COVID lockdown giving you the blues? Don’t tell it to a former British SAS officer turned mercenary who spent almost six years in African prisons.
When it comes to how to deal with solitary confinement, not many people have a leg up on Captain Simon Mann. A household name in the UK, Mann was born into a long, proud line of British Army officers. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he served in the prestigious Scots Guards and then in the elite SAS before famously becoming a soldier of fortune in southern Africa.
In late 2003, long retired from the gun-for-hire game, Simon was approached by a group of shadowy Anglo-European players (including Margaret Thatcher’s ne’er-do-well son Mark) to organize a coup to overthrow Teodoro Obiang, the brutal dictator of the tiny but oil-rich West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. The operation proved to be a setup. Even as Simon and his men were in the air, his backers doublecrossed him and used the threat of a coup to extract oil contracts from a suddenly compliant Obiang. Mann was arrested on the tarmac of the airport in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he and his men had stopped to refuel, and thrown in prison under the heel of Obiang’s rival, the equally godawful Robert Mugabe.
Mann spent the next five years and eight months in African prisons—four in Zimbabwe and then another twenty months in EG itself after Mugabe “sold” him—much of it in solitary confinement, until he was finally freed through his own face-to-face negotiations with Obiang, and the heroic efforts of his intrepid wife Amanda back in England. The British government never did acknowledge its own clandestine role in the coup, nor its attempts to cover it up while it let Simon rot. (For the full story in all its gory glory, see his 2011 memoir Cry Havoc.)
Having known Simon for a little more than a decade, I can hardly think of a more centered, Zen-like individual…..let alone one better equipped to give advice on how to handle this surreal global moment. (In fact, he has recently begun a consulting practice aimed at teaching those very skills.)
Now in peaceful retirement in the south of England, he spoke with me by Skype.
SOLITUDE FOR BEGINNERS
THE KING’S NECKTIE: So Simon, here in New York we’ve been locked down a little over three weeks, and the other day my nine-year-old daughter was starting to get a little stir crazy. I suggested that we needed some structure, and told her that when you were in solitary confinement you had a strict routine that included a “daytime layout” for your cell, and then a “nighttime layout” that you rearranged it into at the end of every day.
SIMON MANN: Yes. You know the Navy SEAL Admiral McRaven—he’s got a book titled Make Your Bed. “Get up every morning and first thing, make your bed.” And that is so right. What a banal thing, but that is just the absolute tip of the idea. Because it’s that routine. It’s the discipline.
TKN: When you were in that position—which was much more extreme than what anybody is going through now—was it your training that enabled you to cope? Did it go back to Eton, or Sandhurst, or the SAS, or what?
SIMON: I’ve had many discussions—as I know you have as well, Bob—about what goes into making somebody ready to do very extreme things. Obviously you very quickly get into the nature/nurture argument: how much of this was born in you and how much of it was brought to you, so to speak. I think that the people who go into things like elite military units tend to be of a certain type anyway. That’s why they’re there.
In my case, you’ve got a child who probably has that anyway, but then he ends up the captain of rugby at school. And then he goes to Sandhurst and he gets all that culture built into him on top of what he had anyway. And then he goes into the Scots Guards and then he goes here and there and then he ends up in the SAS. Well, if he ends up in prison after all of that, you bet he’s got a whole load of stuff that other people haven’t got. But also he was probably born with something a little bit that way anyway.
TKN: Well, what is your advice to someone who doesn’t have both the nature and nurture, and then hasn’t gone through all the training that you went through? What about an ordinary Joe who’s not in the kind of extreme circumstances you were in, but is still dealing with something that’s new to them, like this lockdown, or this crisis full stop?
SIMON: Hopefully, I think the system I devised for myself totally applies to the ordinary Joe, and that’s what I’m trying to teach with this new website and webinar I’m creating.
In prison, I had four legs of the table and they were 1) routine, 2) exercise, 3) something artistic, and 4) keeping a log of the first three—a journal or a record. So I had like an audit trail, which in my case in Zimbabwe had to be hidden because it was illegal to keep any kind of record, but it was very important to me. I could look at my piece of paper and say, “Look, you’ve managed to do all three things every day without missing anything for the last three weeks: I am sticking to my routine, I am doing my exercises, I am doing something artistic. Good man.” (laughs) That gave me a good feeling; it gave me a very strong feeling that I was achieving something. And I’ve read elsewhere that lots of therapists get their patients to keep a diary. It’s very beneficial.
TKN: And was that a technique you developed yourself or had it been taught to you?
