Under my byline

After the bomb

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 13 March 2010

Lord Mountbatten’s grandson lost his twin in the IRA attack that killed their grandfather. Thirty years on, Timothy Knatchbull has written a book about his journey of healing

It’s disconcerting how easy it is to like the Hon Timothy Knatchbull. “Please call me Tim,” says this jeans-clad grandson of Lord Mountbatten, godson of Prince Charles and nephew of Queen Elizabeth, before we sit down on his publisher’s balcony in Delhi. It’s a joyously sunny day, and in close proximity with this aristocrat his blue blood is plainly visible: there are blue bags beneath his eyes.

That is jet-lag; but they, together with the outdoorsy wrinkles around his eyes and stray gray hairs, are signs of his age. He is 45, yet he is oddly boyish in appearance, with an open face and the slight frame of a teenager. In most people this would be unremarkable, but not Knatchbull. In some ways his life came to a standstill in his 15th year, shortly before noon on August 27, 1979.

On that bright day he and other family members were on Lord Mountbatten’s fishing boat off the west coast of Ireland. They were enjoying their annual holiday at Classiebawn Castle in County Sligo, one of their ancestral estates, and were to spend a restful day on the water. Instead, at 11:46 am, a powerful bomb hidden on the boat exploded, tearing it apart.

Knatchbull and both his parents were badly injured, and may well have died in the water had so many other holidaymakers not been out in their boats on the same day. The bomb killed four people: the teenaged boatman Paul Maxwell, the former viceroy, Knatchbull’s other grandmother the Dowager Lady Brabourne, and his identical twin brother Nicholas.

It was 1979 and the Irish republican movement had flared up again. The IRA was carrying out attacks in Northern Ireland as well as against British interests in the free state of Ireland, which is where the Mountbattens had their land. The IRA (to be accurate, the Provisional IRA) had nothing particular against Lord Mountbatten, by then aged 79 and long retired, but he was a public figure and an obvious target. In retrospect it is clear that not enough was done to protect him and his family.

Knatchbull still carries physical scars from the attack, which also blinded him in his right eye. His book, From a Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb (Hutchinson, 2009), however, is much more about the emotional scars, and specifically about what he calls his process of healing. Every member of the family paid in suffering, but Knatchbull bore the added burden of having lost his twin. The two had scarcely spent a few days apart in their whole lives, and looked so alike that even close relatives would check under Knatchbull’s chin for the mole that identified him from his twin Nick, or Nicky.

He describes their bond as “the very special privilege of sharing a mental and emotional space with another human being, which is underpinned by biological symmetricality, so that both in nurture and in nature you feel almost as if you are part of one whole”. The book is full of instances, some funny and others inexplicable, of this near-psychic relationship. At 14, Knatchbull adds, “We hadn’t reached that part in our development where we had differentiated and gone our separate ways… The sudden moment of his death was the moment when I lost something that was unique and unobtainable again in my life.” Losing Nick, he realised later thanks to another “lone twin”, was “not so much a bereavement as an amputation”.

Nor did he have the opportunity at the time to grieve, to obtain closure. “After the attack I had been too badly injured to go on functioning as a thinking human being. I was sedated, anaesthetised, I was in intensive care, I was in bandages, cocooned from the real world.” So while other family members, including his five surviving siblings, dealt with doctors, press and funeral arrangements, Knatchbull remained isolated in hospital. He did not see Nick’s body before it was buried. From the hospital in Ireland, he and his parents were helicoptered away to England.

All the loose ends and doubts festered for years, despite Knatchbull’s professional success. His father Lord Brabourne, who died in 2005, was a film producer (credits include A Passage to India and Death on the Nile), and Knatchbull went into documentaries, for a few years for the Discovery Channel, among other things. He says he coped with the persistent sense of loss, “an emptiness and a loneliness”, by becoming a workaholic. Other things worked out: he got married, became a father (five times over), and “bit by bit I reached a point where I was ready to undergo a very deep transformation myself, which was to go back to the place of the murders and to confront the painful truths from which I had been shielded as a boy”.

And Ireland is where his story, which though tragic is not unique, turned into a book. During 2003-2004 he visited Sligo regularly, locating and speaking with people involved in the events surrounding the attack — “shopkeepers and fishermen and farmers and neighbours and friends and churchmen and -women”, and family retainers and doctors and many others — to get a detailed, moment-by-moment picture of the attack and its aftermath.

Knatchbull also, so far as he was able and without bitterness, described how the IRA carried out the attack, who was involved, and, most troubling, the degree of acquiescence if not support the IRA had in the local community, in which his family had lived for generations. All this helped plug the gaps in his knowledge and memory, and thereby reduce the pain. He says his local interlocutors often found they “had a need to speak and to offer their own comments of sympathy. Some of them wanted to say sorry that this happened, even though we are not responsible.” It was not just the injured who needed healing.

The culmination of the book, and of Knatchbull’s path to recovery, is when he finally learns exactly what happened to Nick’s body and how. There is no great revelation here, but by that point even the reader shares some sense of the catharsis.

Little of that emotion is sensible in Knatchbull’s demeanour as we talk. The chief clues, apart from the words themselves, are the first time he mentions Nick, at which point he briefly touches his chest, and occasional slight modulations in his voice. He seems, and says he is, happy. Unlike most adults, he does not appear weighed down by past or present — and perhaps it is this which confirms the impression of youthfulness, and makes him such pleasant company.

Read a transcript of the interview here.

