Lockdown Podcast: JJ Chalmers, Royal Marine Veteran

JJ Chalmers, Royal Marine and Star of Strictly Come Dancing

Series 2, Episode 2

‘JJ off Strictly’ joins us for our Christmas Special! …Once a Royal Marine, Always a Royal Marine. 

“Blown-up” while deployed to Afghanistan, JJ joined-up as a Reservist aged 17 and his attitude of “keep cracking on” helped him to go on to win a gold medal at the Invictus Games. 

JJ describes how life in the Royal Marines brings hardships and challenges as well as adventures, but the best part is “getting to go to work with your best friends.” 

We hear about juggling civilian life as a teacher with being a Royal Marines Reservist, “when you take your uniform off, your Corps values don’t change.” 

JJ talks openly about mental health and the difficulties following his injuries, “…it’s ok to put my hand up and say, ‘I’m struggling physically and mentally’” and we also hear about the importance of sense of purpose and recognising incremental gains on the road to recovery. Talking about this honestly, with JJ’s life now in the public eye, helps him to make a positive impact on people who are also facing challenges. A great role model. 

JJ chats about his Strictly journey and how his dance partner Amy’s words of wisdom, “don’t get bitter, get better” along with his Royal Marines training, provided a sense of perspective about loss and injury and the attitude “to get stuck in”. 

We also hear how “a lot of Royal Marines have a new found love and appreciation for sparkle and glitter” and how being in the Corps, 

“the greatest club on earth… quite simply made me a better person.”

Here’s what everyone said…..

Boris Johnson  00:02

You must stay at home. Stay at home.

Rachel Owen  00:09

Hello, and welcome to ‘Lockdown!’ Hosted by Steve Bomford with Mike Davis-Marks. Our Armed Forces operate in challenging environments. Week-by-week, we’ll explore what we can learn from their experiences.

Mike Davis-Marks  00:23

Hello, Steve, I understand for the Christmas special we’ve got a very special person, the one and only JJ Chalmers, recently off Strictly.

Steve Bomford  00:31

It’s true. We have and we did the interview this week just before Christmas. I’m sorry, last week, just before Christmas and I think you’re going to enjoy this one. Hello, JJ, and thank you very much for coming on the podcast. I’ve got quite a few interesting questions, I hope. But I would like to start off with, can you tell me a bit about your life in the Royal Marines and why it’s so important to you?

JJ Chalmers  01:00

I mean, it’s so important too because it’s such a big part of not just who I was, but who I am to this day. I joined the Royal Marines at 17. As a Reservist to begin with. It was a big part of my life throughout university and throughout my time working as a teacher and then obviously, I took up a full time contract with the Royal Marines and deployed to Afghanistan and at that point, sort of, you know, that was me living my absolute dream. It was a job that I loved doing and most importantly, surrounded by people that I loved doing it with, I think that was the biggest thing for me. I loved my job. It was an incredible adventure, it was challenging, it was all the things that I look for in every facet of my life. But the pleasure, the biggest pleasure of it was getting to go to work with your best friends, and facing hardships, but also facing extremely, you know, incredible adventures together, the good and the bad, you knew you had guys in your corner. And you also knew that you were that for them, you know, we just had each other’s backs and so it was a huge part of my life. And obviously, I got injured in Afghanistan, the physical impact of it will always have a, you know, a resounding effect on my life. Not that I would change anything that happened. But most importantly, it was that continued support that, you know, lives with me today. And that mindset that it created within me, which, as I say, carries me into every single adventure, every single challenge, every single facet of my life and it’s quite simply, just made me a better person.

Steve Bomford  02:33

That’s a glowing advert for the Royal Marines, isn’t it? One of the things that we hear often in our work, particularly from the Marines is, you know, ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine’ and I’m getting a real sense of that, you know, the Corps is an incredibly tight knit community isn’t it?

JJ Chalmers  02:47

Yeah, it really is and that was, the first thing, was earning my place in that tight knit community. You know, I looked at guys that wore Green Beret and they looked like superheroes to me. And I mean, they are, of course, but at the same time, once you attain one of your own, you realise you’re all the same, and you’re all just human beings who have, you know, dedicated your life and whatnot to this, this cause and, this set of values, most importantly, and that’s where you’re right, ‘Once a Royal Marine, always a Marine’, and it’s, it’s knowing that I could walk into, well not at the moment because of lockdown, but normally I could walk into a crowded bar anywhere in the country, particularly near the coast and shout ‘Is there a Royal Marine in here that wants to buy me a drink?’ and they would stand up and do it. You’re part of a very special club for the rest of your life. But more importantly, as I say, in those moments, where life throws you a curveball, and you know that you can, if you can have the confidence to reach out and ask for help, guys will move mountains for you. That is unbelievable. And that’s one of the biggest things, it took, in many ways learning to be vulnerable through my injuries to make me realise that it was okay to put my hand up and say, ‘Actually, I’m struggling here physically, mentally’, whatever it was, and that was the point of joining this club in the first place, because these guys would have your back.

Steve Bomford  04:12

Do you think you’ve got a level of respect for being honest like that around how you’re feeling after the injury, the effect it’s having on you, on your life? How does that change your relationship with the Corps?

