James Delingpole makes his last stand for masculinity in a world increasingly tailored to women
Flashes and streaks of flame in the darkness. The smell of singed hair, burning cloth and paraffin. Roars of exultation; gasps of exertion; yelps of fear and pain. A fiery ball soars upwards, narrowly missing my face. "Come on Delingpole!" bellows the colonel. "Get stuck in there!" With a renewed surge of aggression and adrenaline I hurl myself back into the fray.
My first time in action with the Light Dragoons and I'm loving every second of it. War is hell? Pah! War is what men were designed for.
Not that this is actual war, you understand. It's just me playing a game of fireball hockey with a bunch of Light Dragoons officers after a black-tie dinner at their Norfolk barracks.
I have been invited to give them a short address on why it is that I would happily swap my glamorous career as a semi-famous writer and journalist for the life of an army officer. And this isn't just some sucky-up theme that I have devised to make myself popular: I envy these boys deeply and sincerely. It's my belief that in an increasingly feminised world, theirs is about the only career left where men are still allowed to enjoy being men.
A lot of my friends laugh at my military fixation. I'm a scaredy-cat and a wimp and I'm sure I would have made a lousy officer. But for all my weediness, there is still enough man in me to recognise that -- whatever the feminists may claim about patriarchy and male oppression -- we now inhabit a universe designed largely by and for girls.
It's a world where mostly female teachers treat the playground boisterousness of young male pupils as deviant rather than healthily normal; where the high pressure exams at which boys tend to excel are being replaced by more girl-friendly continuous assessment; where school sports days are turning non-competitive; where men who don't cook and wash dishes and take an equal role in childcare are viewed as antediluvian freaks; where to display more than a hint of male sexuality is to court accusations of harassment or even rape; where in television comedies and advertisements men are forever being mocked as useless monomaniacal slobs, while women are invariably depicted as wise, sparky omnicompetents; where force and strength are deemed primitive and "inappropriate" while negotiation, gentleness and empathy are blessed panaceas; where any form of risk is forbidden by an ever-lengthening list of health and safety directives.
To the feminists and liberal- lefties who ushered in this nonsense it may seem like proof of just how far society has progressed, how much more "civilised" we have become. But it flies in the face of human nature and it's deeply unfair on men. What if men don't want to spend their time changing nappies and nurturing their feminine side? Actually, there's no "if" about it: they don't.
Look at the popularity of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Look at the latest research from the Economic and Social Research Council, which shows that modern men just aren't interested in the paternity leave which the government is preparing statutorily to impose on business. They are much happier working long hours, avoiding childcare as much as possible and generally being men.
Which is more or less what I'm doing playing fireball hockey with the Light Dragoons. I bumped into their CO, Lieutenant Colonel Robin Matthews, at a party and it turns out that, besides being a big fan of a semi-pornographic autobiographical novel that I once wrote, he is the same age as me. "My God, I'm so jealous," I say. "In a parallel universe I might be you."
So I have come to see what life might be like in that parallel universe: a place which, if it didn't have such a dodgy ring, you could almost call Boy Zone.
Fireball hockey is a quintessentially Boy Zone activity. You wrap a roll of bog paper in chicken wire, douse it in paraffin, set it alight and play five-a-side hockey with it. When the fireball has burnt down to a size considered insufficiently dangerous, a new one is lit and the game carries on.
It gets quite scary, especially when your hockey stick catches fire or the ball flicks suddenly towards your face (if it hits it can leave chicken-wire-shaped burns), but I imagine that by military standards it's pretty tame. Nothing, say, on being RPGed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is where the Light Dragoons are going next.
As a specialist reconnaissance regiment, the Light Dragoons get to drive around in Scimitar light tanks. I'm allowed to have a go myself round a disused airfield. It's tremendous fun and surprisingly easy even when, following left/right instructions relayed by the commander through my headphones, I drive backwards blind at high speed. Afterwards I expect to be congratulated on my prowess. Instead I'm told: "Yeah, simple isn't it? The wives love it when they're allowed a go."
