In our “A Drink with Jeff” series, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of club identities. This time, he caught up with one of our newer members who is also a burgeoning author.
Ben Blackie sells the latest hi-tech gadgets and glowing screens, but his heart (and imagination) are often stuck in the 1940s.
World War II veteran “Mad Jack” Churchill is his particular fixation — a legendary English soldier who charged into battle with a sword and longbow, as if he was fighting knights on horseback, not a Nazi blitzkrieg.
Ben has just self-published a book about his unconventional hero, complete with a promotional video shot right here in Macarthur.
All the more impressive when you consider it also follows a personal fight against cancer that taught him to grapple with the idea of mortality.
I’d never met Ben, but when I heard about his endeavours from Catholic Club director Steve Carter (who is mates with Ben’s in-laws, Glen and Nicole Petrie) I agreed to meet up with him for a coffee. Just to chat about the ups and downs of the publishing world.
As such, it was never intended to be a proper “Drink With Jeff” interview . . . but it quickly became one.
As we walked through the foyer, he was stunned by all the progress since he’d last set foot in The Catho — years before the pandemic lockdowns.
“I’m just blown away,” he told me. “Particularly the new food court area. Looks amazing. I’ll certainly be bringing my wife and daughter here for a meal soon.” A rush of nostalgia flooded his senses because The Catho was where Ben had often socialised with workmates a decade or so ago. So, on the spot, Ben decided to make his reconnection official.
With the help of Evy at the front desk, Ben signed up as our club’s latest member. So, after we grabbed some coffees at Cafe Sage we headed into a quiet corner of Harvest and our chat unexpectedly morphed into “an interview”.
Ben, 37, is a proud local boy, attending Eschol Park Public School and Menangle’s Broughton Anglican College. He now lives in Gregory Hills with wife Laura (a childcare worker) and their seven-month-old daughter, Lylah.
Ben manages the audio-visual section at Campbelltown’s Harvey Norman store, but loves nothing more than telling stories. “I’ve always had an overactive imagination,” he laughed. “As a youngster I wrote supernatural books, probably pretty crappy — one was about Nazi zombies. Just a bit of fun, but one of my mates read it and said it was pretty good. So I self published it online. It did okay for what it was.”
More fantasy books followed, but Ben’s world was rocked by his discovery of “Mad Jack” Churchill about a decade ago. To say Ben knows a thing or two about his World War II hero is the understatement of the year. He has plans for a whole series of books about this modern warrior who preferred using longbows to rifles. This tactic, Ben told me, perplexed both allies and enemies alike but underscored Churchill’s belief in the psychological impact of unconventional tactics on the enemy.
Ben’s own world, however, was impacted in 2012 when he was diagnosed with cancer — lymphoma.
That derailed most of his ideas and plans. “I was travelling in the US at the time and hospitalised in LA for almost a month,” he said. “I had a cough coming off the plane, and later keeled over. It felt like a contracting weight in my chest. I’m now recovered. Eleven or so years in remission now.”
That cancer diagnosis came as one many personal blows at the time — as a relationship ended, and he lost his job and income. “The games company I worked for went into liquidation…no payout. Life was pretty hard at the time.”
But, Ben now knows fate was unfolding as it should.
He got a job at Kathmandu at Macarthur Square in 2013. It wasn’t his dream job — he’s more into gadgets than outdoor clothing and footwear — but he did fall in love with one of his workmates: Laura Petrie.
“Kathmandu were good bosses, but I later walked across and got a job at JB Hi-Fi, then from there I went to Harvey Norman. “I like technology, and I also love my cinema,” he smiled. We both agree that Die Hard is one of the greatest action flicks of all time, and certainly had the best screen villain.
Ben’s cancer treatment had also reminded him of the therapeutic power of storytelling, providing an escape from troubles of the present and transporting him to other worlds. With a newfound appreciation for life’s fragility, Ben was back to work hoping his story would resonate with readers on different levels.
That’s why he never set out to write an historical biography of “Mad Jack” Churchill, but wanted it to have the literary freedom of fiction. “It’s that over-active imagination of mine, again,” he laughed. “I’ve gotta admit, it started out as pure fantasy, another supernatural novel that had Jack Churchill hunting werewolves with a sword made of silver.” But the true story of Mad Jack was surreal enough, he eventually realised.
His story fascinated Ben and has been chronicled in countless books, documentaries, and historical accounts — but no full-scale dedicated autobiography has ever been written. The retail worker believed it was a story waiting to be told, and his result is — Once Upon a War: The Unstoppable Warpath of the Unkillable Jack Churchill.
“Although kept as historically accurate as possible through thorough research, the details of the story are purposely exaggerated at times to remain in keeping with the type of eccentric man it is depicting. Think Band of Brothers or The Victors but told in the spirit of Tim Burton’s Big Fish, starring a Jack Sparrow-type of James Bond.”
In fact, there is so much history to cover for Churchill, Ben’s book is just the first of a series of nine books. Perhaps more. What is clear is that Ben pours his heart and soul into every page, weaving a narrative that speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.
His book, released in January, is viable on Amazon.com.au, on eBook (Kindle) and Paperback, with an audiobook to be released shortly on Audible, Spotify, and many other audiobook-streaming services.
https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B0CSM6CDTH (eBook, but link to paperback there also)
https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=61554986588285 (author page on socials)
To help promote it, he and his mates dressed up in World War II uniforms and created a short film showing a scene from one of Mad Jack’s medieval-style confrontation with Nazis in France in 1940.
“My friends and myself recently filmed a short-film for the book launch (PropaFilms production company did the filming). Shooting was done out the back of Cobbitty.”
The resulting trailers can be seen here:
Ben is quick, too, praise the support of not only his mates, but his wife. Laura, who has long supported his literary dreams. Also his old mate, Joe Batey who has for years helped him forge storylines and proof-read finished chapters.
I should add a strange bit of serendipity that occurred during our drink together.
Ben asked me about other people I’d interviewed for my “Drinks With Jeff” and whether they had mostly been old-time members of the club. No, I replied, in fact one of them last year was a young staffer named Jorga, an extremely talented artist with her own pet-drawing business.
As Jorga’s name left my lips, I glanced across Harvest and saw Jorga walking straight towards us to say hello! Her timing was impeccable.
After she left to start her shift, I continued on, explaining that many of the people I’d interviewed were long-time club identities — such as Mary Ellen Bland.
Once more, no sooner had my mouth finished moving when guess who walked in and came up to say hello! Mary Ellen herself, with her grandkids.
The unscripted moments of life at The Catho.
So I was left feeling very careful not to say the name “Beetlejuice” three times in a row (for those of you who know your 1980s films).
Anyway, I’ve haven’t read Ben’s book yet, myself….but after listening to him speak with such passion I suspect his narratives are reflections of his own resilience, aided by a narrative as well-crafted as his enthusiastic conversation.
As Ben finds himself standing at the threshold of a new chapter, I think we can all wish our fellow Catholic Club member well.