Patrick Bishop was born in London and went to Wimbledon College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Before joining the Telegraph he worked on the Evening Standard, the Observer and the Sunday Times and in television as a reporter on Channel Four News. Alongside John Witherow, Patrick wrote a history of the Falkands War based on their own experiences, later also writing in partnership with Eamon Mallie about the Provisional IRA, which was praised as the first authoritative account of the modern IRA.
Emerging in the last decade as one of Britain’s best-regarded military historians, his books Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, helped cast a new light on the men who flew in the Battle of Britain and the Strategic Air Campaign. As well writing about past wars, Patrick has also led the field in contemporary accounts of the experiences of British troops fighting in southern Afghanistan. His book, 3 Para, told the story of the initial break-in battle in Helmand in 2006 and won the British Army Military Book of the Year Award. He joined the Paras on their return to southern Afghanistan in 2008 and produced a sequel, Ground Truth. Patrick has written two fictional novels, A Good War (2008) and Follow Me Home, which was described as “the first great novel of the Afghan war”. Patrick now lives in London with his partner and daughter.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by us today, your books detail eye-opening accounts of warfare, the horrors of it, but also the comradery and honour that are shown when normal people are pushed to their limits. We know our customers will be really interested in what you’ve got to say.
Q: OK, so we’ll start with an easy one Patrick! You’ve obviously seen a lot of the world, but what top three things would be on your bucket list?
A: Paint a wonderful portrait of my wife Henrietta and daughter Honor
Catch a 20lb salmon
Sing the latino classic Cucurucucu Paloma in duet with my friend Alix Wiseman
Q: Your writing stems from first-hand knowledge of warfare that you have gained during a long career as a foreign correspondent. We know that you have been involved with almost all of the deployments of the British Army for the past thirty years, from the Falklands to Afghanistan. Do you feel afraid for yourself before going abroad? And what drives you to keep going back with these soldiers?
A: Well in fact I’ve packed it in now. I’m too old and not nimble enough. But when I did do it, it was because I enjoyed it. War is hell but it is also exciting and makes you appreciate the fact that you are alive. That is why so many young men practice it. As to feeling frightened, everyon experiences fear to a greater or lesser extent but the body or brain does not allow you to stay terrified for protracted periods. The important thing is to try and control your fear when it surges up by telling yourself that it will pass.
Q: Your latest book Target Tirpitz: X-Craft, Agents and Dambusters – ‘The Epic Quest To Destroy Hitler’s Mightiest Warship’ was released on 2nd February 2012. Target Tirpitz was reputed to have been Hitler’s greatest weapon – an unsinkable battleship, something that the Allies wanted to destroy at all cost. As a result, there were more than thirty daring operations launched against the 52,000 ton monster. Although Royal Navy midget submarines carried out an attack, no permanent damage was done and the Fleet Air Arm was forced to launch full scale attacks through the summer of 1944 to try and finish her off. It was not until November 1944 that a daring operation by RAF Lancaster Bombers finally destroyed Hitler’s last battleship. How much research goes into a book such as this? And how difficult is it to streamline your information?
A: Researching a book like Target Tirpitz is a very big undertaking because the story covers operations by the Navy, the Fleet Air Arm, the RAF, the Army the German Navy and the Norwegian resistance. This means you have to have a reasonable knowledge of the functioning and organisation of all these elements before you begin delving into actual events. The narrative is really a succession of episodes, each of which could almost be books in themselves. So this was probably the most labour-intensive project I have tackled to date. Having said that, the research is the fun part. I love sitting in libraries and and the Public Record Office in Kew, sifting through mountains of minutes and memoranda, typed on flimsy paper by the army of secretaries who were essential to the bureaucratic war effort. Seeing a significant note scrawled in pencil in the margin by one of the players can have an electric effect, making you feel you are directly connected to history.
The process of streamlining all this is akin to being a sculptor. You have a great marble-like block of information and from it you have to hew something is pleasing and true.
Q: What book is currently on your night-stand?
A: Christie Campbell’s book on the V Weapon’s Target London, and an omnibus edition of six Maigret novels by Georges Simenon.
Q: How different do you find writing fiction compared with your journalism or non-fictional accounts?
A: I find fiction harder because you only have your own imagination to work from and if it is no good it is entirely your fault.
Q: What would your three pieces of advice be for any aspiring journalists and writers?
A: I have just one. Look at what is in front of you and listen to what you are told. This would seem glaringly obvious but a depressingly large number of writers and journalists seem to think that they, and not their subjects are the story.
Q: What do you wish you could have done more of and what do you know you should have done less of?
A: Regrets are pointless. One simply has to resolve to do better.
Q: Your novel, Follow Me Home, has been described as “One of the most honest and evocative stories to come out of the war in Afghanistan” (Oxford Today), and “Impressively authentic” (Evening Standard). Obviously you know your subject so well because often you have experienced or born witness to similar things first-hand. How much of yourself, or your own memories do you put into the books? And does this make them emotional to write at times?
A: There’s a lot of what I have experienced in the books and some – but only some – of the characters have a foundation in people that I have met. Emotion doesn’t really come into it. Writing is work like any other and the harder you try the better it gets.
Q: When you were younger what did you want to be?
A: A priest. I still do sometimes.
Q: And lastly, World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
A: I hate the idea of books going into landfill sites and thoroughly applaud your efforts to find them a new home. Good luck to you all and keep up the good work.