Last weekend saw the Kent County Show at the County Showground in Detling, and I was present on two days – Friday and Saturday. Last year was the first year since I was elected in 2001 that I haven’t attended on all three days, but my diary is now so full that weekends are also becoming work days around the county.
I was invited on Friday to the Member Pavilion to open the breakfast meeting for the Institute of Directors by Fraser Thompson, Chairman of IOD Kent and perhaps better known as the guiding light behind Chapel Down Wines and the excellent vineyard in Tenterden.
Although very early in the morning (I’m getting used to early breakfast meetings with business audiences now!) it was an excellent opportunity to speak about my “Backing Kent Business” campaign; about how Kent County Council, along with the rest of the public sector, could do much to assist in these recessionary times. I spoke of our plans for the future, and of the amazing amount of help and assistance being given by prominent Kent business colleagues, including Fraser himself. I also challenged the IOD to invite me back next year to see whether I had remained true to my word and made KCC a better client.
After my speech came the main event – Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, the young British solider who in 2005 was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour during conflict in Iraq. Johnson will be just thirty years old on the 26th of this month. He spoke of growing up in Grenada; of a difficult upbringing with an alcoholic father and a disabled mother; of libing first with an aunt, then his uncle, before he moved to Britain in 1999. Of falling into bad company; of drink, of using – and dealing – drugs. And how he found himself at desperation point, entering an Army Recruiting office and asking to join up. And amazingly, how he was refused at first, being told to go away and return when he had resolved some of his personal issues. Which he did just a month later, when he was accepted for basic training.
His story, which his 2006 book Barefoot Soldier tells far more eloquently than I ever could, is one of staggering bravery on more than one occasion. Like many other true heroes before him, he has an affable, engaging manner. When KM journalist Trevor Sturgess asked him if he felt the British Government provided the right equipment for our fighting forces, his answer was disarming. He replied that the 7.2mm rifle shell which entered his head on the left side was slowed down by his helmet. That his body armour had stopped shrapnel from entering him more deeply than it had, and that when he took a rocket-propelled grenade in the face, his helmet had taken most of the force. In his words, “I can’t complain”.
And when I shook his hand and thanked him for his moving account, he simply replied “Thank you Sir”, making me feel humbled and inadequate at the same time.
In these days of hype and spin, it was an honour to meet a true hero.