To escape from Crete, Daedalus fashioned a pair of wings for himself and Icarus, his son, fixing the feathers in position with wax.  But before they took off from the island, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun.  Overcome by the sublime feeling of flight, the boy soared through the sky joyfully, but he ignored his father’s warning and ventured too close to the sun.  Icarus kept flapping his wings but the wax had melted and the feathers detached.  With panic, he realised that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms.  And so, Icarus fell into the sea.

 

Maurice Kirk, the flying vet, is a latterday Icarus.  He has been flying around the world in his Piper Cub, a WW2 reconnaisance aircraft reputed to have been owned by General Patten.  In February of this year, he crashed into the sea off the Dominican Republic and was rescued by the US coastguard.  Eager to express his gratitude to the commander in chief,  on the next leg of this journey he landed close to George Bush’s ranch near Waco in Texas.  Leaving his aircraft by the road, he strolled up to the gates intending to append a note of thanks, but was immediately siezed by US secret service officers and incarcerated in a psychiatric insistution for assessment. 

 

This is the latest in a series of colourful and entertaining episodes in the eventful life of Kirk, the flying vet.  Last year during the London to Sydney Air Race, he was forced to land on a motorway in Japan, causing a lorry to swerve and crash.  His aircraft was impounded and he was detained while investigations proceeded. 

 

Kirk is now 63 and his escapades have encouraged institutional sanctions.  He has been imprisoned no fewer than eight times, he has been struck off the veterinary register and now he is threatened with having his pilot’s licence revoked. That would be devastating for most mortals, but Kirk perceives it as a challenge.  Over the years, he has gained considerable knowledge of the law and is a formidable advocate in his own defence.  He has escaped many times.  And to be fair, his misdemeanours, while deliberately flouting authority and occasionally dangerous, are more mischievous and provocative pranks than serious crimes.  Maurice is not wicked.  He is not a criminal.  In fact there is something inspiring, Quixotish even, about the way he refuses to conform and is prepared to take on the might of our institutions in order to defend his freedom.  In another time, another place, he would be lauded as a hero, but in the cautious, controlled, risk aversive 21st century,  he is all too often dismissed as a nuisance, a minor irritant.  That, I am sure, must be infuriating for him.         

 

I have known Maurice for over 50 years.  We were at Taunton School together.  We played rugger and climbed mountains.  He was exciting to be with, a thrilling if not somewhat dangerous companion, but one I would nevertheless entrust my life to.  Life was just too tame for Maurice, even then.  In the gym during the game of off-the-ground tag we called ‘monkey’s paradise’, Maurice shinned up the rope and established a completely inaccessible eyrie high up in the rafters.  Bored by one chemistry lesson, he tossed the contents of a bottle of ether in a nearby sink and threw a match in after it.  The pillar of flame devoured his jacket and nearly set the Science block on fire.  He was that sort of person.  There were stories of him sailing his catamaran single-handed across the English channel in a storm, having lashed his terrified companion to one of the hulls. And later after we had left school, I recall him landing in a field in the Caernarvon Valley and while I engaged the police in an explanation of why the fuel supply to aero-engines might fail, he retrieved the bottles of  Jamieson’s he had smuggled in from Ireland – ‘just to keep us going!’

 

All of this might have been dismissed then as boyish enthusiasm. We all do crazy things when we are young.  Indeed, an adventurous spirit is to be encouraged.  It builds confidence and character. But Maurice has never really grown up.  He has remained a boy’s own hero; inspirational, daring, brimming over with enthusiasm.  That is his enduring charm.  Over the years,  I have tracked his exploits through the pages of the Somerset County Gazette which my father sent me.  ‘Somerset vet rides raging bull in Taunton market.’  ’Police chase flying vet at 80mph through country lanes.’   ‘Vet flies under Bristol suspension bridge.’   He became friends with rabble-rouser actor, Oliver Reed. He even parachuted into his own wedding, a red flare attached to one ankle.

