The First Casualty: An Interview with myself!

Dear readers, no Ricky isn’t going mad and talking to himself (much) but recently I decided to throw open the flood gates to questions all about my upcoming book, “The First Casualty – the untold story of the Falklands War” with a promise I would answer all of them! Well I have had a few, many via posts on line, some emails or private messages too and I thought now might be a good time to sit down and answer them all. If anyone has any more, well, drop a comment on the section below, I guess! Right, what have we got here, let’s see…..I’ll try to put them into some kind of chronological order for you all….

1) How did you get started? What motivated you to get to the bottom of this story?

“The First Casualty” actually began life as a blog post! It began right here. Sometimes when I blog, I just play around with ideas, see how I like them, sometimes I have old book ideas where there just wasn’t a book in it or maybe just not a book that I wanted to write. I think this started off as somewhere between the two. It was a story which, at least to me, just never fitted; I never did believe this ‘token defence’ story which we are led to believe happened, so I did a bit of digging and came up with a format which worked. Looking back now, nearly six months on, it’s awful…truly bad. But even then it is still 200% more (and better) than has been done before…these guys of the Royal Marines just got forgotten. It was a bit of justice for them…then the guys themselves started to come up and say “This is us! Please write this as a book!” – It took me about twenty seconds to say yes…..

2) Why the special interest in the Falklands War?

This is a fair question, especially as it really isn’t my genre. Blogs aside, I haven’t written a stitch after 1813! Conceptually it was something new – a personal challenge, I suppose and a good story. I’d gone from doing a lot of Napoleonic stuff to doing a lot of ancient and classical stuff, so something modern; a sorbet to clean the palate, wasn’t a bad idea. However I actually didn’t have that much interest in it per se. I suppose it’s odd; one of my most vivid early memories was the Hermes sailing up the Solent, the fire ships spraying water in arcs over her, crowds going wild, flags waving, ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ thumping out. It was probably most vivid for me because we had just got a colour TV so it stood out. I was too young to know what was going on exactly, but the sight of my Dad dancing around the front room in a World War 2 tin hat with ‘Falklands Liberation Army’ painted on it (we still have it) told me that this was quite a special day. It was, I suppose, my first full memory that I can recall with absolute clarity. The specific interest came from the guys themselves; the heroes of the Royal Marines Naval Party 8901 – they were just amazing and suddenly I was chatting to these real life heroes…I’d only ever written about people long dead before, so they really captivated me from the off!

3) What were your hopes and fears when starting out?

Fears were probably the same as most authors; ‘I really hope this isn’t crap’ – especially as the guys were all egging me on to do a good job for them! First-person interview-based history is an art-form and – I say it unashamedly – one I didn’t have any experience of. I remember Stephen Ambrose when he wrote Pegasus Bridge fell very hard and made lots of mistakes. He had to re-write the whole book. Luckily he had perfected the art in time for Band of Brothers. Perhaps luckier for me, he left an account of his learning-curve from Pegasus Bridge, so I really had to take my lead from him. I was aware that it could all still go horribly wrong and of course, with the guys telling the story, you don’t even know where it is going! Luckily for me, my other stuff was always ‘narrative based’ – I always worked with quotes and tried to get the reader into the action ‘first-hand’ so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. My hopes? – Originally that we would find a publisher! Later, when I realised what we had, that we would actually change the history for good. It’s a silly ambition, but I really want Wikipedia to change. I know it gets laughed at often but it is still the most accessible information source in the world. The day that changes, as I believe it must and will, I will be doing cartwheels!

4) Was it hard to find a publisher?

