Under my byline

After the bomb (2)

Posted in Books, Living, Q&A by Rrishi on 29 March 2010

Q&A: Timothy Knatchbull

Here is a transcript of my interview with Timothy Knatchbull, grandson of Lord Mountbatten and survivor of the 1979 bomb which killed the former viceroy and three others, including Knatchbull’s identical twin brother Nicholas. The loss of his twin, the slow process of accommodating to that loss, and all that the author learnt while, a quarter century later, collecting information about that terrible day and its aftermath, provided material for the memoir-like book Knatchbull has written about his life before and after the bomb. From a Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb was published last year to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the attack.

The interview is long, but I think interesting. I’ve added a short explanatory/expatiatory note at the end.

Your book is very thorough, yet one senses that it holds perhaps more questions than answers.

My mind when I went back to Ireland was like a sponge, was a porous mindset that I went back with, and I wanted to absorb, learn, see, hear and feel, and then later to piece it all together like a jigsaw. I didn’t go thinking this is what I need to do, I went thinking this is the place I needed to be, and I needed to be as open-minded as I could possibly be and allow myself to slowly absorb information and feelings, because the heart of my journey was to repair my own damaged interior. When I was a boy I was too young to do it. I didn’t know enough about life, about myself, about the world, and specifically I didn’t know enough about what had caused all of the political violence that was going on in Ireland. As a man I could accept this.

Did you not know, as teenagers in a well-informed family, that the situation in Ireland was so bad? Did that sort of news not percolate to you, that such attacks might take place?

It did, but we very much understood them to be restricted to the British military and in the part of Ireland where the British were still ruling, and are still ruling today. And we were in a different part of Ireland. It was a peaceful place and there had never been any political violence in modern times where we were. So we viewed the violence as something that would not touch us. But we were wrong.

The fact that various members of your family kept journals helped you find a great deal of the information you needed for the book. Is writing journals a family habit? How did you yourself develop the habit?

My family has been for very many generations writing the letters [which are carefully archived; for years there were two archivists working in the basement of the main family home, Broadlands], but also they’ve been keeping the letters they’ve received in an archive. So when I was a boy I watched my mum, who every day, before she turned in at the end of the evening, would write her diary. And when I left to come here now [to his publisher’s flat, where this interview took place], my mum, who is staying in Delhi, with me, for the week, before I left she said, “Oh, a couple of questions — what time did our plane arrive?” and “What is the name of the people that we had lunch with yesterday?” Because even today, when she’s an old lady, she likes to record where she goes, who she meets, the things that she learns even at this stage.

And when I saw her, as a boy, writing her diary, I think this led me to believe that she was doing something rather special and wonderful and I realised that her father did it — my Mountbatten grandfather, he kept a diary for most of his life — not all of his life — and this was a useful resource to other people [the Mountbatten archive is now at the University of Southampton]. And I decided that I would lead my life in the same way, trying to make sure that because every day was a gift, I wanted somehow to feel, at the end of the day, I wanted to account for the gift of that day by recording what I had learnt, the journey that I was on. I also enjoy writing, writing to friends. Now it’s emails and texts, but it used to be letters. I still probably write maybe a thousand letters a year, at least.

When do you write your journal, and how much time do you give it every day?

I tend to do it at the end of the day before I go to sleep. And the letters that I’m writing, they’re for my work, for my business, but very often I will choose to write a letter because I know if I send an email or a text or a fax, it will get lost in the blizzard, whereas if you send somebody a nicely written letter, a carefully thought-out letter, it’s like an armour-piercing shell, it reaches its target and makes more of an impact.

So writing is an important part of my life. My children are fascinated, they love the book that I’ve written. They haven’t read it all, but they manage to find little pieces that they read. My eldest daughter is 10 and has even memorised some of what I’ve written, and she’s designed a new cover for the book. She’s convinced she’s going to come up with a new cover, but I think this is the best cover, and also the cover that has been produced locally, here in India — beautiful.

Your family members’ daily written record helps explain the level of detail in your book. Perhaps too much detail?

