Lest I Forget could be described as a very different sort of memoir.
Rafe Bates has lived a full, adventurous and varied life in widely divergent countries and circumstances and he brings his extraordinary experiences vividly to life in his straightforward, readable and intimate style so that the reader is able to share his understanding and experiences.
The first section covers his childhood before (and into) the traumatic experiences as a boy in wartime southern England. Written with vividness and accuracy we learn of a youth obsessed with aircraft, watching his fighter-pilot friends and heroes fighting and dying to save their country in the Battle of Britain as seen from his front lawn in Sussex. He often went off on his bicycle to reach crashes before anyone else. This part is a penetrating and uniquely accurate account of the air war as observed by an independent and adventurous youngster who was in the thick of it.
Partly to evade the risks of total war in which peaceable people were attacked, Rafe was taken on a six-week voyage to Cape Town. The journey was made at the height of the U-boat campaign to sink all shipping in the Atlantic, and the risk of being torpedoed that year was about 50%. His ability to survive eventually allowed him, after spells back in England, Switzerland and Ireland, to lead an enterprising and adventurous life as a ‘bushwacker’ farmer in the thriving former colony of Rhodesia, which leads him to make some forthright comments on the behaviour of successive British governments.
Later, in South Africa, Rafe designed and built houses in the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains, before designing and building the remarkable ‘Batesmobile’ in which he won the incredibly tough long-distance mountain road race – the ‘Roof of Africa’. After this achievement he moved to Cape Town with his family, where he conceived and built the 16M aluminium alloy schooner ‘Long John Silver’ in which they sailed away from Africa for good. This period of his life changed when he sold his beloved yacht and engaged in forestry and other works in Scotland. Having exceeded retirement age, he eventually settled on one of the volcanic Azores islands in mid-Atlantic, where he now lives and writes and, as he says, ‘savours his memories’.
Although this unique book relates the author’s adventures and enterprises, it is also a personal and candid account, laced with humour and sometimes with great sadness. Rafe’s deep instinctive affinity with our natural world, his life-long love of remote places and the logical conclusions he forms as a result of his wide experiences come through, and might be said to be the real strong point of Lest I Forget, which puts this work into a class of its own. You shouldn’t skim this book; read it carefully.