Monday, 29 September 2014

Billy Moore on serving time in a Thai prison

Conditions in Thai prisons are some of the world’s most notorious. Billy was held in Chiang Mai. Like almost every British person there, he relied heavily on Prisoners Abroad’s support…

‘The first time I walked into my cell was like heading into the lion’s den. The room was big, but not big enough for the 70 people it held. The cell floor resembled a mass grave, with arms and legs all over each other. The smell of human faeces was so strong I wanted to vomit. I saw a motionless body on a damp-stained mattress, insects hovering over him. “My God”, I thought. When I dared to look again, my worst thoughts were confirmed. He was really dead.

This was the first day in my new home. And as the new guy, I spent that night lying next to the man’s body. This wasn’t the last dead body I’d see there – and as I soon discovered, every day would be a struggle for my own survival.

Getting enough food was a daily challenge. Once a day, you’d be given a meal. It was always rice, a liquid of some sort, and some inedible meat. It might be a chicken’s head with the eyes intact, sometimes it was snake. Usually though, you couldn’t even identify it. We were starving – we just ate it, we had to.

I was thousands of miles away from home, and it really felt like it. I’d lost touch with my family back in the UK: I couldn’t ask them to support me – I began to feel so isolated.

So when money started appearing in my account, around 1,800 baht (£35) per month, I was very surprised. I didn’t know where it was coming from, and I wasn’t sure why anyone was helping me. Eventually I discovered it was a grant from a charity back in London called Prisoners Abroad.

It was just brilliant and it really helped. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it was enough to help me survive. Now I could afford to buy proper food for myself, I didn’t have to live solely on the inedible prison food any more. Soon I started receiving correspondence from the Prisoners Abroad team, as well as their newsletter – I always looked forward to reading that. I wrote back to them many times. I shared my story and let them know what was going on, I even got myself in the newsletter!

Because the prison censored my letters, I couldn’t exactly explain the full horror of what I was seeing. But I had no doubt that Prisoners Abroad knew what I was going through.

Despite the physical support they were giving me, the pressure of life inside had quite an effect on my mental health. I was paranoid with fear – convinced that people were talking about me because I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

But Prisoners Abroad helped me there too. They sent me books and newspapers, and these made such a difference. They offered an escape to a different world and they helped me move away from where I was mentally.

Prisoners Abroad’s support helped me survive my time in Thai prison. And I know that if it wasn’t for them, a difficult situation may have become an impossible one…

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Lissa Oliver on writing fiction

Although I regularly facilitate creative writing classes, I’m probably the last person to hold up as an example of a good writing process. While I hear many writers say they work best in the mornings/evenings and reserve two hours of their day before breakfast/before bed to write, I’m more of a serial dinner-burner and non-hooverist, squeezing in my writing at any point of the day I can – and then getting carried away to the exclusion of all else.

“Mum, the dinner’s ready!” are the usual cries ensuing as the smoke detectors go off, but as an expert at juggling my time and prioritising, my response is usually, “Okay, just one more line…” A slightly burnt sausage really doesn’t taste that bad, but a thought or idea or precious line of dialogue allowed to evade the memory forever could lead to stomach ulcers and other severe nervous disorders.

Because fiction writing is not my full-time profession (very few writers, sadly, earn a living from their novels) I have to fit it in where I can, but luckily I am addicted to writing and find other distractions more of an inspiration than a hindrance. I am able to write anywhere, at any time, with any amount of background interference. My best environment is on my sofa, with my laptop, and rock music blaring out at stadium decibels. I find silence a little harder, but conversation, television, or playing ball with the dog, one-handed as I type, is of no inconvenience whatsoever.

For me, the process of writing a novel does not only involve typing. Away from the keyboard, the characters are still holding my attention in my mind for much of my day. In any given situation I find myself, I’m also wondering how this character or that might cope. It probably takes me about two to three years to actually write a novel – although once I begin to set it down on paper, it’s usually completed within nine months. The closer I get to the finish, the more I exclude other activities, such as housework and the day job!

My physical writing process is very tight, but slow. I always begin by reading over what I’ve previously written, which can slow me down as the book grows. In a typical two-hour period I will be happy if I complete a paragraph. I edit and refine as I go, often deleting more than I type in any one session. When I type my final Full Stop, that generally is my novel finished and ready for publication. I may go back over and find the odd typo, but basically it has been proofed and edited while in progress. My day job is a sub-editor and proofreader, but long before that role it just seemed to be in my nature.

I would guess that always reading good writers and well-crafted books helps. I have always written, as soon as I could write words, and I tended to mimic my favourite authors. A precocious reader, I wrote Toyland stories about my own toys, á la Enid Blyton, as a pre-schooler and later had my friends and I on great adventures, á la Richmal Crompton. Solving crimes like the Famous Five wasn’t for us, but finding a plot (and innocent mischief!) within the daily mundane world around us, like William and The Outlaws, was.