JJ Chalmers  04:22

And yeah, I mean, I’ve always tried to just be honest, you know, integrity is at the absolute heart and values of what the Corps stands for. And you know, that integrity was about looking after one another, trusting one another. But I think the biggest thing I know from my mental health point of view, and this was only with hindsight, when I look back at the early days of my recovery, and when people ask about whether I had mental health struggles alongside my physical struggles; of course I did but I didn’t really realise it at the time. First of all, because I had that support. Second of all, because it just felt like, you know, I had no choice but to get on with it essentially. And you know, I had to pick up my life and the pieces, you know, and just get on, you know, and just ‘keep cracking on’, as we say in the Corps. But also, what I realised with hindsight is, I was always very open about it, because I was surrounded by guys going through the same thing, essentially. Lads I’d Served with Afghanistan, and had been injured with in Afghanistan, were there with me in recovery as we went through Headley Court, went through Hasler Company with the Royal Marines and Navy Recovery Cell. So you were constantly surrounded by guys that just got it in some regards. So I never felt that I couldn’t speak about it. And so when I look back at it now that openness is what has stopped me bottling it all up, it’s what stopped me, you know, getting into a point of crisis. But more importantly, actually, as you say, particularly with the platform that I now have, you know, working as a TV presenter, I have this, I have this platform to be able to make a social impact, essentially. And you can’t do that by not being honest. You’ve got to be straight with people. And actually, the opposite when you’re honest, when you are yourself on television, that’s what resonates with people (Steve: ‘Yeah’) and so that’s why I’m never afraid to talk about it.

Steve Bomford  06:18

That really comes across and I’ll come on to that in a minute. You do come across as being incredibly honest and your integrity and…, you know, coming on to Strictly as well, I think that’s something that’s obviously had an impact on you in a big way.

JJ Chalmers  06:30

Yeah, yeah, completely. And it goes back to why I joined the Corps, like why you know, why did I decide to surround myself with these individuals? Yes, it was, you know, yes it was for the challenge and whatnot. But it was just to know that I was in the greatest club on earth. And the day that I was medically discharged from the Royal Marines, I remember being really nervous about it. But suddenly realised just ‘coz I’ve taken the uniform off, doesn’t mean anything’s going to change. And that’s, you know, that has been the case. And it’s followed me into my new career, and as you mentioned, was Strictly, like, put it this way, either there was a lot of closeted Strictly fans in the Royal Marines to begin with, or there’s a lot of lads who have suddenly found a new love and appreciation for sparkle and glitter, because they were absolutely with me throughout that process.

Steve Bomford  07:16

I’ve heard a few stories about Royal Marines and dressing up. Is there anything you want to share there?

JJ Chalmers  07:21

Yeah, I mean, it definitely made, those experiences on Thursday night in a bit of a silly rig and whatnot, definitely made the whole transition into wearing sparkle and glitter and going over the top, made that easier (laughs).

Steve Bomford  07:31

Does it, right (laughs)… I’ve heard about the silly photos after you’ve had the formal photos as well, but that’s probably, that’s probably for another time. I think also, you’re the first Reservist that we’ve interviewed for the podcast and I’m quite interested in your views on the difference between… – I know you obviously signed a contract and were deployed – but in that period before that when you were a Reservist and people don’t often realise, certainly civilians don’t often realise, the challenges of actually holding down, shall we say, a ‘normal job’, whilst being a military Reservist. Could you talk a little bit about that and how it was for you?

JJ Chalmers  08:05

Yeah, I mean, it’s difficult because you are burning the candle at both ends in terms of holding that employment or education and obviously, your time in the Corps. I mean, I loved it. I loved having the best of both worlds. But don’t get me wrong, I was working as a teacher at one point and I remember sort of looking at the window of my classroom and being like, ‘What am I doing here in a classroom? I should be in a puddle outside.’ And then, you know, a couple of weeks later, being in that puddle and going, ‘What am I doing here? I should be back in a classroom.’ So I kind of ebbed and flowed between the two of them. But I think the most important thing is, I mean, I was in the Corps, and in the Reserves and in the Regular Corps at a time when – because operational tempo was so high to do throughout the early, you know that Afghan Iraq period – guys were coming and going from the Regular Corps to Reserve Forces all the time, you know, 10% of 40 Commando that deployed 10% were Reservists, but the thing about earning your Green Beret, whether you earn it as a Regular or Reservist, is that you pass the same tests and you meet the same qualifying criteria. And by the time you deploy on operations, you’re absolutely up to speed like everybody else, and you are bringing skillsets with you. You know you are bringing genuine hard skills from the guys who were plumbers, policemen, joiners, teachers, whatever it was, you’re bringing these things into the Corps, you’re bringing them into a complex environment like Afghanistan as well. But more importantly back in your civilian life, you don’t just like I said, when you take your uniform off, your values and standards don’t change. So like I was taking the Corps values, what the Royal Marines had taught me, into classrooms and teaching  you know, I was always turning up five minutes early for details, you know that the things that we pride ourselves on in the Corps which makes you a better human-being makes you a better, you know, soldier, makes you a better employee, are the things that I was taking into Civvy Street on a sort of daily basis. And obviously that’s the thing which Veterans, when they leave Service, you know have, to take to the world of business, if that’s where they end up.

Steve Bomford  10:16

Fascinating isn’t it. I’m really struck by the idea that 10% of 40 Commando did you say, were Reservists? because I don’t think people again, the general public, have an appreciation about how important the Reservists are to all military activity.

JJ Chalmers  10:30

Yeah, I mean, it particularly is, as I say, in a time when tempo was really high. And you know, that is across all rank structures as well. I mean, obviously, you’re deploying GD Riflemen, Marines, Corporals, that kind of stuff. But you’re also, you know, on a really regular basis to this day, you know, they are deploying some of the guys who bring really unique skillsets into into the more sort of, as I say, specific roles within the military. You know, guys that are doing, you know, what do they call it? Sort of psyops and kind of, you know, communication roles and these sorts of things where, actually, an understanding of the civilian world is really important within the sort of complex aerospace that we have. And but yeah, also guys that were just, like, I knew blokes that were like, you know, they were managers in banks, or they were policemen, high ranking officials, but all they want is to be told what to do a little bit. So like, they were happy to just come in at the very bottom like a GD Marine and that was their sort of break away from that level of responsibility. But at the same time, there is no, there’s no part of the Corps where you don’t have a level of responsibility, of course.

Steve Bomford  11:44

So it’s a bit more serious than the ‘Dad’s Army’ image with the bank manager being in charge (laughs)?