SIMON: Routine and exercise came really naturally through my background, birth, upbringing, education, and training. (laughs) Like you, I had a soldier for a father and grandfather as well. In fact, both my grandfathers. And then, you know, all the jokes about the English prep school system and then Sandhurst, and now you’re really talking turkey.
I mean, at Sandhurst they say to you, “Why do we make men clean their boots the morning that they’re going over the top in World War I? Why do we do that?” The reason is because you’ve got young guys and they need those touches of routine. Today is just another day. You’re gonna get up, you’re going to have breakfast, you’re going to clean your rifle, you’re going to clean your boots, and then you’re going to go and attack the fucking German army and you’re probably going to get blown to pieces. But those points of routine help people deal with the extremity of the situation.
And we were taught that at Sandhurst. And in my case, I’d already grown up in that sort of way. So it’s, “Yeah, yeah, it makes sense. That’s what we’ll do.” (laughs)
And then, in my case, you end up in the Brigade of Guards where only the best is good enough. Whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to do it to the absolute best of our ability, no questions asked, and we’re going to do with enthusiasm. That was the mindset which I encountered in the Scots Guards. When the firemen of London went on strike and we were told to go and be firemen, we said, “Right, we’re going to be the best firemen that London has ever seen. We’re gonna do this to the absolute maximum of our ability. We don’t care that our soldiers are paid less than the firemen and they’re all on strike. We don’t care that we’ve got the wrong equipment, we don’t care about this, that, or the other thing. We’re just going to do this to the nth degree.” And that’s the Brigade of Guards.
And, yeah, that is very extreme, but you are in an institution where basically you are being told to do that. That is the tradition, that is the culture, and the drill sergeants and the officers and the adjutants and everybody else are going to make sure that that is what happens. There is no wavering. If you waver for a moment you’ll be placed under close arrest.
But then you say, “Right. Now we want that level of discipline and mentality, but we want you to enforce that on yourself.” Now we’re into Delta or the SEALs or the SAS: that is that guy who can keep that level of dedication, discipline, and everything else going on his own.
And then in my mind, I said, “Right. Now the ultimate test is to do all of that, but actually do it in solitary confinement.” (laughs)
TKN: It’s remarkable.
SIMON: Well, I don’t think it’s that remarkable, I think there are loads of people who can do that kind stuff. They just haven’t been as…..(laughs) I was going to say lucky. But yeah, in many respects, a lot of that actually comes from a very privileged background in my case.
So the routine part of it to me came very easy. Next, exercise. You got to be fit, you’ve got to be strong. And that was also a way of giving two fingers to all the guards. In my mind that was a factor. I’m going to do press-ups and sit-ups in my cell even though they know that I’m sick and they are going to think, “Fuck, I couldn’t do that.” I’m putting one over on them. They will respect me more, and in the end I may be able to use that for escape. This is my mentality.
And then the artistic thing was something I read. Amanda sent me an introduction to psychology book, and in it was a study where, instead of trying to work out what made people happy, they went and talked to people who are happy and looked for common characteristics. I’m sure you’ve heard of that in psychology. And one of the things that happy people do is they do something creative. They are creative. And I thought, “Wow, that’s a good idea. I’m going to do that.” So I built that into the system.
Now I’m setting up this website to do strategic coaching with senior management—not necessarily with this pandemic crisis, but going forward from here. Because I think there’s a great demand for people to try and be imaginative and creative, and with senior management that can be very difficult, because you’re so close to the woods, you cannot see the trees. And to have someone to talk to who is outside your box I think is very valuable. I’m going offer a free webinar where people can come in on Zoom, and I’ll talk my talk for 20 minutes, and then maybe we can have 40 minutes of Q&A. And if people want to book an hour with me privately, they can.
TKN: So that was your psychological regimen for survival.
SIMON: Yes. It’s like a tightrope. On the left hand side, you have despair and on the right, you have over-optimism. Because the thing that’s most likely to drive you straight into despair is disappointment. Disappointment is the worst thing. So you’ve got to stay on that line. And that’s a hard thing to do.
When I was in prison, a letter from home might knock me off the line for two weeks. It would take me two weeks to recover my balance. And I quite understand why long term prisoners sometimes simply cut themselves off from their families. They don’t want visitors because they’ve got to that place in their head, where I got to, walking along that tightrope day by day. That’s all it is. It’s today. Here you are, your fellow prisoners, and the guards—they are family. The cell is your home and today is today and that’s it.
