Final fanfare for an uncommon man
ON AN overcast afternoon last month, Dr David Kelly left his home in the village of Southmoor, Oxfordshire, and followed the footpath through the woods to Harrowdown Hill. He then took his own life.
There is nothing from his previous 59 years which suggested this was how it would end. Indeed, his final hours were shockingly out of character.
His manner may have been quiet and diffident but his life, professionally and domestically, can only be classed as a success.
The zenith of that personal fulfilment was when he gave his daughter Ellen away a few months ago - the photograph of a smiling Dr Kelly in morning suit has become the most commonly used image of the man.
At that moment, as he walked up the aisle of St Mary’s Church, Longworth - where his funeral service would be held - he must have felt everything he wanted in life had come true.
He could look back on how a boy from the Welsh valleys made it to Oxford, how a shy academic became the world’s leading expert on biological weapons, and how a humble man whose idea of contentment was a game of cards in the pub was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
More than anything else, he would have blessed the good fortune which had given him a loving wife of 36 years, Janice (Jan) and three daughters - Sian, 32, a lawyer, and twins Rachel and Ellen, 30.
The son of an RAF officer and a schoolteacher, Dai Kelly was born in the Rhondda Valley in Wales. His early education was at the County Grammar School for Boys, in Pontypridd, the rugby-obsessed "capital" of the Rhondda.
Although he left Wales, Wales never left him. Fittingly, for a man who was Dai, not David, the first hymn at his funeral was the rousing anthem of Cardiff Arms Park, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.
Dai Kelly left Wales for Leeds, and a degree in bacteriology.
In Yorkshire, he met Jan Vawdrey, a student at Bingley Teacher Training College. They married in 1967 at St Mark’s church near Jan’s family home in Crewe. He was then 23, studying for a master’s degree in virology at Birmingham University.
He went on to take a DPhil at Oxford, his thesis on The Replication of Some Iridescent Viruses in Cell Cultures. There followed a spell as chief scientific officer at the natural environment research council, where he worked on insect viruses. It was specialised but dull work.
Dai Kelly’s ordinary, middle-class life - family holidays, a game of cribbage in the pub once a week - may have continued had it not been for a mid-life career move at 40.
His decision in 1984 to join the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, at Porton Down, in Wiltshire, changed both the course of his life and the direction of his academic interest.
Dr Kelly was brought in as director of the Microbiology Division to oversee research into ways of countering possible biological weapons attacks. Colleagues attest Dr Kelly loved his work as an "anonymous boffin doing stuff for his country".
Naturally inquisitive and absolutely meticulous, he was responsible, according to Graham Pearson, his former boss at Porton Down, for ensuring the establishment was a world leader on ways of defending against biological attack.
Scotland also has reason to thank Dr Kelly - he oversaw the decontamination of Gruinard Island, off Wester Ross, used by the army in the Second World War to conduct tests in possible uses of anthrax as a weapon.
In 1990, historical events intervened to change irreversibly Dr Kelly’s life. As he told his friend, the journalist Nicholas Rufford: "When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, little did I realise that Saddam Hussein would dictate the next ten years of my life." Between 1991 and 1998, Dr Kelly was to make 37 trips to Iraq as Britain’s chief weapons inspector with UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission).
The task of Dr Kelly and UNSCOM was clearly set out by UN resolution 687, drawn up at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. It was to verify if Iraq’s "full, final and complete declaration" on its weapons of mass destruction was genuine.
There were successes. After four years of intensive investigations, during which UNSCOM inspectors were bullied, hampered, threatened and impeded at every step by the mukhabarat (intelligence services), Iraq admitted it had a chemical and biological programme.
As many colleagues have since pointed out, one of the ironies of his death was that he remained utterly convinced that Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, would be proved right and evidence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programmes would be found. His time in Iraq changed him personally, giving the quiet academic who had spent his 20s and 30s hidden away in laboratories, a certain worldliness.
His last visit to Iraq was in 1998 when UNSCOM was withdrawn from the country. As someone who, in the words of Tom Mangold (the former BBC journalist), had "written the book on biological warfare", he was extremely valuable to the government, which made him an adviser to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. For the last five years, he advised the government on all aspects of Saddam and WMD, interpreting intelligence reports coming out of Iraq.
