A life remembered.
Toby and pals pay tribute to a departed hero.
The loss of a contemporary comes as a sharp reminder that none of us are immortal. Our old college pal, Willy McCracken passed away just before Christmas. To a small group of us at Salisbury College of Art in 1971-72 he was just Willy the affable Irishman with a seemingly limitless capacity for partying and boozing. His roguish smile and Irish charm wooed many of the girls, enjoying their first taste of freedom from the family nest. To us chaps he was simply a ‘good bloke’ and was the first of our set to turn up in an old Land Rover. Willy’s 1954, 86 inch Series One, NCR 265 was finished in many coats of sand yellow emulsion paint and had a Series Two, 2.25 petrol engine. No two tyres were the same brand, but otherwise it was in good order. This very Land Rover was to become my first one when in 1972 Willy finished his course. I paid the princely sum of £125 for it and gave Willy my Morris 1000 convertible in part exchange. I subsequently sold this Land Rover, missed Landy ownership almost immediately and bought the 1948 Land Rover in my final year at Salisbury that I still own.
The Morris 1000 took Willy back to Northern Ireland and the family farm and after kicking his heals for a while Willy joined the Army for a chance to play with other people's Land Rovers in the name of defending the Realm. This was to lead to heroic duties during the Falklands Conflict where, as his quarter page obituary in the Daily Telegraph states,
The citation for the award to Lt-Col Willy McCracken of an MC stated that he was always in the thick of the fight and paid tribute to his courage and skill which “undoubtedly accounted for many enemy casualties and greatly assisted in minimising our own”.
Our old chum was clearly a war hero and following later postings in Bosnia Herzegovina during the Balkan Crisis Willy, ‘The Bionic Paddy’ as we now knew him, was awarded an MBE. Despite a hectic life and traveling to far flung parts of the World on missions, Willy would usually pitch up at parties, arriving at my 30th at 2.00 a.m. in a Mini Moke and again at my 50th where much the same gang did most of the same things we had all done together 30 years before. It was at this party that we noticed a change in Willy’s character. He had what is called the ‘thousand yard stare’ that affects many servicemen who have witnessed terrible atrocities at close quarters. When I bumped into Willy again a couple of years ago it was clear that he was not a well man and I don’t think anybody would deny that drink was taking its toll on the big man who many considered invincible.
When the sad message of Willy’s death was circulated between us it was agreed we should have a bit of a do in his memory and Salisbury was chosen as the venue as that is where it had all started. For me there was only one choice of vehicle. It had to be a triumphant return in my 1948 Land Rover to celebrate the life of the friend who had introduced me the whole Land Rover way of life that I enjoy to this day.
The weather forecast was promising so I opted to leave the canvas tilt and hood sticks at home, a fact I did not share with my partner Jo, as she may have objected! We slung an overnight bag in the back along with an envelope of old photos and set off to drive the 150 miles south to Salisbury, the pretty way. From Leicester we took the Fosse Way to Stowe on the Wold. I always prefer using the 80 inch on roads that would have existed when the Land Rover was first registered and always avoid motorways. From Stowe we went south through the Cotswold towns of Burford and Lechlade, then over the Marlborough Downs and eventually Salisbury Plain where Willy would have done a lot of training during his service. Arriving at the hotel we abandoned the Land Rover to drip oil in a corner of the car park and made for the pub to do our old chum proud!
I had not mentioned to anyone that we were in the very same Land Rover many of them had ridden in 40 years ago so it was with many giggles that we all clambered into it the following morning and drove round to the Cathedral Close for a photo. It was a great weekend and we all felt we had done our best to celebrate the life of an old pal in a manner of which he would have approved.
Willy also had a WW2 jeep, known as Willy’s jeep, which was ironic as it was a Ford!
Willy tweaking his nuts on the 86 inch in about 1971. Photo Janet Whelan
The gang back together at Salisbury Cathedral in the same Land Rover many of them rode in back in 1973.
Left to right: Jo Halford, Tim Hayes, Janet Whelan, Chas Bazeley, Lotte Attwood, Gael Henry, Mick Henry, Jeff Steedman and Steve Teague.
Toby Savage June 2013