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Marine Steve Birdsall, in a picture believed to have been taken the day before he died.

MARINE STEVEN BIRDSALL died five years ago today in the searing June heat of Afghanistan.

He was shot by a sniper as he covered Royal Engineers who were working on his camp’s defences, and although he was flown to hospital in the UK there was nothing that could be done for him.

He was twenty years of age, and had a glittering future ahead of him.

He left behind a loving mother and father, and a tearful younger sister, Melissa. ‘Liss’ was convinced that the big brother she idolised would not come home; tragically, she was correct.

Steven had deployed at around the same time as his close boyhood friend Tom Sephton, of the Mercian Regiment.

Steve and Tom together on a night out.

Tom was himself killed a few weeks later.

As with all twenty of the servicemen and women who feature in At The Going Down Of The Sun, we are privileged to tell Steven’s story via the memories of family, friends and comrades, and to share some of his letters home from theatre – they show something of the character of this fine young man.

Steven Birdsall letter 1Steven Birdsall letter 2

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ON WEDNESDAY I went trawling around Nottingham and its environs in the company of Gary Bell QC, author of our forthcoming and nearly eponymous ANIMAL QC.

It wasn’t a hardship – Gary’s a very funny man indeed, and I spent most of the day laughing.

When I wasn’t laughing, I was fascinated to see where he’d come from.

Through family and social connections I know quite a few barristers, from members of the junior bar to Queen’s Counsel and even a judge or two. I think I’m right in saying that they were all privately educated, and – to one degree or another – fairly privileged*.

Apart from Gary.

Gary was born in 1959 in the tiny box bedroom in this council house in Radford, a suburb of the city:

Gary Bell QC in the garden of the house in which he was born.

The lady who lives there now – who remembered Gary’s granny, having taken the house over from her several decades ago – kindly allowed us into her front garden to take the above photo. (The picture makes the house look quite a bit bigger than it is. Ironically, it has the opposite effect on Gary.)

It was Gary’s mother’s family home (she had herself been unofficially adopted by her aunt and uncle), and it was where Gary spent the first few months of his life (along with his parents, his mother’s adoptive siblings, and his maternal grandparents).

Here he is on pretty much the same spot, some time in 1960:

In a paddling pool on the same spot, some fifty-five years ago.

Gary’s mother, Maureen, worked on the John Player cigarette factory in Nottingham. His father, Terry, was a coalminer at Radford Pit.

They were both nineteen years old, and theirs was a shotgun wedding – Terry’s father Ernie, incensed at the shame his son was bringing on the family, threatened to thrash Terry to within an inch of his life if he didn’t make an honest woman of his pregnant girlfriend.

Terry and Maureen managed to scrape together enough money to rent a terraced two-up two-down in St Ann’s, but we couldn’t visit that house because it was demolished in the slum clearances of the 1960s and 1970s.

By then, the Bells had moved to Cotgrave, a mining village on the outskirts of Nottingham (actually, a lovely old village which had had a giant housing estate built onto it to provide homes for the miners who worked the new Cotgrave Colliery).

Animal-QC-v2_AI-cover-WEB

The Animal in his work attire: he doesn’t actually have a double chin, it’s that damned wing collar.

Gary and I did make our way to Cotgrave – travelling en route over a traffic island on which he died many times in a recurring childhood nightmare – and there I saw the house that Gary lived in as a youngster. (Actually, he lived in two houses in the village; after his father abandoned the family for another woman, Gary, his mother and three siblings were turfed out of their NCB home and into a council house in the village.)

We also went to the Miner’s Welfare Club to see where he’d spent many a session with his friends; it was almost empty, which made it a far cry from his day, when shift-working miners were jammed into the bar through every opening hour.

He pointed out the houses of a dozen of so mates (whom he still sees regularly, thirty-five years after he left the village); money had been tight, he said, but he had enjoyed an utterly idyllic childhood in Cotgrave.

Then we visited two of his sisters, who live nearby.

They share Gary’s sense of humour.

One has just waved her daughter off on a year-long visit to the States, and had bought the daughter a new watch as a going-away present. She’d had it engraved with a line from her favourite poem, e e cummings’ i carry your heart.

‘[My daughter and I are] both real grammar Nazis,’ she said, cackling, ‘so I made sure the chap wrote “I carry you’re heart”.’

We also had lunch.

One thing you can always say about barristers is that they dine like lords: accordingly, Gary treated me to a 99p pepper steak slice from the Co-op, while he ate a pastie, a cheese-and-pickle ‘cob’, and half a carrot cake.

Watch this space for more adventures in the preposterous life of G Bell, Queen’s Counsel.

*I’m sure there are more than a few barristers who didn’t go to private schools, and that the number is increasing; other than Gary, I just don’t know any. One thing I am sure of is that there are very few who have led lives like his!

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THE BASTION MEMORIAL – which honours the 453 British dead of Afghanistan – is being dedicated today at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Some 3,500 people are expected to attend.

Among them, doubtless, will be family and friends of Commando Captain Jim Philippson, the first man to die in action after British troops were sent to Helmand, in southern Afghanistan.

It will be especially poignant for them: today is also the ninth anniversary of his death.

His death – and life – are recounted in our book AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN, along with those of nineteen other soldiers and Royal Marines who lost their lives out there.

Here are a few extracts from the chapter on Jim, whom we salute.

JAMES PHILIPPSON WAS a brilliant soldier, a born leader, and the first man to die in action after British troops were sent to Helmand, in southern Afghanistan.  His death was a tragedy – not least because it was eminently avoidable. Capt Philippson was killed on a desperate rescue mission to help other British troops, who had been ambushed by the Taliban, and had taken serious casualties. In the pitch dark, and sorely lacking firepower and night vision goggles, he and his colleagues stumbled blind into another enemy position, and found themselves outgunned.

James – Jim to his friends – was shot in the head, and died instantly.

He was in Afghanistan as part of one of the first ‘omelettes’ – the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) made up of experienced men from various regiments and corps, and whose job it was to train Afghan National Army recruits to the point where they could take control of their country’s security. It was a role he was made for. Indeed, he was made for the Army.

Jim Philippson 1Jim as a young cub scout

‘I think it began at the age of five, when James had his first set of camouflage pyjamas,’ said his mother, Tricia Quinlan. ‘After that, he was always playing soldiers. He loved Action Man. We had strings all over the garden, and he would have his Action Man sliding and abseiling through the bushes and the flowerbeds. I always had to help him get his Action Man into its wetsuit, because it was too fiddly for a small boy. When you look back, his play echoed the things he did for real later.’

‘James’ nickname was Action Man,’ said his father, Tony Philippson.

‘The first Army he joined was his own. I didn’t know it then, but when he was about twelve he and his little band of friends, all dressed in camouflage, would pinch my air rifle and head off for the naturist camps in Bricket Wood. They’d load the gun with some hard little berries, sneak up on the nudists, fire these berries at their bottoms, and then escape on their bikes. So those were his first military exercises. He and his band were straight out of the Just William books.’

James Philippson and his brother David, younger by two years, had an idyllic childhood in St Albans, Herts. There were skiing holidays in the winter and lazy summers in Devon in the family’s caravan. Every year they would go down to Beer, and Tony would speed around the sea in his little Zodiac boat, towing his giggling sons behind him in an inflatable donut.

‘I have such happy memories of those times,’ said Tricia. ‘The kids were totally free to run and roam. They loved exploring rock pools – I remember James asking me if they had “come up yet”, rather than, “Has the tide gone out?” which always struck me as funny. Even when we weren’t on holiday, we spent as much time as possible outdoors. I’d pick the boys up from school, and we’d go down to the park for a picnic with Marmite sandwiches. We even went out in the snow, with hot tomato soup.’

James joined 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, the gunners who support the Royal Marines, commissioning into the Royal Artillery and then passing the All Arms Commando Course, earning the right to wear the famous green beret.

James took to military life like the proverbial duck to water. He made many new friends, played a lot of rugby, went skiing, surfing and scuba diving, and was notoriously full of fun. He would regularly gate-crash parties in the guise of Fat Elvis or a pirate; on one such expedition, while dressed as Spiderman, he called in to an off-licence with friends to stock up on provisions, only to find that the shop was being robbed. With help from his mates, James quickly subdued the men. When the local police arrived and took custody of the robbers from ‘Spiderman’, they were not quite sure whether the whole thing was some sort of practical joke.

His first operational deployment was to Iraq, in preparation for the 2003 invasion. He began his journey to war aboard the flagship HMS Ark Royal, but after a few beers one evening he somehow found himself commando-crawling into the Admiral’s private cabin, on a top secret mission to capture some of the senior officer’s prized toy soldiers. Instead, he was himself caught, red-handed and hiccupping – by the Admiral, no less – and unceremoniously transferred the following morning to the more lowly HMS Ocean. News of the escapade quickly travelled throughout 3 Commando Brigade and made James Philippson something of a legend.

After Iraq, he transferred to 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery (7 RHA), and it was with that unit that he travelled to Afghanistan in 2006. Initially, he was based in the safety of Camp Bastion, far from the roar of the guns and surrounded by miles of guard wire, sangars bristling with machine guns, and flat, featureless desert in every direction, which made any kind of enemy attack almost suicidal. But soon he was transferred to FOB Robinson, just outside Sangin.

Jim Philippson WMIK

In Afghanistan, shortly before his death

By the time [he] arrived, Sangin was already infamous.‘We had sent an advance party to FOB Robinson,’ said [Major Jonny] Bristow [Jim Philippson’s immediate superior at ‘FOB Rob’], ‘including my ops officer and one of the signallers. While they were there a number of Afghan soldiers were captured, along with two French special forces men. They were mutilated and decapitated and their bodies were just dumped outside the camp. So we were under no illusions about how tough and hostile this place would be.