Well, I believe that if one wishes to say something of value it’s important not to generalise, and I think that by simply stating the facts as I remember them, even the detail, then from that the reader can form their own opinions about whether or not there are general lessons to be learned. But I believe that it’s the particular, the particular moments, the particular words and events, which not only make it interesting but which can, at times, make it insightful.

In some ways your book follows the opposite trajectory to your own quest. The first sections have a great deal of information, about your family and your relationship with your twin, and also about the day of the bomb and the events leading on from that. But that level of insight into what happened you achieved only recently when you went back to Ireland to search for answers. Why did you choose to give us your hard-won information first?

I felt that my story is centred on one very particular moment in my life, when everything changed. The bomb exploded at 11:46, and really my life has been in two parts — everything before that moment, and everything after that moment, and therefore I wanted to bring the reader straight to the crossroads and then later they would understand, as they read the book, why that crossroads was so important.

Can you describe what it means to be an identical twin, what you had with your twin Nick that you lost?

Yes. It’s the very special privilege of [coughs] 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. And if I was to describe it I would like to use the words of another twin, who told me when his twin was killed he felt that it was not so much a bereavement as an amputation, and it’s this sense of the death of some part of one’s own self when one’s identical twin dies.

And then for me a very special thing happened in later life, when, in meeting another identical twin who was very similar to me, same sort of age — his identical twin brother had been killed as well, quite unexpectedly — I found that he understood how the loss felt, and this allowed us to have a conversation which was fast-forwarding. You have said that for you, you need to try and understand more of what it was that was missing — he knew precisely, so I only had to say a few words and he could complete the sentence.

That’s the sense of loss that I had — being with somebody who really understood, sentence by sentence… Even the words that would come out of my mouth, he [Nick] knew what they would be before they came out. Sometimes people would say, “Are you two telepathic, how did you know…?” The answer to that is that it’s just one of those rare situations where, identical by birth, identical by upbringing — because we shared the same bedroom till the day that he died, and we hadn’t reached that part in our development where we had differentiated and gone our separate ways. We hadn’t had girlfriends who had led us down different paths. And therefore the sudden moment of his death was the moment when I lost something that was unique and unobtainable again in my life.

Not that that prevented my life going on, like it is now, a very happy one and one which I hope as well is useful and productive for other people.

You seem to have realised fairly early on what it was that you wanted to do, professionally. Your father produced films, and some of your siblings also are involved in film. But you took up documentary-making, and have been quite successful at it. So, your work life was going well, but at the same time you were deeply unhappy — did you ever feel there was a conflict, or a contradiction between the two aspects?

As a result of that I became something of a workaholic, so that I would be always working. I would go home and I would work at home, and then I would come to work and work a long day at work, and then I would go home and do more work, and then I would sleep a little bit. And after a while I realised that this was partly because there was an emptiness and a loneliness that I knew was there, and I didn’t know how to address it.

But I went through life, and I was lucky enough to get help from other people and get the balance a little bit better, and I married and I became a father — and these, all of them, helped, bit by bit, reached a point where I was prepared 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.

Did your other family members not feel the need to make that trip?

I think that each one of my family found their own path and what was good for them, for their healing, and I think I was the only one [coughs] of my family who needed to go back. And part of that was that after the attack I had been too badly injured to go on functioning as a thinking human being. I was sedated, I was anaesthetised, I was in intensive care, I was in bandages, I was cocooned from the real world, and therefore other members of my family were able to do some of the emotional processing right there in that time, and I was unable to do that. I do think that some of my family had to come face to face with a lot of press interest, and I was shielded from that, because I was in a hospital bed and therefore later when I went back to Ireland and decided to make public what was a very private story, until then I didn’t have the same concern and fear about talking to journalists and meeting with the press, because I have not, as a boy, felt in any way oppressed by them or violated by them.

Your family does seem to have had a hard time with the press, going by what you say in the book.

I think that left them with some mental scars, left them desirous of always avoiding contact with the press if they could.

Was your family supportive of your wish to write this book?

They were supportive of my wish to heal myself, and although they chose a different path for their own healing, they understood what it was that I needed to do, and they were pleased that I was able to reach this new level of healing and forgiveness.

Did you have to go and convince them individually to give their permission?

