War book with a difference

The Cruise of Naromis. August in the Baltic 1939
By G.A.Jones

Every now and then a book pops up out of nowhere and grabs you by the throat. Not in a brash or aggressive way, but by sneaking under your skin and eyebrows and being hard to put down or ignore.

The Cruise of the Naromis is one of these. It came to light in a fairytale way when Julia Jones, the author and publisher, took a long hard look at some papers left many years before by her father George, which turned out to be an almost casual account of a motor boat trip undertaken in the very month before World War II became a reality rather than a lurking fear.

George and his four friends, all carefree and middle-class, joined the RNVSR – a sort of amateur navy for small boat freaks – and took a ‘pleasure trip’ up the Kiel Canal to the Baltic Sea, fraternizing happily with men who very shortly became England’s sworn enemies.

Along the canal through Germany, school children waved happily at them, and German-speaking young men drank with them like traditional brothers of the sea. And all the time Hitler and Churchill were making their dreadful preparations.

Julia’s father gives a peculiarly specific picture of a certain type of young man, in a certain era coming to an abrupt and catastrophic end. His companions tended towards classic English nicknames – he was ‘Honest George’ and there were also ‘Skip’ and ‘Fattie’ – and classic English attitudes. Their boat was also of that ilk: built of wood on the Norfolk Broads, with two diesel engines and a full suit of sails. Think Arthur Ransome, think Captain Flint.

Think, as they did, lovely, dreamy, flaxen-haired German damsels drinking tons of German beer and elegantly smoking cigarettes. Enough to make a young man’s heart ache or break.

Nothing much happens to them on the trip – thank God – but they take a lot of photographs, which they (perhaps disingenuously) see as pretty insignificant. Oh yes, of shipping in the Kiel Canal the week before the war breaks out. They were possibly lucky to end up alive, who knows?

But they did, thank heaven, and because of that we have Julia Jones and the rest of George’s family. Like this book, worth cherishing.

Published by Golden Duck. Isbn: 9781899262335

Nowt to do with me

Every month, to my surprise, I suddenly find I have this blog to write and I haven’t got a clue. This month, what we writers laughingly call the pressure is even greater than usual, because I’m flying off to Berlin in a day or two, and I have other vital things to finish. Aw! It’s me I feel sorry for…

Sometimes, though, the suffering of other people is brought home with a bang. Julia Jones’s gruelling and frighteningly honest piece on the 9th was a case in point. It was hard to read, and harder to digest. I left a comment because I wanted to show some solidarity, but I had not a clue what to say. Julia is wonderful, one of those people who makes one feel inadequate. I can only thank her for it.

Another terrific writer who has this effect on me is Mark Frankland – and he also runs a charity in Dumfries for victims of the military life. Not people who have been attacked or injured by the forces in the normal course of what they do, but those in the forces themselves who have fallen by the wayside in the aftermath of serving their country. The suffering and deprivation of these men and women who have done their best is horrifying. Here’s an extract of his latest blog, which went up on March 2. I’ve edited it for space reasons.

Mark Frankland wrote:
Over the last thirteen years working at First Base I have been left feeling angry and appalled too many times to count. Angry and appalled at the way people are treated. Angry and appalled at the casual cruelty of our supposedly caring State. Angry and appalled at the way faceless bureaucrats seem to think it is OK to step on vulnerable people as if they are human cockroaches.

And anyone who has read this blog of mine over the years will know where I am coming from. And at times it is easy to slip into the same kind of zone that A&E nurses probably live in. You get to thinking that you have already seen the worst of the worst. You get to thinking that nothing to come can be worse than what has already been.

But to be honest to think like that would be pretty bloody naïve. And so it was that on a cold day in December I drove up to Edinburgh to meet up with Sam.

I have only met [him] once before and it was very brief. It was on one of the very worst of days. The day we said goodbye to James.

James, the youngest client of our Veterans Project. James, who could have been tearaway, who took the King’s Shilling and signed up. James who stood tall and magnificent on a hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who left the army when his dad died because his mum needed him. James who was one of the most decent guys it has ever been my honour to meet. James whose conscience and soul could not handle what he had seen and done on that hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who took his own life at 23 years old on a bone cold January night.

His brothers in arms from the Regiment came down to carry his coffin under the cold grey January skies.

And Sam was one of the band of brothers. I can still picture him that day. Clearly. He was so tall it made carrying James awkward. Sam the six foot five Fijian with the ramrod back. A face as hard as one of those Easter Island statues. But his eyes. His eyes were windows onto a grief stricken soul.

