Thursday, 24 November 2022

Britain says "Goodbye" to its extraordinary guitarist, Wilko Johnson, who felt elation when he looked death in the face

Wilko, former rhythm and blues, 'Dr Feelgood' guitarist and founding father of the English punk movement has died at the age of seventy-five. Showing fortitude in the face of death, when he was told that he had terminal pancreatic cancer in 2013, he spoke of the strange "euphoria" he experienced since and said the news had made him feel "vividly alive" and had lifted the bouts of depression he had previously experienced.

He said : "Every little thing you see, every cold breeze against your face, every brick in the road, you think 'I'm alive, I'm alive' - I hope I can hang onto that. I've had a fantastic life. When I think about the things that have happened to me and the things I've done, I think anybody who asks for more would just be being greedy. I don't wanna be greedy. This position I'm in is so strange, in that I do feel fit and yet I know death is upon me. I'm not hoping for a miracle cure or anything. I just hope it spares me long enough to do these gigs - then I'll be a happy man."

Wilko was born in 1947 on Canvey Island, Essex, survived the floods of 1953 and shared his nostalgia at the sight of the River Thames with Jools Holland. (link)

At home in the 1950s and 60s he was hit by his violent, ex-soldier father who died when he was a teenager attending grammar school at Westcliff High School for Boys. Already into music, he played in several local groups, before going to the University of Newcastle to study English, Anglo-Saxon literature and ancient Icelandic sagas.

After graduating, Wilko travelled overland on the hippy trail to India and Afghanistan, before returning to Essex to play with the 'Pigboy Charlie Band', which evolved into 'Dr Feelgood', where he developed his own style, coupling choppy playing with novel dress of black suit and unfashionable pudding basin haircut and jerky movements on stage. He also played riffs and solos at the same time on a vintage Fender Telecaster without using a pick which allowed him to move without fear of losing it. (link)

He featured in the BBC4 series, 'Punk Britannia' in 2012, which stressed the importance of Dr Feelgood as 'pub rockers, a generation of bands sandwiched between 60s hippies and mid-70s punks who will help pave the way towards the short, sharp shock of punk'.

Reviewing his 2012 autobiography, 'Looking back at Me', Mark Blake of 'Q Magazine' said of Dr Feelgood : 'In the mid-70s the band's brutish R and B and their guitarist's eye-popping thousand-yard stare inspired a young John Lydon, Paul Weller and Suggs from Madness'. In 1977 he left and joined the 'Solid Senders', then, in 1980, Ian Dury's band, 'The Blockheads' before forming the 'Wilko Johnson Band' and continued to pursue his musical career in the 1980s and 90s.

In 2009, he appeared in the documentary film 'Oil City Confidential' and was described by reviewer, Philip French as : 'A wild man, off stage and on, funny, eloquent and charismatic' and director, Julien Temple as : 'An extraordinary man – one of the great English eccentrics'. Peter Bradshaw of the 'Guardian' said of him : 'The best rockumentary yet, the most likeable thing about this very likable film is the way it promotes Wilko Johnson as a 100-1 shot for the title of Greatest Living Englishman'. (link)

Wilko his acting debut, cast in the role of mute executioner 'Ilyn Payne', in the HBO fantasy series 'Game of Thrones' after the producers had seen him in 'Oil City Confidential' and said : 
"They said they wanted somebody really sinister who went around looking daggers at people before killing them. That made it easy. Looking daggers at people is what I do all the time, it's like second nature to me". (link)


In 2013 he made a tv appearance with 'Madness' (link), fell ill and then recovered sufficiently to play at the Wickham Festival in Hampshire in August and in the Spring of the following year, appeared in support of Status Quo and played in collaboration with Roger Daltrey on 'Going Back Home'. (link) 

Wilko faced his illness head on and went on a 'Farewell Tour' and recalled that he was : "Extremely calm" when he : "Felt this extreme sense of elation" because he believed : "Staring at death gives you profound feelings. Everything seems more vivid. Walking down the street everything seemed sharper, brighter, more in focus”.

At the age of 68 in 2014, had his pancreas, spleen, part of his stomach and part of his small and large intestine removed in a nine-hour operation at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge where Surgeon, Emmanuel Huguet, who removed the 7lb 11oz tumour, said : “It’s no exaggeration to say Wilko’s been taken to the limit of what a human being can take”.