[Adjutant Joël Gazeau and Senior Corporal David Poulain were members of the elite Premiere Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine. On May 20, their twenty-vehicle convoy was ambushed on Route 611, which links Gereshk in the south of Helmand to Musa Qala in the north, and which passes through Sangin. The two soldiers were captured and tortured to death – tied up and gutted alive, their genitals and noses sliced off. Route 611 was considered by many to be the most dangerous and blood-spattered road in the whole country; over the years that followed, it would be littered with the rusting wrecks of civilian vehicles whose drivers had fallen victim to IEDs.]

‘Our greatest concern was being overrun. A Canadian had been killed during an attack on the base not long before, and it was very hard to defend because the perimeter was so large. The Americans had employed locals to provide security on the perimeter, but we weren’t able to maintain that arrangement, because the budget wasn’t there from UK PLC, and we had to let them go.

‘There were about 120 in the Afghan battalion, which should have been about 500 strong [the rest had deserted on the way down from Kabul], and the British force fluctuated between thirty and seventy, including the artillery guys. We were supposed to be training the Afghans – there was no possibility of that – and dominating the area through constant patrolling, and establishing a platoon house. There was huge pressure to get a presence in central Sangin, and a degree of arrogance about it, I felt. It was about wanting the troops to be seen in soft hats, maintaining civil law and order. We thought that was ludicrous, and said so, but early on we did take over a building in the town, and we put four guys in it and a section of ANA. It was crazy, as the Paras later found out. You can’t put four blokes in a house in a place like Sangin, and just assume everything will be okay. They were like tethered goats – I was convinced they were all going to be killed, and eventually I pulled them out. I disobeyed orders, basically.’

As Maj Bristow sees it, the whole mission was confused, badly planned, and under-resourced. He received few written orders, and the chain of command was labyrinthine.

‘I thought then, and I still think, that much of what we were trying to do just made things worse,’ he said. ‘One of our first missions was to support the chief of police as he mounted an operation. We found out later that we’d just given him the freedom of movement to go into the centre of town, extort money, and rape some young boys. So all we’d done was upset the status quo.

‘We were supposed to be trying to get some stability, but, as far as I could see, we were de-stabilising the place. We didn’t really even know who the enemy were. We weren’t given any intelligence from further up the line. We just knew there were different groups who were vying for power in the area. There was no single enemy, just often-changing groupings and constant unrest.

‘My men were incredibly concerned, and so was I. We couldn’t quite believe what was being expected of us, and we fully expected to end up like the French special forces chaps. Quite often, the Afghans would refuse to go out on patrol, and to be honest I completely understood that, because they had even more issues than we did about lack of equipment and lack of support. There was no planned leave structure for them, no planned rotation – in fact, no plans at all. They were just expected to sit in Sangin indefinitely.’

Despite all of this,  Jim Philippson was delighted to be there.

‘If anyone had wanted to get into the fight, it would have been Jim,’ said Maj Bristow. ‘He had been given a job he really didn’t want to do back in Bastion, and he wanted to fight, although he was pretty amazed at what we were being asked to do. I liked him. He was an in-your-face, punchy guy; fit, strong, focused, and very intelligent. He was a bit prone to moaning, and a bit cynical, but in a good way. Because the unit at the FOB was based on 7 RHA, he knew a lot of the guys. You could see he was popular.’

Bristow’s men were… using hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles – small, remote-controlled drones, equipped with cameras which could send back live images to their operators, and gave the British soldiers some idea of what was happening beyond the wire without having to put men on the ground. Not long after James Philippson’s arrival, one of these UAVs crashed on the far side of the Helmand river, an area that was relatively unknown and inaccessible.

‘We were patrolling every day, so I essentially reassigned a planned patrol to the area where the UAV had disappeared,’ said Maj Bristow. ‘It wasn’t really about the UAV – they were a nice asset to have, and if the guys found it that was great, but they went down quite often and the loss of another one was not a major drama. Part of the point of the patrols was to go to areas we hadn’t been to before, this was an area we hadn’t been to before, so it seemed to make sense.’

That patrol was roughly platoon strength, and comprised some Gurkhas – who had recently been sent down in another attempt to establish a patrol house in Sangin itself – three or four OMLT men, and ten or so ANA. They left in the afternoon in a WMIK and a couple of Snatch Land Rovers, and headed across the river. They spent some time looking in vain for the UAV, and were eventually told by locals that the Taliban had taken it away. It was after they returned across the river, with darkness fast approaching, that they were contacted by a large group of enemy fighters. They were quickly pinned down, and a couple of the vehicles were immobilised.

They had ‘scrounged’ some .50cal machine guns, and these would have allowed them to return a decent weight of fire. But those were back at the FOB, because of a lack of vehicle mountings, so they could only reply with less powerful GPMGs and their personal weapons. One soldier – LBdr Tom Mason – was shot through the chest, and rounds were striking all around them and their vehicles.

A reasonably simple mission had suddenly turned into a matter of life-or-death.

‘One of the guys, Sgt Castle from 7 RHA, requested assistance, and I began executing the QRF [Quick Reaction Force] plan, while at the same time trying to get the Task Force to send out a better-equipped force by helicopter,’ said Bristow. ‘They were twenty to thirty minutes’ flying time away, and when the Chinook eventually deployed it only extracted Bdr Mason and buggered off. We’d been expecting them to land a much better-armed team and help drive off the Taliban, but they’d been tasked only to do the medevac.’

Worse, the patrol had also called for more ammunition, a message which Jonny Bristow had passed on to HQ, but the helicopter dropped no ammunition.

‘Back at FOB Robinson,’ said Bristow, ‘we could hear and almost see what was happening. There was a heavy weight of fire going backwards and forwards, and we were very concerned. The patrol was calling in artillery from the three light guns that we had at the base, and they also were getting some air support from Apaches, but the Taliban were not being driven off. So I pulled together whatever resources I could from within the FOB to go out and help. This meant pretty much anyone I could free up, including Jim, some Royal Engineers who’d been working on the FOB’s defences, and four American soldiers. The Americans were very good, and had far better weapons systems than we did. And the Afghan commander, who was a good chap who had experience from fighting with the Russians years earlier, mustered some men.’

The suddenness and drama of this decision was emblematic of the life of a soldier in Afghanistan. A few minutes earlier, James Philippson had been sitting on a compound roof in the late afternoon sun enjoying an iced tea and a chinwag with a couple of fellow OMLT officers, including Lt Tim Illingworth of The Rifles. It was ‘a rare few moments of down time,’ Illingworth would later say*. ‘One moment you’re looking at the spectacular mountain scenery, the next you’re dropping the iced tea and jumping off the roof to put together the QRF, and before you know it you’re carrying Jim’s body out of a firefight.’

The sun drops very quickly in that part of the world, and by the time Bristow’s rescue party – about fifteen or twenty strong – arrived nearby it was pitch black. They dismounted from their vehicles and headed towards the sound of firing, hoping that the Taliban would run away but expecting that they would not.

We were patrolling towards the area of the contact when we bumped into a group of them. It wasn’t an ambush, it was a meeting engagement: we just came head-to-head with them. There was a full moon, but there was lots of vegetation and drainage ditches, and we were stopping quite often to try to see what was going on. I was at the front, and I heard something suspicious ahead of us, so I stopped and issued a warning so that our guys could take cover. Pretty simultaneously, they engaged us and we engaged them.’

Unfortunately, in that opening burst of fire, James Philippson was shot in the head and killed instantly.

‘Jim was four men back, about ten metres from me,’ said Bristow. ‘I heard one of the others 7 RHA guys say, “Jim’s been hit!”, and I went back straight away to check on him. We called for the medic, though we knew straight away that Jim was dead. It was then that I took the decision that we had to get him back to the FOB, and then find another way in to help the first patrol. Of all the decisions I made that day, this is the one I have worried about, and ironically it was just about the only one for which I was not criticised. Of course, I was happy for Jim’s family that we managed to recover his body, and things turned out okay, but I have often wondered whether it was the right thing to do. Certainly, it exposed us to much more risk – it needed four of us to carry him, and that was four fewer people to return fire – and it meant it was that much longer before we could get back to helping the original patrol.

‘It was terribly difficult. We had to drag him through various culverts and ditches, and he was literally covered in shit… we all were, very quickly. So that made him slippery, and hard to hold on to. To make him lighter, we took off his body armour. I took care of his pistol, but we couldn’t find his rifle. We were about a kilometre from the vehicles, so it was a matter of dragging and carrying him a little way, putting him down, returning fire – we could hear them talking to each other and trying to outflank us – and then picking him up and carrying on.

Miraculously, there was only one other casualty, apart from James Philippson and LBdr Mason from the original patrol. Sgt Maj Andy Stockton, who was part of the QRF, had the lower half of his left arm taken off by a rocket-propelled grenade which smash into him but, fortunately, failed to detonate. This failure was probably because the firer was too close – RPG rounds ‘arm’ themselves in flight – which shows how close the enemy were.

‘Even now, I can’t quite believe how lucky we were,’ said Maj Jonny Bristow. ‘The amount of rounds in the air was astonishing, but we were well-trained in finding cover and they were not very good shots. Jim was just terribly unlucky.’

James’ mother was asleep at her home in Portugal when the phone rang.

‘I always had my mobile on and near me in case James called,’ she said. ‘It was one or two o’clock in the morning, and it was David. He said, “I don’t know how else to say this, other than there’s two members of the Army here and… and James has been killed.”

