Victoria Blakeman a Lytham lady in Helmand
PUBLISHED: 01:01 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013
Lancashire prison governor Victoria Blakeman has gone to work in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. And she's doing it in sky-scraper stilettos.
Victoria Blakeman is in a fit of giggles. Non-stop laughter isn't the kind of response you'd expect from a woman working in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Much less from a woman who has been charged with building new prisons in this male-dominated, deadly part of the world.
Perhaps her giddiness is the excitement of being able to go out to a restaurant that evening or maybe it's the effect of the dizzyingly high stilettos she has become famed for - today she tells me she's wearing a four inch pair of wedges.
'People wait to see what shoes I have on in the morning,' she laughed. 'It's become a bit of a talking point. But there's no way I'm giving up my stilettos for anyone.'
Hundreds of people have been killed in Afghanistan, insurgent attacks are commonplace and choosing to take a job there is a real risk. Truth is, she is under constant guard both inside and outside her home at the British Embassy compound in Kabul, she has been through hostile environment training, she is living in a place fraught with danger, many social activities are off limits and she is miles from her Lancashire home.
But her driven but laid-back attitude that has landed her in a place like this.
Blackpool-born Victoria, a former Baines School pupil, shrugs it all off and seems to be more worried about turning forty a few months ago than dodging bombs and bullets. When I ask her about the dangers she faces, her reaction is less than orthodox.
'I love it. I'm so lucky to be able to come here and do what I'm doing. It's a really positive place,' she said. 'The Afghan people want to move on with their lives and they want to help themselves. Yes, you're aware there's fighting and it's not far from your mind but I can't say I let it bother me too much.
'When I go out and about I do as the security guys tell me. But that's not really what this country is all about.'
It was the need for a new challenge that sparked the 40-year-old to apply for the two-year secondment in Afghanistan. She had already worked at Garth prison in Leyland and in London working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During her two year secondment as a senior operations manager she will not only oversee the building of new prisons in Lashkar Gar in Helmand Province and Kabul but she will also be responsible for the training of new and existing guards and for bringing conditions up to international standards.
She was the only woman to apply for the job and the first woman to do it but again, she does not seem bothered.
Respect me and my team
'The challenges for me aren't about being a woman, it's more cultural and about the way business is done here. Everything takes a lot more time.
'People respect me and my team for being experts in our field. You don't get an opportunity like this every day, to influence a whole country's infrastructure so it's incredible exciting to be a part of it.'
It's quite a change for Victoria who, before starting work in the prison service, worked in business development and marketing at Arnold School. But what do parents Anthony and Valerie and sister Nadene think about all of this.
'I did have to make sure my timing was right,' she admitted. 'My mum had just had the battery on her pacemaker replaced so she would be ok. When I first told them I had something to tell them my mum immediately said 'are you pregnant?'
'Joking aside, my mum and dad do worry about me being out here but they said if it's something I really want to do, then I should go and do it. They've been incredibly supportive.'
Victoria admits she misses going out with her friends on a whim and shopping for those all-important high heels. Skimmed milk and pasta are also something she craves from back home. There's no doubting she will be out with her credit card the moment she lands back on British soil. But the self-confessed gym fanatic - she is in the gym at 5.30am every day - is certain there is one thing she won't be doing. 'Relax? I really don't do that.'