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Donald-Crowhurst-on-board-001

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst, an electronic engineer and inventor in his mid thirties, living in Teignmouth with his wife and young family, decided to take part in the Daily Mail Golden Globe challenge: to sail round the world single handed without stopping. He had even mortgaged his house and business up as security on a loan to pursue his dream and collect the prize. The problem was that Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, had only ever sailed as far as Falmouth before. Nevertheless, he managed to convince his sponsors that his trimaran design would be faster than other boats. Moreover his bid would publicise his inventions: The Navicator, a hand held navigation device, and a unique buoyancy aid for trimarans consisting of a self inflating balloon fitted at the top of the mast that uprighted the boat if it capsized.

Starting nearly three months after the other eight competitors, Crowhurst had decided to finish off the refitting of his boat while at sea. Just a week out, he encountered a fierce Atlantic storm and realised that he and his vessel, the Teignmouth Electron would never survive the seas he would encounter in the southern ocean. The gaskets leaked and the hulls were filling with water, the buoyancy device had come apart and the plywood construction could not withstand the buffeting of the waves. But with the hopes of the people of Teignmouth, not to mention the support of his sponsors and the enormous publicity he had attracted as a plucky amateur, he carried on down the Atlantic through the horse latitudes, much too slowly to have any chance of winning.

50 years ago, we didn’t have global positioning satellites; the only way people knew the speed and position of The Teignmouth Electron were the reports he sent back by radio telephone. At some stage, Crowhurst must have decided that, in order to maintain the interest of the public and potential sponsorship, he would need to fabricate his position, making out that he had speeded up, even breaking the record for the greatest number of miles sailed by a single handed yacht during a single day. But somewhere in the South Atlantic, he punctured one of the hulls and had to put into the coast of South America for repairs. He could not face the reality of failure, so he went out of radio contact, leaving others to assume he was now in the southern ocean, but in fact he was drifting around somewhere off Argentina. Seven weeks later, about the time a fast boat would have made it round Cape Horn and back into the Atlantic, he came back in radio contact. There was great excitement. There were only two other yachts in the race. Robin Knox Johnston was already home and claimed the prize for the first back. There seemed a good chance Crowhurst would overhaul Nigel Tetley and win the prize for the fastest circumnavigation, but that would mean his records would be inspected and found to be false, so he mooched along slowly in the Sargasso Sea waiting for Tetley to get back. Coming in a plucky third after eight months by himself at sea would still mean he would get a lot of publicity. Then disaster struck: 1000 miles from home, Tetley pushed his boat so hard to stay ahead of Crowhurst that his boat broke up and sank and he had to be rescued. Crowhurst just had to return to win the prize, but if he did that, his deception would have been discovered and he would be branded a cheat.

He went out of radio contact again for the last time. The Teignmouth Electron was discovered by the RMS Picardy drifting in mid Atlantic like the Marie Celeste. Crowhurst had gone; his body was never found. Had he committed suicide? Had he just fallen overboard? Or had he lost his mind because of the months of loneliness and intolerable stress? Examination of the boat showed that he had thrown his navigation gear and cut the trail line that he might have grabbed hold of if he went overboard. His log books revealed a confusion of philosophical ramblings on Einstein’s theory of Relativity, and a last enigmatic entry: ‘It is finished, it is finished; it is the mercy.’

His family were devastated and were only saved from total destitution by the winner and sole remaining competitor, Robin Knox Johnston, who donated his prize money to Crowhurst’s widow. Clare Crowhurst did not marry again and is still alive in her eighties. She has never believed that her husband had committed suicide.

So was Donald Crowhurst a fantasist, carried away by a dream of adventure and glory? Was he so lacking in self esteem that he needed to do something that he and his family could feel proud of? Did he feel stuck in the rut of his life? Probably all of those are correct, but his decisions were all about Donald; he never seemed to consider the impact of his actions on his young wife and family. He put his personal shame of concealment and loss of face above the devastation of his family. Yes, he was courageous to set out on such an adventure, but the braver thing to do would have been to admit he couldn’t do it after just surviving that first storm, or perhaps put the challenge off until the next year when he might have been ready, but that was clearly not an option. He was already in too deep water to pull out.

From a psychotherapist’s perspective, Crowhurst showed quite driven narcissistic behaviour; he put his own self aggrandisement and idealisation above any empathy for his family and friends and could not face up to the reality of his situation.  There are some indications from Donald’s early life that offer insight into possible mental instability. After he was born in India in 1932, his mother had so desperately wanted a girl that she dressed Donald in girl’s clothes for the first seven years of his life. Perhaps he never felt he could be loved for the boy he was. His father worked for the Indian railways, but when India gained independence, the family returned to England, leaving their savings invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which burned down in the riots. Crowhurst’s father never settled back in England and died of a heart attack the following year. Donald was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1953 he received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave in 1954 for reasons that remain unclear. He was subsequently commissioned in to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1956. but he left the same year owing to a disciplinary incident. All of this suggests some confusion of identity when he was very young, and some degree of impulsive behaviour as a young man. So perhaps Donald always had a tendency to get into deep water, which might have contributed to feelings of inadequacy and an intense need to prove himself even if it meant taking extreme risks and hiding the truth.

A new film about Donald Crowhurst, ‘The Mercy’ starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, has just been released. I enjoyed it.

It was all going well.  Catherine had assessed her last week and said she would give it a go.  Mum had enjoyed her afternoon at Abbeyfield.  They had made a fuss of her, given her fish and chips for lunch, played dominoes.  It was just right; such a friendly, caring environment.  I felt sure that mum would feel at home there.  And it would mean that I didn’t have to stay in Sheffield to look after her.  I would enjoy visiting her there.  

The staff at Silverdales had agreed to write a letter and pack up her belongings and medications.  There was a slight hiccup when the Primary Care Trust demurred over funding her continuing health care, but Catherine reassured them that Abbeyfield also cared for some patients with dementia and after a delay of just two days they agreed.  I could scarcely believe how smoothly it had gone. 

