The race is on for the former soldier raising money for veterans
“I’m from an ex-mining community where the attitude towards education is that people think you are pratting about and need to get a proper job”
Postgraduate student Gav Topley talks to Jo Tynan about juggling his London Marathon training regime with his PhD.
Gav Topley is entertaining company – he has stories about everything, from his first job as a trainee falconer to being imprisoned in Bangkok for a week.
What should have been a quick chat about his marathon training turned into a much livelier conversation about why Gav thinks we should all stop having children (climate change), and whether the British Army should continue to recruit under-18s (his PhD will cover that). And in case you were wondering, the jail time was because of a damaged passport, not a Bridget Jones-style drugs bust.
Nothing about Gav is conventional – his marathon training programme sees him hitting the College gym at 1am, and his journey to Cambridge didn’t follow a standard pattern of GCSEs, A-levels, undergraduate degree, Master’s, and then onto a PhD. Gav explains: “I’m from an ex-mining community where the attitude towards education is that people think you are pratting about and need to get a proper job. At 16 I did just that and dropped out of my A-levels and moved out of the family home in Nottingham to start a live-in role as a falconer in North Yorkshire.”
At 17 years old Gav decided to join the Army where he continued to work with animals by training to be a Veterinary Technician. During his four years of service in Kosovo, Germany and the UK, he was responsible for looking after a menagerie of military animals including horses and dogs.
"I had some great experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to have without being in the Army, and I made friends for life. I left because I never intended it to be my long-term career. The things I value most in life are friends, time and freedom. The Army is very structured and you need to do what they need you to do when they need you to do it – it doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity. I’m now an Army Reserve soldier providing support for the parachute regiment as a combat medic, so it is still a part of my life.”
Gav spent several years working in a secure unit for young offenders, and in social care and youth justice and education, before he applied for a place on a degree course at Bournemouth University. “I kind of blagged my way onto the course. Deep down I realised I had always wanted to go to university but I didn’t even have A-levels. I didn’t know if going to university was something someone from my background could do, but I did know I needed to give it a go. Luckily the course director took a chance on me as she thought my work experience showed I had the aptitude.”
He graduated with a 2:1 in Communications and Media and spent several months travelling across South East Asia before he was unceremoniously deported back to the UK because his passport had been damaged by hand gel. The prison ‘bed bugs, cockroaches, and awful food’ didn’t put Gav off and he soon returned to Asia to teach English to secondary-school children in Vietnam.
Gav worked full-time with care leavers whilst he was doing his Master’s in Leeds, and it was an invitation from a social media friend that led him to St John’s when he was trying to decide whether to apply to Cambridge.
“Everyone I met on that visit irrespective of their background, level of study or course was really friendly and eager to chat. People are more interested in what you have got to say than where you went to school. I fell in love with St John’s and I still walk through College snapping photos for social media every day. I thought my interview went terribly but it can’t have been that bad because here I am!”
The postgraduate student is now in the second term of his PhD research, which focuses on the impact on young people of the British Army’s policy of recruiting and training 16-year-olds.
“I’m doing a PhD because I believe the research needs to happen. I wanted to do it at Cambridge because the research w ill carry more weight. I’m gathering perspectives from people who joined the Army under the age of 18. Some have told me they enlisted because they want to fight for their country, others because they are disenfranchised with school. A huge number have described their difficult backgrounds and explained that the Army appeals to them because of the structure and routine.
“There is always going to be the train of thought that we shouldn’t be recruiting ‘poor working class children’ to fight rich men’s wars and I get that, but many former child recruits have told me that if they hadn’t signed up they would be in prison or dead. The Army is in effect a safer choice for them. My research will give them a platform so they have a voice in what can be a very middle-class debate.”
Gav has also turned his attention to raising money for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, which provides vital support to soldiers, veterans and their families. He will be running the London Marathon on Sunday 26 April 2020. But even while he is in training, Gav is thinking about his next challenge – he has applied to become a magistrate (he wants the court system to better represent a cross-section of society) and ultimately wants to be a medical doctor. And Gav strikes me as one of those people who doesn’t just talk about doing things – he gets on and does them.
This article was featured in the Lent 2020 edition of Eagle Eye.
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