Making the impossible possible: Simon Weston CBE talks ahead of evening with... shows
The interview starts late. Our fault. We’ve been distracted.
But rather than have a huff or throw a diva strop, Simon Weston does the thing that normal people do. He picks up the phone and calls us. And then we chat. And chat some more. And the interview over-runs.
The stop-time gets ever-distant in our rear-view mirror. Simon continues to talk; giving freely of his time when he might more reasonably be attending to one of his businesses, hanging out with his family, engaging in other media commitments or sitting down with a cuppa. And we continue to listen because few people in the UK are as compelling and gracious, dignified and witty, thoughtful and humble.
He’s on the phone with a show to sell. But he’s too interesting a man to waste time with gratuitous promo. So let’s do that now and get it out of the way. The details are at the foot of the interview. He’s an exceptional, exceptional man. Go listen. It may well change your life.
He’s looking forward to his tour. And those who attend will find themselves laughing more than they might imagine.
“In life, there’s lots of tears. But there’s always lots of laughter. You think about the funerals you’ve been to. You might know a lot of people who’ve lived tragic lives, but the reality is that we remember the best parts. We remember the laughter and the smiles. That’s what sticks in our minds.”
So Simon and his host – a friend of 29 years – ignore any sort of serious chat or faux psychology on stage. They banter, they get into all sorts of mischief, they let their hair down and have fun. And that, curiously, is how Simon Weston has spent the latter part of his life.
“The fact of me being injured hasn’t stopped me from having a lot of fun in my life. Mental health plays a lot of part in many people’s lives. That’s changed. There was a time when we had to be stiff upper lip. But it’s not weak to be fragile any more. An egg shell is weak but it’s also one of the strongest things on the planet.”
There’s been a quantum change in our approach to mental health since Simon’s horrific, life-changing injuries in the Falklands. He is a tolerant man, a man with an amiable disposition who is slow to vent anger.
“We live in much more enlightened times, around so many different things. The only thing I find difficult to understand in life is bigotry, whether that surrounds race or gender or bigotry. I don’t get it. People might dislike each other because of an issue, but they shouldn’t because of the colour of their skin or the shoes they wear. I have no interest in judging people unless they give me a reason to.”
Simon’s life changed in a split second as 48 of his friends perished and others were badly injured. It was the defining moment of his life. The survival process didn’t happen in the minutes or hours or days or months after. The survival process is ongoing. “I don’t live in the past, I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. I live with things. I’m somebody who is quite happy in my own skin, I’m happy with who I am. Being altered by the injury is one thing, but we are all changed by circumstance.”
So in some respects, he’s the same easy-go-lucky fella he was when he was 20. In others, he’s battle-hardened and more aware. “I’m not someone who clings onto the past. I can live for now and plan for tomorrow.
“I’ve never been bitter, strangely enough. The person who joined the Army was me. The second I joined I put myself in someone else’s hands. You have to be very realistic about life and accept what you did and didn’t do to make your life better. I went to the Military to make my life better and I did.
“My life is better because I joined the Military than it might otherwise have been. I had focus and a team I worked with and I had friends I never knew I was going to make. There were all of those things. I laughed a helluva lot. Every day was a belly laugh.”
Civvy Street has been very different. These days, the only person who makes him laugh hard every day is his wife.
He accepts change as an important part of life – whether that’s becoming a father and husband or being blown up on a warship.
“Change is a part of life. I’ve had several near death experiences and that naturally causes one to change. I’ll leave it to psychologists to work out what’s happened and how I’ve changed.”
Simon is a man who lives for silver linings. Yes, he suffers indescribable injuries but he escaped with his life. And there have been so, so many positives from what seemed an impossible situation.
He received an OBE 20 years ago, for instance, then a CBE more recently. He’s had many different acknowledgments and affirmations for the way he’s conducted himself and lived his life. He’s typically deferential; nothing the contribution of family and medical professionals, deflecting any glory towards them.
“I’ve done nothing on my own, everything has been in conjunction with others. Other people have helped me to make the best of things. Nobody does anything on their own, not even Usain Bolt, he had coaches and doctors and psychologists; there was a whole team of people we never saw. Lionel Messi didn’t get there on his own. He had coaches from the age of seven or eight right up to now. Nobody does it on their own. There’s always somebody in the background. At the end of the day, you then have to go and perform – I’m not putting myself in that category,” and he laughs at the thought that he might have been a crack sprinter or footballing icon. And then he pauses and delivers a punchline. “Mind you, I’m right up there in the category of ‘injured serviceman’.”
Undoubtedly the most remarkable facet of Simon’s post-injury life has been his own ability to influence others. He has saved many lives, provided succour and led by example. There are people alive today who, without him, would not be.
