Making the break from traditional publishing.
The picture displays the front cover of my new book and some of the quotes from people who have read it. Lord Stevens is John Stevens, the former Met Commissioner. The names Chris Ryan, Peter James and Matthew Hall should be well known to you. The jacket quotes from Johnny Mercer and Damien Lewis were unexpected and generous, decisions by them I am very grateful for.
It’s been some considerable time since I wrote a post for this blog and, during that period, we’ve seen events unfolding around the world that none of us would have predicted. As many writers before me have said, you couldn’t have made it up, and if you had, no publisher would have printed it.
Publish and be damned I’ve come to realise is an outdated expression from a time when editors were braver and publishers less cost conscious. Stories of incredible, unbelievable world events aren’t the only stories that struggle to get published. Stories that can’t easily be boxed into a particular genre, stories that don’t easily align with a publisher’s reader demographic. Stories that push boundaries. Publishing such novels involves risk, something the commercial world of publishing is increasingly constrained from embracing.
Today, I’m going to explain how Crow 27 came into existence and the challenges I experienced trying to get this particular story out there. This isn’t a short blog and for that, I apologise. But I hope you’ll bear with me and read on.
Some years ago, during a crime fiction literary event at Deal in Kent, I was one of a panel of authors answering questions from an audience of around two hundred people. We were asked by one audience member to identify a subject not covered in crime fiction that we thought crime writers should be tackling. I spoke about criminality in the armed services and the impunity with which some criminals operate behind the wire of some military camps. I briefly described what I knew of the abuse, bullying and sexual exploitation, mostly – but not exclusively – of young women soldiers and the failure of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Army to effectively address the problem. I spoke of the levels of unreported crime, of the lack of victim confidence in a system that has been demonstrated time and again to be loaded against them. When I finished speaking, there was a surprisingly long and enthusiastic period of applause. Deal, of course, remains a town with a significant military interest but I knew then, this was a subject I needed to write about one day.
Not long after beginning to research the topic, I was invited to an event for military veterans when I met Tina, a former army Captain who had served at Deepcut training barracks in Surrey at a time when several young recruits died, supposedly as a result of suicides. You may recall the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Bullied to Death‘ that first exposed the number of questionable suicides of young soldiers that had occurred at Deepcut in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Tina told me her story, something she had kept to herself for many years, partly due to the severe mental illness she experienced as a result and partly due to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) the MOD insisted she sign before she was medically discharged from the army.
One night, after leaving an officer’s mess at a barracks in Germany, Tina walked to her accommodation. She was drunk, the evening having been spent with her fellow junior officers in the bar at the mess. Arriving at her room, she threw her clothes onto the floor, lay down on the bed and fell asleep. A short while later, she was disturbed by a noise in her room. She woke to find a man on top of her. He was wearing a balaclava mask and he ordered Tina to keep quiet or he would use the bayonet he was carrying to kill her.
Tina was raped and subject to a series of degrading sexual assaults. Her attacker was an NCO, a sergeant from the same camp she was posted to. He was caught soon afterwards. At his trial, he maintained his innocence, claiming what had happened had been consensual. The military trial was presided over by a male judge and the entire jury was made up of male army officers. The sergeant was acquitted.
Tina sued the MOD. She was offered an out of court settlement provided she signed an NDA. By this time, she had been posted to Deepcut barracks. One day, she was in her office when the sergeant who had attacked her appeared in the same building. Despite promises to the contrary from the army, he had been posted to the same camp as her. Tina had a breakdown and was admitted to hospital. She suffered psychosis, PTSD and chronic depression. She never recovered. In 2019, while helping me write a novel inspired by her experience, she died of a heart attack brought on by the medication she had been taking for her psychosis. She was just forty-two years old. She left a young son. After her death, her family asked me to write a eulogy to be read at her funeral. It was an honour to do so. The funeral was attended by several hundred people, many of whom were friends of Tina’s and members of ‘The Sisterhood’, a secretive – although not secret – support group of women soldiers I learned now numbers several thousand serving and retired servicewomen.
Later, I met Anna. Anna is now in her forties and spent many months at Deepcut barracks as a recruit soldier in the late 1990s. During this time, Anna was the subject of a great deal of attention from non-commissioned officers who were supposed to be supervising her and her fellow recruits but seemed more interested in bedding them. Anna came in for a lot of attention because she was particularly attractive and because she resisted the overtures of the NCOs. One week, Anna’s closest recruit friend unexpectedly failed a physical fitness test that would see her discharged from the army. Anna’s friend was devastated. Anna was then approached by the NCO responsible for her friend’s failure. It was made clear to Anna that the failure was a set up. The deal on offer was the result for her friend would be changed to a pass provided Anna would agree to sleep with the NCO. Anna reluctantly agreed. She was raped and sexually humiliated. The rape was filmed and then used to blackmail her into doing the same for other NCOs. Only when they became bored with her did they allow her a posting away to a new Regiment abroad.
Anna had never revealed her story to anyone before me. Her friend does not know what was done for her. She is aware the friend is likely to read Crow 27, will recognise the scenario and will know. Anna understands that and told me it will be worth it in order that people know the truth.
And then, at a conference I’d been invited to speak at on the subject of slave trafficking, I found myself sitting with a man called Paul Kenyon. Paul asked me about future writing projects and I told him what I was working on. It was then he revealed he was a BBC Producer and had been part of the team that produced ‘Bullied to Death’. He offered to introduce me to Jane MacSorley, the Director of that Panorama programme. It was as if fate had leant a hand.
