Who thought we'd turn out all right

The Sunday Times, December 03, 2006

Out of the corner of my eye I could see a lean, leathery man standing still, drawing on a cigarette. He was some 50ft away, and I couldn’t be sure it was James. I collected my bags and made my way across the airport. As I approached, his tanned face broke into a smile. It was him all right, James Cunningham, though if I had given him his full title I would have said “Adjutant James Cunningham, 2nd Régiment Etranger de Parachutistes, French Foreign Legion”.

Cunningham and I grew up together in southeast Devon, but one day, aged 22, he vanished. There were rumours that he had joined the legion, but that was all. Now, aged 40, we were climbing into a Jaguar borrowed from a fellow legionnaire to drive the 90 minutes to the 2nd REP’s base in Calvi, Corsica. To say I was nervous would be an understatement: as if the legion does not have mystique enough, the 2nd REP is its crack parachute regiment.

Just what sort of man Cunningham had become intrigued me, not least because of the way in which contact between us had been revived. A few months after the publication of my book, Wrecking Machine, an account of my life on the amateur boxing circuit — a pretty unusual sideline for a lawyer — he e-mailed my website.

If it hadn’t mentioned a mutual schoolfriend, I would have had no idea it was from James. By the time we met a few months later I had turned 40. I had barely been to the gym in six months. I could still, in boxing parlance, “bang”, but I was also starting to find that I didn’t really want to any more. Hitting people was starting to feel wrong, and as for being hit, I had had enough. What Cunningham, as a legionnaire, would make of this was one of many things on my mind as we rolled into Calvi.

Cunningham and I grew up in the seaside town of Exmouth, and we went to schools that our parents had to make sacrifices to afford. St Peter’s preparatory school, in Lympstone, was the first, followed by Exeter school. Cunningham left school at 16, having obtained two O-levels. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I continued my education to university, graduating from the University of East University with a BA in American and English literature. The year that I graduated — 1988 — was the year Cunningham enlisted in the legion. What had motivated him?

“I was drifting around achieving nothing. I had a succession of dead-end jobs, I wasn’t a very nice person, and I wasn’t happy with how things had turned out. I wanted some adventure, and I saw the legion as a way of turning things around.”

Cunningham was the son of a tough father, himself a corporal in the British Army who was once preselected for the Olympics. Injury put paid to Cunningham Sr’s chances both on the track and in the army, but not to his determination to raise his son with a rod of iron.

“He was a hard father, and I was a rebellious little sod,” says Cunningham. “The combination was explosive. He was a product of his generation, hard as nails, distant. I can’t remember any affection ever shown to me by him.” Was it possible that Cunningham, for much of his childhood all but estranged from his father, wanted to please him in joining the legion? “I don’t know,” he replies, drawing on another cigarette, “but I hope he’s proud of me now.”

As friends at school, I remember Cunningham being one of the most mischievous of our year, and also one of the brightest. He was potentially a better athlete than everyone else, but had a rebellious streak that meant that if he was told to do something, he would automatically do the opposite.

I was the same. A lot of our behaviour, during puberty and early adolescence, could be categorised as boyish high jinks — jumping off cliffs into the sea, sneaking through people’s gardens as part of an “assault course”, cheeking the teachers — by our late teens we were a handful, constantly in as much trouble out of school as in it.

Despite our cosy public school education, we vandalised things, got in fights, got drunk, and, by the time we could drive, drove like lunatics, often over the limit.

By the time we were 20 we had acquired criminal convictions and sorely tested our parents’ patience. Somehow I made it to university, but Cunningham’s reputation as a hard-drinking, womanising and unreliable individual heading nowhere fast seemed set.

Now, though, Cunningham runs the 2nd REP’s amphibious training centre on the beach at Calvi. He has been on 15 overseas tours with the legion, works as a military dispatcher on French aircraft and is a qualified parachute jump instructor.

As an adjutant in the 2nd REP’s 3rd Company, he has a senior position which commands respect from legionnaires of every rank. The legion is known for its discipline, but what I observe at the 2nd REP’s base is more than mere slavish obedience. Cunningham’s men — in the legion, the soldiers remain exclusively male — seem to like him.

“I have a light touch with men under my command,” he explains. “If you have to hit a legionnaire, you haven’t done your job properly. Times have changed — you can’t get away with that sort of thing any more.”

As we enter an anti-tank missile simulation theatre, we are greeted by Marc Briot, a legionnaire whose bicep muscles would dwarf the thighs of many men. He says that last Saturday he brought three children (one of whom was Cunningham’s nine-year-old son) to the theatre to let them have a go with the assault weapon simulator. I think of how much my own two boys, aged 11 and eight, would love this.

