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Author interviews

Interview: Brian Moynahan

August 23, 2010

Brian Moynahan was an award-winning foreign correspondent and European editor with the Sunday Times. His many books include The Faith: A History of Christianity, The Russian Century, Comrades, The Claws of the Bear and Rasputin.

Forgotten Soldiers, his first book for Quercus, was published in 2007; his latest book, Jungle Soldier (read an extract here), is out now…

Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Jungle Soldier?

Brian Moynahan: I read Freddy’s book on his wartime survival in Malaya, The Jungle is Neutral, as a boy in the 1950s and I had reminders of him after that: people who had fought in Burma, or been prisoners of the Japanese. They all knew of Freddy. Half my year at Cambridge had done their national service, and several were just back from the Malayan Emergency. They knew Freddy, too, and had tracked the Communist guerrillas who had been Freddy’s wartime allies.

I’d spent the summer before going up on a university glaciological expedition. It was a far cry from the Arctic ice-cap where Freddy had learned his survival skills before the war – we were on the Gornergletscher, affably close to Zermatt – but we were all aware of his Greenland exploits. When I was a journalist in the Far East in the 1960s, I went to the Jungle Warfare Training School in Johore, which traced its history back to Freddy’s original training courses in late 1941. So, to me at least, he was always an outstanding figure.

Years later, when I was writing about Japanese tactics in the invasion of Malaya, I started mentioning him to people. ‘Freddy who?’ was the universal response. He had gone, disappeared, vanished without trace. It was wrong. It seemed obvious to try to put it right.

Mark Thwaite: Fascinating stuff, Brian. So, tell us more about Freddy Spencer Chapman…

Brian Moynahan: Freddy was behind Japanese lines in Malaya from January 1941 until May 1945. It is one of the greatest feats of endurance and evasion in the history of war. He described the jungle as ‘neutral’ but it isn’t: it is malevolent, and he had to survive malaria, infected leech bites, tick typhus, dysentery, pneumonia It was his deep grounding in the British tradition of the explorer-naturalist that kept him alive: after a boyhood on the fells and moors of the North country, he learnt to navigate, to live off the land, to be utterly self-reliant on expeditions to Greenland and Tibet. His passion for flora and fauna kept his mind alive and alert in spite of isolation and stress: wounded, sick and with a Japanese regiment searching for him, he maintained his spirits by taking field notes on the birds he saw.

Mark Thwaite: Freddy has been described as ‘the greatest war hero you have probably never heard of” – why do you think, until now, Freddy has remained such an unknown?

Brian Moynahan: The Japanese war has been pretty much ignored: even at the time, the XIV Army in Burma called itself ‘the forgotten army.’ Freddy never fought the Germans, and to most people the war means Nazis. So people don’t have the context in which to see Freddy’s odyssey, which they would if the Gestapo had been out looking for him instead of the no less unpleasant Japanese Kempeitai.

Also, I think there is a tendency to denigrate the imperial virtues that so mark Freddy: the heart never worn on the sleeve, the lip ever stiff, the urge to duty raw and strong, and the curiosity in the natural world intense, but scientific, not sentimental.

Mark Thwaite: How long have you been writing for Brian? How did your first manage to get published?

Brian Moynahan: My first job was as a leader writer on the Yorkshire Post in Leeds in 1963. I’ve been writing ever since. I wrote my first book, Airport International, because I spent a lot of time as a foreign correspondent with pilots and airline and airport people all over the place: it was a brave new world, being opened up by the first 707s, and it was a terrific subject for a book. The change is phenomenal: I used to fly on trooping flights and ships’ crew charters from Stansted, which had a long runway, a couple of Nissen huts and one or two flights a day. Look at it now. Or try not to.

Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

Brian Moynahan: Not a difficult book. A big bit of luck was finding that Freddy’s wartime diaries were sitting unread in a box at the Pitt Rivers in Oxford.

Mark Thwaite: What do you hope Jungle Soldier will achieve? Have you been pleased with the critical/popular response to it?

Brian Moynahan: Very pleased and much relieved. It got the lead in the Sunday Times with that compelling ‘greatest hero you’ve never heard of’ line. The Today producer loved it, and dug up an old BBC recording of an interview with Freddy describing how he ambushed the Japanese, and that kept the momentum going.

I hope people will see why Field Marshal Wavell, who knew both men, compared Freddy with Lawrence of Arabia in all but ‘publicity and fame.’ He said that ‘the two men stand together as examples of what toughness the body will find, if the spirit within it is tough.’ I hope, too, they will see how that toughness was bred in the bone, here at home, and draw pride and perhaps a little fresh inspiration from that.