‘It was just such a shock, straight out of the blue. I said, “James? How could anybody kill James?

‘It was in the middle of the night, so immediately I got onto the internet to book flights back to UK the next day. At the airport, Steve went straight to the desk, explained what had happened, and asked if we could get on the plane first and sit on our own and, I suppose, be treated with kid gloves. easyJet were pretty remarkable, and did as much for us as they could.

‘When the sun still came up, I just couldn’t believe that the world was continuing as it had the day before.’

Tony Philippson was at a new holiday home he had recently bought in Nerja, Spain.

‘A friend and I had just driven down there for the first time,’ he said. ‘It’s a fourteen-hundred-mile journey, and quite exhausting, so I was asleep. The phone woke me up. It was David. My memories of it have faded a bit, because you don’t like thinking about it. But I do know that it took a little while to sink in. It was overwhelming and terrible. I flew home the next day.’

James was given a full military funeral in St Albans, and was buried in the grounds of the cathedral.

‘The roads were closed and all the traffic was stopped,’ said Tony. ‘And the turnout was amazing. The guard of honour was made up of men of 29 Commando and 7 RHA, and it seemed like half the Army was there. The bagpipes were so loud they were deafening. It’s very difficult to think back over it. We organised a fabulous reception, and God, can soldiers drink! That’s all I’d say.’

‘The funeral was terrible,’ said Tricia. ‘But afterwards we met a lot of James’ colleagues and friends at the local golf club where we’d laid on some food and drink. It was a real celebration of his life. So many men said to me what a great guy he was, and that there couldn’t be a more honourable way to die. That didn’t help me much as a mother, but it did give me something to think about. He was a great guy who’d worked so hard getting to where he was.

‘Later, we went to a regimental service for James and others who’d been lost, and I met the chap who’d picked him up after he’d been killed. I don’t know what his name is, unfortunately, but meeting him was quite heartening, because he said he didn’t realise who he’d picked up until he laid him in the back of a jeep and looked at his dog tag. He said James’ face was so peaceful. He’d lost all that driven, determined look he had. He said he looked relaxed, which is quite a nice thought.’

‘The loss of James has affected David even more than it affected me, I think,’ said Tony Philippson. ‘David won’t come to anything that’s related to the military, even though we’re invited to some very special events from time to time. I have tickets from the Royal British Legion to attend a concert and reception at Windsor Castle, but he wouldn’t come to that. It upsets him too much.I visit James’ grave on his birthday and on June 11, the anniversary of the day he was killed. And I go there on Armistice Day. Someone has to put flowers there.’

Tricia still has difficulty in accepting that her oldest son is dead.

‘Last year, somebody asked me how old James would be if he was still with us, and I really had to think about it,’ she said. ‘Because he’s twenty-nine. That’s when he ended. The old Remembrance Day thing, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old… Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” That’s true. He will always be twenty-nine in my mind.

‘I don’t give a great deal of thought to what he might have done, or whether he might have had children. But it’ll be eight years next week since we lost our dear James. I still think he’ll phone one day and say, “Hi mum, how’s it going?”

‘There’s never a day goes by without him being in my thoughts somehow, whether it’s because I’m walking up a hill, and it’s tough, and I think of him encouraging me, or perhaps because I’ve just woken up, and it’s a lovely day, and I think, Oh, James would like this. Sometimes a butterfly might fly past, and I’ll think it might be his spirit.

‘I dream about him quite a lot. Mostly they’re nice dreams. In one, I was looking at a photo of him on the computer, and all of a sudden it became animated, and I said, “James! James! Is that you?”

He said, “It’s alright, mum. Everything’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s okay.”

‘And then I woke up, feeling quite a bit better. Once I saw a solitary poppy growing out of a kerbstone. I know it’s daft, because I’m a perfectly rational woman, but I saw it as a sign. It was just one poppy growing there, and it seemed to tell me, “Go on! Get on with it. You can do it.”

‘I’ve got a great big rug he bought me in Afghanistan which was shipped back with his things. And, of course, I’ve got David, who so similar to James in many ways. When James phoned he’d always say, “Hiya! How’s it going?” Sometimes now David rings and says the same thing, and it catches me out because their voices were so similar.

‘People often say to him, “Gosh, you’re so like your brother!” He had his arm tattooed with the words, “My brother lives on in me.” David’s felt the presence of his brother to spur him on, and not give up, and he’s now a very successful businessman. They had this lovely admiration and respect for one another.

‘I like looking at all our photographs. I’ve got millions of pictures of James, from when he was three hours old to when he was twenty-nine-and-a-bit. I can look at all those, and it’s like seeing a different person; this little kid. But still, my overwhelming thought is that it was just such a waste. What a waste! All of his efforts, his abilities and his potential.

‘I’m not optimistic about Afghanistan. I think the country will return to exactly the same state it was in before our intervention. I think all our lads and lasses that have been lost… It’s a total waste. If we’ve managed to build some schools and educate some girls, then that’s brilliant. But the Afghans will carry on killing each other.

‘I don’t have a very high opinion of politicians generally, I’m afraid. My impression is that they’ll do whatever will get them into the history books. I’ve not heard of a single politician with a son or daughter who’s gone to war. Not a single one.’

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*Two months after this incident, Lt Illingworth would find himself charging a Taliban machine gun position at Garmsir, as people fell all around him. It was an action for which he would be awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, Britain’s second highest award for bravery. He tells his story in the Monday Books title In Foreign Fields, which focuses on the stories of twenty medal-winning soldiers, Royal Marines and RAF men from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He arrived late to the incident in which James Philippson was killed, after his vehicle’s axle became entangled in the wire as they raced out of the FOB Robinson. He helped extract Capt Philippson’s body, and later reflected on his friend’s death. ‘Obviously, once you get a moment, you think about Jim,’ he said. ‘He was only twenty-nine years old, a really great guy in the absolute prime of his life, and his death was a tragedy. I think for me, it was mostly the shock of how quickly everything had happened. It brought home the fragility of life. He was buried while we were still in Afghanistan, and we had a memorial service up in Sangin on the day of his funeral. We all got together, had some whisky and said a prayer, which was our way of saying farewell. The Afghans who’d worked with Jim… they see death very differently to us, but they were clearly very sorry that he had died, and they consoled us, but they also saw it as a matter of pride that he had died for their country. Mixed in with that, I think there was some guilt, the sense that it should have been one of them.’

A charity, the Captain James Philippson Trust Fund, was set up in Jim’s name.

FINISHED COPIES OF ANIMAL QC arrived in the office late yesterday.

We are willing to bet (Sportsman’s only!) that it’s the funniest, least conventional and most entertaining memoir by a barrister that you will ever read. It is certainly the most self-deprecating.

Here’s the author Gary Bell QC signing copies:

Gary signs copiesGary would be (in fact, he is) the first to admit that his signature is a little… undeveloped.

In the late 1960s, when he was nine years old, he went to his local Post Office to open a savings account with twelve shillings.

The lady behind the counter asked for a sample of his signature, which left him bewildered (he didn’t know what one was) and embarrassed. He burst into tears, ran home, and spent the whole of the rest of the day practising various signatures.

He stuck with one and retains it to this day. It has all the flourishes and adornments one might expect of the young G Bell…

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The new Tory MP for Plymouth, Johnny Mercer, was until recently an officer in the elite Royal Horse Artillery, leading a fire support team in Afghanistan.

On one fateful day, he and his men were caught in a Taliban ambush. It led to the death of LBdr Mark Chandler..

Mark’s story appears in Graham Bound’s recent book AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN, and Johnny Mercer was one of the interviewees.

Here’s the chapter in question, which I think you may find moving.

LANCE BOMBARDIER MARK CHANDLER

D BATTERY, 3RD REGIMENT ROYAL HORSE ARTILLERY

APRIL 26, 1977 – JUNE 8, 2010

FATE IS A CRUEL and fickle mistress, and never more so than for soldiers in time of war: she makes eternal brothers of men, and then rips them apart on the merest whim.

LBdr Mark ‘Bing’ Chandler, Cpl Shaun ‘Baz’ Barrowcliff and Capt Johnny Mercer were three such brothers. Ignoring the niceties of rank, in the heat and fire of Afghanistan these men forged a bond – as a fire support team that was often danger-close with the enemy – that could never be broken.

And yet it was shattered in a moment by a Taliban bullet.

Mark Chandler

Mark Chandler (right), with Johnny Mercer, centre, and Baz Barrowcliff

For most who join the Army it is the realisation of a childhood dream. Mark Chandler was different. He had never considered a life in green until he turned twenty-five. He was perfectly content with his life as a welder in the picturesque Cotswolds town of Nailsworth, and had just bought a house with his girlfriend. A happy-ever-after ending beckoned.

‘His ambition,’ said his mother, Ann, ‘was to be a married man with 2.4 children, a dog and a cat, and a house with an apple tree. Just like anyone else.’

But then Mark’s girlfriend decided she wanted to go to Australia for a year, on her own.

‘He said, “If that’s all you feel about our relationship, we’ll sell the house and you can go,”’ said his father, Mike. ‘He came back to live with us, and then one day he came home from work and said, “I know what I’m going to do, I’m joining the Army.” We were amazed. We’d never seen any hint of that.’

The following year, Mark was a member of D Battery 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery – the RHA comprising the elite regiments of the Royal Artillery – where he had acquired the nickname ‘Bing’, after the character Chandler Bing in the TV sitcom Friends, and had fitted into military life as though to the manner born.

‘He never looked back,’ said Mike. ‘And going into the Army changed him. I remember looking at him as we took him to the station once, and you could just tell he was a soldier. D Battery Royal Horse Artillery is a very professional unit and a close-knit family, and it can be difficult to become quickly accepted, but Mark was instantly popular. Everyone said he was always on top of his game. He’d needed more structure in his life, and the Army gave it to him. He needed something to aim for, and the Army also gave him that.’

