Father and Son

Tony Gould

  • When the fighting is over: A Personal Story of the Battle for Tumbledown Mountain and its Aftermath by John Lawrence and Robert Lawrence
    Bloomsbury, 196 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0174 2
  • Tumbledown by Charles Wood
    Penguin, 80 pp, £3.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 14 011198 0

You would have to be a Martian not to know that Tumbledown was the name of one of the few serious battles in the Falklands campaign and that Robert Lawrence was the platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion, the Scots Guards, who had 40 per cent of his brain removed by a sniper’s bullet after he had earned himself a Military Cross by his bravery. Even before the film was shown on BBC television on 31 May Robert Lawrence had appeared on Wogan and been interviewed on radio, When the fighting is over had been serialised in the Observer, and the Daily Mail had chosen to question some of the assertions made by the Lawrences, père et fils, in their book.

There are two stories here, the public and the private one. The public story should have gone like this: young, fair-haired Guards officer, keen as mustard, goes to the wars, performs deeds of derring-do, is badly wounded, shipped – and flown – home to a hero’s welcome. But the hero’s welcome was missing. The walking wounded were greeted at RAF Brize Norton by their families, the press and TV cameras: but the more seriously injured, the badly burned and maimed, were kept out of sight – even their families were not permitted to see them until they were safely out of camera range in the RAF hospital at Wroughton. Robert Lawrence, despite his appalling injury, had scraped together a uniform of sorts (his own had been cut off him and removed at the field hospital in the Falklands) so that he might look the part on his arrival home, only to discover that no one was allowed to see him.

Nor was this the last time that he was kept out of public view: at the thanksgiving service for victory in the Falklands at St Paul’s, Lawrence claims that he was shunted into a side-aisle, having been refused permission to wear uniform, and then left there in his wheelchair ‘for well over an hour, until the procession had cleared the cathedral’. As a result of these and other incidents in which he was treated insensitively, he feels bitter towards the Army and ‘the system’ in general:

  What I didn’t realise, until, like so many others, I came back crippled after doing my bit for my country, was the extent to which we had been conned. Conned into believing in a set of priorities and principles that the rest of the world and British society in general no longer gave two hoots about. We had been ‘their boys’ fighting in the Falklands, and when the fighting was over, nobody wanted to know.

  The indifference, embarrassment, exploitation and countless bureaucratic cock-ups that followed my return home were not what I’d expected.

Partly it is the old story of civilian ambivalence towards the armed forces, Kipling’s ‘makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep’: but it is also true that the modern Army, as an organisation, does not reflect the traditional romantic idealism of its individual regiments and is more or less indistinguishable from the Civil Service. As Milan Kundera puts it in a reference to The Good Soldier Schweik: ‘Hasek’s army is nothing but an immense bureaucratic institution, an army-administration in which the old military virtues (courage, cunning, skill) no longer matter.’

Robert Lawrence’s testimony continues:

They opened my eyes. They changed me. They changed my father, a great patriot, with 28 years in the RAF behind him. He believed so strongly in the Forces, and believed ‘the system’ would look after us all. I think the reality shook him. It was almost as if a staunch Christian, who had always lived and acted in a respectful Christian way, were suddenly being made to question God.

The Lawrences’ ostensible aim is to expose the hypocrisies of the system, their argument being that if they, with their privileges and contacts in the upper reaches of the Armed Forces, are victims of it, what chance has ‘the injured Guardsman whose father was an out-of-work shipbuilder in Glasgow, or an out-of-work miner in Wales’? However, this officer-like concern for other ranks is very much a part of the public story and is certainly not the primary motivation for either the book or the film. Behind both lies the anger of betrayal, the betrayal of ideals by reality: it is not just the Scots Guards, the Army, or even the Government which has failed the Lawrences – it is life itself. This is the private story.

Wing Commander John Lawrence, after his 28 years in the RAF, took early retirement and became an assistant secretary to the MCC, another bastion of tradition. With his turned-up moustache and his near-worship of the Royal Family, he comes over as the archetypal Flying Officer Kite; he is also, in his own words, ‘good old Daddy fix-it’, who phones up old chums from the RAF or Army officers who might be persuaded to forward the career of one or other of his sons. Practically the first anecdote in his book recounts an attempt to get his under-age eldest son Christopher considered for a short-service commission in the Army. A mixture of barrack-room lawyer arguments and military name-dropping achieves his objective and Christopher gets onto the course which leads eventually, by way of Cambridge, to the Scots Guards.

