Son of former MEP killed in plane crash writes moving account of dealing with his loss
08:39 21 February 2014
William Howell was three days into university when he was told the father he adored had been in a plane crash in Africa.
The father he adored
Paul Howell was one of Norfolk’s most colourful politicians and socialites.
The long-serving former Euro MP, farmer and adventurer was on a Piper Seneca aircraft which crashed on a beach just short of Beira, the second largest city in Mozambique in 2008.
Mr Howell, who was 57 when he died, was the son of the former North Norfolk MP and farmer Sir Ralph Howell.
The former Tory politician had lost his seat to a Labour MEP in 1994 after serving for 15 years and becoming one of the best known elected figures in Strasburg.
He was in Gaza when the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, in Berlin the day the Wall came down and at the Kremlin the night the Soviet Union effectively collapsed.
Mr Howell brawled with Labour Euro MPs, championed the Yarmouth Outer Harbour, befriended Canadian seals and attacked Euro-junketing.
In 1981 he crashed his aircraft at Swanton Morley, near Dereham, severing vocal chords and leaving him with a husky voice.
In 1999 he made a political comeback when he attempted to regain his seat in the European Parliament. He was finally expelled as a Tory and moved to the Liberal Democrats in 2001.
He was a keen pilot and gained his flying licence before his driving test.
He married Johanna Turnbull in 1987 and they had two sons, William, born in 1988, and Oliver, two years younger. He married again in September 2007, to Ayesha, and also left a young son, Zack.
The son of the charismatic former MEP Paul Howell has since battled depression, drug use and insomnia as he came to terms with the loss of his father while he was still a teenager.
But now he has penned a “no holds- barred” account of how he grieved the loss of the man for whom “every single day was an adventure”.
The 25-year-old, who now works in London for film production company Intandem Films, remembers how his father called him the night before his death with the advice to his eldest son to “work hard in the morning, play hard in the afternoon and seek damn fine company in the evening”.
“The words do still ring true. Whenever there is a dinner party, they are the perfect toast,” the former Wymondham College student said.
The next day his step-mother Ayesha called from South Africa to tell him that his father had been in the crash.
“I was told there was a 1pc chance he would survive. That was Dad. He was a 1pc.”
But the Norfolk farmer did not live.
The long-serving former Euro MP did not survive the aircraft crash on a beach just short of Beira, the second largest city in Mozambique.
“I hit the wall as if I had just been hit by a gun. I slid down in the corridor. It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know anyone at university. There was no one I could say anything to. All I wanted to was to hear it from my brother. I wanted Oli to tell me,” he said.
In the first few days after the Euro MP’s death, as the tragedy was covered by local media and with family and friends around, he was able to block out the emotions. But as he returned to university life in Oxford, where he was a student at Oxford Brookes university, the reality hit home.
“I dealt with things with a smile on my face, but behind closed doors it was very different. As soon as the doors closed, especially in my first year, it was just tears.
“During first year I suffered from insomnia. I completely changed who I was because I wanted to fit the image Dad wanted me to be. “I started campaigning in a local by-election. I was doing exactly what my Dad did. It was almost like I had chosen a path for myself based on Dad.”
But after breaking up with his girlfriend things changed.
“I went to the other side. I was battling with depression. I was battling with drugs. Nothing too hard. Mostly marijuana.”
“I never thought I would be that person. It is weird how something that drastic can make you resort to the things you thought you definitely wouldn’t do.
“Bereavement is a very lonely place. The one person you want to get advice from is the one person that has gone,” he said.
Writing the book has been therapeutic and Mr Howell, who still returns to his mother Johanna’s home in Burnham Market, said he had not realised the impact his drug use was having on his family.
“It doesn’t help anyone else. My family were amazing. The first year I would phone Mum when I was having a bad day. I would take it out on her because I knew she was the one person who would forgive.”
But it was in January 2013 that things started to turn around.
He had taken part in a charity boxing match in London and had stopped drinking and was doing more exercise.
Just days after the event he heard that a close friend of his father’s and someone who had been a mentor since the plane crash in 2008 had died.
“He was the guy who told me I didn’t have to do politics. I knew then that I could either take a huge step back or move forwards.
“I quit everything and decided to write the book. It was never meant to be a book. It always started as a way to help me get through it.”
He spent hours at night, while doing a full-time job, writing, and he published it this month.
“I have poured sweat, tears, emotional memories, anger, joy, wit and sleep-free nights into this book, and now it’s my chance to use it and help others, to do the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do – help.
“Bereavement sucks, and it’s a journey each person has to explore themselves, but they can be helped and it can be better than how I dealt with it,” he added.
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