Christmas Special: Interview with John Bartlett

For my Christmas interview I am delighted to introduce the talented author, racing driver, helicopter pilot and adventurer John Bartlett, a charming Englishman who has had the most amazing adventures, some comic, some very tragic, but all very interesing to read about.

What is your favorite poem?

Without doubt it has to be Tennyson’s Ulysses.  I used it in the opening of my new book: Dark Horse.  It even features in the latest James Bond movie!  For me its words are extremely evocative of my life and our struggles over the years and how, as time passes, despite pain and tiredness, we strive to keep going.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 In everyday life, what is the thing that annoys you most?

Thank you so much for asking that question… but where can I possibly start? There are simply too many and this is too much of an opportunity to get a few off my chest for a single answer. 

I guess a big annoyance that others may also share would be  “telephone call centres” I hate them!  Particularly when you just want to ask your bank a simple question and you get a teenager in Bangladesh, insistent on reading you her entire computer-generated script and calling you “Mr John” every thirty seconds!  Is that being politically incorrect?  I suppose it is, but then that’s another irritation: “Political correctness”, I detest it…  We pride ourselves on being a country with freedom of speech, yet we seem to be ever more constricted in what we can say.  And then there’s over zealous “health and safety” legislation which only serves to tie everyone in bureaucratic knots and then those rip-off 0845 type profit sharing phone numbers”, and the banks and those new self-service supermarket tills…

Sorry, I’ve hardly started and my blood pressure is already off the scale… I’m off for a beer to calm down!

If you’ve calmed down a little, could I ask what was the most important choice you made in life?  And what might have happened if you had chosen differently?

That’s an easy one… Asking Mary (my wife) on our first date over thirty years ago.  If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today.  She’s my best friend, she looks after me, she holds me when I’m sad, she’s given me two fantastic sons… and she’s probably the one person on this planet that’ll still patiently listen to my daily rants!

What inspired you to start writing?

2 dark horse booksWell, that’s the biggie!  I suppose in part it goes back to my niggles over our lack of free speech, but above all the genesis of my first book was an attempt to expose what happens in our justice system.  So often the truth is suppressed or manipulated by officialdom and we’re simply not allowed to know the facts…  Certainly, in my case this was the driving force behind, Chequered Justice.  

Nowadays, it’s common to hear of dishonesty at high-level …  scandals over MP’s expenses or in the press and media and we regularly hear of corruption in the justice system with the innocent having been set up and wrongly convicted.  But back in the 80s and 90s it was very different and trying to expose any part of that toxic cocktail was next to impossible; a time when the police were increasingly intertwined with dishonesty, bribery and sleaze, much of which would not be exposed for decades. Such as the Hillsborough cover-up where 164 witness statements were “officially altered” and another 116 statements “unfavorable to South Yorkshire Police” removed.  Twenty years ago nobody wanted to believe British police did that sort of thing! 

 JBWell, back then, corruption was rampant and the birth of my first book, Chequered Justice, resulted from those strange events that overtook my life.  I don’t want to say too much and spoil the plot, but what I can say is that back in the 80s and 90s I was a professional racing driver.  That’s an old picture of me back in the days when I was young, fit and had hair! 

After a life changing accident and a claim against my insurers for the resultant disability, I was arrested and charged with a number of very serious offences, followed by a series of bizarre events. During the actual trial, we were astonished to find that all the main witnesses for the Crown had had their statements written, not by them, the witnesses, but by an officer inside the Metropolitan Police!  Other witnesses were simply told to copy a supposed statement of another witness, which in truth was a statement written by the same officer inside the Metropolitan Police Force!  What makes this even more fantastic is that the Police had in their possession, all the confidential internal documents from my insurers confirming the permanent nature of my injuries.1 book CJ Prior to the trial Police also had internal memos from the same witnesses, also confirming that my claim had met their criteria and should have succeeded, these memos having been dated after they’d signed the “manufactured statements”!  I recently managed to get hold of the documents and they’re now up on the net for the world to see.

Even today, legally, Chequered Justice has had to be published as a fiction, as every attempt to expose what happened was blocked.   Amongst others, a Channel 4 Production Company, Rough Justice, filmed an exposé in 97 showing examples of how the statements were produced …this was stopped in its tracks!  Officialdom attempted to dismiss everything as a string of coincidences, flukes and regrettable errors and I was warned of “serious consequences” should I publish a factual account…  I therefore wrote Chequered Justice as a novel based purely on personal experience!

