to be at the summit with the instructors.

One of them gave me the best bit of advice, which has taken me through the rest of my life: “This world isn’t made for supermen. The giant is the person who can help the next person over the stile.” My regiment taught us that teamwork is very important in life. We live or die depending on how we all look after each other.

As I researched how Syrian and Russian planes bombed hospitals in Idlib — not once but twice, to break the resolve of people — I remembered my grandfather in north London hoisting me on his shoulders to look at the city burning as the Luftwaffe fire-bombed London, and my mother crying hysterically and grabbing at me. It’s that desperation that comes when you seem to be totally powerless.

In my novel, It Could Just Happen, I answer the question about Christians in the Forces. “Were I to see a person advancing upon another person brandishing a knife with deadly intent, and I do nothing, I believe that I would be an accessory to that act of violence. If I could intervene and disarm the assailant, that would be a good outcome, but if it meant picking up a house brick and striking the assailant and maybe even killing him . . . this sums up the NATO description of minimum force.” I am not a rock. Peter was not a rock. We all have to find some rules to live in a complex world.

The transition from a private soldier to non-commissioned officer was certainly a challenge. The hardest thing was changing how I saw myself in the world. From council-house kid on an estate to Mons Officer Cadet School with people like Michael Heseltine before being commissioned was, at the time, awesome. Luckily, my regiment had only been formed in 1942, and has always only been interested in what you can do, not your lineage.

Later, I founded an industrial-cleaning company for food-distribution depots. I have a good team and a VOIP telephone; so I can live in semi-retirement in Portugal, directing the company whilst giving myself the time to do some of the things that I couldn’t find time for before. Writing a novel was a long-desired ambition.

I’m interested in people’s perceptions. We all see, hear, the same things, but we may all come to quite different conclusions. The Greek’s idea was that, in democracy, the tension that comes between a proposition and an opposition brings forth some eternal truth. Total nonsense: that’s not the way we solve human problems. We put heads together until we find something that works. I hate watching politicians in Parliament braying at each other and not being able to come to any sort of meaningful decision.

I’m not an evangelist in the usual use of the word. I’m not sure that argument achieves what I’m looking for. But I’d hope that my new story is evangelical, telling a story within a contemporary thriller that has deep spiritual roots. I’ve decided that the pen is mightier than the sword; so I pray that my stories and poems might lead people to Christ.

I wanted to attract a young audience, and war stories have always attracted. However, my whole life is involved in this terrorism thriller.

I didn’t really know my father until I was five. Before the war, he had been a professional boxer and a Smithfield Market bumaree. He hoped to produce a world champion, but I loved books and suffered from migraines. I loved the outdoors and wandered the countryside and canoed the River Lee in darkest Hertfordshire. I had camps where I lived off rabbit and the occasional poached pheasant.

During the war, I was brought up by my grandmother from the Welsh Valleys. She cleaned her small house whilst at the same time praising God. I was sent to Sunday school and became a choirboy. Seven shillings and sixpence for a wedding was sufficient inducement, but, as I grew up, jazz became more important.

As a young NCO sent to Jordan to support King Hussein, I found myself in Jerusalem. At night, in the desert, the conversation regularly came around to religion. As ever, when insufficient knowledge is in attendance, the arguments usually disappeared up their own exhaust pipes. I was going through a late-teenager revolutionary period; so I decided I would debunk the Synoptic Gospels. After a lot of research, and helped by my Para padre — a true man of God with wings — I became, and remain, a true believer and a lover of the only true God.

I developed from a Methodist lay preacher to an Anglican, and initiated house worship groups. I love cathedrals, but question the emotional responses they make, and I love celebration, but hate the lack of real commitment.

The bravest thing I’ve ever done was listening to my wife’s strangled gasps of life in a hospice bed, and pleading with God to end her suffering whilst at the same time being desperate not to lose her.

Yes, we’re on lockdown, but I’m blessed. I’ve had 34 houses in my adult life because I can always see another horizon. I pitched up in Portugal two years ago, and it’s a very pleasant place to grow old in. I live in splendid isolation in a sunlit house where I can write and play music, with a garden full of oranges, figs, and loquats, and a large hound and a wicked Belgian Malinois puppy that I’m training. I have a veg. and salad garden to tend, and a swimming pool once the summer sun warms it up a bit.

We have had a state of emergency, but nothing like our neighbour, Spain. At its height, food shops, pharmacies, banks, post offices remained open, and one person per house was allowed out for shopping.

Bullying, or hurting children or animals, domestic abuse, rank hypocrisy, rudeness — there’s no end to things that can lift me out of the torpor of old age to rage at the perpetrators.

Waking each morning is what makes me happiest.

“Goodness and mercy will follow me for the rest of my days, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” That is the ground of my hope.

I pray most for that peace that passes all understanding.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose to be with my uncle Robert, who spent years smuggling Bibles into Russia during the Cold War. His was a different sort of courage than anything I’ve ever known. I’d love to know the depth and breadth of his resolve to spread the word in a different way.


Robert Perryment was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

It Could Just Happen is published at £11.99. www.phoenixfilmandpublishing.com

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