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The Commissioning Editor fixed his gaze on me. “You’re a spunky girl, Jean,” he said, “How do you fancy spending a six weeks in the Army?” “Fine,” I replied, “You know me, I’ll go anywhere, anytime.” “Agreed, then. Thrumpton Barracks, twice weekly updates in the News slot, to be tied in with a follow-up documentary. You’ll get the details, start next week.” “Excellent,” I said. “Just one thing -” The `Ed’ raised an eyebrow. “My name’s Jane, and given that word’s vulgar connotations, I’d prefer to be described as `feisty’!!. Thank you.”

To get anywhere here on you must give as good as you get; the BBC isn’t a place for shrinking violets. Doors do not open on their own, they have to be pushed, hard; which is why the media attracts girls like me. Oh, some people say those who want to work in TV shouldn’t be allowed to, rather like politicians, but personally I think those “people” are just embittered, jealous folk whose own work gives them little or no satisfaction. Civil servants, perhaps, slaving for a pittance in some under resourced government department; hospital workers doing eighty hours a week and being assaulted for their pains, or the police, stressed out and loathed by everybody. Their plights are meat and drink to me, a photo-journalist, getting paid to poke my nose into other people’s lives; not only that, I get paid to be on the tv!

Really, this has to be the best job in the world, if you can take the pace. Attractive, bright and extrovert insn’t enough; you must exude confidence in abundance, have an ability to work to deadlines and possess an ego the size of a house. A mansion house with eight bedrooms, acres of garden space with room for stables. “You saw trouble in Ireland, I saw genocide in Kosovo. You got it straight from the late Princess Di, ah, you should have spoken to her psychotherapist – he gave me a lot more. You reported from Kabul? We liberated Kabul”, etc. etc. Each trying to outdo, outflank and out bitch everyone else. I know I’m as bad as anyone, but the men are even worse. Personally, I think us girls do have the edge over them simply because we look nicer in front of a camera. (That’s not being sexist, just honest. We have fewer lines for a start, and that lens is very unforgiving. We’re thinner, usually. We don’t recede on top, or sport a five o’clock shadow when emerging from some godforsaken hole in Africa. And a woman looking red and sweaty in the desert can, I’m told, be quite arousing for certain members of the opposite sex, but not vice versa.) And if I sound bitter, I’m not, honestly. Just worn out. Why? Because to get where I have – Middle East war correspondent – at my age, 27, and female, has been just bloody hard work.

So no wallflowers here; just a bunch of well paid professionals each attempting to engrave their own particular image into Joe Public’s cerebral cortex.

Take, for instance, our royal correspondent. Married to a top fashion designer, and don’t we just know it? Whether it’s hats at Royal Ascot, a two-piece at a royal wedding or whatever, she doesn’t aspire to the height of fashion, she sets it. The poor old Royals, frumpy and olde worlde that they are anyway, don’t even get a look in. It’s too easy to upstage the Queen in the clothes stakes, but she rubs the old bird’s face in it, every time. Why? Because that’s her signature, you see; Best Dressed Woman Of All Time, and the viewers love her for it. So she maintains anyway. Then you have guy who loves to see the politicians squirm as he brings his finely-honed interrogational skills (gleaned from years of trying to, and failing, to make it as a proper lawyer) to bear on his unsuspecting victims. So he’s the Cleverest Man Of All Time – in his opinion, within a minority of one. Others vie for the All Time titles of; rudest chat-show host, most anorexic-looking female presenter, wittiest panellist, most eccentric boffin, dumbest children’s TV host, the list is nearly as numerous as the number of employees, all looking for their niche.

So where does that leave me? Dear reader, I’m so glad you asked, because my calling card, my little corner of the market, is my hairstyle. Always and forever, the hair. What started as a little conceit, grew into a bit of a hobby, and ended up becoming a passion. In a nutshell, I’ve had all cuts and styles possible, and in all colours. I started long, naturally; and in the course of six months I’d had it pigtailed, braided, bee-hived, dreadlocked, bunned, up-do’d, left/right/centre parted, straight, waved, permed, highlights, lowlights, flicked, dyed in about the ten different colours acceptable to TV… and that’s before it was even cut. It got me noticed, and having graduated quickly from regional news to North of England correspondent, my trichological adventures became to stuff of debate in the tabloid newspapers. “Jane’s Mane, What Next?” the tabloids would scream. When I went national even the Times thundered: “Whether she is reporting from a slum in Salford, a mud hut in Mali or a battlefield in Bosnia, the only thing you seem to notice is Jane Craven’s latest haircut. The woman has never broadcasted the same style twice, though where she finds a stylist in the middle of the Sahara is anyone’s guess. Her quirky, innovative and sometimes quite eccentric approach to her `crowning glory’ has made her something of a style icon in young, trendy circles, her latest manifestation being what I could only describe as a frilly triangle pulled through a hedge, backwards. The news, it would appear, is secondary.” Not a very flattering description of my sharp angled bob, layered at the front with feathered bangs, but what do they know? But the point is, they noticed.