Yes, I did, one by one. I didn’t have to convince them, I just needed to say to them, “Would you like to help me by speaking to me about your experiences so that I can record accurately what happened?” and they were very considerate about it, they said “Yes, but would you mind showing me which part of the story you’re going to print before you print it?” And of course I said whatever they would like I would be happy to do that, because I wouldn’t have wanted to publish something that was going to cause them pain.

Was anything significant left out as a result?

No, I decided that I would put everything that was materially important in the book. Much of the story which was of interest to me and the family was not compelling, it was rather boring, so I needed to edit it out.

Do you still feel personally under threat?

It’s a new time now where we have a peaceful situation in Ireland, so I no longer feel under threat.

When you went back to Ireland, were you surprised at how willing people were to talk to you?

I was surprised. The reason, I feel, is this: in the west of Ireland there was a very beautiful set of circumstances where people were open, friendly, people had time for one another — this was in the 1970s, there was a slower pace of life — and I think that they were used, if they were going to say goodbye to somebody who had been in their midst for many years or many generations, that they would do it the Irish way, which would be to say farewell, to say goodbye and to wish the person as they left the area well on their future journey and to remember happy times in the past and to say thank you to each other for the kindnesses that each side had rendered the other.

None of this was possible, because at the moment of the assassination a terrible security clampdown happened across that part of Ireland, and it was almost impossible to move around for my family, because of the wish of the Irish government to be quite certain that there would be no further violence, and it was at a time when a lot of violence was going on in the north of Ireland, and therefore there was a lot of concern. So instead of being able to spend our time saying well, sadly, this attack means it won’t be safe for us to return in the future because of the publicity, so we would now like to try and say goodbye to our many friends and our neighbours and some of our relatives — it wasn’t even possible to do that because we were really evacuated.

When I went back my surprise was this, the people that we had known also felt, themselves, that 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, we have been sad never to have had an opportunity to sit down face to face, one on one, privately, quietly. And I found that shopkeepers and fishermen and farmers and neighbours and friends and churchmen and -women, and so on, they were all very happy to invite me into their home, or their business, and to talk one on one, and I felt that there was a lot of healing to happen in the community where we had come from, and this surprised me because I thought I was going there because I only had such feelings. But I found that there were many other people who, when they said goodbye to me, we would sit down and talk for half an hour, or one hour, or three hours, or five hours, or seven hours.

What did you talk about?

About my childhood, about the village, about life, about the violence in Ireland, about the hospital that we were treated in, about the families of these people — it was like catching up with old news, and at the end, often on the doorstep saying goodbye, the person would say to me, “I feel differently now that I’ve had the chance to speak with you, and I feel better having spoken with you,” and then I realised how much healing had been left undone.

Given that extreme violence is or has been pervasive in many parts of the world, a great deal of healing must be left undone. Do you think a lot of people go about carrying a crippling load of misery?

[Coughs] What I learned is that an act of violence is like a stone thrown into a pond — the ripples spread out, they spread out geographically. In the case of violence the ripples spread out over time — not only that over years the damage continues to radiate, but that it passes from one generation into another generation, they feel the pain of their violated forebears. What I found in Ireland is that if you were able to put up some form of absorption for these ripples, that the ripples would stop spreading out. Not only would they stop spreading out but the surface of the pond could again become mirrorlike and still and peaceful.

My story is the story of a child injured in an attack and was specifically about that child growing up and learning later in life about how to heal, how I learnt to heal myself and to forgive others, and to move on in life and again achieve balance and happiness. But what I learnt is that there was nothing very special about my story. I would turn to somebody beside me at a lunch table or on a long railway journey sitting in the seat beside me, a stranger, and if you ask them about their life, sometimes they would have a story to tell that would be the equal [of] or would trump my story, and this person didn’t have to be old to have experienced it, sometimes it was a teenager or a child who had endured a moment of trauma, some intense experience, and so I decided to start my book with the words “We all have a car crash in our lives. Mine happened to be a bomb.” Although I told a very specific story it’s one which is generalised in the human condition.

