Amar’s Story

I was so moved to turn on the television and see Panorama telling the story of a little boy who was badly burned by napalm in Iraq many years ago, reunited with his long-lost mother at last, having grown into a man. That boy was the subject of the first piece I ever wrote for a national newspaper, back in 1993. I was an idiot desperate for a break then and running out of time: having given myself six months to get something in somewhere, this appeared on the last Sunday of the last month. Baroness Nicholson was kindness personified, including showing her steely side when I managed to accidentally, foolishly sell the story to two papers at once. I sent a fax retracting it from one of them, but they used the fax to brief one of their own feature writers, who went round to try and get an interview. The good Baroness turned them away, for which I will always be grateful. This, then, is from The Independent on Sunday, for which I was then able to write as a freelance until I joined the staff in 1997. I wrote for the Sindy, on and off, until its closure 20 years later.  

AMAR had survived napalm bombs that wiped out his family and friends. He had horrific burns, and was utterly still as he sat alone on a wooden bench in a home for the wounded. ”It was terrible to behold,” said the Conservative MP Emma Nicholson, who discovered the nine-year-old refugee in a village on the border between Iran and Iraq. ”He was a fortnight off death when I found him.”

Surgeons at Guy’s Hospital have operated on Amar 12 times since then, saving his life and his face. Today Amar has a new home in the Devon countryside, living with Ms Nicholson and her husband.

The Conservative MP for Devon West and Torridge went to southern Iraq in 1991 to document the worst of the suffering caused by the Iraqi government’s persecution of the Marsh Arabs, and has launched an appeal in Amar’s name, supported by the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to provide food and medicine for the one million people devastated by the systematic drainage of the marshes. Since Saddam Hussein began his campaign to depopulate the area, following the uprising there by Shia Muslims, 65,000 people have fled across the border to refugee camps in Iran, leaving an ancient land whose way of life is being destroyed.

Ms Nicholson encountered hundreds of suffering children during her visits. It was ”the very stillness of his despair” that made Amar stand out. ”On top of that, he seemed to have no family at all. The other orphans were within the refugee camps: they didn’t have this extraordinary physical problem.”

Amar had fled with his family into a grain silo as Iraqi bombers flew over their village, she said, but the pilots saw people hiding there and dropped napalm and phosphorous directly on to the shelter. Nearly all the 300 people inside were burned alive, but Amar escaped and ran to a nearby river, covering his eyes as the flames attacked his body. The water saved him.

Found by soldiers, he was saved by Iranian surgeons, but was still scarred, bleeding and racked with pain when the Ms Nicholson came across him. ”It was clear that unless someone intervened, any life that remained in him would be extinguished very soon, psychologically if not physically. But I also saw that this was a very remarkable child of great bravery, with immense character. This was no easy ride, no trusting little girl looking up at you. This guy knew what the score was. He’d been smashed, and was stuck.”

Thanks to the intervention of the Iranian government, which provided a diplomatic passport for Amar, she managed to get him back to Britain. It took five months to bring him here to receive specialist medical treatment, and Ms Nicholson planned to find an Iraqi family to care for him.

”I’ve never been an exponent of inter-cultural adoption. It didn’t occur to me to plot a course for Amar that included permanent residence in the UK and, indeed, within my own family, so I never discussed it with my husband.”

Iraqis living in Britain offered homes for Amar, but he chose to stay with Ms Nicholson and her husband, Sir Michael Caine, former chairman of Booker plc, at their home in a Devon village. He was made a ward of court, with the couple as his guardians. ”We thought of sending him to school in London, but Amar understands village life naturally.”

Ms Nicholson, speaking in London before the launch of her book, Why Does The West Forget?, which combines Amar’s story with a plea for further intervention on behalf of his fellow Marsh Arabs, said: ”The hardest thing for me has been the knowledge of my inadequacy in the face of such profound trauma. What can you say? What can you do? How can you heal that?

”It’s the knowledge that you can’t make it right that is the hardest to bear. The troughs are huge, but the roller-coaster is at least upwards.”

Amar has responded well to his new home, becoming a child again – complete with prized black jeans, football boots, even a passion for Terminator II. When he first arrived, he could communicate only by gesture, but his English improves daily.

While Sir Michael works from home, Ms Nicholson makes sure she is back from Parliament at least two days in seven. ”Whether he wants me there or not is an irrelevance. I’m there, cooking, doing fiddly domestic chores rather badly, because they’re not something I’ve ever been good at.”

