Saturday, 15 November 2008


There was me and Flookie Anderson, both Black Watch (RHR), Paddy from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and Kerr, a PFC in the 8th USAF.  The plan we hatched in the Malcolm Club at Fassberg on the Berlin Airlift was to steal a c54 Skymaster bomber, fly it to the Eastern Zone and sell it to the Russians.


We had it all worked out to the last detail.  The planes only touched down for a few minutes to be re-loaded and Flookie, who was a Hard Man, reckoned overpowering the pilot would be child’s play.  We might even be able to sell the cargo of potatoes on the black market, although Paddy thought we would get a better price if we stole one laden with coal.  Where the plan fell down was that none of us had the slightest idea how to fly a plane and, though Kerr said it was easy, we thought it better to err on the side of caution.  Had we not, and been caught, we would still be in the glasshouse half a century later.


So how come Prince William, who has admitted twice stealing helicopters, has not been court martialled and drummed out of the RAF?


And while we are examining royal behaviour, whose idea was it that the Earl of Wessex, or Dockland Daisy as he was known when he was failing as a TV tea boy, should read the lesson at the Festival of Remembrance?  His only taste of military life ended abruptly when he chickened out of a Royal Marine induction course.  And what WAS the uniform in which he was drowning at the ceremony at the Cenotaph?


As the Queen enjoyed the three cheers of the fighting men at the Festival, I reflected that she failed to overrule the ban the Foreign Office imposed on wearing poppies at a State banquet.  In case they embarrassed the diplomats from our former enemy countries.  How so?  The tradition embraces their dead soldiers; and the fighting men of World War Two saw nothing blameworthy in cheering the head of a German dynasty.


I confess to feeling sorry for the well meaning Prince of Wales who is ill served both by his relatives and his retainers.  His role model is clearly George 111 who was the best of a bad litter and mad in a much nicer way than the other Hanoverians.  I may be a bit prejudiced because my pension from the Royal Literary Fund was initiated by him.


I mistimed my shower on Armistice Day and had to leap out to stand naked and shivering for the two minutes’ silence.  As usual I wept copiously when the old soldiers marched past.  But I refuse to watch the rest of the ceremony in which the Establishment lays wreaths.  The same Establishment that started the wars and refuses to equip our soldiers.  (Russell was making the same complaint in the Times during the Crimean debacle and Halles in his Elizabethan Chronicles about Agincourt.)  An Establishment that refuses first pensions and then nationality to the Gurkhas.


Nor do I forget that private donations had to be solicited to give our squaddies a decent hospital and our Rulers even argue over their compensation.  I wasn’t a proper soldier and have become a pacifist.  That doesn’t stop me holding in great respect, even awe, those men who were ready to give their lives for the rest of us.


I suppose a case can be made for fighting the 2nd World War, even though it was the result of the complete balls up Lloyd George, Wilson and the French premier Clemenceau made of the Versailles Peace Treaty, the Peace that Passeth All Understanding.  Their insistence on crippling Germany let the Nazis in, just as the broken promises to the Arabs were the nursery which spawned the Muslim terrorist.


That war apart, it is difficult to justify any one of the combats which punctuated the twentieth century and are set to define this one.  Do people realise we have just fought the second Hundred Years War?



This chap rang me up and asked if I wrote biographies for people.  I said “Only rich people” and he said “That is OK; I am rich.”


That is how I found a dear chum Captain William Higgin.


When I got to know him better and heard something of his life I said, “You must have got through a fortune.”  “Three to be exact,” he told me proudly,


He was one of the finest game shots of his generation.  His game diaries, kept since the age of eleven, show a total of 357,000 birds and vermin destroyed.  Not recorded was the Dornier bomber he shot down on his family estate at Puddington, Cheshire, or the two sacred peacocks he downed in India, which almost got him lynched by angry villagers.


He shot the Dornier bomber as it came in very low on its run to the iron works at Queensferry.  He recalled: “It was quite an easy shot and the next day Western Command in Chester confirmed it had come down.”


The peacocks he shot in India while on safari.  He was saved from the wrath of angry tribesmen by their Head Man, a Cambridge graduate, who smuggled him out of the village at night.


His shooting career almost ended when as a 19 year old company commander in the 5th Baluch (Jacob’s Rifles) Regiment, King George V’s Own, a bullet whistled past his ear on morning parade.  It had been fired by a deranged sepoy.


Bill’s dilemma was that if he reported him to the CO, the sepoy would have been shot.  He had to think of an alternative.  He noticed the man was wearing a marksman’s badge and ordered another sepoy to rip it off as a punishment.  He said, “If you missed me at that range you are clearly wearing it under false pretences.”  He felt justified when six months later the sepoy won the Military Medal.


Fighting on the North West Frontier was conducted in a gentlemanly way.  If a sepoy was shot or a village became obstreperous it was given a warning that on an appointed day the Indian Air Force would bomb it.  On that day the villagers would scatter into the mountains, the Air Force would come over and drop a few bombs.  Not many casualties and very little blood letting.


Posted to the Burmese jungle in World War 2, he was struck down with polio and it took ten days to get him to hospital.  He told me: “I warned my soldiers I would shoot anyone I found drinking water from a pond.  Then twenty-four hours later like a bloody fool I drank from one.”


After a year in hospital, disguising his polio limp he was back on duty in India as ADC to an Army Commander, Sir Henry Finnis.  Subsequently he was Pandit Nehru’s warder when Nehru was imprisoned by the British.


He remembered: ”I looked after Nehru for six months and he didn’t address a single word to me.  Can’t blame him.  He was kept in appalling conditions, literally in a cage built onto a shed like a dog kennel where he slept.”


After the war Bill ran three farms, in Cheshire, North Wales and Shropshire, but still managed to shoot five days a week.  Then two years before we met, suddenly he couldn’t lift a gun.  After 69 years the legacy of the polio had returned.  Refusing to be defeated, he hired a beater to carry him on shoots and hold his shoulder whilst he shot.


The biography we wrote together “Koi Hai” was published the day he went into hospital.  He died two days later; a few hours after I had presented him with his first royalty cheque, which I had framed.


His ancestors included the Restoration rakehell 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who killed the Earl of Shrewsbury in a duel whilst the Countess looked on, and a Pendle Witch.




This from reader Judith Elliot: “The council may have a point about Latin, alas.  A friend had a cheque returned from the bank the other day because she put October in Roman numerals and they thought that meant she had crossed out the date.  And when she rang Delhi to explain, and said she was with the Ealing branch, the lady corrected her and said, ‘Madam, excuse me, you have made a mistake: there is no such place, you are spelling it wrong, there is an H in front.’  So now we keep our money in the Healing Bank.

“Another friend went to Homebase to buy a lavatory seat.  Met with blank stares.  Eventually she ventured toilet seat.  ‘Well, if that’s what you wanted, why didn’t you say so?’ said the man furiously.”