Frank Gardner: 'I'm based in a wheelchair, but I drive, I ski, I scuba-dive, I go on my bike'

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Frank Gardner - Catherine Hyland
Frank Gardner - Catherine Hyland

When Frank Gardner was in hospital, recovering from the al-Qaeda ambush in which he was shot at point-blank range in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and left for dead, the BBC security correspondent was given a piece of advice he will never forget.

"I was at a particularly low point," says the 59-year-old journalist and author. Gardner was grieving the loss of his 36-year-old cameraman, Simon Cumbers, who had been shot dead at the scene, and had been put in a room on his own, "which someone had decided would be a good idea but was actually really depressing. My days revolved around things being slopped out, measured out and emptied out, and all I could think about were the things I would never be able to do again."

He’s brisk as he lists them. Matter-of-fact. It’s been almost 17 years, after all, since the day a young man approached him as he finished filming a piece to camera in a supposedly safe Riyadh suburb and called out, "with a hint of a smile", "As-salamu alaikum" (‘Peace be upon you’) – before pulling a gun from his breast pocket and shooting Gardner six times.

Gardner reporting from Riyadh just before he was shot in 2004 - BBC 
Gardner reporting from Riyadh just before he was shot in 2004 - BBC

Whether a person can ever come to terms with having their life split into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ at the age of 42, I couldn’t presume to know. But those things are now as much a part of the journalist’s life as the seven months he subsequently spent in hospital and the 14 operations he underwent; the colostomy bag and suprapubic catheter (a tube that drains urine from the bladder via a cut in his abdomen) concealed beneath his green jumper today.

"I kept thinking that I would never be able to run into the sea again holding my children’s hands," he says of his two daughters, Sasha and Melissa, who were five and six at the time.

"I wouldn’t be able to cuddle them." He pauses. "Then, this great psychiatrist was sent to see me in hospital, Dr Neil Greenberg, who said, 'Don’t waste any emotional energy on the things that you used to be able to do. You’ve done all those things. Concentrate on the things that you still can do and still want to do.' And that felt like a liberation."

It may seem like a strange choice of word for a man in a wheelchair who, on the day we meet, has been trapped in his riverside London flat for a week, after the lift broke down and the spare part needed turned out to be in Germany.

Gardner at his riverside flat in London - Catherine Hyland
Gardner at his riverside flat in London - Catherine Hyland

But Gardner doesn’t look, speak or behave like a man imprisoned by his disability, let alone one who, as he hands me a coffee so strong it’s almost solid and waves me into a chair in the airy, book-lined sitting room, still has "pain every single day in my legs that is sometimes mild and sometimes so excruciating I have to grip them until it passes".

He has a deep frown when searching for the most accurate word (a journalistic tic, after 26 years reporting for the BBC), but his default expression is relaxed, his lightly tanned face that of a man 10 years younger – and he is the very opposite of prickly.

Indeed, when I ask which of the terminologies surrounding disability he objects to, Gardner is, at first, unable to think of any – before remembering "one expression I don’t like. Not because I find it offensive but because it’s inaccurate. And that’s 'he’s confined to a wheelchair'. Because I’m not. I’m based in a wheelchair, but I drive, I ski, I scuba-dive, I go on my bike, I travel.

Gardner filming in Colombia in 2020 - BBC/Curious Films
Gardner filming in Colombia in 2020 - BBC/Curious Films

"Oh, and I also dislike it when people say that I’m 'paralysed from the waist down'. I don’t mind saying that it’s a matter of male pride," he says with a small smile. "Because then people think, 'He can’t have sex any more.' And thank God that isn’t the case."

Gardner’s energy levels are a surprise – although they shouldn’t be, given his output. As a journalist who returned to active news reporting within a year of his attack, the star of last year’s BBC documentary Being Frank, the author of five books, and a man who after separating from his wife of 22 years, Amanda Pearson, in 2018, went on to find love again with a woman 15 years his junior, BBC weather presenter Elizabeth Rizzini, those levels were always going to be impressive. The sense of humour, however, I expected.

Like doctors and anyone who dances in the jaws of death for a living, foreign correspondents are famous for finding levity in the bleakest of circumstances. And there is plenty of evidence of it in both his 2014 memoir, Blood & Sand, and the bestselling thriller series we’re here to talk about today – the latest of which, Outbreak, is to be published this month.

Gardner on BBC News with Huw Edwards - BBC
Gardner on BBC News with Huw Edwards - BBC

"When I first pitched the idea to a literary agent," he tells me of the adventures of MI6 operative Luke Carlton, "she said to me, 'Does your male character have legs?'" A chuckle. "Which was kind of ironic."

He’s just signed a deal with Penguin for another three books in the series. Since his 2016 bestseller, Crisis, his hero, a former special boat service commando, has gone from the steaming Colombian jungle, to Iran in 2018’s Ultimatum – and now Lithuania and London in Outbreak, as he attempts to track down the source of a killer virus.

