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Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 5

Simon Akam continues his re-exploration of the literature of male adolescence with what he sincerely believes to be the first ever litero-critical essay written about Andy McNab…

McNab now. It is not only my distinct memory of where I first found ‘Immediate Action’ that marks it out from the other books under examination here. It is also distinguished by the fact that its ‘author’ did not actually write it, at least not in the manner that, for example, I am writing this sentence. For those unfamiliar with his aetiology Andy McNab is the nom de plume of a former member of Britain’s Special Air Service, who sprung to prominence with the publication in 1993 of ‘Bravo Two Zero’, an account of his escapades behind enemy lines in Iraq in the First Gulf War. ‘Bravo Two Zero,’ along with ‘Immediate Action,’ which followed two years later, was ghostwritten.

In a later and altogether more appealing chapter of my existence than my sojourn as a tweed-jacketed second former in 1997-1998, while living in New York three years ago my then girlfriend once introduced a friend of hers to mine with the explanation that her father was Andy McNab’s ghost-writer. Such a tendentious connection ranks, I acknowledge, in the very lowest category of celebrity association stories, but there is a valid point to be made of it. Andy McNab’s ghost-writer’s daughter had attended a very smart West London girls’ school.

This fortune spent on schools fees illustrates a crucial point. The monumental success of McNab’s ‘authorship’ in the early to mid-1990s made his books a kind of ur–text. ‘Immediate Action’ and its predecessor ‘Bravo Two Zero’ spawned countless imitators, and created a whole new genre of the ‘SAS book.’ They are the great-grandfathers and progenitors of whole tranches of verbiage – literature is perhaps the wrong word – to be found in airport departure lounges and next to DVDs on shelves in houses otherwise devoid of books. Meanwhile, hilariously, McNab himself has not only faced accusations that his own early works fictionalised key details of events, but also branched into officially writing fiction himself.

Re-reading ‘Immediate Action,’ which chronicles McNab’s life story from London tearaway urchin to the eve of his deployment to the Gulf with the SAS, I found though that I could fit McNab into a tradition that is essentially a literary one. Not only did his books spawn a host of imitators, but they also interface with a written tradition that stretches backwards from their date of publication.

Alan Judd, the author of ‘A Breed of Heroes’, a much-underrated novel detailing a British regiment’s tour of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, once told me in an interview that the two greatest fictional chroniclers of the British army are Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh. I would agree with this assessment; Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and the sixth, seventh and eighth tranches of Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ (‘The Valley of Bones,’ ‘The Soldier’s Art’ and ‘The Military Philosophers’) anatomize the British military of the Second World War better than any historian.

The key takeaway from both these novels is an image of the British military machine as an organism of truly astonishing bureaucratic sloth. Once absorbed in this institution a man finds himself transferred for no apparent reason from grimy Nissen huts at one end of a rationing-depleted damp island to the other, subject, as in the opening scenes of ‘Brideshead Revisited’, another Waugh novel that addresses the war, to pointless exercises, training for months for operations that are later cancelled, or, as in the case of the hapless Lieutenant Bithel in ‘The Soldier’s Art,’ consigned to command the division’s “mobile laundry.”

Post-war there was a shift. The conscript behemoth of the 1940s slimed down like a Hollywood ex-starlet with a gastric band. Sometime in the 1980s the British army reinvented its public images as a lean, trim fighting force, the best small army in the world, starring in the Princes Gate embassy siege in 1981, the Falklands in 1982, Iraq in 1991, Sierra Leone in 2000. (I am indebted to the father of a friend for pointing out some of these points).

Subsequent misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have dented that sheen a little, but it remains a strong image. In many ways this shift was valid; the institution did change greatly, but it was also a shift in perception crafted by media in the broadest sense – and we shall place McNab in that category. In ‘Immediate Action’ the Cold War Royal Green Jackets in which he first serves as a young soldier are rooted in the pointless soldiering tradition of Powell and Waugh – as in the extract below.

“Almost immediately we started having to do two or three-week exercises. We’d drive to a location, dig in, stay there for a couple of days, jump in our APC again, go somewhere else, and dig in again. It was incredibly boring and as far as I was concerned we weren’t really achieving that much. Certainly none of us at the coalface was ever told what the big plan was.”

