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.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The evolution of 'Terrible Beauty'


For several weeks now the evening news has carried footage of the kind of Belfast street scenes that were such a staple of the media diet in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. Clouds of tear gas and lines of riot police and the jumping light of burning cars. And not for the first time it is all getting blamed on the flying of a flag. The wrong flag for some, and the right flag for others.

So it was that a couple of nights ago I was reminded of something that really should have been staringly obvious to me – I have a book in the Kindle Store which carries a cover image of the Union Jack and the Irish Tricolour, both wrapped together in an eternal conflict.

The book in question is ‘Terrible Beauty’ and it tells a thirty year tale of two guys from neighbouring streets in West Belfast as they travel the dark road through the Troubles. I had been mulling over which of my titles should be the next to be showcased in the Kindle Store Free Section. Well, the fact that the whole issue of which flag flies over the six counties of Northern Ireland is once again front and centre of the news makes it a no brainer.

It appears my tale of 'The Troubles' has managed to be topical again.

So why not?

Having made the decision to put ‘Terrible Beauty’ out into the vastness of the Amazonian internetland, it seems only right and proper to tell the story of how the book came about.

Like many books, ‘Terrible Beauty’ was born out of that moment on 9th September 2001 when two airliners slammed into two New York skyscrapers. For my mum and dad’s generation, the assassination of JFK in 1963 became the fixed moment in time when everyone remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when the news came through.

9/11 was our Kennedy moment, and within minutes of the unbelievable pictures hitting the world’s TV screens, it was clear that nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Almost immediately the frantic tone of the news was set and it has essentially remained unchanged for the next decade. The people who drove the planes were wild eyed, raging psychos. The worst of the worst. Crazed scum who were to be eradicated at all costs.

From the get go this didn’t sit well somehow. A line from Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now' refused to leave my head.

‘These were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love.....yet they had this strength, the strength to do that.’

I couldn’t help but imagine how it must have been for the plane drivers in those last seconds as the building got closer and closer. Was it over simplistic simply to write them off as maniacs?

Probably. Almost certainly.

Surely something appalling must have happened in their lives to generate such an all consuming, dogged hatred. And was it really hate? Or was it a deep rooted sense of duty to something they believed in with all their hearts?

I wrote a letter which none of the newspapers printed. It wasn’t unexpected. In the letter I painted a fictional scenario set way back in 1941. This of course was the time when Hitler’s Reich was at its zenith. He ruled everything from the French coast to a thousand miles into the Soviet Union and he seemed to be completely indestructible. Only Britain and our Commonwealth allies stood against him, and our stand seemed utterly doomed. In my made up scenario, there was one other opponent who the Fuhrer had failed to squash. This was a Czech freedom fighter who had retreated deep into the forests of Transylvania with his band of guerrillas.

Let’s call him Radec.

Radec had become the last beacon of hope for those who wished to oppose the Nazis. Young men from all over Europe who had seen their loved ones shot or hung or tortured by the Einzatzgruppen death squads duly made their way to the forest to join him.

On 11 September 1941, a crack team of Radec’s men hijacked four Junker aircraft from airfields around Prague and headed for Berlin. They crashed two of the planes into a packed Olympic stadium where 100,000 of the Nazi faithful were attending a Party rally. A third plane hit the Reichstag whilst the fourth would have hit the Gestapo HQ on Prinz-Albrecht Strasse had the German crew not overcome the hijackers. The resulting carnage in the Olympic stadium was gothic in its scale. 3000 civilians were killed and many more injured.

How would we have received the news in Britain? Would we have been outraged and appalled at the attack? Would we have branded Radec’s men as raging maniacs and cowards? I don’t think so. We would have glorified in such an act of bravery and self sacrifice. We would have named streets after them. Churchill would have taken to the airwaves to urge all of us to take the example set by Radec’s heroes to our hearts and to draw courage from their act of ultimate sacrifice.

This wasn’t a view that anyone had the remotest interest in hearing the hysterical days of anger and rage that followed Bin Laden’s attack. But a seed was well and truly sown in my mind.

I got to wondering about what could possibly lead to such an apocalyptic strike ever happening in Scotland. In our biggest city. In Glasgow. Would it come from men living far away in the refugee camps of the Middle East or the training centres in the dusty mountains of Afghanistan? Or would it come from much closer to home, from a mere fifteen miles of so across the Irish Sea?

I felt pretty certain that any such act would be years and years in the making. An event would happen in a man’s life that would harden his heart and make him yearn for revenge. This act or event would represent some kind of last straw that would make him cross the line and join up with others hell bent on seeking the same payback. Then over time he would rise through the ranks of his chosen organisation, all the while building a reputation as a person who would stop at nothing. And finally he would be one of those selected to carry out the greatest attack of them all. The big one.

