“Hang on to your seat. I’m going into a steep dive to minimise the risk of us being hit by a rocket attack.” The pilot brought our transporter down onto the runway as if we had come down a ski slope. Welcome to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
Although dubious about the mission, I had accepted that once Britain's involvement in the Afghanistan campaign started in 2002, I had to give full support to our military. And I felt I should see at first hand what we were asking them to do on our nation's behalf. So in 2009, I accepted an invitation from the Ministry of Defence to go the Helmand and spend time with our troops at Camp Bastion.
But first I was given a rapid training course. How to cope with wearing 30kgs of armour and conduct myself if captured by the Taliban and used - as an MP - as a bartering tool with the British government. That sort of thing. Once that information was absorbed, it was off to Brize Norton before I might have any second thoughts.
Bastion was vast - a city in the desert. The first overwhelming impression was the heat. Too hot to hold your palms flat under the searing sun for more than a few seconds - 49C I was informed - then the heat and the dust. Amidst it all, there was constant activity around the camp with an air of solid determination for the mission, matched with ever-present peril either from the air or the ground.
The camp commander's briefing on the campaign was straightforwardly honest, just as I had hoped. And punctuated by his observation partway through: '4 pm, key time for incoming RPGs; if you hear a whooshing sound, join me under the table.'
Eventually, I was ready to join the troops on the job. Clambering about in the heat with all my body armour, I boarded the Mastiff and we bumped along outside the camp, patrolling the Taliban front line. “Make sure you keep drinking the water”. “This stretch is frequently mined”, “Roadside bombs are our biggest threat here”. The commentary punctuated my concentration and underlined my admiration for the troops squeezed into this boiling metal box with me and who were doing this day after day as their job - in our name.
There was much to discover at Bastion - how were our troops equipped, did they have all they required, how did they feel about the mission, did they believe they could train an Afghan army to take over from them, how was the medical support, how were they affected by the casualty rate? I was trying to find out so much, using every available moment to quiz those on the job while also trying to experience it as it really was. I should not have feared that I would get a sanitised version. The British Army soldier tells it like it is. And that was exactly what I wanted. “This is a close-quarter battle”, they said. Understood. I saw it and smelt it.
When speaking about the conflict in the Commons, the last thing I wanted was to be or to sound like an armchair general. I wanted to be able to speak from experience. After my time in Helmand, I felt entitled to put a point of view. And with too many of our troops lost in the campaign, the best moments for me, after Helmand, were greeting troops who were my constituents on their safe return from duty. And the worst, meeting the families of those who didn't.
The Prime Minister's Shoes
“Tony wants to launch the education part of the manifesto at a school in your constituency. Can you set that up?” It was the start of the 2005 general election campaign and the call from HQ put our little team into scramble mode. Needed: one friendly school, with a big enough science lab to hold the PM and his staff and the entire media pack who were following him everywhere as he crisscrossed the country. Oh, and a decent-sized playing field - don't forget that. Tony was travelling by helicopter.
And so Myton School in Warwick became the venue for Labour's launch of its 2005 Education Manifesto and it was my job to make sure everything went smoothly and according to the prime ministerial plan. We were meticulous with our rehearsals. Got the route from helicopter to lab? Check. Got all the signage right? Check. Got hoards of cheering students ready? Check. Make sure he won´t pass by and potentially be photographed under any exit signs. Check. Headteacher fully briefed? Check.
The giant helicopter eventually approached, circled the school, and to cheers from the excited students, touched down in the field, about 50 metres from the playground and the assembled main cast. Out jumped the waving Prime Minister with his patent grin on full show.
Then, and only then, did we realise the contribution to the event that was about to be made by the previous night's steady rainfall.
The Prime Minister's feel sunk into the muddy field as he made his sticky progress towards us, smile unwavering.
“Great to see you all - hi James”, handshakes all around. “Lead the way.”
'Erm, not just yet, Tony. Have you seen your shoes? Don't think we can put you up in front of the press pack and their photographers looking like that. We may not get the story you are hoping for.” I imagined copy editors ditching the ´Labour pledges record school's investment' headlines to be replaced with 'Labour campaign sinks in the Warwick mud'.
And so briskly, I steered him into the boy’s toilets. Off come the shoes and we stood at the sinks with soap and paper towels each working to restore the prime ministerial shine to his size 9s, while discussing the progress of the election campaign in the West Midlands.
I kept a copy of the manifesto in my office after the election. I drew a shoe print on the cover.
A dinner with a difference
“It's just an informal do. A chance to meet some of the elders and have a good meal.”
My constituency had a large Sikh community, proud of their traditions and of their enormous contribution to the local community. And why shouldn't they invite their MP to a social do? For me, all part of the job and very much the routine aspect of knowing one’s constituents.
I also knew, as one of my most trusted Sikh colleagues put it, that it would “run on Indian time” - that is to say, start late, and go on far longer than advertised, and unlikely to be exactly as billed. No matter. Expect the unexpected.
We met at the Sikh social club and eventually settled into a great Indian meal, washed down, as was the habit in these places, with some decent whisky.
The conversation circled around, plenty of issues for me to take up, plenty of opinions - not all coherent as the evening dragged on, and plenty of gossip about local community leaders.
As yet another highly spiced course appeared, I began to yearn for a break, or at least my stomach did. At that moment, the door flew open and in marched a group of men in traditional Sikh costume, waving their ceremonial kirpans (swords). Entertainment, I thought. Maybe a ceremonial dance or something.
But I didn't think that for long. Not once the shouting started, and not when one of the swords smashed right through the television mounted on the wall. And not when turbans started being snatched off. And certainly not once the tabled started being thrown over.
“Quick, take cover”, said my host, 'these are extremists - this is an attack”. I was a bit too slow to dive and before the overturned table could afford me any protection, a metal chair was slammed down onto my head. Punches were being thrown and glasses smashed and too many heads were bloodied. Expect the unexpected - but not quite this unexpected.
A small group of Sikh extremists from Coventry had got wind of the event and believed that alcohol was being served in the gurdwara - totally contrary to Sikh teaching. In fact it wasn't. The social club, though adjacent to the temple, was in fact an entirely separate building. But niceties like that tend to get lost on religious extremists.
Police and ambulances quickly arrived and the wounded got patched up. My sore head, I assured the crew, had nothing to do with whisky and everything to do with a close encounter with a chair frame. I healed. My hosts were profoundly embarrassed. I told them not to worry. I'd be at their next dinner if they were happy to invite me.
Months later, I picked out my assailant in an identity parade. He got sentenced to four years for assault.
The gurdwara committee invited me to almost everything after that. Many happy hours on Indian time.