JJ Chalmers  11:50

Yeah, yeah (laughs). Yeah, I mean, it was just, I think a lot of it was down to the high level of operations and the tempo that we were facing at that current time. And I think in fairness, you know, when you talk to some of the lads that were in the Regular Corps through sort of the ’80s and ’90s. Now, not to say that, you know, places like Northern Ireland weren’t extremely challenging, but there were sort of fallow years where, you know, the operational tempo was very low and even lower within the Reserve Forces. But actually, what they’ve kind of learned from the last couple of decades, is how do you maintain that readiness, you know, post Afghan, post Iraq? And in particular, how do you maintain that within the Reserve Forces. And so now, more than ever, you see guys taking almost like sabbaticals from their jobs just to spend time in the Regular Corps, just doing, you know, the mundane stuff, you know, going on large scale operations and spending time doing, you know, the bits and pieces, which, quite frankly, we didn’t have time for when I was in the Corps, it was all getting ready for you know, was already getting ready for going to Afghan essentially.

Steve Bomford  12:56

Wow. So I’d like to know what the common thread is here in your career. Because you’ve also mentioned about being a TV presenter; I’ve got Royal Marine, I’ve got teacher, I’ve got athlete, dancer and presenter. What, did you imagine, this would be – I don’t know, when you were like, 16 or something – this would be your career? What’s the common thread that’s kind of driving you to do all these different things?

JJ Chalmers  13:19

Yeah, I mean, first of all, no, I didn’t. No one expected it. And that’s the thing, you know. Plan A went out the window when I was blown up, essentially. And then I think Plan B, and C, and they’ve all gone too probably. I’m kind of just holding on for dear life now. But the common thread about that is a few things I mean, challenging myself is one of them. And it’s that sense of basically, what we used to do, you know, in the Corps, say ‘yes’ and find out what the question was later, because you were in, and you were committed. And so, you know, they always told you never to volunteer for something. But that was kind of nonsense. We all did. We all want it to be busy. We all wanted to be stuck in and that was it. You know, people asked why I did Strictly. Because the opportunity presented itself and I wasn’t going to say ‘no’ to it. And it was a challenge that took me outside my comfort zone. And you know, that was always the case. Now, don’t get me wrong. In due course, it becomes your comfort zone in the sense that, you know, the Marines is always about trying to find the edge, find the limit. But you were trained for it. Being an athlete, was something similar. Strictly was, well outside my comfort zone. But in due course, I started to get half decent at it. But in fairness every week, it started again with a new style of dance and you just felt like we’re back at square one. But yeah, I mean, it was really the challenge. The belief that the Marines had given me from the age of 17 that I was capable of these things or I was at least capable of giving it a crack. And also, not taking for granted that I have an opportunity to give something a crack because the thing that the Marines gives you more than anything, is perspective, it is the perspective of, of loss, of injury, of whatever it might be, of knowing that, you know… I spent 10 weeks away from my family to do Strictly because of the COVID situation and people think that was some sort of remarkable sacrifice. 10 weeks to go away to learn to dance is not a sacrifice. Yes, it was hard work. But there are guys deployed on operations right now. There are people separated from their families because of COVID. There’s real hardship in the world. And yes, it was sore and it hurt and it was hard work. But I wouldn’t for one second think it was the real world and a real life struggle.

Steve Bomford  15:36

So that’s a really good point. So what difference do you think, that’s made you then, doing Strictly and being able to talk about these things and saying that, you know, there’s different orders of magnitude with hard isn’t there; and in some, personally, I think some ways, life can be quite easy for people can’t it, not at the moment, you know, excepting the pandemic.

JJ Chalmers  15:55

Well, I mean, in, in fairness, like 2020, has been a very difficult year for everyone. But in some regards, it’s not been that difficult for me, I’ve been able to batten down the hatches, I’ve spent wonderful time with my family throughout lockdown. That wasn’t without its struggles, two young kids with you know, not even a play park to take them to, but we made it through. And actually, we took the positive out of it, which was, this was time that I seldom got, because I’m always chasing, you know, chasing opportunities, and you know, working on my career, so I hunkered down and appreciated every second of it. And then obviously, Strictly presented itself. And it was a phenomenal finish to my 2020. But it’s not to say that I didn’t… I cared hugely about Strictly because it was the challenge that was in front of me. But for some people, it’s the hardest challenge they’ve ever faced taking on Strictly. It isn’t for me, but it was the challenge that was in front of me. So I was absolutely going to give it all the same level of dedication, commitment, and you know, sacrifice that is required to be a professional at the very least, let alone respect the opportunity thats I was given. It’s a privilege to be part of something like that, especially in a world where, as you say, people aren’t even getting to go to work, you know, they’re not getting to do the things that they love. I was you know, I was getting to do that. But at the same time, when I stood there, ready to be sort of, have my fate given to me as to whether I was going to be, you know, booted off the show or not. Of course, in my heart, my heart was trembling and I was going, ‘I don’t want to go home, I want to keep competing at this’. But at the same time, no one had a gun to my head. You know, the judges weren’t the scariest people I’ve ever met in my life and they weren’t holding my life in their hands. And so, you know, yes, I was nervous for the process. But in the real world, I could pinch myself and go, ‘You’ve had it worse. (Steve: ‘They’re not Regimental Sergeant Majors are they’). No, I mean, in fairness, I kind of thought of them, like the sort of, the high ranking officers sometimes in this sort of, when I saw them in the corridor, I couldn’t help but kind of brace up and kind of go, ‘Sir’. Because, you know, you respect the position that they hold more than anything. And there is that level of distance between you and the judges because you don’t see them around as regularly and, you know, you don’t quite have a coffee with them as you do with everybody else. And in fairness, if I had gone and said, ‘Let’s grab a wet, let’s go have a coffee’, they probably would have, but it’s just how my brain worked at the time. And but yeah, like, they sometimes, they would say mean things, but it was always to improve you as a person and as a dancer, but also, you know, as nasty as they can be, there are nastier people in this world who have said meaner things to me for far more serious reasons. You know, so I could take it.

