PTSD: The War in My Head, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC iPlayer, narrator Iwan Rheon.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p077ysvd/ptsd-the-war-in-my-head

Who are you? What are you? A simple way of telling a story involves both elements. To be identified as a soldier tells who you are. Lt. General Harold G. Moore, for example, proudly claims in his New York Times Bestseller, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young.   But it doesn’t tell what you are. The moron’s moron and Chief Commanding Officer of the United States Army, for example, was not a draft dodger, or conscientious objector like Muhammed Ali, for that takes courage of conviction. When you’ve no morals or convictions it’s pretty easy to claim to have a spur in your heel that stops you from walking properly and tell other poor fools to fight in Vietnam. George Bush, Junior, who did manage to steal an election using the Supreme Court and some chads as cover, claimed he was a recovering alcoholic. There were no physical ailments to mark him out as different. After the fall of the Twin Towers and what is referred to as 9/11 it would have been very difficult for an American President not to invade a small country. The Commander in Chief convinced Tony Blair the British Prime Minister to support his dubious claims of weapons of mass destruction and invade Iraq. In comparison, in the sixties, Prime-Minister Harold Wilson body-swerved supporting Lyndon B. Johnson’s veiled threats and diplomatic request to send British troops to help with the invasion of Vietnam.

Two of the dumbest Presidents in modern history, both commanders in chiefs. Ironically, we’re back here now with war in Ukraine. Afghanistan abandoned to the Taliban. Iraq dismembered and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. For what?

Who are you? What are you? This is the story of the three of these soldiers who fought in these wars. Listen carefully. When does the army’s duty of care begin and end?

Cost cutting under the false flag of austerity means that Tobias Ellwood, a former British officer and reservist, rehashes the Minister of Defence’s rhetoric about their duty of care, while quietly shifting the responsibility onto the NHS. The same NHS which the Tory Party has been attacking and underfunding and trying to privatise, while not admitting to such, because that would be political suicide of the Truss variety. British soldiers with mental health problems and suicidal thoughts would be uninsurable under such a scheme. And if you listen closely, Kevin Williams also developed testicular cancer, which he joked about to his sister of only having one ball. But he was under thirty. He might be a statistical outlier. What remains largely invisible and neglected as mental-health care in a world of crude propaganda of good versus evil is the armour-piercing shells and bullets we use are radio-active afterwards. Cancerous. Tens of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi children born and unborn are the unread litmus tests. Kevin Williams may have been a victim of friendly fire in more than one way, if there is such a thing.

The programme chooses to finish with those that made it to the other side. End on a high note. It’s a story of hope. But I’m not buying. A story of continued neglect would be nearer the mark.     

Notes:

This film tells the stories of three British soldiers who died in 2018 following lengthy battles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). John Paul Finnigan from Liverpool, Kevin Williams from London, and Kevin Holt from Doncaster were in the same regiment, 2-Rifles, which served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Paul Finnigan, who died aged 34 and Kevin Williams, who was 29, took their own lives.

Through personal videos, voice notes, interviews and letters, this film reveals the private battle these men fought with their mental health.

While candid conversations with soldiers’ friends and families, document how their illnesses affected those around them.

As pressure mounts on the MOD to admit that they missed cases of PTSD in the wake of traumas experienced by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film raises serious questions around the whole culture of mental health care in the army, which the Minister for Defence, People and Veterans, Tobias Ellwood says he is trying to change.

I need to unscramble my thoughts and get myself back together piece by piece.

3 soldiers who died, not the battlefield last year (2018) but in their own homes.

Commentator: These soldiers died after long battles with PTSD.

Kevin Holt 1988-2018.

Jess Holt. Kevin’s sister. He used to play outside building forts with those little green soldiers.

Kevin Holt (filmed by BBC 3 in 2012). I joined up because I wanted to get out of Lancaster. And obviously, when I were little, I watched a few Rambo film and that. Hmmmm.

Jess Holt [JH] He tried to join the first time, but they wouldn’t let im. Because he was far too skinny. He had to get those protein [drinks]. He never stopped eating.

Kevin Holt grew up in a big family. The only boy with four sisters.

JH. He was very full of himself. He always thought he was god’s gift. If you asked im about himself he’d say he was invincible.

KH: To be honest, I just wanted to be…get out there. Like get out on tour.

When Kevin joined the army, Britain was already at war in Iraq. He completed his basic training and went straight to Basra.