Men have always loved military hardware and until at least the mid-20th century this was encouraged. Boys played with lead soldiers, practised with catapults and bows and arrows, and later went out shooting with their dads. There was a time, indeed, in the Middle Ages when archery practice was compulsory for every Englishman.
Today, though, when grown men drool over jet fighters and fast cars, play Medal of Honor on their PlayStations or go off with their mates paintballing, it's giggled at as a sign of arrested development. Is it any wonder that so many of us look at soldiers and think meanly of ourselves for not having been one? In the army, after all, you can play with assault rifles and 30mm cannon with high-explosive shells and tanks that can roll over anything at speeds of up to 80mph, sometimes in authentic combat situations. And at the end of each month you actually get paid for it.
I loose off a couple of magazines' worth of 9mm Browning pistol rounds (rubbish grouping but no matter: I kill my target loads of times), before heading to the CO's office for a briefing on the regiment's history. An amalgam of the 13th/18th Hussars and the 15th/19th Hussars, its battle honours include Waterloo, the charge of the Light Brigade and D-Day where it provided the first allied tanks to land on French soil.
Later, in a sergeants' mess lined with framed VCs and MMs and paintings of great battles, the history lesson continues, with one senior NCO proudly recalling an incident 200 years earlier when a mere squadron of Hussars accidentally captured a whole regiment of Frenchmen in the fog.
This is one of the strengths of the British regimental system: the moment you join a regiment, its history becomes your history, with the great deeds of members past acting as a spur for members present to enact even more recklessly heroic deeds in the future.
If this sounds a bit archaic and GA Henty, that is because the British Army (its cavalry and guards regiments especially) still is. You see it in the unashamed way that it preserves the old social order. The mostly public school officers may be notionally in charge, but old-fashioned duty compels them to act more like the servants than the masters of the mostly working-class lads from Yorkshire and the northeast under their command. It's the working-class NCOs, meanwhile, who form the backbone of the regiment and stop the officers and troopers doing anything too stupid.
Dinner in the officers' mess is everything I had hoped: formal (it's the first time I've worn black tie in about a decade), polished silver, endless varieties of quality booze with each magnificent course; then afterwards, compulsory champagne in a room a bit like a gentleman's club library, with photo albums of Victorian officers after a day's pigsticking and wager books containing bets such as the one from 1914 where two officers lay money as to whether they are going to survive the war. (Remarkably, both do.) When you are a married man like me in the civilian world you get to go out drinking with a gang of blokes maybe once or twice a year if you're lucky. In the Light Dragoons it's compulsory at least once a week on formal mess evenings like this. And there are strict penalties for any young officer who retires too early (ie before the colonel): normally the others will trash his room and squirt him with fire extinguishers. Between drinking you are expected to indulge in high jinks such as kabaddi and, of course, fireball hockey.
To our feminised society this might sound pointless and puerile. In the army, though, it's an essential part of the training. It nurtures stamina, speedy reactions, camaraderie, joie de vivre, a sense of humour -- qualities that come in quite handy when the bullets start flying and your mates start dropping. This, you see, is what games are really all about: a form of ritualised combat, a preparation for war.
The officers of the Light Dragoons understand this. They are not a bunch of dim-witted hoorays, far from it. Beneath all that levity are the deep wells of seriousness and maturity which come from having great responsibility thrust upon you from a young age, from being overshadowed by the possibility of an early violent death.
They wear their burdens lightly, though, because that's what soldiers do. There's no point bleating or wearing your heart on your sleeve, as current modish practice demands. They are professional killers, not social workers.
Most of us today are quite squeamish about the profession of arms. We use euphemisms such as "peacekeeping". We choose to believe that it's possible to fight wars without collateral damage or the involvement of body bags. These are all the delusions of a politically correct society which prefers to see the world as it ought to be rather than as it actually is.
The army -- of necessity -- is a lot more realistic. It understands the nature of the world -- that it will always be violent -- and the nature of men -- that under the skin they remain hunters and fighters. We may think of the army as an old-fashioned institution whose values hark back to another age. But the age it belongs to is the age of reason. It's the modern world that has got it all wrong.