Thoughts on my father

I have spent a lot of the last four years thinking about my father, and writing about him, and walks through Cumbria, in a book, published last week, called The Marches. I thought – at first – that I could learn more about him by interviewing him. Often, therefore, when we sat down for dinner at home, or travelled together abroad, I would put a tape-recorder on the table. The tapes preserve his deep baritone voice, with its rolled Scottish ‘r’s, speaking patiently and at great length about his time as a soldier, and later as a colonial civil servant, and intelligence officer.


But I didn’t learn what I expected from these interviews. I had known, for example, since I was a child, that, before I was born, he had kept a honey-bear as a British diplomat in Burma. Every day when he came home from work my sisters would say, ‘Daddy, Daddy the honey-bear is stuck up the tree” and he would have to climb up to coax it down with a baby-bottle. But I knew nothing about what he had thought or felt about his life in Rangoon. So I took him all the way back to Burma – after an absence of fifty years – and found his house, unaltered. Entering with him, I expected a sudden burst of new memories. But he was reluctant to leave the garden, where he had found a blackened stump. “That,’ he insisted triumphantly, ‘was the tree on which the honey bear sat – “Daddy, Daddy, the honey-bear…” And that was all I learnt. It was even worse if I tried to ask this talkative man about the character of his brother – who was killed in the War – about his ambitions and frustrations, or his nationalism. All he ever said about his own father was that he was ‘a quiet good-looking man, always reading the newspaper.’

But as I continued on the walk described in the book – from my cottage on the back of Ullswater, over Blencathra, to Maryport, up to Silloth, East to Wigton fording the Solway to Annan, and then working my way along the border-line to Berwick  – I realised my father was not the exception. Almost every one of the hundred people I interviewed left me as bewildered as I had been by my father. They spoke fluently about subjects, in which I had not expected them to be interested, and were often taciturn about their local area, which I thought would absorb them. I found it very difficult to guess much about anyone. The man in Jedburgh, playing border ballads on a border bagpipe, turned out to sing in an American accent, and came from Essex; remote hamlets that I expected to be filled with farmers contained IT consultants and aromatherapists; and even Willy Tyson, a herdwick shepherd by Blencathra who could count fluently in ancient Cumbric, wanted to talk mostly about the time he rode a motorbike to Afghanistan.

It was often difficult to create a coherent picture of an individual’s identity. A lady told me that she was a Scottish nationalist because of the miners’ strike, then conceded that most of the miners effected had been in England, and she hadn’t known any miners personally. She felt Scotland needed independence because England didn’t understand rural areas; but had herself grown up in Livingston New Town, a place with a population larger than the city of Carlisle, close to Edinburgh; and concluded by saying that Scotland was a gloomy place, and that she would much rather live in California.

Which brings me back to my father. His fiercest identification was with his Highland regiment, the Black Watch, with which he fought in the war. He was an extreme Scottish extrovert, swathed in tartan, serving haggis aggressively to his English guests; while remaining a fervent believer in the Union. He invested most of the last twenty years of his life in planting trees, and constructing earth-works around his house in Scotland. But if I tried to question him too seriously about any of this, he would laugh. He never took the trouble to learn the names of many of the trees that he planted; and although he gave names to his earthworks (a ‘lochan’, or a ‘ha ha’, a ‘duck-pond’, or a ‘dyke’), he frequently filled them in, or demolished them the following year. When I questioned him about a new kilt, he said that he had no idea what tartan it represented, and that he had bought it for ten pounds in a charity shop in Crieff.

So, I began to see his Scottish unionism, like the lady’s Scottish nationalism, not as a detailed historical claim, or something steeped in organic roots in a particular soil, but instead as something curiously improvisatory, even whimsical. But which nevertheless produced a strong sense of national identity. And I began to see that asking questions about my father’s past life was not the right approach. (Nor were questions about his beliefs – ‘Do you think about death, Daddy?” “Can’t see the point in that.”) What mattered about his identity did not exist in a philosophy, or in what he had once done: it erupted in present activity. What he might or might not have felt on a particular day in 1958 in a house in Burma was irrelevant. He was instead that living ninety-year old, who struggled cheerfully out of bed, straight onto his quad bike, to dig a hole; and he was the man who grinned when I asked precisely what that hole might be for.

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