Direction in life
After an accident left him unable to carry on with life in the military, Arthur Vaughan Williams leaned on masonic values to help him transition to a career in broadcasting
It’s clear Arthur Vaughan Williams is a man who isn’t afraid of a challenge as he reels off the many remote and wonderful places he’s visited in the past year alone. As a presenter for Channel 4, the Pershore-born Freemason has camped out in the depths of Canada’s sub-Arctic wilderness, used a helicopter to steer cattle around a ranch the size of Wales in the Australian outback and navigated the dangerous mountainside runways of Nepal.
Arthur’s adventures have rarely been relaxing. Halfway through describing the ‘loaded march’, a notorious 30-mile trek that Royal Marines must complete before receiving their green beret, he shudders visibly at the memory of the experience.
‘You’re trekking for eight hours across Dartmoor with nearly 10kg of kit slung over your shoulders. That’s really tough,’ he recalls. ‘At the time, it felt like this huge tidal wave rearing up in front of me, and I thought if I do this, I’ll never doubt myself again.’
It’s a mantra that’s seen Arthur through the ups and downs of a pretty extraordinary life so far. As a commando, he worked in Sierra Leone establishing frontline communications for the Royal Marines. But after a car crash in 2007 left him paralysed from the waist down, his military career came to an abrupt end. At just 21 years old, Arthur had to rethink his entire life. ‘It’s such a graphic and horrendous thing to deal with,’ he says. ‘To go from peak physical fitness to somebody who can’t control two-thirds of their body – it’s unimaginable.’
Bedridden for six weeks, Arthur was incapable of showering, dressing or even sitting up without help. It took two months of painful rehabilitation before he was allowed to return to his parents’ house. ‘Probably the hardest part was realising that there was nothing [doctors] could do for me. I remember being wheeled past the operating theatre and feeling jealous of the people inside, because at least they had a chance of being fixed.’
Ultimately, it was the tenacity instilled in him through the marines that saved Arthur’s life.
‘Suicide crosses your mind when something like this befalls you,’ he says. ‘But as far as I was concerned, I was still a marine and we never give up – we don’t know how to – so that helped a lot.’
‘I’m proud to have been a part of the Paralympics… How often can you say you helped change the way people think about disability?’ Arthur Vaughan Williams
Time for a new path
Gradually, Arthur began to rebuild his life piece by piece, starting with his initiation into White Ensign Lodge, No. 9169, in 2008. ‘My dad was a Freemason, and his father before him, so it’s always a path I’ve been interested in following,’ he says. ‘We’ve got a bit of a family tradition where the father initiates his son, so when my dad came to the chair as the Master of the lodge it seemed the right time for me to join.’
A military lodge based in Worcestershire, White Ensign’s membership all served in the Armed Forces, so Arthur was able to relive the esprit de corps of his military days. But most importantly, it helped him to gain some clarity in the aftermath of the accident.
‘In the marines they teach you to kill without a second thought, which requires a certain amount of aggression,’ explains Arthur. ‘That’s fine when you’re able to do the job because you can control and apply it when necessary. But when I was forced out of the marines, that instinct manifested itself in pure frustration and anger. I began to lash out at the people around me. It was never in a violent way, just shouting and screaming. But it wasn’t appropriate.’
Arthur learned to redefine his approach to life by using the morals of Freemasonry as a guide for his ambition and drive. ‘As a military lodge, it’s no coincidence that many of the Freemasons there are successful, but it’s not through greed or selfishness, or for material gain. It’s because we want to lead a good life, to raise a decent, good family and to play our role in society well.’
With this newfound positivity, Arthur returned to his early sporting passions to help propel himself into a new life. He immersed himself in the world of wheelchair racing, eventually progressing to the British cycling development squad for the 2012 Paralympic Games. ‘I was always the sporty type at school,’ he remembers. ‘I played rugby for Prince Henry’s High School in Evesham and competed in the Army Cadet National Athletics finals.’
However, it was television that would give Arthur his big break. After submitting a YouTube video to a national talent search, he was chosen as one of six new disabled presenters to front Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games. ‘It was one of those tidal wave moments again,’ says Arthur, who was put through a five-day boot camp at the National Film & Television School to test his presenting potential.
‘There were over 4,200 athletes from 164 different countries competing in 20 sports across 12 days, and I had to know everything about all of them.
I probably spent months sitting in my study poring over books and interviewing people on the phone. But it was worth it. Somebody believed in me at Channel 4, and I was going to prove them right.’
In the same year, Channel 4 won a BAFTA for its coverage of the Paralympic Games. ‘The Paralympics was probably the most rewarding thing I’ll ever do in my life,’ says Arthur. ‘How often can you say you helped change the way people think about disability? It was a real watershed moment for the country, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.’
Inspired by his passion
The Channel 4 work has been just the beginning of a career in television, one that has allowed Arthur to merge his passion for flying and presenting. ‘After the accident, I thought back to what I loved as a kid, and that was flying,’ he recalls. ‘All my life I’d heard stories of Douglas Bader, the disabled pilot who through grit and guile managed to earn his pilot license and fight in the Battle of Britain. Now he’s one of our most celebrated national heroes. I thought if he could do that back then, why can’t I do it now?’
After just nine hours of training, Arthur completed his first solo flight to become a licensed pilot. A few years later, he bought a 1943 Piper Cub light aircraft.
‘The previous owner had been flying it for 30 years, so I do wonder if I should start wearing a parachute soon,’ he laughs.
In 2015, Channel 4 commissioned Arthur for a three-part documentary, Flying to the Ends of the Earth, in which he flew to some of the most remote communities in the world to learn about their unique ways of life. Today, he spends his time travelling between London and his home in the Cotswolds, and is working on a book about the pioneers who established the Imperial Airways routes now used by the likes of British Airways.
‘Obviously my accident completely changed my life,’ says Arthur. ‘Back then, the young boy in me wanted to blow everything up and burn it all to the ground. But now, as an adult, I want to create, to have something to show for my work that I can always be proud of. It’s the only direction my life could’ve gone if I wanted to survive.’
Letters to the Editor - No. 33 Spring 2016
Down but not out
I read with interest, and a certain amount of admiration, the recent article on Arthur Vaughan Williams and how he has overcome the devastating life change, after his accident in 2007.
It made me draw a parallel with a brother in our lodge, Mark Ormrod, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan. He has written a book about his experiences, Man Down, and has overcome his injuries in an amazing fashion.
Mark joined Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, and his initiation took place while he was in a wheelchair. He has since mastered the use of prosthetic legs and is able to march into the lodge and keep in step with the rest of the officers.
Mark has progressed through all of the offices in the lodge (IG, JD, SD, JW) and is our present Senior Warden.
He will be installed, into The Chair of King Solomon, in June 2016 and is a stunning example to all.
Brian Saunders, Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, Plymouth, Devon