Sunday, 19 July 2015


Like many little girls, Daddy was my hero. Good-looking, popular, intelligent, strong, fun to do things with, especially: singing with gusto as we drove in the car (carolling our own ludicrous lyrics); escaping together on fishing expeditions (no matter that we often returned empty handed); building dams; and playing dragons - I remember, as though it was yesterday, squealing with a mixture of delight and terror as I tried to escape from my father and Lord Griffiths while they ran after me, their fingers curled like claws, snarling, roaring and hurling insults while they tried to catch me off guard. (Sir Hugh was a close family friend and a wonderful man with the most astounding eyebrows, a razor-sharp wit and such a sense of fun and compassion, especially for children, that it was almost tangible. It was with huge sadness that I read of Hugh’s death at the end of May; my thoughts are with his family and friends - he was an excellent father and husband, an eminent Law Lord, and a fine sportsman (President of the MCC). He will be much missed). 

Sir Hugh Griffiths
Sir Hugh made a mean but enthralling dragon (perhaps he learned his skills when he successfully took on a German tank single–handed in 1944 and won, which earned him a Military Cross).

My father and his friends had, and still have, a huge impact on me.

My father in his 30s
I gained my love of stories from Daddy’s bedtime tales when I was tiny (I still smile at memories of piglets leaping from balloons to be caught in blankets and animals crossing the rainbow bridge to dreamland) - his imagination helped my own to roam amazing lands and meet incredible creatures without fear (the on-going story of my life); 

his constant questioning, he is a lawyer, so it is in his DNA, has given me an enquiring mind; and, regardless of my gender, he always had faith in me (despite his disappointment at my not being a son, resulting in his eventually leaving my mother as she only gave birth to girls, and his treating me, his eldest, as a quasi boy until I was a teenager – there are potentially irritating down-sides to this: I learned traditional male manners and, even now, will automatically open a door for others and usher them through in front of me; walk on the kerb-side to protect my companion from mud and danger; and leap to my feet whenever a person older than myself joins the table.)

Perhaps the major positive of being my father’s eldest child was that I neither doubted the appropriateness nor my ability to do or try something. I never thought about my gender as an issue when growing up – I was just “me”. I was the leader of a gang (it was immaterial that the other members were all boys). We built camps (indeed a hollowed out mound, used as a secret retreat (it took us ages to excavate it), collapsed under the weight of a marauding relative during a game of dragons), we climbed trees and we competed against and encouraged each other in acts of daring and skill – carefree friendships based on trust and mutual exuberance – the best foundation for relationships with others at any stage in life.

Despite appearances, this post is not about an apparently idyllic childhood, but is the second of two concerning the influence that parents have on their children. I am writing this from an idyllic spot in Wales, where I am spending the weekend with my father and eldest son. We are relaxed and happy. I am very good friends with my father and I have joyful memories of my early years, but my parents suffered a turbulent marriage (my cousins once found me trembling and weeping in their shed, when I was convinced that my parents had killed each other during a fight). Things turned really sour when I was a young teenager. Eventually my parents underwent a brutal separation from which my mother has yet to recover. My siblings (a decade younger than me) remain hurt and bewildered by the angry and bitter environment in which they were raised. 

There is no doubt that fighting parents damage the emotional growth of children.  My youngest sister regularly berates me for having happy memories and a deep love for our parents – the difference between her and my attitude must be founded in the worlds that surrounded and influenced each of us as a child. We have different memories of our past, perhaps, as Carol Ann Duffy’s poem hints – we twist the facts to suit our individual outlooks:

Nobody hurt you.Nobody turned off the light and arguedWith somebody else all-night. The bad man on the moors
Was only a movie you saw. Nobody locked the door. 
Your questions were answered fully. No. That didn’t occur.You couldn’t sing anyway, cared less. The moment’s a blur, a Film FunLaughing itself to death in the coal fire. Anyone’s guess. 
Nobody forced you. You wanted to go that day. Begged. You choseThe dress. Here are the pictures, look at you. Look at us all,Smiling and waving, younger. The whole thing is inside your head. 
What you recall are impressions; we have the facts. We call the tune.The secret police of your childhood were older and wiser than you, biggerThan you. Call back the sound of their voices. Boom. Boom. Boom. 
Nobody sent you away. That was an extra holiday, with peopleYou seemed to like. They were firm, there was nothing to fear.There was none but yourself to blame if it ended in tears. 
What does it matter now? No, no, nobody left the skid marks of sinOn your soul and laid you wide open for Hell. You were loved.Always. We did what was best. We remember your childhood well. 
-       We Remember Your Childhood Well, by Carol Ann Duffy