Later though the Special Air Service, which McNab finally reaches on the second attempt, is truly the “broad, sunlit uplands” of Winston Churchill’s post-war imagination, the epitome of the panache of the British profession of arms. Here is an exhortation:

“A major part of what made the Regiment more professional than the normal military unit was that it was staffed by people who could tell the difference between work time and play time. When you’re working, you’re working, when you’re not, then it’s time to be the idiot – you can do whatever you want, you can go and get drunk out of your head or you can go home and mow the grass, it doesn’t really matter. But everybody has to be able to cut between when they’re working and when they’re not.”

The irony here is that while McNab’s army, or at least the SAS, is in general much more efficient than the forces described by Powell and Waugh, his writing is incalculably worse. The depiction of the British army in literature 1940-1995 could be depicted on a graph as increasing professionalism couched in deteriorating style. Of course there are exceptions: Fitzroy MacLean’s ‘Eastern Approaches’ is not only a great work of memoir but also shows sections of the Second World War British army as efficient and formidable, as undoubtedly they were. But the broader point stands.

Perhaps some responsibility can be deferred as McNab, as we have established, did not actually write his books himself. But still, an archetypal ‘Immediate Action’ line – “But I didn’t realise, because I was a dickhead,” sits uncomfortably against, for example, the following exchange early in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Men at Arms’ about the best fabric for military boots.

“’This is my new pair of porpoises. I expect you wear them too.’

Guy looked from Apthorpe’s boots to his own. They seemed very much alike. Was ‘porpoise’ Halberdier slang for ‘boot?’ ‘

I don’t know. I just told the man I always go to, to make me a couple of pairs of thick black boots.’

‘He may have given you cow.’

‘Perhaps he did.’

“A great mistake, old man, if you don’t mind me saying so.’

He puffed his pipe for another five minutes, then spoke again: ‘Of course, it’s really the skin of the white whale, you know.’

‘I didn’t know. Why do you call it porpoise?”

‘Trade secret, old man.’”

One imagines Andy McNab and the father of my ex-girlfriend’s friend sitting knee to knee, almost certainly in an upstairs room of a Forte Travelodge off the M25 in the drizzle in 1994, together working out how on earth to put the nobility of McNab’s thoughts into simple words. “How about, but I didn’t realise, because I was a dickhead?” the ghost-writer moots. “Ideal,” McNab replies. Back home, a tweenage girl gets her name down for St. Paul’s.

The broader truth here, which we have arrived at in a fashion that I will concede is somewhat roundabout, is that to produce good – and certainly great – first hand literary depictions of the military requires conscription. In retrospect reconstruction is possible; Sebastian Faulks showed that in ‘Birdsong’, after many mornings spent (also in the early 1990s) in the archives of the Imperial War Museum and afternoons making up what could not be found there.

Memoir or good autobiographical fiction on this theme though generally requires the collision of a sensibility that in general would not be attracted to the army with the military machine. That requires compulsion. To take another country but the same war that Waugh attended; we would not have ‘The Naked and Dead’ unless Norman Mailer was drafted 1943.

For all its banality though McNab has the greatest weight, the greatest impression of the all the books I revisited here. Not only can I remember where I found it, but as I re-read it, for the first time in many years, it was as if I could see around the corner. I could sense the next element of the story, down to individual paragraphs, looming out of my subconscious where they had long ago lodged.

Likewise, I can remember how as a child factoids that must have been culled from ‘Immediate Action’ or ‘Bravo Two Zero’ became widespread boy lore. I was once, when I was perhaps eleven, told that the SAS fire more rounds in training each day than the entire rest of the British army. My informer was not only rather rotund, but also all of three years older than me, so his information presumably came from McNab, rather than his own personal Special Forces service.

Elements of McNab’s prose acquired life beyond the page  – as long as you were 13, listening open mouthed as someone tells you the SAS always carry a condom in their belt kit in the desert. And so, as with Tom Clancy, on revisiting we cannot be too rude about him. It is just not fair.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is www.simonakam.com and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

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