In the year which followed, during which doctors said he should be dead, had further tests which revealed that his pancreatic cancer was, in fact, a neuroendocrine tumour, a rare and less aggressive malignancy. When it now appeared he was out of the woods with his cancer, he said that he lamented the loss of that feeling of elation and : “I wish I could regain it. It’s like a powerful dream that has faded. Feeling like that almost made having cancer worth it”.

Wilko went on to live another seven years at that point he said : 

“I always had this idea that when I grew I old I would be sitting in an Oxford college room with the sun slanting through the mullioned windows. I would be reading medieval poetry and I would be wise. The nearer I got to being old, the more I realised the wisdom wasn’t coming. So I’m just as confused as ever. Now I won’t actually grow either old or wise”. 



Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Britain made and now, all too soon, has lost its Prince of Children's Authors, Marcus Sedgwick

Marcus, who has died at the age of fifty-four, had, in his twenty year writing career, written more than 40 books for children and adults and in the process thrilled hundreds of thousands of readers young and old. (link) His work was shortlisted for more than 30 awards, including five nominations for the 'Carnegie Medal', two for the 'Edgar Allan Poe Award' and four for the 'Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize'. He also won the 'Branford Boase Award' for his debut novel, 'Floodland' and the 'Booktrust Teenage Prize' for 'My Swordhand Is Singing'. (link)

He was born at home in the village of Preston on the Isle of Thanet in East Kent, in the early summer of 1968 and was raised there with his elder brother Julian. The Isle is a 48 square mile area which was once separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel is no longer an island. The sense of place obviously imprinted itself on the young Marcus and he recalled : "My very first memory is that I was being wheeled in my push-chair by my nanny through the church yard in the village where I grew up, a 12th century church yard in Kent.  I remember the conkers falling because it was that time of year and the gravestones and the sunlight, even though it was cold and I don’t know why but that memory always holds a fascination with me". 
Later, in his books there would be a lot of what Marcus called : 'Running around in graveyards'.

His father was fifty-two when he was born and had himself been born into a poor Lancashire family in 1916 and had effectively grown up an orphan, as his mother was an alcoholic. A Quaker by religion and entirely self-educated, he became a conscientious objector in the Second World War and worked on farms, possibly in Kent, during the War. Then, in the 1950s, the warden of the Friend's Meeting House in Brighton, where he would invite famous thinkers of the time to come and speak. In their rural isolation, Marcus and his brother Julian relied on their imaginations and each other, to entertain themselves – inspired by their father’s love and promotion of cinema, theatre and storytelling. 

Marcus recalled : "We were taught to treat books with reverence. You would never put a book on the floor, you'd never break its spine, you'd never write in a book. Dad would always give us a book every birthday and Christmas and it was almost symbolic – you must have a book, it's an important thing". In addition, there were several Bibles around the house and Marcus would later use his father's battered old leather one as the model for the Bible that featured in his story, 'Revolver'. There were also masses of material about William Blake, including a precious facsimile copy of 'Jerusalem' in a box file with 'Blake Jerusalem', written down the side. Marcus later recalled : "I thought William Blake was God. I thought that was God's name until I was about nine. There was a lot of religious imagery seeping off these shelves".

In 1975 when he was seven and doubtless educated in the village school, Marcus said that he : "Wanted to be a cat burglar, like 'The Pink Panther', but by the time I was eight I realised 'a', it’s not a proper job, and 'b', it’s illegal". Revealingly, when asked : "What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you? Marcus replied : "I have no idea at all. I hope he’d like me, but I know he’d be too scared and shy to speak to me, so I don’t think he’d ever find out. Most likely he’d run the other way".

When he reflected on these years he said : "The seventies was a very strange and intense time, full of lots of weird television programmes  and I used to collect this strange magazine every week called 'The Unexplained', that was full of stories about things like Loch Ness or ghosts or other weird phenomena." Also : "I was eight years old and very clearly remember the huge drought that happened, and it was really striking and the memories you have from first years of life are really powerful"."It really was severe. People ran out of water and had to go to the end of the street having to collect water from water bowsers". Forty-five years later, Marcus would use these ideas in his 2021 publication, 'Dark Peak'. (link) 

When asked : "When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?" Marcus replied : "The Dark is Rising 
by Susan Cooper" the 1973 children's fantasy novel in which the eleven year old Will discovers he is one of a group of an ancient magical people, the 'Old Ones' who are waging a centuries-long battle against the forces of "the Dark" whose evil power is rising. He said : “More than anything else it was the imagery, the atmosphere of a sinister and snowy English winter, that grabbed me,”

Marcus said : "I did little sport as a teenager, but I read a lot. I was one of those teens who didn’t cause their parents any problems. I sat in my room, listening to music and reading. The most important book of my life then, was the 'Gormenghast Trilogy' by Mervyn Peake. That certainly changed my life, and I have my Dad to thank for introducing them to me".