Mark had a ‘best book’ – a diary that recruits were encouraged to keep in training, in which he recorded his private thoughts and feelings. In one entry, read by his parents after his death, he wrote, I think about home and my friends, but I’m not at all homesick. In another, he talked about meeting up with his ex-girlfriend for a drink one night. She still goes on about how great I am, he said, so why did we split up? I don’t know. But I’m not regretting what I’m doing now. I’m still feeling good about the change of lifestyle.

The change of lifestyle included learning winter sports – he became an excellent skier, and was the British Army luge champion two years running – and taking more pride in his appearance.

‘He stopped being slouchy,’ said Ann. ‘I’d do his ironing for him when he was home, and he’d panic about “tramlines” – two creases in a trouser leg, instead of one. They get hauled over the coals for that. I’d say, “You can do it if you like,” but he’d say, “No, mum, you do it… Just be careful.”’

Their son hadn’t had the easiest time at school. ‘His IQ was fine,’ said Mike, ‘but he had a type of word blindness. It wasn’t dyslexia, but, as the experts put it, they had to teach him a new language. We hadn’t noticed because his older brother, Stephen, did all the talking for him. He went to a special school for a couple of terms, and at the end of that we wouldn’t have been able to guess there’d been anything wrong with him. They did a very good job.’

There was a hidden silver lining to this. ‘His homework took him longer than it did other children,’ said Ann. ‘I used to say, “You can go out and play, and you’ll end up being kept back a year, or you can do your homework and stay with your mates.” So from the age of about six, he got used to having to work, and that he never lost that work ethic.’

Mark was never clingy; indeed, while in basic training, Ann was shocked to receive a Mother’s Day card from her son – the first she could remember him giving her – but, under close questioning, he confessed sheepishly that it had been posted on the orders of his instructing NCOs. And once he had arrived at 3 RHA in Hohne, Germany, months could go by without his parents hearing from him. It didn’t mean he didn’t care – he loved them deeply. He just didn’t feel the need to say so every day.

‘Now and then he’d call, and say, “I’m sorry for not ringing more often, mum,”’ said Ann. ‘I’d say, “As long as you’re fine, that’s okay.” When he was based in Germany, there was a whole year when we didn’t see him. He called to ask if we would mind if he stayed away over Christmas and went skiing. I said, “No, you carry on.”

‘Whenever we did see him, he’d mostly talk about the Army, and his mates. Like the lad who ran off with a Russian prostitute… Mark said he’d rather have the military police chasing him than the Russian mafia!’

But when it mattered, Mark was there. While he was in Hohne, his mother discovered she had cancer.

‘I rang him one morning to tell him about his mum’s diagnosis,’ said Mike. ‘He sounded a bit non-committal, but at about five that afternoon the phone rang, and it was Mark, at Cheltenham station, wanting a lift. He’d told his RSM about Ann, and they’d given him immediate compassionate leave. Within half an hour, he was heading for Hanover airport. He was a very compassionate chap. He was always good with us, and never caused us any trouble at all.’

In his early days in the RHA, he was assigned for over two years as driver to the-then CO, Lt Col Ian Bell. Bell, later promoted to full colonel, and now working in a senior ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance] role with UK land forces, remembers a ‘very impressive’ soldier.

‘Mark was a quiet, mature and steady person who did what he thought was right,’ said Col Bell. ‘I considered him a friend. I saw him several times after leaving the regiment, and it was always great to bump into him and catch up. Had he still been around in ten years’ time, I’m sure we would have met at reunions, had a beer, and talked about our families.

‘He was my driver in Germany, but also a bit of a fixer. He would stay in the background so people didn’t notice him doing anything, but he had a really excellent knack of making sure that things happened for me and the RSM. It helped that he was mature and slightly older than most of the other guys. I appreciated what he did, and I trusted him implicitly. He knew my family, too, and he was the only person that my wife trusted to drive her and the kids when they needed a lift.

‘He had a great ability to engage with life to full. He stopped others sitting around the barracks. When he had time off, he’d often take young soldiers away to various parts of Germany to do things. I thought he was very impressive, such that, when I left the regiment, we were looking at different career paths that might better utilise his talents. We looked particularly at the fire support teams, which was in fact what he went to do. He was absolutely the sort of soldier who was required in that high-pressure environment.’

It had rapidly become clear that Mark Chandler’s early educational problems were not a brainpower issue. Calling down air or artillery fire under fire is a demanding task, and not one for those who do not possess an agile mind which functions well under the most severe pressure.

‘That job combines the ability to see the enemy and what is going on around you, while controlling a significant amount of the firepower, with the ability to strike as appropriate,’ said Ian Bell. ‘The role provides the firepower around which people can manoeuvre to achieve what they need to do. Forward observers are often in massively high-pressure situations. They may be under fire, while needing to understand the locations of civilians, the enemy, and our own troops. They’re often speaking to aircraft, or people on the ground ten or fifteen miles away, and are making very significant decisions about the proportionality of their actions and the potential for collateral damage. They may be watching one viewing screen while pumping data into another, or sending it over voice, while lying in a wet ditch, being shot at and shooting back. And even though they may be using modern electronic equipment, they need to be able to fall back on procedures that don’t rely on electronics. It is a really high pressure, difficult job, and Mark was well suited to it because he was bright, agile, worked really hard, and he got on with people. Furthermore, he could appreciate the bigger picture.’

At ease with generals and squaddies alike, Mark Chandler was offered the chance to drive General Sir David Richards, later Chief of the Defence Staff. Some would have killed for such a plum job, but he turned it down in favour of that altogether more thrilling and dangerous career – as an FST member in Afghanistan.

*

CAPT JOHNNY MERCER was on his third tour of Afghanistan, and it wasn’t getting any easier. In large part, this was because the Taliban had changed tactics. Now, they rarely engaged the British Army in firefights – because they invariably lost, badly. Instead, they were sowing IEDs like confetti.

Mercer still didn’t rate them very highly. ‘If I’m honest,’ he said, ‘I thought the enemy could be poor. They had the local knowledge to cause great damage, but they didn’t use it. I remember men engaging me and then just getting up and running without covering fire, which made it easier for me. But I often sympathised with their plight. They weren’t well-trained, and they didn’t seem to have a basic understanding, on a number of levels, because they had no education. If I was a young lad there, and someone offered me twenty dollars to fire a weapon at a patrol base, I’d probably do it; that’s a month’s earnings, and some of them were doing it so their families could survive.

‘But while some of the foot soldiers were clearly amateurs, I also fought some of the people pulling the strings, the real cowards at the highest levels of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, who indulge in extreme brutality; the very worst that mankind has to offer. There are and will always be some very dark people who do some very dark things. These people cannot be reconciled, and they need to be dealt with by the security forces.’

Mercer’s job was to lead a small fire support team, calling down artillery fire, mortars or air assets on enemy positions in order to support infantry patrols out on the ground. Some FST officers find it easier to do this work from the relative calm of the PB, but Mercer preferred to go out with the patrols. It was better to have his own eyes-on, he felt, and better, too, for trust between his team and the infanteers. His team was small, just himself, Baz Barrowcliff and Mark Chandler. Mark was qualified to control guns and mortars, Baz to control fast jets. Capt Mercer – who was able to control all such assets – was in overall command.

‘My initials are on the shell or bomb as it comes in,’ he said. ‘I control all the situational awareness, and make sure I’m happy with the appropriate fire support for the situation. My job was to produce the effect on the ground. If it needed to be done in haste, I’d do it myself without the other guys, but one of them would always check me. I was always chattering on the net, being as proactive as I could in lining up assets to deal with a potential contact. It also gave me a chance to be more courageous than perhaps I naturally am, as I was always busy and always thinking.’

He needed men alongside him whom he could trust utterly, and Mark Chandler was just such a one.

‘Mark, Baz and I just got on very well,’ he said. ‘Some people join the Army for different reasons, but we were there because we wanted to be soldiers. We understood each other, and the risks we were prepared to take and the risks we were not prepared to take.

‘Mark was the perfect soldier – a selfless man who would just as readily volunteer to empty the bins as go out on a patrol. Under fire, Mark would be sat in the ditch next to me smiling, seemingly without a care in the world. It was an absolute privilege to command this example of a man.’

On their return from an exhausting, twelve-hour contact, Mark would quickly clean his own kit and then – conscious that his boss had paperwork to complete – would clean Capt Mercer’s, too. A rare thing to do in the heat and dust and filth of Afghanistan, but it meant the team got to knock off together.

Baz Barrowcliff and Mark Chandler were the perfect men to have out on the ground. ‘There’s a large technical side to our job,’ said Mercer. ‘You’re doing arithmetic on the hoof, and it’s a huge responsibility. But those guys were cool. It wasn’t just running around with a gun, although there were times when we had to fight our way out with our personal weapons. We liked working together – we worked with varying standards of soldiers, and we felt that, if something was to go wrong, we were best placed to get ourselves out of it.’

Mark Chandler had earlier told his parents that he had specifically requested to work alongside Johnny Mercer.

‘Everyone said, “You must be nuts! He’s impossible to work for!”’ said Mike Chandler. ‘But they got on like a house on fire. Johnny had a bit of a reputation for being difficult, but Mark said he was the kind of man you wanted on your side in a punch-up.’

Mercer admits to having perhaps been ‘quite an arrogant young man’ in his early days, but believes the confidence that came with it might well have given his men that sense of security required to conduct close-quarter battle with the Taliban.

