The Flight of the Falcon

‘The white-haired old woman waved a hand over the hedge. “Just up there is Harrowdown Hill, where David Kelly committed suicide – allegedly,” she says. Like a number of other locals, she speaks darkly about insufficient blood and of how men in strange cars had been seen around the village that day.’


The poppies are flowering, delicate and tall, on the roadside verges of the Oxfordshire village of Southmoor. Which is apt. For it is a time of remembrance here.

Today, it is exactly one year since one of the villagers left his home opposite the white, pebble-dashed pub, and walked to a nearby beauty-spot to die. His body was found the nenxt day.

It was a moment which changed the British political landscape irrevocably. For the death of the weapons inspector, Dr David Kelly, injected a new dimension of moral seriousness to the debate over Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq in a way that, paradoxically, the death of 10,000 Iraqi civilians failed to do.

In those 12 months, David Kelly has come to stand for something more than a personal tragedy. He has become a national symbol.
The house he shared with his wife of 36 years, Janice, and their three daughters, looks the picture of normality from the road outside. There are pots of red geraniums by the old, brick-framed windows of the stone cottage. Tubs of busy lizzies stand by the door. The lawns are neat and the roses and lupins are in bloom.

There is little to distinguish it from the other lichen-softened houses and thatched cottages in this privileged place, an easy commute from both Oxford and Abingdon. Yet the charm of this hollyhock-dressed, Middle England idyll underscores the poignancy of the events of the year gone by. The man who created the garden, with such devotion, is no longer here. In the air, high above the cottage, a hawk wheels in a widening gyre.

Throughout the village, in the shops and the post office, at the petrol station and in the pub, people are going about their daily ceremonies of innocence. It is a world which Dr Kelly once seemed to sum up with his life of quiet public service, his well-dug vegetable patch and family lunches in the village pub. It was a decent, going-about-its-ordinary-business world before the blood-dimmed tide of war was loosed.

But here, in the community of Southmoor, Dr Kelly is still a person – and a person of whom the villagers are fiercely protective, just as they are of his widow. Many prefer not to speak of the whole, sad story. “Go and write about Teflon Tony instead,” said a man fixing his motorbike not far from the Kelly family home. The locals have all seen the notice Jan Kelly has pinned in a plastic folder on the gate; “No media visitors. Thank you.”

And yet here in Southmoor, too, attitudes have subtly shifted over the year in which Dr Kelly’s death became successively the subject of the Hutton and then the Butler inquiries, all against the backdrop of unfolding anarchy and abuse in Iraq itself. “When we first saw him on TV, in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee where he was subjected to such a grilling, we knew something was up,” says Steve Ward, the landlord of the Hart’s Head at the far end of the village, where Dr Kelly played cribbage each week. “What we saw wasn’t David. The man we knew was truthful, honest, direct. When we heard him, we knew that he was saying what someone else had told him to say.”

After the scientist died, the villagers were seized by a sense “that our man was being badly done by”. This feeling has not diminished. When a psychiatrist told the Hutton Inquiry that Dr Kelly had been “publicly disgraced”, the locals were outraged. “We said: ‘Sorry, but are we talking about the same man here?’ It rankled,” the publican says. So, later, did remarks by the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon that Dr Kelly was “no martyr”. “That’s exactly what we think he was,” Steve Ward states.

When Lord Hutton’s verdict came – that Dr Kelly was “a devoted husband and father… a public servant who served his country and the international community with great distinction” but who could be “gossipy and chatty” – the people who knew him disagreed. “He was tight-lipped about his work, always,” Steve Ward says. “He was a model of rectitude.”

“I was dismayed,” says Leslie Cowan, who edits the village’s monthly newsletter. “I followed the evidence at Hutton pretty carefully and drew very different conclusions from it. David was an inherently honest man whose only sin was to speak when he shouldn’t have. He was not well supported by the Government.”
It is a view shared by Dr Kelly’s widow, who felt Lord Hutton had given insufficient weight to how much the actions and failings of the Defence Ministry affected her husband’s state of mind.

