Ten journalists try out their dream jobs for a day

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Guardian - Ten journalists try out their dream jobs for a day

One of whom decided he'd quite fancy being a subaltern. The silly boy!


Stephen Moss: Army officer, second lieutenant, starting salary £24,133

I can't claim I ever seriously considered a career in the army as a 20-year-old, but 30 years later military life appeals. There's an unimpeachable certainty about it that doesn't apply to other jobs. You are there to serve your country, albeit in some dodgy foreign wars. I also like the uniforms. So 30 years too late I am attending the Army Officer Selection Board in Westbury, Wiltshire, to see whether I'm made of the right stuff. This is phase one of the officer selection process: young men and women who pass here go on to Sandhurst, emerging 11 months later as second lieutenants fit to command a platoon of 30 soldiers.

I am sure I'll be a natural, and fancy being a field marshal (a step above general). "Some people come here with a romantic idea of what it means to be in the army," says Brigadier Philip Mostyn, commanding officer at Westbury, "and we make certain that they have no illusions about the seriousness of the business they wish to join." These words will come back to haunt me.

The day begins with a series of tests in verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning. The latter, I know, will be a problem: it involves identifying relationships between shapes, and I have no spatial sense. Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Pomroy, who oversees my day at the camp, describes my performance in that part of the test as "catastrophic". My scores in the other two parts aren't up to much either. "The tests tell us the horsepower of the brain," says Mostyn. My battery appears to be flat.

We move to the gym, where I have to negotiate five obstacles. Some allowance must be made for my 50-year-old self, but even at 20 I would have struggled. I manage to get over the hurdles and just about clamber across a series of bars while carrying a log, but I can't do the long jump, fail to get over the wall (even though I'm allowed to have a go at the smaller women's wall), and fall off the rope on which you're supposed to swing across a barrier.

Incredibly, this is not the worst of it. I am with six other journalists, here to write about army careers, and we go outdoors for some group exercises. We first practise tying knots, and lash a few planks together to improvise a bridge. Pomroy then sets us two tasks: carrying a box and a barrel over an obstacle course without touching the ground. What is remarkable is how one of the group, so self-effacing I had barely noticed him, suddenly takes command, working out a plan and seeing it through with steely determination. I, by contrast, make a total hash of tying two planks together. If I'd been in command of the Normandy landings, Europe would still be waiting to be liberated.

Exhausted, we have lunch in the officers' mess, and here I perform brilliantly, eating a herculean number of sandwiches. If I could go straight in as a gouty field marshal, I'd be sensational. I bet the Duke of Wellington didn't have to pass an abstract reasoning test or excel in the long jump. This is war, not the modern pentathlon.

The final blow comes after lunch, when Pomroy asks us to imagine we are deep in the jungle, when a man falls seriously ill with malaria. How can we get him assistance, while also getting to the airport in time to catch a flight? I fail to read the briefing properly and, rather than get the man to hospital as instructed, have him treated in situ. The upside is that I get to the airport with several hours to spare. "I'll have time to get a drink," I say proudly. The downside is that the malaria victim probably dies. "Your plan is pants," is Pomroy's pithy summing up.

It is clear I am not going to make the grade. The Brigadier offers a crumb of comfort. "Perhaps it's better that you've discovered you wouldn't have made it. Otherwise you might have felt you'd missed out on your perfect career." I ask Pomroy how my platoon would have fared in a war zone. He gives me a lateral answer. "Sometimes your men will follow you not because of your inspirational leadership but because they're intrigued to see what will happen. They will go with you because they're interested . . . but only up to a point."
 

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