We even had a window on the weather.  It had snowed the night before but the roads were passable and no more snow was forecast until the day after the move.  It was a little icy on the hill to mum’s flat, but I quickly gathered together her favourite pictures and ornaments, found her shoes and a warm blanket and set off to collect her from Silverdales.

The ward had been transformed into Santa’s grotto.  The staff were all in fancy dress.  An elf in stripey red stockings told me that mum wouldn’t come until she’d finished her coffee.  ‘Twas ever thus’, I said.  So I took her stuff down to the car and when I came back she was in the toilet and there was a queue of reindeer forming outside the door.

Betty was a little tearful.  I needed to explain to her several times that ‘No, Doris was not her mother in law and I was not her husband.’  It was all a bit too much for her, but she kissed mum and wished her a happy Christmas.  And so we took our leave of Santa’s helpers, the elves, the reindeer and the gnomes. 

The rather serious lady on reception was dressed in white with wings and a gold tinsel band round her head. 

‘Are you the fairy on top of the tree?’  I asked her as we went out.

‘No, she said, without a hint of a smile, ‘I’m an angel.’

Mum was quiet in the car and I put the radio on.  Every so often she would reach out, squeeze my hand and smile. Two hours later as we approached our destination,  I turned the radio off.  Almost immediately, she became fretful.   ‘I can’t get my breath.  Where’s my hanky.  I’m so hungry.  I want to go to the toilet. 

I explained again that she was going to Abbeyfield  House for Christmas and Simon and I would be just down the road.  I wasn’t sure she’d taken that in; she was much more concerned about lunch and going to the toilet.

 While Catherine got her a glass of sherry and some fish and chips for lunch, I went upstairs to personalise her room. I was going through the inventory with Kirstie when an agitated Catherine came in.  ‘Your mum is having an eppy.’

Close on her heels, mum appeared at the door, face as black as sin, but then she recognised me and smiled.  I showed her the pictures, the photographs of me and Simon, her chocolates and her musical lamp. 

‘What’s my stuff doing here?’

‘You’re staying here over Christmas. It’s really nice. Simon and I will be just down the road’ 

‘I’m not staying here.  I don’t like these people.  So you can just take all this stuff down and take me home.’

Then Catherine tried to persuade her.

‘And who are you?   You want to get rid of me too, I suppose.’ 

I tried a more robust approach.  ‘I’ll take you back to Silverdales, mum, if that’s what you want, but Simon and I will be here for Christmas. And it’s going to snow again.’ 

At that she started thumping her fists against my chest.  ‘Oh, so I’ve got to come to you.  Well, I’m not .  You –thump – can – thump – come – thump – to me!  Big thump!

Ok mum, we’ll take you back.  Let’s just hope the snow stays off.

I rang Sheriott.  Her room at Silverdales was still available. The journey back was a repeat of the  morning’s expedition.  She was quiet and we listened to the radio. 

Santa’s little helpers took her off into the day room to join the elves still preparing for Christmas while I went to put her stuff away.  

A few minutes later, she appeared at the door.  ‘Nobody is talking to me in there.’

‘Never mind mum’

‘Do you want a chocolate, dear?’

‘Oh, yes please, mum. Then I must go before it snows. ’

‘Well, it’s been a lovely day.  Thank you so much darling!’

Isn’t it tragic when fear forces people into actions that you know will harm them and you can’t do anything about it?   

The following was in response to a note left in the vistors book.

20.11.10

For the attention of The Dunny Monster.

Although I was  amused by the perilous account of your travails in this wild and desolate spot,   it was less hilarious to find the shippon full of the emotional residues.  The shock of it inhibited all bowel activity for 24 hours.  They clearly don’t call you ‘Dunny Monster’ for nothing!      

This morning, I did the dirty deed, pulling aside the heavy lid of the cesspool and pouring the contents of the bucket in, holding my breath all the while.  So far, so good!  But when I opened the Elsan cupboard, there was  only one  bottle left and it was empty.  I know you warned me not to go there,  Dunny Monster. 

Today is Sunday.  The nearest source of Elsan is Windscale; the liquid glows in the dark!  Frustrated,  I did at least manage to regain a semblance of decency with the last blue dribble from the bottle and four pints of water. 

This afternoon, the farmer told me that a strange dunny creature had been sited crouching in the snow on the slopes of Harter Fell.  Tomorrow I will be coming for you. 

Be afraid!  Be very afraid! 

 

21.11.10

It was a cold night and I slept poorly, preoccupied with thoughts of you out feral on the fells.  Something was spooking the sheep.  Once I looked out, and saw a flock  of about a hundred or so running in panic from one field through the gap in the wall to the far corner of the other.  I fancied I saw a faint blue glow behind the last few animals.  I went out, locked and secured the door to the shippon and returned to bed.  

 The farmer didn’t seem too surprised  about the way the sheep were rushing about.  The dogs were  restless too’, he said.  They were up well before it was light, barking like mad. This morning I found the barn door unlatched. I always close it last thing at night but I guess it might have blown open.  

There were splashes of blue on the trail leading up the Lingrove Valley to Bow Fell and some of the sheep bore marks of the same Elsan hue.  Once or twice I thought I  saw you up by Cringle Crags, but  the cloud rolled in and veered south down Mosedale, losing my way  among the bogs and swamps.  You could hide here for weeks, Dunny Monster,  but what would  you do for food and how would you get your magic potion.   

As if in answer, I encountered  a group of men in the yard of Black Hill Farm.  A few had shotguns under their arms.  ‘A ewe has been killed and butchered up by Peathill Crags’, they told me.  The carcass is still up there. 

From the top of Hardknott Pass, I wound down to the ancient Roman marching fort at Mediobogdum.  I sensed a presence and explored the ruins of the commandants house, the granary, the barracks, the sauna, but it was getting dark and I left.  