Steve Bomford  18:46

Yep. So in terms of Strictly, I want to talk about your relationship with Amy because there was clearly some… it had a profound effect on you didn’t it, working with her and am I right in, saying that she suffers some Chrohn’s disease? Which I don’t know a huge amount about, could you tell me a little bit about that? And how that changed your outlook and hers, for that matter?

JJ Chalmers  19:07

Yeah, it was, it was incredible. I mean, everybody that comes to Strictly has a very… particularly this year with it being lockdown and you know, most of us being separated from our families and whatnot, and literally forming bubbles with our with our partners. And so Amy became my family for the 10 weeks. And so, there’s a lot, there’s a lot I mean, it’s, there’s so much about her, but you’re right, a big part of it is her struggle with Crohn’s disease, which in fairness I didn’t know that much about, and what I did know about it… I probably underplayed. Her openness to talk about it, and her openness to show the struggles that she’s faced with it was really powerful. So from my understanding it can present itself in many different ways, but essentially for Amy, it presents itself and when she has a flare up, and it can be ulceration of the mouth or any part of the digestive tract, but actually hits her bowl more than anything. And basically, ulcers form on her bowl, which means that she can’t digest food and then she just ends up in a world of hurt, like, you know, she is being just crushed from the inside. Now that affects her day-to-day in terms of what she can eat, you know how she has to rest, the medication that she has to take, you know, and she would not mind me saying this, but the way that she goes to the toilet, you know it has a knock on effect in every single facet of her life. And none more so than the fact that she will, she can wake up tomorrow and for, for sheer bad luck, or eating the wrong thing, or getting your meds wrong or not sleeping right, she can have a flare up, that could be as bad as hospitalising her. (Steve: ‘Wow’.) And so what happens with that is that you live with the fear of letting people down, not being able to be there the next day for your dance partner, for your, for your friend, for whatever it is, that meeting that you organised, that horrible feeling of letting people down, that terrified her. And I think that… that’s what she’s lived with. But the most important thing that I think about that is, as a result Chrohns is her weakness, it’s her big weakness. But actually, it’s the very thing that has made her who she is, because it was the thing that made her so determined to succeed against all odds. As she became the British Champion of Latin Dancing, she became, you know, she’s watched this… Strictly’s been on telly for 18 years now, she’s 30. So she’s been watching the show since she was 12 years old, dreaming of being a dancer on it, she achieved her dream, despite all the odds, and none of that was through sympathy, it was pure determination, which is, well as any Royal Marine will tell you, is the bedrock of, of why we are physically robust and we pride ourselves on what we do. It started when they threw us in puddles at the starting of training. And, you know, and they told us off, and they made us make our beds, and they trashed our kit musters, you know, but then in the real world, like being injured in Afghanistan, or as I say, you know, Amy with her Chrohns, that’s when you really, the chips are down, and you discover who you are. And it made her who she is. So when you put us together, we were bound to have this profound effect on one another, because at the very least, we understood each other’s struggles. But more importantly, we understood each other’s mindsets.

Steve Bomford  22:31

That’s a great story. And I often think about what is it that makes people so resilient? I mean, obviously I know you’ve talked about Marines, but do you think there’s like characteristics of an individual that do that? Or is it all… can it be taught, if you know what I mean? Or do you just wake up one day think, ‘Right, I’ve had enough of this. I’m moving on?’ How…? what…? I’m just really interested in what motivates people to respond in such a way because not everyone does and there must be some… lots of complicated reasons why, but I just wonder what your take on that is?

JJ Chalmers  22:57

Yeah, it’s such a great question, because I don’t think, I don’t think it can be learned from a textbook. Of course not, you know, but I think, the thing about what I’ve endured through my injury, through my disability, what Amy’s endured through her, you know, chronic illness, and what so many of my friends that, you know, for various reasons from Service have have endured. It is extremely painful at the time, particularly when it’s so catastrophic. But the payoff at the end of it is, is remarkable and the mindset that you have from that, once you get through the worst of it, that’s where the resilience is born from. The problem is that for most people on a daily basis, their victories are so small, their failures can be so small as well, that they don’t really register that actually, there’s a lot to be happy about and proud of each day. And so for me, as hard as it was to earn it, I got it in spades, as opposed to just looking… what I always encourage people to do and that’s, you know, if there was a textbook written about it, I would say, ‘What you need to do is ensure that you just look for, look for the victories, look for the failures in every single day, and no matter how small they are, add them up, because that’s how you learn and that’s how you improve’. But as I say, I wouldn’t recommend getting blown up as your method of discovering that, but it is effective (laughs). 

Steve Bomford  24:28

Some of the some of the language you we’re using there reminds me of sporting techniques around incremental changes, is that… have you learned from, I guess you must have done. So you were a gold medalist at Invictus, in cycling wasn’t it? If I’m right? (JJ: ‘Yeah’) So the small incremental changes in British cycling more broadly, they’ve talked about this making a big, big difference, tiny little changes in lots of different areas.

