Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Wintle Legend: Prologue

It is the evening of Saturday 14 July [1] 1956. I am 22 and at the end of my second year at Oxford. I am halfway through my annual fortnight with the Reserves. I am flying de Havilland Chipmunks with other members of the university air squadron at the RAF station at West Malling. I am now talking shop with my friend John Flint [2] in the Horse and Groom, a nearby pub.

An old buffer who has been drinking by himself comes over to us. "Couldn't help overhearing you chaps talking about flying. Had a bit to do with the RAF during the last war. Let me introduce myself: I'm Colonel Wintle."

He is a short but erect man with a moustache and a monocle that has the effect of making one eye look different from the other. One of his hands seems to be missing some fingers.

We airmen and the soldier continue to chat merrily until closing time, with the soldier doing most of the talking. "Let's carry this on tomorrow morning at my place", says the colonel. "Good show," we say, "Good night!"

John and I duly turn up at the colonel's house. We settle down over coffee and he tells us how in the Twenties he had studied the build-up of a new German army by inspection of telephone directories, in which officers always listed themselves with their ranks.

He shows us the battledress tunic he had been wearing when he had been shot by a burst of machine gun fire on the Western Front. We look in awe at the diagonal line of four neat holes in the front of the tunic. The colonel slips his braces off his shoulders and pulls up his shirt and vest. We look in greater awe at the diagonal line of four round scars across his chest.

He rearranges his clothing and tells us of a rogue solicitor who had preyed upon his (the colonel's) simple-minded aunt and had persuaded her to alter her will in his (the solicitor's) favour. When she died the colonel had failed to get the will overturned. He took drastic action. He went to the solicitor's office and forcibly debagged him, then photographed him. The colonel produces the photograph. We look at the wobbly legal buttocks. We hear that the solicitor did not take kindly to all this and brought a charge of assault against the colonel which resulted in him being sent to prison.

By now gin had replaced coffee which means that the answers to certain of our questions are not fully understood or later remembered. How had those bullets failed to pierce a vital organ and kill him? What had been the purpose behind the debagging? Where had he been jailed, and what was it like inside?

Fast forward fifty five years to the evening of Monday 24 January 2011. I am in my local, The Mitre, and I am telling my friends about the the delay in resuming my postgraduate Biography course at the University of Buckingham.

"I've explained to them why the topic I chose for my thesis last summer is now not feasible and they don't like my proposal to write about the journey to Rome made by Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest: they say it would be insufficiently biographical. I'm now hoping that they'll agree to my writing about just one of them, that's Archbishop Sigeric: he's the only one who left a detailed account of his journey."

"Just a moment," says one of my friends, a retired professor, "You're still putting the emphasis upon a journey rather a person. I don't think they'll accept this proposal either: it's not biographical enough. Why not write about someone entirely different? Tell me, who's the most interesting person you've ever met in your life? Whoever it is, write about him!"

I spin my mental Rolodex: hundreds, nay thousands, of images flash past in a nanosecond: the device stops at the card with the picture of the monocled and moustachio'd warrior I had met half a century before.

"Colonel Wintle", I say, and I tell them the stories that I had heard in that pub and that house in Kent.

[1] This date needs confirming by reference to my RAF Pilots Log Book, in the attic
[2] This name has been changed. Surviving friends from those years will know his real name.

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