Squadron Leader Robert Burke was learning to be a fire-eater by the age of 12 and has since been a test pilot, a stunt man, a motorcycle racer and much more. Today, he is one of the country’s leading polo coaches.
By my forties, I’d already broken a lot of bones from racing motorbikes so when a friend recommended polo, I took him up on it. Polo is one of the most exciting sports I’ve played but it’s also the most difficult. I was not a natural, which I think has helped to make me a successful coach. Providing players have the necessary aggression and competitiveness, anyone can be good. I get a total cross-section of people learning – and even some celebrities over the years. A lot of pop bands used to want to learn back in the day – Kenny Jones, Mike Rutherford and Stewart Copeland of The Police to name just a few. The oldest person I’ve trained is the architect Lord Foster. I taught him in his mid 60s.
I don’t think we live in an ageist society – actually, I think things have improved for the older generation.
I don’t think we live in an ageist society – actually, I think things have improved for the older generation. I take a lot of exercise and I am interested in a enormous number of things which helps to keep me young. Plus, I only sleep for about five hours a night, which enables me to cram quite a lot into my days. As an older person, you can pretty much say what you want – it’s not going to affect your career – plus you have a lot of experience which enables you not to upset people by mistake.
I was conceived on the banks of a volcanic crater in Indonesia while my parents were on their honeymoon. My father was a pilot in the RAF and was sadly shot down and killed before I was a year old. My mother married again in 1946 – so I grew up with a step-father and three half siblings in Buckinghamshire and East Kent.
When I was very young and went to stay with my grandparents, there was a circus nearby with a fire-eater. I was fascinated and asked him to teach me – back in those days you could do that kind of thing – so he taught me aged 11. The last fire-eating show I did was underneath the London Eye about eight years ago. It was a nightmare getting clearance from the police and numerous authorities but I did it!
Almost everybody from my prep school went onto Eton except me. I had a long struggle with my parents as I wanted to go to St Edwards, Oxford where many of the most famous RAF pilots went. After injury at RAF college, I spent three or four years doing a variety of things including car racing, film stunting and cabaret as a fire eater. Then I rejoined the RAF.
My idea of perfect happiness revolves around my wife. My flying instructor had a spectacular crash and died right in front of me. I later married his young widow and we now have two grown up daughters and a son. We have been happily married for 52 years.
I don’t have any regrets – I’ve had an amazing life, I’ve tried everything I wanted to, and been paid to do things that I love. I am definitely a person who, when the bread falls off the table, it lands butter side up. Even things that have looked bad at the time have turned out ok. I’ve been very lucky.
The only thing I haven’t done yet is a bungee jump so that’s still on my list. Most of the young people in my extended family have had a go, so when I get around to it, I will have to do a bigger one than them! There’s a new one in Switzerland which is higher than any that they have done.
Life is not a dress rehearsal. I always advise everyone to live their lives absolutely to the full.