Price of a Double Life

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I am reluctantly succumbing to the charms of the British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson. For years I resisted: I had no interest in Top Gear, his high-octane programme for dim-wit motorists. I liked neither his in-your-face screen personality nor his studiously non-PC newspaper columns. Added to that, I had to suffer the ignominy of having my partner, who is normally quite discerning, make a point of regularly watching him and telling me that she found him funny.

My prejudice began to lift in mid-2007 when, with quiet authority, Clarkson presented something very different – a riveting historical documentary about the British raid on the German-occupied port of St Nazaire in March 1942.

His film told how a group of commandos sailed into the mouth of the River Loire and sabotaged a heavily fortified dry dock which posed a grave threat to beleaguered Allied convoys in the Atlantic. Most participants were either killed or captured. Among the latter was an army captain, Michael Burn, who was removed to Colditz. The programme featured him as one of the few current survivors. It also showed chilling footage of him being marched at gun-point past the Campbeltown, the British destroyer which, after ramming the dry dock, remained embedded there, full of explosives ready to go off at any moment. Unable to betray any hint of imminent danger, Burn had to act as if all was normal. He even managed to flash a nonchalant V (for Victory) sign at the German film unit.

I was fascinated to see his battle-weary features, as I had recently met him after enjoying his autobiography Turned towards the Sun. Somehow news of my enthusiasm reached his literary agent who invited us both to dinner. Belying his ninety odd years, Burn bounded into the room with the energy of a man half his age and put the other guests to shame with the sharpness of his mental recall.

You don’t often come across a former war hero who was also a lover of the Sovi

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About the contributor

After spending much of the last fifteen years working on biographies of Ian Fleming, Arthur Conan Doyle and others, Andrew Lycett is looking forward to leading his own life at some stage.

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