Part of my motivation for writing this book was this: as a boy, if I had been able to listen to somebody else tell their story in the way that I have told mine, I think it would have helped me to start my own journey earlier, and to find a more direct route.

Is it unusual that strangers open up to you so readily? You must be a good listener.

There were periods of my life where I did all the talking, and I didn’t do much of the listening, and I found I didn’t grow very much. Slowly I changed, and one day somebody said to me, “Tim, you have two ears and one mouth. Please use them in this ratio.”

You’re a filmmaker, and yet you wrote a book.

[Coughs] My initial thought when I went back to Ireland was that if I was able to make a documentary, which was my chosen field of work, that this would be a beautiful thing to do. But after my first trip there I realised that I was too far out of my depth, because if you’re going to make a film you have to be in control, and there were many times when I went back to Ireland where I really lost all of my control. My ability to have directed a film, to have conducted the interviews in a way that was appropriate and skillful would not have been there, so I decided that the best way for me to do it was to allow myself to go to pieces, because that’s what I needed to do, and then slowly, as I managed to pull myself together again over a period of days and weeks and months, to refer always back to my written journal. To me this was my prime source of material for a time in later life when I might have again the coherence and the distance to tell the story, to say I can best do it by referring to the experiences using the written word and not the recorded film.

I find it unusual that you’re so comfortable talking about feelings, emotions. Was there a particular moment when you realised you had to accept your emotions?

No, I think it was a process which made me realise that I needed to change, and the moment when this first was put to me was some months after the bomb. My mother’s a particularly emotionally articulate woman, and she came to me one afternoon and sat with me quietly and said, “Would you be interested in talking to somebody who is trained to talk to children about psychological matters?” And I said, “Mum, thank you very much, but no, I don’t need to do that.”

But the question hung over me after that for many years. In 1979 in England it was unheard of that children were expected to talk to psychologists after some traumatic and stressful experience. Now of course it’s accepted as an ordinary thing, and a healthy thing. This moment when my mum asked the question was I think the moment when subconsciously I realised that one day I would seek the help of a trained therapist to help me with what I needed to do, and that didn’t happen [until many years later].

Are there any general lessons to be drawn from your experience, do you think — in coping with violent loss like yours?

My book is a description and it is not a prescription, and I’m very careful about saying that I have the answers. Really I only have the questions. But I hope that in reading my book people will recognise the validity of these questions. I believe that, personally, one of the things that I found helpful was to approach every situation aware that it may not be forgiveness that I need to be giving somebody else, but actually it may be forgiveness that I need to be asking of somebody else. I found this to be true in Ireland because my family were attacked not for anything that we had done, we were attacked primarily for reasons of publicity — but the reason that the British had brought upon themselves such hatred and violence was for actions of their own for which we as a race needed to say to Ireland, we apologise and we ask your forgiveness, and for me this was something of a surprise, to realise that after I had been in Ireland for quite a long time, that actually forgiveness wasn’t mine to give other people but rather it was perhaps for my country’s history to be asking of our neighbours in Ireland forgiveness for what happened in the past — and I think that this boils down to keeping your mind open.

Do you ever feel guilty about the privilege that you have grown up with, not just monetary but in life and in terms of the support you could at any time call upon?

Well, I was always clear when I was being brought up that if you were given an opportunity to lead your life with a wonderful education, the gift of health, an able body, all the advantages that nature and society can give you, then you must remember all the time, every hour of every day, that your job is to be useful to other people. To whom much is given, much is expected.

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Note

While Knatchbull appeared comfortable enough talking with a journalist and then being photographed (he has spent his career on the other side of the camera, after all), as he says there can’t be much love lost between his family and the press. A few days after the bomb in 1979, according to his book, the curtains had to be drawn in the hospital room in Ireland because photographers had stationed themselves outside the hospital and were relentlessly snapping away. And there was the reporter from Australia who managed to get through to the lone telephone at Classiebawn on the very day of the bomb and then grew aggrieved because one of Knatchbull’s sisters refused to speak to her. There must have been many more such unpleasant instances.