Having himself passed his 11+ examination, in 1979 he followed in Julian's footsteps and began his secondary education at 'The Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys' in Canterbury, Kent with its motto 'Meliora Sequamur / 
May we follow better things'. It was probably at this time that his young hopes of becoming a writer were crushed by the adult observation that he should forget about that as an ambition, hard to achieve and with little money in it. 

He described his experience at his new school, which still had its Army Cadets, as : "Pretty traumatic" and said "I went to a type of English school called a Grammar School. These are typically old establishments. Mine was founded in 1563 and that’s by no means the oldest and very often, in the ’80s, when I was there, they were still stuck in the past. Violence came from not just the other boys, it was a single sex school, but from the masters too and though being beaten up or hit with a hockey stick was bad, it was the psychological torture that was worse. The school seemed to almost condone such matters. We were told it was “character building,” but it certainly didn’t work for a timid, shy, weak young boy. The whole thing was pretty rough with the exception of two teachers who made life tolerable, so my mental energies were pointed in the direction of home, where I was much, much happier. I am lucky to have come from a truly loving family".

Marcus described himself as a teenager as : "Gawky, spotty, shy, timid, scared, shy and nervous" and said : "I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was a teenager. That worried me I think. I had no idea what life was about, what it could be about, what I wanted, what there even was to think about doing. I found the thought of the adult world very frightening, and still do, in many ways. I had no idea about how things work. Things like jobs, money, insurance, mortgages, etc. etc. The adult world seemed so complicated but to be honest, I was just struggling with being a teenager to worry too much about the years to come".

Marcus recalled : "As an older teenager, music began to be really important to me. I was a first-generation Goth, I think because it felt more real to me than the commercial pap of the mainstream, plus the music was great and the look. My first ever gig wasn’t 'goth' though, but 'The Smiths' and that probably was a major boost to me. It set me on a course of going to loads of concerts".As he said : "I have great memories of gigs by 'Siouxsie and the Banshees', 'The Sisters of Mercy' and so on. The first band I ever saw however, and still one of the best gigs of all time for me, was 'The Smiths' (link) 
in their first year of success. It was a mind-changing evening".

He also said : "I was also, and still am, very much into classical music. It was Mozart and Wagner back then. Wagner became Mahler as I grew older, and nowadays, it’s Richard Strauss, who I believe has composed the most sublime music of all time, with the possible exception of Chopin". Music was to inspire many parts of his books, including the chapter titles in 'White Crow' (link) and : “Much of the 'Book of Dead Days' which was inspired by Schubert’s epic song cycle, 'Winterreise' ”. (link) 

"Music is something I love almost more than I love words. It’s a close fight between the two. But rather than let it be a fight, I have tried to let music into my head to colour my imagination and to stir my thoughts. I love (almost) all forms of music. It is my belief that the very best of any genre is worth listening to, and as to what it is that resonates for me. It has to be something that is authentic". "When I’m writing, I play the music that feels like what I am trying to put down on paper, whether that’s happiness or melancholy. I was a first generation Goth, and I loved it, The music was intense and the lyrics were dark, and it actually, for all its pretentiousness, meant something". 

