Andy McNab: 'Janet and John changed my life'

When Andy McNab joined the Army, he had a reading age of 11. Here, he describes his literary epiphany, and how it now informs his teen fiction

I suppose I didn't have the most conventional start in life, although a lot of people have it much worse. I was a foundling, left in a carrier bag outside a London hospital as a newborn baby. My adopted parents did their best, but life was tough where I grew up, in Bermondsey in south London, and money was always tight.

As I got older, the disillusionment set in. I didn't want to be the kid in the free school dinners queue, or the one with the free bus pass. I felt angry with people who had shiny new cars or motorbikes. I vandalised people's shops and houses simply because they had stuff and I didn't. I can also remember being very angry with my schoolteachers. I had gone to seven different schools, so I had a lot of teachers to be angry with. I was angry that they kept putting me in remedial classes, but I didn't exactly do anything to get out of them. In fact, I used to like being at the bottom. It gave me yet another reason to feel angry. I liked the feeling of being a minority and that everyone was against me. It justified my anger, which entitled me to do things that others couldn't or shouldn't do.

By the time I was 16, I was in juvenile detention for breaking and entering. And as far as I was concerned, this was everyone else's fault. If no one cared about me, why should I care about myself?

Then one morning the Army turned up at the detention centre. They showed us a recruitment film featuring a little two-seater helicopter and a pilot wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt as he flew really low over the beaches of Cyprus. He was waving down at the girls, and they were waving up at him. Not surprisingly, I signed up there and then, and got my ticket out of detention. Soon after arriving at the Army training base in Kent, I discovered that I was functionally illiterate – meaning that I could not handle much more than straightforward questions and had no understanding of allusion or irony. My literacy levels were those of an average 11-year-old's. The dream of being a helicopter pilot ended there and then, and I joined the infantry.

It was a few weeks later that we were marched into what I found out was the Army education centre. What happened to me that day changed my life. I read my first book – one from the Janet and John series aimed at primary children – and the educator said to me: "Remember the feeling of closing your first book, because you are going to find out that reading gives you knowledge, which gives you the power to make your own decisions and to do what you want to do."

For the first time in my life, I could see a different future ahead. I kept reading and I kept learning and feeling that I was in control of where I was going. Reading The Sun was a lot easier. I used to buy it for page three and for the football – page three was easy enough, not too many words to worry about, but the back pages were difficult and I would miss whole parts of sentences. I found that reading gave me a sense of pride in the fact that I wasn't thick. I'd never had that feeling before.

As I went on through my Army career, both in the Royal Green Jackets and later in the Special Air Service, my education progressed. You could be the best soldier on the planet – the hardest and the fittest – but if you didn't earn academic qualifications then you weren't going anywhere.

When I was approached to write Bravo Two Zero, my first book, I was given a copy of Touching the Void by the mountaineer Joe Simpson. What I learnt about writing from that book was the importance of texture – how did the desert feel and smell at night, when the temperature suddenly dropped and we were all freezing cold? Was I scared when I was captured in a drainage ditch near the Syrian border? What were my feelings towards my captors?

I later learnt another valuable lesson, this time from the Hollywood director Michael Mann.I guess it was obvious to him that I had come to reading late in life, and he suggested that I view a book as a TV show and think about the action visually, adding in the rest later. This technique worked for me. The opening chapter sets the scene; the chapter endings are the ad breaks. And finish with a conclusion that isn't too long; get out before people get bored.

It was remembering that feeling of elation that I had when I closed my first book which led me to write my latest young adult book, The New Recruit, in collaboration with a group of young Soldiers Under Training at the Army Foundation College. The average literacy age of an infantry recruit is still 11, and the Army plays an important role in getting these lads reading and writing. I wanted to give them that same feeling that I had all those years ago, and so I spent several days up at the college, doing workshops with the lads, talking about their experiences, about why they joined up and what their hopes for the future were, and got them to write it all down – and to keep writing. If it makes a difference to just one of these young men, then it will have been worth it.

Now I talk to soldiers, schoolchildren, young offender institutions, prisons and work places, in my role as the Reading Agency's Ambassador for the Six Book Challenge. The Six Book Challenge invites people to choose six reads (poetry, magazines and articles, as well as books) and record their reading in a diary to get a certificate. The idea is to get people back into the habit of enjoying reading. Whether they are reluctant kids or embarrassed adults, reading has the power to change everyone's lives, and the message that I try to give to them is that if I can do it, anyone can.

That doesn't mean to say I know it all. I don't, and nor does anyone else. I'm not embarrassed to ask questions and I am still learning.

More details of the Six Book Challenge can be found at readingagency.org.uk

The New Recruit by Andy McNab

Doubleday £9.99

"Not 50 metres in front of him, Liam saw movement. Most times it was just a stray goat or some other straggly creature trying to find something to eat amongst the dry scrub and brush of Afghanistan, but to Liam's now well-trained eye, it was something more. Human for sure. And from the way it was moving, it was no shepherd. Not unless this one had taken up crawling on his belly to gather his flock ..."

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa corruption: The officials are caught in the web of US legal imperialism - where double standards don't get in the way

    Caught in the web of legal imperialism

    The Fifa officials ensnared by America's extraterritorial authority are only the latest examples of this fearsome power, says Rupert Cornwell
    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert