Penny on Parade by Penny Taylor and Gill McKnight is a coming of age and coming out story set amidst six weeks of basic recruit training for women in the British Army in the early 1970s. It was a time in the UK when there hadn’t yet been a gay pride march in the UK, women were still fighting for equal pay and same-sex relationships between women in the Armed Forces were illegal. Anyone found in an illicit relationship in the Forces was dealt with swiftly and harshly, losing both their careers and often any pension rights, as well as being shamed publicly.
Penny Taylor from the North East of England was working towards being a sports teacher; however, her stepfather refuses to pay the fees for College and forces his daughter to become a secretary. She hates it and decides to join the Army. This is the story of her training and how she deals with her life in the Forces when she realizes she really is a ‘Leslie bean’ as her mother calls them.
The main character is Penny Taylor, and we follow her through her basic training. She has an inner confidence and what I expect her superiors at the time called ‘a refreshing outlook to authority.’ She starts her career with an attitude that is irreverent, making fun of her seniors, and she always knows best. She has little thought about the ramifications of her actions, and her personal journey reflects this. Her approach to the illegality of the sex act is just one more thing that Penny believes she can get away with. However, by the end of the book, she starts to understand, and her actions later in the book make for an interesting ending.
There are numerous secondary characters in the book, but special mention must be made of Mandy, who meets Penny on Guildford station at the very start of training, and they are in the same room. Mandy is naïve and not as bright as Penny who uses her as a foil. This relationship comes unstuck as Penny starts to mature. The other character that stands out is the Platoon Corporal Judy Hacker, who does not need a Penny Taylor in the platoon and always comes down heavy on her actions.
The Writing Style
The book is written in an effortless tone that makes it a pleasure to read. The training is difficult as the recruits learn to make their way through a system that has been in existence for many years, but the authors use humour at every stage to show the camaraderie and fun that the recruits have. Thus, while informative about recruit training, the story itself isn’t weighed down by fact and had me laughing out loud several times.
Penny Taylor spends quite a bit of time in her six weeks of training, having sex with a variety of women. The sex is often raw, and I believe reflects the hurried act between two women grasping at time together. It is well written and demonstrates how sex can be a different act without emotional feelings between the women.
There have been very few books written around the British Forces when lesbian relationships were illegal, and it is good to see a new offering. Having been in the Forces at this time, the details in this story resonated with me, although I have to admit I didn’t know about the sex and what I was missing! The humour in this book shines throughout the story and gives the book a real boost.
This isn’t classed as a historical book, but the women in the Forces in this era were the product of a culture where women were expected to be nurses and secretaries until they married. Penny Taylor and Gill McKnight show us that there was an alternative if you had the confidence to pursue it. It is an interesting and informative read with a good dose of laughter.
Excerpt from Penny on Parade by Penny Taylor and Gill McKnight
I broke out of my miserable reverie with Nicola’s cool touch on my forehead.
“You’re still feverish,” she murmured.
“That’s you,” I mumbled, and could hardly believe my own ears. What the hell! Why had I said that? What was wrong with me?
Nicola laughed. Her hand stilled, and her thumb smoothed across my left eyebrow. Was that a caress? My heart hammered in my chest. She seemed to consider something, then lowered her head and kissed me full on the lips. I was in shock—for one second—then I was in delirium, a beautiful nirvana, swimming with sensation, and totally breathless.
She pulled back, leaving me bereft. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” She looked mortified. I felt mortified, too, but for a different reason.
“Don’t.” I muttered.
“I’m sorry,” she apologised again, distressed.
“No. I mean don’t…” What? What did I want? “Don’t stop. I liked it.”
She stared at me hard, perhaps a little surprised, then burst out in a delightfully raucous laugh. “There aren’t many of you to the pound, are there?” she said. “You’re a natural flirt, Private Taylor.”
This was news to me. A natural flirt? Personally, I felt slack-mouthed and stupid, like a newly landed fish.
Nicola rose from the bed. “You’ve been noted down at the NAAFI, but I think they don’t know the half of it.”
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781947253407
- Publisher: Dirt Road Books
- Gill McKnight Online
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