A few years ago I met a retired British soldier who served in Northern Ireland during the time of “The Troubles”. I remember seeing on the news, back in the eighties, British soldiers patrolling the streets in Irish towns, and bombs going off in Ireland, as well as in Manchester and London. The soldier told me about missions he was sent on. He was a loft-sitter. He was stationed in the attics, above the homes of ordinary Irish citizens, and he eavesdropped on the neighbourhood. His assignment, along with his partner, was to garner information on the IRA. From their perch, listening upstairs, the soldiers found out the names of the major, and minor, players, and the illegal activities they were involved in, and sometimes they found out about the missions the IRA were about to undertake. I wrote a book about it. MY NAME IS HARDLY is book two in the MY TEMPORARY LIFE Trilogy and I published it on December tenth.
My book is fictional, but it’s based on a true story, and it’s set during a time that’s still very fresh in people’s minds. Because of this, I knew I had to make sure the information I had been given was true. So, I researched loft-sitters. From what my retired soldier friend told me, I knew they snuck up attics in the dead of night. The downstairs occupants were sympathetic to the Brits and more than willing to let the soldiers listen in on the mothers and fathers of IRA soldiers who would occasionally visit them in their kitchens and living rooms. It was a dangerous position for the soldiers to be in. Once they were in the attic they were trapped. There was only one way out, and they never knew who was going to be in the house below them. Usually it was just neighbours who gossiped about rumours, or talked about their sons and daughters and what they were doing to further the cause, but from time to time, the residents were visited by IRA soldiers themselves. These were the most dangerous situations, of course because there was no way for the soldiers to know whether the IRA soldiers, or Provos, as they called them, knew whether they were upstairs or not. Plus, there was no way to guarantee that the homeowners might not be swayed back to the other side, or part of a grand plan to trap the soldiers up in a place where there was no escape.
Unfortunately, there is almost no information on the soldiers who spied from the lofts. In fact, the only reference I could find was a statement from the IRA claiming they always knew of the existence of the loft-sitters. I kept looking for more substantiation and continued to write my book, and then, a few months into the process, I lucked out. I had been interviewed on several blog sites and I talked about my forthcoming book and mentioned, in broad strokes, the plot. A British soldier who had been up the lofts, read one of these interviews and contacted me, and, he was willing to tell me about his experiences. By this time, I was well into my story, and it was based on the information from soldier number one. Fortunately, the second retired soldier confirmed all the information I had. And, he told me similar stories of his missions up the lofts, so, I knew I was on the right track. At that point I thought I must be missing something. I thought there must be some information out there I’d missed. I mean, to me, it’s a fascinating, and potentially deadly situation, and it’s very recent in our history. So, I felt it had to have been reported on somewhere, at some point. With that in mind, I tried to contact the British Army. I emailed and phoned and left messages. There was no response, so, while continuing to write the story, I moved onto the next part of my research. I interviewed folks who lived on the streets, in the Irish towns, where the loft-sitters were stationed. I never did find anyone who confirmed they had let the soldiers up their lofts. And, although they were willing to talk about the years of terror, and how it affected them, no one wanted to speculate that there may have been spies on their streets. They just didn’t want to think about the fact that their neighbours might have had British soldiers living in their homes.
As I neared the end of writing my story, I got lucky again. I came across a newspaper correspondent who reported from Ireland during the time of “The Troubles” and he knew all about the loft-sitters. He even knew of situations where there were no dividing walls above the old tenement houses and the soldiers were able to wander from house to house and listen in on several homes at once. So, things started to come together. I had gone from discovering a situation that, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been reported on previously, to having quite a bit of information on it. Once again, I went back to the British Army and asked them to comment.
Again, they didn’t answer my phone messages or emails. Now, I realize they’re busy and I’m not a reporter from CNN but I thought they might at least shuffle me into some kind of a bureaucratic funnel, or refer me to a department that would send me automated replies from time to time, but none of that happened. They just didn’t answer.
MY NAME IS HARDLY is based on a true story, and in the book I try to tell the story of the conflict from both sides. My main character, Hardly, joins the army to escape from an abusive childhood, and after toiling away at menial jobs in the service, he becomes one of the army’s first loft-sitters. It’s difficult to expand on the plot without giving too much away and I don’t like to discuss themes. I believe if you pay $3.99 (for the ebook), or $10.99 (for the print copy), you’re entitled to walk the path yourself and discover where it takes you, and I don’t want to muddy the waters by telling you what I think the book is about. I will tell you though, that, from what I can tell, this story hasn’t been told before, and I’m very happy with the end result.
I have two editors who proof read and copy-edit my work. Editors tell you about punctuation and tense and point of view; that’s their job and the ones I employ are very good at what they do. They don’t tell you how a story makes them feel. This time one of them did, and that’s not like her at all. She contacted me after the revisions and edits were done and told me that this story changed her. She said it made her examine some of the fundamental things in her life more closely. I felt the same way. The more I learned about these men, on both sides of the conflict, the more I was confused and then, in the end, I believe I did understand. MY NAME IS HARDLY is available from Amazon in ebook or print form. It’s a follow-up to the Amazon #1 bestseller that I published earlier this year—MY TEMPORARY LIFE. I hope you take the time to take a look at my new book, and I’d truly appreciate your thoughts on Hardly’s story.
MY NAME IS HARDLY is available HERE
As I neared the writing of this blog, ten days after my book has been published, I received a reply from the UK Ministry of Defence. In their response, they state that there is more information available on the soldiers who were assigned these missions but the records are not in a “readily accessible format”. They didn’t say they wouldn’t access it for me; they just said that it would take some work to put it together. It was very nice of them to respond to me.