JJ Chalmers  24:50

Hugely, hugely and my insight in Invictus is one, but now that the mainstay of my TV presenting is sport you know. I’ve spent time with Chris Hoyes of this world and Chris Boardman who is at the absolute forefront of British cycling, and looking for those 1% gains and those marginal gains. And that’s, I mean, that is what we kind of all need to learn from. And I think one of the things which is undervalued at the moment, is the huge gain that can be made from harnessing the true power of our minds. When we talk about mental health in the military in particular, it is talked about at crisis point, it’s talked about, all right, what are we going to do about this lad, he’s got to this point? Rather than doing it from day one. Now, the thing is, the Marines have always built resilience, they have always… all forms of Service have, but the Corps does it in spades, built resilience. But I think it’s a continued appreciation, and someone needs to go away, and they are doing this in fairness, and try to write down the science of what we’re achieving by creating resilience and fortitude, and all these other things. Because when you look at how well we train our bodies, you know, to be able to do our jobs, we should be doing the same for our minds, though, some people would say that your mind can’t be trained in the same way as your body. I understand there’s complex differences between the two, but you can absolutely sharpen your mind, there is no denying that. And that’s one of the things that sports people have done. You know, if I said to you, you know, one of the problems we have is when we talk about seeing a psychologist, for example, there’s a negative connotation that attaches to that often. But if I told you that I saw a sports psychologist, then people would go ‘Bloody hell, he takes this seriously’ and there’s a respect that comes with it almost. So what we need to be doing within the military, I think, to really create the highest level of readiness, is to be unlocking that extra 10% and that people should be doing this in the business world, well they do you know, that’s why they get business coaches. That’s why you see these, you know, ultra successful guys, it’s a lot about what’s up here. And so yeah, I think in the world of making those marginal gains, I think the biggest game to be had is about positive mental health, and unlocking it. So we never even get close to a crisis point because you are so ready, and you’re so sharp.

Steve Bomford  27:13

So a lot of that’s around elite sport performance, the, you know, the core elite and, you know, top dancers at the top of their game. How do you think any of those experiences or knowledge or techniques can translate for, for ordinary people like me, dare I say it.

JJ Chalmers  27:36

Yeah, well, and listen, and ordinary people like me as well. Like, I don’t count myself as being some sort of extraordinary person, I really don’t. And, most of my daily struggles happen in the real world, they’re the same as anybody else. Yes, I’ve, you know, I get to be on Strictly and I’ve ridden bikes at a pretty high level, but actually, my day-to-day is making sure that my family’s got a roof over their head and food on the table. And those are, in some ways, the mundane things, which we struggle to do, because there’s no, there’s not so much glitz and glamour in it. But they’re so important. And as I say, I think it’s more in those circumstances, looking for the victories, looking for something each day to be proud of, and to say, you know, I have improved as a person, and I’m you know, I’m pretty bloody great. And that can be something as simple as clearing your inbox of emails, you know, it’s making sure that the council tax is paid. It ain’t glamorous, but it’s, it’s important, and you should take pride in it. And then I think that the other, the other biggest thing, is the reason that I was so content within the Marines and now in my career as a TV presenter, for that matter, is because I know I’ve got a meaning and purpose, you know, I have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Now, I think you’re at your luckiest when the thing that you do for a living is your meaning and purpose. Absolutely. But at the same time, that isn’t the case for everybody, you know, so we need to put a roof over our head. So we just do what is required. But on the flip side, you know, that could be your hobby, it could be, you know, it could be your family, it could be the thing that you volunteer doing that gives you that meaning and purpose. And, as I say, kind of defines who you are as a person as well. But as I say, you know, in military terms, it’s a mission. It’s the reason we get out of bed, and it’s a reason that we sort of persist. And I think when you look at many of the issues that sit in the Veteran community, it’s because people struggled to find anything near the semblance of the meaning and purpose that they had within the military once they’ve left.

Steve Bomford  29:41

I’m so glad you said that because nearly all the people that we’ve worked with, or a good, good majority of them, it’s loss of sense of purpose. So they may be doing a job that’s, let’s just say, pretty mundane, if they’re working at all. And if the military gives you nothing else, it’s a sense of purpose. I’ve never met anybody, that no matter what their situation, I’ve never met anybody so far that hasn’t said to me, ‘I would do it all again’. Because that gave them that sense of purpose. It gave them structure, whatever it was that was really important to them as you’ve alluded to. But I’m just curious as well, how, for those that have lost their sense of purpose that, you know, sport’s a powerful thing, but it’s not for everybody, is it?

JJ Chalmers  30:19

No, and that’s the thing. You know, that’s what I’ve learned most from dance in fairness, in the last few months, is that your thing can be whatever it needs to be. Like, you know, when we look at the sort of, the really successful recovery tools that the military have had, for example, like the Invictus Games, now, that’s an obvious one, because sport is a very good transition from the military. But actually, that Invictus, if you want to call it that spirit, you know, that sort of unconquered nature could be applied to any number of things. It can be cooking, theatre, it can be dance, I think what it needs to be, as you say, is something that you are personally passionate about because that will get you interested, that will get you driven towards it. And I really do think that people should do whatever makes them sort of happiest, because put it this way, a lot of people chuckled at the fact I was doing Strictly because it’s quite ridiculous (laughs) (Steve: ‘I bet they did’ laughs) And you know, and a lot of jokes were said and whatnot, but actually, nobody, when it really came down to it, and I got out there and started dancing, no, I never felt embarrassed for one second, because I was doing something which I was enjoying, I was doing something that made me proud, made other people proud and no one can take that away from you. So finding, as I say, that thing, which is your outlet is important. But I also think it’s a case of making sure that you, that you strive to do it to a standard or level, which challenges you, because that’s the other thing we had in the military. Yes, we had a mission and a purpose but it was also a challenging one, you know, ending up in a bit of a rut, it can also be really detrimental. And that’s why, you know, I always strive to get outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself. And that’s why, you know, for me dancing, learning to dance was amazing. But it was the stakes of learning to dance and do it in front of 11 million people that kind of got me really buzzing about it. But yeah, I think it’s a case of people finding the thing that gets them out of bed in the morning. And as I say, it might not be the job. It could be their hobby, it could be volunteering, you know, it’s the thing that you know, it doesn’t need to be your nine to five, but if you can make it your nine to five, then all the better.

Steve Bomford  32:35

So I would love to continue this conversation about sense of purpose and how we instil that in the people we work with another time because obviously, I think we could talk about this for quite a while. On a more challenging note, I suppose, as we’ve alluded to, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, who knows… the crystal ball gazing as to what that’s going to bring about, but what do you think its legacy will be for, you know, society more broadly, for good or bad? What do you think the impact will be? We’ll we have to make some assumptions maybe the vaccines might work next year, and things will get some sort of normality. But obviously, it must have had a profound effect on so many people, what do you think that’s going to look like?

