The black-and-white photograph sits on the windowsill in my father’s care home. He and my mother are in a gondola. In any other city you’d be able to tell the era from the background or the cars, but Venice is a watery city built on larch and alder pilings. It’s only by taking a closer look at my parents that I can tell it’s the 1950s.
Gondolas are the romantic way to explore Venice, but in this portrait my parents might as well be alone in their black boat. My father’s bulldog chin juts out as he stares straight ahead. My mother looks away from him, straight at the camera. In her tweed two-piece suit she could be Donna Reid. My father, in jacket and tie and with hair neatly combed to the side, is leaning forward, smoking a pipe. Not smiling, he looks thoughtful, as if they are setting out to visit the cemetery island of San Michele.
I am 20 years older than my father in this photograph but, to me, the man in this boat is old. I look down at the 99-year-old in the bed.
Now that is old. He looks like an unbandaged mummy.I glance back at the picture. I can’t tell the season. My parents are dressed for cold weather. The British don’t expect sunshine, even in Italy.
My father seems to sense I am here and opens his eyes. ‘It’s you,’ he says, sounding angry. ‘I want to go. I have had enough. I’ve overstayed my welcome.’
I nod, say I understand.
‘How am I going to do it?’ he says.
I look at his tray of congealed food, his meal all mashed up.
He can’t wear his false teeth any more. ‘You could stop eating.’
‘I tried that, but I got hungry and it was boring.’ His eyes start to close, then suddenly flicker open. ‘How am I going to do it?’ he asks again.
I tell him what his grandson in New York told me. ‘Dad, if you ever get to 99 and are looking at the ceiling all day, I’ll fly to London and bring every Class A drug I can get my hands on. I’ll see you out in a haze of chemicals.’
My father raises his head from the pillow. ‘Can you call him now?’
We both laugh. He is quiet for a long time, then says, ‘I need you to give me some money.’
‘What for, Dad?’
‘To pay for the theatre we went to last night.’
‘The Gilbert and Sullivan.’
‘How much do you need?’
‘Two thousand pounds.’
‘That’s a lot for the theatre.’
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but then there was the meal afterwards at Mon Plaisir.’
He looks at me sternly. ‘You know perfectly well what I’m talking about.’
I won’t disillusion him. He hasn’t moved from this bed for over a year. Besides, he is falling asleep, the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth. Seeing his tongue like that reminds me that it’s a trait I’ve inherited. When I’m concentrating on a physical task, like carrying dinner plates down a flight of stairs, I too stick my tongue between my teeth: a foolish thing to do. The slightest stagger and it’s bitten.
This is something he did when confronted with getting his lawn mower to start, trying to jam a bamboo stick in hard ground to hold up his tomatoes and, more in character with the man and who he was, replacing a ribbon in his typewriter. The lawn mower and tomatoes could always wait, but never the Imperial.
In the Second World War, my father was a neurologist in the Royal Army Medical Corps and treated servicemen who suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He wrote up his conclusions and, in 1943, submitted a paper to the RAMC Journal titled ‘Minor Psychological Disturbances in the Services’. A year later, he published ‘Somatic Manifestations of Psychoneurosis’ in the British Medical Journal.
At the end of the war, the editor of the BMJ, Hugh Clegg, offered my father a job but, after meeting him, changed his mind. He told him that he was too radical for an establishment journal and advised him to apply for work with The Lancet. He did and was there for 30 years, the last 12 as editor.
Throughout my childhood, my memories are of my father spending evenings and weekends proofreading articles or writing the following week’s editorial. I can still see the long scrolls of text stretching across the floor of his study.
I loved going with him to his office in Adam Street, off the Strand. The Lancet entrance smelled of wine as the building was immediately above Sichel’s cellars, the Bordeaux wine dealers. That and a musty dampness. The marshy banks of the Thames once stretched up to the Strand before the construction by Joseph Bazalgette of the Embankment with its road, underground line and gardens.
The next time I visit him he is eating his lunch. I clean the sides of his mouth with his bib and he looks at me sternly.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m your son, David.’
‘Oh,’ is all he says.
It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that this man, who once edited a magazine held in high regard throughout the world, is now so confused.
