The officers who played fireball hockey with me have been scandalously betrayed

Have you ever played fireball hockey? God, what a fantastic game! You wrap a bog roll in chicken wire, douse it in paraffin, set fire to it and then play hockey with it — preferably while drunk and wearing black tie, as I was lucky enough to do myself three years ago in front of the officers’ mess at the Norfolk HQ of the Light Dragoons. I’d been invited by their then CO, Lt Col Robin Matthews, who’d liked my book How To Be Right and wanted me to give his officers a pep talk. He explained: ‘A lot of these chaps are painfully aware how much money all their non-army friends are making [Gosh! That dates this story, doesn’t it?] and knowing you’re such a fan of the military I thought you could help remind them why they’re there.’

So that’s what I did. I told them how utterly crap life was in the real world (‘look at me: I’m a super-successful journalist, I meet lots of famous people, get dozens of CDs sent to me for review every week, am sent on the most stupendous travel freebies — but still it all completely sucks’), how soldiering was the most exciting and honourable profession, and the ‘war on terror’ was a noble and just one. At the time I was much more of a committed neocon than I am now, and was secretly quite pissed off when an earnest subaltern — one of the few non-public-school ones — came up to me afterwards to quibble with the general verdict that I was a splendid fellow who was quite right. ‘I still don’t see what we’re doing there,’ he said, meaning Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Who are we to impose our values on cultures that don’t want them?’

After dinner, during the game of fireball hockey, I tried to show as much ‘form’ as possible. That lethal flaming bog roll could easily set your hair alight or char criss-cross marks into your skin, but you don’t want to be seen to flinch by men who are about to command light tank reconnaissance squadrons in Afghanistan, at the HQ of a regiment so dashing and brave that a mere squadron of its Hussar antecedents once captured a whole regiment of Frenchmen in the fog.

 

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