We are immensely proud of our literary catalogue- that is no secret at all. That being said, every once in a while, a book comes around that truly has everything; an interesting, unique concept, writing so engaging that it makes you lose your sense of time as you read it, and the ability to traverse the entire spectrum of emotions from cover to cover.
"The Baghdad Cookbook" is one of those books. This fusion of memoir and cookbook was put together by friends Alan Boyd, Robbie Stevenson and Scott Grieg. The idea for the book was catalysed by Boyd, who sadly passed away from leukaemia in 2013, and was later finished by Stevenson and Grieg. The culmination of these efforts is a beautiful testament to their late friend, and a heartbreaking, informative and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny account of their time spent together in the military.
We were fortunate enough to speak with Robbie over Skype regarding the book. We spoke about his friendship with Alan and Scott, his favourite recipe from the book, donating the proceeds to the NHS, and how joining a veteran's group helped him after his time in the army.
You can find "The Baghdad Cookbook" here.
1). “The Baghdad Cookbook” is a creation that really swells with love and friendship. It is a largely posthumous work put together by yourself and Scott Grieg, honouring the memory of your late friend Alan Boyd. For those who are just getting their teeth into the book, how would you describe your friend to those who never had the pleasure of meeting him?
RS: I don’t think we even have time to go through all of his best points! I had heard Al’s name before I actually met him; we were Royal Marines together when I was stationed up in Scotland, and although we were in the same unit, we never met. It wasn’t until 2004 when we actually met, and as soon as our hands shook, I knew that the friendship I was to have with Al would take shape into something quite special. We became almost inseparable. If you had never met Al in your life, the warmth and humanity that he exuded made you feel like you had known him all your life.
Case-in-point; the first week I met him, he was walking around in a Blink-182 T-shirt, and I remarked about how much I loved that band. He literally took the shirt off and gave it to me! He was a very magnetic and charismatic character.
2). One thing that sets this book apart from many books on our roster- and many books in general- is how unique of a concept it is, blending together memoir and cookbook. Both of these combined provide a very intimate insight into the day-to-day life of a soldier in Iraq. We have to ask, is there a recipe in the book that stands out to you personally?
RS: Well, funnily enough, I was actually banned from cooking! Being in a team, somebody would always cook, and one night I cooked a meal that was so bad that everyone turned around and said “Stevenson, you are never cooking again!” so I was reduced to washing up and making sandwiches!
Al was the cook; not only did he love it, but he was really good at it! He was one of these guys who could just throw things in a pot and it would be one of the best things you ever tasted in your life.
My favourite meal of all of them is Al’s Alabama Jack Daniels Apple Pie. We were between two projects and waiting at home for a new contract, and on my birthday, my wife and I flew up to Scotland to visit Al and his wife. Al had made this mouth-watering slow-cooked Guinness stew, and after the meal, he pulled out this apple pie that had “Happy 40th birthday Robbie” written in pie crust. As you get older, birthdays don’t mean so much, but for him to make this incredible meal meant a lot. It was one of the last times we were together before he was diagnosed with leukaemia.
3). This is a very collaborative book in many ways between yourself, Scott and Alan, but there are many anecdotes from other soldiers you knew, really highlighting the comradery that can be found in the military. What does the comradery of the military mean to you?
RS: I took a lot of it for granted until I left the military, and it really hit me how big of a family I was leaving. They become everything to you; your parents, brothers, sisters, doctors, confidents.
When you’re out in the big wide world, it can be scary. I was lucky to have the love of a great family at home that helped me transitioned to life outside of the army. When we started contracting out in Iraq, we had to create a new family from the people we worked with; we didn’t have the luxury of regiments.
Everyone was different; you had your rogues and naughty boys, some guys who cut corners and some guys who were great soldiers, too. Over a period of time you could create an environment where you were so tight with someone that you would literally take a bullet for them.
4). Of course, we can’t not talk about how the proceeds from the book are being donated to the NHS Leukaemia ward in Ninewells, Dundee, where Alan was of course treated. Would you be able to talk a little bit more about this, perhaps highlighting their fundraiser?
RS: After Al’s passing, I kind of picked up the baton in 2018/19, when I felt this urge to commemorate my friend. Scott and I spoke to the Boyd family, and as a group, we decided we should give something back to the organisation who looked after him.
I reached out to the NHS fundraisers in Scotland, and when the first proceeds come back, we intend to donate them to the leukaemia ward.
5). Finishing where we started, the book is written with a great deal of love and compassion, and being in a warzone undoubtedly comes with anxieties and traumas that can follow you home. You mentioned in a recent interview that you had joined a Veteran’s Group. How has being involved with that impacted your life, and what advice would you offer to those who are coming home from active duty with demons to fight?
RS: The thing about conflict is that it’s incredibly personal, and affects you in so many different ways. Hollywood has this ticking time-bomb character who screams out in the night, and that is some of it, but from my perspective, it’s more about an emotional attachment to conflict.
For some guys, it affects them on an incredibly deep level, whilst others are able to just get on with it. Servicemen can be really bad at asking for help, something that can be owed in part to the fact that we’re conditioned to think that way. You’re not supposed to show weakness on a battlefield. There’s also a belief that you can fix yourself, and it’s not until you speak to a professional that you realise that you’re not fine.
I took a gamble when I joined a veteran’s group called Re-Live in Cardiff, who I’ve worked with for the last two years. It was a revelation for me; it opened up a lot of things I kept dormant and hadn’t addressed. I met lots of veterans who had experienced similar things to myself.
The power of speaking to someone else cannot be overstated, it really can’t. Re-Live isn’t just talking therapy, there’s a huge element of practicality with it too. For example, they do a lot through the arts; we did a comic book recently called “Coming Home” which is all about people who are struggling with PTSD after returning from service.
I would recommend that anyone who is struggling should get involved with professional counselling and veteran’s groups, because the long-term effect is that this will help you.
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