And I remember standing at the grave side and thinking what a crazy world we live in. Sam. The warrior from a warrior tribe. So many thousands of miles from his South Sea home. Tall and like a king from a Kipling story. Still as a rock. Saying his goodbyes to a fellow warrior.

On a cold, cold day.

In Dumfries.

In Scotland.

James’s mum Nicola called me a few weeks ago. She said she had been talking to Sam on Facebook. She said Sam is out of the Army now. Out in the cold. And things are not so good. Pretty bad in fact. Could First Base do anything? I said we would do our best.

But no promises. Other than the promise to drive up to Edinburgh to meet him. He is waiting for me.

[Sam] remembers [that] when they got him to sign the dotted line in Fiji they said that four years served would mean guaranteed citizenship.

He served nine years.

Iraq. The Falklands. Northern Ireland. Afghanistan.

The same hard, hard Helmand Tour as James. With James. He did the hardest of hard miles. And every month his salary had income tax and National Insurance deducted. Like he was a citizen.

But when he left the army in 2012 he learned the hard way that the British Establishment tell lies.

Citizenship? Who told you that? Good lord. I very much doubt it…

Well. You’ll just have to apply along with all the rest, won’t you? But don’t hold your breath. We’re not overly keen on your type to be frank. No money? No thought not.

So Sam applied. Three years ago. And for three years they have made him sign on. But his was a different sort of sign on. Every Monday he walks six miles into Edinburgh city centre to sign his name in a police station. Like a common criminal. Like a terrorist. Like scum. And then he walks six miles home again.

And he waits.

He receives not a penny and he has been told in no uncertain terms that should he do so much as an hour’s work he will be on a plane back to Fiji before he gets the chance to blink.

His partner has left him and she doesn’t let him see his son. His son is five now. The last picture Sam has is of a three year old.

He has another girlfriend now and she pays the bills. They share one room over a pub. They share a mattress on the floor. And Sam watches TV all day. And one by one the demons of those hard, hard Helmand days are starting [to] crawl into his head like maggots.

I promise that I will try to do what I can. We stand and shake hands. Maybe there is a faint smile. Maybe not. He thanks me and I feel terrible.

I get in my van and drive south.

And all the way back I remember him in that cold graveyard on that cold January day. Like a statue. Like a king. Like a warrior. So very far from home. Saying goodbye to an unlikely brother in arms.

But a brother all the same.

After Frankland had written this, things deteriorated. A fellow tenant in Sam’s block turned out to be a psychopath, who smashed in the back of his head with a claw hammer. His girlfriend Kirsty called an ambulance, and he was saved. The psychopath was charged with attempted murder – but later bailed. He then threatened the landlord, who evicted Kirsty. No notice, nothing. Just go.

When Sam was discharged from hospital he was homeless, naturally.

‘Not merely a non person now, a homeless non person. They walked the streets to the homeless department. They were told that a box room was going to be £100 a night because Kirsty was working and Sam didn’t officially exist. And it was only for one night anyway.’

What’s more, the psychopath was still on the look out for them.

Mark Frankland, and First Base, continued fighting. He finally got two MPs interested, and engineered a breathing space. A room for a week. A stay of execution.

And so yet again I am left with nothing to do other than to slam my keyboard with the words you are reading now. If there is anyone out there who can help in any way at all please let me know. And if there are any reporters out there who can take Sam’s story to a wider audience please get in touch. I asked him if we would be willing to allow the press to tell his story. He is. He will. And I’ll tell you what guys, he’ll take a hell of a photo. A six and a half foot warrior version of Marvin Gaye.

He deserves so much more than this. Now he needs a clamour. Angry voices. Justice and fairness demanded.

Because everything about this is just so very, very wrong.

The First Base Agency would be more than happy to pass on any donations to Sam. Cheques to The First Base Agency can be sent to 6 Buccleuch St, Dumfries, DG12AH. The First Base Agency – TSB – Sort Code – 30-25-88 Acc No – 00533183.

PS Anybody fancying a PDF of my new thriller The Bonus Boys with a view to doing a quickie Amazon review email me at jan.needle@gmail.com Some of it takes place near this beautiful idyllic harbour, and it’s ‘orrible.

American view of The Bonus Boys

It’s new on Amazon – at just under three quid!


Gritty, yet elegant. Heroes and heroines, flawed but courageous in their own ways. And villains so despicable the skin crawls. But, who is the actual villain…Hmmm?