Later , looking out of the cottage, I fancied I saw the flickering light of a fire up at the fort, but perhaps it was a car coming down the pass in the mist. And was that a whiff of Elsan on the wind?  You are beginning to get to me.            

 

22.11.10

It was not quite light when I spotted somebody in the field across the valley.  He had cornered one of rams, turned it over and was daubing dye from a large blue bottle on its nether regions. Later I saw the same figure heading west  on the slopes of Harter Fell. I reached for my binoculars and saw an unusually tall man, about seven feet I would guess, and dressed in a shabby brown three-quarter length waterproof coat and a woollen  balaclava helmet with the ear flaps hanging loose.  A sack was slung across his shoulders.  But, strangest of all, it seemed to me that he was enveloped in a bluish aura, like a force field.  

I dressed and ate a hurried breakfast, then packing a flask of coffee and some crackers,  followed the figure, whom I guessed must have been you,  down river, stopping briefly to read the notices pinned to the door of St Catherine’s Church, that offered  counselling.  I then sped on through  Boot and turned north across the sweeping grassland of Eskdale Moor.  From the top of the rise, vistas of Wasdale and Great Gable were revealed and I spotted a tall figure  moving towards the foot of Sca Fell in  great rolling strides. Then I understood.   You were  going to double back to the cottage. How I wish I locked the door to the shippon.  I broke into a trot and followed as, with what might have been a wave of your hand, you disappeared into the cloud.   

I wasn’t going to pursue you in the mist and snow, so I decided to keep low and take the direct route back,  crossing Quagrigg Moss to the foot of Slight Side and then descending  Cow Cove to just below Bull How, skirting round Hare Crag and coming out on the road by Wha House.  All seemed well, but when I opened the door to the shippon, there, scrawled in capital blue letters on the whitewashed wall above the chemical toilet, was the word DUNNY and an arrow pointing down. 

 

23.11.10d

I needed to get away and before midday, I was up in the snow at the top of Yeastyrigg Beck.  I followed the prints  of size 12 Vibrams up to the ridge.  Ravens performed aerobatics above the snow and chuckled knowingly, but the cloud came in on a nor-easterly  east and I had to descend.  Once or twice I fancied I saw a hint of blue and a cry of ‘Aa-aw Jee-ee-eez ’ seemed to hang in the wind that rushed between the rocks.  But the mind plays tricks and I had spent too much time alone.

Descending across Pieck Beld Moss, I spotted a large dog fox run up the opposite hill.   

 

24.11.10

 Woken at 4am  by a rattling of the schippon door.  I went down with a thumping heart.  Was that a faint emanation of blue below Wha House Bridge.    

 I had no more sleep that night.   At first light, I ate a hurried breakfast and escaped the clinging aroma of Elsan to the freshness  of the fells.  My feet crunched on the frosty ground and cracked the puddles as I ascended the track to the vastness of Great Moss.  I was completely alone.  I went swiftly up the gully between Sca Fell and its Pike and down the precarious path on the other side.  By lunch time I had reached the Wasdale Inn.  ‘You come down from hills?’, the landlord asked.  I replied that I had.  ‘Somethings been killing the sheep up there.  Another ewe was found butchered this morning’. 

 

25.11.10     

Today I went to the stores in Windscale to buy some more Elsan.  The shop keeper, a plump lady in her forties, eyed me suspiciously.  ‘What d’you do with it?’  she enquired sharply. ‘You bought a whole box full of double strength last week. You cleaned me out’.

 I said nothing;  she would never have believed me, anyway! 

 

It wasn’t that she was meant to set fire to the hospital.  It just happened.  Well, it had been a long day and he had been on at her again!    ‘Have you recruited more volunteers?  Where’s the revisions on the protocol?  And have I seen the data from your last set of experiments yet?  Karen, how do you expect to get your PhD unless you work until you drop and then get up and work again.’  I mean, what was this guy on?    

So she cancelled her dinner engagement with Rob and stayed late again, agreeing to meet him for a drink when she’d finished.  But she was hungry.   Was there anything in this Godforsaken hole that she could eat.  Ah, the baked beans!  She fed them to her volunteers and measured the hydrogen they exhaled.  There were cans of them stacked all around the room, enough to launch a Zeppelin.  OK, she’d fart all night but what the hell.  She was hungry. 

So she opened a can and stuck it on a tripod and lit the Bunsen burner.  Then the phone rang in the office.   ‘Could we talk about this last set of experiments.’  ‘Could you open up the database and just check…..’   By the time she’d finished, she’d forgotten all about her beans.    Bloody smoke alarm was blaring somewhere.  But, it was always going off.   Fuck it, she was late and needed a glass of wine.  And now the bastard lift wasn’t working and something had happened to the lights.  Nothing for it but the stairs, but she was on the eleventh floor.   

It still didn’t register when she saw the fire engines.  There were five of them lined up in the road, sirens still blaring,  blue lights sweeping the buildings on either side.  Firemen in helmets and bright yellow overalls with axes and torches were tumbling from the cabs and rushing past her to the stairs.  Funny time for a fire drill, she thought, as she rushed out into the cool night air. 

Rob was none too pleased about being kept waiting, but he could see she was flustered,  ‘Did you get anything to eat, love?’ he asked.

She stared  at him, with focussing, unfocussed,  then  her eyes grew wide and her mouth opened    ‘Oh fuck! Oh fuck, fuck, fuck!      

They’d started evacuating the patients by the time she got back.  Some were standing there in little groups, shivering in their light green hospital dressing gowns, more were coming out in chairs or on stretchers.  She tried to get in but a policeman stopped her. ‘You can’t go in there miss; there’s a bomb.’

‘No there isn’t, it’s only a can of beans.’

‘Aye, you might say that, but move along now.’

When she got back to Rob’s, the news was on.  ‘We break into the programme to report a possible terrorist attack on Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital.’  She listened in shocked silence.  She could see it all, the beans charring, catching fire, setting the papers and the boxes alight, the cans exploding, the sprinklers going off, the lights shorting, panic, evacuation.  Oh fuck!  It was the only thing she could say. 

