From a 16 year-old juvenile delinquent languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure in a north London borstal to becoming the writer of the highest-selling war book the country has ever seen is, to put it mildly, an eventful journey. And for one night in Screen Two at the Broadway Cinema, Andy McNab, Britain’s most famous soldier-turned-writer took us through it as part of a promotional tour for his two new books.
Inaccurate expectations of Andy McNab aren’t hard to develop. Photos of him are strictly forbidden on promotional tours due to the sensitive nature of some of his past work, which makes it tricky if you’re organising the event and waiting for McNab to turn up. Since the publishers won’t send out photos, Ross Bradshaw (whose Lowdham Book Festival on Tour event this was) spoke in the introduction of his giving a number of people significant looks before McNab finally came forth and revealed himself. Personally, I was hoping for a cross between Sean Bean (who played McNab in the BBC adaptation of Bravo Two Zero) and a scary brick wall, with perhaps a bristling moustache that carried with it an unmistakeably military air. Inevitably, McNab is nothing of the kind, looking like a particularly well-groomed PE teacher and talking like the very epitome of a Sarf Landahn wideboy.
Keeping a close eye on the watch he kept in the palm of his hand, McNab talked for almost an hour, taking us from his recruitment into the Royal Greenjackets at 16 to his present career as a writer, consultant on military matters for films such as Heat and Pearl Harbour and member of several committees that care for soldiers in and returning from war. In between these two points the audience were treated to tales of applying for the SAS, his training in the Air Assault Troop, missions in West Africa, Colombia, Northern Ireland and of course the ill-fated mission in the first Gulf War that led to his 1.8 million-selling first book. Loving mentions of whatever he was driving at the time (Peugeot Turbo, Red Lancia, etc) served as amusing punctuation to stories of gunfights and creeping through jungles.
Most interesting were his insights into the practical realities of soldiering and the effects of stress on those in war, including the most succinct and clear explanation of the condition we know as ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ I’ve ever heard. The consequences of PTSD have obviously been bought home to him over the years: of the fellow soldiers in his SAS troop only he and one other have avoided prison or death on active service or by their own hand. His own strategy for coping with the ordeals his army career has put him through was rather less complicated than most: “Not giving a shit, really”. Tales of obvious bravery were leavened with flashes of humour (raids on drug fields in Colombia were usually scheduled for Thursdays, as the whole team liked to be in Bogota for the weekend nightlife) and delivered with the patter of a natural talker.
Questions from the audience covered the bizarre experiments such as those currently on show in the recent film release The Men Who Stare At Goats (McNab’s entirely practical take on using amphetamines is that you’d better not be using them on a mission that lasts over 72 hours) to his thoughts on the media uproar on the MOD charging for parcels delivered to the frontlines after years of paying for it themselves (the money usually used for this was channelled into free wifi for the troops, swapping, in McNab’s words “parcels of sweaty mars bars and socks” for the infinitely preferable option for most soldiers of “email and porn”). Warm applause at the end made it plain McNab’s talk had gone down well, and it’s hard not to warm to a man who can put brutal torture behind him and make jokes about it without batting an eye.
After the talk a long queue of happy customers formed in the Mezzanine Bar upstairs for a session of signing his two new books: Exit Wounds continues the adventures of McNab’s hero Nick Stone, while Spoken From the Front is a McNab-edited collection of first-hand accounts from the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.