His plane was shot down in the Gulf War and his wounded face broadcast to the world, but John Nichol has built a new life and a new image. Now he soars high in bestsellers lists, and flying fatigues have given way to suits by Valentino
I was a kid from a council estate in the North-east. I wanted to leave school when I was 16, and joining the air force was just a way of earning a living. When I arrived at the RAF in Lincolnshire, I was given a uniform. I packed my own clothes into a bag and didn't get them out again for the next six weeks. If you went home for the weekend you put on your best blues, your No 1 uniform - I remember wearing mine in a nightclub. After our training we wore combat uniform: big boots, and trousers folded over the top of them. We looked quite tough and we all loved that. It wasn't till I was about 22, when I went to an air show, that I realised the full pulling power of the flying suit.

When I started getting money I went to Burton and I got what was one of the very first store cards. I got brown pants, maroon slip-on shoes with tassels, which were pretty awful, white socks and a white shirt. On a Friday night, you'd get yourself tarted up and go out from the barracks to the local disco. Five or six years ago I'd probably go to Next and buy a jacket and trousers. Now I spend quite a lot of money on clothes. My corporate stuff is mainly made up of suits from Valentino or Boss, not because I'm label-conscious, but because I believe that I'm buying good quality. I suppose I'm a classical man, I'm not trendy by any stretch of the imagination. I'm tall, I carry a few extra pounds around with me, and I look older than I am, so I don't try to dress down or dress young. At home I just wear jogging pants and an old sweatshirt.

I don't miss the air force - or the uniform. I prefer my life now, living here with my dog and my girlfriend, but simply because I just adapt to whatever I do. I live for today. Every time something in my life has gone wrong, it's turned out for the best. I'd never have become a writer if I hadn't been shot down - being paraded on Iraqi TV changed my life. It's difficult to say it did me a good turn, because mates of mine were killed, but it happened - there's bugger all I can do about it and I am where I am now because of it.

People always ask, "How did it affect you psychologically?" It didn't. It was just a shit set of circumstances that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, but it was only seven weeks in the end. There were times when I was absolutely terrified. I thought I was going to die on a number of occasions. Once they said they were going to kill me and a guy put a gun against my head and pulled the trigger; in fact it was incredibly calming and I wasn't scared at all. On another occasion we were bombed by the Allies. That's a 1,000lb bomb, and people's arms come off, their heads come off, legs go flying past you. The building was collapsing and I just sat down in the corner and I thought I'm now going to die; again, it was immensely calming. The building didn't collapse and the second bomb didn't destroy everything. Then the war ended and they opened the door and said, "Off you pop home."

I'm not the gibbering wreck that most people expect. Did I suffer from post-traumatic stress? Yes, I did, but not in any other way than, for instance, I would leap off the sofa if the door slammed. I still have the odd flashback, but nothing that affects me. I've never been downbeat, depressed or shy. I don't think my character changed at all. When you have looked death in the face, you do have a different view on life, but it's nothing grand. I suppose I live life a little bit more now, but not much. I've always lived life to the full anyway.

`Stinger', a novel, written by John Nichol, is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton, priced pounds 9.99.

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