CONTACT by AFN Clarke: A Northern Ireland classic

A few months ago I was a guest speaker at a ‘Peace & Reconciliation’ conference hosted by the Tim Parry Peace Centre in Warrington. Various figures from the military were there to speak about our experiences of serving in Northern Ireland at different stages of the conflict; I was there to discuss how it felt in the very end stages, when the troubles had all but petered out. But by far our most illuminating guest and powerful speaker was a former Parachute Regiment Captain and author, AFN Clarke – which brings me to the purpose of this post.

In 1984 Tony wrote Contact, a blisteringly honest and deeply controversial account of his two tours in NI at the very height of the troubles in the 1970s. Contact rapidly achieved cult status amongst the rank & file of the army, won critical acclaim from prestigious reviewers and at the same time drew stinging criticism from the retired Brigadiers & Colonels establishment brigade – which usually means you’re doing something right because you’ve got them rattled. As the saying goes: “You judge a man by the strength of his enemies.” Well Tony gained plenty; not least of all in the highest ranks of the MOD and politics – so much so that a smear campaign was launched against him and he was forced to defend his name with aggression and grit. The attacks only strengthened him and Contact was immediately made into an award-winning BBC film.

Tony went on to live in America where he built a new career as a Pilot, Yaught Charter Captain for hire and general all-round adventurer. If ever you have the privilege of meeting him you’ll instantly recognise the classic ‘rebellious officer’ streak that runs right through him and so irritated his former paymasters. But maddeningly for them he was undeniably a gifted soldier; he joined 3 Para as a Private ‘Tom’, made Lance Corporal within a year and was commissioned from the ranks after just two; a difficult task in today’s army but damn near impossible in the class ridden 70s – unless you were very, very good. And he was…

Contact deals with his first tour in Belfast in 1973 and his second tour in South Armagh in 1976, before culminating in his tragic and premature medical discharge from the army as a 28yr old Captain with his entire brilliant future cruelly ripped away from him. During his first tour the temporarily ‘friendly’ locals spiked his tea with ground glass as he drank it on hearts & minds patrols, which resulted in internal organ failure, the removal of his entire bowel region and the almost complete ruination of his health. He soldiered on for six long years urinating glass shards and undergoing a dozen operations, before his body finally gave in and literally half of his belly was removed. It was only his previous dogged fitness and determination that kept him in the army and on his feet for so long. Of course, he fought back and went on to climb mountains and fly planes, but all the time since he’s carried a permanent pain and dreadful scars.

But the pride and inner steel remains…

It felt a little odd at the Warrington peace talks because some anti-war types and ‘Troops Out’ members were there, and they were quite ferocious in their attacks, really giving it to the ex-soldiers with both barrels and attempting to rip us to shreds. And there was Tony, sat there with half of his insides missing, this hard-as-nails former Para, and he was cool as a cucumber, effortlessly batting away these attacks with genuine warmth, humour and compassion. He’d seen more action than everyone in that room put together and paid the highest price, yet he was the calmest, most graceful and forgiving one there. It was inspiring stuff and a lesson in how to handle yourself when you’re getting it from all sides.

At the moment Tony is rewriting and updating Contact to take in the aftermath of his own service, that of his former colleagues and his own assessment and true feelings about the peace process – something that I know he’s a great supporter of, however painful NI was and continues to be for him. I can’t recommend his book highly enough to you – truly it’s a superb, timely read – especially in light of the recent deaths in NI and roadblocks that seem to constantly block the path to peace. I think too that it’s an important and hugely relevant book in that we seem to be bogged down in an eerily similar ‘terrorist War’ in Afghanistan, and there are lessons and parallel conclusions to be drawn for our military involvement ‘out there’.

Certainly I reckon that any young Squaddie going on his first tour abroad would get a hell of a lot from this book, because for me it was an object lesson in how to treat and interact with the locals; they’re never going to be your friends and they’ll never accept your presence, but if you at least treat them with a modicum of tact, diplomacy and discretion (whenever you safely can), then a wary tolerance and fragile mutual respect can sprout. Which is a damn sight better than the alternative…

Contact is one of the best military stories that I have ever read and I recommend it to you in the highest terms; it’s a book from a past conflict that has timely and resonant lessons for a present one.

