I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Ghosts of Nu Mung Bha

It’s funny really, when I re-started this blog a few months ago it was in the wake of attending a sort of writer’s day. The purpose of the event was to give out a few clues as to how authors should look to the brave new world of social media to raise their profile and thereby sell a few books. After ten years of sticking books in envelopes and queuing up at the post office counter I felt more than ready to embrace the whole Kindle thing. Somebody wants a book in Sydney? Click. Somebody’s got a book in Sydney. No more getting hot under the collar whilst the guy at the counter takes about five hundred years to renew his tax disc or to weigh in thirty eight parcels to Dayton, Ohio. No more time at the counter sending out twenty packages myself whilst everyone in the queue behind dreams up new and different ways to torture me to death for wasting so much of their time.

So what’s funny? Well the funny thing is that in all the blogs I have churned out in the months following the event I have not so much as mentioned anything about books and writing. So much for any aspiration to become a dab hand as an online marketer. There is a ‘My books on Kindle’ button to be found at the top of the blog page. I wonder how many have clicked it? The Amazon sales report would suggest not all that many! So much for the online profile. The process of getting the whole of my backlist up and running in the Amazon Kindle store is actually going pretty well. At the time of writing any visitor has the choice of 14 books to download. There are now only four left to get onto the shelf. Here is where things will get more interesting. Amazon give you an option to put any title into the ‘Free’ section for five days in every ninety. Having eighteen books on offer means that I will be able to have one title on offer for free on a permanent basis. The theory goes that you stand a decent chance of marketing something when it is free. I tend to go with this idea. Certainly when I am trawling through the Kindle Store I take little persuasion to download a book fro free. Then I give it ten or twenty pages and if it isn’t up to much I hit the delete button.

The good news is that I have not been tempted by the delete option for about two thirds of the books I have downloaded. And in several cases once I have finished the book I have immediately taken a look to see if the writer has anything else on offer. Then I shell out a quid or two and pay up. It all seems might fine and dandy in theory. I am about to get a feel for the reality over the coming months when the whole backlist is up, running and on sale.

Time for a little experiment. I have no idea if Blogspot allows links to be inserted into blogs. Only one way to find out.

Fancy checking out my books on Amazon? Yeah? Well click here.

So much for the selling stuff.

Over the last few weeks the germ of a new tale has started to rattle around my brain. This is always a question that get’s asked when I attend any sort of bookish event. You know the kind of thing. Book Groups and Rotary Clubs. How do you come up with a story? What is the process? Talking process makes the whole thing seem really together and organised and structured, which in my case it absolutely isn’t. Instead a couple of random ideas emerge and start to bounce around off each other. In the case of the new story there are a couple of ideas which have popped into the grey matter.

Obviously you would have to live in a hut on a mountainside in Borneo not to have noticed the issue of the top 1% of the world completely shafting the other 99%. Among the ranks of the 99% some get shafted worse than others. The unemployed youngster in Britain is getting a pretty severe kicking but it is as nothing when compared to someone working in the living hell of an Indonesian sweat shop. But there is common ground. Almost everyone on planet earth is seeing their life get slowly worse whilst a tiny, tiny minority are sucking in riches in much the same way as Pharaohs and Tzars once did. There is absolutely nothing secret about this. The sickening bonuses paid to bankers and FTSE 100 Chief Execs are published for all of us to see. Russian oligarchs buy up multi million pound homes in Belgravia. Oil Sheiks snap up football clubs. The 1% congregate in predictable places. They hang out in bars where a bottle of Kristal sets you back nine grand. They do the Monaco Grand Prix and the men’s singles final at Wimbledon and the Champions League Final. They are to be found in the corporate boxes and the six star hotels. They love nothing more than to flaunt their ridiculous wealth.

They are public.

It has become increasingly clear that our democracies are quite incapable of reversing the trend where the top 1% drain the rest of us dry. Politicians make all the right noises but when it comes to actually doing anything about what is going down they are completely toothless. Almost every day we are told that the crafty genius of big accountancy firms makes it an absolute impossibility for us to get the 1% to stump up their share. It has become an article of faith that they will always be two steps ahead and there is nothing to be done about it. Well that isn’t quite true of course. Even the fanciest accountant in the world would find it hard to duck the mansion tax, but it is always pretty obvious that someone far behind the scenes is greasing the right palms to make sure such a thing will never happen.

So will this state of affairs last forever? Or will our patience with this constantly flaunted wealth run out. And if our patience does indeed run out, then what can we do about it? Are we on the road to St Petersburg 1917 when the patience of the 99% ran out in a big way and all the big houses got trashed and looted and the 1% wound up hanging from lampposts on snowy streets? Well, never say never, but it seems a way off yet. But maybe things are quietly starting to change. I was in Glasgow yesterday amidst a rather half hearted crowd of Christmas shoppers. On one street there was a Starbucks on one side and a Costa on the other. The Costa was standing room only. Starbucks was all empty tables. It was as clear as day that the Glasgow public was happily voting with its feet and punishing the tax dodger from America. It would hardly get Trotsky’s juices flowing, but at least it is a start. Maybe this is the shape of things to come. Or maybe it is merely the first shot in a war. Maybe we will all get more and more militant in finding new and different ways to register out disgust at the 1% and their tax experts and their grand an hour lawyers and bought and paid for politicians. Maybe we are almost ready to say enough is enough. The Berlin Wall stood for nearly thirty years until enough people got so completely pissed off that they simply got out their hammers and knocked it down. I can happen.

Then came idea number two. This came out of nothing more dramatic than trawling through the TV channels in the wee small hours of the morning whilst the throbbing pain from a couple of newly yanked teeth made going to sleep a complete pipe dream. And there on some obscure channel at 3 am was ‘Apocalypse Now’.