On the national stage, the initial reserve prompted by the shock of Dr Kelly’s death eventually dissolved. While they did not exactly speak ill of the dead, commentators began to be less circumspect in their accusations that the weapons inspector, like so many others in the saga, must have lied. Yet Dr Kelly’s friends defend him here, too.

“He lied to cover up the fact that he had technically breached the terms of his employment contract,” says Tom Mangold, the former <>Panorama<> documentary maker who was the only journalist invited to Dr Kelly’s funeral. “It was a fairly trivial lie in the great scheme of things.”

Then came Butler. For some villagers this changed little. “Events have, by and large, reinforced the views people had at the outset,’ says John Melling, who is clerk to the parish council. But for others, the Butler report has fuelled their sense of outrage.

“The deep sense of anger at the time – that David’s death had been caused by Blair and his cronies – has been increased by the Butler report,” says Steve Ward at the Hind’s Head. “It turns out that the facts were exactly as David said: the dossier had been hardened up for political reasons; all the caveats had been removed by the Government; the 45-minute warning should not have been in. Which is all exactly what David was saying. He has been totally exonerated. The guy lost his life for stating the truth.”

Up the road in the next village of Longworth, in the grounds of the parish church of St Mary, lies David Kelly’s grave. Beside it an elderly couple are tending the grave of a 90-year-man who died five months after Britain’s leading expert on chemical and biological weapons.

The white-haired old woman waved a hand over the hedge. “Just up there is Harrowdown Hill, where David Kelly committed suicide – allegedly,” she says. Like a number of other locals, she speaks darkly about insufficient blood and of how men in strange cars had been seen around the village that day.

Tom Mangold is dismissive of such talk. But he is exercised over one remaining mystery: what was the tipping point which pushed Dr David Kelly over the edge that day a year ago, when his mid-morning optimism turned to afternoon despair?

Mangold has spoken to three of those closest to Dr Kelly: Roger Avery one of his coffin bearers; fellow weapons inspector Terence Taylor, to whom he spoke just before his death; and Lt-Col Debra Krikorian of the United States Army, who received one of Dr Kelly’s final emails. “They all believe,” he says, “that some unknown dramatic last-minute phone call changed everything.”

We may never know what that tipping point was. It is not a question many people are interested in pursuing any more. The nation’s passionate intensity has found new focal points.

Things do not move so swiftly for Mrs Kelly. Her garden may be tidy. There may be a brave bonhomie to her monthly paragraphs on the local history society in Leslie Cowan’s village news- letter. She may now occasionally once again visit the Hind’s Head for lunch. But the dull, aching pain of bereavement does not ease. “Jan is still feeling it very badly,” Leslie Cowan says.

Dr Kelly’s grave has been visited recently. It lies in a little extension to the graveyard set round by an unkempt hawthorn hedge. The grave itself is covered with thistle, dandelions and coarse grasses. A standard-issue plastic plaque carries the simple words: David Christopher Kelly, died 18th July 2003, aged 59 years.

One grave nearby, of a military man, proudly lists his honours; MBE, DSC. But there is no mention for Dr Kelly of his CMG, the honour just one step down from a knighthood. All that belongs to a different world.

At the head of the grave a basket of lilies and roses, yellow and pink, has been freshly placed. At the foot another, of yellow and white chrysanthemums. They carry no card. The only other words are on a bench nearby: “In memory of David Kelly, from fellow crib-players at the Hind’s Head.”

Inside the 13th century church, in which not long before his death Dr Kelly saw his daughter married, a huge King James bible sits on a table beneath the bell-tower. It is open at Luke, Chapter 3, and tells the story of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.

Outside the only sound is the lonely tapping of a halyard against the churchyard’s empty flagpole. Suddenly two RAF Tornado jets scream overhead towards the nearby Brize Norton airfield.

On the road by Jan Kelly’s home, a young man is walking. On his wrist, extraordinarily, is a falcon. I can see its hooked beak, cold eyes and massive talons. It flaps its wings and attempts to fly. The falconer jerks its leather jesses. Controlled, it returns to his arm.

Courtesy Rowena Thursby