04 May 2022

Philip Neame: ‘Ideas and solutions will emerge as you write’

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Philip Neame studied on two memoir courses with us, including our original six-week online Writing a Memoir course. Philip served for six years in the RAF Regiment and twenty years in the Parachute Regiment. Philip’s debut memoir Penal Company on the Falklands (published by Pen & Sword Books) takes place in 1982 when he was commanding D Company, a rifle company in 2 PARA, under Lieutenant Colonel ‘H’ Jones who won the Victory Cross at Goose Green during the Falklands War. Philip led his company through a number of engagements against Argentinian forces and was Mentioned in Dispatches. The D Company were nicknamed a ‘Penal Company’. It is their story.

We spoke to Philip about his experience of writing this memoir…

You took our six-week online Writing a Memoir course, before going on to study on our five-day memoir writing course. How did your time on these courses impact your approach to writing?

I had been thinking of writing the book for about five years when I did a short creative writing course with Oxford University, but I never got going and other things took over. The six-week course was useful primarily for the final exercise, writing the first 3,000 words of my book. I got some good feedback, so I edited and used that to get my ‘pass’ onto the five-day course. That was fantastic. Getting selected was a boost for my confidence, and then the feedback from my fellow students was really encouraging. Many said that was not the sort of thing they expected to enjoy, but that they really did. I was very clear that I wanted to write something more than a blow-by-blow account of my experiences, and my fellow students’ critiques convinced me I could write something that might appeal to more than just military history enthusiasts.

It was the shot in the arm I needed. The whole concept of the course was perfect for that. I also learnt a huge amount from critiquing other students’ work – thinking about what worked well and what didn’t, with Cathy’s perceptive guidance on how or why.

Many of our students find a real community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

For several months I did. One set up a group on Slack, but most have now all moved on. I miss them. I felt I made some very good friends on the course, with more in common with some than I ever expected. I don’t know if they found the same with me!

What advice from tutor Cathy Rentzenbrink has stuck with you?

One key bit of advice was her exhortation: don’t explain, let your story and give the reader some work to do. It directly addressed one reason I had not made more progress before. I had much that needed explaining, but I did not want to write a history. It was a bit of a breakthrough in how I approached telling my Falklands story,

But, more than anything, was Cathy’s stern directive: ‘No one ever wrote a book sitting waiting for inspiration, Philip. Get writing! Solutions will appear, but nothing will happen if you’re not writing.’ Spot on!

Your book Penal Company on the Falklands: A Memoir of the Parachute Regiment at War 1982 is out now from Pen & Sword Books. Can you tell us a little bit about your memoir, and what first inspired you to start writing it?

The course included drafting a 150-word pitch for a review by two agents. Perhaps what I redrafted after comments on mine from Lucy Morris, is the easiest way I can say what the book is about:

D company was one of 3 rifle companies of 2 PARA, the battalion that defeated overwhelmingly larger Argentinian forces at the iconic battle of Goose Green in the Falklands War, and whose commander died earning the Victoria Cross. For reasons of the alphabet, D Company was the Cinderella to A and B companies – at the back for everything, always starting in reserve, and the parking lot for those who proved too much trouble for the others. They were referred to as Penal Company.

Philip Neame commanded this 100-strong band of elite, but under-appreciated paratroopers. In a memoir alive with humanity, he takes you on a wry journey over the wind-smitten hills in which they fought, cursed and laughed 40 years ago; a tightrope between success and failure, comedy and tragedy, joy and grief, the strength of companionship and the solitude of fear.

I like to think that it’s a book as much about people as anything else – ordinary people finding themselves part of something extraordinary.

What really made me want to write the book was those around me down there. I was doing a presentation on the War to the Royal Engineers Depot in Chatham, and a dozen of them from 30 years earlier had heard about it and were unexpectedly in the audience to hear their story. I described the ‘Cinderella’ scenario that I had encountered. Over a beer, afterwards my erstwhile Company Medic asked: ‘Didn’t you know we were Penal Company?’ I came away determined to record their story. It’s only taken 10 years to fulfill my promise!

Memoir writers tackle the task of portraying real-life events truthfully on the page. Can you talk a little bit about how you set about doing this and what helped you decide on the moments you included in your book?

I didn’t want to write a straight account of my experiences. I wanted to convey the culture of the Company, but also the uncertainty and chaos of war, the humour, even the surreal and farce, that invariably goes with it. War, of course is brutal, but it can also bring out the best in people – generosity, gallantry, even grace. The experience was exciting, or terrifying, but also included periods of miserable tedium. In a way it lent itself to just a series of vignette, but then I lost the context. We discussed on the course that a good story needs something to hold it together – a ‘skewer’ Cathy called it, perhaps with barbequed kebabs in mind. Penal Company as the Battalion’s underdogs became my skewer. That was approach was reinforced by a couple of fellow students who said they liked that aspect which had them rooting for us to win through. So, beneath an account of our experiences, I hope I have achieved a subtext of D company’s journey from Penal Company to something better. Getting the balance right was a challenge. I leave it to others to decide how well I did that.

What do you think is the most challenging part of writing about real life?

I hope I have avoided writing Penal Company’s story with the wisdom of hindsight – or at least been honest about that where I have. Lots of things went wrong, lots went right – often thanks to chance. I doubt that anyone has ever done everything perfectly, and I have little time for real life writing which suggests otherwise.

I was tempted sometimes to make judgements, to criticize or justify. There was some ‘political stuff’ blowing off on occasions. What organisation, after all, is free of that. I tried as far as possible to avoid that. Here, the advice from Cathy to let the story do the work and allow the reader to reach their own view, was so sound.

Do you have any tips for writers currently working on a memoir?

An ex-colleague of mine had some interesting experiences in the Congo, and was thinking of writing about it, but was still thinking about how to set about it. I just repeated Cathy’s remark to me: ‘No one ever wrote a book waiting for inspiration. Get writing.’ Ideas and solutions will emerge as you write. That’s what I really enjoyed about writing my book.

How did writing about your experiences affect you?

I’m often asked whether it was cathartic. I honestly don’t think I needed or sought catharsis. However, I did find it quite emotional at times. If I had completed a piece I was pleased with, I sometimes read it out to my wife. Occasionally, I would start to choke up over the words as it brought memories back to life. It wasn’t to do with trauma or anything like that, but I couldn’t work out why. Then, a few weeks ago, I did a TV interview as part of a programme going out on the 40th anniversary of the Falklands war, and I suddenly realized what that was about – I think a mix of pride in, and gratitude to my ‘band of brothers’. The whole experience was only two months, but it was intense, and it was those around me who made it a memorable one that I wanted to write about.

My wife was my ‘first line editor’ when I was writing. I had never talked to her at a meaningful level about my story – in fact I had probably actively avoided doing so. The book served an unexpected purpose of putting that right.

Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?

Well, there are a number of 40th Anniversary commemorations ahead, including a trip to the Falklands in June at the invitation of the Falkland Islands Assembly. I also have a slot at the Guernsey Literary Festival after that. But I have enjoyed writing my memoir, so I’m toying with the idea of a ‘Prequel.’ I made passing reference to some of earlier aspects of my life in the 3,000 words I did for the course. Some of my fellow students did say ‘we need to know more about this, or that.’ We’ll see.

Get your hands on a copy of Penal Company on the Falklands.

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