I am one of a generation who will forever name ‘Apocalypse Now’ when asked the favourite film question. The forever word is pretty telling. If I was ever asked what is the best book you will ever read in your life, I would find it impossible to answer. How long is there left and what books might come along in those years? Fair enough, right now it is ‘War and Peace’ and I wouldn’t bet on Comrade Tolstoy getting knocked off top spot before I breathe my last, but I could never say that is a complete certainty that he will stay there. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is different. I find it absolutely inconceivable that there will ever be a film to eclipse it which is pretty powerful Juju. How many times have I seen it? No idea. I lost count years ago. And it isn’t just the times I have watched. When I was nineteen I bought the double album soundtrack and more or less played it to death.

The first time of asking was memorable in a wholly appropriate way. Back in 1979 there had been a deal of talk about the coming movie to end movies. I guess when a host of Holywood superstars go collectively insane in a South East Asian jungle it is bound create something of a buzz. I went along to watch the film at the Odeon in Preston on a wet Lancashire weekday afternoon. I paid up and made my way up the stairs. The lights were already down and the adverts were blaring out. There was no attendant to guide me in, so I made my own way. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the dark and I scanned the seats around me. Nobody. I stood up and scanned the rows of seats behind and at the front. Nobody. Just me. It was the one and only time in my life that I have sat entirely alone in a cinema built to hold over 500.

This meant that I was fully infused with a sense of other worldliness before the thing even started. Lights down. British Board of whatever rates this film suitable for… A misty jungle in the dawn. Shadowy helicopters with whispering ghost blades. Then a napalm strike in muffled silence. Jim Morrison. ‘Lost in a Roman Wilderness of pain and all the children are insane…” Fan on the ceiling. Real helicopters chopping the fetid air. ‘Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon…’

Hooked then and hooked now.   


The greatest cast there ever was for one. Brando, Martin Sheen, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duval, Laurence Fishbourne… I mean, come on.

Narrative like there has never been care of Michael Herr whose ‘Dispatches’ is one of the 20th Century’s must read books.

‘Everyone gets everything they want. I wanted a mission and for my sins they gave me one. Brought it up like room service. It was a real choice mission. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz.’

I have always felt stone cold certain in the knowledge that if Shakespeare had ever heard the ‘snaked through the war like a main circuit cable’ line he would have stood up and punched the air.

The soundtrack. The filming. The acting. The everything.

This was a time when lads of my age were fascinated by Vietnam. We had grown up with it on the news. Haggard soldiers in filthy uniforms paddling through mud with stretchers. Dust off choppers. Blossoming napalm drops. Huge violent demonstrations. And of course no war before or since has had place names like Vietnam. Dac To, Danang, Khe Sahn, Highway One, Mekong Delta, Iron Triangle, DMZee, Gulf of Tonkin,…

Pictures and sound and a music soundtrack that was as addictive as smack. And as a nineteen year old back in 79 it was hard not to harbour feelings of having missed out on the technicolour mayhem of the 60’s.

By accident, the film drew all kind of strands together. A few months earlier I had sat and read Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ in a wreck of a bar by the river Congo in Kisangani and now here was the same story transplanted from the jungles of Victorian Africa to the jungles of Indochina. On that same trans-African trip I had also read Bernard Fall’s epic description of the French Foreign Legion’s last stand at Dien Bien Phu which of course was yet another of those names. I had shared a beer or two with some Legionaires in Bangui and I can still picture the scarred face and thousand mile stare of their officer. Where had he been? What had he seen? What had he done? How did he feel about it? What dreams may come….

According to the press, the film was from the anti war stable. But I walked out of the cinema with a guilty sense of exhilaration. It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about much. It wasn’t the way you were supposed to feel. But in the lower depths of his temporary insanity, it was in my mind exactly what Coppola was aiming at. I get a bit of this in my day job at First Base when talking with clients of our Veteran’s Project. They show a similar embarrassment when describing the unique uber-high of combat. That is a thing I have never known. The nearest I have ever been to the narcotic hyped up speed rush of a warzone was that afternoon in the Preston Odeon.

For me the legacy of the film has been to watch it over and over.

And of course I am not alone. There are millions in the same boat, all of us with our own memories of watching it for the first time. And as I channel hopped around the wee small hours it occurred to me that among those millions there must surely have been some who decided there and then to get themselves a first hand taste of the cranked up chaos of a warzone.

18 in 1979. Early 50’s now. What must have they seen? Where have they been? And after thirty years of fighting the dark and dirty wars of Capitalism, how must they feel now. ‘They were going to make me a Major for this and I wasn’t even in their fucking army anymore….’

And how might they feel about Starbucks and Barclays and the 1%. And it hit me that they probably feel completed used. They have been the blunt instruments used to allow the 1% to rape and pillage the world. Throw in the effects of PTSD and you would have some pretty dangerous individuals. And if one or two decided to go off reservation, then the 1% might have a pretty serious problem.

‘The army tried one last time to bring him back into the fold and if he’d pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he just kept on going, kept on winning it his way, and they called me in. They lost him. He was gone. All they heard were rumours and random intelligence reports, mostly from captured VC. The VC knew his name by now and they were scared of it. Kurtz and his men were playing hit and run all the way into Cambodia….”

… hit and run all the way into Cambodia

So there were the seeds. And with the seeds came the title.

‘…..Your mission is to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz's path at Nu Mung Bha, follow it and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command’

The words of Colonel Lucus spoken by a youthful Harrison Ford in mesmerisingly honeyed tones. And there is that name thing again. Nu Mung Bha.

And so the title cometh

‘The Ghosts of Nu Mung Bha’

All that is needed now is a book to go with it.


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