Hi everyone – Liz has kindly invited me to run a guest spot on her blog this week. I’ve never done one of these before, so please don’t run away just because I’m not Liz!
First things first, a huge thank you to Liz for letting me loose on here. Secondly, I am British, so I apologise right away for spelling in ‘The Queen’s English’, I say to-mah-to, you say to-may-to, but I don’t see that as grounds for calling the whole thing off.
Liz and I write in such different genres but have developed a great mutual respect for each other’s work. If I was to look for commonality between our writing, I would have to say that our work is bound by two of the most intense and not unrelated of human experiences; love and conflict. As I relate in one of the final chapters of my memoir, On Afghanistan’s Plains, I saw many displays of love in combat. The kind of love that causes men to put themselves in harm’s way to save a comrade or share their last drop of water with a thirsty friend. If love is present in conflict, one does not have to look far to find conflict in love, as Liz’s Loving Ashe series so vividly portrays.
On Afghanistan’s Plains tells the story of my experiences as a Nursing Officer in the British Army, deployed in support of various fighting units in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2007. Wiser heads than mine have identified that in the entire history of literature, there have only been seven stories ever told. From the ancient Greek epics to Harry Potter, all us authors ever seem to do is repackage the classic formulae for a contemporary audience. If that is the case, my story sits squarely within the ‘voyage and return’ archetype, in which the protagonist and friends travel to a distant land where they encounter and overcome dangers, returning home with nothing but experience and wisdom. As an avid fan of classic war movies, in committing my memories to paper I was no doubt influenced by Hollywood. In her fantastic blurb for my back cover, Mary L Tabor comments on the cinematic quality of the writing, yet identifies that this is ‘no movie’. In a section where I describe a night of fitful sleep caused by my insight into seemingly endless ways of meeting a sticky end, the narrative directly references the epic movie A Bridge Too Far. Elsewhere a passage which deals with treating multiple casualties in the midst of a heavy firefight makes an oblique reference to Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down.
I began my writing journey as a poet. As a young soldier, I wrote a short collection of poetry based on my first overseas tour on active duty in Bosnia. I entered a few of these into competitions and sought publication but without success. While I focussed on my career, these poems, handwritten on parchment paper sat gathering dust in various drawers and boxes as I moved from posting to posting. I did not pick up my pen until 2011 when I saw an advertisement in a national newspaper for modern war poets to enter a poetry competition. That weekend I wrote a series of poems that drew on my Afghanistan experience and submitted them. The experienced proved cathartic and I found that from then on, I had to write.
“It is by turns gritty, terse, tense and horrifying… the account of a British Army company assault on a Taliban position in Helmand Province in Afghanistan… is an intensely visceral experience… Barry crafts images and explores themes that are powerful and persistent.”
– Wattpad reviewer
One of the poems, Care Under Fire, led to my writing an account of the action and publishing it on the online writing platform, Wattpad. People seemed to enjoy reading this, which spurred me on to writing the whole book, which was initially serialised on Wattpad before being taken offline, re-worked and edited into the form in which it is now published on Amazon.
As an avid reader of books and poetry, there is no doubt that I am influenced by some literary big-hitters and some ancient texts. For much of my time in Afghanistan, I worked alongside C (Essex) Company of the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment. This modern day band of brothers is the inheritors of a proud martial tradition that traces its lineage to Anglo-Saxon times. On one patrol, I found myself thinking of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’, of which only fragments survive. The poem tells of a bitter struggle between a band of warriors, led by their chieftain who steadfastly face up to an overwhelming force of Viking marauders. I arrived at the thought that the men I stood alongside in Helmand were the direct descendants of those ancient heroes. More modern influences are, of course, Hemingway and in the poetic line, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon.
A multitude of books have now been published about NATO’s experience in Afghanistan. Contemporary influences include Attack State Red by Colonel Richard Kemp and An Ordinary Soldier by Doug Beattie MC. Attack State Red tells the story of 1 Royal Anglian on that 2007 tour (I even have a walk-on part in which I am referred to by my shortened name ‘Baz’).
The number of Afghanistan books that have been published has led to many agents sensing market saturation. This was the primary motivation for my decision to self-publish. So, if the market is saturated, why should you buy On Afghanistan’s Plains. I can offer two reasons. The first is that few nurses were deployed into forward locations (the practice was later stopped), and as far as I know, mine is the only account of such experience. The second is that you will gain a unique insight into the experiences that fuelled my poems, some of which are included at the end of the book; I suspect that no other Afghan memoir will have this appeal for poetry fans.
Thanks for reading and once again, thanks to Liz for allowing me the privilege of a guest spot on her blog.
ON AFGHANISTAN’S PLAINS
The quiet of the day has been replaced by the rattle and crack of small-arms fire. Every now and then, we flinch and duck as stray bullets snap over our heads or whiz in between us like angry metal wasps
As we move down a track in between settlements, the scenery becomes more verdant, almost picturesque; poppies grow waist high, their heavy heads bobbing lazily back and forth in the breeze and nearby, an unseen brook babbles gently downhill towards the river.
…the branches of the trees above us start to disintegrate, accompanied by the insistent snapping of bullets and the fizzing sound of a rocket-propelled grenade passing by close over our heads. Somewhere, someone is trying to kill us. Fortunately, they are not making a very good job of it.
The bombs hit their target, the orange flicker of the explosion engulfing the hilltop, followed a split-second later by the sound of a thousand roof slates crashing onto a marble floor as a column of thick black smoke and dust climbs into the sky.
“You’ll be all right,” I tell him. “Chicks dig scars.”
The nonchalant black humour doesn’t have the desired effect.
“Yeah,” he retorts, “they might dig scars, but they don’t dig blokes with one fucking leg!”
“What’s the score?” I ask anxiously. The clock started ticking for this casualty the moment he was hit.
On Afghanistan’s Plains by Barry Alexander is available on Amazon on 5th May 2016
Learn more about Barry Alexander by visiting his website at http://barrynalexander.wordpress.com