If ever a book needed to be a biography rather than an auto-biography, it is Simon Mann’s “Cry Havoc.”
What could have become, in the hands of a writer, a rather exciting derring-do, gung-ho type of book about white mercenaries trying to stage a coup in Africa is, instead, a badly written, profanity-laced, confusing story.
Not that I have any sympathy whatsoever with white mercenaries trying to stage a coup in Africa, you understand.
No sympathy whatsoever.
But I used to live in Africa, and was there all during that rather bizarre time when Simon Mann and his band of merry men were captured and put on trial. Given the South African angle, the fact that the coup-implicated Mark Thatcher was living in Cape Town, the whole drama played out to a slightly bemused African audience, including us. It was even rumoured, gleefully, in South Africa that Mr. Mann’s Equatorial Guinea coup plot was lifted from Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 thriller “The Dogs of War.”
So I was prepared to be open-minded.
Also, since the copy of the book I read was loaned to me by an old and dear friend of Mr. Mann, I was also possibly prepared to be a tad more sympathetic than usual.
But so alienating was the tone and style of the book, so utterly confusing was the narrative, that any flicker of sympathy was extinguished almost as soon as the book started.
This is his opening page acknowledgment, for goodness sake :
“In this book I have tried to be honest about how I felt about what was being done, or not being done, to get me out. Sometimes I was very angry. So I wrote that. Now that I am out I feel differently. Now I just feel thankful.
There are people who, even today, I find out tried to help me, but I didn’t know. There are people who tried to help me who don’t want me ever to know. There are people who disliked what I was about, but who tried to help me despite that.”
Mr. Mann tries, through his staccato, verb-less, effing and blinding style to portray himself as some kind of ethical saviour of the poor oppressed African blacks.
A word of warning, Mr. Mann mentions race and colour and being white a lot.
This saviour of the poor oppressed African blacks etc., etc. is how he talks up the previous mercenary coups he led in Sierra Leone and Angola. Yet the opening sentence of his prologue actually says it all.
“This is about oil. Oil wars. In Africa mostly”
On the dust cover of Mr. Mann’s book is a quotation :
“When I set out to overthrow an African tyrant, I knew I would either make billions or end up getting shot…”
The book goes back and forth between the earlier coups and the preparations for the disastrous coup to Equatorial Guinea. A straight-line narrative would have helped clear the murky waters of politics, confusing acronyms, top-heavy descriptions of weaponry, but Mr. Mann prefers to swing back and forth, rapidly losing the reader in the swirl of events and the random introduction of characters without any explanation.
The one constant in the book is his liberal use of the f word.
No-one is a prude these days, but the f word is not a consistent substitute for vocabulary :
“Tony stopped. Our eyes met. ‘The fucking warp broke! Can you fucking believe it?’
“The fucking thing broached to – waves pounding into it – 1,000 men on board – waves pounding into it, and UNITA shooting at it too.”
“Fucking hell is right…”
I’ll spare you more quotations.
Mr. Mann sneers openly at the people he meets, be they African politicians :
“Plan B. Niek tells Obiang that his company, Triple Option Ltd, is making him a goodwill gift: four top-of-the-range Toyota land Cruisers. The President, Niek tells me, loves new toys, loves gifts. (Try it. The unsolicited gift is hugely potent in African culture.)”
or potential coup-backers and contacts, be they foreign :
“…gay? I look at him. Quizzing. Maybe he is.
I don’t. I shake my head. ‘No.’
‘You know…’ He glances down at his hand, held below the table height. he must be gay. Favourite? favourite what? Favourite cock?
Then I see it: he’s holding his hand as though it’s a handgun. Then it dawns on me; the boy’s a gun nut, a wannabe.”
or British :
“The house was smart but quite modest, in an affluent part of the city. Mrs L and Mr L both looked as though they had been blown up by bicycle pumps. As we arrived, she greeted us like long-lost explorers.
Then, with lots of cherry stones and wah wah, she asked what we would like to drink. The two of them went into a knockabout; pouring drinks, fetching ice. They asked after my mother and father, who they knew so well, of course, and how super they were.
Then we were told how bloody badly their damn horse had run that afternoon, in the 3.30 at Newmarket.”
Nor does he spare his former chum and investor, Mark Thatcher :
“Then Thomas introduces me to my new neighbour, Mark Thatcher, only son of the former British Prime Minister, Margaret. Mark thinks that the SAS walk on water. Because I’d gone even further and won through in Angola and Sierra Leone – in two private wars – he treats me like I’m a star.
Mark bombards me with invites, Social and business events. I think he’s lonely. He doesn’t seem to have many friends. So he’s seized upon me. Simon Mann, MT’s new best friend. I mean, we move to SA in late November, and four weeks later we’re all round at his place for Christmas dinner, meeting Mum and Dad!
As I know, Maggie shares her son’s fondness for the SAS…She takes a shine to me. Over the years, whenever we have dinner, I’m always sat next to her. Maggie’s Cape Town favourite.
Other than that of Nelson Mandela, our house is the only Cape home she visits, for lunch or dinner…”
His dislike of his former friend knows no bounds :
“He promises he’ll help his great friend Simon Mann any way he can, if things go awry. We even shake hands on it. If nothing else, Mark loves to play the officer and gentleman. ‘My word is my bond..’ etc.
“Loves to play the officer and gentleman” – harsh words from Mr. Mann, who later tries to shield Mr. Thatcher, when he is being interrogated, because – well, because, Mr. Thatcher has connections :
“Guava looks through my loose-leaf notebook – in which is my address book.
Mark Thatcher – he’s here, Mann. Was he involved in the coup?
Why is he in your address book then?
He’s a friend.
Only that? No business between you?
No. he’s a friend – that’s all.
Are you sure about that?
You’re lying, Mann.
He shuts the notebook and walks off. He does not look worried. He knows.
I am lying. I hope to get away with it because Thatcher, although an officer within the Op, does have better cover than anyone else. That cover has been set up precisely because of his high profile – his vulnerability to low-flying shit.
This vulnerability is mostly brought about by his extreme toxicity. It’s a toxicity that – in his determination to be l’enfant le plus terrible – he does his best to broadcast.
If anyone can pull us out of this Zim mess, it is Mark. He has the connections, to the top and the near top, and the leverage, the money. he has money for them. They’ll listen.”
The book covers in great detail Mr. Mann’s imprisonment in Zimbabwe, where the effing and blinding style gives way – just a little – to a searingly graphic account of the life he leads in prison. Mr. Mann is definitely a more sympathetic character in this section of the book, surviving what is clearly great deprivation, cruelty and terror.
And then the book stops. Just like that.
The Equatorial Guinea part of the book simply doesn’t happen.
One minute he is on a plane on the way there, terrified of facing torture and almost-guaranteed death, and then the next moment he is out, back in England with his beloved Amanda. Of his trial, he tells nothing.
Legal reasons, one presumes. Must be for the same reason that we never hear about the trial.
I never worked out who the Boss was. I thought it must be Tony Blair for a while, but am not so sure now.
Perhaps, one day, someone else will write the story of this failed coup attempt and fill in the blanks for us.
“Cry Havoc” is published by John Blake and the hardback costs £19.99.
If you wish to buy it, you can click on the link below to order straight away :