The Spectacular.

What would such a man be like? And what would his journey involve? How long would it take for him to reach a place where he was willing to drive a passenger jet into a high building; to live out those few seconds of complete and utter terror before perishing in a bone melting fireball?

As a flat broke author, there was no chance in a million years of me affording a plane to the Middle East to find such men. And even had I been able to fly to Jordan or Lebanon or Afghanistan, I would never have been allowed close. That was when I suddenly realised that all I had to do was to drive 70 miles to Stranraer and catch the ferry to Belfast. It was both do-able and affordable and there were plenty of guys in Ulster who had taken that particular dark road during the thirty years of the Troubles.

But would they give houseroom to a two bit author from Lancashire?

Well, there was only one way to find out.

Day One of researching the story was nothing if not memorable. Carol and I took a mid winter 'off peak' saver offer from Stena Line and sailed the across grey waters of the Irish Sea to Belfast. We checked into a Bed and Breakfast that was very much of the modest variety and made a simple plan. Reception had provided a fold up map of the city and we duly plotted a route. We headed out into a night of dismal, chilling rain and made our way to the spot where the Springfield Rd crosses the Falls Rd. This intersection is home to the police station where the very first shots of 'The Troubles' were fired in 1969.

By the time we were a few hundred yards shy of the Falls Rd, it was clear that we were sticking out like the sorest of sore thumbs. The ghostly figures of young kids flitted in and out of the light and tracked our every step. When I was further into my research, I learned that such kids are known as ‘dickers’ and it is their job to spot strangers and report their presence up the chain of command. By the time we reached the junction the rain was coming on hard and it seemed a good idea to dive into a pub for a while.

At this point I should mention that Carol and I are a mixed race couple; I’m white and Carol is black. Over the years we have been sore thumbs in many different places. In Vilnius and other like minded East European cities where swastikas are spray painted onto peeling concrete walls, it was Carol as the unexpected black person who made us sore thumbs. In Brooklyn it was my turn to be the token white man. At times it has felt hairy and there were a few crumbling estates of Stalin style tower blocks in Lithuania where I have no doubt that we would have been beaten to a pulp had our hire car broken down.

But nothing before or since has come close to walking into that pub on the Falls Rd on a wet night back in 2002. You know those scenes in 50’s Westerns when a cowboy walks into the wrong saloon and a frozen silence descends over the place. Well that was how it was. Had I ordered our drinks in an American accent, things might have been OK. But my Lancastrian accent was not what anyone wanted to hear. The barman made it clear that we should not take long over our drinks and we didn’t.

Fifty yards down the empty Springfield Rd were the gates that took us through the wall that separates the Republican streets of the Falls from the Loyalist turf of the Shankill. More flitting waifs in the alleys. More seeping rain. Another pub and another wall of silence. This pub had a bold sign up behind the bar. It said ‘No Shooting’ and it didn’t seem as if any humour was intended.

Back out into the night and by now we were ready to get back to the city centre pretty damn quick. Halfway down the Shankill the ten year old waifs were replaced by a group of seven or eight hooded adults who followed us in silence. Every spare bit of wall space displayed a gallery of lovingly painted murals letting everyone know that this was the turf of Johnny Adair’s C Company of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. Cartoon men in balaclavas and combat jackets clutching their cartoon Armalites. The newest mural was to be found right at the bottom of the Shankill Rd. The whole wall of a brand spanking new Kentucky Fried Chicken drive through was emblazoned with C Company branding.

Welcome to West Belfast.

Twenty yards further on and we were off the Shankill and our hooded escorts stood in the rain and watched us make our way toward the City centre.

Some night.

Some introduction.

And what looked a good idea in theory seemed a whole lot different in practice.

The next few days offered more of the same. A contact in Portadown took us on a guided tour of the sectarian streets where the ghost of ‘King Rat’ Billy Wright stared out from the lovingly painted murals. There were flags hanging from every lamppost and the painted kerbstones marked territory. Union Jacks would suddenly stop and be replaced by Irish tricolours, mid street. Either side of these mini divides, the pebble dashed council houses looked just like the ones at home in Scotland. Every now and then our guide would point out the twenty foot high sheet metal 'peace' walls which separated the warring factions. Another non descript road turned out to be the notorious Garvachy Rd that dominated the news cycle every 12th of July when screaming Catholics would pelt bowler hatted marching Orangemen with anything they could pelt them with.  

Evening tours of Pordadown in the rain were clearly not something that were considered the norm and after a few minutes we had an armoured police Land Rover on our bumper. It filled the mirror and the message was clear; cars with Scottish number plates were not welcome to take in the sectarian sights of Portadown.

