My father died when I was 25. So this story is one of a man who died too soon. Specifically, he died too soon for me to ever get to know him properly. Also, if truth be told, he never really got to know me as an adult and, as you will see later on this, I suspect, left him full of regret.
Apart from having a father die whilst I was relatively young, I should mention a couple of other points about my early years as they are relevant. I was adopted as a baby. Adoption is not an extraordinary occurrence but the twist in my tale is I was never told. I found out when I was 34 after my mother had died and, it turns out, not only was I not told the truth but various fantastical and absurd lies as to what my origins were (think royalty) were told to friends and family.
Most people believed these lies and it was only when I had hunted out the truth that they had to sheepishly accept the fact they had been duped. I’ll leave the rest of that story for now but I have spent the last twelve or so years trying to understand my parents’ motivation for the lies, and even trying to forgive them. I do believe what they did was very wrong, though. In my mother’s case I have come to some firm conclusions with relative ease but I am here to write about my father, his part in this and my relationship with him. His story is less clear.
The most interesting part of my father’s life happened before I came along; some of the more exciting bits before he even met my mother. He was born in 1919 in Oxford, the son of an ecclesiastical architect. I don’t know a massive amount about my father’s childhood but I do know he was raised a Catholic, was sent to boarding school at three and that he had to call his father sir. I can only guess that his was not a childhood of lots of hugs and kisses and this must have had an effect on what how he turned out.
Though he was sent to ‘good schools’ my father was not an academic and left home at eighteen to join the army. He was awarded the MC and MBE for his actions in WW2 and in Korea respectively. He married a German countess and they had a son, Christopher, but the marriage was short-lived and his ex-wife and child went back to Germany and my father subsequently had no contact with either of them.
The next event was that my father had a relationship with a woman which resulted in a pregnancy. The baby girl was given up for adoption and the facts remained buried until Michele got in touch with me three years ago. I had had no knowledge of her existence but it came to light she had met with my father in 1978 and had wanted to keep in touch but my mother (who had had no knowledge of her existence either until then) had forbade it.
After the army my father became an explorer which took him to the Antarctic and to Patagonia. He then met my mother in London and they married 1960. On their marriage certificate his occupation is as ‘author’. This is because he had had two books published – Banner Over Pusan about the Korean War and Expedition South about the Antarctic…
That’s obviously a concise account of an early life lived to the very full and it seems meeting my mother was the point when all that ended. At this point he was obligated to find ‘normal’ work and this came in the form of various senior administrative jobs.
I was adopted in 1967. We moved around for a few years until my father applied for the role of Club Secretary of the Naval and Military Club, an old boys’ army club which, for many years, occupied an imposing building on Piccadilly. The move was significant as the family moved to a flat inside the building where we lived for 12 years.
Life within the club was never dull. It was an odd place for a child to be brought up but for my parents it was full on work, entertaining and socialising. However, the smoking, drinking and being on call 24/7 took a heavy toll on my father’s body. He had a major heart attack when I was 8. Naturally I didn’t comprehend the gravity of this but I did know that it meant that actions like jumping around, shouting and generally being a child were seriously curtailed. My mother used to threaten that if I was naughty it might kill my father.
Looking back on my childhood both in photos and as a memory, I am struck by how my parents, especially my father, in many ways were more like grandparents than parents.
My father was 48 when I was adopted. By today’s standards, that’s not an outrageous age to become a father. But 48 years old in 1967 was not like 48 now. The old fashioned distance practiced by my father’s parents was repeated with me. My childhood was not characterised by the hands-on, get stuck in, it’s all for the good of the child attitude that pervades nowadays. On the contrary; I was sent away a great deal too – either to schools or on holidays with friends’ families. I had a TV in my bedroom but it was because my parents didn’t want me in the living room as they were entertaining so much. This all led me to crave time with my parents and with my father especially as he tended to treat me with respect and credited me with more intelligence than my mother did.
We did spend time together but those occasions were few and far between. Some of the best ones were when he used to take me swimming. He was a member of the RAC Club on Pall Mall and the pool there was decked out like an Egyptian palace. I used to love those trips. They were rare but special afternoons where I probably did probably unknowingly get an early glimpse of what our relationship might have been.
But he could be harsh too. I was smacked quite a lot as a child and it hurt. I also remember once putting my finger on the pilot light on the cooker and screaming with pain. My father went crazy. I cried all afternoon, holding a piece of ice in a hanky on my finger, more out of the fear of the rage he had displayed. He had frightened me.
When I was 16, my father backed my mother up when she tried to block me from doing A levels, (yes, a rather unusual situation). She wanted me to attend a ‘domestic science’ college. Here she was, trying (but failing) to create a miniature of herself and it resulted in my father trying (but failing) to force me to sign a form and me subsequently throwing an ashtray through the window.
But my mother had a massive influence in most of what went on. And that’s the other thing that always gets me; here was a man that parachuted into enemy territory, trained up opposition soldiers to fight on his side but very rarely he stood up to my mother. Her word was the law. I fought her like hell but my father never did. He gave in – for the quiet life, perhaps, but I also think he perceived that bringing up a child, especially a girl, was a woman’s job.
I do know he loved her. In fact they were crazily in love until the day he died. Who am I to question that? But this leads me to go back to why I believe the lies that were told around my adoption were not my father’s. They were my mother’s and my father was coerced into backing them up. When I asked family members how my father used to react when my mother was spewing forth what can only be described as utter crap they said he was just silent. He didn’t back her up but he didn’t refute any of it. I believe he thought, at the time, it would do no harm. What I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me and if it made the wife happy…well…
A conversation we had not long before he died was highly significant. It was 1992 so my life in Lush was at full throttle. The conversation went something like this:-
Father: I want to say to say sorry to you.
Father: I never supported you and you have achieved so much and I am so proud of you. You’ve done it all on your own and I had no hand in it. I want to say sorry.
Me: (lump in throat and trying to hold back tears): Oh, don’t worry. It’s OK. You’ve been ill and I know you don’t understand what I do and the world I am in anyway.
Father: No, it’s not alright. I was never there for you. I left everything up to your mother but I want you to know I am so proud of what you have achieved.
I still remember the way he was looking at me sitting in that armchair and the cracks in his voice and I can still remember my feeling of utter failure to deal with what was happening but that actually he was telling the truth. He hadn’t been there for me. Yes, he had stood up for me during some of the ridiculous rows I had had with my mother but in the greater scheme of things he had been absent and now it was too late to make good.
I can only assume that knowing he was going to die, my father had been assessing his life and was looking back with regrets. Not being there for me was one of them but I can’t help but think that others must have included the lies that were told about my origins and the rejection of his two natural children. Perhaps he was lamenting not standing up to my mother more. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if she had died first and afterward he might have given me the real story about my adoption and we might have subsequently bonded over the thankful release of the truth. Fantasy? Perhaps and anyway, that didn’t happen.
My father died of degenerative heart failure in December 1992. He was 73. I was in Osaka, Japan, on tour. It was a terrible time. I flew home to an army memorial service for him in the local church. Even then I felt distanced from these strange uniformed men and their speeches about my father’s bravery in the army. Who had this man really been? I can only piece together memories, family stories, photos and read his books to draw a kind of sketch but it’s not nearly enough and it will never be.