Amar has not technically been adopted, for legal reasons, but she described their relationship as that of a mother and child. The former Tory party vice-chairman has had to be tough to overcome deafness and make an impact in the Commons, but she visibly softens when talking about the boy.

”I can’t pretend to be Amar’s real mother, and it would be a miracle if she were to be found alive. I know how much he misses her – if I could make that happen, by God I would. Every child needs parents.” With no children of her own, she has four stepchildren and sponsors four other children overseas.

Amar has made many friends, and was even voted form captain in his second term at his new school. ”He had no schooling in Iraq. The essentials of civilised life there have gone, crunched up and spat out by Saddam and his thugs.”

His new family try to find a balance between his new life and his roots – for example, banning pork in deference to his Muslim upbringing – ”Although Michael sneaks in a pork pie if Amar has been drinking too much Coca-Cola.”

The operations continue. ”Plastic surgery has to keep on until a person is fully adult, as the skull grows behind the skin. Now that he’s here on a permanent footing, the surgeons can afford to slow down to a snail’s pace, rather than cramming in as many operations as possible, as we had to do in the first six months, because we didn’t know whether the Home Office would allow him to stay.”

She became involved in the plight of the Marsh Arabs as a personal response to the trauma of the Gulf war. A lifelong charity volunteer, she visited the marshlands with film crews and brought back stories that reduced the Speaker of the House of Commons to tears during one debate.

Her visits sparked the AMAR appeal, which has already sent tons of food and medicine to the marshlands and has commissioned a scientific survey of the area. It supports Iraqi and Iranian medical staff working there, and will benefit from sales of her new book.

”The wonderful thing about helping Amar is that he is no longer a victim,” said Ms Nicholson. ”He’s looked life in the face, been smashed to the ground by forces completely outside his understanding at the age of nine, and he’s back up and bouncing again. He’s a challenge at home, at school, and in every other way, but he’s a wonderful challenge.”

If you would like to know more, there is a brilliant BBC feature on Amar here. 

So long, and thanks for all the laughs: Terry Wogan’s last interview

Ah, Sir Terry. The old gent. I went to interview him at home last year and he was every bit as charming as you might hope. The piece appeared in October and sadly it turns out to have been his last interview.

The conversation was surprisingly candid, we did talk about his own end because Dignitas was in the news (he said he thought he might go, if he was being a burden) and because he had written a book of short stories that looked back to his younger days, and looking back always prompts thoughts of what is to come.

Some people are formal when they are being interviewed. Some are friendly and ask questions in return. Sir Terry was that and much more, a really lovely man. Afterwards I asked him a favour: my Mum has loved him forever, would he do her a little message on my phone?

I would not normally do a thing like that but she is one of the millions of listeners who have come to regard him as a friend, because his voice has always been there, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the car. He did, without hesitation. It was charming, self deprecating, generous and a wonderful thing for her to have.

Sir Terry Wogan died on 31 January 2016 at the age of 77.

Here is an edited version of that interview then, which appeared in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday. 

‘I don’t believe in God, but when the Grim Reaper turns up, I may well think, “Oh, just in case, let me leave an exit door open. Maybe I do believe!”’

He does still go to Mass, despite being an atheist, with his wife, Helen. They have been married for 50 years, but he still refers to her on air as The Present Mrs Wogan, so clearly he likes to keep his options open.

Wogan is always playful, a charmer with a voice as rich as a pint of the black stuff (with a good creamy head, because he likes things light) but today he is in a very unusual mood, giving vent to opinions that are provocative and startling.

This is going to be a conversation about everything from his wealth (‘I should be richer, but I couldn’t be bothered’) to the fate of his beloved BBC (‘There must be a question mark over the licence fee now’) and even his friendship with the Queen. (‘Don’t say I said that, for God’s sake. Her husband will never speak to me again. The Duke’s a funny old boy’).

I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing, but maybe he is so open because he feels secure. Sir Terry and Lady Wogan value their privacy highly, but today he has invited me behind the electronic gates of his Berkshire mansion to talk about his new book, a debut novel called Those Were The Days. Inspired by his early life as a bank clerk in Dublin in the Fifties, it is charming and nostalgic.

‘In those days they used to drive the cattle all the way down the main road to the docks. I went back to see the bank. I think it’s a kebab shop now.’

