I hoped the life of an author would be an interesting one when I sort of gave up on my schooling and spent all my days dreaming and scribbling. Now the intrepid squaddies who make up the literary critic wing of ARRSE, the unofficial website of the British Army, are making it all seem worthwhile by trying to bankrupt me.
It started earlier this month when the denizens of ARRSE (Arsenicks? Arseholes?) decided to turn their critical attention to my book Killing Time at Catterick. Now it’s not an easy book, I will admit, and certainly not a pleasant one. I wrote it after being approached by some ex-soldiers to put down their story, warts and all. Not ideal soldiers, by any means, and all of them left not too long after finishing their training. They had all loved some of it, hated some of it, and been absolutely convinced they had been conned into joining in the first place.
I’m friends with all three of them still, and they haven’t changed their opinion. They are particularly amused, in a cynical way, at the latest government idea to axe many thousand squaddies and replace them with part-timers. Sort of underpaid and over there. It will save money, certainly. Can you think of any other benefits? Answers on a postcard to a Mr Hammond at the Ministry of Defence, please.
After a time, the book went up on Amazon, as a Kindle. I only charge £1.87 for it, and any profits that might accrue go to the squaddies. It was also serialized, for free, by openDemocracy, under the title The Skinback Fusiliers, by Unknown Soldier. OpenDemocracy was bad enough – a trendy leftie organization, the soldiers seemed to insist, and it wasn’t helped by several mentions in the Guardian as well. Bloody hell – a communist rag if ever there was one!
Then, a few weeks ago, the ‘book club’ in ARRSE decided to try and have a concentrated go at it. A review appeared out of nowhere by someone who called himself Abner Brown. Not a fan, I think. He wrote:
I managed to read the first few paragraphs and skimmed through a few more. It was an effort. Off the top of my head I can’t think of anything I have read that is so badly written and poorly researched. In fairness, I remember a lot of drunken thuggery, overt racism, drug abuse and random criminality in the army. Some of the line regiments that recruited from the urban badlands in the late 80s and early 90s had real problems. I knew soldiers who did go ‘paki bashing’ and ‘grad bashing’ and ‘queer bashing’. They were living in their own little Clockwork Orange world, and either grew out of it or were kicked out of the army. A lot of the really serious violence was soldier on soldier and didn’t involve civilians. Anybody who served in a line regiment at that time probably has a few horror stories about the exploits of drunken thugs.
I really doubt if there is open racism in the army today – it just doesn’t ring true. I also suspect that with better retention and 100% recruiting, the army can be a lot more choosy about who it employs. That said, there was a fool of a Scots Guardsman in the papers recently who sounded like a character in the Skinback Fusiliers.
My main problem with this book (apart from the fact that it is appallingly written and woefully tedious) is that the characters don’t remind me of any squaddy I ever met. A good book on the subject will take you right back to the barracks – fucking hell that’s _____ or, that’s just like the bar at ______…..The Skinback Fusiliers didn’t succeed in capturing any of the barracks or NAAFI atmosphere, and the soldiers behaviour, dialogue and attitudes are entirely unconvincing. The author comes across as a naive Meeja Studies undergraduate with a SWP membership card in his pocket. The ‘novel’ (or what I read of it) is crass and boring. His research probably consisted of buying drinks for a few lads who PVRd from Catterick and searching the archives of Guardian Online.
Fair enough, I suppose, although he did seem a bit confused – complaining about the things I wrote about then saying they did happen, of course, but maybe not so bad. And also admitting that he’d hardly read the book. But the site moderator (I assume), saw no such flaws. Abner’s review, in fact, was a beacon and a rallying call. He commented:
Outstanding review Abner I agree entirely. Would you do me a favour and pop along to Amazon and post your views?….I would urge others to go on Amazon and review this rather nasty anti-soldier book…. Please leave polite reviews and lets not treat Jan Needle with the same vitriol he reserves for us. He deserves to have his trash called trash, but as with Open Democracy we can be sure liberal Guardianistas will regard his drivel as gospel. I would urge all ARRSERS to go on Amazon and say exactly how representative of army life they believe Needle’s fiction to be.
Well, red rag to a bull. Never mind the quality, feel the width. Despite at least one half-decent earlier review on the ARRSE site itself, the lads rushed to Amazon and posted their (polite, non-vitriolic) pieces. Comments ranged from ‘so badly written’ the writer didn’t finish chapter three, to the suggestion (actually a libel) that the fact the book was nominated for the Orwell Prize was a downright lie because it didn’t make it to the short list. Although there are several other five star reviews already, its rating dropped to three. Job done.
Does it matter? I guess in the scheme of things, not at all. The soldiers think I’m anti them because I say things that I’m told by serving soldiers are true, and we all know how hard it is to be criticized. I’m not anti soldier at all, I’m anti the way we treat them and force/expect them to treat others. Sadly, it’s not just Abner’s one fool of a Scots Guardsman, is it? Five Marines are facing trial on murder charges at the moment, and the stories about squaddies and brutalised civilian detainees, from Baha Mousa onwards, are straining ever more powerfully at the restraints imposed by the Government. Soldiers are banned from certain towns in Cyprus, and the horrible scandal of unexplained deaths among recruits at Deep Cut almost certainly has not run its course.
The level of rape and sexual assault is little short of horrifying. too. According to the Guardian, one rape or sexual assault is reported by a member of the armed forces every week, and in two and a half years there have been 53 reported rapes and 86 reported sex assaults in the three forces. Only 16 of 56 men court martialed were convicted. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2012/oct/29/rape-military-shocking-truth
And what of drunks in streets? What of the homeless? The proportion of ex-servicemen among them is scandalous. Private Eye reported recently that 67 per cent of servicemen drink to ‘hazardous’ levels, and 13 per cent have ‘serious alcohol misuse problems.’ But don’t take their word for it, read Mark Frankland’s amazing book Afterwards – also based on the words of real soldiers, but much more directly than my volume – which I reviewed in IEBR. https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?tab=wm#label/cally+white/13a68ce4ea9e04bf If ARRSE ever gets hold of this one, God knows what they’ll write. It’s extraordinary.
One good footnote. The ARRSERS got it down to two stars with their campaign, but it’s crept its way up to three again. It started at five. If the ARRSERS read this, I guess it’ll plunge again…c’est a guerre!