And that is the way you learn to push time. That’s how you are able to do the time. Which is a terrifying thing to do because you’re basically training yourself to waste your life. As they say in the business, you’re “pushing time” and it’s very, very difficult and very destructive because all the time you’re thinking, “Fuck, this isn’t really what I wanted to do! But if I don’t maintain this equilibrium, I’m not gonna make it. So this is what I’ve got to do.”
I was stunned by that when I was first told it by another prisoner in Zimbabwe. He explained it to me, but it took me another 18 months to understand what he was talking about.
That was the tightrope. Because on the one hand, I did hope. But on the other hand, If I thought about it really hard, I thought, “What are these guys most likely to do?” Meaning my captors. There was the fear of death—they always could’ve put me against the wall and shot me. And I always knew that that was possible, even if it would have been for their own political reasons. As we all know, everything boils down to domestic politics. You know, when Donald Trump says something about Iran, it’s all about domestic politics. And I didn’t know what domestic politics were going on in Equatorial Guinea, so there was always the possibility that that might happen.
So the fear of execution never left me. Then there was the fear of simply dying from malaria or whatever. Being murdered was another possibility.
But when I thought about it, I thought, well, they probably won’t kill me, ‘cause that would be a big hoo-ha. (laughs) But what they might easily do is just keep me for another five years. Nothing to them. And that would have killed me. I think that would have killed me actually.
Thank God they didn’t do that.
NEW FISH, DIFFERENT POND
TKN: So when you were in prison in Zimbabwe you must’ve had one mentality, and then when you were extradited to EG and put in prison there—kidnapped, really—that must’ve changed your outlook somewhat.
SIMON: You know, in Zimbabwe it was a rollercoaster. I was in prison there for four years, and the last year I was pending extradition to Equatorial Guinea. So that was very frightening because everybody had told me—friends and foes alike—that if I did end up in Equatorial Guinea, I would be shot.
So throughout that year I knew that at any moment I might go. And the regime was up to all sorts of mischief. They tried to kidnap me once, you remember, and they failed. So it was ups and downs. One minute I thought I was about to get smuggled out of the prison, another minute I thought I was about to go to Equatorial Guinea. And I didn’t know.
When I did finally get extradited, I thought I was going to be shot on arrival, right on the tarmac. And then discovering that I wasn’t, obviously that was good news. (laughter) Then it became another rollercoaster. But the mindset in terms fear and dealing with the fact of where I was and what was happening was pretty much the same.
It was extremely irritating to be a new prisoner again, because in a prison there’s a kind of a seniority, not only in terms of your crime, but also in terms of how long you’ve been there. If you’ve been in a prison for four years, you have respect from other prisoners, from the guards, even from the people in charge of the prison, and you get treated in a certain way. Then suddenly when I was kidnapped by the CIO (ed.: Mugabe’s secret police), it was like back to day one. That was really annoying. (laughs) I just thought, “You bastards. Fuck you. I’m a senior prisoner. I’m Simon Mann, you don’t treat me like that!” (laughs) Of course they thought that was very funny.
TKN: Did you actually say that to them?
SIMON: I think I did. Yeah. I said, “Why are you treating me like this, you know that I’m a good prisoner. I’ve been here for four years, I know you guys, I’ve never given you any trouble. So what’s the problem? What’s the beef?” When you start putting handcuffs behind somebody’s back, what’s the point? That’s just torture. It’s fucking painful. I had a hernia. They knew I had a hernia. The hernia kept on coming out, and with my hands behind my back I couldn’t get my hernia back in. I couldn’t lie down. I couldn’t sit down because I couldn’t get up again because the hernia would come out. And I said, “What is the point of this? You know I can’t escape. How the fuck am I going to escape? I’m in a cell, in leg irons, and handcuffs. What is the point? It’s just torture.” And I’ve been here with you guys for four years, you know me—why are you doing this?
TKN: And what was their answer?
SIMON: They were pretty nasty at that point. It was the CIO and their job was to take me to EG. Remember, it was extremely secret so that the people guarding me didn’t even know who I was. They were soldiers and they were frightened because everyone in Zimbabwe is frightened of the CIO. So they were scared and so they weren’t taking any shit from me.
FUCK YOU, CHANTIX
TKN: It’s true, though, odd as it may sound, when you talk about being “lucky enough” to have had that experience. I often think about the late John McCain. If you had asked him in 1967, before he was shot down, “Hey John, how would you like to be a prisoner of war for five and a half years?,” I’m confident he would’ve said no. But the experience he went through was this crucible that made him into the man he was.
