A light skirmish over British Army E-book: literary critics in the cyber age

When hostile reviews are orchestrated.

The new role of the ‘literary critic’ in the cyber age is an evolving mystery. On Amazon Kindle Store, and other E-book purveyor-sites, people are invited to post comments about the books, in the expectation they may have read them, and the hope that they’re not the author’s favourite auntie. Or indeed, worst enemy. So every time you read a humdinger of a review (either pro or anti) it leads you to wonder. Put simply, the E-book world is weird, and full of weirdos. And the brutishness of some comments is amazing.

I knew from the start that my own novel, Killing Time at Catterick, was going to win more brickbats than praise. It was originally published as The Skinback Fusiliers, by Unknown Soldier, and serialized in openDemocracy. It annoyed a lot of people. Left wing balderdash, as Colonel and Mrs Blimp might (did) say. And when some of the detractors discovered it had changed its name and gone up on Kindle, they jumped at the chance to have another go. Lit crit has now become a firestorm. And this time, the attacks are organized. People are being openly exhorted to ‘have a go.’

Briefly, the book’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 –they are all Lancastrians – and I know them still. They’ve read the adverse comments on the Kindle site, and they’re not surprised by them at all. Mandy Rice Davies (of whom they’d never heard, being young) had said it all, as ever.

What surprised me about the comments was the discovery that they were openly orchestrated by ARRSE, the British Army’s unofficial website, more formally known as the Army Rumour Service. They have a book club, where soldiers can review things that interest them. 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 openDemocracy 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. Abner Brown admits to remembering “a lot of drunken thuggery”, plus racism, drugs and criminality.  But he’s certain much of it doesn’t happen now, largely because the Army can be more choosy with its recruits. Also, a lot of the violence did not involve civilians, just soldiers beating shit out of each other, so that’s all right then!

There’s a great (Lancashire) song we sing at my local pub sometimes:

“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.”

So it was bad in Abner’s time, but everything’s fine now. But sadly, it’s not just one fool of a Scots Guardsman these days, is it? Five Royal Marines 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 Deepcut 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.

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 on indie e-book review. 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; if I were a soldier, I’d probably hate it too. 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…

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