In 1984, when he was sixteen, his brother Julian, left home and took himself off the University of Cambridge University as an undergarduate reading Oriental Studies and Philosophy and would go on to work as a bookseller, painter, therapist and researcher for film and TV. His first book for children ‘Mysterium : The Black Dragon’ would be published in 2013 and win the 'Rotherham Children’s Book Award'. Marcus recalled that 1984 was also the year that he wrote his first story and said : "Every boy had to in the fifth form, that’s to say tenth grade, roughly. Mine was called 'Aaron’s Journey' and was sub-Moorcock, because that’s who I was mostly reading at the time". Michael Moorcroft was best-known for science fiction and fantasy, 

In 1986 at the age of eighteen, Marcus himself left home to start life as an undergraduate studying Mathematics at Bath University and said, in relation to his development : "On the very day that I arrived at University, I decided that I couldn’t go on being so shy", which he found so painful and disabling that : "It stopped me from doing almost anything, from answering the phone to making friends to speaking to girls etc. etc. On that day, as I arrived at University, I decided that I would pretend I wasn’t shy. No one knew me. I could reinvent myself. So I did. And after about three months went by, I realized I was no longer shy. I was normal. Which is to say, shy sometimes, confident others, sad, then happy, then calm, then excited, but no longer was I permanently disabled by shyness".(link)

When it came to his choice of subject he said : "I don't particularly feel I 'chose'. I lasted one year of a Maths degree, but we didn't see a number all year. It was so esoteric. I switched to the most interesting course I could find - 'Politics' ". He was in his second year when he was shaken by the death of his father at the age of seventy-four. He later summed up these years by saying : "The significant thing that happened was that I went to university still not knowing what I wanted to do and when I left university I still didn't know, so I went to work in a bookshop, because I liked books and it was a nice environment and that was the trigger for me thinking 'real people write these books'. So that made me realise that real living people write books and they get sold in bookshops so I started to try writing myself". 

He left the bookshop, Heffers in  Cambridge after three years and moved into publishing where he said : "I didn't really feel like I fitted in. Not at first anyway". However, this didn't seem to stop him from holding down his publishing job for ten years whilst writing his novels at the weekends. "It took me a few years and I wrote a few books which weren't published, but they got me an agent and then the big, whole novel that I wrote was the first one that my agent sent off to Orion who I've been with ever since". Marcus said : “I taught myself to write, by writing four books that remain unpublished. The first was terrible. The fifth book I wrote got published, won an award”. This was 'Floodland', with its school edition published in 2002, but it wasn't until he was forty-two that he was able to say to his interviewer, Callum Graham in 2010 : "Only recently did I feel I could give up the day job". Of his new independence he said he liked : "The writing part. It's because you are getting paid for the strange thoughts in your head. You think of something and put it down on paper, and then people are buying it. That's something I still haven't actually got over".

In 2003 his 'Cowards' was published, an homage to his father, who had died fifteen years before. Marcus said, it was : 'About a group of British men during the First World War who had refused to fight. While many men objected on grounds of their conscience or religion to fight in the war, most accepted alternative roles, such as agricultural or medical work. A stubborn handful refused to do anything to further the war effort. One such group of 34 men, known as the Absolutists, were subsequently subjected to a round of brutal psychological and physical tortures. Finally, they were sent to France, where, military law being in force, they had the death sentence passed against them. Although it was immediately commuted to penal servitude, many ended up dying of starvation or disease in a labour camp'. 'Both my father and my mother’s father were conscientious objectors in World War Two, a thing that, while hard, had become a right enshrined in law due to the actions of the stubborn 34 who’d seen it through to the bitter end a generation before'.

He said that his 2014 'Printz Award' winner, 'Midwinterblood',
included : “Lines by Nick Drake and Led Zeppelin…tucked away in the text, but the most significant source for the book is Stravinsky’s 'The Rite of Spring', which is probably the piece that made me fall in love with classical music, as well as modern music. (link) I first heard it at the age of around 14 and as the saying goes : 'It blew my tiny mind'. More energy than the Sex Pistols, freakier than Hendrix”. 

Like much of his work, 'Midwinterblood' contained more than a little autobiographic material : 'Edward looks wistfully at Mat, and while the girls are pretty, Nancy particularly, it is Mat who he thinks about the most, because he wished he'd been more like Mat when he was young. If he'd been more like Mat, more confident, maybe he wouldn’t have missed his chances in life, chances that sometimes only came along once. Sometimes there are single moments, he thinks, where your path divides, your life can go one way, so very different from another. Work out well, rather than be a failure. And if you miss those chances, he thinks, well, is that it?'

When asked about what he enjoyed about his new independent life as a writer Marcus said :  "Well that's hard, because it is just so fantastic! One thing is that you're your own boss. That's worth so much money to me. Because you are free to do whatever you want to do with your life on a daily basis and not having someone to crack the whip, and you're also not doing a job that you hate, which I have done before. That's the lifestyle part, but for the writing part it's because you are getting paid for the strange thoughts in your head. You think of something and put it down on paper, and then people are buying it. That's something I still haven't actually got over".

