Fascinated by the wartime story of 617 Squadron, ‘The Dam Busters’, I was excited to be meeting one of my heroes in person. So I drove to Suffolk and the rambling old house in Cavendish which Leonard Cheshire shared with his wife, Sue Ryder and some of the beneficiaries of her charitable foundation. It would be my home for the next fortnight.
Of course things never turn out quite as expected — my collaboration with Leonard Cheshire was to prove more difficult and yet more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. He was as distinguished as I had pictured him. Slim and austere, with a quiet courtesy. Though over 70, he was fit from many games of tennis, and not much changed from his wartime photos.
We slipped into a daily routine. In those pre-digital days, I would sit with him in his office, a cassette recorder and microphone on the table between us. I knew what I wanted to ask him. He knew what he wanted to say. At first, our goals didn’t quite meet. I would raise this bombing raid, or that brush with death, or when he saw the atomic bomb explode over Nagasaki — the things I was sure readers would find enthralling. Modestly, he would sigh, ‘I don’t want to dwell on that. People already know about it.’
In the end we compromised, agreeing that what he really wanted to talk about – his religious faith – would be the core of the story, but could only be fully understood in the context of his own life experience.
I soon realised I was in the presence not just of a dashing hero, but of a man of extraordinary depth and complexity. A man whose journey to charity work and conversion to the Catholic church had been far from straightforward, but had given him profound insights he passionately wanted to share. He spoke about his attempts to make sense of post-war life – to recover something of the common purpose he had had with his RAF comrades. And how, after many setbacks, he discovered his mission when he unexpectedly found himself taking in and looking after a dying man who had nowhere else to go.
He spoke about his own heroes, prime amongst them Mother Teresa of Calcutta; his eyes would shine as he talked about his encounters with her. He spoke about his devotion to his wife and children, and also about the wrench of sometimes having to sacrifice family life for his worldwide travels.
The book’s title reflected his thoughts on the conundrum of suffering – how could a just God allow it? On that, his work with disabled people had given him a wisdom that few others could possess. As well as the war, he said, it was the example of people with disabilities that changed his life.
As I worked on the book, we met again at his London office. He was anxious to make sure that he’d properly put across the thoughts that were so close to his heart. I hope I did him justice. I had no idea then how near he was to his own cruel final illness but I will always remember his words, ‘Every minute of our lives is precious and every minute can be turned to good account.’
I soon realised I was in the presence not just of a dashing hero, but of a man of extraordinary depth and complexity.