Anyway, that’s what started me off writing… hope all that wasn’t too heavy for you?

daRK HORSE 1 BOOKMy latest book – Dark Horse.

Dark Horse is the prequel to my first book, Chequered Justice – another fiction based purely on personal experience!  It tells the story of “Will Middleton”, a profoundly dyslexic seven-year-old boy, with a dream of becoming a racing driver, growing up in the swinging sixties.  Below is a small section of an early chapter, where Will meets his first headmaster:

From Dark Horse:

The Headmaster of my new school at Hove, was Mr Maurice Wickham, a former RAF drill sergeant with a penchant for boxing, a pastime he liked to share.  His main aim in life appeared to centre on recreating the ambiance of his former military world.  Each morning, lines of boys would march, military style, around the playground like clockwork soldiers as Mr Wickham barked his commands. ‘Shoulders straight!  Eyes front! … Wipe the smirk off your faces!’ 

From the first moment I set eyes on him, I was terrified. 

 Discipline was strict, forces style and I quickly realised that if you were not physical and sporty by nature, you were in for a rough and painful time. 

From the outset I was mildly unpopular, except with the bullies – to them I was a target.  Rife was just one of many such bullies that frequented the school, the boxing ring on Wednesday mornings doubling as his extended playground.

To no one’s surprise, it was my turn again this week as Rife cockily entered the ring and looking down on me, gave a derisory snort.  Despite being just one class higher, he was almost twice my height and towered over me like a giant.  Egged on by his cronies, he was already playing to his admirers; twisting his head from side to side, loosening up, throwing punches at imaginary shadows, each jab accompanied by a series of short exaggerated grunts.

Mr Wickham seemed delighted at the mismatch, calling us both into the centre. I didn’t want to be there but I had no choice.  Sir made a point of carefully checking our gloves. ‘A clean fight boys, no hitting below the belt,’ he said.  The hall fell silent. 

Rife began dancing about the ring like an orangutan, swinging wildly.  For the first few minutes I ducked his blows easily but as time went on, I began to tire.       Suddenly, he aimed a desperate right cross.  The punch landed, connecting with a sickening crack to my jaw and for a moment I was stunned.  It was the first time in my life I’d been hit like that.  I could feel the sting of tears behind my eyes.  Everything seemed to slow down; lights flickered around me and the cheers of the spectating boys distorted in my ears.

In those days, no form of head protection was worn, and we were considered far too young to merit any form of ‘lower body protection’, despite Mr Wickham’s earlier warning. 

 I had discovered by chance, only the previous week, just how vulnerable a guy is, following an incident with a mis-aimed football!  To my shock, dad collapsed on the floor in agony.  My mother had tried to explain what had happened, whilst holding an ice pack to his groin. As Rife danced fearlessly in front of me, my mother’s words returned – Never hit a man down there.       Rife was tantalising close, egged on by both Mr Wickham and his cronies to finish me off.  The bouncing continued, and the unrestrained target in his shorts wiggled about with every bounce, as though beckoning to me. 

Without a second thought, I exploded my left glove into his groin – thud!  Rife went down like a collapsing tower block…  if his balls had by chance dropped, they were now relocated somewhere in his upper chest cavity!  As he fell, my follow up right cross, instinctively connected with the bridge of his nose causing an impressive eruption of blood.  The cheering stopped.  The school giant lay foetally, whimpering, both hands cradling his groin, blood pumping from his nose. Mr Wickham peered down on his fallen prodigy, then turning to me, said sharply – ‘My study, 10.30 Friday!’

Fridays were the only ‘stimulating’ part of the school week, the day the headmaster reserved specifically for caning.  Three conduct minuses (or a knock out!) during the week would find you joining the line, awaiting your fate.  Having to wait two days before receiving my sentence only increased the torture.  I joined the group of waiting boys on the first floor landing, nobody daring to talk. 

 As we each entered there was a short delay, followed by a swish and a series of thwacks.  Sometimes three thwacks, other times six.  Then it was my turn.  I shakily entered the dimly lit lair.  The room stunk of tobacco and old books.  Mr Wickham was sitting behind a desk that rested on carved feet resembling the clawed talons of some mystical beast.  He was filling his pipe from a tub of Players Digger mixture, carefully stuffing wayward strands of tobacco into the bowl, and packing it down with a stained thumb. He rose menacingly, gripping the stem between his teeth, struck a match and held the flickering flame over the bowl.  Drawing the noxious smoke into his mouth, he began a brief lecture on Queensberry Rules.  I stood to attention, listening. ‘Why may I ask, did you hit Rife when he was already down?’ he asked finally, engulfing me in a small cloud of blue smoke. 

