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Why I'm Publishing The Most Controversial Man in Britain

Operation Ark by Pen Farthing is out next week. He had, according to the British media, risked British soldiers during the evacuation of Afghanistan. An MP in the House of Commons accused him of costing Afghan lives. He seemed to have a weird fetish about dogs. Both sides of the benches condemned him. He was the most controversial (read: reviled) man of the 2021 Evacuation from Afghanistan.


The question I keep being asked is: Why? Of all the books in the all the world, why publish this one? Of all the men whose memoir should see the light of day, why publish his?


To a degree, because I was intrigued and baffled. Why was the evacuation of Afghanistan such an utter and complete disaster? Donald Trump yanked the rug out from underneath the democratic-ish Afghan government, which had been installed at considerable cost in terms of lives and money. When Joe Biden became president, he helped with the yanking. After 15 months of sticking fingers in ears and humming merrily, all hell broke loose when the Taliban effortlessly swept across the country.


The American military bailed in the middle of the night. The British government (literally) went on holiday. The Taliban encircled the airport, making it impossible to get into the airport to fly out, with every road to the border blocked. Afghans who had helped the West were being “arrested”, never to be seen again. Afghan journalists and judges, female Afghan teachers, doctor, lawyers, basically all professionals and every other woman as well, they were all being abandoned in the – for some reason – unanticipated chaos.


At the centre of this disaster, dominating the headlines, was one man, his staff and his animals. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made promises in the House of Commons to help him. Then Defence Secretary Ben Wallace went on a radio show to slag him off. It was rumoured that Carrie Johnson was involved and a RAF jet had been procured for him alone. He was denounced again and again, by the government, by talking heads and by the press.


And yet, when finally exonerated by parliamentary select committees months after the furore died down, it barely made the news.


Face to face with the man himself, it became clear to me that the government had used him as a distraction from its own incompetence. Who’s responsible for the shitshow in Kabul? Look! Look over there! It’s a man with a funny name who’s putting “pets over people”! Let’s just gloss over that he’s a former Royal Marine Commando whose charity had been operating there for 16 years. Don’t mention that the rabies prevention work they were doing was saving Afghan lives, or that they employed the first female Afghan veterinarians. And definitely don’t say that his charity worked closely with the local government and coalition forces.


None of this important context received the coverage that it should have, and it appears that precious few at the time bothered to fact-check the claims against him. Pen Farthing became a toxic brand, so reviled that he lost his agent and publisher, his charity lost supporters and revenue, and his mental health suffered. He was left to pick up the pieces. Three years later, he’s still remembered in the public consciousness as the “pets over people” grifter who was friends with the Johnsons. After learning the true story, I think that’s appalling.

So while Operation Ark is an insight into the largest evacuation since the fall of Saigon, it also tells an important story about how modern democratic politics with its sound bites, incendiary headlines and social media mobs can work.


It’s a lesson in how government incompetence can become malicious, if not disastrous – something which Keir Starmer and the new Labour government would do well to heed. Now that another Trump government looks likelier than ever, much has been said of the UK’s role in NATO and the need to invest in our Armed Forces. But will Starmer avoid making the same mistakes? The Foreign Select Committee report says it all: the government was “Missing in action” with “no clear line of command within the political leadership of the government.”


Just as disturbing (if depressingly unsurprising) was the report’s remark that the government gave “deliberately misleading” answers during the inquiry. It’s a failure of accountability and transparency – good governance in a nutshell. Starmer’s Labour government has to be better or we all suffer.


Finally, Operation Ark is a deeply personal story. It’s the story of how one man navigated through a life and death situation while caring for his staff, his friends and his animals. How he was brought down by a media firestorm with a life of its own, what it took to survive and what will take him forward.


So when people ask me why I published Pen Farthing, I say it’s to defend our democracy and the truth. I say it’s out of common decency, which is integral to living in a civilised state. I say it’s because it’s a real-life thriller that left me turning the manuscript pages too late into the night.


You may disagree. But if you do, it’ll be with the full facts.


Operation Ark by Pen Farthing is out on the 8th July 2024, and is available to pre-order in paperback, ebook and audiobook. The first chapter can be read on our website here.



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