The art of losing control
The prologue; Stanislav Sosabowski was buried shortly after his death in London on 25th September 1967. His work mates from the CAV factory were apparently surprised and astonished by a number of unexpected and distinguished guests who joined them to pay their last respects. It was the first time ‘Stan’s’ identity as the former commander of the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade had been made known to them. The retired Major General had in fact lead his unit alongside the British 1st Airborne Brigade during Operation Market garden in 1944 and was immortalized by Gene Hackman in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. In his spare time Stan wrote two books and kept in touch with friends and admirers but ‘weekdays meant anonymity, greasy overalls and clocking in… for 6 pounds per week’.
I have always been fascinated by the history and the intricate details of battles, wars and campaigns around the world but Stanislav Sosabowski’s story intrigued me more than most. Not because of his exploits on the battle field, the numerous medals and honours which he won, nor his final epitaph. No, I am interested in the strength and dignity which he must have displayed on a daily basis in keeping all of those personal achievements, experiences and accolades quiet and securely hidden for so long.
I can only surmise that, as events and circumstances whirled out of control Sosabowski’s life, his demise and eventual fall from grace came quickly (and most modern commentators say unfairly). His loss of status and prestige after Market Garden must have been intensely more personal and subsequently more painful than the loss of his country in 1939, in whose defense he had been so highly regarded and decorated. Losing control, falling from the heights and yet retaining one’s dignity in the face of it all must be an ‘art’ to be respected and admired in itself.
Early lessons – the 1980s; I distinctly remember my mother once telling me as a youth that I ‘would come down to earth with a bump’. I was perplexed as to why she might have told me that. I was good at sport, top of the class in most subjects, head of this and head of that and generally sailing through life with few worries. I was confident of myself and generally honest about my abilities. Unwittingly, I must have sounded more arrogant and precocious to my mother than I could ever have imagined, as the invincible teenager many of us are at the tender age of 16. I continued to take life far too easy in my final years at school, scored terrible marks in my mock exams, pulled my socks up just in time and gained the grades required to go to the university of my choice. A close shave but ultimately I was in control of my own destiny.
At university I had a blast and enjoyed life to the max but sadly neglected my studies and ended up with a third class degree. This was to blight my life in many subtle ways but I took no particular notice since I still felt fully in control of my own destiny and continued to enjoy the best of what life had to offer; travel, adventure, freedom and oodles of fun. My first project as a volunteer in the Sudan in 1990 was badly devised and basically a waste of everyone’s time but I was apt to make it work to some small degree. I soaked up the atmosphere, enjoyed the company of new friends (and consequently found myself a wife) and immersed myself in the culture. Ultimately I convinced myself that it was all worthwhile (and it was for reasons I can only now appreciate). I asserted the age old adage that ‘I had gained more from the experience than I could ever give’ which really is a euphemism for ‘what a waste of time’ and questions the competency of those devising the project objectives and operating procedures. I did admittedly go out to Sudan with the intention to ‘save the world entire’ and to sort out their water supply and sanitation problems once and for all! Youthful exuberance and over-confidence – yes, but whatever the case, I should have achieved far more than I did and had I been better supported by my superiors and managed more diligently I most likely would have accomplished a great deal more. George Bernard Shaw suggested that ‘youth was wasted on the young’ but it may be just as true to suggest that older generations consistently and spectacularly fail to harness the vitality and the desire of youth to change our world for the better.
My cosy little life in a remote corner of Sudan was thrown into turmoil by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Our president in the republic, Mr Omar Al Bashir had weighed his options and decided to back Saddam. The rumour was that westerners were to be used as human shields and bargaining chips if necessary. So serious was the threat that I was packing my bags and flying out on a plane within 48 hours. I arrived back in the UK on a cold October evening at Heathrow airport with little more than £50 in my pocket, wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts with nowhere in particular to go.
This was my first real experience of losing control in anything more than a cursory manner. I had to impinge on the goodwill of friends and relatives then rapidly find a job, find a home and more importantly some meaning in my life. I was, as always relatively self-assured and the first shoots of faith in God placed me somewhere high up on Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. My ‘Physiological Needs’ were easily met, with only myself to care about. Within a few months I was back working overseas again and having a ball with some seriously good anecdotes under my belt!
Seriously Losing Control – the early 2000s; Married, with kids in tow and already struggling to make ends meet we naturally felt vulnerable. Living in a foreign country with few rights and little in the way of formal support we already felt ill at ease standing outside the first instance court. And then on top of that our lawyer was late and could not be contacted on his mobile phone. We were losing control big time and it appeared to be happening in slow motion. Jill and I were facing charges of slander and libel against a large well respected Swiss aid agency who had threatened, cajoled and then acted decisively to silence our attempts to uncover ongoing paedophile activity in Ethiopia. We were sure of our case and were determined to stand firm and clearly our opponents in court had some respect for the courage we displayed but that never took away our fear of the unknown nor their determination to keep us quiet. Our lawyer finally turned up that morning and after a further seven years in and out of various courts, adjournments, appeals, moral victories, losses and counter claims our case reached the Supreme Court of Ethiopia. Rather comically in seven years of appearances Jill and I were only ever asked one question, and that in Amharic; “Are your names Jill and Gary Campbell?” And as a further side note we formally lost the civil case but won a great moral victory when Jill refused to apologize and the aid agency immediately decided to drop their claim for compensation and legal redress.
Being stuck in an almost interminable legal battle with all the odds seemingly stacked up against you, and with this feeling of insecurity as a constant companion, one gradually grows stronger or perhaps more flippant and resigned. Life goes on around you as normal, people and you yourself forget the magnitude of what you face between adjournments and yet, dates etched on the calendar bring back the fear and quicken the pulse. Life and a range of possibly disastrous or joyous outcomes impinges hard on the psyche with a regular tempo. For your children and friends you learn to manage and hide your own fears and to curtail your aspirations. Our faith in God paradoxically grew stronger though our annoyance that things did not turn out ‘right’ was no secret.
I was never employed again by any aid agency in Ethiopia but somewhat paradoxically this was one of the main reasons for establishing and growing my own project management company based in Addis Ababa. Being fully in control and seemingly in charge of my own destiny was an absolute delight… for a time!
The Grand Finale - 2014; A friend of mine who works as a nurse in a hospice once commented that men who play golf die the worst! How and why so? We concluded that many men in the western world enjoy relatively peaceful and fulfilling lives climbing up the corporate ladder, raising families, accumulating property, assets and cars and finally round off a life well lived with a regular round or two of golf in retirement. Terminal sickness and certain death finally bring into full focus the inevitable, unavoidable, and complete loss of control. Whereas many of us have had the necessary training to die well, or at least better, men who play golf have not and do not. This is of course a generalization but is non-the-less an observable trend.
For me, I have never played golf but life did move on after the court case and the company gradually grew in size, reputation and profitability. We went from three employees in our first year to around 55 staff within ten years and looked like expanding exponentially beyond 2014. The stakes got higher and the potential rewards grew in parallel. Food on the table, a roof over our heads, kids to educate, holidays to enjoy and 55 people to care for brought huge responsibilities. Losing control was no longer an option I cared to consider. My youthful misadventures were just distant memories, fun anecdotes akin to most people’s wistful stories of their own ‘mispent youths’. Owning a company in an African country had its obvious risks but we felt relatively secure with ‘friends in high places’, a reputation for honest dealing, good and loyal staff at work, a track record of delivering projects within time, on budget and to cost all in the context of a booming economy. What could go wrong? Everything it seems. Success has its own poor relations including its first cousins; jealousy, envy, greed and pride. To cut a long story short the taxman came calling with a ridiculously inflated claim hot on the heels of a short period characterized by ill health, bad clients and rising costs. In little over 12 months we lost our financial liquidity, our business license and consequently the business itself and finally our right to even stay in Ethiopia. I had left before Jill who was still employed as a teacher but finally she had to leave the country with no warning over a sad weekend in late November. 22 years gone in two days. We had arrived back piecemeal as a family in the UK with nothing. I likened ourselves to refugees with passports. The few people who came into contact with us could hardly begin to grasp that as a concept and in the ‘art of losing’ control I would say that I was becoming a master practitioner.
Laying in the middle of the race course under a dark brooding sky, after a long shift washing dishes at the York race course I prayed with the words of Psalm 130 in my mind. ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’. My body ached, my mind was numbed and my soul torn apart. I was nothing and I was in control of nothing apart from, as I saw it, my mouth and my legs. I joined Weight Watchers and the Park Run in order to exercise those last vestiges of control left to me. But daily I was treated with contempt and disdain by many of the students working as waiters and waitresses in the restaurant for being the lowest of the low in the kitchen and I had nothing to brag about and so kept silent.
It was during those days as a dishwasher I came across the story of Major General Stanislav Sosabowski and as I have said I had no interest in his prowess as a general in the field of battle. I simply admired the man for his obvious strength of character working ‘weekdays […in…] anonymity, greasy overalls and clocking in… for 6 pounds per week’. His example gave me the strength I needed and helped me through those darkest of days.