Of late, however, the family member who has received the most press attention is probably Knatchbull’s nephew, a young man named Nicholas (after his murdered uncle) who is second in line for the Mountbatten title. Young Nicholas has been photographed and filmed (by, apparently, his own friends) doing various hard drugs in dangerous combinations (see 1, 2).

Other press reports have suggested that the young heir’s father Norton Knatchbull, also known as Lord Brabourne, is unhappy that his brother Timothy has chosen to place a private story in the public domain. One can easily imagine that the prospect of renewed scrutiny and press interest would cause some stress in the family — though it doesn’t seem to have fazed his mother, the present Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who has been staunchly supportive. (See 1, 2.) Perhaps the unease among Knatchbull’s relatives explains the studied carefulness of his answers on the subject.

The Mountbatten archive, once located in the Broadlands basement, has now moved to the University of Southampton.

Read the profile I wrote for the Business Standard, based on this interview, here.

Q&A: Timothy Knatchbull

Here is a transcript of my interview with Timothy Knatchbull, grandson of Lord Mountbatten and survivor of the 1979 bomb which killed the former viceroy and three others, including Knatchbull’s identical twin brother Nicholas. The loss of his twin, the slow process of accommodating to that loss, and all that the author learnt while, a quarter century later, collecting information about that terrible day and its aftermath, provided material for the memoir-like book Knatchbull has written about his life before and after the bomb. The book was published roughly to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the attack.

The interview is long, but I think interesting. I’ve added a short explanatory/expatiatory note at the end.

Your book is very thorough, yet one feels that it holds perhaps more questions than answers.

My mind when I went back to Ireland was like a sponge, was a porous mindset that I went back with, and I wanted to absorb, learn, see, hear and feel, and then later to piece it all together like a jigsaw. I didn’t go thinking this is what I need to do, I went thinking this is the place I needed to be, and I needed to be as open-minded as I could possibly be and allow myself to slowly absorb information and feelings, because the heart of my journey was to repair my own damaged interior. When I was a boy I was too young to do it. I didn’t know enough about life, about myself, about the world, and specifically I didn’t know enough about what had caused all of the political violence that was going on in Ireland. As a man I could accept this.

Did you not know, as teenagers in a well-informed family, that the situation in Ireland was so bad? Did that sort of news not percolate to you, that such attacks might take place?

It did, but we very much understood them to be restricted to the British military and in the part of Ireland where the British were still ruling, and are still ruling today. And we were in a different part of Ireland. It was a peaceful place and there had never been any political violence in modern times where we were. So we viewed the violence as something that would not touch us. But we were wrong.

The fact that various members of your family kept journals helped you find a great deal of the information you needed for the book. Is writing journals a family habit? How did you yourself develop the habit?

My family has been for very many generations writing the letters [which are carefully archived; for years the family had two archivists working in the basement of the main family home, Broadlands], but also they’ve been keeping the letters they’ve received in an archive. So when I was a boy I watched my mum, who every day, before she turned in at the end of the evening, would write her diary. And when I left to come here now [to his publisher’s flat, where this interview took place], my mum, who is staying in Delhi, with me, for the week, before I left she said, “Oh, a couple of questions — what time did our plane arrive?” and “What is the name of the people that we had lunch with yesterday?” Because even today, when she’s an old lady, she likes to record where she goes, who she meets, the things that she learns even at this stage.

And when I saw her, as a boy, writing her diary, I think this led me to believe that she was doing something rather special and wonderful and I realised that her father did it — my Mountbatten grandfather, he kept a diary for most of his life — not all of his life — and this was a useful resource to other people [the Mountbatten archive is now at the University of Southampton]. And I decided that I would lead my life in the same way, trying to make sure that because every day was a gift, I wanted somehow to feel, at the end of the day, I wanted to account for the gift of that day by recording what I had learnt, the journey that I was on. I also enjoy writing, writing to friends. Now it’s emails and texts, but it used to be letters. I still probably write maybe a thousand letters a year, at least.

When do you write your journal, and how much time do you give it every day?

I tend to do it at the end of the day before I go to sleep. And the letters that I’m writing, they’re for my work, for my business, but very often I will choose to write a letter because I know if I send an email or a text or a fax, it will get lost in the blizzard, whereas if you send somebody a nicely written letter, a carefully thought-out letter, it’s like an armour-piercing shell, it reaches its target and makes more of an impact.