‘I didn’t want him to get back up, Sir, he was hurting me!’ I replied honestly, trying hard to keep my voice from cracking.

Mr Wickham couldn’t help disguise the grin threatening to invade his composure. ‘Hmm…’ he went on dispassionately, ‘…and your initial punch was in direct contradiction to my instructions to not hit below the belt!  What do you say to that?’ I remained silent, looking at the ground, not trusting myself to speak.

He took a few moments to consider my defence before finding me guilty.  ‘You and I,’ he concluded, ‘are likely to be having more talks, which you may well find rather painful.’

Three thwacks later, totally incensed by the injustice of what had happened, I returned to my class.  Pushing open the door I saw all the class standing before the teacher, Mrs Grimshaw, performing the morning mantra.  In unison the boys continued chanting: “An island is a piece of land surrounded by water”… “An isthmus is a narrow strip of land with water on each side, connecting two land areas”… “A peninsula is a piece of land jutting into the sea”…

I walked quickly to my desk, turned and joined the incantation with the rest of my class: “A continent is a land mass separated by an expanse of water”…

Do you have a picture of an object, place or animal that is important to you?

Scan123490001I always loved this place and the picture… it’s our former home in Tortington, near Arundel in Sussex.  It was originally a massive old gothic barn which we brought at auction and converted ourselves back in the 80s.

Scan123500001Following the events portrayed in Chequered Justice we felt it most prudent to get as far away from “the system” and its influential links to the big financial corporations I’d evidently offended … and as quickly possible! In October 98 we loaded our few remaining possessions into a specially modified Jeep and with our two boys, George aged 14, Jonathan aged 11, and our Golden Retriever, we left the UK…   for good we thought.  The journey took us by road through Eastern Europe and down into Africa, then over to our new home, Madagascar. 

Scan123500003My wife is currently writing that part of our odyssey:  A Step Too Far.  It tells the story from “Beth’s” perspective, following the events portrayed in Chequered Justice.  It was whilst living in the rainforests with the lemurs of Madagascar that I completed the book.  The picture on the left was our home for a short time.  We named it “Coral Bay”…  in the hinterland, where the rainforests meets the sea, on the East Coast, miles from any civilization…  a very special, idyllic place that still to this day lives in my memory. Scan123500005

 As for animals, well, we now we’re back living in Maidstone, Kent and we have three pets but we tend to think of them more as family members than animals. 

mr mooFirst and foremost there’s Indri, aka Mr. Moo.  He’s the boss.  Then Mr. Breeze and also He-she the cat.  Collectively they’re known as “the poodles”… Don’t ask me why, it just happened, but I must admit we get a few strange looks from people when we call them in the park.  Moo and Breeze are both (allegedly) Border Collies and we discovered He-she, the cat, living in our log pile about a year or so ago.  catHe, or she, also thinks he/she is a Border Collie and regularly joins us for a walk in the park where we now live.  At first we thought He-she was a girl, but after a visit to the vet… well, you get the picture!

We suspect we were sold a bit of a pup with Mr. Breeze, if you’ll excuse the pun.  He’s certain that he’s a Border Collie, but no one else is convinced!  He’s now about five and joined us shortly after I lost my much-loved Golden Retriever.  I’d seen an advertisement from a breeder in Wales and we drove down from Kent.  It was only after I’d fallen for the little bundle that I excitedly phoned my sister with the news and she asked, with some degree of concern, ‘You haven’t brought it from a puppy farm in Wales, have you?’ 

‘Well, it was a farm,’ I replied hesitantly, ‘and it was in Wales, and… well, yes, they did have quite a lot of puppies!’

At the time it had all seemed quite normal… you know… Sheep dogs, a farm, Border Collies (supposedly) and I’d never heard of puppy farms….

‘A fine specimen,’ the “farmer” ensured me as I innocently handed over a hundred quid, ‘built for speed that one’ he added, pocketing the dosh as I studied the pup’s unusually long legs. 

photoThe next day, panicking, I rushed little Breeze to the vet, where fortunately he was pronounced fit and well, but we’re still not sure quite how much Border Collie is in him!  Mr. Moo, on the other hand is a 13 year old, purebred English Border Collie.   They are three of our most loyal, loving friends and I spend most days narrating their consciousness thoughts… don’t ask me why, I just do!

You can read more about John and his books at these places

About Tim Vicary

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