I had an interesting virtual conversation with John Logan the other day, which I’d love to refer to but can’t find in my new technology nightmare. I’m running three computers at the moment – big desktop Mac (never liked Big Macs, fries or no fries), which is old and slow and infuriating, a laptop Mac, which is good but prone to sulking now and then, and losing things I haven’t yet saved, and a PC laptop the bloke over the road gave me. This one’s good, but VERY old, and throws enormous wobblies if the document I’m working on is more than twitter length. The doc I’m working on at the moment is about 300 pages. Serves me right.

John and I were conversing about nasty reviews on Amazon and why they happen. I’d had a couple of humdingers, which appeared to have a slightly orchestrated tang to them, and I think he was impressed (can’t check, sadly – see above!). But his idea was to embrace them with love and affection, because if they went on it would make an interesting blog post. Our shared conclusion was that the ebook world is weird. The brutishness of some comments is amazing. Someone ought to write a book about it.

Many of my books, I knew from the off, were going to win more brickbats than praise, but recently there’s been a renewed firestorm about Killing Time at Catterick. It was originally serialized as The Skinback Fusiliers, by Unknown Soldier, on the OpenDemocracy site, which immediately annoyed a lot of people. Left wing balderdash, as Colonel and Mrs Blimp might (did) say. Briefly, it’s a fictionalized account of hundreds of hours of contact I had with three young squaddies, each of whom fell out with the army and chose to become civilians again. In no way would they have been regarded as ideal material, but that seemed the least of the recruiters’ considerations. One is black, one Asian, one white Lancastrian and I know them still. They’ve read many of the adverse comments, and they’re not surprised by them at all. Mandy Rice Davies (whom they’d never heard of) had said it all, as ever.

The latest onslaught is on ARRSE, the British Army’s unofficial website. They have a book club, where soldiers can review. Here’s what Abner Brown wrote. (I imagine that’s not his real name, but I don’t know, of course).

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.

The moderator (I think) commented at the end of this:

Outstanding review Abner I agree entirely. Would you do me a favour and pop along to Amazon and post your views? The Skinback Fusiliers is now entitled 'Killing time at Catterick' and has garnered negative reaction there as well. Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews: Killing Time at Catterick I would urge others to go on Amazon and review this rather nasty anti-soldier book. Don't waste your money on it, read it for free here The Skinback Fusiliers | openDemocracy. 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.

Nothing like being honest, at least. Not only does he tell fellow ARRSERS (that’s lovely; I forgive them everything for calling themselves that!) what to say about the shite, but he tells them how to do it, too – with links. AND how to get the book for free, which is a shame for my collaborators, who get any profits that might accrue from the paid-for version.) I haven’t counted how many ‘bent’ reviews Amazon has got, because I can’t actually be ARRSED, but I note that most of the ones on the Book Club site are fewer than a ten words. ‘Binned it’ is probably the wittiest. The reviewer said he had managed to read two lines.

Not all the ARRSERS hated it, to be fair. Francis Kane wrote:

I honestly don't know what to say about it except if the MOD ever get hold of it, the author's got to be in trouble. It calls itself a novel, but it's about three lads who start at Catterick and get headlong in the s**t. One's white, one's black, one's Asian and they're all from northern england. The villains of the piece are mainlyh the Scousers, but the Scots come in for a lot of stick as well - drunken, coke-taking nutters.

oh, yeah, and then there's the officers and the padre, a toatal gang of wankers, first class. There's an argument on the website about if Unknown Soldier was ever really in, but Joe Glenton seems to think so (for what that's worth!), and other ex-squaddies have backed him too. It's pretty amazing stuff, and at least it's not going to cost you anythihg. Give it a go, and tell me what you think.

Interesting that Joe Glenton was cited, and insulted. Many of the comments on the OpenDemocracy site were violently against this Lance Corporal, who you might remember went to prison for refusing to go back to Iraq a third time, on the grounds he no longer believed the war was defensible. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the soldiers are desperate to be appreciated for their dedication and bravery, even if they have secret doubts about what they’re required to do. The soldier as victim. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to know how insulting it is to be pitied.

The level of denial, in fact, I found fascinating. Go back to Abner, and reread this:

In fairness, I remember a lot of drunken thuggery, overt racism, drug abuse and random criminality in the army…I knew soldiers who did go 'paki bashing' and 'grad bashing' and 'queer bashing'…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.

So it was bad back then, but everything’s better now. To quote the song: ‘When I were a lad, the times they were bad, but not quite as bad as when me dad were a lad. And when me dad were a lad, they were almost as bad, as when me dad’s dad were a lad!’ Sadly, it’s not just one fool of a Scots Guardsman these days, though, is it? Five paratroopers 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. According to the Guardian (and the ARRSERS are right, I do read the Guardian, filthy leftie that I am) 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, another commie rag I read, reported last week 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.

