Review: S.J. Parkes, Black Flag (independently published, 2017), pp. 458, RRP £9.99
“Those memory sticks you had analysed, the circumstantial evidence you’ve gathered surrounding them, the Mossad guy, the woman from Six,” said the American. “It’s a Black Flag, you know it and I know it. We’ve been goaded into following a trail to Tehran. The Israelis have gone too far this time but it changes nothing. If those hostages die we’re going to war.”
Black Flag: a masterclass on the interplay of domestic and international relations. Turf wars between faceless Home Office bureaucrats, Cro-Magnon Met coppers and unaccountable spooks at MI5 and MI6; fought alongside the interests of America and Israel. Aren’t they all on the same side? Perhaps those who we pay to govern the nation on our behalf should avoid the undignified scramble to sport the earliest poppy pre-November, a charade comparable to “Christmas” television adverts, and read S.J. Parkes’s first novel. Echoes of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
Sorting out the shit on the streets is ex-infantryman Owen Gallagher. One of many deniable assets. Gallagher’s record is impeccable: Sandhurst, Special Reconnaissance Regiment, MC. Expert in bugging, burglary and covert surveillance. Known for his Marxist (Groucho) club-ability and “for having little interest in small talk, or doing anything, including drinking, in moderation.”
You can’t escape the booze. Occupational hazard. Self-medication. On Gallagher’s good days, a bottle of chilled Alsace Pinot Noir at Le Lion Rouge, just off the Charing Cross Road. (A session at Le Beaujolais on Litchfield Street will give you an idea of the place.) Worse when a driving job looms: one’s too much. Solitary staring into the abyss of the night with nothing to salve the screaming across the synapses.
Think not of damaged goods or the haunted. But the dead. Zombies. Walking dead from the point of service. For Gallagher:
He’d quickly realized that the only way to deal with it was to consider yourself already dead. Nothing to worry about on that score from then on. You could think about it and drive yourself mad to distraction, but then you’d fuck up, other people would get hurt. Far better to accept that you were already dead – walking, talking, eating, shitting, pissing, sleeping, running, sweating, shooting, diving, crawling, dead.
Forever marked men:
The dust and the diesel, the gun oil, the cordite and sulphur, the rotting vegetation, the seat, the shit, the blood, the stinking wounds and decomposing bodies. How could it leave you? Why would it leave you?
Not just battle-bruised, but battle-hardened. Gallows humour, as with other professions dancing with death – clergymen, doctors, firemen, funeral directors, nurses and paramedics – prevails. Of Gallagher’s wingman Harry Burgess suffering yet another dark night of the soul:
Blackness: a heavy suffocating blackness weighing down a consciousness racing with fear. And cold: the cold of the night-sweat. And silence: silence punctuated by a rapid heartbeat pounding in a paralyzed body. Control the breathing. Look for clues in the darkness. Listen. Move slowly. Legs moving, keep it slow. Arms responding. No sudden movements. Eyes scanning the darkness. A chink of light. Up in one swift movement. Go to the light.
“Are you OK?” a tired voice asked.
“Yep,” said Harry, feeling foolish, lying on the floor.
“You’re not wearing your false leg, you silly sod.”
All writing contains elements of biography, and it is no secret that S.J. Parkes is ex-army. Expert knowledge. Eye-opening for the uninitiated. The importance of attention to detail on a find and a fix: finding and locating the target. The obvious kit: binoculars, coffee flask, covert radio, microphone, “wax trap” (earpiece), torch, maps, mobile phone, notebook and pencil. But don’t forget the spare batteries. Or empty plastic bottles and zip-bags for piss and shit. As for the surveillance van, don’t use white; looks like the filth may be following. Make sure the tyres are legal and the tax is up to date. When parking after dark, don’t be an amateur. Rest the van under a lamp-post: the light bounces off the windows making it harder for a passer-by to see inside.
And an insider’s eye. A gaze piercing through the glam to the the horror of war. On the aftermath of the Richmond bombing:
She looked at the man cradling her head in his hands. She tried to smile but saw the sadness in his eyes and the fear in the face of his friend. The pain in her ears was unbearable, a piercing whine of knitting-needle intensity, modulated by the dull shouts of those assisting the wounded and the urgent sounds of the sirens growing nearer. She could smell an earthy smell. No, she could taste a metallic smell. She’d never tasted a smell like that before. What was burning? She watched a tear roll down the face of the man holding her head
Seduced still by conflict? Look at another scene from Richmond, sunny Surrey:
The young mother was rocking the remains of a pushchair back and forth next to a wrecked litter bin. The front of the buggy had been blown away with its occupant. The woman hadn’t seemed to have noticed that her left arm was missing.
More Belfast or Bosnia than mainland Britain. Be angry at what you read, channel those visceral feelings . It’s not a computer game. Remember Mark Keane, one of Gallagher’s men now sleeping rough, too proud to tell his family. One of Sassoon’s noiseless dead:
He just couldn’t imagine living a normal life and it was difficult to sleep when the memory of driving a bayonet through another man’s throat had a habit of floating up in the darkness.
Thriller aside Black Flag simmers, documenting the greed and self-interest clogging the arteries of twenty-first century Britain. A coruscating critique of how short of civilization society falls. Unspoken uneasy questions as to whether you side with the authoritarians or libertarians. I can’t wait for the sequel.