Thursday, 17 February 2011

Meeting Andy McNab

You can’t sneak up on Andy McNab, the former SAS man-turned-novelist. If you tried it, he’d probably snap your neck. On 26th January, he probably wasn’t expecting anyone to attempt that.

Furthermore, he probably wasn’t expecting anyone to climb over a row of chairs, trip up and noisily boot the seating over in the middle of the room. That, however, is how I inadvertently made my entrance at Deansgate Waterstones in Manchester. McNab- author of the iconic war journal Bravo Two Zero, the highest-selling war book of all time- was in town promoting his latest novel, Zero Hour.

First off, I apologise for not being a big guy,” he said, in a strong cockney accent. On the table next to him was an artillery of his books, including the aforementioned two, along with Deep Black (which he later says was the easiest to write being set in his home town of London), Seven Troop and Crossfire.

He described his rise through the ranks of the army- and literature- right from his release from Borstal as a boy. During a stint in juvenile detention in London, he’d seen an army training video that had inspired him to sign up- largely because he and all his inmate friends wanted to be helicopter pilots.

He didn’t make the pilot position, but the Army did get him out of juvie and into work at 16.

It was during his first days of army training that McNab discovered he had the numeracy and literacy age of an 11-year-old. The Army taught him these key skills alongside his basic training, and he began to excel- but before he could get his teeth into writing, the job had to come first. He was posted to Gibraltar at 17.

The Army gave McNab the chance to experience what many of us never would: he admits wrecking cars on tours and getting away with it, he coerced Irish informants when fighting the IRA, and he hunted down cocaine producers in South American rainforests. He describes giving guns to the Colombian locals so they could assist in the stings. Even when armed, the locals were understandably nervous, so they chewed cocoa leaves and sugar canes to keep calm. Predictably, this would have the opposite effect, and McNab and his team had to take the guns back off them.

McNab returned to the UK and, in 1993, wrote Bravo Two Zero in a 4-month stint. He then went back to Colombia while the book sales rolled in.

In 1995 he received a phone call from Hollywood. A then-unknown director called Michael Mann needed technical advice on his film Heat. McNab obliged. To return the favour, Mann explained to McNab that films and books are much alike- “a collection of pictures” that tell a story. McNab used this advice to write Immediate Action, his first fiction book, which sold 1.7 million copies in the UK alone. (

A few years later, McNab received another Hollywood phone call. Ridley Scott was planning a dramatisation of an event during the Mogadishu conflict in 1993. Could he help out?

Of course he could. McNab added to his movie CV the role of technical advisor on Black Hawk Down.

Y’know all the big muscley Special Forces guys in the movie?” McNab asked the Waterstones audience. “Sorry to break it to ya, girls. They were all gay.”

By the time Black Hawk Down was ready to film, conflict in North Africa was largely quelled. Scott needed well-sculpted extras to play the soldiers, but the remaining army personnel in the area were all getting fat. The director sent the production team to scout new talent. Where better to find ripped-up men than the local gay club?

Today, when he’s not writing or advising the movie industry, McNab visits the UK’s Army training centres, encouraging people who attend the numeracy and literacy courses. This gives him a chance to give back what they gave to him, and allows him to keep up-to-date with how the Armed Forces are operating.

Soldiers don’t want their relatives to send them presents,” he said. “They want Wi-Fi. They say it’s so that they can keep in touch with their family, when really it’s mostly so they can download porn. One barracks had their server shut down on the first day Wi-Fi was installed, due to the sheer volume of porn the soldiers were accessing.”

A quick-fire question-and-answer session followed this.

If I don’t know the answer,” said McNab, “I’ll lie, or I’ll say it’s classified.” He shrugged.

McNab’s real name is Sebastian Bartholomew (So he tells us. Wikipedia disagrees, saying his real name is a secret). He chose his pen name because “it fits on the book.” The numerous people adding to online debates as to what the name means, according to the author, are all wasting their time.

A young lad of maybe 12 asked, “Can you make a story about yourself in 6 words?”

Good question, I thought.

McNab leant back in his chair, thinking, eyes to the ceiling. “Generally, lazy,” he said, counting on his fingers, “but, got, to, work.”

You might think a 12-year-old not ready to read a novel about the horrors of modern war, but McNab insisted that the literacy age of his books is 12.

When I describe a character, I’ll link it into something we all know. Like, I dunno, 'he's George Clooney on speed'.”

I'm sure he glanced at me when he said that.

So it's accessible to a wide range of readers,” he explained.

When you’re working with TV,” he said, “You need control. If the standard of the film or programme is low, your book sales go down.” We can expect he’ll be taking command somewhat when newby director Simon Crane adapts his novel Firewall for the big screen. Retitled as Echelon, the movie will hit cinemas in 2012/13.

Although the MoD inspired the majority of his stories, he told us that being married 5 times was a contributing factor in his motivation to write the array of novels that he has under his belt- most of which were elegantly piled up on a table at his side.

What about the Armed Forces' image in the media? Why are soldiers frequently portrayed as victims?

Oh, it’s rubbish,” retorted McNab. “Young men,” he emphasised, “like to fight. That’s why they join the army. Soldiers today have never been better trained and have never had better armour. One guy I knew took a tank shell in the chest- and lived. The military today has become a brand on TV, and it's not realistic. Special Forces are looking to improve that brand.”

Scoop: Somalian piracy will be the theme for McNab's next novel.

There was no photography during the signing as the writer was apparently in cognito. This left me wondering who the man was, as he signed my book and shook my hand. Is it a joke? If he is a body double, I thought, as I gave him my blog card, why would he have a bodyguard, staring at me suspiciously? I'd best give him a card too...

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