Chatting with my eldest son yesterday, he commented that he doesn’t think that most people become interesting or exceptional until they have been challenged and even damaged in some way. Certain plants need to undergo fire before their seeds will germinate, such as the Jack Pine or the Giant Redwood, both of which have serotinous cones that remain sealed by resin, until the heat reaches 27 °C, and then the cones burst open releasing the seeds. Other plants, for example Oak trees, require severe cold for about a month for the stratification of the acorns so that they will germinate. In nature, harsh conditions often are required to enable growth. Looking into the childhood of many inspirational people, many of them share a connecting thread of hardship in their formative years:

Bill Clinton had a troubled upbringing with an abusive father who was an alcoholic and violent. In 1960, a 14 year old Bill and his 4 year old brother heard their father yelling at their mother, knowing that he was beating her and unable to take it any more, Bill grabbed a golf club and rushed to his mother’s defence, threatening to beat his father if he ever touched his mother again. It would be easy to assume that Clinton’s childhood influenced his actions in later life. As a politician, Bill Clinton championed the rights of children and families, passing various significant pieces of legislation, including signing the National Child Protection Act in 1993, increasing the number of children being immunised (less than 60% of 2 year olds in America were fully immunised prior to 1992), banning 19 of the most dangerous assault weapons from domestic ownership and he championed the Violence Against Women Act – the first federal initiative to address domestic violence.

Warren Buffet’s older sister Doris is candid about their childhood. Their mother was bi-polar and as a result often unpredictable and at times unpleasant. Doris was the primary target of their mother’s wrath and would frequently be belittled in front of her younger siblings – admonished for being stupid and graceless. However, all three children were always told that what they had done was not good enough. Interestingly, I spent much of my childhood in close proximity to Richard Branson (as our fathers worked and played sport together) – I noticed that Eve, Richard’s mother, was usually disparaging about his efforts saying things like “Is that the best you can manage?” Richard was dyslexic and had a difficult time at school, but he was eager to please people, especially his mother. I often wonder if her frequent criticism, early on in his life, helped give him the drive and determination to succeed on his own.

If childhood impact interests you, you might enjoy Cradles of Eminence - a book by Victor and Mildred Goertzel – in the mid 1960’s they researched and assessed the early experiences of 700 of the world’ most renown and successful individuals (e.g. Freud, Mao, Churchill, Gandhi, Roosevelt, Einstein, etc.…). 525 of the 700 came from deeply troubled childhoods. Most had at least one ambitious parent (many had dominant mothers); almost all disliked school but loved learning. The Goertzel’s concluded that many eminent people were driven by the need to compensate for their disadvantages, which had the result of turning them into over achievers. Clearly, I am not in the “Eminent Individual” category, but I do know that my father’s comment to me that I “have been a disappointment” to him since I was 14 (said to me in my early 30’s) has made me even more determined to plough my own furrow and create my own legacy. Like Bill Clinton, I found myself defending my mother when I was a teenager (and on more than one occasion had a black eye to prove it). I wonder if I my high degree of resilience and determination area due to my having to fight for others. My eldest son says that, in his opinion, since the age of 14 I have always put others before myself, and, by habitually doing so, I have become the person I now am.

I think it started sooner – I was a doted upon only child (my mother had 9 miscarriages before I was born) and, when I survived a very premature arrival, I was cherished. I had a very happy childhood.  I started writing a post about my relationship with my father on the announcement of Leonard McCoy’s death, earlier this year, but, due to a slightly challenging few months, it has taken me to now to finally collect my thoughts. In a way both McCoy and my father influenced me into becoming who I am. One of my happiest memories (and certainly the highlight of my school week, when I was eight) was when my father would come home early from work on a Wednesday evening. He always stopped off at the Chinese takeaway (there was only one near us in those days  - an exotic novelty). He would buy a bag of freshly made prawn crackers, which we would consume religiously, delighting in the crunch and the compelling way in which the snacks stuck to our tongues like Eucharist bread. Every Wednesday we watched the latest episode of Star Trek, which screened at 7.10pm.  Most of my friends loved Kirk, but admired Spock and often used his Vulcan greeting to people at school. Although fictitious, I found the logical, principled approach that the character applied to life pleasing.

With a moral compass and an outlook on life ingrained within me, I had a foundation on which to build when things changed. At the age of 10, when my first sister was born, my mother became ill and she was often bed-bound over the next four years. With little preparation, I found myself bottle-feeding and changing nappies for two little girls, and caring for them, while my parents’ marriage disintegrated around us. 

Me and my two little sisters

The desire to nurture others became deep-rooted. This is not a sob-story; I love my family, am on good terms with almost all of them, and I’m comfortable with who I am. I am grateful to both of my parents for the influence that they have had, like all of us my behavioural traits are deep-rooted and were formed and nurtured by my upbringing. Without my parents I would not be me. And on that note I shall sign off, as I am about to take my father and eldest son out to lunch.

Grandpa and eldest grandson having lunch

My father when a little boy

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