JJ Chalmers  33:31

Yeah, there are, there are the things that I think will happen and things I hope will happen, I suppose. And I know, people talk about trying to get back to the normal, or we just want to get back to normal. And there are so many things that I want to get back to but you know what, there’s certain things I don’t want to go back to normal. I don’t want us to go back to under appreciating the NHS, I don’t want to go back to a world where I don’t thank my postman and the guy that takes my bins out. Like those things, as I say, it’s a realisation of what is actually important in this world. And I think I’m qualified to say this, because of, you know, what I’ve lived through in the past, that unfortunately, sometimes you need to go through the hard yards to discover that, and especially when it’s forced upon you, but don’t get me wrong in any circumstance, we would hope that this pandemic had never happened and God hope that it never does happen again, or at least for another 100 years. But you can either, as my dance partner, Amy so brilliantly used to say to me, especially when we would get our judges marks said, ‘We don’t get bitter, we get better’. And I think that’s a realisation that if you’re going to endure a hardship, you can either let it break you or make you and we have, we’ve done most of the hard yards at this point. I think we don’t have the crystal ball but I think we’ve got through the worst of it. There is hope in sight. And it’s been a really tough nine months. But actually at the end of this nine months do we want to go, ‘Alright, well, it’s broken us and what’s the point?’ Or do we want to look at the things the positives that came over. I never knew my neighbours before I went into lockdown. I’m gonna make sure that I keep seeing them. And, you know, while some of it is absolutely horrendous, the level of aid that we have had to provide to, you know, certain people within society, you know what, fairplay because people have picked up and they have, stood up, particularly the Veteran community within that, and we have realised that society actually means something, and that sometimes you need to help each other and not expect, you know, government to come in with it, with the crystal solution, actually, you know, the people around you are the ones that will look after you, therefore, you need to look after them.

Steve Bomford  35:46

Wow, it’s quite a thing to think, isn’t it, that it takes a pandemic for you to get, I don’t mean, I’m not picking on you but I think it’s probably true of a lot of people, it takes a pandemic for you to get to know your neighbours, that’s a bit of damning indictment of where we’ve got to as a society in some ways isn’t it.

JJ Chalmers  36:02

I completely agree. I mean, the reason I didn’t get to know my neighbours properly, is I moved into a house that need renovating. So I got in the door, and I looked at the place and I got my head down, and I emptied my boxes, and I did all those things. And at the end of it, I kind of lifted my head up and look to the neighbours, and went ‘I’ve left it too late now, so I’m not going to bother’, basically. But as soon as the pandemic started, I actually spoke to my postman who, in fairness, I’ve always had a nice relationship with my postman Bob, again, a new level of appreciation for you know, just how much of a lifeline he is not just to me, but to our community. And I said to him, I don’t really know everybody on the street but you know everybody, who do you think requires care and looking after and whatnot. He said, you want to speak to number twelve, number four, and number eight, whatever it was. And so we went and we dropped a letter through their door, and that’s where it started. And then our neighbour next door set up a Facebook group for everybody in the community. And I don’t want that ever to go away. But you’re right, it’s taken a pandemic, but that’s what I’m saying about. Sometimes it takes, for want of a better word, a kick up the arse.

Steve Bomford  37:09

Yeah. Do you think that will continue though that community spirit? I don’t mean for you personally, I mean, far more? I suspect you will, but I think more broadly, do you think this will continue?

JJ Chalmers  37:19

I really hope so. But having said that, I was speaking to a friend of mine who works in government, and works closely with the NHS and she was saying that, whilst we look into lockdown two, and we look into this, you know, numbers like we were seeing the first time round, the difference is, where we’re going into it with less of a community spirit. You know, there is not the Captain Tom, there is not the standing out on our doorstep on a Thursday afternoon. So some of that has been forgotten, that unbelievable, shared spirit that we had. And so people on the front line of this are still facing the same odds, but with less support. And I don’t think it’s gone back completely to where it was, but we always, you know, we always slip and digress. I think it’s very important and it’s incumbent on leaders within, you know, societies and, you know, or whatever parts of the thing it is, myself as a TV presenter even to use the platforms that are available to us to try and tell the good news stories in order to inspire people to be part of the solution, rather than to just think that the problem is just too big to do anything about.

Steve Bomford  38:32

Fantastic. Well said. And one final question, slightly more lighthearted. What’s your New Year’s resolution, if you can discuss that?

JJ Chalmers  38:42

No, I mean, my resolution very much so, is to continue to appreciate the people and things in my life, which, as I say, the people I’d taken for granted and the things which, which, as I say, I didn’t realise the importance of as much and listen this is… this will tell you… I mean, I was injured nine years ago, and I probably had similar realisations nine years ago, as I have in this pandemic year. It’s taken nine years for some of that to wane and now I’ve been reminded, so it’s making sure, and I will do this every year to sort of restate that mission, that purpose and say, ‘No, I’m not going to let myself backslide on those things. I will continue to make sure that I, that I, you know, as I say, appreciate folks’, and I think if we do that, regardless of how quickly this pandemic ends, there is no denying if we continue to do things like that, 2021 will be a better year.

Steve Bomford  39:40

Well, I can’t disagree with that. So you’ve made me look forward to 2021 and I wasn’t so sure before we started this call so well done. So JJ, I really want to thank you for that. It’s been great stuff. If you’re ever in Portsmouth, you have to come to Fort Cumberland, l insist, obviously there’s a long Royal Marines tradition in Portsmouth, so head south when you’re allowed and we’ll catch up and have a wet as you say.

JJ Chalmers  40:06

Roger, I would love to stop by. Thank you so much and it’s just been a wonderful conversation. Yeah. Thanks for having me on.

Steve Bomford  40:16

Mike, what did you think of that? I was quite impressed personally.

