Best-selling author and former SAS soldier Andy McNab has said he owes a lot of his success to the literacy skills he gained by joining the military.
At the centre of covert operations for nine years on five continents, he shot to fame with his first book, Bravo Two Zero, which recounted his part leading an ill-fated patrol behind enemy lines during the first Gulf War in 1991.
The 58-year-old was speaking to the Press Association as a national poetry competition was launched to mark the creation of the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC).
“When I joined the Army, the reason I was in the infantry and not flying helicopters, was that my numeracy and literacy was of a nine-year-old,” he said.
Leaving the SAS in 1993, McNab said he owes “absolutely everything” in terms of his success to the literacy skills he gained whilst in the Army, and described how military education is incredibly important.
“Even getting out the military and getting the offer of writing my first book, it wasn’t as if it was the plan to do it,” he said.
“And not having the ability to write as well, that would never have come unless I got into the military, without a doubt.”
A campaigner on the importance of literacy – visiting workplaces, schools and prisons – McNab said that even during daring operations in war zones, reading became an important escape.
“There was always books,” he said. “You’d have a paperback and then they used to do the tour – so you’d read anything that was about.
“A lot of the guys were into military history so you’d read some of that, there was a period of Wilbur Smith – we were all running around reading about elephants on the Savannah somewhere.
“Whatever was out there it was ‘let’s have a read of that’ – which was good.”
Laughing, he even revealed that as the “scabby paperbacks” got passed around, he would sometimes take out the last four pages of a book just to annoy his colleagues.
“They’d start moaning and you’d give them to them a day after and say ‘oh look what I found’,” he joked.
The national competition called A Poem to Remember was launched by the DNRC and the Duke of Cambridge on Friday, and will see McNab featuring as a short-list judge.
Pressed on the advice he would offer to budding entrants, McNab said it is exactly the same as with anything creative, “just get on and do it”.
“Having things buzzing around in your mind with the back of your hand on your forehead really does not work,” he said.
“If you have got an idea, you’ve just got a line, you’ve just got a theme – you write it down, you look at it the next day and go ‘do you know what that is a load of old crap’.
“If you have got something down, you can look at it and you can criticise it. As humans we are fantastic at criticising, more than we are creating.
“If you do that it starts the process, you don’t have to be Keats, what it is with any sort of creative writing is to stir emotions – it doesn’t matter how that is done.
“What you are trying to do with a group of words is create an image in people’s heads – that image then creates their emotion.”
The competition closes to entries on April 9, for more information on how to enter visit www.poemtoremember.co.uk
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