‘The soldiers appreciated it, I think,’ he said. ‘They thought they’d be okay with me; they would enter more dangerous terrain because they thought I had the skills to extract them. It almost became an act; pretending I was braver than I was. And Mark’s loyalty was absolutely unquestionable. He was prepared to do anything for me, and I for him. That is a humbling thing, and I’ll be forever privileged. But it does have its responsibilities. Soldiers relying on you alone to extract them under fire, day after day, month after month… I found quite stressful. And there is clearly some guilt when it goes wrong.’

The FST and their allied infantry, Anzio Coy, 1 Lancs, were based in PB Khaamar, in Nad-e Ali.

This is a town and wider district of some 75,000 people which forms one point of a triangle with Lashkar Gah to the south and Camp Bastion to the west. It had long been a Taliban stronghold. An old crane overlooking the main canal through the town had often been festooned with the bodies of those hanged for their failure to support the insurgents, and was the scene of much fierce fighting. By the time British forces finally withdrew in 2013, it had a thriving bazaar, schools and health clinics, but, on the debit side of the ledger, fifty-two soldiers would have lost their lives in bringing those benefits to the locals. The governor of Nad-e Ali, Mohammad Ibrahim, would pay tribute to them, saying, ‘The sacrifices that have been made by your soldiers… we appreciate that, and will never forget that.’

One of the more infamous of those sacrifices was the murder in November 2009 of five British soldiers by a traitorous Afghan policeman, who open-fired on them at Checkpoint Blue 25 in the town without warning. Another six British soldiers and two Afghan policemen were wounded in the incident.

With incidents like that playing on their minds, the soldiers of Anzio Coy called the area ‘The Jungle’.

Khaamar was ‘austere’, said Mercer. ‘When we first got there, we washed out of a well. There were no showers. We eventually rigged up a crap shower, with shower bags. We were on rations out of a box for six or seven months, with very little fresh food. I was sleeping on a camp cot under a mosquito net. But we had an exceptional team in Bastion keeping us well supplied in all aspects. A helicopter came in every three or four days, but it was not predictable, and it was guaranteed to come under fire. The Royal Logistic Corps did CLPs [combat logistics patrols], and if there was someone important coming in or going out by helicopter we’d try to ensure they also brought in mail and essential kit. You plan a long time in advance, and we had three to four months’ of ammunition at the base.’

Despite the obvious lack of home comforts, Johnny Mercer was not complaining. ‘I didn’t have a problem with it,’ he said. ‘I suppose, yes, there were two sides to the Afghan deployment – those of us who had to be in the FOBs and PBs, and those who were at Bastion. But even in Bastion troops and commanders were away from their families. And it was only relative comfort. Still not much fun, working incredible hours to make sure we were best-equipped and looked after to carry the fight.’

As the fighting season began, the area quickly hotted up.

‘The day after the poppy harvest finished, the Taliban tried to get over the front gate and over-run the PB,’ he said. ‘It was a Sunday morning, and I was in bed. That’s how close they were. And whenever we walked out of the gate, the action could happen at any time.

‘The over-arching task was to secure areas so that others could get on with the business of bringing good governance to the place, and introduce schools and clinics, that kind of thing. Often, we were trying to take the same bits of ground day after day. It could be depressing, but you just had to get on with it.’

 *

ON THE MORNING of June 8, 2010, the FST were out in support of another dawn patrol to reassure the locals and push enemy fighters back. They had an Afghan special forces ‘Tiger Team’ with them, and had pushed out into an area criss-crossed with irrigation canals and single track roads built in the 1970s by American engineers.

At first, progress was easy, and children were playing happily in the shade of a number of walls and homes dotted around. But then came a classic combat indicator: women began rounding up the children and herding them away. Simultaneously, Taliban radio chatter intensified. An attack was clearly imminent. As they pushed forward over a drainage ditch, the soldiers were able – through Mercer’s overhead surveillance – to identify the compound where most of the enemy fighters were located.

Mercer busied himself in checking communications with his artillery and with a nearby helicopter.

‘I needed to be sure that we were ready to call in support,’ he said. ‘Meanwhile, the infantry and Mark and Baz discussed a plan. Once I had finished, I said to Mark, “What’s the score, mate?”’

The plan was to leave a reserve in situ, and to send the Tiger Team north, in a standard infantry advance-to-contact, as a small FST/1 LANCS six-man team closed in on the insurgent compound. The hope was that the Taliban would engage the Tigers; with their focus drawn, the British troops could smash their way into the compound and take them on at close quarters.

‘I briefed the helicopter and the artillery, had an even briefer chat with the ground commander because I trusted him, and then we went for it,’ said Mercer. ‘I was in front, then came Mark, then Baz. We got to a junction on this narrow track where we were going to flick north and close with the insurgents. The first three blokes crossed the road, then me. Mark was just on my shoulder – protecting me, as always. We always remained closer than was tactically ideal, because we needed to be together to do our jobs.’

Unfortunately, they were confronted by a classic problem of fighting in Afghanistan, indeed against any insurgent force. There were men nearby in traditional garb, but there was no way of distinguishing innocent farmers from Taliban fighters with AK47s secreted in their robes or lying by their feet.

‘It’s not a classic, face-to-face battle,’ said Mercer. ‘Often, they open up from twenty metres away, and they look like civvies right up until then. As we progressed the attack, we knew there were people there, but not necessarily that they were Taliban. We thought they were in a row of buildings, but not in this particular building twenty-five metres or so away.

‘I remember it as if it were yesterday. I started crossing the road. As I got to the second wheel rut, we were engaged from twenty to thirty metres away by multiple automatic weapons. Mark and myself were the only two visible to what was now the enemy.’

Amazed that he himself had not been shot, Johnny Mercer hit the ground. Then he heard Baz Barrowcliff shout, ‘Man down!’

Mercer whipped around. Cpl Barrowcliff was in the ditch on the other side of the track, and Mark Chandler was lying motionless, face down, in the dirt road.

‘Baz shouted again, “Boss, boss! Man down, man down!”’ said Mercer. ‘Mark was a matter of feet from me. He was motionless, and there was not a lot of blood, so I knew it might be an immediate fatality. I immediately jumped on the radio to engage the enemy.’

He had a battery of 105mm artillery some twelve kilometres away, and – desperate to snatch the initiative back from the Taliban, so as to create time and space to get to Mark – decided to call them in to eighty metres with his first round, a lot closer than normal.

‘Typically, your first round might be four hundred metres away from the target,’ he said. ‘The shells should be accurate, assuming they use the same ammunition and haven’t moved the artillery pieces, but it’s a sensible precaution. But we spent lot of time zeroing the guns, so we knew exactly where the shells would land, and additionally we were perpendicular to the flight of the shell [so shrapnel would splash away from them]. In an ambush, most casualties are taken in the first four or five seconds. The enemy have engaged you at a time and place of their choosing, now you need to wrestle that initiative back, or take more casualties. You can get more precise weapons than a 105mm gun, but they take time. With guns, the flash-to-bang time is so quick. That’s why artillery is still the god of war.’

Unfortunately, even gods of war need comms, and Mercer now found he was in a dead spot, unable to talk to the battery. Frustrated beyond belief, he got through to the patrol commander on the local net, told him about the casualty, asked for covering fire to extract him, and then ran out into the Taliban bullets.

‘Bing was quite a big guy,’ he said. ‘Baz was struggling to pull him into cover by one foot, and I could see the rounds going through the reeds above Baz’s head. I thought he was about to be killed in front of me. I heard him saying, “He’s dead, boss, he’s fucking dead!”, and just then Bing’s body flipped over towards me. I could see his eyes. They were open, and I knew he’d been killed.

‘I told Baz to leave him, that I would run across the road and we would pull him in together. I had a machine gunner in front of me, and I remember screaming at him to engage the enemy. But he was looking at me over his shoulder, helmet awry, eyes glazed over. He’d just gone. He’d frozen. I lost it with him. I yelled, “Get the fucking rounds down, now!” and then moved towards him to grab his weapon, which was far more powerful than mine. He faced up the track and put a burst of three rounds down. I thought, For fuck’s sake, I’m just going to have to go! I lost it at him again to give me covering fire, and he again tried to, but this time he only got one round down before his weapon jammed. At that precise moment I’d just stepped out and couldn’t return. I thought, Shit! This is going to sting! It’s all over!

‘I thought that if I got hit and wasn’t killed outright, the chances were it would be in the legs, so I consciously ran across in such a way that my momentum would carry my body into the ditch with Baz, and he’d at least be able to treat me. It’s like running past a winger in a game of rugby: with momentum, you might still just get across the tryline.’

Remarkably, Mercer made it unscathed to the ditch, and he and Baz managed to pull Mark Chandler down next to them. They lugged him to the cover of a nearby building, hoping against hope that they would be able to give him some kind of first aid. ‘I took his helmet and body armour off,’ said Mercer, ‘and looked for blood. I got around the back of his neck and found the hole where bullet exited, but I couldn’t identify an entry wound. Later, I did, just a small scorched wound under his left eye.

‘The Taliban go ape-shit if they think they’ve killed someone. Everybody comes out to have a go. Within two minutes, we got engaged again from another two firing points from the east and the south. It was going to go all wrong. We were surrounded.’

As dozens of rounds zipped overhead, a young medic – LCpl Gemma Owens – risked her life to race over to Mercer’s position.

‘She was in a state,’ he said, ‘but she was a credit to her profession. In a horrific situation, she pretty much kept her cool, and went through her drills. I didn’t think they would help, but she was the medic, not me. I helped her attempt CPR, but it became clear that it was doing more harm than good. That’s it, I thought. It’s over. I grabbed Gemma’s hands, which were now soaked in Bing’s blood, and shouted at her. “Enough, Corporal Owens! I’m telling you, enough!” I called her Corporal Owens so she remembered where she was. “Gather up your stuff, and we’ll extract from here.”

