My father died in 1989 at the age of 96. I was 47 at the time – so I was two years younger than he had been when I was born. There was much more than a large age gap between us. He was a child of the late Victorian period and I was born during the second world war and destined to be a child of the rock‘n’roll era. I must have seemed mysterious to him with my love of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley - "Put him out of his misery," he used to say when I was playing the music of my heroes . He certainly remained a mystery to me.
His generation didn’t talk much about themselves so I learned almost nothing about his early life: his years in Brazil and Argentina where, in his late teens and early twenties, he worked as a telegraph operator; his decision to come back to Europe in 1915 because his twin brother had enlisted and my dad felt that he couldn’t let his brother fight alone; his years in the trenches; how and where he met and married my mother. All of this remained largely unspoken to me. And perhaps I was not curious enough to ask and insist on answers. I suppose it all seemed so impossibly long ago and far away. If he’d been a Second World War RAF pilot, or had been captured and held in
perhaps I would have plagued him to tell me all about it. Colditz Castle
And then, when he died, I wanted to know everything – too late, of course. I asked my three sisters, all much older than me, and they knew more, much more. I had known that he liked women –he was much more obviously chatty and at ease with my wife than he was with me, for example – but now I was hearing suggestions about possible affairs. A more astonishing revelation, though, was to hear that he had been sent to prison sometime in the early1930’s. Even my sisters didn’t know the full story but they told me that he had apparently pilfered a small amount of money while working as a clerk in the Post Office. He was charged with ‘Theft as a Servant’ and sentenced to three months in Wormwood Scrubs. Even more shocking, in a way, was the news that the ‘breakdown’ that he had necessitated him going away to hospital when I was twelve was, in fact, a failed suicide attempt. He had tried to gas himself.
Suddenly this man whom I had taken for granted as my old, rather uninterestingly ordinary father, turned out to have a complex past. I wonder what he must have felt when he read my book, BUDDY, in which the young Buddy’s father is sent to prison. Did he wonder if I knew about him? And did I, in fact, know about it at some subconscious level, having heard whispers as I was growing up? How I wished to be able to talk to him about it all. Why had he taken the money? Was it because it was during the Depression and he needed it to support his family? What had driven him to try and take his life? He would have hated having to answer questions like that, I’m sure, and would have clammed up and kept it all locked away inside him.
But having found out all these things about my father, I now wondered about his family. His father, my grand-father, I vaguely knew had come from
. He had died ten years before I was born and, perhaps because of that, I had, again, been totally lacking in curiosity about his life. When I asked my sisters about him, they were able to tell me their memories of him as a man – warm and funny and friendly - and a few things about his life in England but very little indeed about his life in Poland. But what they did tell me really aroused my curiosity. Apparently he had left his home in Poland in 1870 when he was twelve. He had walked alone to the sea – a journey of nearly 200 miles. He had got on a boat, had gone round the world a couple of times and then, at about the age of fifteen, he had landed in Poland . London
What a fabulous story! One which begged many, many questions. Why did he leave home? How long had it taken him to walk to the sea? Where had he caught the boat? But when I asked, no one could give me answers. A few guesses – poverty had driven him out. As the eldest he had taken the decision to go in order to leave one less mouth to feed. But just guesses.That was it. A few tantalising facts and nothing more. How could the details of such an adventure have been forgotten in just one generation? Or had they never been told? Had my grandfather, like my father, been a secretive man?
Whatever the reason for the lack of detail, the spine of the story - a twelve year boy alone on the road – was fascinating. And over many years, while I wrote other stories, I kept thinking that one day I would use it as the basis for a book.