 

But there is a dark side. His devil-may-care challenge to immortality is an abiding danger.  Like Sir Ranulph Fiennes,  Maurice is living on borrowed time.  He has survived, just.  He doesn’t seem to think of the consequences of his actions.  Or maybe he just doesn’t care. Laws are there to be broken; they don’t apply to him.  But for every exciting adventure, there are weeks and months of frustration,  railing against the prohibitions of an over rigid society, building his defence – not living at all.  His weblog contains more grievious rants than inspiring adventures these days.     

 

So what makes Maurice do it?  Why does he have to seek out the most dangerous exploits at an age when most are looking forward to golf, the pub and more time in the garden?  Why would anybody wish to risk his professional status, his livelyhood and a hobby he clearly loves, just for the sheer bloody-minded thrill of twisting the tail of authority?   Why does Maurice seem possessed by some reckless demon that must inevitably destroy him?  One answer might be that he simply believes he can get away with it.    

 

Maurice is still living out that time of absolute happiness when we were all free to explore, when we were encouraged to do so and rewarded for it, when our brains were awash with endorphins generated by unconditional approval we received from our parents.  But this state of high excitation – this ‘can do, will do’ mentality,  cannot last forever.  Sooner or, in Maurice’s case, probably later, we come up against the stone wall of authority.  ‘No’ is the word we hear most often.  The psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, called this ‘the depressive position’.  Others have regarded it as the time our narcissistic quest for discovery and excitation is forced to submit to the strictures of society – when we learn to control our impulses,  to take turns, to share, to fit in, to obey the laws, when we learn respect for authority. 

 

This does not always work out well.  Sometimes the lessons of socialisation are overdone and children grow up shy and nervous.  Sometimes,  socialisation is insufficient and an excitable and inquisitive infant grows up to be an uncontained youth, thrill seeking, taking risks, seemingly immortal, flouting authority,  never quite able to fit within the limits of conventional society, always needing to indulge in more and more outrageous exploits to gain attention.

 

So did the conditions of  Maurice’s childhood encourage self reliance and a thirst for adventure at the expense of social convention?  Maurice was the third son of a family of 6.  Middle siblings have to strive more for attention.  I knew his father briefly.  He was a local vet and was learning to fly at Exeter flying school when I was.  He, like Maurice, refused to cowtow to authority.  His veterinary surgery still sticks out into North Street, like a single tooth, an edentulous  testament to Mr Kirk’s resistance to the council’s compulsary purchase order.  And when the police impounded his unlocked car from in front of the surgery,  Kirk’s response was to find an unlocked police car at the back of the police station and park it on the grass of The Parade in Taunton.  So is Maurice just a chip off the old block.  Did his father encourage the spirit of rebellion into his son?  There must also be a strong identification with the uncle he was named after – a flying vet who died just before Maurice’s birth.     

 

When George Mallory, whom many believe might have actually reached the summit of Everest in June 1924, was asked why he wanted to climb it,  he famously replied, ‘Because it’s there.’  What he meant was ‘Because I’m here.’  For many mountaineers, the conquest of the next peak, the pursuit of the next challenge is what gives their life meaning.  Without it, without the challenge, the thrill of achievement and the recognition that goes with it,  life can seem desolate.  But there must have been times in prison or after being struck off when Maurice must have felt abandoned by the society that should be cheering him on.  But even then he kept himself going the only way he knew, by turning his punishment into a fight for justice, a challenge to the mountain tops of authority, the law, the government, the royal college.     

 

But it’s all very well for the rest of us to sit on the sidelines and analyse such behaviour as some kind of psychological flaw.  It might even offer smug compensation for the envy we feel. Those who watch and don’t take any risks might be said to miss out on ‘life’ – the exhilarating highs and the terrifying lows. People like Captain Kirk are an inspiration.  We need our adventurers, our actors, our celebrities, our sports heroes.  They inspire us.  We are fascinated by them.  Yes, they may not be the easiest to live or work with, and yes, we may identify the flaws in their personality,  but by God, they have the courage to sieze life by the scruff of the neck and shake it.  And don’t we all wish we could do the same at times?   

 

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