Mark Thwaite: How do you write? With pen or pencil? Straight onto a screen? Revision after revision or spontaneously?

Brian Moynahan: Copious notes in pencil. Write straight onto a screen. Some flows OK with slight revision, other passages need much more. The ease of writing since the original Amstrad word processor is astounding: no more shuffling paragraphs with scissors and staples and scotch tape, no liquid ink eraser, no sticking typewriter keys, no illegible corrections, no fears of lost mss, no sucking up to copy typists. (And in journalism, no more telex machines: it was sometimes as difficult to find a functioning telex in some forlorn place and get copy back to London as it was to get the story).

Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Brian?

Brian Moynahan: Leningrad Symphony: the tale of a great city ravaged by Stalin from 1934 and besieged by Hitler from 1941. To be published by Quercus.

Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? And who is your least favourite?

Brian Moynahan: Books and their writers are so utterly varied that I don’t think one can give a single answer. It’s a portmanteau subject. Reading for me was most intense in my late teens – before words became a job – and then I went through the classics, the French, the Russians, the Victorians, at a gallop and sometimes by torchlight after lights out. If you read Dostoevsky at that age, it sticks: but then so does Middlemarch!

I give up on books I don’t like before getting to really dislike whoever wrote it.

Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite fictional character?

Brian Moynahan: Ferdinand Bardamu, in Journey to the End of the Night. They say Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know. Pschaw! Try Louis Ferdinand Céline.

Mark Thwaite: Do you have a favourite quote?

Brian Moynahan: ‘Nobody ever did anything very foolish except from some strong principle.’ (Lord Melbourne)

Mark Thwaite: What is/are your favourite book(s)? What is the last book you started but didn’t finish!?

Brian Moynahan: Connected to the Japanese war, at least, George Macdonald Fraser’s account of his time in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here. It is one of the finest memoirs of an infantryman ever written.

I’ve just tried Zoo Station by David Downing. The blurb compares him with le Carré. Not so.

Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?!

Brian Moynahan: Take criticism seriously – it may help – but not to heart. Remember, it’s not just aspiring writers – famously J K Rowling – who get peppered with reject slips or skewered by faint praise. So does a writer as experienced as GMF, a man who’d already immortalized Flashman. A reviewer gave Quartered Safe Out Here a B+, a judgment so unjust, so petty and patronizing, that it strips the enamel from your teeth.

Mark Thwaite: What do you think of e-books, online writing, blogs, fan-fiction etc? Are you involved in any online writing yourself?

Brian Moynahan: I dislike reading on a screen, and would do even if the screen could be taken anywhere and read in any light. I skim stuff on screen, but I always print it out if I want to read it properly or edit it. I hope this is not a generational thing. Obviously, as a print journalist words have always meant paper to me: I don’t like online newspapers, magazines or books. I hope younger people have the same feel for the printed word and the physical book: if they haven’t, then the future of course will be e-books and blogs and the rest.

I wrote a biography of William Tyndale, the man who translated the Bible, and who had it printed illegally in the Low Countries and smuggled into England (before being burnt at the stake for his pains). It was fascinating how rapidly and naturally the book had developed since Gutenberg. By 1526, they were already using two and three-colours, woodcut illustrations, cover copy, cross-heads, stand-firsts, italic and Roman type, etc. The Frankfurt Book Fair was up and running (Wolsey and Sir Thomas More sent agents there to try to trap Tyndale). The format was already fixed, and it worked.

The e-book does not seem to me to have that same natural and simple appeal. It’s single page by page on a screen: all you can do is read one and click on to the next. You can’t riffle through it, makes notes on it, prop up wobbly tables with it, throw it at someone, insulate your house and decorate your shelves with it. You don’t own it, in the same sense as a book: you’ve only bought the right to look at it, a page at a time.

Mark Thwaite: Are you optimistic about the future of books and reading?

Brian Moynahan: No. Much depends on whether children are still introduced to and love books and reading. We read as children because there wasn’t much else: lots of radio, but not much television, a film or cartoon perhaps once a fortnight – and comics and magazines and books, so many of them, on everything, Beatrix Potter, Robert Louis Stevenson, Just William, Biggles, Arthur Ransome, G A Henty, Batman, Dennis the Menace … such riches. Harry Potter has kept the flag flying, but it’s a lonely spot – comics are in trouble – and I fear for the long term.

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