His editorship of The Lancet was part of a long series of radical editors which went back to Thomas Wakley, who worked with the social reformer William Cobbett in the 1820s. My father’s predecessor, Sir Theodore (Robbie) Fox, was a Quaker and a pacifist ambulance driver on the Western Front in the First World War. The present editor, Richard Horton, is responsible for reminding the world that the Iraqi war and occupation very likely took in excess of a million lives.
I stare at the wilting rose on his bedside table. ‘Who gave you that?’ I ask.
He smiles. ‘An admirer. I have them here, you know.’ ‘How’s lunch?’
‘Good. They have a new chef. She’s excellent.’
‘You met her?’
‘I went to the kitchen yesterday.’
‘How did you manage that?’
He smiles. ‘You know. First left, second right.’
My father had a few catchphrases and this was one he always used when asked for directions. I lift a spoon of something to his lips and he chews at it for ages, as though it’s rare steak. As I lift the spoon again he says, ‘The potatoes are particularly good.’
I look at the mush on his plate and wonder which pile is the potatoes.
The catchphrase my father used to trot out after Sunday lunch was ‘The best roast potatoes since last Sunday’. My mother’s potatoes were to die for. She would parboil them, drain the water, shake them until the outsides were flaky, then place them in the meat juices which had been kept boiling on the cooker. Well basted, they joined the roast meat in the oven. The result – crispy, hard skins and cotton wool inside. I’ve never been able to achieve her results. Is it my electric oven? (My mother’s was gas.) Was it the potatoes? The quality of the meat and its juices? Is it my memory, like my father’s, playing tricks on me?
I arrive to find him holding his arms out. I lean down to kiss the top of his head. He brings his left hand down to touch mine. He doesn’t have the strength to hold.
‘Look at this arm,’ he says. ‘It’s thinner than the right.’
I can’t tell the difference. They are both thin; the veins look like they want to break free of his skin. With each visit he’s becoming more skeletal, receding from life.
My father had been one of the first medics to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated. I remember him telling me how British troops handed out high-calorie rations to the prisoners and that thousands died because they were unused to food.1
When I was a small boy, he showed me photos he’d taken in the camp. Barrows full of corpses with limbs trailing on the ground. Faces with protruding eyes. The pyjamaed living carrying the naked dead. Bodies lying on top of each other in mass graves. He kept these photos in the bottom drawer of his roll-top desk. When he was at work, I used to take them out and stare at them with horror and fascination.
When I was sorting out his desk after he moved to this home, they weren’t there. I would like to have asked him what had happened to them, but I am left to guess his motives. Perhaps he felt guilty about what had taken place in Belsen, that he could have intervened to stop the disastrous food handout. Perhaps he just felt guilty to be in such a place at such a time. That was something I had learned some years before for myself, when I, too, was a helpless witness to death.
Today I tell him this will be a quick visit as I am meeting a friend. He asks what the time is. I push the large clock on his side table towards him. ‘Three o’clock.’
‘That clock has a story to tell,’ he says, then adds angrily, ‘It’s not mine.’
‘Whose is it?’
He is struggling to remember. ‘I can’t put it together. My mind ...’ His sentence falls away, replaced with, ‘Thank you for coming. You’ve done your duty. Go.’
I kiss his head. ‘I love you, Dad.’
‘À tout a l’heure.’
When he wants to say something emotional, he always slips into French. When I was a child, I didn’t call him Dad. He was Pa or Papa. I remember that I was often frightened of him, especially on days when I’d upset my mother who would say, ‘Wait until your father gets home.’
Even when I thought I’d done nothing wrong, I knew he would take
her side and that I would be banished to my room with his harsh words following me up the stairs. He only hit me on one occasion. With a belt. When I saw what was about to happen, I locked myself in the lavatory which only delayed the punishment. I can’t remember what I’d done to deserve the beating. Normally, his looks and words were punishment enough.
His mother had had a devastating effect on him. She never held him, kissed him or showed the slightest bit of affection for him or his sister, Dilly. Whenever I asked him about his relationship with his mother, he always returned to the same story about her terrible snobbery. How in Harrogate, where his father was a spa doctor, he’d once brought a friend home for tea and his mother wouldn’t allow this boy into the house again because he spoke with a Yorkshire accent.
He never talked about his father, Hector. I know nothing about him except that he died, aged 59, of a heart attack. Perhaps he kept himself busy with his spa patients so as to spend as little time as possible with his wife. ‘Don’t leave me with that woman,’ he pleaded with Dilly when his daughter left home for the last time.