My fiction has always been character driven. As a reader I need to identify with and empathise with the hero. William and the outlaws were my best friends. Some very strong characters, such as Anne Rice’s vampire Louis, have become lovers. So when I write, I want to feel that same depth of passion for my hero. The plot is secondary. The reader has to care what happens to the hero and I am the reader – I always write the book I want to read.

I know much more than is necessary about all of my characters – their childhood, schooldays, parents, etc. Little things in their past provide me with clues as to how they will react within the plot. That’s why, even though none of my books are prequels or sequels, they do tend to have the same characters cropping up, particularly previous bit-players promoted to antagonist. As a reader, I like to feel the need to reach out to a hero and offer help, and experience the dread of danger. So I tend to be very hard on my hero; some authors play God with their characters, but for me it’s much more rewarding to play the Devil!

I have a rough idea of plot and certainly ending, before I begin, but the characters take over as soon as they hit the paper running. They respond to things in a sometimes unexpected manner and say things I never envisioned. Occasionally they’ll even turn the plot in a new direction, which leaves me with a bit of re-thinking to do. My whole writing process is thought first, typing later, so I’m often looking in on a scene, which I then recreate on paper. I always watch them first, then write what I’ve observed. A statement that should probably get me locked up! They’re pure fiction, of course, I could never base a character on a real person, as I would lose my creative input and leeway. A person known to you is too rigidly known to you – I imagine it would be difficult to break them down or witness their collapse on paper.

I would be hopeless at an English paper (even though I passed one some 34 years ago) because I’ve no idea what pronouns and adjectives and suchlike are – I just know how to use words and structure to my best advantage. Writing is definitely a craft. I love the power of punctuation, punctuation frightens many writers, but it’s the author’s best friend. It ensures the reader reads at the pace I intended, pauses where I want them to, sees the emphasis exactly where I put it. I love breaking the rules that I do remember from English at school. Never begin a sentence with And or But! In fiction, doing just that gives you such power.

As a paragraph, it would lose you your Pass Grade, but stuck in a thriller – what tension it creates!

Because I only write the books I want to read, my hero is always male. I’ve never had an interest in heroines or ‘The Love Interest’. I would have avoided it altogether, but a writer pointed out what a great tool love is – it makes people behave irrationally and take chances. Of course, being a Devil with a pen, I immediately thought how much more powerful unrequited love would be! I’m exploring that right now and I think the novel in progress is going to be my darkest yet. So watch this space!

Lissa is a freelance journalist who writes and broadcasts on horseracing. A regular contributor to the Irish Field, she is the European correspondent for Racetrack magazine. She has been nominated for the Clive Graham Writer of the Year Trophy at the Derby Awards each year since 2008. In 2010, she received a special commendation for her work. She lives in Co Kildare with her family.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Declan Power writes on the film adaption of his book Siege at Jadotville

The news that at last a film will be made about the stand taken by Irish troops at Jadotville while serving with the UN force in the Congo has been welcomed across the board by the Irish defence family. For many of the troops fighting at Jadotville the journey to Africa had started on the square in Athlone's Custume Barracks, coming as the majority did from the 6th Infantry Battalion.

In September 1961 the rebel-held province of Katanga was located in the very bowels of the Congo. It was in this province that 157 men from A Company of the Irish 35th Battalion were deployed to a mining town called Jadotville to protect the largely white Belgian inhabitants from massacre by marauding tribal groups.
But within a very short space of time the troops were to find the settlers had turned on them and were attacking the Irish positions with an overwhelming mercenary-led rebel force.

The Irish positions were attacked while the main body of troops were attending mass parade with their Chaplain, Fr Tommy Fagan. As the native troops and their mercenary officers swiftly advanced sprawled across their jeeps like extras out of Kelly's Heroes they felt invincible.

Why wouldn't they when information had been passed to them by a Belgian businessman about the morning's mass parade. The Irish wouldn't know what hit them.
However, they didn't bank on Offaly man, Sgt John Monahan. In his singlet, having just finished shaving and with his towel still draped around his shoulders, Monahan vaulted a couple of trenches to get to the nearest Vickers machine gun.

With this belt-fed weapon he started to lay down accurate bursts of machine gun fire which broke up the Katangan attack and caused the jeeps now to career wildly. This was to be the start of a week-long siege of the Irish positions by an enemy force that at its peak numbered 3000. Most of the men were lucky, their commanding officer, 42 year-old Kerryman, Commandant Pat Quinlan, had ordered them to dig trenches on their arrival and this effort was now saving lives. However, Platoon Sergeant Walter Hegarty wasn't in his trench the morning the mortars fell. Ever mindful to his men's welfare, the 29 year-old Galwegian was returning to the trench lines with fresh water.