In 2013 when Marcus was forty-five years old he was struck down with a mysterious disease after a working trip to Asia and in 2019 wrote : 'I was rapidly given the (lack of) diagnosis that doctors call Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), and prescribed a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to apparently fix whatever was wrong "in my head". You may not be surprised to learn that it didn’t work. Six years later, as the Salford bard put it, I am Still Ill'. (link)

In 2019 he returned to the theme of their father's conscientious objection 
during the Second World War, 'Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black'He said : "It has a number of themes: the Orpheus legend of Ancient Greece; the dangers of futuristic, dehumanized, mechanized warfare; and the strained love between two brothers, one of whom has refused to fight in the Second World War". (link) It was to be his penultimate book and was followed by his last, 'Wrath', published this year. Cassie Cotton who could hear a noise that most people don't either notice or recognise and she believed was a sound that showed the Earth was in distress, damaged by human activity that was causing climate change. When her belief led to her being ridiculed and bullied at school, she disappeared. Her friend Fitz was determined to find her, but he had no idea where to start looking, or if he'd be in time to help her.

Marcus wrote : 

'“You will never find it," his ghost says. "What?" "What you are looking for. You want to go back to the start. You want to go back to where you began. You want to find the happiness you once had. But you can never get there, because even if you somehow found it, you yourself would be different. You would have changed, from your journey alone, from the passing of time, if nothing else. You can never make it back to where you began, you can only ever climb another turn of the spiral stair. Forever” '. 
The Ghosts of Heaven

'
People think I have so much faith in myself, but I have none. I have no faith in myself, or in what I can do, and yet people think I can do anything I want. That's how I seem, but it's an illusion. It's an act, nothing more'. 
She Is Not Invisible

'And if I really can see the future, then what does it mean? Is there any sense in our lives if everything is already out there, just waiting to happen? For if that were so, then life would be a horrible monster indeed, with no chance of escape from fate, from destiny. It would be like reading a book, but reading it backwards, from the final chapter down to chapter one, so that the end is already known to you.' 

The Foreshadowing
'Orwell's vision of our terrible future was that world-- the world in which books are banned or burned. Yet it is not the most terrifying world I can think of. I think instead of Huxley-- ...I think of his Brave New World. His vision was the more terrible, especially because now it appears to be rapidly coming true, whereas the world of 1984 did not. What's Huxley's horrific vision? It is a world where there is no need for books to be banned, because no one can be bothered to read one'.
The Monsters We Deserve

'It was like a new kind of vision, seeing with eyes as keen as scalpel blades, that cut away desires and emotions and wishful thinking and left only what was fact'.
The Dark Flight Down

'Edward looks wistfully at Mat, and while the girls are pretty, Nancy particularly, it is Mat who he thinks about the most, because he wished he'd been more like Mat when he was young. If he'd been more like Mat, more confident, maybe he wouldn’t have missed his chances in life, chances that sometimes only came along once. Sometimes there are single moments, he thinks, where your path divides, your life can go one way, so very different from another. Work out well, rather than be a failure. And if you miss those chances, he thinks, well, is that it?'
Midwinterblood

'Even the dead tell stories'.
Revolver (link)

'He wonders if a few moments of utter and total joy can be worth a lifetime of struggle. 
Maybe, he thinks. Maybe, if they're the right moments'.
Midwinterblood










Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Britain is an old country where an old King rests against an old tree in an old park

 


The King : Charles III : age 74 years

The occasion : To mark, on 11th November, his appointment as 'Ranger of the Park', seventy years after his late father, the Duke of Edinburgh, was appointed to the post.

The tree : An ancient oak : age 800-1000 years 

The Park : Windsor Great Park : age 900 years. 
Created around Windsor Castle by the new king, William I, 'The Conqueror', who by brute force and slaughter had invaded, killed the resident King, Harold, subjugated Anglo-Saxon England and made the Park as a reserve for the Norman King for personal hunting and also to supply the castle with wood, deer, boar and fish. 