My father did have a nanny, Alice Pinder, who retired to Streatham. I remember we used to visit her there on our way to the skating rink. In my father’s words, ‘she was unburdened by education’.
My grandmother’s coldness and cruelty had its effect on my father; he found it almost impossible to express emotion. When my mother tried to touch him tenderly he would recoil. With us children he could be warm and funny, but he rarely kissed us or gave us hugs. He spent his life letting his love out bit by bit, escaping in slow motion from the destructive effect his mother had had on him.
In 1972, following a car crash, my mother had an operation for a cerebral haemorrhage which had the same neurological effect as a frontal lobotomy. For the rest of her life, she needed to be looked after. My father took early retirement to become her full-time carer. He would help her dress, cook her food and hold her hand when she slept in her chair. It was only late in life, and as a result of a personal tragedy, that he was finding a way to express his affections.
This time when I arrive, my father asks me to draw the curtains. He says the sun is in his eyes. I tell him it’s raining.
‘Close them anyway.’
I push the Venice picture against the window. I look at his defiant chin and think, He’s always been obstinate. Perhaps that’s another trait I’ve inherited.
I tell him the news. How there is an Occupy movement spreading across the US and Europe. That it had started in Tunisia and Egypt. That I’m on my way to St Paul’s to visit the occupiers camped out there.
His face lights up. ‘Good for you,’ he says. ‘Will there be a
I smile. It’s not just my tongue-between-my-teeth and his obstinacy I have inherited, but also his politics.
Travelling across Salisbury Plain in October 1956, the A30 is blocked with military convoys on their way to Southampton to be shipped to Suez. Israel, France and Britain have just launched an attack on Egypt after President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal.
My father is crouched over the steering wheel. ‘That bloody man.’
‘What bloody man?’ I ask.
Anthony Eden. The bloody Prime Minister.’
My mother taps his arm, turning round to look at my sisters and me in the back seat. ‘Don’t listen to your father,’ she says and turns back. ‘Really, Ian. Remember the children.’
I am transfixed by the column of desert-camouflaged tanks, Bedford lorries and Land Rovers and want to know why my father is so angry. As an eleven-year-old, it looks pretty exciting. ‘Where are all those tanks going?’
He spends the rest of the journey telling us, my mother interrupting with. ‘Ian, stop talking so much and keep your eyes on the road.’
I remember that during the seven-year Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, I would watch the BBC News, appalled at images of black men waving spears. The commentary was full of praise for ‘our boys’ holding back these ‘terrorists’. If my father was in the room, he would angrily remove his pipe from his mouth and say, ‘We shouldn’t be there’.
Sixty years later, the BBC returned to the Kenya insurgency, this time to report the victory of survivors of British terror in the High Court in London. We now know that 70,000 men, women and children were held in concentration camps and that many were subject to torture by British forces.
I tell my father I am writing a book about my life.
‘Good. You have a lot to say. You always did. I hope I live long enough to ...’ His voice drops away.
‘I’ll read it to you.’
‘Is there anything ready?’
He asks me this every time I visit, but I’m nervous about reading my book to him. He will either not like what I have written about him, or will ask me not to mention him at all. He has always been modest. When he was interviewed on BBC radio, he insisted they introduce him as editor of The Lancet, without his name.
He was passionate about speaking and writing coherently. He’d be sure to find my grammatical and syntax errors. Even a missing comma, he said, could have a dramatic effect. He told me that just before the Battle of El Alamein, in November 1942, the Daily Express had printed a headline, EIGHTH ARMY PUSH BOTTLES UP GERMANS. And just as funny, perhaps with his mother in mind, he’d add another, ‘Let’s eat Granny’.
I want to ask him questions about his family. There are big gaps in what I know, but it’s unlikely he’ll remember now. I
I keep it simple. "Has Thomas been to visit you”, I ask.
Thomas Dormandy is my father’s oldest friend. He used to write for The Lancet. He was the author of books on the history of tuberculosis, pain and opium. He would take along pages from his latest work and read them to my father. I think Thomas did this because my father was always brutally honest with his comments.
‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘He’s too ill to come here.’
I don’t know how my father knows if Thomas is ill or not, but Thomas is Hungarian and I had hoped this might be a way to ask him about the refugees who stayed with us in 1956.