‘At that point, we were engaged again, from closer in, to the north where we had just been. In my position, I was the senior rank on these patrols, but I always focused on Joint Fires – my primary role. I was always there for advice to the JNCOs, but I wanted them to make the tactical decisions. I was more experienced, but they were infanteers and I wasn’t. I always had them call me by my first name, to emphasise that fact. But there was a real threat of actually getting over-run. I told everyone there, “Right, fucking listen to me. We need to get this guy out of here now, otherwise we won’t get back.”’

‘Everyone there’ was three or four UK soldiers. The small reserve force of four or five 1 LANCS men had bravely fought their way over, but had then extracted almost immediately under the mistaken belief – in the chaos of the contact – that the party was ready to go, and was following.

‘Bing wasn’t even on the stretcher at that point,’ said Mercer. ‘Baz was heroic, as usual, but I could see the enormity of what had just happened was starting to have an emotional effect, and I needed to focus him. I said, “Look, mate, we’ll be okay. I’ll extract him with three others, but you need to cover my arse against this incoming fire.” Without hesitation, he advanced alone ten metres towards the enemy, into their fire, and began returning fire. Massively brave, I could have cried with pride.

‘Eventually the extraction party consisted of Mark, the medic, the interpreter, and me, and one other soldier. Baz was our only real covering fire. I think people sometimes think these battles involve large numbers, but often they’re not like that, it’s just a few young men and women fighting for their lives, hoping to live to tell the tale. I manhandled Mark onto a stretcher rather unceremoniously. The interpreter picked up Mark’s weapon. He didn’t even need to be there. If anyone says, “All the Afghans are terrible,” that’s bollocks. This guy was prepared to give up his life for Mark. He thought all his Christmases had come at once. At last, a chance to kill some of the Taliban who’d been trying to kill him. I took the safety catch off, and made him point it away from me. Then I said, “Guys we’re just going to have to go!”’

They pepper-potted as best they could, struggling with the dead weight of LBdr Chandler.

‘I remember seeing these fuckers engaging me from a house on the side that me and the interpreter were on,’ said Mercer. ‘I remember running along, carrying the stretcher, me and the interpreter both firing at the house with one arm. It’s almost impossible to hit anything like that, but you’ve got to try. I actually wrote him a citation, but I think it got lost in the maelstrom that is the British Army’s paperwork.’

During one pause for breath on the 800-metre extraction, Mercer finally managed to get through to the guns.

‘I opened up with four 105mm high explosive shells into the field 150 metres to our north,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t drop them into the building, because I knew there were women and children in and amongst the guys shooting us. Eventually, we met up with the QRF and the Tiger Team, so we actually had numbers, about fifteen of us. I had good comms now to both artillery and air support, and I started engaging the main enemy position with artillery rounds. Again, I didn’t want to hit the house directly, but I was trying to force any squirters [Taliban who were running or ‘squirting’ from the target] to another firing point where I could engage them with an Apache I was talking to on another net.

‘We started running towards a main road where the armoured vehicles were, but now under the cover of large artillery explosions to our rear. The main patrol was carrying Mark, and Baz and I were at the back doing individual fire-and-manoeuvre. We had to cover the last 200 metres like this. I suppose we were under fire right up to when we got close to the armoured vehicle column. Just as we were finally getting close, still twenty or thirty yards from safety, Baz ran out of ammunition. He was screaming at me to put down covering fire so he could get in. I ran out into the field to draw the fire, seeking some cover behind what looked like a small mound of earth. But when I got there it was just dry stacked poppies from the opium harvest, so I just emptied my entire magazine into the two firing points that continued to engage. That enabled Baz to get to the vehicles, and by the time I got there the contact was broken. We had helicopters coming on target, and the insurgents were running away at the sound of the Apache.

‘I wanted to lie Mark down in one of the armoured vehicles, but it wasn’t long enough, so I got in – I’d had my assets taken off me by my fire co-ordination cell – picked him up like a baby, put him on my lap and cradled him, while someone shut the door on us. It was just me and Mark in there for the forty-odd minutes it took to get back to the PB. I was shaking him a little bit, and talking to him. It was pretty harrowing, really. Every soldier’s death is terrible, but when it’s your mate, someone you’ve laughed and cried with, had coffee and a smoke with every morning, and fought for your lives together, it’s very, very different.

‘He didn’t feel as warm as he would have if he was alive, but he didn’t feel cold, either. It’s strange when somebody has just died. It’s not black-and-white by any stretch. I kept feeling for a pulse and thinking, Have I got this wrong?

*

UNFORTUNATELY, JOHNNY MERCER had not got it wrong.

At their Cotswolds home, Ann and Mike Chandler had risen early and were picking at a breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast.

‘I said to Mike, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I can’t eat this,”’ said Ann. ‘I took a couple of sips of coffee and I said, “I can’t drink this, either.” It might have been my cancer tablets, but it was also about the time Mark was killed.’

A little while later, as Ann got started on a pile of ironing, there was a knock on the door.

‘I looked out the kitchen window and saw two youngish chaps in dark suits,’ said Mike. ‘I thought they were Mormons, and if I ignored them they’d go away. But they carried on knocking, and Ann suddenly said, “It might be the military.”

‘Of course, I then shot through and opened the door, and it was these two Army chaps. I knew why they were there. It must be an awful job. The first thing they said was, could they get us a cup of tea, and was there anyone we would like them to call? I said, “No, all we want to know is, is he dead?”

‘They said, “Yes, he is. He was killed at six o’ clock our time.”

‘There was nothing to say. It was just bloody awful. It just wipes your mind blank. I guess I was telling myself this wasn’t happening. I was just staring into a void. After they’d gone, Ann and I just sat and looked each other and thought, What do we do now? We couldn’t believe he wasn’t coming back. Sometimes, even now, we look at his pictures, and we think he’s just gone outside and he’ll be back in a minute.’

‘There’s no plan for this,’ said Ann. ‘Myriad things come to mind. The main thing was what a great loss Mark had suffered, and that we wouldn’t see him again. We hadn’t seen him for months, and now we weren’t going to see him again, ever. You just cope with it as best you can. Each person has too much suffering to deal with. It’s too much. We phoned Mark’s brother, Stephen. I was concerned the news would leak out. I said to him, “Something’s happened. Can you come over?” He wanted to know what it was, so I told him. I said, “You can spend time here, or we can come to you.” He said, “Mum, I just want to be on my own and work it out.” We’re a close family, but not a cloying one. Stephen drank too much whiskey that day, and he called a few of his mates, who plied him with even more whiskey. I think he slept the sleep of the just that night. He was the big brother who taught Mark to read, to write, to walk, to skateboard, to ride a bike… For two or three days, he was inconsolable, though he eventually got out of it all right. He can talk about it now quite dispassionately. As a family, we talk about Mark quite a lot.’

Mike and Ann are still struck by the mind-numbing speed with which everything happened. Mark was killed on June 8, 2010, his body was flown home on June 10, and he was buried on June 23. At the repatriation ceremony, they were introduced by their visiting officer [WO2 Paul Corkhill] to Mark’s commanding officer, the RSM, the adjutant, and one of Mark’s friends.

‘After about twenty minutes, it was as if we had known them all our lives,’ said Ann. ‘They were fascinated to find that we could actually laugh about some memories from Mark’s life. Everyone was so very sombre, and I thought, Perhaps we’re wrong; perhaps we shouldn’t remember the fun times? It was a bit surreal, really.’

Hundreds attended Mark Chandler’s funeral at the Garrison Church of St Michael, in Tidworth, Wilts. His family took the decision to bury Mark there so that his mates – many of whom were and are based at Tidworth – could visit his grave. The wake in the officers’ mess at Larkhill was ‘more like a celebration’, said Mike. ‘We met some amazing people. They’d come up and put their arms around us – there were so many that we couldn’t talk to all of them. We’ve been in touch with a lot since. The experience has brought out a lot of love and friendship.

‘And after the rest of Mark’s team came back we met many of them, including Tom Platt, his battery sergeant major. He looked like an angry pit-bull, with tattoos all over him, but he was actually the nicest of guys. He couldn’t do enough for us.’

Mike and Ann had not thought for a moment that their son would die in Afghanistan.

‘I was worried that he might get injured,’ said Mike. ‘We knew it was very dangerous. They were in camps behind tumbledown walls, miles from medical help. Every week brought reports of soldiers being killed. If your son’s a soldier in those circumstances and you’re not apprehensive, you should be. But never in my worst nightmares did I think he’d be killed.’

Mark himself dealt with the risk in his own characteristically humorous way.

‘I remember him hovering around me one day,’ said Ann. ‘I said, “What’s going on, Mark?” He said he’d just worked out that if he lost a limb he’d get into the GB Paralympic Winter Sports team. “For God’s sake,” I said. “You’re going to be fine!”’

A few days later, she said goodbye to her son for the last time, as Mike prepared to drive him to the station for his train back to camp.

‘I couldn’t fit in the car because of his kit,’ she said. ‘So I stayed at home. He saw me crying as they left, which I didn’t normally do, and he said to his dad, “Why’s mum crying?” Mike said, “Just work it out.” And off they went. I was really looking forward to the man that this war was going to reveal. I knew it would strip anybody right down to their basics. And I know he had a great time out there. I asked Johnny Mercer if they were enjoying their war, and he laughed, and said, “Actually, we were having a super time. We were doing a difficult job, but we were doing it well, and enjoying it.”’