Friday, 4 November 2022

Britain salutes its last remaining ‘SAS Rogue Hero’, Mike Sadler

Page views : 487

Mike, who is now 102 years old, was born, Willis Michael Sadler, early in 1920, in Kensington, London. He was nineteen when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and working on a farm in Rhodesia and downed tools and signed up to 4 the Rhodesian Anti-Tank Battery 
and later said : "I didn't want to miss anything. And some people are like that at that age. I certainly was".

In 1940 he was back in Britain and transferred to the Royal Artillery. In North Africa Italy, which had declared war on Britain in June 1940 had a huge army in Libya which threatened the Suez Canal in British-occupied Egypt and Britain's communication with British-controlled India. The Libyan Desert protected Italian forces and posed a challenge to both sides with its vast sand dunes making it all but impossible for large forces to penetrate inland. 

It was now that Major Ralph Bagnold of the Royal Signals, who had spent much of the 1920s and 1930s exploring the desert, suggested to General Sir Archibald Wavell, 'Commander-in-Chief Middle East', that he formed a desert scouting force, a small body of motor  commandos, never more than 350 strong, known as the 'Long Range Desert Group'. Wavell readily agreed, and the LRDG began operations in September with Mike on board as one of the recruits.


There was no shortage of volunteers, but what Bagnold wanted first and foremost, were navigators and it was Mike 'Lofty' Carr who fulfilled that role. They were told by Captain Pat McCraith that all men in the Group were : "Bagnold's blue-eyed boys" and they should "forget everything we had learnt up to now because we were no longer regular army". They then signed a document which as 'Lofty' said : "Was our oath that we would never, for the whole of our lives, reveal what we had been up to in the LRDG". (link)

For navigation in the desert by day, Bagnold had invented a 'sun compass', which was a reliable, but rough indicator which was of no use by night. The theodolite, with its astral fixes, reduced the chance of error dramatically and 'Lofty' said that, in terms of accuracy : “In the desert I was down to 200m".

When Lieutenant David Stirling formed the SAS to launch night-time raids against Axis airfields in Libya the LRDG loaned him Mike as a navigator and would have taken Lofty, but he declined to join and instead taught his navigation skills to the Unit. Lofty later recalled that he had taught Mike : "The rudiments of astro-navigation and how to use a theodolite" and that Mike had proved to be a quick learner. Like the LRDG, the SAS was a secretive unit, which also went deep behind enemy lines and, as to his role, Mike would have agreed with 'Lofty' when he said : “Being a navigator was extremely challenging. One minor fault or miscalculation could have tragic consequences".

Steven Knight is the writer of the new BBC TV series, 'SAS 'Rogue Heroes'. 
based on the book by journalist Ben Macintyre, which tells the story of how the SAS was formed and operated during the Second World War. He said : "When I started to research the true story, it was so amazing, so compelling, so it’s sort of unbelievable. I just thought, this story has to be told". (link) 

He praised the men who were part of the SAS for being "self-motivated" and people who "broke the rules" with "initiative", given that their lives were in constant jeopardy and they "depended on each other" to survive. 

Of Mike, the last surviving member of that band of warriors he said : "
He had what others thought of as a supernatural ability to actually navigate his way through the desert, to know where he was, where he was going. He used the stars, he used a lot of equipment but, a lot of the time, apparently, he just used instinct". He also said that without him, the men in the SAS would have gone in somewhere and not been able to find their way out and it was Mike’s ability to "think on his feet" that saw them through. 

The actor Tom Glynn-Carney, who plays Mike in the series and was filmed for 'The One Show', in Mike's living room told him what a ‘privilege’ it was to be sitting with him and said afterwards : "Mike is blind now, but his memories are sharp". He told Mike :  "Having played your role and having to look like I was an expert navigator through the desert, now no matter how hard I tried, I could not do it. How do you do that?" To which Mike replied with a laugh : "I think you just have to learn it. I expect you could, if you really tried. It’s not that difficult". (link)


Within the context of the War, these were desperate times. With the exception of Britain, Europe had fallen to the Germans and in North Africa, General Rommel's Afrika Korps was on the move from Libya to Egypt where it would threaten Britain's vital control of the Suez Canal. Clearly, something different had to be tried to break the enemy's momentum in the desert or the Allies would face inevitable defeat. What Stirling, along with fellow SAS pioneer Jock Lewes proposed, was to accept that the Germans were masters of Libya's Mediterranean coastline and all attempts from the sea to disrupt and dislodge them had failed. So why not come at them from the rear, from where they least expected it. Across the Great Sand Sea, 30,000 square miles of desolate desert dunes?