“I take great comfort from the fact that there are people walking this planet that have changed their mind because they’ve read my story of seen it on TV. I know that to be the case. I still have the letter from the lady who was about to take her own life and also that of her three daughters. She said she was about to do it but saw my story on TV and that stopped her from killing herself and her three children. There’s nothing else better than that. If I give no more inspiration or motivation for the rest of my life, I will always live with the comfort that I made a difference to someone. It happened. There’s something really wonderful about helping other people. I know my story has helped many, many others. This week I had a communication from a lady who said she is thinking of her life in a different way because she’d read something I’d written and changed her thought processes. She went and sought help and is living a life, for now. Hopefully, she’ll come to one of the shows. If there’s more to come, then magnificent. It’s strange, the ones that are successful are great. But you remember the one or two that don’t make it, that don’t survive – that’s what breaks your heart.”
We talk about Argentina and let the tape run. His story remains as visceral and compelling now as ever it did. It is the human spirit writ large. Simon embodies hope and bravery, courage and valour.
“You want me to tell you about trauma? How long have you got, I’m not sure you’ve got enough ink in your pen for this. You get injured and you don’t expect to. But most people that get hurt in life don’t expect it. That’s why we need to train more people to stay wary on building sites or when they’re driving or when they’re at the beach or walking. The more that people are aware and that they prepare for alternatives the better.
“When we got injured on board the ship, we hadn’t been trained. So that was a big major failng of the MoD and everything to go with British military. There should be training for everybody on a ship because a ship is a target. Remove the emotion from it, you are a target. Had the equipment been better, that would have helped. If we’d have had flash hoods the burn scenario would have been far, far less. Had we been aware to keep our gloves on we would have been saved from so many injuries.
“We got injured and I was kept in the Falklands for nearly four weeks. My repatriation to the UK was very slow and protracted. In the end, they sent me home. They thought I was going to die where I was because of the desperation I was going through. They could see me getting more and more full of despair so they decided to send me home. I went from 18 stone of prop forward to under eight stone in three weeks after being injured. So they got me home and I was exhausted. I couldn’t eat much and I had inhalation problems.”
Simon was flown home and spent 11 months in hospital, before being moved to a rehabilitation centre for several months. Then he spent the best part of five years in hospital. He has undergone 90+ operations, mostly because of infections, which keep eating the skin grafts.
“I came back with an infection. It’s hard to keep things sterile in a combat environment where we had to make do. Everything was a bit Heath Robinson. The medical services did a brilliant job. I started my journey.”
But as he started to recover, the kick-back began.
“The healthier you get, the more your mental issues take over. So at one point you’re fighting for your life and not thinking about what to do next because you don’t know whether you’ll survive. Then you realise you’re going to live and the enormity of what you’ve been through hits you. 37 years ago, there was no breakfast telly or Sky telly. There was no Amazon, no computers, no mobile phones. There was just acres and acres of time. And you don’t reflect, you dwell. That was a massive problem. There was nothing in place to help us or support us or to start working with us. There was nothing. You start to be released out of hospital for periods of time, then you have to deal with Civilian Street, where there are a whole different set of rules.”
He remains grateful for the support he received from the British public. “They were magnificent.”
The experience of Simon and others like him has had a profound effect on other injured servicemen, who now receive far greater support.
“We started the fight for mental health care. We paid a part in the campaign for guys who were injured. The Government gave us no compensation. All of that has to be taken into consideration. Once you leave the armed forces, the wheels come off. The wheels come off the military go-kart and that’s tough.”
While others fell by the wayside, Simon survived.
“I suppose your resilience is based in your desire. If you desire to do other things or to be somebody else, then things become possible. Not everything is possible, but some things are. You have to have a desire. You have to have something more that you wish, than you’ve got. That’s what it was for me. I wanted more than I had. I didn’t want to be where I was. I didn’t want to be the person I was forced into being. And I’ve always been that and if I don’t like something I won’t just acquiesce.
“Other people can make decisions and try to force me into something but trust me, it won’t last for long. I’m the most amiable and accommodating person you’ll come across but if people start being silly, I’m not your man. I react in the way I react. I make no apologies for any of that. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I care passionately about people. I care passionately about life. The biggest life I care about, first and foremost, is my own. I have to live my life in the most positive way I can.
“I was fortunate to meet a wonderful lady and we had three wonderful children and we have grandchildren. So everything I do, I want to make them proud. I don’t want to leave any stone unturned in searching out the possibility of achievement. I’ve yet to achieve the proudest moment of my life. I haven’t finished yet. I don’t intend to finish. If I’m going to die, I’m going to keep going. There’s that old cowboy saying, I’ll die with my boots on. And that’s the way I’ll go out.”
We end on that note. Simon Weston is a remarkable man. One of a kind. A guy who makes the impossible possible.
Simon Weston visits Dudley Town Hall on September 12 for An Evening With… and tickets are available by calling 01384 812812.