That was six months ago. Right at this moment the hair is off the ears, and I am experimenting with how sharply I can get it layered from the crown to the nape, and a fierce right parting. Later I might go spiky on top, or taper the nape, or grow a long, pointy strand in front of the ears or… oh, the possibilities! But the broadsheet had been quite inaccurate in one respect; the news is far from secondary – which is why I now found myself entrusted with a real-life, live TV assignment. Just two of us, myself and my trusty camerman Jude, were to be given free access to the largest Barracks in the country, our mission to faithfully record and comment upon conditions and attitudes in today’s Army. Now, don’t tell me that you have never missed an opportunity to make a name for yourself. I am no exception, and if I can do something to forward the women’s cause in the process of doing my job, then I’ll have no qualms about riding my personal hobby horse. I’ll do it, simply because I can, after all, I’m on camera nearly all the time! The only drawback was the hair angle. Clearly there isn’t a great deal of room for experimentation in the Forces, so I resolved to make a good choice beforehand. Not too girly, I suppose, or too ostentatious, but I’m not quite ready for a GI Jane either. It would have to be short, but not too short, and above all it should have as much style as I have. Hell, the public expect it from me. What to do? Finally, and after much deliberation, I settled for something akin to a 50s style “D.A.”: Parted, layered, bit of a flick on top, short angled nape with a sharp trim round the ears and a longish sideburn. Call it a female Elvis, if you like, and didn’t he join up too? A nice parallel there. At this stage I should point out that I have the best hairdresser in the business. He’s not cheap, but he knows exactly what I want, never lectures, just goes ahead and just about always gives me exactly what I want. And, no, I’m not telling you his name, because we media types are a bit selfish like that. Sorry.

The Sergeant was being blunt, as I knew that he would. Unsmiling, stiff, formal, mustachioed: Why waste a good stereotype? “So. You’re this Jane filly we’ve all been hearing about. Bit of a high-flyer, by all accounts. Bit of a whizz-kid. Bit of a superstar on the idiot box, I gather. Well, just bear in mind, here nobody’s heard of you. Here, you’re a numb
er like everyone else. Apparently we have to call you `Private’ but that don’t fool me; to me you’re just some smart-aleck bint, off the street and on the make, and I expect at our expense.” The chest puffed out to full capacity. “It’s not that you’re a woman, I can live with that. Hell, they even add a bit of exotic to the place. No, it’s journalists I can live without. Leeches, blood sucking parasites, and a bunch of pinko bastards, if you’ll pardon my French, and you may as well get used to that. Shoving their noses in, only wanting to cause trouble, I wouldn’t give them the time of day if I was Big Ben. But hey, it’s all `reality’ TV now, isn’t it? We’ve had Big Brother, and I suppose now Big Sister wants to give us a going over, doesn’t she? And apparently the CO thinks it’s a great idea, to which I say more fool him, but I’ll tell you this, little lady:” His voice lowered, his face glowered. “If I catch you shovelling shit in my platoon, I’ll bounce you right out on your pretty little backside TV or no TV. Got it?” I nodded meekly, there wasn’t much else I could do. “And another thing. You wear your cap on parade, so how will you possibly get yours on? Private, you look like the Wreck of the Hesperus, so get your hair cut. Dismiss.”

