Hi, friends! So howsabout a Q&A with author Penny Taylor, who, with the help of author Gill McKnight, wrote about her experiences in the British military in the 1970s in Penny on Parade, which was published in 2019.
We did a Q&A with her, AND you can win an ebook copy of her book! Just leave a comment below and we’ll draw a winner on Wednesday, April 1 (NO FOOLIN’!).
So let’s get into this!
Hi, Gill! So before we put Penny in the hot seat, how exactly did you come to help her with this project?
Penny showed me a journal she’d written some time ago and explained the therapeutic intentions behind it. I found the story cinematic. It was basically a coming of age tale about a young woman set in complicated times (the gender politics of the Seventies) and in the rarefied environment of the British Army. There was too much of it though, so I suggested we concentrate on the first six weeks of training; the climax of which is the Passing Out parade – hence Penny on Parade.
What an interesting way to get into a project. All right, so, Penny — tell us a bit about how you came to write Penny on Parade.
From the late 1980s to 1990s I had been through a string of fairly traumatic events which culminated in someone suggesting that I see a therapist. After I got lamped in the face with a hammer (story for another time), I decided that this may be a good idea. After two years of therapy, my therapist suggested that I should take myself away in my camper van and put good memories down on paper. Taking her advice, I loaded up, filled up, and zoomed off to a secluded camp site in Derbyshire. After settling in, I sat down at my computer and what came from brain to paper, were stories about my joining the British Army.
After four hours of constant typing I was amazed to see that after getting up to week two of army life I was already on page seventy!
Then I met the wonderful Gill McKnight who kindly looked over my original manuscript and later informed me that we could make a book together from my ‘notes’. Thus Penny on Parade was born.
Wow. We’re glad you managed to take a therapeutic track and that it ended up with your writing. Since this is a story about your life and service, what are a couple of your fondest memories of serving in the British military?
Penny on Parade only covers six weeks of my five-year army career. During the five years there have been many fond memories that are still to be written. However, on the day of my Passing Out Parade, when the drum roll started I got the goose bobs and wind — that was something to remember.
That sounds intense. Let’s flip the question. What are a couple of your not-so-great memories of serving?
I hated the bullying. I hated the two-facedness of the senior officers who were scared for their own safety. You could be reported for being a lesbian — by them! — so they could protect themselves. This sort of behaviour happened all the time. I hated the fear of being caught.
It might be hard — especially for younger folks — to imagine that kind of fear because of being LGBTQ. For those of you who didn’t know, same-sex activity between cisgender men was ostensibly decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but there were lots of catches. You had to be 21 (as did your partner) or older to engage in sex with someone of the same sex. Also, the decriminalization only applied to England and Wales. And though being a lesbian wasn’t specifically illegal even prior to the 1967 decriminalization, it definitely wasn’t exactly welcomed, either.
Given that, Penny, can you tell us a few things about what it was like for you to be a lesbian in the UK in the 1970s?
As I spent half of the 70s in the army and the other half in Nottingham, I experienced a decade of two halves. Although women were recognised in the army as capable and independent, lesbianism was illegal there. When women left the army, we weren’t recognized as capable and independent, we were at least legal.
Socially, the majority of bars and clubs were run and owned by men, and men had more money to spend in them. Women, as second-class citizens, didn’t have access to as much money to create spaces like that.
In the Army, lesbianism was a mixture of meeting a multitude of like-minded women, which was really eye-opening for a lot of us, but unfortunately we were also all terrified of being caught and thrown out.
In Nottingham there was a large lesbian scene, but like women in general, they were second-class to men. Along with feminism, being gay and a woman wasn’t deemed “worthy,” but being a gay man was deemed much worse than being a lesbian, as lesbianism was just ignored, since women were considered second-class citizens overall.
On the personal side, the 70s was the time when I was working out whether I was butch or femme. By the eighties, I realized I was neither.
Wow. Thanks for that. It’s important to see how things were in the past so that we can see how far we’ve come but also what we still need to do. Ultimately, what do you hope people take away from reading Penny on Parade?
Enlightenment, empathy and laughter, and a curiosity of what happens next.
Thank you so much, Penny. Glad you stopped by.
And readers, don’t forget to sign up to win a copy! We might even give away more than one! You never know!
Here’s the synopsis to Penny on Parade, by Penny Taylor:
In 1971, teenager Penny Taylor ran away from home and straight into the British Army at Guildford, the training camp for women who wanted to be soldiers.
Homosexuality had only just been decriminalized in England in 1967, and the first British gay pride rally was held in London in 1972, a year after Taylor joined the military. The UK’s feminist movement still battled for reproductive rights, equal pay, and employment protections. This was the climate in which Taylor decided she was not like the other women she knew.
Confused by her feelings for her female best friend, unhappy with her family life, and frustrated by the restrictive expectations of women, she sought a different path. For Penny Taylor, army life wasn’t easy, but she found not only herself, she also found family, friends, and a future.
This is her story. Based on real events in her life, it is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, set against the backdrop of the British military and the turbulent social climate of the 1970s.
Penny Taylor lives in Robin Hood country, also known as Nottingham, UK. Though, as a compulsive traveller, she is seldom there. When not globetrotting, she can be found watching or playing all kinds of sports and is killer at backgammon.