I’m not anti soldier, as it happens. My family has a long – and proud – tradition in two of the three services. And I certainly understand why soldiers hate the book. As to if it’s badly written, they might be right as well (and I mean that.) But Frank Cottrell Boyce, who among other things has the Olympics extravaganza, prize winning novels, and television drama to dream of under his belt, has written that he’s ‘jealous’ of it. Good enough for me. And that’s to say nothing of Melvin Burgess, Michael Rosen, and a goodly clutch of others. Maybe it’s not the way you write, but what you say. Discuss…

If you want to read the book for nothing, follow the ARRSE link. But it only costs £1.80 http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00784YA6Q, and as I said, all profits go to the lads who approached me to tell their story. I see it’s up to six ‘reviews’ now, and down to two stars. The power of applied destruction. Quite fitting for the Army, I suppose.

HOWEVER - I did like ‘a naïve Meeja Studies undergraduate with a SWP membership card in my pocket’ though.  Qui moi?! Sweet.


Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, this is truly appalling. The hostile tone of those Silver and Blood reviews which I tried to counter were bad enough, but these are based on a sort of falsely wound-up drama-queen indignation which never rings true. These are the sort who would smash you in the face, kick you in the other places and run off shouting about how unfair you were to them. Besides, I can't believe an army website has so little self-awareness that it calls itself ARSSE. I think it's unconsciously saying something about itself which would invalidate all those reviews.
Dear Jan(Three Computers)Needle,
I excavated our conversation from the ionisphere...it was posted originally under your blog post last month (Maim a Marauder, Mummy!)...

I liked the conversation so will reproduce in toto...presented in the form of a Spanish Medieval play:

Quoth El Loco Logo:

"Hi Jan, don't worry, it is early doors Monday now, technically!
Been Googling you, not for the first time...noticing more than ever this time that your "Wiki" page emphasizes that you're a writer who's encountered controversy A LOT in the past, and for all the best reasons.
(Though not for your penning of any Count Duckula episodes!)
Truckers had a great cast I see...Phillip Davis played Cowboy in it...and this is THE Phil Davis from QUADROPHENIA, who played "Yeti" in THE FIRM with Gary Oldman. Kenneth Cope (ghostly Marty Hopkirk from RANDALL AND HOPKIRK(DECEASED) was in there too I see...)
The thing about violence in TV, film, or fiction, for me, is a bit like "the thing" about sex, but even more so...where the rule seems to be that once you cross the line into just presenting violence for people to "get off on" (the romance of violence), then, yes, we enter the area of "junk" story.
Coincidentally, I just watched a 1979 Aussie war film tonight, THE ODD ANGRY SHOT, which certainly shows the reality and consequences of violence.
Nothing there to "get off on" or excited about.
I've seen the barrage on Amazon for Killing Time at Catterick.
I think it's just the same controversy you've faced down before. The group who disagree strongly with the book have found it first.
That powerful reaction is a sign that the book is strong medicine.
I know you just found out about the barrage this week too, and it will have been a shock.
But give this a month, or a year, time for others to find the book?
It could end up being a very interesting Amazon page indeed, as this almost "taboo" subject (especially in a time of active military deployment) is debated perhaps.
And you, after all, are still Jan-No-Stranger-To-Controversy-Needle!
You must expect these adventures..."
(Then you replied...)
Replieth Don Jan De La Noodle
(Jan Needle said)...
Thanks, John. Yes, Truckers did have some terrific people in the cast, the wonderful and unassuming Phil Davis (Lonesome Cowboy, not just Cowboy, was his handle) being one of the loveliest to know. It did cause lots of rows in the Beeb, however, and the second series was cancelled not long before filming was due to start. The official reason was that it was too expensive (it was for me!), and only attracted seven plus million viewers. It was known, however, that the drama boss man (Jonathan Powell from memory, but that might be libel) had complained several times that it was 'too working class.' And one of the directors (female) complained that it was sexist, because the lorry drivers had bad attitudes towards women. No comment on that one.

As to Wikipedia, I've looked at it, and am quite interested in some of the things they've got wrong (although the controversy stuff's pretty well spot on). I should be glad someone took the trouble to put me in, though, I suppose. I'm told you can emend things, but life's too short.

And Killing Time at Catterick. Well, I knew I was cruising for a bruising with that one. Even my main source made me promise I'd never reveal his name in case any of his former comrades wanted to engage in literary discussions about it! And the reaction on the 'squaddies website' AARSE when it was originally serialised on OpenDemocracy (and in the comments section after every episode) was amazing. Paintstripper with added nitric acid.

The Kindle star system is a bit painful soemtimes, though, because the sound of axes being ground is probably invisible to people looking for a book to read. (Do I mean inaudible? Discuss.)

For anyone confused about my incomprehensible witter above John's piece, however - I wrote it after this post mistakenly went up two days early and I thought I needed to apologise. Then Sue Price (who hates telephones) accepted a call from a gibbering Jan, and put it all right for me. Except that my comment is still there. Sue also put the picture of me in. While it's a charming shot, and will undoubtedly earn me many anonymous billets doux, it's not something I'd have done myself. My favourite pic of me is the one on my Facebook page. Although I really ought to get that tooth extracted!"