The first SAS mission, carried out in a ferocious desert storm, was a disaster. One plane was shot down, and several parachutists were killed on landing. Of the sixty-six men in the raiding party, only twenty-two returned. It was then that Stirling turned to the LRDG, which, nicknamed “the desert taxi service”, agreed to transport the SAS at night to specific targets by Jeep and truck, and pick them up after they had planted time-bombs on parked planes.

In 2014 Lieutenant-General Sir Cedric Delves, President of the SAS Regimental Association, said : “The Long Range Desert Group is very dear to the SAS. It goes back to the beginning, when David Stirling turned to them for help. They showed us how to work in the desert. They got us going. They were there for us at the outset, and I am deeply proud that the regiment can acknowledge what is owed”.

In December 1941, Mike, now on loan from the LRDG, took part in the first successful SAS raid, led by Lieutenant Blair “Paddy” Mayne, a former Irish rugby international who would go on to become one of Britain’s most decorated soldiers. Mike dropped Mayne and five men three miles south of Wadi Tamet airfield and in the space of 15 minutes, the team destroyed 24 planes and a fuel dump. Mike, awaiting the returning raiders, watched the explosions light up the desert and recalled : “We saw the flashes in the sky. It was quite dramatic”.

Mike later reflected on his role as a navigator and said : "One of the essential things was not to let doubt creep into your mind. You had to be confident because it was awfully easy, especially at night, to start to feel you were going wrong and you should be further to left or right. It was rather easy to give way to that feeling if you weren’t confident. It was a challenge, navigating, but I liked the challenge. I was young and you don’t really think about pressure at twenty-one". 

With Mayne and his men on board, Mike drove back into the desert, but as the sun came up they came under attack from Italian bombers. He said : “We were dodging across the desert. I was navigating and they were flying over. You could see the bombs leaving the planes, and we would get out of the way by making an immediate right turn. I suppose it was quite alarming”. He led the convoy back to Jalo Oasis, where the salty waters seemed the height of luxury after that more than a week in the parched desert.

The following year, on the night of July 26, 1942, Mike, without headlights or a map, guided 18 jeeps filled with twin Vickers K machine guns, along 70 miles of desert to within 200 feet of Sidi Haneish Airfield. "Where are we now ?" demanded Stirling as he peered into the gloom to which Mike replied : "By my reckoning we're less than a mile short of the field. It's right in front of us". The SAS then opened fire as they drove between planes, wrecking at least 37 aircraft. (link)

In the raid the Germans struck the two-jeep convoy with Mike returning fire, allowing the other jeep to flee before escaping himself and as 'Corporal Willis Sadler' was later awarded the 'Military Medal'One of the jeep drivers was shot through the head during the attack and buried in the sand. Still on loan from the LRDG, Mike was to be considered an 'Honorary' member of the SAS by 'The Originals'. 

Mike, now a 'lieutenant', was also one of the officers to follow Stirling on the last SAS operation in January 1943. He recalled that Stirling : "I
ntended to get into southern Tunisia and do an operation, possibly on the way to joining up with the First Army and the second SAS, which had both landed there. So we then planned this operation, which involved a long desert journey along the inside of Libya to the south of Tunisia". Mike recalled The SAS team hid during the day and travelled at night. One afternoon, hidden in a dried out riverbed or wadi, Mike said : "Johnny Cooper and I were in sleeping bags and, first thing I knew, I was being kicked by somebody. I looked up and there was an Afrika Korps fellow poking me with his Schmeisser". (link)

A German armoured personnel carrier was blocking the entrance to the wadi and the SAS team was trapped. Mike believed that spies had tipped off the Germans. He concluded :  “The only thing to do was to leg it”. Along with Johnny Cooper and an Arabic-speaking Frenchman called Freddie Taxis, they ran for about 400 yards up the steep side of the wadi and hurled themselves into a small gully. The Germans combed the area but, by good fortune, an Arab herder arrived with a herd of goats, which milled around helping to conceal them. The rest of the contingent was captured, including David Stirling, who spent the rest of the war in captivity.