Jan Needle’s The Bonus Boys is a remarkable read, a better-than-classic whodunit. The mystery concoction is thickened by an aggressive British media always in search of a sensational story, intimidated police officials pressed to find the perpetrators and a slimy politician doing…well…what slimy politicians do, and more.

From a newsroom in London, to the squalor of Eastleigh to a chalet in the not-so-tranquil Berkshire countryside, the sometimes bewildered, often conflicted but always persevering pursuers search for the killers.

Though a tense and chilling novel, the characters’ engaging and sometimes hilarious dialog offers the reader an occasional reprieve.

Needle’s book is fabulous…a must-read for those who want to absorb themselves is a raucous mystery.

The existential agony of the trade

I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that everyone else is as knackered as I am after Christmas. I didn’t get much of a break, because I had some urgent writing jobs to finish (damn you, Buster Crabb!), some very large plates of Christmas pudden to consume (damn you, Father Christmouse), and the most appalling chest, throat and nose and ears infection which I assumed was terminal and everybody else cruelly categorised as man flu. (Damn the lot of you; it’s a pity I didn’t die. That [might] have wiped the smiles off…)

Any road up, here I am, just out of me sick bed, struggling manfully to carry on, and worrying about me tax return. Does nobody care about me?

Funny you should say that, because maybe someone does. Or then again, maybe not. You be the judge.

It was Wilf, possibly the most eccentric of my many eccentric sons, who is studying in Glasgow, but claimed to have got me the most original Christmas present of all time. What’s more, he even managed not to forget it (thank you, Lucy) when he came down to civilisation for a while.

Go on then, sez I. Was ist? (I may be ill, but I can still show off).

‘It’s a gallery of famous writers,’ he said. Or maybe smirked, it’s hard to tell when you’re suffering. ‘The ones you introduced me to as among your favourites. Except the first one, bien sur. He’s no one’s favourite. Because it’s you.’

He’s a charming chap. I sometimes wonder where he gets it from. Answers on a postcard, please.

Go on then, sez I. My breath is bated.


No, bated, ignoramus. Look it up upon your googley fone thingie. My breath is bated. Make with the goodies.

It was four pictures. In the style one might call naive. Or maybe prehistoric. Apparently a man called Sean Ryan does them, apparently on demand if you cross his palm with enough silver. I asked Wilf how much silver that actually was, but he said they were beyond price. And anyway, not to be so effin rude. In some ways, he was right. Ryan, incidentally, bills himself as ‘artist, slacker, pizza fan.’ Can anyone say fairer?

So here they are. The men he claims I told him were my top scribblers. And me. There will be a small cash prize to the one who names them all correctly. A very small cash prize, which will not, sadly, cover the postage of the claimant’s letter.

I like them. They grew on me. And one day, Wilf assures me, they will be worth a lorra, lorra money.

But then again, that’s what he told me when I had to buy him endless packs of Pokemon cards as I dragged him home from school each evening. They’re still piled in his old bedroom, waiting for the market to peak.

The other kids got me presents, too; some weird, all wunnerful. Ain’t chillern just the job? They almost make life live worthing..

So maybe I’ll summon up the energy to fight off this dire infection after all.

If some bugger will only bring me up a cup of tea!

Here’s the link for Sean Ryan. Well worth a click. Who knows, someone might want to make you famous, too…

Sean Ryan Illustration

Incidentally, the magazine of the International Thriller Writers Association – The Big Thrill – have done a splendid interview with me about The Bonus Boys in this month’s mag. Sadly, because of my inefficiency (blame the man flu!) the book won’t be out for a couple of weeks. Ah me.

But here’s the link:

The Big Thrill.org

Questions, questions!

This is an interview I’ve done for The Big Thrill, an international thriller magazine. Because of my natural incompetence the book’s not out yet – it’ll be another couple of weeks before it goes live. Sorry! Here’s the words, though – and if you want them in context, click this link:

The Bonus Boys by Jan Needle

By Lynne Constantine
The Bonus Boys

Jan Needle brings back the beloved characters from KICKING OFF in the second of a series. This one is called THE BONUS BOYS. Cynical investigator Andrew Forbes – drinker, smoker, gambler – was always an unlikely partner for Rosanna Nixon, so apparently demure that she’s known as the Mouse. Their love affair has not survived their first brutal clash with sordid reality, although both have found the break-up devastating. Now they are thrown together in the world of “the bonus boys”– men so rich that normal rules do not apply.

But the world of wealth and country mansions loses its veneer when a gang of psychopathic killers comes to call on Thea Hayter while her husband is – conveniently – in America. As it turns to blood-soaked horror, a blundering police force and a politician on the make turn up the screws to fever pitch. It seems impossible Rosanna, hostage in a hidden chalet in a wood, can survive.

