Walking Tall, an autobiography by Simon Weston (Bloomsbury, £13.95) John Laffin
SIMON Weston would nrefer not to be so well known and simply to be an unknown and content Welsh Guardsman. But for the air attack on the Sir Galahad during the Falklands War in 1982 and the horrific burns he suffered, that is what he would be.
The British public has benefitted morally from what happened to Simon because he has become a symbol of courage in adversity. He lives in Liverpool where he has set up a charity, The Weston Spirit, to help unemployed teenagers.
Simon admits that after a period of deep despair following the loss of his face he came close to suicide, He talks about this quite frankly. His publishers tell us that Simon feels that "too many people have turned truth into sensationalism, events into fiction, for him to remain silent any longer."
This implies revelation and controversy but neither is present. Simon himself says that he doesn't want to open old wounds, that he is not bitter and not writing in anger. Ile wants people to realise "that war is not always about victories or glorious moments. It is about friends, husbands, brothers and fathers and the reality of lives and deaths."
Life and death is vividly portrayed in his book. The story of horror on the Sir Galahad has haunted him and he still has nightmares about comrades he saw burnt to death.
Simon tells his story, plainly and readably, from the time of his birth in 1961 in Nelson, Glamorgan. He joined the Welsh Guards as soon as he could after leaving school and served in Berlin, Kenya and Northern Ireland. The tension of Northern Ireland is another of his abiding memories.
"The thoughts churned around inside my head. If a bomb went off near you, would you feel terrible pain or would your brain not have time to register as your body was smashed to pulp? The only thing I was sure of was that everyone else burned up as much nervous energy as I did in concealing their own fear from others. Even good friendships felt strained in the first few weeks. Most of us were not yet twenty years old."
The Falklands War and after take up the greater part of the book, beginning at Southampton docks. One of Simon's friends flew a banner reading "Mrs Thatcher, thank you for our holiday cruise." The cruise ended at San Carlos. The Welsh Guards were on active service in arduous conditions but they saw no battle until the air raid on Sir Galahad at Bluff Cove.
Simon's description is as graphic as anything in war writing, "I felt the air sucked from my lungs and then a surge of hot air washed over me. No sensation yet of the cruel, excruciating heat: in that first blinding flash my exposed nerve endings had been scorched away. The bomb, a 2,000-pounder, had landed right in the middle of what seconds before had been a circle of happy, smiling faces. 1 can't have been more than twenty feet front the bomb when it exploded. Pain drew my eyes to the backs of my hands and I watched, transfixed by horror, as they fried and melted, the skin bubbling and flaking away from the bone likes the leaves of a paperback burning on a bonfire."
An entire chapter is like that. As an old soldier of much experience, 1 hope that it gets into all the anthologies of realistic war description.
Simon is painfully honest about his convalescence. A teetotaller, he turned to drink until he saw one of' the documentaries made about him.
"I stopped drinking so heavily after seeing the big flat slob on the screen, guzzling a bottle of sherry, the village drunk. For the first time in two years I felt motivated. The best motivation is anger and I felt angry with myself for having got into that state."
Simon says that "the Falklands war will die a natural death." He is wrong. His book will help to keep memories of it alive, and that's as it should be. The reviewer is author of more than 50 books on war, including the first book about the Falklands war.