Thursday, 03 September 2015

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SAS hero Chris Ryan visits Cumbria

Although Chris Ryan refers to a decade in the SAS as his past life, it remains with him.

A successful career as a writer has barely diminished its influence. These days Ryan wonders how he managed to force his body and mind through the hoops that were demanded of them in his youth.

On the contrary, Ryan’s current life brings the past back, vividly, until his heart is pounding and his sweat-soaked shirt clings to him.

“I don’t mind the talking,” he says of the book readings and the Q&A sessions.

“What I don’t like is sitting down behind a desk having to sign books.

“In my past life I could be tooled up to the eyeballs following somebody and nobody knew I was there. Now I’m the focal point.

“When somebody asks me to sign a book, I’m sitting down. I’ve got to put my head down. I class it as a vulnerable position.”

Some things never leave you. Not the training, not the killing, not the fear that one day, or night, the past will come back.

“I probably don’t sleep as soundly as the normal person,” says Ryan in a rapid-fire Geordie accent. “If I hear a bump or a creak, I’m listening to see if it’s someone breaking in.

“I could be walking down the street and someone could look at me in a strange way. Your subconscious starts doing anti-surveillance.”

So the past brings problems. But without Chris Ryan, SAS hero, Chris Ryan, best-selling author might never have been born.

Ryan’s first book, which has sold more than a million copies, is his account of the greatest escape in SAS history.

The One that Got Away describes Bravo Two Zero: the eight-man SAS mission to destroy Scud missile launchers in Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991.

After two days in the desert the men were spotted and so headed for Syria on foot. One was shot dead. Two died of hypothermia. Four were captured.

Ryan was the only man to reach Syria, after the longest escape and evasion by an SAS member. He covered 200 miles in eight days,without food and with little water. He lost 36lbs, suffered sores all over his body and his toenails fell off.

Ryan was awarded the Military Medal but did not return to frontline duty. For two years he selected and trained potential SAS recruits before being honourably discharged in 1994.

“It was my choice. I was 33. I’d had a good 10 years. And I’d lost 18 friends. It felt like time to leave. There was a number of events. I had a very bad free-fall accident and broke my ankle. The first man I passed into the SAS was the first soldier to be killed in Bosnia.

“Once you start to doubt yourself in that organisation, it’s time to get out. I was quite lucky. I became a bodyguard for two wealthy families. All the other bodyguards were SAS guys. My adjustment was made easier by that.”

After writing The One that Got Away, Ryan’s past life began emerging through a filter of fiction.

His 15 novels are muscular depictions of hard men in hard places with more than a glimmer of the brutal world he used to inhabit. As well as a broken ankle, the SAS left Ryan with broken ribs and liver damage. He was bitten on his leg while jungle training in Brunei. When he scratched the bite, spiders crawled out.

But the mission he is asked to relive most often is Bravo Two Zero.

“I can still remember every single detail,” he says. “Physically and mentally, there’s nothing I can compare it with.

“My colleagues were dying. I didn’t want to die. My daughter was 18 months old. I wanted to get back to her. When I was hallucinating, I could see her. She was talking to me.

“It’s something I don’t think about now, although I’ll talk about it if I’m asked. It’s tucked away in its box.”

“I would say I was quite a determined person. I don’t know if it’s something in my DNA. It’s like being in a Premier League football team. You don’t want to let the side down or be kicked off the team.”

Was he ever frightened?

“Oh yeah! There was plenty of times I thought ‘This is going to go badly wrong.’ Every day in Iraq is a bad day. If a round goes through your clothing but doesn’t hit you, you think ‘You bugger’, then you move on.”

Mention that this sounds like the reaction of a different breed and Ryan says: “But maybe not the nicest breed. I was probably quite selfish. The family members will say it’s a big boys’ club where they look after their own.”

Some club members were on friendlier terms than others. Bravo Two Zero was also the subject of a book by patrol commander Andy McNab, whose version of events differed in several respects from Ryan’s.

The two are no longer in touch. “We worked fine together. I’m sure there are people you work with that you wouldn’t go for a pint with.”

Ryan turned 50 this year. The ageing process is particularly difficult for a man who was defined by physical fitness.

“All through my life people were going on about turning 40. I didn’t give a monkey’s. But 50 was hard.

“You get to a certain age and your body starts letting you down. I went for a bike ride in the Alps. I got halfway round and I came to a grinding stop. I pushed myself ’til I puked up. Which is not clever.

“At 50 you’ve only got another 20 years of not needing help to do things. Twenty years flies by.”

These days much of Ryan’s energy goes into visiting schools and libraries to encourage children to read.

He has written many children’s books, which pulse with the action of his adult work but without the graphic violence.

“I’ve got a real bee in my bonnet about boys and reading. Our society will be a worse place when kids stop reading. It never ceases to amaze me when you get a 15-year-old who’s never read a book. I sit down with them and tell them reading is the key to any educational subject. Some kids will take it on board.”

Maybe the rioters who terrorised English cities should have spent more time with a good book.

“That was just wanton violence and looting,” says Ryan. “These stupid people don’t have any idea who pays for it. It’s not some magic pot of money, it’s the British taxpayer. It could have been your mum and dad’s business they destroyed. It makes my blood boil. I would have a military team on the ground. Cordon off the whole area, under police control, and have blocks of eight men with batons going round and sweeping the streets up.”

Plenty will agree with his views. But Ryan is not a “bring back National Service” man. He insists that the army should not be a rehabilitation unit, although he does think some military principles could help young people.

“When I was at school I was very lazy. I needed somebody behind me with a stick. I got into this regime – the army – where they do not allow you to fail. I did a course where I had to be able to speak, write and read German. I was having problems so I rang the Sergeant Major. He said, ‘Don’t come back here if you fail’ and he put the phone down. After that I was working until two in the morning, sleeping ’til four, then up again working. I passed the course.”

Ryan senses similarities between his current life and his past life; mainly comradeship and fear.

“Sometimes writing can be bloody frightening! You can sit there for weeks on end. I see myself as the point man of a big team. There’s a lot of people involved with the publishers. I’m always worried that I’ll let them down.”

He is currently researching a novel about World War One with a view to publication in 2014, a century after “the war to end all wars” began.

“They were doing exactly the same as we’re doing now. The only difference is, then it was wholesale slaughter. The British public must have been absolutely brainwashed. I don’t know if it was loyalty or just doing what they were told.”

Ryan’s new novel, Killing for the Company, begins with a quotation from the Book of Daniel: ‘To the end there shall be war.’

“We never, ever learn,” he says. “We need to be careful about making military cutbacks. We don’t know who we’ll be fighting in 10 years. But we’ll be fighting someone.”

Chris Ryan will be at Carlisle Green Room, West Walls, on Friday September 2 at 7.30pm. Tickets £3 from Waterstone’s, Scotch Street, Carlisle. Call 0843 290 8217. Killing for the Company is published by Coronet on September 1.



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