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Well, the short list for the 2018 Book of the Year Award was very short - three books only. Dan Collins did a nice, not say sensitive job, of interviewing 25 winners of gallantry awards from Iraq and Afghanistan in his book In Foreign Fields. The former sports journalist obviously had a knack for getting soldiers to open up to him and tell their stories. The second runner-up also featured a gallantry medal winner. This time it was Australian SAS signaller Martin "Jock" Wallace in a story told by fellow Aussie journalist Sandra Lee. Lee succeeds in bringing Wallace to life and also the wintry Afghan mountainside where the SAS man and a company from the US 10th Mountain Division battled a determined and skillful Taliban force for 18 desperate hours in 2002. But the winner is In the Service of the Sultan by Ian Gardiner. The Sultan is the Sultan of Oman, a former Cameronians/Scottish Rifles officer, the time is the mid-1970s, and Gardiner is a young Royal Marine officer on attachment. He proves to be a born raconteur with a knack for putting his patter into very readable prose. He is also a skilled soldier, who would go to command a company of Royal Marines in the Falklands War, and the book is an excellent primer on small unit actions and counter-insurgency operations; in this case against communist-backed rebel tribesmen in the province of Dhofar. He also incorporates the experiences of many of his fellow officers serving the Sultan and has an obvious affection and respect for his Muslim soldiers. This book took an early lead in the search for the 2018 Book of the Year and never really lost it. The full review of In the Service of the Sultan and all the other books reviewed on this website can be seen at Book Briefing.

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I recently saw a second-hand DVD of an old British television programme called The Bill on a shelf of a local charity shop. For those who don't remember it, The Bill was a sort of cop show cum soap opera based in London during the 1980s. I think it had been inspired by the American programme Hill Street Blues. It was OK. But at one point, as I recall it, in episode after episode the bad guys were always Scots. If The Bill was to believed, native Londoners were as honest as the day was long and no group of incomers, with the exception of the Scots, was causing anyone any trouble. The city's only anti-social elements were Scots. I noticed that each episode nearly always had a different writer and speculated that perhaps each thought they were being original and clever when they made the bad guys Scottish. But then a guy I knew, who had enjoyed some success writing for television, wrote an episode for The Bill. He eventually baled out. His reason for getting out of the project was that he found the production team complete and total control freaks. That made me wonder if the whole always making the bad guys Scottish thing had been a result of poor continuity control. There was a Scottish detective but I always thought he was a bit of drip and did little to counter-balance the constant flow of Jock Scum on the small screen. Looking back, it all seems a bit sinister. 

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Years ago, when I was journalist, I interviewed then Liberal Party leader David Steel on his cell phone, or maybe it was his carphone. It doesn’t really matter. The subject was the Liberals’ policy on nuclear weapons. What it was didn’t really matter to many people even then. But at the time it was at the centre of a fierce row within the party. That was why someone gave me the phone number. Mr Steel was not happy to talk to me. He proved evasive when I tried to pin him down as to what exactly party policy was on nuclear weapons. But eventually I thought I’d nailed him. It was only when I looked very very carefully at my notes after the phonecall ended that I realised he’d sold me a body swerve. And of course when I phoned the number again to seek clarification, no-one picked up. I was torn between admiration for his skill in talking but saying nothing and my frustration, not to say disappointment, at being out-foxed.  Steel went up considerably in my estimation but I would never trust him as far as I could throw him. It was a masterful performance. 

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Newspaper columnists are a big deal in Canada. I remember when I worked for a newspaper, people used to ask me what column did I write.  To me, most columnists are a waste of time. I wanted the facts, not someone’s opinion.  Opinions are like feet, nearly everyone’s got one or two.  But I was perhaps a little too harsh. Some columnists actually were journalists who did a lot of research and stuck closer to analysis than opinion. That was why it was so interesting to be the first one into the office in the morning and unjam the printer. Once that was done, a lot of stuff from the previous night’s print-queue would spew out. This was usually gay porn or columns from obscure publications in the United States on subjects that with a couple of slight changes could have some local relevance. Suffice to say, I usually knew what at least two of our columnists would have to say in the days that followed. If only they had taken to trouble to find out how to unjam the office printer, I might have even thought they’d come up with the idea themselves. 

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Later this month the 70th anniversary of one of the most discreditable  incidents in the history of the British Army will occur. On the 12th of December 1948 men of the Scots Guards murdered 23 rubber plantation workers in Malaya. On the previous night they had shot another of the workers at the Batang Kali camp. I should qualify my opening statement: one of the worst incidents that we know of. Until December 1969 very few people knew of the Batang Kali Massacre. That was when some former Scots Guards who had been there spoke to the People newspaper. The Labour government of the time asked Scotland Yard to investigate but the inquiry was shut down by the Tory government which took power shortly afterwards.  Until recently former senior Scots Guards officers vehemently denied there had been a massacre and many journalists and writers took them at their word. In 2012 the Royal Courts of Justice  put an end to that nonsense by ruling that there was a massacre but it refused to order a fresh inquiry. Further attempts through the courts, all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, to force the British authorities to tell the truth have all foundered for one technical reason or another. What makes me so angry is that the army and government seems to have got away with making sure the truth about what happened 70 years ago never comes out. The official version remains that the men were shot while trying to escape, the unofficial version is that it was a work of a rogue patrol. We know there was a massacre, we will probably never know who ordered it.  See Batang Kali Revisited  

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