"I know what people are going to think," he winces. "'Goodness, he’s just jumped on the back of Covid.'" Only Gardner actually started writing Outbreak in 2018, which is rather more worrying, I point out, since it hints at psychic powers. "Except that it’s absolutely not about Covid," he counters, "but the deliberate release of a pathogen, and something called a chimera, which is where you insert one virus inside a larger virus to make things doubly difficult for your adversaries. And it’s first and foremost a spy thriller, not a medical drama."

Gardner’s hero does "think a bit like [him]" and has a similarly dark humour, he accepts, "but of course I’ve never been in the special forces". The Hampstead-born son of two diplomats, who moved from the UK to The Hague when he was six and was later educated at Marlborough College, does, however, have a military background.

Childhood pic
Childhood pic

He is a former Territorial Army officer in the Royal Green Jackets, finishing as a major, and still has a straightbacked Army bearing today. But when it came to choosing a career, Gardner decided instead to go into investment banking – before joining the BBC World Service in 1995.

As a 21-year-old reading Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University, Gardner was tapped by MI6 himself. "I was a bit naive about it," he says with a laugh. "I didn’t even realise I was being recruited. But there was this diplomat there who asked me to show him around a souk in Cairo, and I didn’t realise at the time but he was watching to see how I interacted with people and whether I was able to blend in – all of that. I remember asking him, 'Do you think there would be any way of us meeting the resident MI6 officer out here?' and he said that wouldn’t be possible. Because of course he was the resident MI6 officer.’

Interestingly, Gardner’s father, Robert, was outed last year as having served as an MI6 spy during the Cold War. Which is something the journalist isn’t about to break his silence on today. But he will say that in retrospect, he isn’t sure how to take his own approach – one he turned down after a single interview. "Because some of the people I’ve met from MI6 are really quite grey, but then others are very charismatic."

His character, Carlton, is of course one of the more charismatic ones, "and physically very different to me. He’s 6ft 2in, for a start. And I’m certainly not a particularly brilliant swimmer like him", he goes on. It’s tempting to do a bit of armchair psychology at this point and suggest that putting himself inside his hero’s extraordinarily able body might have been therapeutic.

Going back to the advice of that hospital psychiatrist, writing was something Gardner not only could still do extremely well, but obviously very much enjoys doing. Yet I can’t help wondering whether the same advice would be extended today. After all, the mental-health narrative now couldn’t be further from "don’t waste any emotional energy on the bad stuff", could it?

Gardner ponders this a moment. "I can’t speak for Dr Greenberg, but certainly trauma management has moved on massively since then, and I do think we are a better society for being open about our problems."

Yet he also admits that after he was finally discharged from hospital, "I very much had to 'man up'." I’m not sure he’s allowed to use that expression any more, I tease. "Well OK, but I very much had to get on with it then, although I was very emotional when I first came out of hospital. I was prone to suddenly bursting into tears and I remember my wife saying, 'Look you can’t do that in front of the children.' And she was absolutely right, because it was so distressing for them. So I tried to get back to doing normal things as quickly as possible."

Easier said than done after what he’d just been through. And as Gardner’s story had been extensively covered in the UK, when he did brave the streets in his wheelchair, he was recognised everywhere.

The week Gardner was discharged from hospital, his father had bought the whole family tickets for a Russian ballet at the Royal Festival Hall, he remembers, but on the day his wife had flu, and couldn’t go. "I was new to the wheelchair and worried. But the girls were so excited, so I thought, 'We’ve got to do this.' All these years later I’m so glad we did. The girls still remember it today, because we were taken backstage to meet the ballerinas, which was absolutely thrilling. They will never forget that night as long as they live, and in the end, life is about those experiences."

Today, Gardner’s lack of anger towards the men who shot him (after the first terrorist opened fire, other militants continued the attack) is awe-inspiring. He felt no pleasure when the al-Qaeda gunmen were executed, after being convicted of his attempted murder and the murder of Simon Cumbers. "I didn’t really care if they lived or died as long as they were off the streets," he says.

This must not only have helped his own state of mind, but that of his daughters? "It’s so important they understand that the men who did this to their father are criminals. They’re terrorists, yes, but primarily criminals; people who called themselves Muslims but had murdered Saudi Muslims, orphaned children and 'made martyrs', as they call it, of ordinary citizens. So no, they are not representative either of a religion or a society."

Gardner on holiday with his daughter Melissa in Majorca in 2015 - Courtesy of Frank Gardner
Gardner on holiday with his daughter Melissa in Majorca in 2015 - Courtesy of Frank Gardner

Right on cue there’s the sound of a key in the front door, and his photographer daughter Melissa pops her head around the door, before disappearing off to her room. It’s clear from the way he talks that Gardner’s very close to both the 23-year-old, and her 22-year-old sister, who is at university. His girls and their mother weren’t just essential to his recovery, he says, but his survival on that bleak day in 2004.

