Last weekend saw a long overdue return to Gooseberry Hall. The sun shone, as it always seems to do whenever we visit, and I was reminded of an immaculate Afghan homecoming in April 2012:
‘It was a perfect spring day and Rob picked me up in his fancy open top two‑seater sports car. It’s a car I’ve always coveted. With the roof down and the wind in our hair we flew north along the A429 under azure spring skies, through pristine Cotswold countryside dotted with ancient limestone villages and market towns with quintessential English names; Stow‑on‑the‑Wold, Moreton‑in‑Marsh, Stretton‑on‑Fosse. It was all in perfect contrast to the dry barren dashte which makes up so much of Helmand Province.
Britain was flirting with me that afternoon, displaying her beauty, tantalising me with her delights, proving – if proof were needed – that she was worth defending, even if it meant fighting a war over 3,500 miles away.
At my request, we stopped for a pint at the Virgins and Castle in the historic town of Kenilworth. Built in the fifteenth century, about the same time as the siege of Herat, it first became a pub in 1563 when Britain was still burning Protestants at the stake for heresy.
At that time Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, Akbar the Great, the third and greatest ruler of the Mughal Dynasty controlled the Gereshk valley and much of the rest of Afghanistan. Little has changed in the largely rural district of Nahr‑E‑Saraj in the intervening four and a half centuries, except that under Akbar the Mughal Dynasty was a model of religious tolerance, encompassing Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist faiths.
In truth I needed a bit of Dutch courage before being reunited with Harry and Alfie. I hadn’t spoken to them since we’d said our goodbyes in the school playground back in January. Although I’d written to them every couple of days, I hadn’t received any return mail. I’d missed them terribly and thought of them often but I had to steel myself for the possibility that they might be less eager to see their Dad than their Dad was to see them.
Gooseberry Hall lies to the north of Kenilworth Castle in the heart of the Warwickshire countryside and is about as far removed from Main Operating Base Price as it’s possible to be. There are no battle tanks parked on the magnificent lawn. Its walls are not adorned with Lads Mags pin‑ups or mimetic cock art. There are no Apache helicopters flying overhead.
To my very great delight it seemed my fears had been unfounded. I didn’t even make it to the front door before Alfie threw himself into my arms, clinging to me in a fierce embrace as I was nearly knocked off my feet by his brother Harry.
It was indescribably good to see them, hear them, smell them, touch them. I held them both tight for as long as I was able until they finally felled me like an old tree, collapsing onto the lawn in a bundle of giggling, laughing, writhing limbs.
Afghanistan serves as a constant reminder of the fragile and tenuous grip with which all life clings to planet earth – something it’s easy to forget in our cosseted lives in the west. Even without the armed conflict being waged inside its borders, it is a harsh and unforgiving place.
Average life expectancy is just 44 years. Pregnancy rather than insurgency is one of the primary causes of premature death. According to the World Health Organisation, one Afghan woman in 11 will die of causes related to pregnancy and birth during her childbearing years. In neighbouring Tajikistan, that figure is one in 430, while in Austria, it is one in 14,300. It’s a figure that dwarfs the estimated 21,000 deaths resulting from the conflict since 2003.
Being reacquainted with life’s cruelty and suffering heightens the appreciation of simple pleasures. Rolling around on Gooseberry Hall’s manicured lawn with my kids was an unforgettable reunion, a moment of pure, unrestrained joy that I will treasure my whole life and take with me, smiling, to my grave.
As my anxieties melted away we were joined by the rest of the Gooseberry Hall Gang (GHG), a chaotic, happy‑go‑lucky collective of kids and pets who all call Gooseberry Hall home and who filled the air with noise and laughter as we played in the sunset.
It was a beautiful evening and the perfect homecoming.’
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.