Kevin Williams 1988-2018.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister. The family’s reaction to Kevin joining the army was not the best. Em, on the one hand, we saw it as a very honourable career choice.

Kevin Williams [KW own footage] Here we are Rifleman Williams the owner of this camera…And we have Rifleman Collison, say ‘Hello’ Rifleman Collison.

JW: I would definitely describe my brother as being not a mature 18-year-old. He’s definitely a boy. He wanted to join as soon as possible. Say, 15 and nine months, or whatever it was. So he basically, he broke my parents down until they said finally, yeh, we’ll sign the papers.

Rachel Kaden,  KW’s close friend,

Rachel Kaden met Kevin years after he left the army. She’d go on to make a documentary about him.

Rachel [looking at picture of him] I always remember him talking about meeting the Queen and serving in the army at 16. And one of the girls I worked with said I think he makes all this stuff up. You can’t join the army at 16. I remember feeling so angry. And I was never going to let Kevin know this and I searched the internet. And found a picture of him meeting the Queen. Just so I could go in the next day and say, hmm, he’s not a liar. See!

KW deployed to Basra on his 18th birthday.

John Paul Finnigan 1983-2018.

Liverpool.

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

SF. We did have a difficult upbringing. Don’t get me wrong. We never really had any real inspiration where he was going. But once we seen he was joining the army, we just seen this glow in him.

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife]

LF: Me and JP were 18 or 19 when we met. And it wasn’t a magical love story. It was just 2 friends and we fell in love. And, yeh, it was that simple.

[footage of their wedding]

LF: we decided when he got his dates for Iraq, OK, let’s get married. We got a formal wedding. Then it was straight onto the party. And drunken dance and Karaoke. We got Karaoke.  He/We just wanted to have fun.

Letter to family from JP in Iraq 20/11/2006 [read by SF his brother]

Don’t know if you’ll get this, but I’m writing it anyway. I’m missing everyone at home and the wife. I’m missing Leah much more than I thought I would, but hey things must go on. I got hit by a Chinese rocket. 25 meters away. A bit too close for comfort.

Lee Harding was one of JP’s best mates in the army. He lived near him in Liverpool and they served in Iraq, alongside Kevin Williams.

LH: It was just the ferocity of the contacts we were in. It was relentless. The minute we got there to the minute we got home. It was constant.

[Commentator] One day JP was out fixing the Bulldog fighting vehicle he drove. When they came under attack.

LH: 12 mortars from 6 different locations in the city. JP was out of the wagon and it landed no more than a couple of feet away. 

It burst JP’s eardrums. But at the time, you literally, laugh it off. Out there you have feelings. You don’t get hurt. Everything gets buried, deep down on you.

Commentator: In fact, JP was left with ringing in his ears. He later got diagnosed with an ear infection. Which left him with life-long hearing problems.

Commentator; [transition]

Keven William was in the same company as JP.

KW’s personal video.

Believe it or not I’m in a fucking place. Where most folk are being fucking killed.

Commentator: For 7 months the battalion endured daily attacks. They lost 3 young soldiers.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister: When Kevin was in Iraq, he did lose one of his best friends. And that hit him really hard. Because Kevin is the type of person, when he likes you, he really likes you. And for him to call this person ‘his best friend’, it’s like more than a brother to him. 

Commentator: Aaron Lincoln was killed when out on patrol in 2007.

Footage from RKaden: KW speaking: I lost possibly the closest friend to me that served alongside me. He wanted to leave the forces. I convinced him to stay. And no long after he was killed.

Commentator: Kevin Halt was on tour for one month in Iraq, but what he saw in that month was to shatter any illusions he had about life of the front-line soldier.

Jess Holt. Kevin’s sister

One of the things that stuck with him most in Iraq was he went on patrol, and he saw this little girl, she must only have been about 3 or 4, and she was obviously in distress, really hot and dusty. And he gave her a bottle of water. Went on his patrol. Came back the same way. And they’d hung this little girl, cause she took the water from, obviously, a soldier. And they didn’t like that. But he always blamed himself for that. It really got to him.

Commentator: After any active tour, the army gives its soldiers a few days away before coming home. They call this period: decompression.

KW’s personal video, army base, Cyprus.

Daniel Holleran was friends with JP and KW and served in Iraq with the Rifles:  They basically just left us in the camp. And they’d a container with crates of lager and cider and everything you wanted.  We’d a bit of R&R in the daytime. Where we could go jet-skiing or paragliding. That was the joke, get out of bad habits before you get home and batter your wife.