Mike Davis-Marks  40:20

I think that’s an understatement. I would just say, ‘Wow’, I really mean, Wow, what an incredible person. I mean, obviously, I’ve known him briefly through Strictly and also a programme that wasn’t mentioned, The Road to Santiago, where he did a pilgrimage along the Camino Way in northern Spain. But there’s so many layers to him, what a fantastic and humble person.

Steve Bomford  40:50

He is, every time I asked him a question he gave almost a profound answer to everything but also everything was relatable. I think we didn’t need to be an athlete, an elite athlete to understand what he was saying.

Mike Davis-Marks  41:04

Elite athlete, TV presenter, Strictly dancer, Royal Marine Reservist, teacher. I mean, there’s so many. He’s only 32… gold medalist at the Invictus Games, what he’s packed into his life is just incredible. As you said, Every part of that makes up the person that he is, JJ Chalmers. And it’s an incredible story. Wow. Absolutely one of the most fascinating interviews you’ve done, you’ve excelled yourself yet again, I don’t know how you do.

Steve Bomford  41:38

Well, I should have another little medal for my interview techniques (laughs) but no all joking aside, he was fantastic and I think we’ve got a lot to talk about here.

Mike Davis-Marks  41:47

We have. Let’s start with the Royal Marines because I think the first question you asked was, you know, what part of being a Royal Marine Reservist played in his life. And you also mentioned the fact he was your first Reservist. And his answer to that was actually peppered throughout the interview, the role the Royal Marines has played in his life. And he said, ‘It’s not just a big part of who he was, it’s a big part of who he is now. It’s made him what he is. And it’s made him a better person.’ And I thought that every single answer he gave, that those those values and the integrity that the Royal Marines are very world famous for, came through in every way. So, ‘once a Royal Marine, always a Royal Marine’, and yet, there was so much humility in his answers. It was very thought provoking, very inspiring, and just made me like him even more than I already did.

Steve Bomford  42:41

Yes, but it was the little things, wasn’t it, just the way he mentioned about being five minutes early for lessons, just you know, the punctuality, the little things that have become part of his DNA and how he’d use that in a way that was beneficial for himself and other people as well.

Mike Davis-Marks  42:57

Yeah, he talked about lots of things in relation to that. And I’m sure we’ll cover them during the sort of post-interview conversation. But I’m really struck by the fact that, you know, when he became a Royal Marine, he suddenly realised there were lots of other people in the same situation, struggling to do what they were doing. But once they had got through those pretty immense tests, he knew he always knew that he had people supporting his back. And he always had that group of people he could rely on and trust on and he’s taken that into Civvy Street as well, you know. I love the quote, he said, ‘Yeah, I can walk into any bar and say, ‘Is there a Royal Marine who wants to buy me a drink?” I’ve not thought of that before, but I’m gonna try it now with, in my case, Submariner, and see if I get anything apart from something thrown at me.

Steve Bomford  43:54

Or a bit of derision, probably? (laughs) But yes, it was very interesting, wasn’t it about how that’s affected him, for sure. And I think I was taken back because you hear a lot in the military, about the camaraderie and the banter and the support, ‘someone’s always got your back’, which is kind of easy for me to say, as someone who’s not Served, but he articulated that and explained that in a way that I think people would understand more easily.

Mike Davis-Marks  44:17

Yeah. Well, we’ve talked a lot about mental health during these series of podcasts. And  you know, he talked about the fact that, you could be open with your mates, and that helped relieve the mental stress, clearly a lot of physical stress, but the mental stress that goes alongside that was very much alleviated by the fact that that you could be open about it, and there are others there to support you who were going through similar things. So I, I love that side of that. And then he moved on to talk about resilience in quite a long, in-depth way. And, you know, he talked about the fact that he’d been blown up in Afghanistan in 2011. And what that had done in terms of building his character. And I think the expression he said is that actually, I wouldn’t recommend getting blown up, and you chuckled, but actually, as a way of building up resilience, it was very effective. And I thought that was very telling.

Steve Bomford  45:18

Yes, you know, obviously, I chuckled, that’s a very serious issue. But I think it’s also a great way of explaining, isn’t it, this idea of making humour where perhaps none would normally exist?

Mike Davis-Marks  45:29

Yeah. And I, you know, and from that, he then said, ‘Look, you know, we may not all be in those sort of situations’, and he wouldn’t recommend it anyway, but he was talking about on a day-to-day basis, just looking for the little victories, just looking for the little, you know, steps that you can count upon and learn from, and he even talked about learning from failures, which I think is a very good thing to hear, and that he had such a positive frame of mind. And, you know, and obviously, I think that’s probably part of his DNA. He’s always been like that, you know, but I think, what a role model for people to say that we’re all going through, to varying degrees, a lot of challenges, some of them because of COVID and many other situations as well, economic probably. But that positive frame of mind, you know is an inspiration for all of us to say, ‘No’, you’ve got to look forwards and think positively about learning, making those little victories, those little steps, and learning from them or improving each day again, making each day better.

Steve Bomford  46:34

Absolutely. I think the challenge often is recognising those little victories, those positive changes, the small incremental changes that he talked about, it’s actually recognising them when they do happen. Because I think if you get yourself into a place where challenges can become overwhelming, that becomes a bit more difficult.

Mike Davis-Marks  46:51

Yeah. And he talked about Strictly, obviously because that’s been what’s foremost on a lot of people’s minds about him recently. He got to the quarterfinals, and did brilliantly well. But he talked about his partner, Amy, who I didn’t know who had Crohn’s disease. And I don’t think we would know unless you read up about her and how she deals with that. And actually, it gave them something in common, they both had something to nurse and to deal with during the quite intense training that’s required to progress through the Strictly routines. So she came up with the expression, you know, when they received criticism, or usually constructive criticism from the judges, she said, ‘Don’t get bitter, get better’. That’s a model for all of us.