"Parenthood changes you anyway, but particularly with a job like mine, children really change your perception on things, because you’re no longer just risking your life; you’re risking your children’s future. When I was lying there on the ground bleeding to death, I remember thinking, 'I have got to get word to the British embassy that I need help' for the sake of my wife and my daughters. I knew that these were mortal wounds, but that I had to survive them."

He won’t talk about his divorce from New Zealand-born Pearson – whom he married in 1997 – except to say that it was "amicable" and that the two "remain good friends". But in a first-person piece written last year, Gardner explained that "those close to you also bear the brunt". Describing the depth of his gratitude to a woman who "did a fantastic job of righting the ship that was our family, which had capsized after the attack", he conceded that while there was "no doubt that my injuries put pressure on our relationship, our break-up wasn’t about my disability".

Gardner at an award ceremony with his ex-wife Amanda Pearson in 2007 - Rex
Gardner at an award ceremony with his ex-wife Amanda Pearson in 2007 - Rex

After their separation, Gardner had "very simple aims", he tells me. "To make a success of the next book and get my girls through the next stages of their lives. They will always be my top priority." But did falling in love give him a new lease of life? "You’re talking about Lizzie?" he asks. Unless there are other loves? "Well, there’s the harem," he deadpans, inclining his head towards the bedroom. Then he bursts out laughing. "Yes, meeting Lizzie and falling in love with her was like a second lease of life. She’s such a wonderful, patient, peaceful person and I’m so lucky to be with her."

Is it true they met in a lift? "She says so, and she’s got a memory like an elephant. I’d noticed her before, but… I don’t know how much of this I should say…" he tails off. All of it? "It was at my book launch [in the summer of 2018] that we both had a sort of…"

In an attempt to egg him on my eyes are widening – and widening – until I’m worried I might burst a blood vessel. "Well that we first had… I hate to say an 'intimate moment' because there were lots of people around, but that was when we first became a little bit more than friends. And being part of a couple has made it so much easier to go through lockdown."

Gardner with his partner Lizzie Rizzini in Crete in 2020 - Courtesy of Frank Gardner
Gardner with his partner Lizzie Rizzini in Crete in 2020 - Courtesy of Frank Gardner

He’s still astonished by the press attention the pair received after a tabloid "busted" them in March 2019, "snogging away like two teenagers" in a Putney pub. "I really hope I never meet the people who took photos of us that night, because what I would say to them wouldn’t be nice," he exclaims. "It’s a horrid thing to come into work on a Monday morning and have your line manager tell you he needs to speak to you urgently, because they’ve had a call saying there are pictures of you 'kissing somebody who is not your wife'. I mean I was separated and didn’t even live with my wife any more!

"But all the comments online were sympathetic," he adds, grinning. "It was all things like, 'Great – he’s suffered enough,' and, 'He’s 57 and snogging with tongues? Good on him!' My ex-Army mates particularly loved it. Actually there’s a friend at work who still calls me 'Franky Panky'."

Although he and Rizzini plan to travel as soon as the pandemic allows – Laos and Papua New Guinea are favourite destinations – and he has been back to Saudi Arabia several times since the ambush, Gardner has never returned to the scene of the attack.

"Apparently there has been some building there, and it probably looks very different, but…" He falls silent a moment. "Years ago we interviewed a Holocaust survivor, Iby Knill, at the railway station in the Hungarian town of Székesfehérvár where she was loaded on to the cattle trucks to go to Auschwitz – and it was incredible. But when we asked whether we should interview her in Auschwitz, she said, 'I have no need to go back to that place. It’s a place that God abandoned.'" He exhales deeply. "I’m afraid I feel the same way."

And if one of his daughters said they wanted to be a foreign correspondent or a war reporter? "I would discourage them," he says firmly. "No story is worth getting shot over. Ever."

The BBC's Frank Gardner photographed at riverside flat in London - Catherine Hyland
The BBC's Frank Gardner photographed at riverside flat in London - Catherine Hyland

Despite his determination to live life to the full, he goes on, there are things he is no longer prepared to do. "I was offered hang-gliding years ago, which I had done before when I was able-bodied, but when they told me that various injuries were possible, such as wrenching one’s shoulder and so on, I decided those weren’t risks I was prepared to take. I’m already a four-engine jet flying on two; I can’t risk knocking out another one."

For now, he’s content to have his daughters and Rizzini around him – and a working lift. And of course there is the next thriller to finish writing, one that’s "centred around the cutting edge of a certain scientific development", he tells me.

"But I’m afraid I can’t say more than that." Which is a shame. Because given the eerie prescience of Outbreak, we’re likely to be living through whatever he’s writing about in two years’ time.

Outbreak, by Frank Gardner, is out on 27 May (Bantam Press, £12.99). Pre-order a copy now at books.telegraph.co.uk

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