Here’s Tony’s website and a link to Amazon for anybody wishing to learn more:

Reviews for Contact:

“For the first time, here is the authentic, foul-mouthed soldier’s tale: degradation, misery, impatience, fear, anger and casual brutishness”
The Guardian.

“The most telling and realistic soldier’s account to come out of the whole sorry mess. The emotions are as vivid as the events. Anger and frustration tinge every page”
Daily Mirror

“It is impossible to turn its pages without a profound sense of shock”
The Times
I too have an early copy, a really good book that shows just how crappy Ulster really was.
The BBC drama of the same name circs 85ish was top notch too. Someone on here posted a YT link a while ago that i kept but its been taken down since. Shame.
Wish someone would release it on DVD, was spot on.
Excellent post, Steven-well done the pair of you. I'd be interested to hear more of your thoughts on the conference: from what you have said, it appears that the bigotry and divisions are still as wide as ever.


Book Reviewer
Agree with everything said

An excellent book well worth a read

Wasn't his daughter on here a while back?
I read it back in the eighties and he lost all credibility when he started slagging the SAS as unprofessional and stating that he had seen men wearing SAS berets who had failed P company, sounds like someone who failed selection to me.
Read the book twice,firstly when I was 16,second time around in my early 20's after completing a couple of tours myself. One of the best books that I have ever read,I've always found it suprising that more soldiers havn't read it - seeing there has been an abundance of miltary memoirs over the last couple of decades.

Saw the film when it was first aired on BBC2 in 85 and thought it was amazing,however after watching it again some years later I realised that it was just a tad silly - grim faced Paras cutting about South Armagh slotting provos here there and every where. As in his treatment of football hooligans in 'The Firm', Alan Clarke (no relation) had the right idea...but failed on a lot of the basic details.
ches said:
The BBC drama of the same name circs 85ish was top notch too. Someone on here posted a YT link a while ago that i kept but its been taken down since. Shame.
Wish someone would release it on DVD, was spot on.
It's on my harddrive (in .flv and slightly grainy YT quality) - could try and burn it.


Book Reviewer
Gripping "like-you-are-there" book - in fact the best first-hand account I have read of NI. But I remember thinking the TV film was dire.

Interested to read of the glass shards incident: I always wondered whether this was an urban legend. Sounds like it had horrific effects. Now I think of it, didn't Clarke mention this in the book, albeit as something he had heard about rather than something he had experienced...?

RE: Slagging off other regts;
He also put down the RMs and the Glosters. God knows, slagging off other units happens a lot in the UK Army. As for criticizing the SAS: What of it? Special forces are not beyond criticism, and although I have done no statistical analysis, I'd guess the majority of SF operations are either stand-downs or failures. The incident he reports in the book, in which a team of chaps were captured by S. Irish rozzers - while driving around south of the border in a car while armed to the teeth - did, in fact, occur IIRC.
I remember seeing this when it was on the TV, and certain parts of it were used on Northern Ireland training, as how not to do it. The scene where he goes to pick up some rounds, and tell one of his guys to slot the farmer if he they are booby trapped and he gets blown up. Still I enjoyed the book, and the TV drama.
"...the authentic, foul-mouthed soldier’s tale: degradation, misery, impatience, fear, anger and casual brutishness”

Only the Guardian could be so objective and sympathetic to the tale.
Been wondering about this for ages. First thing to say is I enjoyed the book and the TV programme - still have copies of both in fact. But the whole thing about the ground glass always puzzled me. I thought that sharp bits would be pretty obvious and you wouldn't ingest so much that you would do serious harm, and anything smaller and less obvious would be so small it wouldn't be so bad as it would be a lot less sharp. A quick google pulled up this :Ground glass kills › Dr Karl's Great Moments In Science (ABC Science)
Any views?

Similar threads

Latest Threads