Personal battles of the man behind War Child

From heavy drinking to launching a charity, David Wilson’s life story is an absorbing read

Thursday, 9th February 2017 — By Peter Gruner

RVW-David Wilson

David Wilson, who is from Tufnell Park, persuaded the cream of the British music industry to record a charity album

DAVID Wilson dragged himself out of drink and depression to help establish a hugely successful international charity that gave comfort to young victims of war in eastern Europe.

In his absorbing memoir, Left Field, the Tufnell Park man reveals the tragic incidents in his life that led up to the launching of the charity War Child in 1993.

Today he’s no longer involved in the charity but very active on the political front. He’s been to Calais twice to support the plight of refugees. And he’s highly critical of the “corporatisation” of the big charities and the hundreds of thousands being paid to their chief executives.

His memoir recalls his lowest ebb in 1973 following the birth of his son Ben to his first wife, Renata. The baby started having violent fits not long after being given his first vaccinations. Wilson was convinced his son’s condition may have been the result of a faulty injection and unfairly blamed himself for not being more vigilant. Blame and guilt is a theme that rears its head again during the Bosnian war, in former Yugoslavia, where more than 100,000 died between 1992 and 1995.

This time Wilson, now running War Child, meets a young activist who blames himself for revealing the whereabouts of his father to armed militants. The young man explains how fighters arrived at the door of his home and asked for his father.

In a moment of uncertainty and fear he blurts out that his father is “upstairs”. The father was taken away and never seen alive again. Another victim, a woman, explains how she watched as her husband was shot in front of her eyes.

“It’s difficult not to cry with her,” Wilson writes. “I do, hiding behind my dark glasses.”

But this is not a misery memoir. Much of the book celebrates the success of the charity, which mobilised support from stars like musician Brian Eno and playwright Sir Tom Stoppard. Both have praised the book.

There is humour here, too. Describing an earlier episode of his life, Wilson says he so infuriated the then Labour government foreign secretary, the late George Brown MP, that the politician, famous for being a heavy drinker, came down from his platform for the sole purpose of landing him a punch. A picture of the incident made the front page of The Sun.

“I was heckling Mr Brown about the Vietnam War in the 1960s,” Wilson said.

“He didn’t like it so he came off his platform, walked towards me and took a swipe. Fortunately I was able to duck.”

Mr Wilson with Brian Eno

Wilson, 71, says he was led by his socialist principles and passion to improve the plight of people, particularly children, suffering from the ravages of war. But he had to fight his demons, particularly those associated with the difficulties following Ben’s birth. The baby, who was delivered with forceps, faced an uphill battle to survive.

Describing the fits the baby suffered soon after arriving home after his injections, Wilson writes: “We watched helplessly as our child writhed in pain, his body jack knifing.”

The couple was told that Ben might onlylive a few years.

“I started drinking. Heavily. At parties I would pass out in bedrooms, bathrooms, on summer lawns. My GP put me on anti-depressants, which made me feel ill so, I returned to the alcohol.”

Fortunately Ben, although disabled, defied the pessimistic prognosis. In fact he’s still going strong today aged 42 and living in Cornwall. But that wasn’t the end of their troubles. Four years after Ben, Renata gave birth to Daniel, who was stillborn. However, three years later Jonny, a healthy baby, arrived.

Today he lives and works in Spain. At the time of setting up his charity Wilson had been a filmmaker on assignment with colleague Bill Leeson during the Bosnian war. They became horrified by the violence and incidents of ethnic cleansing, especially its impact on children.

When he got home to the UK they were equally shocked to see the apathy and inaction of political leaders regarding the massacres on their European doorstep.

“Our first War Child aid convoy delivered desperately needed supplies to the besieged people of Mostar in Bosnia. And we set up a mobile bakery that produced tens of thousands of loaves of bread per day.”

In 1995 they persuaded the cream of the British music industry – including Paul McCartney, Oasis, Blur and Radiohead – to record the Help album. Made in just three days, the album shot straight to the top of the charts, raising £1.25million in the process. The money helped the charity to build the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, which involved the support of the great tenor himself. The project uses music therapy to treat traumatised children from all sides of conflict.

It is still going today. Wilson describes a scene in war-torn Mostar. A bunch of aid workers, including himself, are about to sit down outside to enjoy a meal. Suddenly there are 11 loud explosions causing masonry to fall.

“My ears hurt, my stomach goes into spasm. Even though everyone hasn’t eaten for days, the food on the table remains untouched.”

A guest at the table asks him: “Are you scared?” Wilson writes: “I’m afraid I’ll be killed, but I look across the courtyard at a baby crying. Then at the men and women walking past unconcerned. To these people it’s nothing unusual. I reply with the only words possible. ‘I have no right to be.’”

• Left Field: The Memoir of a Lifelong Activist. By David Wilson, Unbound, £20.

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