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I was the original natural born killer

Harry McCallion is ex-Paras, ex-SAS, a self-confessed ex-violence addict. Now he is studying to be a barrister. He talked to a respectful Jim White

Jim White
Wednesday 26 April 1995 23:02 BST

Harry McCallion has killed a lot of people. More than he cares to remember, in more ways than he would care, in sensitive company, to relate. As a member of the Paratroop Regiment, the SAS and the special forces section of the South African army, he has gone all over the world killing.

And how he enjoyed it. During the Falklands War he was part of an SAS team instructed to launch a covert raid on bases on the Argentine mainland. But before the operation could begin, Argentina surrendered, the war was over. When he heard the news, Harry McCallion sat down on the pavement in Port Stanley and wept tears of frustration. There had been a whole war and he hadn't killed anyone. That's how much he enjoys his work.

"I think violence is the most addictive thing in this world," he says, 15 years on, sitting in a slick restaurant overlooking the Thames. "The adrenalin rush, nothing touches it. I was killing for the hook, no two ways about it. I loved violence, any violence. I fought bar fights, kick boxing, anything. Just for the hook."

Now Harry McCallion is 42, is sitting his bar exams and has lined up a pupilage at a leading London chambers: after shooting from the hip, he intends to earn his living shooting from the lip as a criminal barrister. As he begins a new one, he has written a book about his past career. Called Killing Zone (Bloomsbury), it has on its front cover, next to the familiar "Who Dares Wins" SAS badge, a picture of a soldier brandishing a hunky weapon. And, as if to emphasise that its author's life has changed, on the back cover there is a picture of a barrister in wig and gown. Oddly, he is brandishing the same weapon.

The soldier/brief in the pictures is not, however, Harry McCallion. In common with all SAS men, past and present, he does not want his identity known (this is not his real name). In all the pictures in the middle of his book - of Harry with a buffalo he has just felled, of Harry in Northern Ireland, of Harry meeting Margaret Thatcher - he wears the familiar mask of black across the eyes which appears to be SAS uniform. (How they manage to kill anyone thus encumbered remains one of the regiment's more enduring mysteries.)

If it seems ridiculously optimistic that a thin strip of black across the eyes will serve as a disguise, I can report that it works for Harry McCallion. He has, when you can see them, the most character-defining eyes this side of David Bowie. An icy shade of blue, they hold unwavering contact, and constantly issue the instruction: "It would be unwise to mess with me." They are eyes that suggest there is nothing fictitious about the incident he recalls in his book concerning the calling card his South African regiment adopted during secret missions in Mozambique: cutting the heads off dead Frelimo soldiers and sticking them in the ground to look as though the victim had been buried up to his neck. And then popping a mine under the head in case any other Frelimo wanted to give their colleague a decent burial.

Harry McCallion is the hardest man you could encounter. Physically hard, as if constructed from steel. I happened to bump into him while we were walking around, looking for a location to take a picture, and bounced off as if from a trampoline. I apologised, as you would. But he appeared not to notice.

Born in the slums of Glasgow, Harry McCallion was not brought up. To suggest that would be to imply some sort of guidance. His father was a low-rent hood; his mother married a series of violent men; he was a hooligan from the age of five. At 17, he joined the Parachute Regiment where, he remembers, he would wake up many a morning with his face stuck to the pillow, what with all the scrapping the night before.

"I got some terrible kickings as a young soldier," he says, in his deceptively soft Scots burr. "It was institutionalised bullying. I over-reacted and made myself a very violent man. But the very qualities we find so appalling in young men fighting on a Saturday night are the ones you want at Goose Green or Mount Longdon: intense violence."

What Harry also found in the Paras was his mtier: he was a good soldier. By his twenties he had graduated into the SAS, and was out in action in South Armagh. This was the mid-Seventies height of the Troubles but, far from being scared, Harry McCallion was frustrated.

"Someone in Northern Ireland once described the SAS as another killing gang," he says. "I don't know any killing gang where you have to wait until they have a gun in their hand before you shoot them. All that shoot- to-kill was codswallop, we never were allowed to hit them [the IRA] like we could. There was a leash always on the SAS. When we did hit them, we hammered them, we did about 30 PIRA [Provisionals] in South Armagh. If you think about it logically, if there had been a shoot-to-kill, we'd have been doing it. And I wasn't."

So frustrated was McCallion with the legal niceties of Ulster engagement, that he joined the South African special forces, and spent three years killing in Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe, an adventure he relates with Hemingway-style relish in his book.

"I've been a little judicious, actually," he says. "Some of the things I saw in Africa defied description. The first casualty in any war is humanity and there was unbelievable ferocity there. Anyone who says you can fight a war within a set of rules is mad. It is like saying you can have sex without losing your virginity."

But then savagery was what he enjoyed.

"All I had to do was fight. Occasionally go home and eat, drink and sleep. But, fundamentally, fight. It was great."

After his tour was over, he returned to Britain and, following another spell in the SAS, joined the RUC. And it was there - based in a Belfast police station where his beat covered the territory of a UVF gang led by a psychopath called the Window Cleaner, whose favourite method of disposing of Catholics was to drop a breeze-block on their head - that his attitude to violence changed.

"In the Army, you perpetrated violence," he says. "You never knew its consequences. But as an RUC man, going to some woman's house and telling her the UVF have blown her husband's head off, you feel it in a different way. In the regiment, I once told a visiting politician that if he wanted to end the war in Northern Ireland, he should give us six months and we'd do the IRA and nobody would even know it was us who did it. In the RUC I learnt that would have been somewhat counter-productive, however much I might have enjoyed doing it."

Just as he was on the fast track to promotion in the RUC, Harry had a car accident, swerving to avoid a old lady at a junction and smashing himself to pieces. The irony of a natural born killer finally being stopped by a septugenarian woman is not lost on him. Invalided out of the constabulary, he took a degree, wrote a thriller, got accepted to bar school and thought long and hard about the person he used to be.

"Writing this book, it came back to me," he says. "The sounds, the smells. Shooting wounded Swapo in ambushes. Shooting people close up, the body kind of deflates and you get this blast of air, which you can feel on your face. When I think about it now, it's like watching a different person." But what does not detain him is any regret for what he did. He insists - like a sort of licensed, legit Ronnie Kray - he only killed as an act of war, and never touched women or children.

"I never had a moment's conscience about people I killed," he says. "If you're going to have regrets you should never have done it in the first place. All I know is I couldn't do it now, I just haven't got that rage inside me. I had real psychological problems as a young man. People found it very easy to dislike me. I was paranoid, quick to take offence, argumentative, lacked a sense of humour, particularly about myself. It all stemmed from inadequacy. So I was a good fighter: if you're not worried about your own life, and I wasn't, you're not worried about anyone else's."

Now Harry McCallion has fought his last scrap. Like an alcoholic suppressing the urge to drink, when he finds himself provoked he walks away.

"The last time was recently, in the bar at the law school, another student bumped into me and called me a fat bastard. Time was, I'd have punched holes in him. But I didn't, I did nothing. I'm proud of that. In the past I had nothing to lose, now I've got so much to lose, so much I've worked for. I'm going to be a barrister. I'm a published author. For the first time in my life, I'm happy, I've got a steady girlfriend. I can't scrap in bars." Which is, he says, the point of writing his book.

"The message I want to convey is, I've changed, I've fought the violence addiction and won," he says. "And I reckon if I have managed it, anyone can."

It is not an assertion, coming from Harry McCallion, you would care to argue with.

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