In October of that year, demonstrations broke out across Hungary, demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The government fell and Imre Nagy became Prime Minister in the middle of a revolution. Workers and students set up militias; troops tore off their insignia and joined them on the barricades. Police were killed at street corners, as well as some Russian soldiers. It seemed that the few remaining Soviet troops would withdraw. But on 4th November they returned in large numbers. The workers and students only had small arms and Molotov cocktails. Thousands were slaughtered. Lucky ones fled.
My father and mother found homes for two of them, a young couple, Lorencz and Ester. They arrived just before Christmas. Lorencz stayed with us and Ester went to the Schields’, my parents’ bridge partners. My father told Mr Schield that, as refugees from Hitler, they had a duty to return the favour.
I was fascinated by Lorencz’s stories of how he and his fellow fighters had climbed onto the Soviet T-34 tanks and hurled petrol bombs inside. How they had lost many comrades and how grateful they were to have a new home, thanks to my parents.
When Ester came to visit her boyfriend, they would cook goulash, which made a change from my mother’s steak and kidney pie. They were always cheerful, but it was only a front. I remember waking at night to hear Lorencz sobbing in his room.
After leaving us, they went on to qualify as dentists, marry and settle down in Kent. Every Christmas they would send us a card. Ten years after they’d arrived in this country, they rang my parents and said they wanted to visit. They turned up in a Rolls- Royce. My father watched as they turned in to our drive. ‘Betty, you answer the door.’ He pointed at the car. ‘Look at that.’
‘It’s a Rolls-Royce, Ian,’ my mother said. ‘They have done well.’
He slammed his study door shut. My mother welcomed them. ‘Ian’s been very busy this week. He’ll join us soon.’
She left Ester and Lorencz with my sisters and me. I could hear her whispering loudly outside his door, ‘Ian, come out now. We have guests. Ian, do you hear me?’
While I gobbled up the delicious puncstorta jelly roll they’d brought, the conversation was as frosty as the cake’s pink icing. My father was disappointed at their success. I suppose he expected them to be revolutionary dentists in Sevenoaks.
It’s early May 2012 and my father is going to be a hundred. I tell him about the arrangements for his birthday. ‘It’s your centenary next weekend, Dad. Family and friends want to visit.’
He frowns. ‘What do you want for your birthday?’
‘For you to give them the wrong address.’
‘You’ll be getting a card from the Queen.’
‘I’ll send it back.’
‘Shall I bring some vodka?’
‘Don’t get me started. I’m proud I’ve been sober for ...’ He pauses and looks around the room, ‘... years.’
Ever since my mother died, I’ve brought him a bottle of vodka on his birthday. For most of his life he’d been a beer drinker. I remember the large bottles of Whitbread in wooden crates. He’d have them delivered and the empties taken away. He loved going to the pub and used to tell me he was surprised he graduated, as most evenings he was boozing with other medical students.
As he got older, he drank at home with my mother who enjoyed her evening fling at the sherry.
My parents loved giving sherry parties. They were usually on Saturday evenings and guests were invited from six to eight. There was dry and sweet sherry for the women and whisky and soda for the men. There were also cocktail sticks stabbed into squares of cheddar cheese and pineapple. My father would get angry if any of the guests trespassed beyond 8pm. Later at dinner he’d say, ‘Norman was asking for a whisky when it was time to go. Some people take advantage of one’s hospitality. Not to mention my liquor.’
A regular guest at our house was Karl Henrik Køster, a Danish neurosurgeon who wrote for The Lancet and who’d met my father in Bergen-Belsen when they were both serving in the RAMC. 1 They became close friends and my sisters and I called him Uncle Karl. Because he always came to stay in December, this large man with his deep voice and Nordic accent was Father Christmas, though now I realise he looked more like Karl Marx.
Uncle Karl always arrived with a large bottle of Cherry Heering, a Danish liqueur, and gifts for us children. I remember the nine-inch-high brightly-painted wooden soldier with its red tunic and blue trousers. It had moveable arms and a detachable lance which was quickly lost.
Karl Henrik was a surgeon at Copenhagen’s Bispebjerg hospital. After operating on a wounded member of the Resistance, medical students asked him to help hide 40 Jews while their escape by boat to Sweden was organised. But how to get them into the hospital? Karl Henrik organised a ‘funeral’ with dark cars, black clothes and flowers. 140 turned up and all of them had to be hidden.