It was all over the newspapers the next morning.  Terrorist attack in Sheffield!  There were even  questions in the house.  ‘Why had the right honourable gentleman ignored our warnings?’  ‘Why hadn’t this government improved security in our public institutions?  Why had they cut funds to the fire service and the police?    There was no way the government, already in trouble, could survive a vote of no confidence.  They held  a snap election and lost.  ‘Fired’, the headlines screamed.  The Conservatives got in on a ticket of Health and Safety.  And six months later, Britain joined the Americans and declared war on Iran.

It’s all chaos. A butterfly flaps its wings in West Africa and there’s a typhoon in the South China Sea.   Karen cooks beans on toast ……. and well, anything could happen.

Dimbola Lodge, home of Mrs Julia Margaret Cameron, lies just a mile from Freshwater Bay at the foot of the chalk ridge that rises high above the sea and extends all the way to the Needles.  Alfred, Lord  Tennyson, the poet laureate, who lived just down the road at Farringford, was her neighbour; their estates were connected by a private gateway. 

The Tennysons had moved to Farringford Lodge to escape the attentions of celebrity, but people followed him there.  It became a place of pilgrimage.  Tennyson affected not to enjoy the attention he attracted; he even had a bridge build over the road so he could walk up onto his beloved High Down without being seen.  But he disliked the lack of attention more. Bad reviews would cause him to fret for weeks, so much so that Emily, his wife, took pains to hide bad reviews from him, and Julia even wrote good reviews which were published anonymously.  It was largely due to the eccentric energy of Mrs Cameron that there was a constant stream of visitors (pilgrims) to her Tennysonian  salon, where guests feasted on Indian cuisine and erudite conversation with the laureate.  West Wight attracted the luminaries of the day including  Charles Darwin, the repressed pre-Raphaelite painter GF Watts and his child bride, the actress Ellen Terry,  Elizabeth Barrett Browning,  The Reverend Dodgson (Lewis Carroll,  who had a thing about little girls), the astronomer John Herschel, Thackeray, Charles Kingsley, George du Maurier, Edward Lear, Anthony Trollope, Henry Longfellow.  Julia even got Alfred to send an invitation to John Ruskin but received this dusty reply,  ‘Thank you, you’ve got nothing there but chalk and sand.’   Ruskin was not a man to indulge in frivolity and humour          

 Julia was in love with Alfred,  but he was faintly amused by her ardour, which he regarded as quite understandable though he thought her photographs made him look like a dirty monk.  She arrived at Dimbole Lodge shortly after the Tennysons and stayed on when her husband, who was much older than her returned to India.  Julia was a woman of great impulses and enthusiasms.  She came from a large family with connections in the East India Company.  The three sisters were known as Dash, Beauty and Talent.  Julia was the most clever but the least beautiful.  She was always trying to please, but never quite hit the mark.  When Alfred said he liked white roses, she had all the roses in her garden painted white, but the great man failed to call.  Spurned by Tennyson and neglected by Cameron, Julia devoted her formidable energies to the developing art of photography.  She mastered the techniques for coating glass plates with a colloid of light sensitive chemicals and would capture romantic images featuring strong bearded men, like Tennyson and Watts, striking pre-Raphaelite women and cute children.  Julia almost single handedly invented the art of photographic portraiture.  She liked the natural, not to say wild look and by skilful combination of camera angles and lighting, could emphasise the personality etched into a person’s face.  She even washed Hershel’s white hair and made it stick up to create a perpetual air of astronomical surprise.   

Tea parties at Dimbola tended towards the eccentric.   There was the brooding presence of Watts, the histrionic Terry, the strange Reverend Dodgeson and Tennyson, who was quite oblivious to everything except his own eminence.  Many a time her guests were alarmed by screams and a photographic plate would come skimming over the grass and smash against the wall.  People didn’t communicate very much and strange things tended to happen.  It seemed an ideal setting for Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.    

Now Dimbola is a local art gallery, staging frequent exhibitions as well as displaying a permanent collection of Julia’s work.  A statue of Jimi Hendrix, who died just three weeks after the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival dominates the strip of lawn in the front of the house. I asked the man in the bookshop, a member of the local Tennyson society, what Mrs Cameron would have thought of the statue He was in no doubt. ‘Oh, if she could cope with a Victorian pop star like Tennyson with all of his antisocial and insanitary habits’, she would have had no problem with Hendrix.  She supported creativity, no matter what form it took. He would have been a welcome guest to her island salon. There would have been a clash with His Lordship the laureate though. He couldn’t tolerate rivals and he hated noise and crowds.’

‘I would love to go to my own funeral,’ John said at the reception afterwards.  ‘It would be wonderful to meet up with all my old friends again and listen to all the nice things they would have to say about me.’ 

 

We just about managed just that it with Wallace, my father, who had a wonderful 90th birthday party just months before he died. But I don’t how much of the celebration he was able to understand.  ‘Lots of people there tonight.  Easy!  Did I know them?’   

 

 

Mick would have hated that kind of fuss.  It wasn’t that he avoided company.  He never wished to be the centre of attention.  He just preferred to get on with things in a quiet though resourceful manner.  He had left instructions that he didn’t want a funeral.  I rather think Mick would have liked to be placed in an open boat with the sails set and allowed to drift with the winds and currents until he sank. 

 

But funerals are not for the dead.  They are to help those who remain cope with the separation, to allow friends and family to reflect on the life of the departed and to console the bereaved.     

 

It was Mick’s resourcefulness, his gruff independence that probably hastened his demise.  He was determined not to be handicapped by the loss of his arm.  Years of  pressure on the opposite hip, up ladders, on and off boats, lifting heavy loads, destroyed the joint.  It had to be fused.  He couldn’t use a crutch and the wheelchair was difficult with one arm.  He became depressed, and drank and smoked himself to oblivion.  He died of a massive heart attack in the first few hours of the new year, after sending Sheila out for more whisky and cigarettes. 