Mercer – who has left the Army and is standing for election to parliament in 2015 – looks back with some guilt.

‘I think about him and Baz every day,’ he said. ‘It was my responsibility. If I hadn’t been there, the patrol wouldn’t have attempted that engagement. Mark was with me because he never thought he’d get killed in my team. I almost feel a bit stupid for engendering that mind-set in both Mark and Baz. And I feel guilty about it. Felicity, my wife, and everyone else who loves me and has supported me, they say it’s not my fault. I suppose my respective commanders have also often been quick to tell me I was saving countless lives over the years, but, you know… I didn’t bring all of my men home, so I cannot have been that good.

‘I don’t think I’m being harsh on myself, because my primary job was to bring the team home. Over the years I’ve lost other friends too. But Mark was different. It was a special tour for me; one where we were presented with harder challenges than I have ever faced. But when I think of Mark, I think about him, rather than the nature of his passing.

‘Baz still comes to my house often. He has struggled with the loss of Mark. For me, the emotions hit at odd times. Remembrance Day is difficult, but there are less obvious times, too. I almost had a little cry today. It’s my daughter’s fifth birthday. We were singing Happy Birthday, and I had the dog and my new four-month-old on my lap as I watched her opening her presents. She was so happy. But I was thinking, Mark’s never going to have this. I will carry that with me as a burden. His life ended that day, and mine didn’t. I always get up at dawn on June 8.

‘I got back from Afghanistan having done what I wanted to do. Pushing on in the Army, perhaps being a staff officer – that always scared me. It looks horrendous. I joined the Army to be a soldier, not to be at a desk. I wanted to test myself against evil people, and I couldn’t do that anymore with a young family. It’s a young man’s game, and I just couldn’t take the risks I was previously prepared to take. My wife and I wanted to have another child. So it was time to leave.

‘I don’t feel that we were wrong to be in Afghanistan. If you have the capability to intervene in a state that’s sponsoring terrorism, you should do so. Did we always get our doctrine right? Absolutely not. Did we set Afghanistan back when we first went there? Yes. Did we handle counter-insurgency properly? Probably not. But did we eventually make it a better place? Yes.’

That final emphatic ‘yes’ is shared by Col Ian Bell.

‘We have achieved a level of results that means we can go and leave it to the Afghan people,’ he said. ‘We’ve made a significant difference. An argument will continue that we stayed too long, or left too early, but, if I’m honest and from a soldier’s perspective, we look at what we are asked to do, we do it, we move on. We helped the Afghan Security Forces reach a standard where they now conduct the operations. The argument will run forever. People who have not yet been born will be writing essays at staff college about this.

‘I’ll never forget hearing about Mark’s death. It was my son’s fifth birthday. Thankfully, my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Artillery, knew when they got the message that he had been my driver, so they tried to contact me directly. But that wasn’t possible, so they told my wife, who also knew Mark really well, and she then told me. I was absolutely gutted, obviously, and hugely surprised. He was a guy I’d known really well and spent a lot of time with. I guess anyone can imagine what that feels like. Just thinking about the moment now is pretty emotional for me.

‘I didn’t know his parents before, but I met them at the repatriation ceremony, and we’ve been in touch since. I hope we’ll remain in touch. They visit us sometimes when they go to Mark’s grave and they have a very strong link with 3 RHA. They see us as people who were part of his life, and they know that he valued us and we valued him. I’m really impressed by Ann and Mike’s attitude.

‘As for Mark, there is no question in my mind that, had he lived, he would have been promoted further than most soldiers would expect. He excelled at everything he did.’

*

ANN AND MIKE Chandler are less convinced about the Afghanistan campaign, though they do know that their son was respected, and is remembered fondly, by a great many people.

‘Johnny told us, “A lot of people looked up to Mark, so don’t think he has wasted his life by being killed in Afghanistan, because he hasn’t,”’ said Ann. ‘“He’s left quite a legacy of people who will never forget him. He touched a lot of people, and did an awful lot of good. He was a much-respected man.” Those words came from a guy who is a really hard-bitten soldier, so they mean a lot. But I remember Mark saying that, while he quite liked the local people in Iraq, he didn’t think much of the Afghans. He said they had low standards, and that they treated their animals and even their wives absolutely appallingly.

‘He told me about a young woman who’d gone with her married sister and her mother to the next village to carry food back, and her brothers were so incensed [that a single woman had gone out without a male chaperone] that they cut off her nose and ears. If they were good guys, who were we fighting for? I don’t think Mark met them. He said to me once, “It’s a lost cause. We all know that within two years of us leaving, everything will have gone back to the way it was.”’

The Chandlers are left with good memories of their son, and immense gratitude for those who were with him on the day he died, particularly his fellow FST members. ‘Johnny and Baz risked their lives to get Mark back to the base,’ said Mike. ‘Johnny holding Mark on his lap in the armoured vehicle… That was a wonderful thing to do. It was fabulous. Two newspapers suggested that Mark had been abandoned, and when we complained about that we were awarded £2,000. We used the money to set up an award in Mark’s name for his old unit. The bombardier who performs most impressively on the lance bombardier leadership course gets a rugby shirt with “Bing” written on it [Mark was a lifelong fan of Gloucester Rugby Club], a hundred pounds, and a beer stein. The course is tough, so they deserve it.

‘When Johnny came home on R&R shortly after Mark was killed, he came straight to see us. He was concerned that we would blame him for Mark’s death, but how could we? And the autopsy report said that death would have been virtually instantaneous. So Mark wouldn’t have known. That was a huge relief. Johnny has become a good friend, but poor old Baz just can’t come to talk to us. We would love it if he did. His wife has been in touch, but Baz just can’t. We often think of him.’

They are coping with their loss, in part thanks to their other son Stephen, who works for Mencap.

‘Stephen has been a great help,’ said Mike. ‘We can talk about what happened now, and I like talking about Mark. I hope people don’t think we have forgotten him, because we haven’t. Sometimes it’s a bad day, and I just cry. But, generally speaking, we’re pretty well up for it. Because life has to go on, doesn’t it? You can’t just curl up and die. We do our best.

‘We like to go to Mark’s grave – it has settled, at last, and the headstone’s been erected, and another soldier has been buried next to him. It’s nice that he has someone on both sides, now. I don’t feel his presence there, but I do see him here at home sometimes. It’s strange. I said to Ann the other day, “I haven’t seen Mark for a long time.” And then yesterday he was here, just like you are, on the settee there. It’s nice to see him. I like the feeling that he’s here. I might be working on my laptop, or reading, and suddenly I get this feeling that there is someone in the room. I’ll just see something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to look at him, he goes. I said to Ann, I must not look at him.

‘I don’t feel he’s trying to tell us anything. I just feel he may be checking we’re okay. Sometimes he’ll be there in the car, too. I can feel him on the back seat. I don’t know why, but I just know he’s there. Sometimes if I’m driving his old car, he might be there, and I feel he’s telling me off for my poor driving, as he did when he was alive. Amazing, isn’t it? I’m not into that sort of thing at all, and I don’t believe in ghosts.’

Ann has had similar, though less vivid, experiences.

‘Mike often sees enough to know what Mark’s wearing, and it’s often clothes he didn’t have when he was alive,’ she said. ‘I don’t see him, but sometimes I’ll be sitting here doing a Sudoku, or watching the telly, and there’ll be a movement of air. I will feel this presence, and I’ll look up thinking there is someone there. But I don’t see him. Perhaps he is there. I’ve dreamed about Mark sometimes, but he’s just Mark in my dreams. It’s comforting to know he’s around.

‘Mark didn’t have a wife or children, or even any pets. He did have a very nice Lancia car, which he treasured, and he’d saved up quite a lot of money to get it re-sprayed and engineered from the floor up. When he died, we wanted to do something that he would have done had he lived. So we spent some money doing up his car. It’s now kept somewhere nice and dry, and we take it out from time to time. We’ve also started raising money for Help For Heroes in a quiet way. The worst thing is hearing of his mates getting married and having children. That’s what he would have been doing if he had lived.’

Mike Chandler’s attitude to life has changed somewhat.

‘I don’t suffer fools at all,’ he said. ‘If someone upsets me, I just ignore them or tell them to bugger off. I’m not generally a confrontational person, but life is too short and there are too many nice people about to worry about the ones I don’t like. We were up at the pub one lunchtime. I suppose I was moaning about the people who killed Mark. Someone said, “You must learn to forgive and forget.” I nearly hit him. I said, “What a bloody stupid thing to say! I’ll forgive that man when I shoot him between the eyes. You don’t have a clue about what you’re talking about. You cannot have an inkling of what we’re going through.”’

‘Someone said to me, “Well, he was paid for it,”’ said Ann. ‘I said, “Actually, soldiers don’t join the Army to be killed, they join to save us from being killed.” But generally people are very nice. They just find it hard to know what to say. But there is nothing to say, really, is there?’

The Chandlers received a box of their son’s effects from Afghanistan. Among them was his wristwatch. ‘I know it will sound strange,’ said Ann, ‘but I’m dreading the day that watch stops. We keep it here in the living room. It’s still ticking after nearly four years. He was wearing it the day he was killed, and it’s our last living link, if you like, with him. I don’t know what’s going to happen the day it stops.’

For more Monday Books news, please subscribe under ‘EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION’ at the top right hand corner of the page, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter via @mondaybooks

 

Apologies to our loyal reader for the lack of posts – we’ve been a bit sidetracked by family stuff.

My brother-in-law, whom I mentioned some time ago when he contracted lymphoma, now has acute myeloid leukaemia. Ironically, this was brought on by the chemotherapy he underwent for the lymphoma; apparently there’s a five per cent chance of this, and he was just unlucky.

