Thursday 27 October 2016

John Leslie - War hero and bon viveur

December 6, 1916 - April 18, 2016

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

War hero: John Leslie, affectionately known as 'Uncle Jack', in later years.
War hero: John Leslie, affectionately known as 'Uncle Jack', in later years.

A survivor of World War II POW camps, host of Paul McCartney's wedding, a raver in his eighties, art connoisseur and so much more: if anyone could be said to encapsulate the phrases "a full life" or "a life less ordinary", it was John Leslie, who passed away this week at the grand old age of 99.

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As befitted a colourful, larger-than-life man of many parts, he was known by different names. John was affectionately called Uncle Jack by some, had been born John Norman Ide Leslie, and was officially titled Sir John, the 4th Baronet of Glaslough and Pettigo. Glaslough is the Co Monaghan village which lies 11km from the place John is most closely associated with: Castle Leslie, a historic country house and 1,000-acre estate.

The house and estate are notable characters in their own right. John only returned to live in the family home at the age of 78, having spent years living abroad, and in 2002 it was chosen for the marriage of Beatle Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.

John inadvertently let slip the celebrity pair's wedding location to reporters, before telling them it was "a secret". Castle Leslie - now run as a five-star hotel and resort - also featured on the TV shows Secrets of the Manor House, in 2012, and Tales of Irish Castles last year. Mick Jagger once stayed there to hide out from his fans.

Rather fittingly, John Leslie was born in the year of the Rising - December 6, 1916 - in New York City. His father was Sir John Randolph Leslie, who died in 1971, the baronetcy thus passing to John. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a first cousin once removed: John's paternal grandmother and Churchill's mother were sisters, daughters of an American financier.

He had two siblings, both interesting characters in themselves. Sister Anita later drove ambulances during the war, wrote letters home from Hitler's Berlin office and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by General de Gaulle, later becoming an organic farmer and publishing several works of fiction and non-fiction.

Brother Desmond flew a Spitfire in WWII, wrote books and screenplays, created ground-breaking electronic music, invented the first multi-track sound-mixing desk and once punched a theatre critic on live TV to defend his wife's honour. He was also mostly responsible for the restoration of Castle Leslie.

The family moved back from New York when John was three. By that age, after problems with the mastoid sinus, he was deaf in one ear. As was customary for a scion of the Anglo-Irish gentry, he was educated across the Channel: first at Downside School then Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he studied History.

Fresh out of university in 1937, with war looming on the horizon, John joined the Irish Guards. Their stated mission was to guard Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. Amusingly, he had his own valet.

He commanded a unit as part of the British Expeditionary Corp that landed in France in May 1940. After a battle to defend Boulogne Sur Mer - during which John's men held back Panzer tanks for several days, allowing thousands of British soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk - he was captured and marched to the POW camp near Salzburg. For a while, it was believed that he'd been killed in action.

His five years there weren't without some good memories. The inmates were allowed send letters and get parcels. They had a library, played sport, formed a theatre and orchestra; John painted watercolours. In a 1942 letter to his brother, he wrote: "Every room has its little vegetable plot and the camp looks like a market garden. We are now getting our own radishes."

But it was a tough existence, too, a struggle to survive. He later recalled how the "food ration was very small, we were terribly overcrowded; it was very cold, (not) well heated. We were continually being counted in a pile, turned out on the square. We had to stand for hours while they counted you, to make sure nobody had escaped".

John also had a bad stomach and was very underweight, too weak to escape with others by crawling through tunnels (though he did forge documents for the escapees). He later said that "trust in God" kept him going through the darkest hours.

In January 1945, John risked his life to send a postcard to Churchill, asking his cousin to arrange a prisoner exchange for some of his comrades who had become ill. The letter was read (it now hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London) though not replied to; in any case, four months later they were freed by General Patton's army.

After the war, John returned to Glaslough and "picked up where I left off". In 1954, he moved to Rome and lived there for 40 years, in a 16th century monastery, with a butler/cook who eventually died in the kitchen, in between serving courses.

On his return to Ireland in the mid-1990s, John developed an interest in discos and techno music. He had "danced the foxtrot, Valetta, polka and waltzes" before the war, but this was "quite a new kind of dance - you just leap and jump around."

It turned out that, because of his semi-deafness, John had never really been able to hear music. The thumping bass of techno, however - he called it "boom-boom music" - presented no such problems, and he was hooked.

Niece Sammy took him to Ibiza, the spiritual home of techno, for his 85th birthday, and he was the subject of two documentaries about his late-blooming passion: Lord of the Dance, and Uncle Jack and the Boom Boom Music. He even had a nightclub named after him in the Monaghan town of Clones.

In 2009, John published his memoir, Never A Dull Moment, and just before his 99th birthday last year, he was presented with the Legion d'Honneur at the French embassy in Dublin. France's Minister for Veterans and Remembrance, Jean-Marc Todeschini, told him: "You committed your life for the survival of your country, France, Europe and your comrades. For me it is an honour to convey to you today, such a special day for Ireland, the eternal recognition of France."

John Leslie died on April 18 at home, surrounded by his family. Just a week ago, a clan gathering had been held at the castle. He was to be buried in a private enclosure next to the estate church of St Salvator. Meanwhile, a Facebook page was set up for people to post their memories and tributes to "Uncle Jack" - and a life exceedingly well-lived.

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