 

After 30 years, Suzy could not take the depression and drinking any more.  She left and for the last few years of his life, he was looked after by Sheila, who was his trainee nurse when he first went into practice nearly 40 years ago.  She was traumatised by an episode  that had happened to her the previous year and it was Mick, she said, who restored the  meaning in her life.  She never forgot him and, many years on, she seized upon the chance to repay him.    

 

Mick could inspire great affection.  He never sought it out.  Quite the reverse; he affected  the  grizzled appearance of cantankerous gruffness, but people and, I like to think, animals detected a concealed compassion that drew them in. 

 

So there, lined up in the front row facing the coffin, were the three women who had lived with Mick, who shared his life and who, in their own ways, still loved him. 

 

John and I collected wife number 1 from Newton Abbot station.  Her name was Francis.  Her mop of bright red hair shone like a beacon in the January gloom. We went to the hotel, high on the promontory overlooking Torbay, for lunch. 

 

That’s where Maurice joined us.  He looked rough.  His mourning suit was supplemented  by an ancient flying coat, torn in many places with the fleece coming out, and rubberised grey deck shoes.  His grey hair was tousled and unwashed.  He wore a large black bow tie and there was a dangerous look in his eyes. He had been stumbling around at the foot of the cliff with a bottle of brandy, communing with Mick. ‘Mick loved his sea,’  he announced as he entered the bar. 

 

He was drunk.  There could be trouble.    

 

 

He sat down heavily and glared at Francis.  ‘Who the hell are you?’ 

 

‘Maurice, you must remember me, I’m Francis.’

 

‘Francis? Francis? Oh that Francis!  Yes!  Yes! I remember you.  Well how long did it take you to get fed up with Micky?’

 

There was a pause as the shock wave passed.  Then Francis looked him in the eye and quietly replied, ‘I didn’t.  I would be married to him now if he hadn’t told me to go’

 

‘Oh, you’re so upset, aren’t you?’      

 

 

Good old Maurice.  He should have been a psychotherapist. 

 

 

But that was positively polite compared to the way he greeted wife number 2. 

 

‘Suzy!  Come here.  Let me feel your bum!’, he shouted, grabbing her around the beam.

 

 

Wife number 3 hid.    

 

 

The funeral took place in the undertakers’ chapel of rest.  Peter, who officiated wore a blazer with silver buttons and badges.  His face was gaunt and his wavy grey hair was stained with nicotine.  And he smiled all the time; unnerving, like Malvolio, a mixture of obsequiousness and forced sincerity.  And when he spoke, his unctuous vowels dripped from his lips and coagulated on every surface, leaving a slippery residue. 

 

The opening hymn, a school favourite, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ broke down half way through.  The undertakers assistant, a stocky young lady, dressed in a Victorian riding habit with top hat and flowing crepe, said sorry and started it again.

 

Lynne then gave a very intimate address on behalf of wife number 3.  This was followed by a romantic ballad, How do I tell you, sung by Cat Stevens.  Then John, his red scarf and red spotted socks a colourful contrast to his black suit, reminded us of Mick’s great affection for animals and his love of wild places.  Peter oozed a little more and then while we quietly gathered bags and thoughts, buttoned coats and tucked handkerchiefs into pockets, we were roused out of our reveries by the thumping base and strident chorus of ‘Fat Bottomed Girls Make The Rocking World Go Round’, performed by Queen.

 

Malvolio smiled with indulgence.  A few nodded their heads to the rhythm. Others edged head down towards the exit.  Was Mick beating time inside his coffin?  Perhaps!  He was never one for sentimentality.  He would have wanted us to have fun.

 

Maurice was perhaps the only one to get into the spirit of the occasion.  He prowled around the reception, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, accosting anybody who made eye contact with lurid tales, shouting with laughter, trying to put his head on Suzy’s ample lap.  

 

I needed to catch a train, so I left him to it, but he staggered up to me as the taxi drew up. 

 

‘Remember Bastille Day.  I’m having a party in my house in St Malo.  You’re invited.  You must come!  Now fuck off!’

Rachel is 41 and has never really let herself enjoy life.  She is a risk taker, who can’t take the risk, a pleasure seeker, for whom pleasure feels very insecure – something is bound to go wrong.  She feels deeply but can never show her feelings.  She needs intimacy, but cannot let anybody close to her.  So her existence is orchestrated in a minor key.  She took a job that was dull and safe rather then challenging and interesting.  She was too scared to marry the man she fell in love with.  She never felt able to take on the responsibility of children.  Life has been a sequence of missed opportunities. She is a creative poet, but rarely reads her work in public and has never submitted it for publication.  She cannot let herself be free to express herself.  On the few occasions she has tried, a voice in her mind, perhaps an echo of her critical mother, would sneer, ‘Just who do you think you are?’  She constantly monitors her behaviour, censors every impulse. So she has never developed confidence is herself and she cannot trust people. Ever fearful of implied criticism, she feels worthless.    

 

So Rachel spends most of her time alone, preoccupied with her ailments.  She suspects she has a terminal illness that nobody can diagnose. She has.  It’s called melancholy.  She has starved herself of life and like Eeyore, the doleful donkey in Winnie the Pooh, has become a caricature of her own misery. 

 

So many of my patients come to see me because they are unhappy.  Why else would anybody wish to see a therapist?  They want to talk about it and some may want to feel better so much that they are willing to risk the change.      

 

Depression, which is the commonest illness in the western world is not just a disease of the mind or the brain, it is a depletion of the spirit – the meaning and purpose of life, an erosion of hope.  For the majority of depressed people, the changes in mood and brain chemistry occur as a result of what has happened to them.  It is crucial, therefore, to look for the causes of depression in a person’s individual narrative; their life script.     