After the bomb
Rrishi Raote / New Delhi March 13, 2010, 0:46 ISTLord Mountbatten’s grandson lost his twin in the IRA attack that

killed their grandfather. Thirty years on, Timothy Knatchbull

speaks to Rrishi Raote about his journey of healing.

It’s disconcerting how easy it is to like the Hon Timothy

Knatchbull. “Please call me Tim,” says this jeans-clad grandson

of Lord Mountbatten, godson of Prince Charles and nephew of

Queen Elizabeth, before we sit down on his publisher’s balcony

in Delhi. It’s a joyously sunny day, and in close proximity with

this aristocrat his blue blood is plainly visible: there are blue

bags beneath his eyes.

That is jet-lag; but they, together with the outdoorsy wrinkles

around his eyes and stray gray hairs, are signs of his age. He is

45, yet he is oddly boyish in appearance, with an open face and

the slight frame of a teenager. In most people this would be

unremarkable, but not Knatchbull. In some ways his life came to

a standstill in his 15th year, shortly before noon on August 27,

1979.

On that bright day he and other family members were on Lord

Mountbatten’s fishing boat off the west coast of Ireland. They

were enjoying their annual holiday at Classiebawn Castle in

County Sligo, one of their ancestral estates, and were to spend

a restful day on the water. Instead, at 11:46 am, a powerful

bomb hidden on the boat exploded, tearing it apart.

Knatchbull and both his parents were badly injured, and may

well have died in the water had so many other holidaymakers not

been out in their boats on the same day. The bomb killed four

people: the teenaged boatman Paul Maxwell, the former viceroy,

Knatchbull’s other grandmother, and his identical twin brother

Nicholas.

It was 1979 and the Irish republican movement had flared up

again. The IRA was carrying out attacks in Northern Ireland as

well as against British interests in the free state of Ireland, which

is where the Mountbattens had their land. The IRA had nothing

particular against Lord Mountbatten, by then aged 79 and long

retired, but he was a public figure and an obvious target. In

retrospect it is clear that not enough was done to protect him

and his family.

Knatchbull still carries physical scars from the attack, which

also blinded him in his right eye. His book, From a Clear Blue

Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb (Hutchinson, 2009),

however, is much more about the emotional scars, and

specifically about what he calls his process of healing. Every

member of the family paid in suffering, but Knatchbull bore the

added burden of having lost his twin. The two had scarcely spent

a few days apart in their whole lives, and looked so alike that

even close relatives would check under Knatchbull’s chin for the

mole that identified him from his twin Nick, or Nicky.

He describes their bond as “the very special privilege of sharing a

mental and emotional space with another human being, which

is underpinned by biological symmetricality, so that both in

nurture and in nature you feel almost as if you are part of one

whole”. The book is full of instances, some funny and others

inexplicable, of this near-psychic relationship. At 14, Knatchbull

adds, “We hadn’t reached that part in our development where we

had differentiated and gone our separate ways… The sudden

moment of his death was the moment when I lost something that

was unique and unobtainable again in my life.” Losing Nick, he

realised later thanks to another “lone twin”, was “not so much a

bereavement as an amputation”.

Nor did he have the opportunity at the time to grieve, to obtain

closure. “After the attack I had been too badly injured to go on

functioning as a thinking human being. I was sedated,

anaesthetised, I was in intensive care, I was in bandages,

cocooned from the real world.” So while other family members,

including his five surviving siblings, dealt with doctors, press and

funeral arrangements, Knatchbull remained isolated in hospital.

He did not see Nick’s body before it was buried. From the

hospital in Ireland, he and his parents were helicoptered away to

England — a total caesura.

All the loose ends and doubts festered for years, despite

Knatchbull’s professional success. His father Lord Brabourne,

who died in 2005, was a film producer (credits include A

Passage to India and Death on the Nile), and Knatchbull went

into documentaries, for some years for the Discovery Channel,

among other things. He says he coped with the persistent sense

of loss, “an emptiness and a loneliness”, by becoming a

workaholic. Other things worked out: he got married, became a

father (five times over), and “bit by bit I reached a point where I

was ready to undergo a very deep transformation myself, which

was to go back to the place of the murders and to confront the

painful truths from which I had been shielded as a boy”.

And Ireland is where his story, which though tragic is not unique,

turned into a book. During 2003-2004 he visited Sligo regularly,

locating and speaking with people involved in the events

surrounding the attack — “shopkeepers and fishermen and

farmers and neighbours and friends and churchmen and

-women”, and family retainers and doctors and many others —

to get a detailed, moment-by-moment picture of the attack and

its aftermath.

Knatchbull also, so far as he was able and without bitterness,

described how the IRA carried out the attack, who was involved,

and, most troubling, the degree of acquiescence if not support

the IRA had in the local community, in which his family had lived

for generations. All this helped plug the gaps in his knowledge

and memory, and thereby reduce the pain. He says his local

interlocutors often found they “had a need to speak and to offer

their own comments of sympathy. Some of them wanted to say

sorry that this happened, even though we are not responsible.” It

was not just the injured who needed healing.

The culmination of the book, and of Knatchbull’s path to

recovery, is when he finally learns exactly what happened to

Nick’s body and how. There is no great revelation here, but by

that point even the reader shares some sense of the catharsis.

Little of that emotion is visible in Knatchbull’s demeanour as we

talk. The chief clues, apart from the words themselves, are the

first time he mentions Nick, at which point he briefly touches his

chest, and occasional slight modulations in his voice. He

seems, and says he is, happy. Unlike most adults, he does not

appear weighed down by past or present — and perhaps it is

this which confirms the impression of youthfulness, and makes

him such congenial company.

(end)

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