I still think the Amazon page may be found in time by those who will disagree with the first Group to find it...and that Group was always going to be unhappy with the book etc
It's a bit like an immune response (or did I already say that in bit quoted above)...if books are viruses...
A Tribal thing too...this phenomenon of internet groups swinging into action against those who are not in accord with the Tribe's beliefs.

I genuinely think though that a good book, or even a good blog, should produce deep disagreement...even loathing in some who read it...
Strong medicine must induce strong responses.

Or, as with the viral analogy, a strong immunological response...from members of any Tribe criticised.

One funny thing too, those guys are often admitting, yes, it did/does happen...
I suppose they just don't want a book about it to be out there...

Rewatched Phil (Lonesome Cowboy) Davis in Quadrophenia the other day...now there's a film about Tribes.
Imagine if Jimmy the Mod had gone online and found an ebook about Mods written by a Rocker, called "WE KILLED YOUR SCOOTERS!"

THEN there really would be trouble!
Jan Needle said…
thanks for all that. you two. it could be that openDemocracy or OurKingdom will pick up of this new argument, which would be fun. when the book was serialised by openD the responses ranged from the very thoughtful to the rawly insulting. could happen again, and i've given them all the links to this blog. it's a pity one can't burn ebooks, to get the discussion warmer!(although private eye does have a burning ebook cartoon this issue. ee, they're on the ball, those lads)
Crikey, Jan, what can you do? Hold your head up and keep writing. You've probably given them hours of pleasure, or at least something to rant about. Consider it a bullet-doux.
Jan Needle said…
one thing i can do, i hope, dirtywhitecandy (ooh, what a name!) is kick it around a bit. i'm hoping that ourkingdom, the associates of opendemocracy are running a version of this post, probably tomorrow.

at the very least it'll get authors electric's name up in lights!

AARSE is well worth a look at, incidentally. it's got some really good stuff up, as well as some genuinely gruesome garbage.
Jan Needle said…
whenb/if i get a url for ourkingdom i'll post it.
Pauline Fisk said…
You're sounding pretty robust, but it's never a good experience having your worked trashed, whoever by and for whatever reason. One of the worst things I ever heard online was in a chat room where someone said, 'Why can't those bloody people [ie. authors] just get back in their pen'. The selfsame 'people', that is, who wrote the books he/she was so keen to talk and write about! What a way to talk about authors - and what a way to talk about you.

I'm sorry you've had all this flak, but at least you understand the reason. Carry on being robust. And keep writing. When's the next book?
CallyPhillips said…
Belated addition to the debate due to the fact that I spent yesterday dealing with my multiple computer obsession as well! But here I am.

My general rule of thumb is that I don't understand why people get upset about bad reviews/comments from people who command and deserve no respect. For me the only review/comment worth having is from someone I respect and who I have confidence knows of which they speak/write. HOWEVER this post develops beyond simply being about bad reviews and into the most disgusting level of trying to discredit a writer simply for writing something you disagree with. Is that not something akin to fascism? It's certainly something that we should all be concerned by and stand up against. Obviously opinions on the armed services are split depending on ones own relative position BUT that is no excuse. All I can imagine is that you've hit a VERY raw nerve, Jan! For that you should be happy as you are exposing something important. It's interesting that the tone of the bully is the one you are being subjected to from so many of these 'old army types?' who declare that their world isn't like this. Horribly reminiscent of those who have jumped up and down and denied the level of child abuse endemic in our society.
And I suppose you have to expect a kind of backlash from them of different views, but nothing justifies the level of abuse you've been subject to over this. These people should take a long hard look at themselves. I note that old Abner (is that his name, I've instantly forgotten him) doesn't appear to be aware of the contradictions in his own comments - while saying how unrealistic your fiction is he admits that 'drunken thuggery' EXISTS or HAS existed in the armed forces. Come on Abner, don't be such an aarse!

I'd like just to chuckle that they think you are a young idealistic meeja student... not a grizzled old veteran (sorry, am I allowed to use the word veteran in a non armed forces sense?) but it's just too pathetic for words. I'm sure the British Army doesn't need the likes of these people - either in it or leaping to its defence.

It makes me terminally glad that no one ever READS my work, because if they found MY seditious outpourings I'd be beaten to a virtual pulp like you. Is THAT what we dreamed of as being 'successful' as writers?

Finally - as you said yourself - look at Mark Frankland's Afterwards which is NOT fiction and see how close the connections are. What is the AARSE explanation for that eh?

Jan Needle said…
Grizzled! GRIZZLED!!!!! How dare you, Ms Phillips? As the old song has it, I'm always young and fair. To me.

I was asked by OurKingdom (associate of openDemocracy) to write the blog up as an article, which has just appeared, thanks to the amazing speed of new technology. I expect the old colonels and their ladies will respond to that, as well.

Such fun!

Lydia Bennet said…
respect to you jan for your sheer balls. it's not easy to be targeted like this, esp by people trained to kill! I do feel orgs like the Army have an almost 'public school' ethos about closing ranks against outsiders and 'no telling tales' which is an ethos often leading to bullying and abuse. this ethos is pretty much dinned into the people in it, so they feel beleaguered and even paranoid.

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