So writing is an important part of my life. My children are fascinated, they love the book that I’ve written. They haven’t read it all, but they manage to find little pieces that they read. My eldest daughter is 10 and has even memorised some of what I’ve written, and she’s designed a new cover for the book. She’s convinced she’s going to come up with a new cover, but I think this is the best cover, and also the cover that has been produced locally, here in India — beautiful.

Your family members’ daily written record helps explain the level of detail in your book. Perhaps too much detail?

Well, I believe that if one wishes to say something of value it’s important not to generalise, and I think that by simply stating the facts as I remember them, even the detail, then from that the reader can form their own opinions about whether or not there are general lessons to be learned. But I believe that it’s the particular, the particular moments, the particular words and events, which not only make it interesting but which can, at times, make it insightful.

In some ways the structure of your book follows the opposite trajectory to your own quest. The first sections have a great deal of information, about your family and your relationship with your twin, but also about the day of the bomb and the events leading on from that. But that level of insight into what happened you achieved only recently when you went back to Ireland to search for answers. Why did you choose to give us your hard-won information first, and only later describe the process of finding it?

I felt that my story is centred on one very particular moment in my life, when everything changed. The bomb exploded at 11:46, and really my life has been in two parts — everything before that moment, and everything after that moment, and therefore I wanted to bring the reader straight to the crossroads and then later they would understand, as they read the book, why that crossroads was so important.

Can you describe what it means to be an identical twin, what you had with your twin Nick that you lost?

Yes. It’s the very special privilege of [coughs] 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. And if I was to describe it I would like to use the words of another twin, who told me when his twin was killed he felt that it was not so much a bereavement as an amputation, and it’s this sense of the death of some part of one’s own self when one’s identical twin dies.

And then for me a very special thing happened in later life, when, in meeting another identical twin who was very similar to me, same sort of age — his identical twin brother had been killed as well, quite unexpectedly — I found that he understood how the loss felt, and this allowed us to have a conversation which was fast-forwarding. You have said that for you, you need to try and understand more of what it was that was missing — he knew precisely, so I only had to say a few words and he could complete the sentence.

That’s the sense of loss that I had — being with somebody who really understood, sentence by sentence… Even the words that would come out of my mouth, he [Nick] knew what they would be before they came out. Sometimes people would say, “Are you two telepathic, how did you know…?” The answer to that is that it’s just one of those rare situations where, identical by birth, identical by upbringing — because we shared the same bedroom till the day that he died, and we hadn’t reached that part in our development where we had differentiated and gone our separate ways. We hadn’t had girlfriends who had led us down different paths. And therefore the sudden moment of his death was the moment when I lost something that was unique and unobtainable again in my life.

Not that that prevented my life going on, like it is now, a very happy one and one which I hope as well is useful and productive for other people.

You seem to have realised fairly early on what it was that you wanted to do, professionally. Your father produced films, and some of your siblings also are involved in film. But you took up documentary-making, and have been quite successful at it. So, your work life was going well, but at the same time you were deeply unhappy — did you ever feel there was a conflict, or a contradiction between the two aspects?

As a result of that I became something of a workaholic, so that I would be always working. I would go home and I would work at home, and then I would come to work and work a long day at work, and then I would go home and do more work, and then I would sleep a little bit. And after a while I realised that this was partly because there was an emptiness and a loneliness that I knew was there, and I didn’t know how to address it.

But I went through life, and I was lucky enough to get help from other people and get the balance a little bit better, and I married and I became a father — and these, all of them, helped, bit by bit, reached a point where I was prepared 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.

Did your other family members not feel the need to make that trip?

I think that each one of my family found their own path and what was good for them, for their healing, and I think I was the only one [coughs] of my family who needed to go back. And part of that was that after the attack I had been too badly injured to go on functioning as a thinking human being. I was sedated, I was anaesthetised, I was in intensive care, I was in bandages, I was cocooned from the real world, and therefore other members of my family were able to do some of the emotional processing right there in that time, and I was unable to do that. I do think that some of my family had to come face to face with a lot of press interest, and I was shielded from that, because I was in a hospital bed and therefore later when I went back to Ireland and decided to make public what was a very private story, until then I didn’t have the same concern and fear about talking to journalists and meeting with the press, because I have not, as a boy, felt in any way oppressed by them or violated by them.