In 1996, he had been awarded the CMG, a rare distinction for a civil servant scientist, in recognition of his international work. Rolf Ekeus, the ex-head of UNSCOM, nominated Dr Kelly and his team, on several occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying that without Dr Kelly’s assiduousness, the world would never have known of Saddam’s biological programme.
In some respects, Dr Kelly lived an almost double life. There was his home life with his vegetable patch, tea and cakes on the afternoon lawn and his weekly card game in the Hind’s Head. Once a great beer drinker, more recently he had taken to drinking mineral water, perhaps on the advice of his doctor. He was known to be suffering from coronary artery disease at the time of his death.
Then there was his work life, enmeshed in a world of espionage, political and diplomatic intrigue and Whitehall paranoia. A naturally generous man who saw it as a point of pride to explain the intricacies of chemical and biological warfare to the widest possible audience, Dr Kelly disliked some of the constraints of the civil service. Journalists who had interview bids rejected by the unwieldy Foreign Office press machine would often find he was more than prepared to meet for a quiet chat, especially if the conversation was about his beloved Iraq.
It was one of these conversations at the Charing Cross Hotel, in central London on 21 May, which set in motion the chain of events which led to his death just under a month later. It is for Lord Hutton to try to discover what course his conversation with the BBC defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, took that day. What the public last saw of Dr Kelly was a man being grilled by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Those proceedings gave a misleading impression. A fastidious man who normally spoke with precision came across as confused and uncertain. Three days later he took his own life.
ELOQUENT TRIBUTE TO 'THE QUIET MAN'
ACCORDING to his close friends, what you saw with Dai Kelly was what you got. Television footage indicates a man who was cautious, softly-spoken, well-mannered and, in the nicest possible way, slightly shambolic in appearance.
As his friend Tom Mangold warmly recalled on the day of the funeral, "he was a guy who went around in Clark’s shoes, NHS specs and Barbour clothes that were not particularly fashionable. He had no illusions."
But as Mr Mangold was also to point out, the "quiet, diffident manner" belied a "brain that boiled water."
He was neither a dove nor a hawk on weapons of mass destruction, but a factual reporter, said Mr Mangold. He was fair, honest, diligent.
In an obituary for The Independent, another friend, Terence Taylor, remembered his assiduous approach when facing government officials, and a scientist unwilling to co-operate with the investigation.
"As a fellow participant, I recall Kelly’s patient and persistent questioning that wrong-footed the other side," Taylor wrote.
"He was no prima donna - he was, above all, a team player with a fine sense of loyalty to his colleagues and to the mission. For me he was a model of a chief inspector, on top of the technical aspects of the task, incisive in his interrogation technique and, above all, cool under pressure."
No-one, before this week, had called Dai Kelly a Walter Mitty character - and he was nobody’s fool. Colleagues attested to how one of his Iraqi adversaries, Dr Rihab Taha - whom he nicknamed Dr Germ - would try to avoid questioning by throwing extraordinary tantrums. Kelly sat patiently waiting for the concocted emotional storm to pass before resuming his interrogation.
Some have been surprised that four years ago, after studying in America, Dr Kelly converted to the Baha’i faith. At first glance, such a move may have looked unusual for such a conventional man, but its emphasis on trying to bring global harmony and on breaking down barriers would have made sense to a man who had spent ten years working in an international team.
A brief summary on the Baha’i website of their religion could be read easily as a description of Dr Kelly’s reason for joining the UN: "Baha’is have been working to break down barriers of prejudice between people.
"They believe that there will be lasting world peace only when major injustices such as racism, gender inequality, and poverty are resolved through the work of governments, civil society and individuals."
Steve Ward, the landlord of Dr Kelly’s local pub, the Hind’s Head, gave as eloquent a valedictory as any for the cribbage-playing scientist: "He was the most level-headed sensible person I’ve ever come across, so genuine, so straightforward. He did nothing wrong."
©Copyright 2003, Scotsman (UK)
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