This sounds so flippant, but no! He found me! I know it’s one of those old cliches, the story about how many rejections you have to go through and things, but it just wasn’t the case. I was in talks with one company who really liked the idea but wanted another writer on board as well and I didn’t like that. I could smell the proverbial ‘broth’ straight away, plus the guys didn’t know him, I couldn’t vouch for him…and then the Marines all said, “No. You believed us, you’ve taken it on, we want you to do it.” – Luckily Ian, my publisher from Navy Books saw my original blog post and asked if I wanted to sell it to him as an article for his publishing house’s magazine. I mentioned that we were now turning it into a book and he was interested. What did it for me was that he was actually in the Falklands War as a Submarine Commander and seemed really keen…I knew he was the right person to give this the special, personal attention it needed. The story was so good, it sold itself. I’m happy to say he is a pleasure to work with!

5) From your research, what revelations shocked you the most?

This is hard and, if I am going to be slightly evasive, it is only that I don’t want to spoil the surprises….and there are many. I knew the boys had done a good job; much better than ever reported, but I didn’t know they did that good! It’s like Rorke’s Drift happened just 34 years ago and someone didn’t tell us about it! However it was the actual evidence we started to claw up which really did it for me. When you’re stood there looking at something which, for three and a half decades has been denied and it is now undeniable that is really something special. Each page tells a story so different from what we think we know, yet it all checks out. It proves these guys weren’t lying and that they did do their jobs. For me, I think that is probably the biggest revelation of all which is going to shock everyone. For nearly 35 years everyone thought that basically nothing happened there at all!

6) Why should we buy your book? Any long-kept secrets revealed?

I think this book appeals to a really broad spectrum. Anyone who just likes military history will love this. People who read first-hand accounts of military men or ex servicemen and women are going to love it. Royal Marines are going to love it (they even manage one jibe at the Paras in the age-old tradition), people with an interest in the Falklands and in the war there, even (and probably especially) the conspiracy theorists will have a field day with it! It is a great journey with great guys who are always witty – it makes you laugh out loud so often – and a story which nobody else has. I think that’s the real appeal. I love history where every other history just became a bit more redundant. Those with this book will be ‘in the know’ and I think it’s going to change a lot of things we think we know about the whole Falklands War. Any secrets revealed? Hundreds! That’s why they covered it up for so long and went with this ‘token defence’ line which suited the governments of the UK and Argentina perfectly at the time. Every time I show the guys my latest piece of evidence they’re like “Wow!!!!” – I must be doing something right!

7) How well do you and we the reader know – or get to know – the main characters?

The story is told by the main characters, not by me. I sort of ‘tee’ the narrative up and bring it to each man. The story begins with the old detachment reflecting upon going home after their year and the Argentines preparing to launch the invasion. They each get their own chapters, so you really get to travel with all of the main characters on both sides, fear with them, laugh with them and later to hope with and for them. Then these men get smashed together in a battle and it’s like you know them all. I must say, I have got to know a lot of them very well – again on both sides, which really brings it to life.

8) How will this book be received in Argentina?

We plan to release a Spanish version in Argentina in time for the 35th anniversary so they can read it in their own language. I’m a little conscious that things I have translated from Spanish to English will be translated back again and that we might lose something in the translation – a bit like Chinese whispers, but we will do what we can! As to how well it will be received…I am hoping it will be generally good. This war means a lot in Argentina and for obvious reasons, not all of the connotations are very good. However this was ‘their bit’ so to speak; the day they got to win. I’m hoping that showing how well everyone fought and getting rid of this ‘token defence’ myth will not upset people but make them realise what actually happened. The Argentines who were there don’t seem to like the ‘token defence’ line any more than the Royal Marines do; it makes it sound as if their guys just showed up and didn’t fight either. On balance, I accept that it might upset a few people – all new history upsets purists who cling to the established ‘version’ but in truth, it should be welcomed. When their own men are telling the story, I can’t be held to blame for anything! In general I would like people in Argentina to realise what it was that their men were actually up against…remember most of the Argentines who fought on April 2nd had to then sit and watch the whole war from Argentina.

9) In which ways has writing this book changed you?