Let’s talk about your main male character in the series Andrew Forbes. He’s the complete opposite of Rosanna Nixon. What does she see in him?

Although she’s got an inner core of steel, the Mouse gets involved in the brutal worlds of politics and crime only when she meets, then falls in love with, Andrew. He is hard-bitten and cynical, but he’s very much on the side of the angels underneath it all. He’s a widower, and essentially a one-woman man. But life has knocked him about a lot. They say feeling sorry for a man is the most dangerous thing a woman can do. Rosanna does – and falls!

Do you envision this to be a long running series?

Yes. Andrew and the Mouse came together in the first book, Kicking Off, almost by accident, and it took me some time to realize they were going to be inseparable. Then, of course, they separated. The strains they both live and work under are very great, and will get worse as the series goes on. To be quite honest, I don’t know how, or if, they’ll survive! That’s why I love writing about them.

What’s next in the series?

As The Bonus Boys could be seen as being rooted in the traditional country house mystery – only much, much bleaker – the next one takes them into modern noir, with a police force getting rapidly overwhelmed by a series of brutal killings which seem motiveless and bizarre. Behind it all is mysterious ex-soldier who lives within, and minutely observes, a small community but manages to remain invisible between killings, and impossible to track down. Key to it all appears to be an immensely tall crane that broods over the blighted and terrified community.

You are a very prolific writer with a wide variety of books, plays and essays to your credit. Do you have favorite genre in which to write?

At the risk of sounding like a flibbertigibbet, I tend to be tempted to carry on in the same vein as the book before, whatever “genre” it is. Having finished The Bonus Boys my mind leaps to the next crime thriller. But I’ve got other strands that need a new one, so I have to force myself into that “mode.” At the moment I’m doing a series of novellas based on Nelson’s life, a series of full-length historical sea adventures, and some short spy/Cold War thrillers. And a film company has just asked if they can make a feature of my award-winning teenage novel about racism, My Mate Shofiq.

You’ve stated in interviews that one of the things you love about e-books is the flexibility to go back and improve an earlier work. Do you think that a book is ever “done”?

When I finish a book I tend to consider it done until I reread it (sometimes much later) and think I could do bits of it better. The last book in one of my earlier series, for instance, suddenly struck me as being much weaker than the others. In the old days that would have been that, but I threw myself back into it, metaphorically speaking, and ended up with what I think is a much better book. Playwrights do this sort of thing all the time, of course. And I love the collaborative process.

Over the years the publishing landscape has changed dramatically. In what ways do you think it’s easier for a writer? In what ways worse?

That’s a sort of eternal question, and more or less unanswerable, as it really depends on what each writer wants out of the process. It’s easier in that anyone can write something, and get it into print (whether concrete or virtual) and possibly just as hard to be “recognized.” That’s a lottery, always was and always will be, I fear. There are some great books out there that no one will ever hear of. That’s what mums are for; they always love your stuff! Mine did…

How has your background in journalism influenced your novels?

I suppose the greatest single thing was speed. I was a reporter for many years, then a sub-editor. I had to write fast, I had to be accurate, and I often had to compose it as I went along, often into a telephone surrounded by utter mayhem. Now, I write wherever I am, and with whatever tool comes to hand, pen, pencil, laptop, tape recorder. And I enjoy it! That’s worth its weight in gold.

Tell us about your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Either or both, strangely. Ideas usually come out of the blue, and sometimes they’re virtually fully-formed. Sometimes, though, they need a great deal of kicking into shape. I always hope it will be easy; sometimes it’s hellish hard.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I don’t think I do.

What’s the worst advice you ever received on writing?

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I’ve always found that if you rewrite something more than three times, the last will be worse than the first.

If you could dispense just one piece of advice to beginning writers, what would it be?

Ignore what I just said about rewriting! Everybody’s process is different. Trust yourself, listen to others. But write. Always write.

Has your success banished the self-doubt common to most writers, or do you still struggle with that with each new book?

To be honest, it doesn’t worry me much. The bonus of journalism again, I think. If something’s not working I chuck it and start something else. The same with cutting. Even if you think something is much too precious to cut, remember that only you will ever know it was there in the first place. If you cut it, no one will miss it. It doesn’t matter!

What is something we would be surprised to know about you?

How many of you think/thought I was a woman? My mother again. She’s got a lot to answer for, that lady.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

A solid tome on the life of Napoleon. My last novella (a Kindle Single) was called Napoleon: The Escape. I can’t get enough about him. Did you know that at one time he had a wife and two mistresses all called Josephine – and that it wasn’t the real name of any of them! Crazy or what?