That night, the three men agreed they would try to reach the 1st Army, still more than 100 miles away, on foot. Mike recalled : “I knew the lay of the land. I had no compass or maps, but I knew that to the west along the edge of the salt lakes there was Tozeur, which ought to have been in the hands of the Allies, with any luck. So we set off”. A group of Berbers gave them some dates and a goatskin, which they sewed together with bootlaces to create a makeshift water container.

After walking further they were surrounded by menacing Arabs who began hurling rocks. Taxis translated : “They are saying we should give them our clothes because they are going to kill us anyway.” Johnny Cooper was struck on the head and temporarily blinded by pouring blood and Mike and Freddie, taking one arm each, dragged him across a wide expanse of loose rock, which the barefoot Arabs could not cross. 

After four days and nearing collapse, Freddie asked to be left behind, but was persuaded by Mike and Johnny to struggle on. Mike said : “It turned out he had six toes on each foot, which made walking painful”. "We walked more than 100 miles and, of course, our shoes fell to bits. We arrived, staggering the last few steps towards the palm trees, and some  African native troops came out and captured us". They were in fact Nearing Tozeur, and the soldiers were Free French forces, part of the 1st Army. Mike said : “The French gave us a great reception. They had jerrycans full of Algerian wine, which was pretty popular.” They then were handed over to the Americans, who promptly put them under guard. 

From the American press, the New Yorker's celebrated war correspondent A J Liebling, who had been hanging around Gafsa for days waiting for a scoop, saw Mike as he arrived from the desert said Mike looked like Robinson Crusoe when he arrived and wrote : ‘The eyes of this fellow were round and sky blue and his hair and whiskers were very fair. His beard began well under his chin, giving him the air of an emaciated and slightly dotty Paul Verlaine'. Mike told Liebling that the odyssey had been : “Very interesting . . . some of it was a lot of fun”.

Liebling wrote : 'Mr Stirling is convinced that units run 'traditionally' are ineffective and so creates a plan that goes against every accepted rule of modern warfare. He fights to recruit the best, toughest, and strongest soldiers as the show goes on, to make a small undercover unit. It is set to create pandemonium behind enemy lines and he creates a team who are both reckless and brave'.

As to Stirling, Mike said : "David was captured, but managed to escape. I think he escaped in the early days. We were always told that the best chance of escaping was as soon as possible after you’ve been captured. Unfortunately, having escaped, he was recaptured. I think he then spent time in a prison camp in Italy before eventually ending up in Colditz".

When Mike was asked : "What did you think of David Stirling as a man?" He said : "He was a first-class man, highly intelligent, highly motivated, and in many ways the founder of the SAS. David was the one who perceived the possibilities and was determined to make the SAS a reality. He managed to recruit about 80 chaps who had, he thought, the requirements he needed. He wanted people who could get on with each other and him in difficult circumstances. He was more interested in that than their qualifications".

Mike, now a fully paid-up member of the SAS, now fought in Italy and France following his time in the Desert War. On August 7, 1944, he was dropped by parachute into the Loire as part of 'Operation Houndsworth'. The aim was to reach SAS squadrons behind the lines and help destroy fuel depots, encourage local resistance and prevent Panzer divisions heading north. In March 1945 he was awarded the 'Military Cross' for 'Exemplary gallantry against the enemy'. 




Mike went on to set up the 'SAS Intelligence Unit'. Reflecting on his time in Africa he said : "Overall, I loved the desert, I thought it was perfect. I was very sorry to leave at the end of the Desert War. It was like being on the sea in a way. You could go in any direction. There was a great sort of freedom attached to being in the desert. There was so much variety – beautiful smooth surfaces, sand, and impassable great sand dunes hundreds of feet high –slowly moving across the desert with the prevailing wind, the sand dunes moving very, very slowly, perhaps a foot every year, but altering their arrangements quite considerably". (link)

"Oh yes, I thought the desert was a wonderful place".

In 2018, at the age of ninety-eight, Mike was awarded the 'Legion D'honneur
for parachuting into a German-occupied France, where Hitler had given instructions for any captured parachutists to be executed. 


The French Defence Attaché, Colonel Antoine de Loustal, who presented the red-ribboned medal an
paid tribute to Mike's dedication and determination during the liberation of France : “For which you were prepared to risk your life”.

"We shall not forget. We will never forget".
Mike said : 

"I do remember the people who didn’t survive and who didn’t have  the chance to receive this great honour". 

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