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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'