Martin Figura: Beyond the Frontline

Poet Martin Figura’s collaboration with ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, the official charity of the British Army, offers a fascinating look at the changing face of British soldiering.

Poet Martin Figura spoke ‘soldier to soldier’ with veterans supported by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity while writing his new collection of poems. Picture copyright Dave Gutteridge 2019

It was a cold winter’s morning in 1973 when the teenaged Martin Figura entered his local Army Careers Office and signed on the line. He was leaving behind a highly disrupted and difficult childhood, and limited prospects beyond the three factories in his hometown. 

Outside the office, he was approached by a beggar who shook his hand, breathed alcohol fumes in his face and said, “Eleven years, eleven years – good man,” and tottered off. It was not an auspicious start. 

Figura would go on to serve 25 years in the British Army; rising to the rank of Major and undergoing a series of metamorphoses from care leaver to soldier, rebel, accountant and photographer. For the past two decades, he been working as a poet and performance artist. 

Figura’s latest project is a collaboration with ABF The Soldiers’ Charity – the British Army’s national charity – which is this year marking its 75thanniversary. The ‘Army Benevolent Fund’,  as it was originally known, was established in 1944 under the patronage of King George VI, following a consultation by Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet. Since then, it has been providing a lifetime of support for soldiers, veterans and their families. Fittingly, the charity is still caring for veterans of Normandy and Arnhem – some 75 years after their service.  

As the charity’s poet-in-residence, Figura has captured and recorded the experiences of former soldiers who have benefitted from its support. Warm, funny and achingly sad, the collection shows the award-winning poet’s enduring fondness and respect for soldiers. In tender and meticulous detail, it charts the shifting terrain of self and belonging; camaraderie and conflict; mental and physical injury; transition and recovery. This extract from Figura’s poem, ‘The Sea,’ reflects the hopeful expectation of Stew Harris, who left his childhood in Rhyl for the glamour and promise of the Welsh Guards. 

The saucy postcards of Rhyl faded

in their racks.  Stew felt the weight

of his grandfather’s medals, dreamt

London Kodachrome-bright; to one day

stand to attention close enough to see

how beautiful the Queen really is.

Soldier Stew Harris suffered severe physical injuries and mental trauma after being caught in a bomb blast. Picture copyright ABF The Soldiers’ Charity 2019

Stew went on to serve thirteen years in the British Army. On tour in Afghanistan, his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb which left him with catastrophic injuries and enduring PTSD. The trauma drove Stew almost to the brink of suicide, as Figura relates in another poem: ‘A Caged Bear in a Warlord’s Bosnian Garden’. 

The rooms of the house became

dead ends.  Stew placed his hand into the bear’s paw

and together they walked to the edge 

of the sea and were the most sorrowful sight 

the sea had ever seen. 

Stew survived the ordeal, and with the support of The Soldiers’ Charity has gone on to transition successfully into a civilian career. He now works for the charity as an official ambassador, representing it at events nationwide. 

Veteran Charles Louis was helped by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity after losing his home. Picture copyright ABF The Soldiers’ Charity 2019

Figura also met with another beneficiary, Charles Louis, who left his native Dominica as a boy soldier in the 1960s. After 17 years in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and a subsequent career in the Post Office, Charles returned to Dominica – only to lose his home and all of his belongings when Hurricane Maria struck in 2017. As Figura writes in his poem, ‘Hurricane’ - “The rain lifts Charles/ and his hardwood floor, sets them/ loose and fearful like flotsam/into the road, which is a river.”The elderly Charles was evacuated back to the United Kingdom, where he spent the following year sleeping on his daughter’s couch.

Now, with the help of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and its partner charity, Stoll, Charles has a comfortable, furnished flat in Westminster. Every day, he enjoys a stroll along the river to the Houses of Parliament – proudly wearing his ABF The Soldiers’ Charity t-shirt. 

Former paratrooper Al Hodgson has been able to turn his passion for skydiving into a career with the assistance of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. Picture copyright ABF The Soldiers’ Charity 2019

Former paratrooper Al Hodgson lost both legs to an IRA bomb in Northern Ireland in 1992. Over the next seven years, he endured being “stitched up and having the bits he had left pieced back together” before discovering a passion for skydiving. Having been supported by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity to transform his interest into a career, Al has gone on to become one of the world’s finest skydivers – one of very few disabled athletes to become dominant in an able-bodied field. The exhilaration and release of the sport is captured in this extract from Figura’s poem, ‘Falling’:

Being airborne

is being all things equal, has no 

disability category just the fall, 

then the sudden illusion of 

upwards, followed 

by the ground’s slow delivery

For 75 years, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity has been helping servicemen, veterans and their families. Picture copyright ABF The Soldiers’ Charity 2019

Like more than 70,000 individuals each year, Stew and Al have benefitted from the support of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity at critical points in their lives. Their stories represent only a fraction of the vast and varied work undertaken by the Army’s national charity, which has this year spent over £17 million supporting soldiers, veterans and their families. 75 years on from its founding, the charity exists to honour the debt owed to the nation’s serving and former soldiers for their courage, commitment and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for others. 

"I do know a sense of belonging is fundamental to the human experience and core to soldiering. I know from my childhood what it is to lose where you belong and your idea of yourself. The idea of losing that now is shattering. "

Figura will be performing his new collection of poems, collectively entitled “The Map”, for the first time at a special event in London in October. Speaking about the upcoming ABF The Soldiers’ Charity’s Evening of Poetry and Spoken Word, taking place on October 2nd, he said: 

“It’s a little embarrassing to admit that not once in my 25 years Army service was I ever in harm’s way. I was never asked to pay the price or to confront the reality of what soldiering means. 

“However, I was given the daunting responsibility of putting into words the Army experiences of others, which really do warrant poems.” 

“I do know a sense of belonging is fundamental to the human experience and core to soldiering. I know from my childhood what it is to lose where you belong and your idea of yourself. The idea of losing that now is shattering. 

“The work that ABF The Soldiers’ Charity does says that you will always belong. I hope my poems are up to the job and convey the respect I felt in making them. I did my very best and was honoured to be asked.”

The ABF The Soldiers’ Charity’s Evening of Spoken Word takes place at The Siding in London Bridge on Wednesday 2nd October 2019. For more information, visit ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.