 

Why do they tend to take the blame for everything?   Why are they so shy and scared of other people?  What has happened to make them feel so ashamed of themselves?  Why do they constantly compare themselves to others and feel inadequate?  Why do they always feel in the way?   Is it related to the way they were treated as a child or has something happened to shatter their confidence later in life?  Is their behaviour still relevant now?  

 

We are social animals.  We all need to feel we belong – to feel comfortable with ourselves in the company of others.  If we are feeling ashamed, guilty, insecure or inadequate,  it can affect the way others treat us and unerringly bring about what we are most frightened of, inviting a spiral of inadequacy, rejection and depression.  So fear of abandonment and isolation can cause us to behave in a needy way, causing others to feel obligated.  If we are so obsessed with our own inadequacies, then people perceive us as a burden.  If we can’t trust others and are closed and secretive, they will not trust us.  If we feel in the way and are constantly making excuses for ourselves, then we put demands on others to rescue us.  If we are too aware of the unfairness in life, then our grievances will irritate others.  If we become too assertive of our own rights, then others will feel ignored and rejected.  If we are so preoccupied with our own misery,  we will take others’ behaviour personally. If we are always questioning another’s love for us, they will begin to question it too.  If we envy another’s success,  then they may feel they have to demean themselves to be in our company.  To cure our depression, we need to escape from our own morbid  obsession with ourselves.  We need to change the script.   

 

Traditional healers, such as the Sangoma in South Africa are story tellers.  They heal by enacting a new script, a script for change.  Stories carry meaning.  They can make people feel better.  If something they feel guilty or ashamed of can be explained in ways they can understand,  then they can forgive and forget and move on with resolve not to make the same mistakes again.   Psychotherapists also need to be interpreters and tellers of stories.  They need to understand the meaning behind the depression and  help their clients change it.  In order to do that, they must conduct sufficient analysis for their client to appreciate fully the narrative that they illness is expressing.  Then the two of them need to edit the script in a way that makes sense and offers a credible route for healing to take place.

 

Change occurs slowly and starts with a change in attitude; a redrafting of the life script.  As well as providing an acceptable understanding for perceived misdemeanours,  the altered life script might include emphasising areas of life where people have a role, a purpose,  where they can rediscover a sense of value.  It might suggest enterprises that can inspire, ways of being creative, opportunities to become more interested in others while not minding too much how they are perceived.  In these ways and many others people can stop the morbid self destruction and dare to embrace life.  This is not a catch all formula for change.  The script has to be authentic, to relate to their own history, but presented in a  more hopeful manner that draws strength from their experience and brings out the best of their personal resources of family, work and interests.

 

Rachel has starved herself of life, because she has feared her mother’s critical envy.  But her mother died some years ago.  In reality, there is nothing to fear except the fear that is in her head.  She now has an opportunity to change the story.      

Sunday was the last day of the Grand Annual Country Fair at Chatsworth and it rained, not just a fine drizzle but a downpour, that cascaded off the entrances to the  marquees, tumbled merrily down the helter-skelter and created lakes of the arenas.   

 

The weather had threatened to drown out the event.  The Ferrets stopped racing when their tunnels flooded.  The Tigers Freefall team got lost somewhere in the clouds.  The 50 balloons never took off at all, and when the aerobatics duo appeared out of the grey to risk their lives in rolling loops, barrel rolls, knife edge spins,  nobody cared.  Stallholders occupied the hours before they could pack up, staring disconsolately out from beneath dripping banners advertising The Countryside Alliance, Mike Dunn, Liberal Democrat MEP,  The Domestic Fowl Trust and Don Philpot, Daughter and Granddaughter, purveyor of gents moleskins and quilted handknit sweaters.  Only the Buxton Mountain Rescue were truly in their element. 

 

With paths becoming rivers of mud, fairgoers pulled peaked caps and Arkuba bush hats over their eyes and crowded tweed elbow to tweed elbow into steamy marquees, where they ate sausage rolls and prepared to be fascinated by the fabric sculptures and demonstrations of magic knives.

 

At least the dogs had fun.  The gundogs swum industriously back and forth across to the island where they searched with tongue-lolling enthusiasm for the cylindrical blue bags of bait that were hidden in the grass. And Cyril the Squirrel’s racing terriers were driven to a state of manic excitement by the conditions, though the final race disintegrated into chaos when all the dogs in the park joined in a frenzy of splashing, yapping and scampering, as the lure was propelled first one way and then  the other by Cyril, frantically hand pedalling an upturned bicycle wheel.  The terriers with their short legs could turn on a sixpence,  but the greyhounds overshot by miles and were last seen heading for the park gates and the larger collies, poodles and retrievers bounded along anywhere just enjoying the fun.

 

 

The Chatsworth fair celebrates the other side of Britain, the country side, where weather is a given and people just carry on.  So, in a grassy arena,  desolate except for groups of supporters on shooting sticks, the carriage drivers sat proud and erect awaiting their turns, while water dripped off their bowler hats, soaked into tweed and cavalry twill and ran off polished leather and white foam dropped from the champing muzzles of glistening black ponies.  At the other end of the showground, the Scottish dancers had donned capes and  continued to splash daintily in the mud to the dying skirl of the pipes. 

 

It was late in the afternoon with the weather fully established that the band of the Royal Welsh Guards entered the grand ring, splashing in step.  They had also put on  black capes, which with their dark helmets, made them look like the Derbyshire police force of 1901, out to sort out a spot of bother in t’park.  In a manoeuvre that looked more like synchronised swimming, they formed themselves into a semi-circle in front of the few faithful in the grandstand.  The Archdeacon of Chesterfield, summoned by the tempest, entered, wearing a creamy white woollen cassock, his face hidden under the large black umbrella which was held aloft by his assistant, the Reader of Edensor.  The thunder tumbled overhead on cue, as, with vowels like sodden fruit cake amplified over the hiss of falling water, he suggested with a somewhat forced ecclesiastical jollity, that the band play ‘All things bright and beautiful’.  I felt thankful it wasn’t  ‘For those in peril on the sea’.  The water had got into the tubas and made the drumskins flaccid, but within the grandstand beneath the celestial artillery and the rain-gun rattle of corrugated iron,  a few doughty Christian soldiers warbled on to save the Empire.  