We tracked down the small police station in one horse Loughgall where 30 SAS troopers executed 8 members of the East Tyrone Brigade in 1987 and thereby helped Maggie Thatcher to her third termas PM. No wonder the Provos nicknamed her ‘Tinknickers’

We found the small village of Burntollet where the Civil Rights marchers had been beaten black and blue in January 1969.

We stood on the walls of Derry where the Apprentic Boys had withstood King James’s siege in 1690. Below lay the Bogside streets where the men of the Parachute Regiment gunned down 13 marchers on Bloody Sunday.

The brooding army fortress in the ‘badlands’ of Crossmaglen. The looming concrete watchtowers of Long Kesh prison. Milltown Cemetery. Watch towers on rainsoaked hills and murals on crumbling walls. Turf Lodge and Andytown and Ballymurphy and the Ardoyne and Rathcoole.

Names for thirty years of bad news. Now so very ordinary. So very day to day. British and Northern and lashed by constant rain. Like anywhere. Like home.

But wherever we went, our accents marked us down for the silent treatment because old habits die very hard after 700 years of hatred. Sure there was Peace, but there had been peace before.

I can’t say that I felt overly optimistic about my chances on the ferry back to the mainland.

Had I been a freelance journalist, I would indeed have stood little or no chance of being admitted into this strange and brooding closed world. But it is different when you are an author. For some reason people see authors as being different. Less threatening. Harmless.

So I made calls and I was granted meetings at the bottom of the ladder and slowly but surely the word was passed on that I was all right. Just a Brit author from Lancashire. And I managed to convince them that I had no axe to grind. No flag of choice. And I was believed.

After a few months I finally met the two guys who gave me an insight into what kind of men reach the top of the tree in the world of freedom fighting/terrorism. Because I was always going to arrive at that old chestnut. Impossible not to. The eternal division of opinion.

French Resistance – Heroic Freedom Fighters

IRA – Terrorist Scum

Muhajadeen – Heroic Freedom Fighters

Taliban – Terrorist Scum

Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Menachem Begin, Malcolm X….

It all depends on your point of view. When is blowing up a train a good thing and when is it a bad thing?

I was lucky enough to meet two guys from either side of the sectarian divide. Davide Ervine and Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane. Both had done many years behind the wire in ‘The Kesh’ and both had been branded by our media as being the worst of the worst. Bik in fact had once upon a time been the most wanted man in Britain having led the breakout of 38 IRA prison from the supposedly impregnable H Blocks in 1983. Now they were both political; David led the political wing of the UVF and was credited as being one of the key driving forces behind the 1998 Good Friday Agreement whilst Bik worked for Sinn Fein.

I found both to be thoughtful, quiet spoken, passionate, intelligent, humorous and thoroughly charming. They are in fact two of the most impressive men I have ever met and they made a deep impression on me.

When it was all done, they checked my manuscript and put me right where I had gone wrong. They gave me quotes for the back cover which was my proof that I was coming from neither side of the line.

The book was duly published and it flickered in the media for a while. It sold a few thousand copies and thankfully was well reviewed by Republican and Loyalist alike. Did it get anywhere close to finding that dark, unforgiving place where good men feel driven to do bad things? I hope so. Most readers seem to think it did.

And now? Is it merely a tale of dark days that have become little more than old news footage? I don’t think so. In almost every case the driving force behind good men taking up arms to fight a much stronger foe is injustice and inequality. The best definition I have ever heard of a terrorist? A man who throws a stone at a tank.

Our world is now as unjust and unequal as it has ever been and it gets more so with every passing year. It is hard not to imagine that more and more good, thoughtful, community rooted men like Bik and David will feel impelled to take up arms and fight back.

To endlessly brand such men as criminals, cowards and maniacs is in my view plain stupid. When the Taliban ambush one of our convoys in Helmand Province you can bet you bottom dollar that a minister will appear in front of the cameras to condemn such a cowardly attack. Cowardly? Is it really so cowardly to fire of your RPG on a Nato patrol when you know full well that an Apache helicopter or an F16 will appear within minutes to blow you into a million pieces?

And yet when we bomb a village from 20,000 feet it is deemed to be not cowardly at all.

It is a dark world where propaganda and perception are all. Bik and David helped me to understand it a little. I hope ‘Terrible Beauty’ manages to do the same.

Here is a link to a video of Bik talking about his Colditz-like escape from H Blocks of the Maze. Check it out. Does he sound like a maniac to you?


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  2. Hi, The beginning of your post put me in mind of a song by David Rovics in similar vein It's called Promised Land. Worth a listen.

    Can't find a link at the moment but will do so when on proper computer!