Tobias Ellwood is the defence spokesman for veterans. He’s a veteran himself, who is still a reservist in the army.

TE: the decompression period is actually very important. What we didn’t want was them going from the violent arena, where they’ve seen things. Witnessed things. Or being aware of lost colleagues or so forth. Going straight back to seeing their families. Taking them to another arena such as Cyprus, were we have military bases there. They’re still together as a unit, but it’s not an operational environment. You have psychologists. You have padres there which offers the pastoral care, which allows people to start thinking, reflecting on what they’ve just been through. And being able to vent and share concerns. And so forth. Move on. Have something else. A bit of distance between what they’ve endured, before they meet their families.

KW’s personal video, army base, Cyprus:

Totally pissed.

TE: I’m not aware of huge quantities of alcohol. If that is the case then it’s a breach of the rules. And the controlled programmes that we’re trying to…eh. Have in place.

Commentator: KW’s struggle with mental health pre-dated his first tour. Unbeknown to the army, he had attempted to take his own life before he had joined. But after Iraq, he was diagnosed with a new condition. PTSD.

Filmed for BBC 3 in 2012: KW.

Mostly anger. At one stage I smashed up my room. Turned the TV over. Everything. And I don’t even know why.

PTSD is an anxiety condition that can occur after experiencing a frightening or distressing event.

Shirley Holt (KH’s mum).

2007, he got diagnosed with the condition.

He was bad for it. An he were bad from word go. As soon as he came home. You could always tell when he were gonna have an episode cause his eye used to change. I can’t explain it, but they do. Load of change.

Commentator: In the army, KW was given mental-health treatment. Including a period of hospitalisation in late 2007. The army makes judgement about who can handle weapons and go on tour based on mental as well as physical fitness. But Kevin assured medics he was able to cope.

Official report: Rfn Holt reported that he would like to soldier on.

   2009. KH deployed to Afghanistan. Where Britain had been at war for 8 years.

Jess Holt. Kevin’s sister

JH: He wanted to go to Afghanistan. He was obviously nervous. A bit apprehensive about it. But he had this mindset where he wanted to go. Not to make things better but…it just…get it done.

KW [personal video]: The last tour were Afghan, we spent 7 months there and my role were the valour man? Obviously, it’s just you holding a metal detector (mine sweeping) and you’re detecting any metal content in the IEDs.

Commentator: IDs, improvised explosive devices were responsible for most deaths and injuries for British soldiers in Afghanistan.

On the 10th July, KH’s company was out on patrol. When a series of ID’s were triggered.

JH: I remember the day it happened. He weren’t supposed to be ringing. He were supposed to be like radio silence in the camp. But he rang my mum. I remember answering the phone. And he as just…He was crying. And I was like er, trying to get him to say what’s the matter? He were like, just put mum on. That was when we’d found out, he’d er…what had happened.

Commentator: 5 soldiers died that day. Including JH’s best friend James Backhouse.

JH: For him it wasn’t the initial explosion that kinda got to him. It was er afterwards. Picking all the bodies up. We can’t even imagine. The stuff of nightmares. He was an overthinker. It got to him. He just couldn’t shut it off. His head just couldn’t move on from that day, really.

Commentator: KH had been leading the patrol with a metal detector. Despite his feelings of guilt. The MOD recognised him as faultless in the incident. He even received a citation for his bravery. For continuing to search the area for further ID’s after the explosions. 

BBC 3 film, KH: Lot of people on the platoon, deserved it more than me. Everyone. . .

Commentator: The events of that day would cut short KH’s dreams of an army career.

KH: At first I were keen. I wanted to step up the ranks. The thing that stopped me being keen were seeing people I lived with, I worked with, that I care about, like get hurt. Or die.

Commentator: KH was discharged from the army at his own request.  But this was later converted to a medical discharge. In acknowledgement of his PTSD.

Liverpool.

Commentator: JPF couldn’t go to Afghanistan in 2009 because of the problems with his hearing. Instead, he was given a role in a welfare unit in England. In practice, this meant ferrying the families of the dead and injured flown back from Afghanistan so they could attend the repatriation ceremonies.

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife]:He had all these people in the back of his car. Taking them to hospitals or pick up the well…the dead. He felt guilty. He should have been there. In Afghanistan. He didn’t want to be driving the families. The guilt. The injury. That would have caused the trauma if he’d never done the tour. That’s when he started to shut off his emotions, actually. When he was ill. Really ill.