 

 

 

  

 

The discs of light danced a violent tango on the thick cream paint of the cabin walls,  backwards and down, forwards and up and then backwards again.     The engine raced, rattling the glass syringes in their boxes and then slowed to a regular thud as the propeller bit into the next wave.  One small dark medicine bottle had broken loose and rattled back and forth across the wooden floor.  Somewhere a door opened and then shut with a bang.  The cabin smelt of Dettol, diesel and fish.  A body,  partly covered in a grey blanket lay on a metal table in the middle of the room.  The lights flashed across his swarthy features, the prominent nose, the high cheekbones, the dark moustache.  His skull, cushioned in pillows, was wrapped in layers of bandage, white except for a faint smudge of blood at the forehead.   His eyes were closed and he slept, oblivious to the world that rattled,  banged, bucked and lurched  around him.  

 

By the side of the table sat a young woman, dressed in navy slacks and a thick cream coloured Fair Isle cardigan.  She was pretty in a way.  Her brown hair curled loose over her ears.   Her reddened lips were parted to reveal rather prominent teeth with a gap between them.   A scrap of blue paper was screwed tightly in her right hand.  The long fingernails were painted a rich red.   She had been crying, her make-up ran down her face like the rusty stain on the cabin wall she stared at.  She felt sick.

 

‘You bastard!’   Doris shouted at the sleeping body.  ‘You utter bastard!’   Tears blurred the dancing discs of light as she suddenly got up,  paced back and forth and then tried to push the table to the door.  But it was bolted to the cabin floor and Doris collapsed into her chair, defeated.   The letter was from a girl, a WAAF stationed near Kirkwall.   Doris had read only the first two lines,  ‘Darling, you were so wonderful.  Please come and see me again just as soon as you can’   Just six weeks wed, Doris was completely distraught.  Caught in a blind fury, she just wanted to throw herself, her husband and the whole bloody war into the sea.          

 

Two years previously,  in that sunny autumn of 1939,  the British government under Neville Chamberlain, declared war on Nazi Germany.  Nothing much happened for the first three months.  In February the following year, the government issued a general call for volunteers.  Wallace, although he was tipped to be a high flyer in his company, had responded without hesitation.  Wrapping his fawn coloured gabardine raincoat around him and holding his dark trilby to his head,  he ran through the squalls to the Navy recruiting office near the top of Park Street in Bristol,  but they were closed for lunch and so he signed up for the RAF a few doors down.  He wasn’t that disappointed – his friends,  Pete and Bryan assured him that the RAF boys got a better class of crumpet.  

 

That evening he told Doris.  She was frightened;  Wallace couldn’t even drive a car – how on earth could he learn to pilot a plane?  Still, he was so brave and she felt very proud.  Silly with love,  she told her grandmother.   ‘I hope I never live to see you marry that boy’, was her only comment.   But it was war and there was no time to reflect.  Within a few weeks she had left the family; grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles, her dog Rover, and Daisy, the devoted mother who had lost her husband in another war.   Doris rented a flat in the Victorian town of Clevedon on the Severn estuary; it would be so romantic for her and Wallace when he came home on leave. 

 

Wallace commenced his pilot training, first in Kidlington north of Oxford, then in Long Sutton in Lincolnshire, before he joined 253 squadron, fighter command, which was assigned to fleet escort duties in Orkney. 

 

By the spring of 1941, the British army had been defeated and plucked from the beaches at Dunkirk and the Luftwaffe had intensified their bombing raids on London.  The RAF recruited more pilots to respond to the threat of invasion.  Wallace was told that only one in nine of them would survive.   So on the 24th April,  he married Doris at a hurried ceremony in St Luke’s Church.  He wore the blue serge uniform of flight sergeant, his wings proudly sewn to his chest.  Doris clutched her bouquet of white flowers and shivered.  The honeymoon was a weekend in Weston-Super-Mare.  They never left their hotel room. Then Wallace rejoined his squadron.     

 

Just six weeks later on the 12th of June,  Wallace was on a reconnaissance flight in tandem with his commanding officer.  Witnesses said one engine was making a funny noise. The aircraft had come in from the east over the sea and were heading up a valley on Rousay when they noticed smoke to the south over the hill.  Wallace banked steeply to investigate but was too low to clear the ridge and crashed into a telegraph pole at two hundred miles an hour, cutting off all communication to the island for two weeks.      

 

Doris had only just got into her office in Clevedon when the call came through.  She left immediately and that same night, took the train to Scotland.  It took her three days. 

 

Wallace lay in the back bedroom of Mrs Greave’s croft when Doris arrived.     He had broken his back, shattered his right knee, his forehead had been lacerated by the perspex of the broken cockpit and his skull was cracked open.  The MO from the base told her that he had never seen anybody survive such injuries, but Wallace responded to Doris’s devoted nursing and three weeks later was stable enough to be moved to the mainland. 

 

When Wallace regained consciousness,  he had lost all memory of the accident and the events that had preceded it.  He could not even remember his wedding and he didn’t know who Doris was.  He was childish in behaviour and for a time just talked French.  It was another eight months before he could leave hospital.  Unfit to return to active duty, he spent the rest of the war serving pints in Daisy’s pub in Bedminster.   The daily contact with customers, getting to know the drinks and working out the change rewired his brain.  But he was not the same man.  The damage to his brain had disintegrated his personality.   He had had to reinvent himself.  His sisters remarked many years later that he had gone to war a confident, laughing boy, with everything going for him, and had returned a feckless, middle-aged man, prone to rages and embarrassing behaviour.            

 

By the end of the war, Wallace was able to return to his work in the same insurance company.  He even passed his professional examinations at the first attempt, but he had lost lacked the emotional containment to take responsibility for even a small  branch office.  He would lose his temper easily.  He drank heavily.  And his behaviour towards women, which had always been very polite, had become openly flirtatious; his innuendo could offend.   

