The Experiences of Ghosting An Ordinary Soldier
11 Oct 2008
To publish a book is a dream for many of us. But it takes time, effort and often a good bit of luck. For almost a decade ITV reporter Philip Gomm looked for the perfect project. In the end he found it in the most inhospitable of places. Here’s his story of becoming a ghost-writer.
The soldier was sitting quietly under the camouflage netting, seeking some shade from the brilliance of the Afghan sun.
His uniform was dusty, his eyes glazed, his face covered with cuts and bruises.
I was in no doubt; this was a man with a story to tell. And what an extraordinary story it turned out to be.
After ten days in the searing heat of the Helmand desert, talking to soldiers for ITV News, it soon became clear that the best had been saved till last.
Captain Doug Beattie of the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment seemed to be a man who attracted trouble.
Even in the 15 minutes or so I had with this career soldier as I waited to be flown out of the country, I was bowled over by his barrage of stories.
Accidentally shooting his best friend in the head as a young man, guarding Rudolph Hess in Spandau Prison, acting as Tim Collins’ Regimental Sergeant Major in Iraq in 2003, the father of two had seen and done so much even before arriving in Afghanistan.
But it was his most recent adventures that left me truly agog.
For two weeks in September 2006 Doug and a small group of other British troops had helped pitifully ill-equipped Afghan soldiers to retake and hold the strategically critical town of Garmsir – known by the top brass as the Taliban gateway to the Province. A 48-hour operation turned into a two-week struggle for survival. Such was the ferocity of the fighting and the unequal odds, that the battle was later likened to a modern-day Rorke’s Drift, the famous action against the Zulus in 1879 in southern Africa. Doug’s haggard look hinted at what he had been through. I was hooked.
For all of my adult life I had wanted to write a book and here, in the shape of this army officer, was the material for it. There and then I volunteered to help Doug compile his memoirs should he ever be interested. For six months I heard nothing. Then came an email.
Ever since his return to the UK Doug had been writing down his exploits. Not with any thought of publication in mind, but as a way of coming to terms with the horrors he’d been involved in, and then explaining them to his wife and children. It would be down to others who read Doug’s outpourings to suggest they should be shared with a wider audience. Only then did he remember our conversation.
We talked again. Then met again. At last I started to put Doug’s vivid account of his life into some sort of order.
The trouble was, although I am a journalist, most of what I write amounts to no more than two or three hundred words, just enough to make 90 seconds of TV news for Meridian and the like. Now I had to come up with some 100,000 words – in a form which would do justice to Doug’s bravery, humility and humour.
For 12 months I typed away whenever I could - at evenings and weekends, during holidays - meanly ignoring requests from my family to come for meals, read stories, do the washing up. Every step of the way I sought Doug’s reassurance that I wasn’t turning his life into a version he didn’t remember living.
Eventually we had something we were pleased with, a manuscript that was readable, accurate and best of all complete.
But what next? I certainly had no idea how to get it published, and nor did Doug. It was time to do a bit of research. It soon became clear we needed an agent, someone to sell the ‘goods’ to hard-nosed editors.
Amazingly we struck lucky. In the end three agents wanted to represent us. We chose Andrew Lownie for the simplest of reasons, he was the most passionate about the project. The fact that his office is only four hundred yards from mine didn’t harm his cause either.
Then we struck lucky again. With Andrew’s help we ended up in a situation where there was interest in the book from five publishers. It would be wrong to say there was a bidding war, but they all made offers. I’m not sure what Doug thought about the whole process, but it reassured me that I still knew a good story when I saw one. In the end we did the deal with Simon & Schuster, the enthusiasm of the staff being infectious.
A day before Doug returned to Afghanistan for a second tour of duty in March this year we signed on the dotted line. Not that the work was over. While he was back in sunny Helmand, dodging the bullets, I was also in the firing line, taking on the Ministry of Defence over such matters as potential breaches of the Official Secrets Act and whether Doug had secured sufficient permission to publish from his various superiors. With make or break publishing deadlines fast approaching we managed to clear all the hurdles.
An Ordinary Soldier is now on the shelves, and Doug is home safe and sound to see it. Quite rightly his name is on the front cover. As for me, well I get a very generous mention in the acknowledgements. Not surprising really. I did write them.