He then arranged for ambulances to take them to the coast. In all, he and his hospital saved 2,000 Jews. Then their luck ran out. One day, when leaving his apartment, he passed the Gestapo on the stairs. They asked him where Dr Køster could be found. As he left the building, he passed the body of a medical student shot in the back. He then followed the same route as those he had helped save and escaped by boat to Sweden. He made his way to the UK and joined the British army.
His wife Doris was at home. The Gestapo imprisoned her.
My father lost contact with him when he retired from The Lancet. The last he knew of Karl was when he heard from a mutual friend that he had, as my father put it, ‘taken up with his secretary’. He had no idea what happened to poor Doris.
Karl committed suicide in the 1980s and didn’t live to see the 1998 Disney film made about his life, Miracle at Midnight. Directed by Ken Cameron, it starred Sam Waterson as Karl and Mia Farrow as Doris.
I recently came across words of his explaining why he acted as he did. ‘It was the natural thing to do. I would have helped any group of Danes being persecuted. The Germans picking on the Jews made as much sense to me as picking on redheads.’
What with Uncle Karl and the Hungarians, I had contact at a young age with people who’d led dangerous political lives. Karl Henrik’s booming voice and wry humour has stayed with me. It has always been important to be able to see the funny side of the grimmest experiences. There is always a Springtime for Hitler.
It’s July and my wife, Anne, and I are planning a month away on the Croatian island of Mljet. I’m nervous about leaving my father and tell him I won’t be seeing him for a long time.
‘Lucky you,’ he says. ‘Not having to see me.’
‘Promise to hang on until I get back.’
‘I promise,’ he says, then smiles, ‘but if I break my promise,it will be because I forgot I made it.’
My father was a man who kept his promises, faithful to his friends and to his wife.
‘I never had any affairs,’ he told me after my mother died.
'Are you saying that with regret?’
‘When you marry, you have a duty to your partner for life.’ He had few friends, but those he had were lifelong.
A nurse brings my father a cup of tea and a Rich Tea biscuit. ‘Thank you,’ he says, as though he’s been given a gold watch. ‘Very kind.’ She leaves the room and he adds, ‘They’re all crazy here, but the biscuits are good.’
His eyes close and I stand up, ready to go. He opens his lids. ‘Are you leaving?’
‘I thought you were asleep.’
‘I will be soon. I’m on the short list. The short list for death.’
It’s getting dark so I push the old photo back against the window before closing the curtains. I notice that damp has got inside the frame. The bottom of the gondola is now buckled and white. I look at my mother’s carefully permed hair and want to ask him about her. I touch his arm. ‘Dad, how did you first meet Mum?’
My sister, Liz, told me they’d met at Smokey Joe’s, a night club in Soho. That my father had turned to the friend he was with and said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’ He asked her to dance and she said she was with a member of the band. He said, ‘You can still take a chance.’ At the end of the evening he asked her to meet him the next day at Speakers’ Corner adding, ‘If you come there, we will spend the rest of our lives together.’ He arrived with a red rose and there she was, waiting for him. But I want to hear this story again, from my father. It may be my last chance.
He looks at me and smiles. ‘Go,’ he says.
I get up to leave and kiss the top of his head. ‘Je m’ennuie,’ he says.
‘You’re bored,’ I answer sadly. ‘I understand.’ ‘Tous les jours. Enough.’
1 In The Belsen Trial by Raymond Phillips, 1949, Brigadier Glyn- Hughes describes the scene that the British found at Bergen-Belsen: ‘The conditions in the camp were really indescribable; no description nor photograph could really bring home the horrors that were there outside the huts, and the frightful scenes inside were much worse. There were various sizes of piles of corpses lying all over the camp, some in between the huts. The compounds themselves had bodies lying about in them. The gutters were full and within the huts there were uncountable numbers of bodies, some even in the same bunks as the living. Near the crematorium were signs of filled-in mass graves, and outside to the left of the bottom compound was an open pit half-full of corpses. It had just begun to be filled. Some of the huts had bunks, but not many, and they were filled absolutely to overflowing with prisoners in every state of emaciation and disease. There was not room for them to lie down at full length in each hut. In the most crowded there were anything from 600 to 1,000 people in accommodation which should only have taken 100.’