Commentator: Kevin Williams did not deploy to Afghanistan. He’d been discharged from the army in 2008. The year after he got back from Iraq, the recreational drug use increased. His sister believed by that time he wanted out. When she’s visited him on base in the UK a few months earlier, it was clear things were going badly wrong in his head.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister: One of his friends actually pulled me aside. Aidan said, ‘I’m worried about Kevin.’ I went…OK… I was, he was saying he’d cut himself and he’d written some message in his own blood on the walls.  And so I broached  the subject with Kevin. And he was like yer, I did do that. I just had a bit of a meltdown. And he said that he was given a card to call a number to get help. And I asked him, ‘did you call the number?’ And he said ‘No’.

Well, you really need to call the number.

Commentator: It would be years before KW was diagnosed with PTSD. After his dismissal from the army he returned to his family home. But his increasingly erratic behaviour was difficult for his family to deal with. Or understand.

JW. It was quite a scary time for us, with KH in the house, cause he would have rages. All of a sudden a fist would go through the door.  So my mum arranged for him to see the doctor to try and get help. He was very clearly depressed.

Commentator: eventually KW got a diagnosis of PTSD through a veteran charity. And his friend Rachel, started making a documentary about him.

Kevin Williams – This is Me. A film by Rachel Kaden 2016.  

KW: Returning to civilian life was a big shock. The skills I learned, especially being in the infantry regiment was all combat based. So civilian life doesn’t really have much combat. I was pretty much, you know? Useless.

Commentator: KW began communicating with Rachel through voice notes. They provide a unique insight into his battles with PTSD. And are broadcast here for the first time.

KW: 7/3/2016. For some good reason I believe the battle field will be my home?  When I’m in conflict, I’m a nicer person than when I am not. You know, when I leave the house today, I just want to hurt everyone. You know when I’m in combat, I’m like, I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you. You know I don’t want anyone to get hurt. And I think, this is where I’m coming from.

Commentator. John Paul Finnigan was medically discharged from the army in 2010 because of his ear injury.

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

Like when JPF came back to Liverpool, we found it very hard to get him out of his rut because he was in denial of what he was and was in denial. He’d fly off the handle. Fighting all the time.  He was like a yo-yo, basically. He’d go up and down with his moods.

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife] I told him, he needed help. And he went to the doctors and got CBT

Commentator: CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is the key treatment for PTSD. It requires the sufferer identifying the emotions driving their behaviour. In JP’s case he was asked to start writing this down.

JP (read by SF] I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety which leaves me low and at a loss. Tight, on edge, unsettled. When things happen my heart races. My chest feels tight. My muscles tense and I go stiff. I usually lash out at walls and doors. But this still has affected my relationship with my wife and child. 

Commentator: But JP found it hard to keep following the therapist’s instructions at home.

LF: He wasn’t doing the techniques. They teach you techniques to do at home. But he just wasn’t doing them. And that’s not the way it works. In the end, it killed our marriage. It was the PTSD that done it.

Kevin Holt

To be honest, after I got out the army, that’s when like all the help stopped. An I were just like going down. From there.

Doncaster.

Commentor: After Kevin Holt was discharged from the army he moved back to Doncaster.

KH’s mum: He got a job in a kitchen place. He told them he had PTSD. They said they understood that and they’d have a quiet word. But it only lasted a week. Thought everybody were talking about im. So he got paranoid and he went on er sick.

Commentator: Kevin was given every available treatment for sufferers on the NHS. Including CBT and counselling. But his inability to talk about his problems was a barrier to the treatment working.

KH 2012: Everything I’ve been to, I feel it hasn’t really helped…I don’t really like talking about things…  That’s probably why.

Commentator: Tobias Ellwood agrees they struggled to get the right support, when they leave the army.

TE: We must make sure they get the right support. Nobody is left out. They must be slid across to the civilian operation. And given the support they needed. And it’s taken a little time, because this whole mental-support mechanism has grown and evolved. I go back to the fact, we’re dealing with a very macho environment. And sometimes there’s a reluctance to admit that there’s an issue. And that’s part of what the NHS now needs to do. Make sure they ask the right questions so they can provide the right support.

Commentator: The solution he says lies in specialist training for GPs. And new NHS units tailored specifically to veteran care. For KH help came in another form.

KH Mum: He just wanted to settle down and have somebody. And kids. He always wanted kids. Whatever girlfriends he had couldn’t cope with his PTSD. So we got him a dog. The veteran charity helped train Kevin with his PTSD.