Briot laughs amiably, and it strikes me that this sort of embrace of unreconstructed masculinity has all but died in modern Britain. Ours is a world in which a boy behaving as a boy — exuberantly, hyperactively, and, yes, aggressively — is automatically classified as suffering from a behavioural disorder. Boys are condemned by the forces of political correctness to strive for second place, for to win — to be fastest, strongest, toughest — is unfair on those less capable.

As Cunningham was rising through the legion, seeing action in hotspots such as the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic, I was living a very different life. Perhaps I too wanted to please my father, a lawyer, who, like Cunningham Sr, was a strict figure in my childhood, remote and authoritarian in the way of many men of his generation.

In my early twenties I abandoned dreams of a literary life and became a solicitor. Unlike Cunningham, my entry into the law was not accompanied by the feeling that I fitted in from day one. I spent the next decade or so behaving so self-destructively that it was a miracle I lasted as long as I did. In the end, an affair spiralled out of control; I drank too much, too often; I smashed up part of a restaurant, and the firm then employing me had no option but to terminate my services.

I floundered around, seemingly having lost my marriage, two sons and profession. Taking up boxing in my mid-thirties proved to be instrumental in turning things around, as did the decision to give up the law in favour of writing.

Now, as Cunningham and I ate in a restaurant in his village of Calenzana, here we were, two 40-year-old men who had grown up together, gone off the rails and come back. Like me, Cunningham had had trouble in his relationships with women. He was divorced from his beautiful French wife Virginie in 2002. Cunningham is devoted to their son Chad, who was living with him for the summer holidays. My marriage survived, Cunningham’s did not; we both adore our sons; but what now lies ahead?

“The most important thing in my life is Chad,” says Cunningham. “So long as he’s happy, I’m happy.” Just a day after Chad’s birth, Cunningham was dispatched to South America for six months, and it was absences such as this that caused the break-up of his marriage.

Does he regret being, in his words, “totally focused” on his career? “I wish things had worked out with Virginie, but I was a young sergeant and had to concentrate on my work. But we have a good relationship now and I don’t see myself as a part-time dad.”

Cunningham tells me he is likely to stay in the legion for another four years; after that, he is not sure what he will do, but one thing is certain — he will not be returning to England. “Chad is here, and so is his mother,” he says. “I need to be near them.”

As we talk, I am conscious that the conversation is slipping into unusually emotional territory. A shiver goes down my spine as Cunningham talks of his need to be near Chad. This is what I feel for my own sons, allied with a tremendous sense of regret that, in their very young days, I went off the rails and was, for a while, a part-time dad.

How to explain this? Can a factor be the upbringings of paternal rectitude and rigour shared by Cunningham and me? Or was I simply selfish and immature? It is impossible to say, but a big factor in my own self-destructiveness was a feeling of frustration at the ennui of civilian life as a solicitor.

What of adventure, of challenges, of wanting to climb mountains and surf big waves? The physicality of office life entailed no greater task than lifting a law book from a library shelf. What, in short, had happened to all that conditioning in my boyhood, the rough and tumble, the absorption in hard exercise, the mischief? Contemporary life as a professional had obliterated it; my fear, now, is that the process of obliteration starts much earlier.

Cunningham orders two glasses of eau de vie. “You know,” he says, “our fathers only ever wanted the best for us. They just had a different way of going about it.”

Later, I ask what Cunningham would say if Chad announced he wanted to join the legion. His reply was unhesitating. “I wouldn’t want him to go through what I had to go through. He can become a dustman if that’s what he wants.” What, though, if Chad goes off the rails? “I swore when he was born never to lay a finger on him. I hope I can deal with any problems by being his friend.”

I was full of admiration for the life Cunningham had created in the legion. It was as easy being with him as when we were friends at school, and I respected the seriousness with which he approached his job and his role as a father. But would I want my boys to learn how to kill?

I do not know. But it seems to me that there are some men who achieve order through chaos, who need to be tempered by harshness, whether thanks to a hard life in the legion, through the legitimised violence of a boxing gym or another “male” activity.

Society, now, has little or no esteem for what, not so long ago, would have been the simple virtue of “manliness”, but it seems to me that we annul a vital part of our sons if we say that such competitive masculinity is only ever antisocial and politically incorrect. Boys need to compete, they need to be active, and they need rules. But they also need loving and involved fathers.

As I reflected on my week with Adjutant James Cunningham, I couldn’t wait to see my sons again, and I felt closer to my own father.