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A Life in Letters Plus a Selection of, Very Many, Essays

24 May 24

233 pages

Robin Knight

 

Anyone who has encountered Ewen Southby-Tailyour in his various guises – Royal Marine officer, yachtsman, Balkans monitor, campaigner, author – quickly realises that this is a man with strong convictions and the strength of character required to express them publicly.

In particular, for decades Ewen has bombarded the editors of newspapers, magazines and journals with his opinions which are many and varied. Now he has collected these missives (and some essays) into book form and self-published in the hope that the resultant 224 pages will be “a book for the Christmas stocking (and) then the downstairs loo”.

The letters range from the frivolous to the seriously consequential. All are penned in a punchy, no-holds-barred style. Along the way all sorts of high-level targets are identified and skewered with gusto – from the Chief of the Defence Staff to the Secretary of State for Defence, to the Foreign Office and the United Nations. A variety of politicians, journalists and historians ranging from Norman Tebbit and Michael Gove to Max Hastings and Quentin Rees come under fire and, as the collection indicates, Ewen takes no prisoners.

Such letters are an increasing rarity in the age of transitory text messages, emails and social media so they are valuable in themselves, not least to future chroniclers of our times. The added ingredient here is Ewen’s individualistic and often iconoclastic take on contemporary and past events.

Much of the book relates to “historically thought-provoking” military operations in which Ewen featured such as the Falklands conflict. Here is a typical sample:

“With respect to my erstwhile colleague Robert Fox’s article on the Falklands, he is talking nonsense. The battle for Goose Green was not a ‘decisive hinge’ in the British expedition to take back the Falklands. It was a false objective forced upon the commander of 3 Commando Brigade in order to give the army and politicians – safe from shot and shell back at home – an early victory”.

Ewen is almost as trenchant on yachting matters. One of his achievements has been to set up the biannual Jester Challenge – a single-handed transatlantic experience for small craft and intrepid sailors or, as he puts it, “a modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.” On one occasion the Falmouth Coastguard had the temerity to question the sense of the challenge in “incredibly rough seas”. A Southby-Tailyour letter soon after to Yachting Monthly was scathing:

“Size is not necessarily a factor in seaworthiness…Much as I respect the Coastguard service, it does not help when they make uneducated, nannying comments without checking the truth”.

Southby-Tailyour has also been a prominent campaigner for a variety of causes. Perhaps most notably, in 2013-15 he took to the streets of Birmingham and London in support of Sgt Alexander Blackman, the Royal Marine convicted and jailed for the murder of a wounded Taliban fighter. Numerous letters to all and sundry were despatched about the moral issues involved. In the process Ewen revealed that while on active service in Oman he “purposefully over-dosed” (with morphine) his Arab Company Sergeant Major who had been shot through the neck and was dying “in colossal agony”.

The Chief of the Defence Staff at the time argued on television that “murder is murder” and backed Blackman’s conviction. Ewen then wrote directly to the CDS and asked: “How would you describe the behaviour of the SAS men who killed three unarmed ‘terrorists’ in Gibraltar on 6th March 1988?” He received no reply.

The book is also full of letters designed to appeal to a reader’s sense of the ridiculous. There is one about “a vulgar sculpture” called The Messenger which appeared outside Plymouth’s Theatre Royal in 2019 and reminded Ewen of “someone having difficulty going to the loo”. Another concerned woke criticism of the use of the word ‘black’ – “I own a sailing vessel called Black Velvet…what are my chances of being challenged by the Border Force?” And following an article in a newspaper about underpants being made from bamboo, he wrote: “So far, all your correspondents have been male. Maybe the ladies are too shy to admit that they, too, do not like the thought of bamboo knickers”.

This is a book likely to entertain and exasperate in equal measure. Ewen Southby-Tailyour has many and wide-ranging views. He also has the virtue of being able to see the absurd for what it is which makes this an entertaining as well as a thought-provoking read. Here is one last example:

“I received recently a letter about my book HMS Fearless in which the reader complained of the smell of the pages. Perhaps all books should have the aroma of their subject matter in which case I shall arrange for the reprint to smell of burnt aviation fuel and frying chips!”