He has come a long way from the cattle market to this large house in the countryside, with its mock-Tudor beams and an entrance hall dominated by a portrait in oils of the man himself.

Wogan is a little heavier than he used to be, there are flashes of white at the sides of his curious comb-over (which is clearly not a wig, despite the rumour that was once so popular around Broadcasting House) and his right hand trembles as he pours the coffee, but otherwise he looks tanned and rested in his raspberry cords and plaid shirt.

‘My health seems OK, but I am 77 now. Things will go wrong. I am clinging to the wreckage,’ he says.

He’s quoting his friend John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole Of The Bailey and the sort of witty, wistful writer Wogan aspires to be.

IMG_1180There’s a lilt in his voice that suggests he is full of the joys and absurdities of life, no matter what he is discussing.

That’s why viewers and listeners warm to Wogan and trust him. Blankety Blank and his weekday television chat show made him a household name in the Eighties, and he has hosted the BBC’s Children In Need for 35 years.

Then there was his long-running Radio 2 breakfast show, the most popular in the country, which had an audience of eight million when he handed it over to Chris Evans in 2009.

His loyal listeners, known affectionately as TOGGS (Terry’s Old Gals and Geezers), provided much of the material for the show with their emailed quips, comments and stories. You can still hear Wogan on Radio 2 on a Sunday morning.

But we can’t get too cosy, because I want to ask him about something very nasty, a long-time colleague of his who was also a national favourite but betrayed the trust of his audience in a hideous way.

We have to talk about Jimmy Savile, I say tentatively. Wogan sighs, looks up to the ceiling and says, ‘We do.’

They were both disc jockeys at the launch of Radio 1 in 1967 and worked alongside each other for many years at the BBC.

Was Wogan really never aware that Savile was abusing so many men and women, boys and girls?

‘No. I was aware, along with everybody else, that he was not a real person.’
What does that mean?

‘There was a carapace, a front. You never had a proper conversation, it was always this…’ and Wogan attempts the trademark Savile gargle.

‘All of that ebullient northern behaviour. I have a low threshold of embarrassment, so I tend to withdraw in the face of stuff like that.

‘You couldn’t like him, but nobody ever suggested he was doing what he turned out to be doing.’

He once made a joke on air about Savile wandering the BBC late at night, making strange noises. Was he trying to tell the viewers something?

‘No. That’s all he ever did, make strange noises. You never had a proper conversation, you never heard, “How are you? Are you well? Do you have a family?” No, nothing like that. It was all this…’ And he does the gargle again. ‘Inhuman.

‘You knew he was a rascal – flash car, big cigar – but on the other hand, whatever he did was masked by the fact that he raised massive amounts for charity. Prince Charles was taken in.’

IMG_1175Suddenly the conversation takes a bizarre turn, as Wogan wonders out loud about the relationship between Charles and the DJ – and launches into an unexpected attack on the late Lord Mountbatten, uncle and mentor to the Prince of Wales, calling him a ‘chancer’ and a ‘charlatan’.

Again, I can’t believe I’m hearing this from Sir Terry, who was given his knighthood in 2005. Won’t the Queen be livid?

‘She’s always been very friendly to me. I think she used to listen to the radio show,’ said Terry of the Queen (pictured with John Humphrys, James Naughtie, Chris Moyles and Jenny Abramsky at the BBC in 2006)

‘Oh, don’t say I said that, then, for God’s sake. Her husband will never speak to me again,’ he says, laughing. ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’s a funny old boy.’
Would he consider himself to be friends with the Queen?
‘Yeah, she’s always been very friendly to me. I think she used to listen to the radio show.’

She may not be so friendly after this, but Wogan doesn’t seem to care. Nor does he mind being frank about why he has written a novel: his agent asked for one.

‘I’m not a great raconteur, I’m not a tremendous person to keep the party going with fine-sounding talk, but I do find it easy to put things down on paper.’

Wogan writes on his iPad, despite the time lag between pressing the keys and seeing the letters appear.

‘It gives me time to think.’

PG Wodehouse and William Trevor are two of his favourite writers, and he went to the same secondary school in Dublin as another. ‘They never mentioned James Joyce, not once.’

The Jesuits who ran his school practised controlled brutality.

‘The Jesuits had great intellectual pretensions, so their punishments were calculated.

‘You’d make a mess of your Latin homework, the priest would give you a little chit and you had the morning to look forward to your punishment, which I think was a bit severe.’

