One of the greats


The cab driver pulled up outside the imposing tower of Oranmore Castle, Galway and said: ‘Where is he, up on the roof? Is he gonna fly down?’. The taxi man had not driven out to a castle before and clearly expected mine host, Bill King, who died last week, to be up on the battlements in winged attire.

No person in a bat suit stood to greet me as the large wooden door swung open, instead I was confronted by the lean fit frame of the great man himself. I can tell you he was lean and fit because he was stripped to the waist and wearing just pyjama bottoms.

‘Would you like me to dress formally, or casually?’ he asked. I assured him it mattered not and he dressed in a pair of old denim jeans with long patches sewn on them and barefoot in battered sandals.

All morning I simply listened to his breathtakingly fascinating life: as sailor, farmer, submariner, and author. Around midday he said: ‘Would you care for some lunch?’

We walked up the road to his local pub , where chewing carefully on just a few lettuce leaves and smoked salmon, and sipping on a couple of small glasses of dry white wine he suddenly burst out reciting very loudly with the most filthy limericks I’ve ever heard.

I looked round nervously at other tipplers but it was clearly a case of ‘Bill’s in again.’ and nobody took any notice.

In the afternoon he asked if I’d like to see his Blue Water Medal. I said I would at which he lead me to his bedroom where it was hanging over his unmade bed.

He was totally devoid of artifice or side or pretension or affectation. There was nothing at all superficial about him he answered every and any question without hesitating or wondering how it would impact on his ‘image’

The stories of his life were deep and moving and simply told themselves – they needed no varnish or sophistry. Yet he told them with a lightness of being which was funny and profound at the same time. If Einstein had turned his theories into a music hall act he would have had serious competition from Bill King.

He had the peculiar habit of muttering : ‘One, two, button my shoe, three four open the door,’ as he sat at table or arose from table or in performing any hum-drum domestic act.

I later wondered if it was a deep-seated timing he used on the submarines he sailed so successfully: counting down the seconds when they would be safe from enemy depth-charges.

During the war he left his command at Harwich and went up to London for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. He fell ill and his sub was taken by another commander who sailed her straight into a German minefield in the North Sea and was never seen again.

As the only man to command a submarine right through World War II on either side I asked him how he found the nerve to keep going back out.

‘In this world of fuss and bother two things stand alone: kindness to those in trouble, courage in your own.’

That’ll do for me.