Your family does seem to have had a hard time with the press, going by what you say in the book.

I think that left them with some mental scars, left them desirous of always avoiding contact with the press if they could.

Was your family supportive of your wish to write this book?

They were supportive of my wish to heal myself, and although they chose a different path for their own healing, they understood what it was that I needed to do, and they were pleased that I was able to reach this new level of healing and forgiveness.

Did you have to go and convince them individually to give their permission?

Yes, I did, one by one. I didn’t have to convince them, I just needed to say to them, “Would you like to help me by speaking to me about your experiences so that I can record accurately what happened?” and they were very considerate about it, they said “Yes, but would you mind showing me which part of the story you’re going to print before you print it?” And of course I said whatever they would like I would be happy to do that, because I wouldn’t have wanted to publish something that was going to cause them pain.

Was anything significant left out as a result?

No, I decided that I would put everything that was materially important in the book. Much of the story which was of interest to me and the family was not compelling, it was rather boring, so I needed to edit it out.

Do you still feel personally under threat?

It’s a new time now where we have a peaceful situation in Ireland, so I no longer feel under threat.

When you went back to Ireland, were you surprised at how willing people were to talk to you?

I was surprised. The reason, I feel, is this: in the west of Ireland there was a very beautiful set of circumstances where people were open, friendly, people had time for one another — this was in the 1970s, there was a slower pace of life — and I think that they were used, if they were going to say goodbye to somebody who had been in their midst for many years or many generations, that they would do it the Irish way, which would be to say farewell, to say goodbye and to wish the person as they left the area well on their future journey and to remember happy times in the past and to say thank you to each other for the kindnesses that each side had rendered the other.

None of this was possible, because at the moment of the assassination a terrible security clampdown happened across that part of Ireland, and it was almost impossible to move around for my family, because of the wish of the Irish government to be quite certain that there would be no further violence, and it was at a time when a lot of violence was going on in the north of Ireland, and therefore there was a lot of concern. So instead of being able to spend our time saying well, sadly, this attack means it won’t be safe for us to return in the future because of the publicity, so we would now like to try and say goodbye to our many friends and our neighbours and some of our relatives — it wasn’t even possible to do that because we were really evacuated.

When I went back my surprise was this, the people that we had known also felt, themselves, that 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, we have been sad never to have had an opportunity to sit down face to face, one on one, privately, quietly. And I found that shopkeepers and fishermen and farmers and neighbours and friends and churchmen and -women, and so on, they were all very happy to invite me into their home, or their business, and to talk one on one, and I felt that there was a lot of healing to happen in the community where we had come from, and this surprised me because I thought I was going there because I only had such feelings. But I found that there were many other people who, when they said goodbye to me, we would sit down and talk for half an hour, or one hour, or three hours, or five hours, or seven hours.

What did you talk about?

About my childhood, about the village, about life, about the violence in Ireland, about the hospital that we were treated in, about the families of these people — it was like catching up with old news, and at the end, often on the doorstep saying goodbye, the person would say to me, “I feel differently now that I’ve had the chance to speak with you, and I feel better having spoken with you,” and then I realised how much healing had been left undone.

Given that extreme violence is or has been pervasive in many parts of the world, a great deal of healing must be left undone. Do you think a lot of people go about carrying a crippling load of misery?

[Coughs] What I learned is that an act of violence is like a stone thrown into a pond — the ripples spread out, they spread out geographically. In the case of violence the ripples spread out over time — not only that over years the damage continues to radiate, but that it passes from one generation into another generation, they feel the pain of their violated forebears. What I found in Ireland is that if you were able to put up some form of absorption for these ripples, that the ripples would stop spreading out. Not only would they stop spreading out but the surface of the pond could again become mirrorlike and still and peaceful.