KH sister, JH: The thing that helped him most was Dash. That dog was like his kid. It was trained to lick him and wake him up when he was having a nightmare. I think having the responsibility of having to get up and look after something else. And having that routine back. Was important for im.  

Commentator: To add to his struggles, Kevin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. During his treatment, he moved into a caravan next door to his mum.

JH: He used to allow his paranoia and phases when he wanted to be on his own and shut the world out. But I think focussing on thinking about getting himself better from the cancer distracted him a little bit.

A few weeks before he passed away, he was…he’d come around for a drink. He was joking about losing one of his balls. That was just the sort of person he was. He didn’t let anything like that sorta bother im. It was the big stuff that got to him most.

KH Mum: He told me the day before he wanted to be by himself. And [I said] I’m still goin to make sure you’re alright. But he waved to me through the kitchen window. And he smiled at me. So I seen im the day before.    

Commentator: On 13th July 2018, KH was found dead in his caravan. The coroner ruled his death was by misadventure. KH accidentally overdosed on the morphine he’d been prescribed for his cancer. He was 30-years-old when he died.

JH: It feels like a massive blur. But I don’t think it’ll hurt properly. It looked like I said I lost my brother. But when he came back from Iraq, as much as I loved him and he was my big brother, he never really came home from there.

Basildon.

Commentator: Kevin Williams also struggled to find the right treatment for his PTSD. For him, Thai boxing seemed to relieve some of the strain. But in January 2018, things started to get on top of him.

KW voice note: 15/1/2018. I’ve been feeling very weird lately. My head playing games and everything else. It all plummeted at once. It was like I was supporting the bridge and all the suspension cables decided to fucking go off. One by one. Right after the other. It’s like I need to take a big step back from everything. And unscramble all my thoughts and my mind. And just get myself back together piece by piece.

Kevin Williams – This is Me. A film by Rachel Kaden 2016. 

RK: Well, he said it about the suspensions and the bridge. Just completely go. All I wish is I said, Let it all go. Come ere. I’ve got a spare room. Let it all go. Just come. Be still ere. So…hindsight is very easy to, er, make you think, isn’t it?

Commentator: Kevin’s final voice note was sent a week before his death. And he sounded back on track.

KW: 6/3/2018. 11/3/2018. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel, what are you doing today? It’s the tattoo artist again. I need your help. I’m going to look to book…

Commentator: On the 18th March 2018, KW took his own life at his own home in Basildon. He was 29-years-old.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister: When people talk about PTSD in particular they talk about walking the black dog. And…I just think that is just a really lame way of putting it. And the reason I’m saying it is anyone can walk a black dog down the park. These are soldiers. They can walk in the park. It’s more like being chained to a dark wolf. That it trying to eat you, constantly. And you have to fight it every day, every minute, every hour. And sometimes you get a lucky punch. That wolf goes down for… a few hours. Maybe a day. Maybe two days. But eventually that wolf comes round. And that wolf is always there. You’re chained to it. So you can’t get away from it.  

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

JP was just talking to me. And I knew something was up, just by his voice. And he said he was goin for a walk. Now, I knew where, he’d walk, you know. Know what I mean?

So I jumped in my car and shot down there. And he was standing out at the bridge and I beeped me horn and that startled im. And he was out of that vision of what he were goin to do. Instead, he was thinking what were that? You know what I mean? Where I’d that time to drag him back over and throw him back into me car. And don’t get me wrong, he was fighting me all the way. To do it, but…

Yer, he was fightin me all the way to do it, but… No. That’s not the way he was going. In my eyes, yeh, know what I mean? He deserved better than that.

Commentator: After JP’s marriage ended he met and moved in with Danielle Miller fiancee.

DM: JP’s sister said to get in touch, she was worried and to get in touch with her. He had been having kinda suicidal thoughts. To me it was a shock.

Commentator: Danielle’s mother had taken her own life. So she knew how it felt to lose someone to suicide.

DM: I did say to JP, you know how much I don’t  agree with suicide. And JP promised me, he did, er think about it. But he wouldn’t do it. It was kinda spur of the moment talk. And promised me he couldn’t live without me. His children. His family.

Commentator: But it was a promise he was unable to keep. On 27th May 2018, Danielle found JP’s body in the garden of the home they shared.

DM: I still don’t understand why JP done it. It’ll never leave. 