What happened then?

‘You lined up with a load of other penitents, put out your hand and got a leather strap hammered across it once, twice, three, four, maybe six times.

‘Then in the afternoon, it would happen again. I don’t think they thought of it as cruel. I do in retrospect, of course.’

Among the many photographs on the walls of this room, the most striking is of Helen in the Sixties, when she was a model for Vogue.

Wogan had talked his way out of the bank and on to Irish television as a newsreader when they met at a function.

‘If I was still a bank clerk I don’t think I would have crossed the room, but I wasn’t so I did. I took her off for a sandwich.’

It’s a line delivered perfectly: offhand, cheeky and a bit more Irish in the accent than usual; but it’s also true.

‘There was a sandwich bar across the road that was the only place open that time of the morning. Then I took her home in my Morris Minor.’

She was reluctant to let him meet her parents, for reasons that became obvious one morning.

‘We went to a thing called the Press Ball and I had far too much to drink. I’m swerving in and out of the trees that line the boulevards of Dublin…’

Hang on, does he mean on foot?

‘In the car. Then I eventually get her home, we arrive outside her place just as her mother is coming out to Mass. She says, ‘Oh, would you not ask Terence in for a cup of tea?’’

Helen said no, firmly.

‘As her mother disappeared down the road, I opened the car and threw up on the street outside. So there you are, Irish romance.’

IMG_1182Have they ever come close to splitting up?

‘No, never. You argue about the tiny things, never about the big things. Certainly my wife took a number three iron to me once on the golf course.”

Is he serious? ‘She felt that my advice was becoming superfluous to needs. There’s nothing worse than husbands and wives playing golf together, so we rarely do it now.’

They had just married when he joined Radio 1, and she was his saving grace.
‘Because you’re well known, you’ve got to be terribly careful. You’re going to find women coming to you and you’ve got to find a stout stick with which to beat them off. I found it very easily.’

Several of his former colleagues have been accused of having wandering hands.

‘You can’t do that any more. That’s gone. Things were a bit different then.

‘You can’t justify what went on, but it was a lot more lax in the sense of the way men and women, boys and girls behaved towards each other.’

Did he think at the time that it was a bit off?

‘No. It was accepted.’

That’s a very honest answer.

‘Obviously, in my case and in the case of the great majority of disc jockeys and presenters, we weren’t that foolish.’

He would like to see changes to the way the BBC is run and funded to reflect those new realities, but still thinks we should all pay something towards its survival.

‘If you lose the BBC it will be like losing the Royal Family, it is so much of a part of life in this country.’

Wogan went freelance before there was a huge fuss about the amount BBC presenters were paid, but how much is he worth? I have read a figure of £20 million: is that true?
‘No. Nothing like it. How could I possibly be worth £20m?’

OK then, £10m?

‘Well, yeah. Maybe a bit more than that. I’m a former bank clerk, I know exactly how much money I have.’

He could have been far richer if he’d formed a production company to make his shows, as his successors have done.

‘Graham [Norton] has done it, Jonathan [Ross] has done it. I never did it because, well, I couldn’t be bothered.

‘I didn’t want to be a producer. I just want to sit in front of a camera or a microphone and make it all up as I go along.’

That’s what he’s doing now, improvising. I wrap things up by asking if he is going to leave his money to his three grown-up children?

‘I’m already doing that. You’re mad if you wait until you’ve kicked the bucket before your children get the benefit.

‘I don’t interfere with their companies, they’ve done all that on their own, but school fees for their kids and things like that? Yeah. Of course. Everybody has to. It’s the bank of Mum and Dad.’

He’s always felt weirdly like family. I remember his voice being in the room with us years ago, on cold winter mornings when my Mum poured hot milk on to cornflakes before school. Millions of us have the illusion of intimacy with him, as he well knows.

‘You’re only talking to one or two people at a time when you’re on the radio. They go out to the car and there you are again.

‘You’re not remote like a film star, you’re familiar like the wallpaper. They think of you as a friend.’
He has been a very lucky man, I say.

‘Oh God, if you are successful and you forget how big a part luck plays in your life, you’re mad. I mean, you could be born into poverty in Sudan, couldn’t you?

‘Luck plays a disproportionate part in life,’ says Sir Terry, and as he shakes my hand and flashes an expensive smile, I think that yes, he does know exactly how lucky he is.

Photograph by Harry Borden for Event magazine