 

Doris suffered it all, the flirtations, the humiliations, even the drunken rages. They had two young boys and women at that time rarely left a bad marriage.  She stuck it out, but the resentment inside her grew.  She kept the letter as a dark secret and from time to time she would open it and make a solemn vow to herself that if she ever had the chance, she would leave Wallace.  It was only what he deserved.   

 

They had been married for 18 years when she met Ron.  He had moved into the house next door.  He had recently divorced his wife for adultery, but had retained custody of their 5 year old son.  He and Doris would spend hours talking over the fence while they were both working in the garden. Wallace didn’t seem to notice.  He was hospitable to Ron; he invited him round most evenings – they all went out drinking together.  He even invited him to come on holiday with them.  There was a connection between the two men, a comradeship; during that same war, Ron had served on arctic convoys out of Scapa Floe, the very fleets Wallace had been protecting. 

 

Wallace never dreamed that Doris could be interested in any other man, let alone a sailor.   But she was.  She was falling in love.  Ron was everything that the old Wallace, the Wallace she had married, used to be – and the reinvented Wallace wasn’t.  He was young, bright, amusing, he had a lively interest in all kinds of things, and he made her laugh.  Wallace’s interests had constricted, become stereotyped by warm beer, laughing women and slow horses and he always seemed angry with her.

 

Soon Ron and Doris were having an affair.  He would visit her during the afternoons when she knew that Wallace would be safely seeing clients and the children were at school.  They were careful.  They made their plans.  After two years, she left Wallace without any warning.  There was just a note on the kitchen table. She rented a flat in town, hired a man with a van, packed up a few personal items, and left, taking the boys with her. Then she petitioned for divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty. 

 

Shocked by his wife’s betrayal and furious with the man he had welcomed into his house,  Wallace found the sense of abandonment almost impossible to cope with.  He couldn’t work.  He spent hours in the pub, drinking heavily, buying himself barstool friends by always getting the next round.  His only respite from morbid  preoccupations were the weekly commentaries he composed to his sons; long letters in which he imagined them conducting lives that were always successful and sexually adventurous. 

 

‘And do they admire you?’  he would ask, as if the continuation of his life depended on their answer.

 

To what extent, the burden of Wallace’s expectations shaped the lives of his sons is difficult to assess.  They were both successful.  Rory became an artist.  Jack, four years older,  won a  Flying Scholarship with the RAF, obtained his private pilots licence and might have joined the RAF or become a commercial pilot, but those  prospects seemed empty and boring.  So he went to University and pursued a career in zoological research, investigating bird migration.

 

Flying was Jack’s religion.  He maintained his private pilot’s licence, saved up his money and bought his own aeroplane.  Soaring among the sun-split clouds was the one place he could find peace and inspiration. .      

 

Jack could not be the happy-go-lucky philanderer that his father wished him to be. He was too shy and introspective.  He never let anybody get too close to him for fear of abandonment.  He had a series of prolonged relationships with women whom he loved, but the inevitable separation always left him with a loss of meaning, that sent him back to the clouds again. 

 

At length, he married Therese, his research assistant.  In the beginning, they were happy.  Their three children were a joy to them both.  Jack felt, for the first time in his life, that he belonged.  But Therese resented his preoccupation with work and the weekends he took off to go flying.  She grew angry. 

 

Hurt, Jack had a brief affair with one of his PhD students. Wallace would have been proud of him, but that was little consolation.  It could not negate the guilt he felt.  His girl friend became pregnant.  Jack could not abandon the child, but neither did he want to leave the marriage.  He continued to see his daughter but did not tell his wife, but this strategy was never going to last. After 19 years together, the loss of home, wife and above all, children, was devastating.  It was not an amicable separation.  Therese was furious and took her revenge.  Jack found himself isolated.  His friends deserted him.  It became impossible to continue his work.  He had to find a project, something that would capture his imagination, restore some meaning to his life.   

 

 

Wallace, meanwhile, had married a country woman who loved him for the man he had become and understood his losses of memory, supported him through crises of confidence, and guided him to behave in ways that were more appropriate. She became his rock.  He found a contentment he had not known before.  But one bitter February morning in 1994 she collapsed in the bathroom.  Her beloved spaniel also died within the month. 

 

Wallace lived for another ten years alone in his house on the hill.  His health deteriorated and he suffered being looked after by the carers whom Jack had organised.  It was while he was recovering in a care home from an operation on his hip that he crashed.  He had gone out of his room, without his sticks, on another low flying sortie to visit the ladies when he fell into the door frame, striking his head.  He died later that day in hospital. 

 

 

Jack heard the news in Indonesia.  He had left Queensland four days previously  on the third leg of his round-the-world solo flight.  His aircraft, an ancient J3 Piper Cub, had once been WW2 US Army spotter plane, but was very reliable – just a few problems with the carburettor in Australia.  He was island hopping to Singapore before flying on up the Malay Peninsula.  The next day was one of the most dangerous of the whole trip – along the northern peninsula of Sulawesi, then over the sea to Borneo and across the mountains to land in Brunei.  There were storms forecast.  Jack knew he should wait, but if he did that, then he would not get to Singapore the following day and he would not get a flight to England in time for the funeral.  He owed it to his dad. 

 

He was only an hour or two away from Brunei, flying up the densely wooded valley of the River Sesayao when the mountain ridge ahead was obscured by a tropical storm.  It was getting late.  Unwilling to fly blind into the mountains, he decided to  turn back and try to land by the coast.  He banked steeply towards the wooded hillside.  The cliffs at the side of the gorge were directly ahead of him, lit by a lowering sun that picked out the sparkle of the water cascading down their flanks.  They looked so beautiful,  ‘Oh dad would have loved to see this’  

 

Tears came into his eyes.  The engine coughed once, twice, three times and stopped. 

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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