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

Well, I felt hopeless. Because I was in a completely different country. An, I felt that he knew, I’d stopped im before. So with me out of the way, I’d no stop im, you know what I mean?

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife]

All day, every day, he suffered so much. And I…My heart breaks that he wasn’t able to get the help he needed. He shoulda got help. He shoulda. He shouldn’t have been up to im to ask for it.  It shouldn’t ave. That should have been given to him… It should be an automatic thing… It’s men and women… it’s so sad.

Commentator: After Afghanistan the army attempted to screen soldiers [eg video Expressing my Emotions – This is Belonging: Army Jobs 2018] for mental-health problems. But it wasn’t effective.

Instead the MOD is trying to change the whole culture in the armed forces. As this recruitment video shows.

Tobias Ellwood:

When I was in the armed forces, you were reluctant to say anything, you were intimidated. You were told to grab a mansuit and sort yourself out. Em, certainly, there was no recognition that there was perhaps that there was something there that might need attention. And if you dealt with it right away it wouldn’t incubate into something…worse. And eh, that’s what we’re trying to change now.

Commentator: But any change will come too late for combat, front-line soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of whom 17% are suffering from probable PTSD. (source: KMCHR, October 2018 and refers to ex-serving personnel).

Commentator: Those sufferers include friends of JP. Men who fought alongside him. Daniel and Lee have both been diagnosed with PTSD. But it wasn’t until JP’s death, they faced up to their own thoughts to suicide.

Daniel: speaking about JP. I’d say he was one of the strongest soldiers. One of the strongest men I knew. Took his own life. But I understood why. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t judge him. To my shame, the first thought in my mind was he’s out of the pain now. And er, he hasn’t got all these things going round in his head. It was just complete and utter jealousy.

Lee: I didn’t know I was suicidal until you battle these demons and you feel numb.

Commentator: In the years since JP’s death, both have sought help.

Daniel: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, JP’s death gave me life. Something changed in me. From that day I put the drugs down and I went into treatment and I got better. It was all down to JP’s death. Give me my life.   

Lee: Just getting over that line to say I needed help was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. [Pictures of him with his wife and family, toddlers and baby]. Going back to therapy. That first session, was hard, really hard.

Commentator: The family and friends in this film had done so in the hope more veterans would have the courage to seek help.

JH:It was hard, the first week, I couldn’t even say his name, but it’s what he wanted. Baby Kevin Holt III. Now I’ve got a little mini Kev. I hope he’s not as naughty as Uncle Kev.

Curtis Sittenfeld (2009) American Wife.

The New York Times Bestseller runs to 637 pages, begins with melodrama, and ends with the tragedy that is George W Bush and the war in Iraq. Only, of course, this isn’t President Bush. This is fiction. President Blackwell is in the White House. It’s June 2007. His wife Alice Blackwell nee Lindgren narrates how he got there, traveling back through time and place to four different addresses — 1272 Amity Lane, 3859 Sproule Street, 402 Maronee Drive and finally, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Alice Blackwell Lindgren tells the reader ‘I didn’t vote for Charlie for president. I did vote for him both times for governor.’ Alice is not a Yes man. In fact she’s a very attractive woman. The paperback cover shows her sitting on an old-fashioned  bicycle, dressed modestly in a dark skirt and blouse, but with a bit of leg showing on the up step of the pedal, with what looks like a farmhouse in the background and acres of sky. I was thinking of Jackie Kennedy (although she did look like a fish) – and certainly the Blackwell’s families antics when they met up each year had me thinking of the Kennedy rather than the Bush clan, but I can’t claim to know much about either. Certainly as the book progresses it becomes obvious it’s George.

Alice loves her husband, but she doesn’t believe he can quit drinking. His family and friends think Charlie is a bit of a joke. And Dr Wycomb, Gladys Wycombe, Alice’s grannies secret love, who was in her mind ‘less a person than a destination, far away, yet not entirely familiar,’ tells her ‘those elections were fixed…and you’re a puppet’.

What makes the book shine is the author’s love of books. The fictional Alice is a school librarian.   She was not born to be a First Lady. ‘In 1954,’ Alice the narrator tells the reader, ‘the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl.’ Alice loves Andrew and Andrew loves Alice. Knowing the nature of the book the reader is lulled into thinking this is a poor man works his way up to greatness and gains the most powerful position in the world, but Sittenfeld knows how stories work and not an image or word is wasted.

I vote for Sittenfeld for President. She’s a great man and a fantastic writer.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole