My second short story collection, 'Storm Warning' was written for my father, a man who was awarded the MC in WWII. He died in May, at 95. Dad was naturally a gentle man, and he never quite got over some of the events he'd witnessed and had to take part in. I wanted to explore in fiction the aftershocks of conflict, to show the different ways in which those caught up in conflict of many kinds can be changed - and I have been pleased with the response to my book.
But then I heard on Twitter of the novelist Neil Blower, who goes under the name @realtommyatkins - a guy who has not only experienced conflict first hand, but who has written a novel partly in an attempt to combat the after-effects - and I badly wanted to read his book. Thanks very much to the publishers for sending me a copy.
'Shell Shock, Diary of Tommy Atkins' is published by Firestep Press, and the publisher says this:
This short, diary-style novel, by a British army veteran chronicles the difficulties faced by Tommy, a 23-year-old squaddie, as he desperately tries to conquer post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – shell shock. His over-emotional responses to the stresses of everyday life – post-office queues, a trip to Ikea, and his relationship with his family and girlfriend – eventually lead to alienation and suicidal urges.
Told in the vernacular, with humour and personal understanding, the story highlights the work of the Charity Combat Stress in rehabilitating returning troops.
'Shell Shock, Diary of Tommy Atkins' comes out from Firestep Press on October 1st. On Firestep's website you can read the very strong endorsements this book has already received from senior figures in the forces. It is a short novel, and certainly not sweet. It is a quick read, and one that most readers will find hard to forget. It is an important novel, and I'd urge readers of this blog to go off and buy it - you are also giving a donation to a fabulously worthwhile charity, Combat Stress. But more of that later.
Shell Shock's main character is Tommy Atkins - named of course after the nickname given to British soldiers in WWI.But this is not then, it is now. very much so. This particular Tommy Atkins, in his early 20s, has been discharged from the Army suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He goes home to parents whose marriage is fragile - and to a girlfriend, Shell, who adores him and is glad to have him back. The novel is set, as the title suggests, like a diary, and very quickly I began to experience that strange voyeuristic feeling - 'I shouldn't be reading this' - as if I really was reading something intensely private. Tommy chronicles his every day experiences - his attempts to find employment, his working relationships, his relationship with Shell, and with his parents, the ups and downs that gradually become overwhelming. Is it weak to admit I was in tears in places? I don't think so.
As a fellow writer, I was absolutely captivated by the voice. It is clear, unforced, strong as hell, natural and absolutely believable, just the voice of an ordinary guy caught in an extraordinary situation -that's why I sank so easily into the role of observer, I think.
I knew a little about PTSD. Among other things, my own writing tutor suffered from this debilitating, hidden syndrome - hidden because nothing 'shows' - we like our injured people to wear bandages and splints so we can see where the trouble is, don't we? And my own father must have suffered for sixty years from a mild form of the same thing, on and off - something that got in the way of his everyday life after he left the Army in 1946. And in those days there was no help - nothing was recognised. You were expected to get on with things. Which he did. But my goodness - life could have been so much better for those men...
Now, having read 'Shell Shock', having got to know 'Tommy Atkins' through his diary, and the raw honesty with which Blower portrays his character, I can recognise so many things which affected my Dad - and I've never really put two and two together in such a clear way.
Reading round the subject - somewhere I read Neil Blower's acknowledgement that this is not a 'literary' novel - as if it ever ought to have been. Forcing it into a literary jacket would have been absolutely the wrong thing to do. I appreciate what he's done, I have huge respect for this rather special novel, which will not be easily pigeonholed, thank heavens. I also discovered that he is doing a degree - and that he has recently discovered that he is both dyslexic, and suffers from a condition on the autism spectrum.
ME: Neil was kind enough to natter to me for the blog - through his publicist. So thanks, Neil! First, can you give us a bit of background about yourself, your time in the forces and since?
I joined the army in 1999 and served five years with the Royal Tank Regiment, taking part in operations in Kosovo and the Iraq war. After I left the army I did a number of minimum wage jobs including security which I stayed doing until I decided to go to University. The thing about working in security is that over a 12 hour shift, especially nights, you have a lot of time to kill, so I read. I read books on everything from politics to history to physics, I'd always been a keen reader but mostly fiction. I wanted to know everything about everything, I'm convinced this has something to do with being around death and violence because before Iraq I had never really been interested in academic pursuits.
ME: I very much enjoyed reading 'Shell Shock, the Diary of Tommy Atkins' - I also found it very moving. What do you want your readers to feel after they've read your novel?
I hope they don't think it's garbage ha ha. Seriously though, if people read it and have a better understanding of what our soldiers have to face, not just at war but when they come home as well then I'd be happy.
ME: I read that you've suffered from PTSD yourself, and were advised to 'do something creative' to combat the stress. Was it a deliberate decision on your part to write fiction, as opposed to non-fiction/memoir? If so, why?
Yes it was very much a deliberate decision. I've always been into books since childhood. Then after I left the army and was told that creativity may help my condition that was the my first thought, I also played about with screenwriting. It started off as a hobby really, then I thought, maybe I could do it for real and someday get published, then it became an ambition and not to sound like a cliche, a dream. There's lots of things I want to write about, not just war or the military, but I think for me it's a good place to start.
ME: 'Shell Shock' is a real eye-opener. Two scenes in particular have stayed with me - firstly, when the Army doctor tells Tommy he's no longer under his care, almost 'abandoning' him. And second, when Shell's friends ask about killing. Both those scenes seem to underline the huge gulf between Tommy and others. Can you talk a bit about writing those scenes?
Well the bit about the Doctor is true, once you leave the forces that's it. You are someone else's problem. It's nothing personal, that's just the way it is. Like with the married accommodation, once you leave - you have to move out. Like many things in our society, it;s the rules that need changing. And as for the question about killing, I've had that a number of times "did you ever kill anyone?" I think with our general perception of war this is an obvious question, albeit a very insensitive and sometimes ignorant one. The vast majority of people will never, ever be put in a situation where they will have to end the life of another human being and I think this is why people ask. Also it has been glamourised and romanticised to a certain degree on TV and in films. In the new Bond films and the Bourne Franchise for example - the hero is a killer and has to live with it. I did write those scenes to highlight the gulf between soldiers and civilians.
ME: As I said on Twitter, I think Shell Shock is an 'important' novel. Were you aware of its importance as you were writing it - and if so did that help or hinder?
As I was writing it, I just wanted to make it as good and truthful as possible (and finish it). It was only after we started to get feedback and reviews that its importance crossed my mind and it's not really for me to say. I'd be very, very proud if it is considered an important novel though.
ME: You're doing a degree at the moment, I think, in English Lit/Creative writing? What's that like?
I'm really enjoying it, the learning feeds into my work, knowing what's gone before and being in that environment has really helped not only my creative side but my knowledge base as well. I'm the first person in my family to ever go to University so I'm proud just to be there.
ME: Tell me a bit about the dyslexia and the autism spectrum issue. If these had been picked up earlier on what difference would that have made?
I was absolutely mortified when I found out. I wanted to be a published author - how would this ever happen now? But then I thought, you know what, I can do this, it will happen. I don't think it would have made a difference if it was picked up earlier, I'd not really been in a situation where it mattered, it just means I see things differently than other people that's all.
ME: I hadn't heard of Combat Stress, the charity and I bet I'm not alone. I gather a not insubstantial donation (£1) is given to the charity for each copy of your novel that is sold...Would you like to say something about it and the work it does?
Combat Stress do a fantastic job. I think they are starting to get a higher profile. But I also think that over the coming decade PTSD will be a major issue in this country, the amount of people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with the intensity of the fighting means that the number of PTSD sufferers will go through the roof and this in turn affects the NHS, welfare, crime, so it's important we recognise the condition and the organisations that can help.
ME: Anything else you'd like to natter about?
Ha ha, there's lots I could talk about but I'll save that for my novels. I just hope people enjoy Shell Shock and get something from it. And for in depth info about PTSD please see the website of Combat Stress .
ME Thanks Neil, very much, and loads of good luck with 'Shell Shock', and the next piece of work.
Other reviews of 'Shell Shock' include this, on rearparty.co.uk
Copies of 'Shell Shock - the Diary of Tommy Atkins' can be bought from the usual suspects, including the Publisher, and Amazon-HERE. Don't forget, you are also giving a donation to Combat Stress, who are doing a fantastic and difficult job...
Neil Blower is a British author, screenwriter and novelist based in Manchester.
He joined the British army when he left school and served five years with the Royal Tank Regiment. Serving on operations in Kosovo and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
Neil is currently studying for a degree in English literature and creative writing at the university of Salford.
His first book - Shell Shock: The diary of Tommy Atkins will be released in paperback October 2011 by Firestep Press - an imprint of Firestep publishing.
He is now working on his second book - My subject is war. A collection of short stories exploring the realities of contemporary conflict.
Neil is an avid reader, his favourite writers being Hemingway, James Joyce and Joseph Conrad.
He goes to the gym regularly and boxed in the army and is a big fight fan. He is also a big fan of film, anything from blockbusters to indie films. He is also a keen skier.
Neil is engaged to married to his partner of eight years Samantha, they live in Manchester with their young son.
And finally -having read this book, and talked with Neil, I decided to give all royalties from 'Storm Warning' to Combat Stress.