BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner has written his second novel about a daring M16 agent taking on terrorists - but his own life is arguably equally extraordinary. Chris Burn reports.
Ever since being shot six times at close range by Islamist terrorists and left for dead with injuries that gave him less than a ten per cent chance of survival, Frank Gardner has more than made the most of what he calls a “second chance” at life.
Despite being partly paralysed as a result of the attack in Saudi Arabia in June 2004 and undergoing 14 operations and seven months in hospital, the BBC correspondent was back working on television less than a year later. While his day job of reporting on global security and terrorism matters is very much a full-time occupation involving frequent international travel to far-flung places, the father-of-two has now also managed to become a successful author and will be appearing at a special Ilkley Literature Festival event in Leeds this weekend.
But in the years that followed the ambush which resulted in the death of his friend and cameraman Simon Cumbers, Gardner has had to become used to a different way of living despite his passion for work remaining undiminished.
The 56-year-old, a fluent Arabic speaker who worked as an investment banker in the Middle East before switching to journalism, says: “Going through life with a wheelchair is inestimably harder than not. I have lived three-quarters of my life able-bodied and until it happens, you just can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to use legs and get up and walk off.
“I do get annoyed with people who are either wittingly or unwittingly putting obstacles in your way.”
Having reported from some of the world’s most dangerous places and about some of its most dangerous people, Gardner says he often finds himself exasperated by what he terms as this country’s “health and safety overkill”. “The classic example is coming out of a building down steps and the easiest thing is one person can bounce me in the wheelchair down the steps backwards,” he says. “My friends will do that for me. But often I have to wait for ages while they insist on going to get and ramp and then put it in position. It can take up to 20 minutes sometimes. It is very, very frustrating.”
Gardner is among the most high-profile disabled people in the country but does not want to be defined by being in a wheelchair. “I’m not the disability correspondent, I cover global security, terrorism, kidnapping and hostage situations; things that go bang,” he says. “That said, when I encounter unacceptable situations, I will comment.”
One of the areas he has spoken out on is the treatment of disabled people at airports; something close to his heart given that his job takes his abroad twice a month. In April, Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye apologised to Gardner after he was stuck on a plane for nearly two hours before his wheelchair was recovered after it was wrongly tagged.
Gardner says Heathrow is far from the only offender. “You are definitely treated as a second or third-class citizen. I go abroad around twice a month for work. Frankfurt airport is dreadful. They leave you on the plane and turn up when they feel like it. I have had a nightmare with them about this, they were rude and unpleasant.”
While Gardner has been determined to make the most of life since being paralysed - he is patron of the Disability Snowsports UK, has relearned how to ski using a bobski and managed to take his children scuba diving in the Indian Ocean - even before he was attacked, he lived an eventful life.
His parents were both diplomats and at the age of 16, a chance meeting on a bus with Arabian explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger led Gardner to study Arabic at university.
After living with an Egyptian family in the back streets of Cairo, he graduated from Exeter University with a degree in Arabic & Islamic Studies, before spending nine years working in banking. But after growing bored of the business world, Gardner decided to try his hand at journalism.
Spotting a gap in coverage and the chance to make a niche - and a name - for himself, he moved himself and his heavily pregnant wife to Dubai in 1997 to work as a freelancer for the BBC in the Gulf. He says this was a time he looks back on with particular professional pride as he reported solo on the hostage taking of Western tourists in Yemen by kidnappers eventually linked to Islamist cleric Abu Hamza.
“I was completely on my own,” says Gardner, explaining that without a cameraman or producer, he did his own filming and filing of radio reports, in addition to his reporting duties. “It was exhausting but it was great. It was also pretty scary as the hotel I was staying in was one of the targets.”
In 1999, Gardner was appointed BBC Middle East correspondent and was made the broadcaster’s security correspondent following 9/11 and the so-called ‘War on Terror’ that followed.
After writing two non-fiction books about his globe-trotting adventures, and against-the-odds survival after his shooting, Gardner has more recently turned his hand to fiction and has now published two books in an intended trilogy focused on the character of Luke Carlton, a former Special Boat Service commando employed by M16 for some its most dangerous missions.
Gardner says writing novels has been a considerable challenge for someone steeped in fact-based reporting. “The jump between broadcasting and writing a non-fiction book is not nearly as big as going from non-fiction to fiction. It is relatively easily to go from broadcasting to writing a book, but writing a novel is very, very different.
“You are inventing people, conversations that never happened and events that never happened, which is anathema to a serious news journalist.”
But he did take research seriously, going to the lengths of doing interviews that would allow him to accurately describe what life is like on a nuclear submarine.
He says writing has not been easy to fit in around his already busy work and home life. “I have not taken any time off work, I have been writing at weekends, evenings, bank holidays and during family holidays - it has not been easy finding the time to do it.”
While Gardner insists there are plenty of differences between him and Luke - “he is much fitter than me, in every sense” - there are also some undoubted parallels. M16 even made an approach to recruit Gardner when he was a young man - something he says he turned down because he couldn’t bare the thought of keeping his achievements secret.
“It was when I was university before I had anything to do with the BBC. It was not for me, you wouldn’t have been able to go public about anything you did, even if you were a great success.
“The fundamental difference between me and the character is that I had a very happy childhood whereas Lee lost his parents at the age of 10. He felt he had something to prove and is always pushing himself.
“But to some extent, I share with him looking to push the envelope.”
As if to illustrate the point, Gardner is speaking to The Yorkshire Post by phone as he heads to a literary event in Ely before a morning flight abroad for a story. He will back just in time for the talk in Leeds on Saturday but in the meantime, his latest mission must remain secret. “I’d better keep it under my hat,” he says.
Organisers excited for talk
Frank Gardner will speak about his life and career at the event in Yorkshire this Saturday.
Ilkley Literature Festival has arranged the event at the Grammar School at Leeds from 7.30pm.
The event will include discussion of his latest novel Ultimatum, which sees Luke Carlton tackling Iranian terrorists trying to build a nuclear device.
Ilkley Literature Festival Director Rachel Feldberg says: “Frank’s expertise on international security and terrorism is always evident in his brilliant reporting from the front lines and we can’t wait to hear more from him about his career and how he has turned his experiences and knowledge into gripping thrillers.”
For tickets, visit www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk.