I am hopelessly poor at choosing my favourite things, as my children know well. They often ask me to choose my favourite food, sport, film, holiday destination – my favourite whatever – before they laugh as I mumble indecisively, prevaricating on the fence. The answer to the question of my favourite book is no less elusive and has confounded me over the last few days as I have considered it.
There were various possibilities. George Eliot’s masterpiece Silas Marner, or Sebastian Faulks’s beautiful Birdsong, each of which I have long loved? Or Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd that I so enjoyed studying for A-level at school? Could it be Wisden flowing from my silly interest in cricket statistics? And what of the books that have influenced my professional life so significantly – Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser, An Intimate History of Killing by Joanna Bourke, or Defeat into Victory by that great general, Viscount Slim? Tragically, I rejected all these worthy contenders and many others besides.
Stepping off the fence, I have chosen Cormac McCarthy’s dark and apocalyptic tale The Road. This book had a defining impact on me when I first read it in early 2011. I was shortly due to deploy to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in command of 45 Commando Royal Marines. I knew that leaving behind my two young sons would be difficult and this book threw those emotions into very stark relief. I read it and reread it and I loved it. I lent it to one of my company commanders and he loved it too, so much so that he began it on a train on the way to a party and he completed it on the same train long after it had reached its destination and the party had started. Once we deployed to Afghanistan, our wives established various support networks for each other and one of these was a book club. The first book that they read was The Road and it glued them together and made them cry in equal measure.
The Road is a magnificent book. The bond between the man and his boy is at once wholly remarkable and yet also unremarkable, because it is what nature intended. Their unconditional love for each other, the man’s sacrifices for and loyalty to his son, and the boy’s unshakeable trust in his father are as humanly humbling as they are beautiful. In their most ghastly situation, what they do for each other is strangely uplifting and optimistic; I still love reading it as much as I did at first.
Oliver Lee OBE spent twenty years in the Royal Marines, serving in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, including in command of the coalition forces in Nad-e-Ali District, Helmand Province. He also worked on the personal staffs of the Chief of Defence Staff and Ministers. His final military job was as a colonel, leading one of the courses at the UK Defence Academy. In 2014 he became Chief Executive of The Challenge, an organisation that designs and delivers programmes that bring different people together to develop their confidence and skills in understanding, connecting and working with others.