This anecdote tells us almost all we need to know about John Lawrence: his unquestioning acceptance of the system, his shameless use of it for his own ends, his devotion to his family and his rather touching naivety in telling such a story in the first place. In the film he is very sympathetically played by David Calder: this may be truer to Charles Wood’s screenplay than to life. There is no hint in this portrayal of the boorishness which never seems far from the surface of his own account.

His wife, Jean Lawrence, is a shadowy presence in both book and film. She is a senior lecturer at Westminster College and may be, as one commentator has suggested, the most powerful member of the family, but we have only John Lawrence’s word for it when he marvels at how ‘strong’ she is. What Robert says of her is surpassingly bland: ‘Except when actually having children, my mother has always worked. She has been an absolutely wonderful mother but I think she is the sort of woman who is a better person for working rather than staying at home all day. And, of course, by working she has helped towards ensuring that we have all had the best possible education and a lovely home.’ Perhaps it is a sign of strength that in the kind of family where she might be expected to stay at home she has chosen to go out and work.

Of Robert’s two brothers, Chris and Nick, it is the latter who gains our instant sympathy. His father tells us he was dyslexic as a child and that this influenced his choice of career – he is a landscape gardener. Both in his father’s estimation and in the film, Nick is the voice of sanity, of common sense. He is the one who seems most at ease with Robert during the difficult days in the military hospital at Woolwich; it is he who raises the question of Robert’s future; and he is the peacemaker when Robert, still in a wheelchair, gets into an insane fracas with a policeman who is an ex-paratrooper (as a Scots Guardsman, Robert is scathing about the Paras and the Marines). Nick has no love of uniforms and is therefore the odd man out in his family.

Which brings us to Robert. In the film Nick says to his father: ‘He only wants to be a soldier, you know that.’ When he left Fettes School – by mutual consent – Robert followed his eldest brother into the Scots Guards, though he did it the hard way, through Brigade Squad. He served in Northern Ireland, which was ‘a very, very unpleasant place’, though he felt that what he did there was ‘very important’ – ‘one hell of an experience for a guy of 19’. In fact, he was trying to engineer a return to Northern Ireland when his battalion was ordered to the Falklands. There he proved himself with rifle, grenade and bayonet, responding to the thrill of it all with the cry, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ just before he was felled and ‘collapsed, totally paralysed, to the ground’. Then he had to prove himself all over again, not in the heat of battle when, as he described it to Wogan, the adrenalin is released, but over months and years of such agonisingly slow progress as to seem like no progress at all.

First, though, he had to endure the pain while he waited for a helicopter on the freezing hillside, where his greatest fear was that he would be left for dead; then there was another agonising wait of several hours before he could be operated on in the field hospital at Fitzroy. After that, he was transferred to the Red Cross ship, the Uganda, where he was prevented from sleeping for any length of time for fear that if he went into a deep sleep he might never wake up again. Though still in great pain, he was also envious of those who were on the Falklands for the surrender.

Robert’s attitude towards his regiment remains deeply ambivalent, however much he claims not to be critical of it, but only of ‘the bureaucratic machine we were handed over to’, as he explained to Wogan. He writes: ‘I think all I ever wanted was for the Scots Guards to pat me on the back, give me a hug and be friendly, be the “family” they had always claimed to be when I first joined the regiment. I wanted them to ask me if I was all right, and to make some obvious effort to try and help. Instead, I think I just became an embarrassment to them.’ Brigadier Mike Smith, who commanded the Battalion on Tumbledown, denies this. He was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: ‘We were not ashamed of him. After he came out of hospital we encouraged him to come here so that everyone could see what a triumph it was for him to have recovered so well from such a wound.’ His view is that it was Robert ‘who distanced himself from us.’

No doubt there are things to be said on both sides. Perhaps Robert does protest too much:

Once I’d left the Army, no one ever rang me up to see how I was, or to ask me whether they could help me with my career, as they’d always suggested they would do as ‘the family’. They never asked me whether I was getting better or whether I was getting worse. So much for the buddy-buddy, pally-pally regiment, the Army that demands so much from its men in incredibly long hours and great personal sacrifice. Loyalty, as far as the Army was concerned, seemed a pretty one-way street to me.