If you could have dinner with any writer, dead or alive, who would it be?

Christopher Marlowe. To see if he answered to the name of Shakespeare! If he didn’t I’d want Shakespeare as well. Both good drinking men, I’d guess.

Where can readers connect with you?

Email: jan.needle@gmail.com and my website.

Life in the old tale yet?

Another of the beauties of being a writer, is the way things lurk. For years, sometimes. Everything rolls along as normal, stories, novels, plays come and go, and some become pretty dormant, just lie there in the great outside, ignored and (maybe) festering.

Then comes a communication, let’s say on Facebook. Facebook, for those of you who haven’t heard of it (!), is a way of keeping in touch with the wider reality. Pictures of Prime ministers and pigs, that sort of thing. Jokes about blondes and mirrors that you somehow feel you have no right to laugh at. Accounts of the latest NRA polemic proving that 3,000 gun deaths a year is an argument for arming babies in their prams.

About four months ago a man called Aneel Ahmad sent me a private FB message saying he’d always been a big fan of my early kids’ book My Mate Shofiq. He was a film-maker, and could we talk? At the very least he wanted me to sign his copy.

I wasn’t playing hard to get, but I’m usually too busy to efficiently wipe the crumbs from out of me beard. It was ages before I ‘messaged’ back, asking where he lived. Manchester. Nobbut (as they say in Oldham) a cockstride away. So to cut a long tale short, we met.

All of us, I imagine, have been in similar situations, and we all know how the bullshit radar works. So how about this for disarming? The bell rings, I open the door, and this man says: ‘Can I come in? I smell of curry, I’m afraid.’

It was Aneel Ahmad, and the greeting was an adaptation of something in my book. In My Mate Shofiq the co-hero, the white one, says ‘don’t like Pakis, me – they allus smell of curry.’ So in he came, both of us laughing like drains.

Aneel is a Pakistani, for want of a better language term. He was actually born in England, and has a classic Manchester accent (although he doesn’t pronounce it Manchestaw). What’s more, when he read Shofiq in school, he hated it.

‘Well, not exactly it, but the way it talked about us lot. Calling us Pakis, and so on. I thought that it was racist.’


‘The more I read it, the more I thought I might be wrong. In the end I’d changed my mind completely. When I grew up and got into making films, I knew I was going to try and make it one day. Now I think I can.’

His early reaction to the book, I must add, was not unusual. I was hung out to dry by some of the usual suspects (I won’t name them, and they all later saw what I was getting at) and ‘the trade’ was split down the middle. The sainted Kay Webb told my agent that she ‘had no intention of ever seeing’ a book like that on her list, while the sainted Rosemary Sandberg snapped it up. The difference between a Puffin and a Lion?

It was runner-up to that year’s Guardian Award, while other ‘peer panels’ were pretty snotty that it had even been submitted. Best of all, from a writer’s POV, I still get letters out of the blue from British Asians saying how much they love it.

Aneel, who is forty, has made many documentaries, many shorts, and is multi-talented. He showed me a selection of his small films (God bless the internet!) some of which he wrote, directed, produced, cast, located, and did the sound for. Two have been short-listed for awards.

Many of them are filmed in Pakistan, with locals he has ‘spotted in the street’ instead of professional actors, and to my western eyes, the depiction of genuine poverty and hardship is startling and heart-rending. One of them, Rickshaw Passenger, is about a rickshaw driver who falls in love with a ‘hotel girl’ (a sex worker). Her face alone (and she’s not an actress) is enough to make you weep with joy and sorrow.

‘I’ve been asked many times when I’m going to do a feature,’ he said, ‘but I didn’t think I was old enough at thirty five plus. And now I think I am. And it’s going to be My Mate Shofiq.’

‘Gosh,’ sez I (or words slightly to that effect). ‘Who’s going to write it?’

‘You, I hope,’ he said. ‘Is that a possibility?’

I pretended to look in my diary. Or rather, I pretended that I had one.

‘Well,’ I said. ‘Not this week. But after that…’

There is, as we all know, many a slip. Indeed. But we’re thinking very much on the same lines, and we can both do ‘Manchestaw.’ We’re also both agreed it should be a ‘period’ piece. Times have changed, and English racism is going through a very sticky period, extremely difficult to pin down.

But both of us are hopeful, both for racial problems and this film. So watch this space.

Aneel Ahmad

My Mate Shofiq