Background – is this a contemporary issue or old news?
Although Crow 27 is set in 2005, the issue of abuse, bullying and sexual exploitation of recruit soldiers remains a problem for the British Army of 2022. Sadly, little has changed and, until sufficient pressure is placed on those with the power to introduce real change, until the public are fully aware of what goes on behind the wire, it’s certain nothing will. In 2016, the UK Government introduced the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces to replace the office of the Service Complaints Commissioner who produced annual reports but had far fewer powers. In each annual report since then, the Ombudsman has expressed concern at the over-representation of BAME people and women in the Armed Forces in the complaints system and the possible causes. In her first annual report of 2016, the Ombudsman said this –
The Ombudsman is concerned about the continued overrepresentation of both female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Service personnel in the Service complaints system Tri-Service. The disproportionate representation of female and BAME personnel as complainants (21% and 10%) compared to representation in the Armed Forces (11% and 7%) not only continued for the third consecutive year, but actually increased for female personnel. Bullying, discrimination and harassment were more commonly the cause of complaints for these groups.
The Ombudsman also recommended the Ministry of Defence (MoD) commission a study by the end of April 2018 to determine the root causes of the overrepresentation of female and BAME personnel in the Service complaints system and that appropriate action was taken to try and redress the situation by the end of December 2018, including putting the appropriate support mechanisms in place. The MoD failed to act on that recommendation. In her 2020 report the Ombudsman wrote this in her report:
‘’Female personnel had nearly twice the rate of Service Complaints than males. Although this over-representation was found in all complaint categories, it was primarily driven by bullying, harassment or discrimination. The rate at which female Service personnel raised bullying, harassment or discrimination Service Complaints was four times larger than the equivalent figure for male Service personnel. The rate of reported bullying, harassment or discrimination Service Complaints by female personnel has not changed by a significant amount in the last three years.
In 2022, the Army conducted a survey of soldiers that revealed there had been an observable increase in the reporting of targeted sexualised behaviours, behaviours that include coercive sexual favours and assault. Especially shocking was the proportion of service personnel saying they had suffered a ‘particularly upsetting experience’, which has significantly increased since previous surveys in 2015 and 2018. In 2018, 15% of servicewomen reported a particularly upsetting experience (already an increase from the previous survey in 2015). In 2022, 35% of servicewomen reported a particularly upsetting experience in the previous 12 months. The figure for men is 13% (up from 2% from the previous survey), also a huge increase.
The reason for this is unlikely to be increased confidence in reporting because, as the survey shows, those people are not in fact reporting these experiences, they are disclosing them to an anonymous survey. The explanation, of course, is that things are getting worse, not better. Lots of the behaviours categorised as a ‘particularly upsetting experience’ are criminal offences. They include sending unwanted sexually explicit material, revenge porn and sexual assaults. They range from unwanted sexual touching to rape. The proportion disclosing rape doubled from 2% in 2018, to 4% in the 2022 survey. The vast majority (65%) reported not having told anyone of their experience. The survey noted, ‘there still seem to be significant barriers to reporting sexual harassment, including ‘the perceived negative repercussions of making a complaint’. In 77% of reported examples, the perpetrator was male. Sexualised misbehaviour remains a common experience in the Army with women far more likely to experience it than men.
So, there we have it. It’s the reality behind the formation of the Centre for Military Justice, behind the Liberty campaign, behind the Government Select Committee inquiry and behind the bravery of those who were prepared to tell me what had happened to them while serving.
Crow 27 was inspired the experiences of Tina, Anna and others with similar tales, and by their bravery in being prepared to tell me their stories. While researching and writing, I met and spoke to many young men and women who described shocking, life-changing experiences that occurred during their formative months as soldiers. On several occasions, I nearly stopped, so ugly and upsetting were the stories of bullying, sexual abuse and similar behaviours. The responsibility to represent their accounts, authentically and with honesty, weighed heavily on my shoulders.
During the research phase of the book, I was advised by several contributors that I would struggle to persuade a publisher to invest in this story. The explanations for that view were varied. Some considered that fear of the MOD would inhibit, others thought it unlikely to be thought of as a contemporary issue – this type of thing doesn’t still go on, does it? One or two thought the simple reality of commercial viability would see publishers concluding that a story about the abuse of young, female soldiers wasn’t likely to sell.
They were right. Although feedback and comment on the quality of the story was excellent with one editor describing the book as the best exposé he’d read since Heart of Darkness, commercial opinion on the subject matter was exactly as predicted – the story wouldn’t sell books.
Faced with this level of rejection, I went through a period of reflection. I didn’t write this story to sell large numbers of books. I wrote it for the victims, so their stories would be known. I wrote it to expose the reality of what happens behind the wire. I wrote it so that people who read the content would learn about it and understand. For this reason, I’ve decided to follow a path many writers have been advocating on social media for some considerable time, to become an indie publisher, a hybrid author.
During the last few weeks, I’ve negotiated a steep learning curve in the use of MS Word, typesetting, jacket design and the use of picture editing software. It’s been fun, and seeing the result of your work appear in digitalised proof formats has proved to be an exciting experience. Will it work? Who knows. What I can say is Crow 27 will be published later this month through Amazon. As soon as it’s live, I will share the link with you.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
Best, as always