My story is the story of a child injured in an attack and was specifically about that child growing up and learning later in life about how to heal, how I learnt to heal myself and to forgive others, and to move on in life and again achieve balance and happiness. But what I learnt is that there was nothing very special about my story. I would turn to somebody beside me at a lunch table or on a long railway journey sitting in the seat beside me, a stranger, and if you ask them about their life, sometimes they would have a story to tell that would be the equal [of] or would trump my story, and this person didn’t have to be old to have experienced it, sometimes it was a teenager or a child who had endured a moment of trauma, some intense experience, and so I decided to start my book with the words “We all have a car crash in our lives. Mine happened to be a bomb.” Although I told a very specific story it’s one which is generalised in the human condition.

Part of my motivation for writing this book was this: as a boy, if I had been able to listen to somebody else tell their story in the way that I have told mine, I think it would have helped me to start my own journey earlier, and to find a more direct route.

Is it unusual that strangers open up to you so readily? You must be a good listener.

There were periods of my life where I did all the talking, and I didn’t do much of the listening, and I found I didn’t grow very much. Slowly I changed, and one day somebody said to me, “Tim, you have two ears and one mouth. Please use them in this ratio.”

You’re a filmmaker, and yet you wrote a book.

[Coughs] My initial thought when I went back to Ireland was that if I was able to make a documentary, which was my chosen field of work, that this would be a beautiful thing to do. But after my first trip there I realised that I was too far out of my depth, because if you’re going to make a film you have to be in control, and there were many times when I went back to Ireland where I really lost all of my control. My ability to have directed a film, to have conducted the interviews in a way that was appropriate and skillful would not have been there, so I decided that the best way for me to do it was to allow myself to go to pieces, because that’s what I needed to do, and then slowly, as I managed to pull myself together again over a period of days and weeks and months, to refer always back to my written journal. To me this was my prime source of material for a time in later life when I might have again the coherence and the distance to tell the story, to say I can best do it by referring to the experiences using the written word and not the recorded film.

I find it unusual that you’re so comfortable talking about feelings, emotions. Was there a particular moment when you realised you had to accept your emotions?

No, I think it was a process which made me realise that I needed to change, and the moment when this first was put to me was some months after the bomb. My mother’s a particularly emotionally articulate woman, and she came to me one afternoon and sat with me quietly and said, “Would you be interested in talking to somebody who is trained to talk to children about psychological matters?” And I said, “Mum, thank you very much, but no, I don’t need to do that.”

But the question hung over me after that for many years. In 1979 in England it was unheard of that children were expected to talk to psychologists after some traumatic and stressful experience. Now of course it’s accepted as an ordinary thing, and a healthy thing. This moment when my mum asked the question was I think the moment when subconsciously I realised that one day I would seek the help of a trained therapist to help me with what I needed to do, and that didn’t happen [until many years later].

Are there any general lessons to be drawn from your experience, do you think — in coping with violent loss like yours?

My book is a description and it is not a prescription, and I’m very careful about saying that I have the answers. Really I only have the questions. But I hope that in reading my book people will recognise the validity of these questions. I believe that, personally, one of the things that I found helpful was to approach every situation aware that it may not be forgiveness that I need to be giving somebody else, but actually it may be forgiveness that I need to be asking of somebody else. I found this to be true in Ireland because my family were attacked not for anything that we had done, we were attacked primarily for reasons of publicity — but the reason that the British had brought upon themselves such hatred and violence was for actions of their own for which we as a race needed to say to Ireland, we apologise and we ask your forgiveness, and for me this was something of a surprise, to realise that after I had been in Ireland for quite a long time, that actually forgiveness wasn’t mine to give other people but rather it was perhaps for my country’s history to be asking of our neighbours in Ireland forgiveness for what happened in the past — and I think that this boils down to keeping your mind open.

Do you ever feel guilty about the privilege that you have grown up with, not just monetary but in life and in terms of the support you could at any time call upon?

Well, I was always clear when I was being brought up that if you were given an opportunity to lead your life with a wonderful education, the gift of health, an able body, all the advantages that nature and society can give you, then you must remember all the time, every hour of every day, that your job is to be useful to other people. To whom much is given, much is expected.

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