"I heard the plop of the rounds as I was coming across open ground. I knew I was out of range of their machine guns, but not the mortars. As the rounds flew through the air I had a couple of seconds to drop the water and jump into a small depression in the ground.
"I remember how clear and sharp the colour of the grass was as the rounds came in". Crump! Seconds later Hegarty could feel the burning shrapnel lacerate his flesh.
"I could feel the blood running down my back and legs, but I wasn't in pain, just a daze and a voice in the back of my mind reminding me that the next round was just seconds away".

Hegarty was on his feet and sprinted like an Olympian to the nearest trench, tumbling headlong in on his fellow troops. Though later brought back to the rear for treatment he insisted like other Irish wounded on returning to the action until the end of the battle.

This was Ireland's first significant involvement in the UN's first large-scale peacekeeping operation in the Congo in the early 60s. Unfortunately the ineptitude of arrogant and naïve UN civilian administrators caused the deaths of many of the international troops sent to keep the peace, including the Irishmen who were killed at Niemba.
Such ineptitude and an inability of senior UN officials to follow military advice led to the deployment of troops to Jadotville. However, when the troops arrived they found the settlers to be hostile and sympathetic to the mercenary-led forces of Katanga, a mineral-rich province causing chaos by trying to break away from the newly independent Congo.

Similar to the Dutch peacekeepers who turned tail at Srebrenica ten years ago, the small Irish contingent was denied any air or artillery support to aid them against overwhelming odds.
But unlike the Dutch, and even though under aerial bombardment from a Fouga jet, the Irish dug in and fought to hold their ground. This they did for nearly a week against a force that outnumbered them 20 to one, with the Irish inflicting 300 casualties on their opponents. Yet for over 40 years both Ireland and the world turned their backs on the Jadotville veterans. While a combined force of Irish, Indian and Swedish troops tried to break through to rescue the men of A Company they were twice beaten back at Lufira bridge, suffering over eight dead and numerous wounded on the second attempt.

All the while the UN authorities in New York kept changing mandates on paper but not giving the troops on the ground the equipment and support needed to contain the violence.
There were tragic-comic moments too, like when a madcap Norwegian pilot, Bjorne Hovden, was the only one who volunteered to fly helicopter with water supplies to the besieged Irish.
Having landed under fire with his aircraft destroyed it turned out the water supplies were unusable having been put in jerrycans that previously stored petrol. This was the only attempt made by the UN to resupply the troops while they fought it out for a week. Young soldiers at the time, men such as Pte John Gorman and Lt Noel Carey have told of their terror of having to hand up their weapons and go into captivity under a force the Irish had inflicted 300 casualties on. Fear of reprisals was huge.

The battle created enormous personal strain for the Coy commander, Comdt Quinlan. Not alone was he under the normal pressure of commanding troops in combat, but in the aftermath he had to enter ceasefire negotiations without recourse to accurate information or direction from higher authority.
The UN kept telling him jets would be sent to support him but none came. Such was the strength of the mercenary-led force that they beat back two attempts by Irish and Indian forces to rescue the Jadotville men.
After breaking the terms of the ceasefire by moving more troops into the area, the Katangans demanded the surrender of A Company. Comdt Quinlan, knowing his situation was untenable, he no longer had the necessary ammunition to defend his position, decided against the needless slaughter of his men and reluctantly accepted the terms.

After all, the mission the men of A Company were sent to carry out never existed. The local settlers were not in need of UN protection and were loyal to the rebel Katangan government.
After a tense period in captivity, A Company was released in a prisoner exchange on October 26, 1961. The men slotted back into the Irish battalion and even participated in further action, including the Battle of the Tunnel. Lt Tom Quinlan and Sgt Walter Hegarty went on to win Distinguished Service Medals (DSMs) in these further actions.

A Company eventually arrived home to a torchlight procession through the streets of Athlone. Particular affection was shown to Comdt Quinlan for having brought home safely the sons, husbands, sweethearts and friends of so many who had gathered. But then the story was quickly forgotten, some believed the surrender was an embarrassment, some believed personal rivalry was the cause. In any event, though it lay dormant for years, the Jadotville story eventually resurfaced. Veterans of the battle like John Gorman and Liam Donnelly continued to pressure politicians for an enquiry and a public setting straight of the record.

Irish people were shocked to learn how the soldiers were deployed to an isolated area by UN authorities against the advice of senior military advisors only to be attacked by the very people they were sent to protect.
In 2005 Minister for Defence, Mr Willie O'Dea, publicly lauded the men of A Company and their commanding officer for the stand they made and their devotion to duty.A plaque to this effect now stands in mute testimony outside the dining hall in Custume Barracks. For new generations of Irish soldiers Jadotville has now become a place synonymous with courage and honour…as it was and as it should be.

Declan Power wrote 'Siege at Jadotville' published by Maverick House in 2005. He is a former soldier and now works as an independent security and defence analyst