SIMON: I did some work with a psychologist from the Leadership Trust who had been hired by the SAS to look into the whole divorce rate and the suicide rate issue. This was way back in the Eighties, so before Iraq and Afghanistan and any of that. The SAS was very worried, and basically saying, “Look, the suicide rate in the SAS is higher than the Army and the Army’s is higher than civvy street. And this is dangerous, because there isn’t an existential war going on, and if we’re training people to commit suicide, somebody’s going to come along and shut us down.”
So this psychologist did a big study on it and she came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the case at all. We weren’t training people to do that; we were the people who’d be doing that anyway. Her point was: Who invented SAS selection? Who runs SAS selection? Who came up with the whole bloody amazing thing in the first place? You guys, who are in it now. So you basically self-selected. You are that section of the population which probably would be more liable to have those misfortunes anyway, even if you didn’t join the SAS, or the Army, or anything else. That’s who you are.
TKN: Did you ever get to that low point any time in your ordeal where you considered it?
SIMON: Yeah. I did play that game with myself. I had a suicide pill—which was of course a virtual pill because I didn’t really have one—and the idea was that it was instantaneous and painless. And in my mind, I would put this virtual pill on this little sort of ledge in my cell, and I told myself, “If you wanted to take it, and it was really there, you would take it.” That’s what you want to do, and that’s what you better do, because all we’re talking about here is methodology. If you “take that pill,” by whatever messy means you come up with (laughs), it’s morally the same thing. It’s just about physical courage, and you should do it.
I did play that game with myself. But I never got to that point where I said, “Yeah all right, I’ll take that now.”
I started the audit thing in Zim in order to try and stop smoking, Because I had masses and masses of cigarettes, loads of cigarettes, and I was smoking like 20 a day and I thought, “Oh my God, this is ridiculous.” I thought I was going to get out, and I cannot go home to Amanda smoking 20 cigarettes a day. (laughter)
TKN (incredulous): So not only are you 6000 miles from home, in a Zimbabwean prison at the mercy of Robert Mugabe, and in solitary confinement, but you decided to quit smoking at the same time?
SIMON (laughs): I did, yes. Which was really hard. Not least because, of course, the cigarettes were the currency in the prison. So I had literally hundreds of cigarettes in the corner of my cell. So as I gave up, I would look at all these cigarettes and think, “Oh man.”
But I kept a little audit and I tried to cut down the number of cigarettes by at least one a week. And I got down to four a day and I thought, “Oh, you’re pathetic. If you are only smoking four cigarettes a day, you can smoke no cigarettes a day.” And that was it. I gave up smoking.
And then—wait for it (laughs)—because I thought I was going to get out for Christmas. I think it was around about beginning of December, I wasn’t smoking anything. A week later I discovered I wasn’t getting out.
TKN: That’s what you were talking about: disappointment. Right there!
SIMON: Yeah. Massive, huge disappointment. Plus, the reason for giving up had gone as well. (laughs) But somehow, I managed. That wasn’t so easy to give up. Just stick with it. Stick with the program.
TKN: Have you been in England through this whole lockdown?
SIMON: Yes. I was supposed to be in Johannesburg but at the last minute we called it off because I might have gotten stuck there indefinitely.
TKN: That would have been ironic.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, there are worse places to get stuck. (laughter)
TKN: And what’s the mood in Britain right now? Stiff upper lip and all that?
SIMON (laughs): I think we’ve got the full gamut. We’ve got stiff upper lips and we’ve got some nonsense going on. For example, the police, bless them, turned up at a cornershop somewhere and said they shouldn’t be selling Cadbury Creme Eggs because your shopping is meant to be essential things only and the crème eggs are not essential. Oh for Christ’s sake! Come on guys!
TKN: Ah, but they are! That cream egg was never more essential than right now….
TKN: Over here, when the Governor of New York shut down all “non-essential businesses,“ he exempted liquor stores. So there’s a liquor store across the street from me here in Gowanus and it’s open for business and doing quite well.
SIMON: I’m sure it is. Though I haven’t touched alcohol for three months.
TKN (surprised): Really?
SIMON: Nothing to do with the virus; I was just having a lot of trouble with gout, and I just thought, “Ah, bollocks, I’m going to just give up alcohol.” So that’s gone the way of cigarettes.
TKN (laughs): Soon you’ll have no vices left.
SIMON: Ah, you’d be surprised, Bob…..
For group and private consulting services with Simon Mann click here.
Photo: The Daily Telegraph