It was a real shock – he was in remission from the lymphoma and life was getting back to normal.

He’s been in hospital for a couple of weeks, under going FLAG chemo, which I’m told is about as challenging as it gets. You spend five days having horrible chemicals pumped into you; these take you to the brink of death, and destroy your immune system, so you then spend a further three or four weeks in hospital in semi-isolation.

Typically, he has dealt with it so far pretty much like this (the chemo being Plisson):

However, he is a long way from being out of the woods yet. If the FLAG has worked, and we’ll know very soon, he may be allowed home for a few days, and then he will go through the whole process again just to kill off any vestiges of the leukaemia.

But it can – in fact, I think would – come back sooner or later, so, assuming a match can be found, he will need a bone marrow transplant.

That is in itself extremely dangerous; for about eighteen months, you are at risk from an infection (your immune system is essentially regrowing during that time).

We’ve been up and down the motorway a few times recently, and chatting on the phone to him and my sis, and generally thinking about him a lot, too.

Hence, work has suffered a bit. (Though not as much as his – he is a QC, and was due to prosecute in two murder trials this summer; he can’t now work for at least two years.)

The scary thing is how quick it was.

Here he is in front of Mont Blanc on a short skiing trip we took together in mid-March:

David ski pic

A week later, he was in hospital. Though as this post-FLAG shot of him having a blood transfusion suggests, he’s dealing with it with aplomb (you’d go a long way to find a more determined, upbeat and positive bloke, so if that means anything he’s got a headstart):

David blood transfusionI’m posting this not just to explain the lack of blogging, of course.

You may be able to help him – and if not him, then one of the thousands of others who need a bone marrow transplant now or in the future (and it could be you or one of yours).

To find out if you’re eligible, all you have to do is contact Delete Blood Cancer. They will send out a little swab kit, and you simply swab the insides of your cheeks and post it back to them, free of charge.

If you ARE a match for someone, the process of extracting your bone marrow and giving it to someone and saving their life is NOT painful, and it doesn’t take very long.

Currently, white Brits have a sixty per cent chance of a decent match, I think; black or Asian patients are a lot less fortunate, so any readers from those ethnic groups could really make a difference by getting in touch with DBC.

The Anthony Nolan Trust is another great charity to support.

 

Free Books!

This Friday we’ll be giving away a free copy of our humorous and fictionalised barrister’s memoir MAY IT PLEASE YOUR LORDSHIP to three UK residents drawn at random from our giant electronic hat.

To get into the hat, just retweet or share this post somewhere (and let us know).

We’ll contact the winners on Friday afternoon and send the books out over the weekend.

May It Please Your Lordship - AI Cover

(If you enjoy it, it would be nice if you could review it on Amazon, tweet about it, tell your friends, and otherwise help us get the word out. But there’s no requirement or obligation to do any of that.)

Here’s a free extract. A nervous Toby, not long called to the Bar, is making an early appearance at Snaresbrook Crown Court:

As I made my way to Court Thirteen, I contemplated the prospect of my first jury trial with understandable trepidation. I was hardly prepared for the task ahead, through no fault of my own. I thought about the reviewing lawyer’s clear belief that there would be a plea of guilty. Some review! Some lawyer! And to cap it all, Cantwell as my opponent, with the bit between his teeth. I’d have to be at my sharpest to win the shining hour. But then, the evidence did seem overwhelming.

With five minutes to go, there was no sign of the CPS law clerk, who was supposed to hold my hand and steer me effortlessly through the stormy waters. As I was contemplating my next move, the usher popped her head around the door. Addressing nobody in particular, and in the manner of a fishwife shouting the odds, she bellowed, ‘The case of Pedder will be heard in Court One!’

Bellowing was almost endemic at Snaresbrook Crown Court.

I shuffled into court, with Cantwell barging his way forward and studiously ignoring me, all the time under the watchful gaze of His Honour Judge ‘Bonkers’ Clarke, the Resident Judge.

Snaresbrook was not exactly the jewel in the Crown Court hierarchy, and finding a resident judge to hold sway and bring much-needed gravitas to the post proved almost a bridge too far. However, more by luck than good judgment, word reached the Mandarins in the Lord Chancellor’s department that His Honour Judge Bonkers Clarke, recently separated from his wife following unfounded salacious revelations in the tabloid press, had been advised to look for a change of scene well away from his usual watering hole if he were ever to enjoy his index-linked pension. Such advice from the Lord Chancellor was not to be lightly discarded, so, after a suitable period in retreat, he was duly installed. The fact that he was known by one and all as Bonkers from his earliest days on the Bench made the appointment almost apocryphal.

‘The judge, without knowing how or why,

Made still a blund’ring kind of melody,

Spurred boldly on, and dashed through thick and thin,

Through sense and nonsense, never out nor in.

Free from all meaning, whether good or bad,

And in one word, heroically mad.’

After ten years at the helm, Bonkers modestly accepted the Honorary Recordership of Epping Forest, bestowed upon him by the grateful burghers. He was nothing if not fully committed to his resident status, throwing himself energetically into every aspect of court life. Arriving each morning at the crack of dawn, and sporting an old knitted cardigan, he was regularly to be seen patrolling the corridors, noting down broken light bulbs and unemptied waste bins, bringing his own brand of order out of chaos. He was accompanied, as always, by Max, his faithful black Labrador, who possessed a wet and inquisitive nose as many a court usher would attest. An irresistible combination.

I was about to take my seat when Bonkers addressed me. ‘Now, let me see, Mr… er… Potts,’ he began. ‘I don’t think much of this indictment. How do you justify the count of attempted criminal damage to an automatic door?’

‘I agree, your Honour,’ smarmed Cantwell, rising from his seat.

‘Not yet, Mr Cantwell, you’ll have your turn, I’m sure of it. Who was the idiot who drafted that particular count, Mr Potts?’

I turned to the law clerk, Tracey by name, as I was subsequently to discover. She might as well do something. After all, this was supposed to be a team effort. ‘Who was the idiot who drafted that particular count?’ I whispered. ‘Can you help?’

‘That’ll be our Mr Newman,’ she whispered back, and took out a form, ominously headed, ‘Advocate’s Evaluation’.

So be it, I thought, if you can’t stand and fight, better cut and run. ‘I am instructed that it was our Mr Newman, the reviewing lawyer. If your Honour will rise for five minutes, I can take instructions.’ Tracey was not amused, and made a note to that effect on the form – ‘found wanting under fire’.

‘Bunkum!’ scoffed Bonkers. Clearly he was even less amused. ‘I shall enter a verdict of not guilty on that count.’

Could he do that? I wondered, plunging into my Archbold.

‘You can close that book now, Mr Potts. I am the law in this court!’ There was no answer to that. Then Bonkers paused, peering intently at me over his spectacles. ‘Have we met before?’

I peered back, and a vision of the strange figure on the parapet, bellowing at me as I strolled across the grass outside, loomed large in my mind’s eye. ‘Er… I don’t think so, your Honour. This is my first appearance at Snaresbrook.’

There was a long pause. ‘Very well,’ he said, at last. ‘Let’s hope it’s a memorable one. Now, Mr Cantwell, what’s the defence to the charge of theft? The defendant was caught red-handed.’

Cantwell oiled his way to his feet. ‘The defence will be placed fairly and squarely before the jury in the course of the trial…’

‘Yes, yes, I have no doubt, but what is it?’

‘Your Honour presses me.’

‘I do.’

‘Very well, the defendant will say that whilst on a legitimate shopping expedition in the One-Stop Shop to buy a DVD player, he was suddenly caught short following a particularly powerful vindaloo curry the night before, and, in his understandable anxiety not to disgrace himself, he made a dash to the nearest evacuation point, forgetting he still had the DVD player under his arm. His progress was thwarted by the malfunctioning automatic doors, with the result that, after the inevitable acquittal of this spurious charge, he has engaged my services to sue the store for negligence and the replacement cost of a pair of soiled trousers. Your Honour will be familiar with the case of Palmer and Camley Borough Council?’

In all his years on the Bench, Bonkers thought he’d heard it all, but this was the best by far; he raised his eyes to the ceiling in total disbelief.

‘And what about the confession he made when he was arrested?’ Bonkers looked down at the case papers. ‘“It’s a fair cop, guv.” What does the defendant say about that?’

Cantwell was equal to the task. ‘He didn’t say it, your Honour, but, if he did, the word he used was “shop”, not “cop”.’

‘What? He said “It’s a fair shop, guv”? Is this what you are telling me?’

Bonkers’ eyebrows were now hovering several inches above his head.

‘Your Honour has it in one,’ smarmed Cantwell, totally unfazed by the absurdity of his instructions. ‘But, pausing there, do I detect a certain scepticism about the defence in your Honour’s remarks?’

‘You do indeed, Mr Cantwell. This is a complete waste of public time and money.’

‘Then may I remind your Honour, with the greatest of respect, of course’ – Cantwell was now positively dripping – ‘that the defendant is entitled to a fair trial in front of a jury of his peers, regardless of the apparent merits or otherwise of the defence…’

‘Don’t lecture me on the law, Mr Cantwell. I am perfectly well aware of the defendant’s rights, and as for merits, as you so delicately put it, there are none. That said,’ he continued with a full head of steam, ‘I have no intention whatsoever of wasting my time trying this case.’ He glanced down at his court list. ‘I shall release it back to Court Nine and Mr Recorder Twigg,’ and, so saying, he slammed the file shut and threw it at the court clerk. ‘Don’t let me detain you,’ he glowered. ‘Call on the next case.’

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