Sunday, November 30, 2008

Great Lives

I'm too tired to blog properly, yes, I'm on nightshifts once again. Instead allow me to quote from one of my favourite blogs, Skidmore's Island. Skidmore is a former hack who's just been diagnosed with cancer. But he argues that having beaten diabetes and alcoholism he should now go for the triple. In the meantime he tells great stories so go and look. I quote this one so you get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can't beat this can you? Click here for Skidmore, digital raconteur supreme.

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