I had to think hard about this question but I think I have the answer. I think that the biggest change in me was my own perception. Having a two-sided story made me really stop and think about what I was writing and who would be reading it. When I first started, I didn’t know any of the Argentines – it was a ‘British story’ as such. However, in meeting the Argentine veterans I have developed a new perspective which is more balanced. Their own inclusion is, I feel, vital…half a story isn’t a story and it actually explains what was going on; things that one side didn’t see or notice (and there were lots) someone else did and recorded. Together, both sides tell the story that just one side never could and show that this story needs retelling properly. I suppose that the biggest difference is this; five or six months ago if you’d have asked me if I could go there and pitch in, knowing what I know and able to give good intelligence, would I? I’d have said yes. Now I ask the question and realise I would know who I was shooting at! Some of them are friends of mine…I’d say that’s a big change. Anothet thing I would say is the change in me upon meeting the Royal Marines…I’m a sort of ‘oppo’ now (that being Bootneck slang for mate and guy you generally trust) and it’s like I have inherited about fifty uncles. It is a sense of family. I never came from a very big family so it’s actually really nice!

10) When is out? Where? How? 

Publishing date will be second week of November 2016 – we might / should be able to do advanced or reserved copies before that date though. Normally they are a good thing; a fellow history author who is a friend of mine had a huge success with his book on Jutland recently and then they ran out of copies! Nobody could get any! So it is a good idea to reserve your copy as it gives an idea of whether or not we are doing the right amount! Luckily we are with the biggest distributor in the UK, so expect to find it in Waterstone’s, on Amazon and in most if not all UK bookshops. I always encourage people where they can to buy from the smaller, independent bookshops or – even better, directly from the publisher on the Navy Books website. There will be a Kindle version too, however I have to say that’s cheating! This is the kind of book you will want on your bookshelves and it has lots of historical notes referring to certain points, a mountain of photographs provided by the guys on both sides, maps of the action…you don’t get that feeling on Kindle. I admit I am a book purist though, however I would add that we are donating a percentage of profits to Veterans’ charities so the more we make, the better for them and the best way is to get the hardback directly from the publisher’s website.

11) Can I have a signed copy?

I am asked this a lot! When we get the reserved copies, I will see what I can do. It might mean a few days on-site scribbling into several thousand books! However we are looking to do a number of launches and signings from November right up through 2017 and I hope to have it at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2017 as well. In short, I hope to be able to take it on tour a bit and do signings and evenings with the bookstores. Most independents love that kind of thing and the chain stores will doubtless do it too. In short, if I can’t physically sign it before you get it, then I will any time at all and at any opportunity! We are also considering having a few books signed by all of the guys (well, as many as we can get in one room considering they live all over the world now) which will be sold for veterans charities. I think it’s a great idea.

12) What’s next for you after this?

I hate this question! Normally I’m bubbling over with new ideas and projects but I’m not sure how I get to move on. I’m in a sort of little family now and I don’t want to move on in many ways. We have discussed ideas such as screenplay, perhaps a film or three-part drama maybe? I’d love to do that. In 1992 they did a film of it but it only confirmed what people think they know now and the Marines hated it, by and large. However we have a busy 6-12 months ahead of us with this, I think, and I am wondering if my travels might even take me to Argentina or the Falkland Islands too (I am told it will be available to buy in the Falklands!) so we have a lot of road ahead of us yet. After this (sob) I do have some other projects…okay LOTS of projects to finish off. There’s a great new book on Caesar all ready to go and just needing the graphics and battle maps finished off…there’s a new book on Hannibal about 70% done, which I really want to get finished (I shelved it to take this project up), I’ve got an idea for a new one which should really appeal to so many (only at ‘thinking about it’ stage right now) and even a brilliant WW2 Naval Memoir which I am editing and getting out there – so I might well be working with Navy Books again soon. There is, in honesty, so much to get done and finished…but how to move on? I’m still struggling with that right now.

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