The regiment claims to have done all it possibly could for the welfare of its wounded, but from the point of view of the wounded that could never be enough. Robert writes of the regiment with all the bitterness of a jilted lover; and that, in a sense, is precisely what he is. He has given his health, his strength, his life almost for a ‘family’ – he insists on the word – which has no further use for him. He may be a hero, but he is no longer a soldier.

This is Robert’s continuing dilemma. As the actor who portrays him so brilliantly on screen, Colin Firth, said in an interview, ‘I do worry ... how Robert is going to get through all this. He has got to come home from the wars some time.’ In this respect the film itself may be cathartic. ‘When we started shooting,’ Colin Firth remarked on Wogan, ‘I mean, shooting the film ... Robert stopped having nightmares and I started having them.’ Tumbledown is as much Robert’s statement as the flash cars he bought, the Panther Kallista and Aston Martin DB4, and the pretty girls he took out in them in an attempt to keep up the ‘fast’ Guards officer image when it no longer applied. It hammers home his message that a hero is an embarrassment in the modern world. It is an anti-war film only in the sense that the romantic notion of the soldier is shown to be, in this particular instance, the God that Failed.

In explaining his erratic behaviour in the military hospital at Woolwich – from which he did a bunk in a wheelchair one day when he was still very seriously ill – Robert says: ‘One has to try and understand what happens to the mind of a young man who has been taught by the Army to have pride in himself, pride in being able to look after himself, and then suddenly finds himself injured and dependent on everyone else ... There is frustration and fear, and there is a wounded pride to go with the wounded body.’

As a Guards officer with a bolshy streak, he felt very strongly the loss of status which goes with hospitalisation and paralysis. He could no longer pull rank. ‘There is no rank in hospital anyway,’ he ruefully admits, and if he is to make it in the real world (when he joined the Army he had looked upon it ‘as a transition period from school to the real world’), he has to discover a source of self-respect independent of his now-defunct military rank.

The problems of adjustment are highlighted in the absurd incident, retailed in his book, in which the ex-Para policeman offers to fight him, even though he is in a wheelchair. Robert comments: ‘Time and again, for some reason, I seemed to attract this kind of aggro, and still do. I have tried to work out why it is; whether there is an arrogance in my eyes that people don’t like, or whether it is just because I am an easy target. I’ve been mugged three times since I was shot.’ (There is a mugging scene in Charles Wood’s screenplay which is absent from the film.) Robert is unlucky to have been mugged so often, but there certainly is a strain of arrogance in him, just as there is in his father and eldest brother, who have also subscribed to the ethos of an officer caste. They are all too ready with the ‘I’m an officer in the Scots Guards,’ ‘He’s a wounded Falklands hero’ type of machismo.

As joint authors of their (part-ghosted) book, Robert and his father are very much a team. It might have been otherwise, since it was John Lawrence who instilled in his sons the rather narrow military idealism which has failed Robert. But Robert has turned on his other ‘family’, the regiment, rather than on his own father, and John himself admits that ‘though I wouldn’t say I’ve shifted sides politically, my view has changed quite a lot through all this.’ Towards the end of the book, John describes an incident which seems symbolic in a way he does not intend:

  Some years ago Jean had a wonderful collection of coronation mugs going right back to Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, even a full set of cup, saucer, plate and mug for the uncrowned Edward VIII. They used to stand on a radiator shelf in the hall. One day I came into the house to find the telephone ringing. Hurriedly I switched off the burglar alarm, dropped my briefcase, grabbed the phone and slumped down into the chair beside it. The chair slid backwards on the tiled floor and I and it crashed into the shelf. It tipped forwards and every coronation mug, cup, plate, saucer, the lot, fell to the floor.

  About four survived; the rest were smashed to smithereens, chipped, cracked or broken in several pieces. I picked out those that I thought could be saved or mended, but when Jean came home she was heartbroken and threw all but the unharmed four into the dustbin. She would not have chipped or cracked pieces among those that were whole, no matter how treasured they had been in her original collection.

He goes on to suggest that perhaps the Scots Guards felt the same way about Robert, though ‘he is no coronation mug.’ But the story seems to me to be more suggestive of the shattering of John Lawrence’s own life-long and unquestioning belief in ‘the system’.

Both the Lawrences, father and son, have been brave, even foolhardy, in challenging the powers-that-be on such a sensitive subject. The Establishment, which does not like to see one of its own break rank, is fighting back with denials and innuendo. It is not a pretty sight.