Listening to Henry Allingham, the boy who saw the Somme from the air: “Those were my pals.”

Henry Allingham saw WG Grace bat. He saw the battle of the Somme from the air in an aircraft made of wood, cloth and wire. He was the oldest man in the country when I met him in 2007 and he lived to be the oldest man in the world, dying just over a year later at 113. I publish this edited version of my story from The Independent today, the centenary of the start of the Somme, in honour of the boys who were lost. They were still boys in his eyes and always will be. 

Henry is a very, very old boy indeed. Nearly a century has passed since he flew over the trenches of the Somme in the back seat of an aircraft. The pilot was hit by rifle fire from below and began to pass out. The ground came up fast but Henry survived the crash landing. He knew he had to haul his friend out of the cockpit before the engine fumes caught fire and they were both burned alive. He had seen that happen to other people.

“Bunny Edwards!” he shouts suddenly, startling the only other resident in the lounge. That was the pilot’s name. “Beautiful swimmer,” says Henry. His milky, half-blind eyes are weepy. “I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin.”

Continue reading “Listening to Henry Allingham, the boy who saw the Somme from the air: “Those were my pals.””

“When they talk about the war, will they remember me?” A last interview with the remarkable Dame Vera Lynn

Softly, with a voice that is still clear after all these years, Dame Vera Lynn begins to sing. “For a little bit of heaven fell, from out the sky one day …”

She is 97 now and rather frail, the light from the window making a halo of her finespun white hair. But some of the old strength returns as she duets with her younger self. Every word is right, even though this recording was never released and she is hearing it for the first time in 70 years. Back then, Vera Lynn was the “Forces’ Sweetheart”: the girl with the bright smile whose songs kept the home fires burning.

When the song was recorded in 1944, she was about to go on a dangerous mission: to sing to “the boys” on the front line in the jungles of Burma. “I reminded them of their sisters, their sweethearts and their wives they had left behind, and what they were fighting for,” she says when it is over. Continue reading ““When they talk about the war, will they remember me?” A last interview with the remarkable Dame Vera Lynn”

Zaha Hadid: Farewell to the Starchitect

Sad to hear of the sudden death of Dame Zaha Hadid, superstar of architecture, design genius and hugely formidable character. We met in her London office just before the 2012 Olympics, for which she designed the magnificent Aquatic Centre. Here is that encounter, as it appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, in tribute to a woman who was a challenge to interview but whose achievements were really very impressive indeed. That was a life.  Continue reading “Zaha Hadid: Farewell to the Starchitect”

Face To Face With The Body Of Nelson Mandela

So the long journey is nearly over. The body of Nelson Mandela will be buried at last today, in the village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, the place he always thought of as home. Security will be tight and the location is remote. For most South Africans, the last chance to say a personal goodbye was in Pretoria, where his body lay in state for three days.

To see it was both a privilege and a shock. One young black man who was overcome by tears rubbed his face with his cloth cap as he walked away, and used the Xhosa word for father when he said to himself: “That was not Tata.”

Continue reading “Face To Face With The Body Of Nelson Mandela”

Saving The Life-Savers of Beachy Head

There is a man on the edge of the cliff who looks distressed. He’s pacing up and down the line, just a few steps from the drop.

This is Beachy Head, where the ground falls away suddenly, hundreds of feet down to the rocks and sea below. These bright white chalk cliffs are beautiful but deadly.

“We need to get to him fast and see if he’s okay,” says Mark Pybus, director of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team which patrols here 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The chaplains don’t mince words: they say they are looking for the lost and the broken-hearted and trying to prevent suicide.

Continue reading “Saving The Life-Savers of Beachy Head”