Dismiss?? Well, he certainly did that. It had taken me so long to find a style that fitted both me and the job, and he calls me the wreck of the, what was it? Has this man any idea what I’ve been through? But then this is the Army, where orders are orders, and my first rung on the sharpest curved learning ladder ever has landed me in the chair of the camp barber. “So, what’s it to be, then?” Actually I forgot the word `Retired’. He must be about 60, but flings the cape round my neck and ratchets up the chair with great gusto all the same. “Er, just short enough to wear a cap, please…” This was such a departure from the norm as to be downright humiliating. I mean, I’m used to the salon, with its pastel shades, whimsical fragrances, a style book, a consultation, an entertaining discourse about what’s hot and what’s not and how I’d like it different this time and what do you think? Even a shampoo first would have been nice…” And now I’m reduced to asking simply to take into account the constraints of my headgear. Then, without any preamble, the `cut’ began, and it became immediately obvious that he’s just shearing away as if trimming a hedge. “He’s right, you know, you never would get the cap on. It does come out a long way, doesn’t it, lass?” What would be the point, I surmised, of mentioning the word `layers’? None at all. “Never mind, we’ll soon have this lot sorted.” And by `sorted’ he meant mown to stubble all up the sides and back, left slightly longer on top, combed forwards and a fringe cut straight across the middle of my forehead. All over with inside 15 minutes. Apparently he had to give me a regulation male cut as my hair was already over the ears and, he said, he couldn’t have done anything else. Like he tried. As I rose to leave the shop I had to blink back tears when, having caught sight of my reflection in the window, I saw just how artlessly this wretched individual had hacked at my tresses. As soon as I was able to regain my composure, I pulled my cap hard down for damage limitation, and turned to face the camera.

“SHORT BACK AND SIGHS!” blazed the tabloids one day after my live broadcast. It really begged the question of having nothing more important to write about, but there was no doubting the effect my new `look’ was having in the print media. “Viewers gasped in horror at Jane’s cell-block creation”, “Shaven Craven – the haircut from hell”, and “No longer the mane attraction” were just three examples. It wasn’t as if I’d had a choice, but more irritating was the fact that no one would have appeared to have heard any of the actual points I’d been making: like the role executed by women in the army, about latent sexist attitudes, how come most of the officers were men, and why females still weren’t allowed in combat. Oh, no; all they wanted was the superficial, the fluff, that which sells cheap papers. I’d joined TV as an investigative journalist for precisely the reason I was doing this job, to right wrongs, to expose iniquities, to make a difference – and all they were interested in was my haircut. Then again, I suppose I’d been quite happy to milk the accolades when things were going well and I was calling the shots, so in effect I just had to grin and bear it. But it was just so damn irritating!

Three weeks in, and I was actually starting to take to my new style, if you could call it that. It had grown just enough to almost resemble a pixie cut, and so the tedious GI Jane jibes had finally subsided. My unit had come to accept my presence more readily, since I had performed gamely on the obstacle and assault courses, hadn’t burst into tears at the routine humiliation from the RSM, or let the side down on the discipline front. The only thing that still bugged both peers and superiors alike, I realised, was my regular live updates on TV. Every week I’d be quizzed – Why do you keep putting that woman stuff in? You a feminist? Or a bunny boiler? Or a bloody carpet muncher? Such protracted puerility wears you down after a while, and even my practised professional detachment could not disguise the fact that it hurt. I mean, you expect neanderthal attitudes in this part of the world, but to be constantly classed as bra-burning, mad, sexually-frustrated and/or a lesbian was deflating to say the very least. But in the end you just have to carry on, and so I did – I carried on explaining to the public that we weren’t allowed to carry anything too heavy, or learn how to handle a dangerous weapon, or get pregnant without dire consequences, and like a good journo I bugged them all to hell. So much so that I was called in one day to learn that I was to be moved.

“OK, you’ve been whingeing on for long enough about discrimination, how women don’t get this or that, or do well in the Army, so I’m placing you under Sergeant Spraggon’s command. I reckon there you just might be able to curb your penis envy, and who knows, you might even deliver more balanced reports.” This wasn’t anyone giving me this lecture. This was Commander Faulkner, the Big Cheese, and he wore an expression of consummate smugness. “Unless, of course by `balanced’ you intend to have a chip on both shoulders.” Another satisfied smirk. “I know you have a job to do, I even imagined it would raise our profile somewhat. Now I’m not so sure, I thought we were getting an investigator, not the fucking Female Eunuch. So you will join `C’ company with immediate effect. Any objections? Didn’t think so. Dismissed.” There would have been little point in objecting, and I wasn’t particularly bothered anyhow. After all, I had proved myself in front of an assortment of snide, puffed-up, megaphone-voiced, halitosis-suffering sexists, so why should this particular `leader’ be any different?

Wandering off to join my new Company, instinctively I found myself rubbing my head. It is something I always used to do, pride myself in being able to feel a haircut, the layers, the blending, the parting, the subtle changes in texture that accompany each passing week. This time there was nothing to feel, just a cropped, uneven pelt that was a bit longer on top. I thought I was getting used to it but it felt all wrong. Was it really worth it? Was the supposed furtherance of my career worth the slow degradation of self-esteem that seemed to be etched into the very stones of the parade ground, into the walls, the very fabric of this brutal and brutalising society? So much to contemplate, so little time.

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