Steve Bomford  47:41

That is a good one, I thought. It was quite interesting, because you look at Strictly as something that is pretty glamorous. It’s glitzy, it’s entertainment and it’s sometimes quite easy to forget, there are actually people involved and all those people, whether they be dancers, or not, have stories to tell. And some of them are probably a bit more surprising than others, and I think they obviously bounced off each other well and motivated each other well, because he was obviously full of respect for her.

Mike Davis-Marks  48:09

Yeah, I’m not particularly a big Strictly fan, I don’t think you are either, although I look forward to seeing you on it at some future stage when you become world famous as a result of this podcast. But actually, when I do watch it, I watch it for people like JJ and the eventual winner, Bill Bailey, who weren’t the norm, not the people that could dance anyway, they were people that didn’t know how to dance and had incredible journeys to get to where they got to. Well, if I do do Strictly coming back to that point, you will have to be my dance partner I’m afraid. I’ve got two left feet (laughs), that would almost get you out in the first round if you had me as your dance partner, I can promise you that. And notwithstanding the fact that two slightly middle-aged men…

Steve Bomford  48:59

Well, there certainly wouldn’t be any glamour there, that’s for sure (laughs).

Mike Davis-Marks  49:05

You asked about COVID of course, because you know, that’s been… what I thought would be the one subject that’d be taking Brexit off the news agenda, but that’s not the case at the moment, they’ve got equal billing as we approach the deadline of end of transition. But again, once again, his positivity came into, you know, you asked him what he learned from COVID. And obviously, he said he enjoyed spending more time with his family, and even referred to the fact that he spent 10 weeks in isolation because of Strictly, but that wasn’t anything compared to what he’d done as a Royal Marine. So actually, you know what, it wasn’t a big struggle for him. But he also then talked about appreciating things that he had taken for granted. I think one of the great things about COVID that I’ve seen has been a reemergence of community spirit and the role of society and appreciating things that we don’t know. But we don’t do it at the moment. But you know, we may do it in the future, sort of standing on the front door clapping the NHS, saying hello to the postman, setting up a WhatsApp or Facebook group for your street and getting to know your neighbours. And you know, like him. I didn’t know mine, most of my neighbor’s at the low end of the street, that’s the other end rather than the lower end before, but I do now and I think that’s brilliant.

Steve Bomford  50:29

Yeah, I think it’s quite interesting because you may recall, Andrea MacFarlane mentioned exactly the same thing about how she’d got to know her posty, in episode three, I think it was. But so there’s some common refrains there isn’t there, about this sort of changing relationship we have with people that we probably see every day, but don’t know them from Adam.

Mike Davis-Marks  50:48

Yeah, but there was also a warning there, which was actually, you know, if COVID had any benefit, it’s that we then keep on doing this when it’s no longer a big issue, you know, the vaccinations taken hold and we’ve got a level of immunity, is that we don’t go back to our old ways, we don’t start to, you know… unappreciate all the people that we started to appreciate again, and the sadness is that I think, during the interview, you mentioned that lockdown two, there seemed to be less of a community spirit than lockdown one. There’s been COVID fatigue as such, I really hope that isn’t a trend, I really hope there is something we can take out of this horrible year, that will allow 2021 to be much better in many ways, not just because of health, but also because we’ve learned to treat each other better.

Steve Bomford  51:40

I’d agree, I think we also need leadership, ‘Royal we’, need leadership on the subject, I think. Adrian, In the previous episode, referred to this, about you know, how do we navigate this new world and maintain those relationships, as you said, and build upon them for a society of the future, whatever that may mean?

Mike Davis-Marks  51:58

Leadership. You mentioned sense of purpose. And a very strong element of any leadership is instilling a sense of purpose in each every one of us and those of us that are lucky enough to have a sense of purpose, you know, whether it’s something we’re paid for, or it’s something that we do, you know, are lucky; and I think the role of leaders in today’s world is to instil a sense of purpose in everyone, and particularly those that don’t have it at the moment, because I think that’s probably the most important thing you can have, is a sense of purpose.

Steve Bomford  52:31

Absolutely. And you know, it’s a bit of a hobby horse of mine anyway, but I suspect over the last eight, nine months, whatever it is, that people, a lot of people’s sense of purpose will have been taking a bit of a battering to put it mildly.

Mike Davis-Marks  52:44

Yeah, I know. I think that this is where real leadership comes in, kicks in, is instilling that sense of purpose. And finally, I just want to reiterate what we said at the start, which is, what a humble person. You know, he’s done so many amazing things in his 32 years life to achieve so much against such adversity and yet he came across as a hugely, he corrected you because you said something like, ‘Ordinary people like me’, and he said, ‘Well, I’m ordinary, too. I’ve just been made extra-ordinary in some ways by, you know, organisations like the Royal Marines, but I’m ordinary, same as you.’ You know, one of the most humble people you’ve had on this show. So well done for getting him.

Steve Bomford  53:29

Well done for getting him, it was a pleasure! (laughs) but I’m going to have to give you the credit aren’t I, because I don’t know whose idea it was, it may have been yours, but you certainly initiated the conversation and made it happen. So thank you very much. You can have a little gold star when we can meet.

Mike Davis-Marks  53:45

Do I get a promotion after this?

Steve Bomford  53:47

Don’t be ridiculous (both laugh). So thank you for that, Mike. I think that’s well, as you say, it was another fascinating interview, so much to talk about and let’s look forward to the next time.

Mike Davis-Marks  54:00

You’re very welcome. And Happy New Year if we don’t speak again.

Steve Bomford  54:03

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Mike Davis-Marks  54:05


Rachel Owen  54:10

Thanks for listening.  The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity exists to support sailors, marines and their families, for life.  If you, or someone you know, could do with some support, give them a call on: 023 93 87 15 68.  Or drop them an email on:  support@rnrmc.org.uk.  If you enjoyed this podcast and want to hear more, please subscribe.

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