Opening a Pandora's Box
The process of writing my memoir Dadland was a battle. It was like taming a very unruly beast with oh! so many tails (tales!) pulling in different directions. One thing would lead to another - so many tantalising paths to lure me into the undergrowth. And just to make it harder, I followed them, left turns, right turns, deeper and further off what I had imagined was my general direction. I knew bits of it, amusing anecdotes he’d told, but Dad’s life turned out to be far more astonishing than anything I’d bargained for. I was led into worlds, with equally vast hinterlands which I found absolutely fascinating - behind the scenes in war rooms, spats between the great and the good … and the less good. The dying gasps of Empire. One minute I might be hovering over a Big House in Ireland with sheep slung around the perimeter fence with their throats slit in 1921; the next I was at a dinner party in Trieste sitting next to Patricia Highsmith; the next I was in the house of the mysteriously drowned director of the CIA (a plate of uneaten clams on the table). From deep in the jungles of Burma, or a mental asylum in Hampshire, I wanted not just to tell the story of my father’s extraordinary life and its contrails, but to unravel it, then inhabit it, from the outside in, from the inside out.
I had a clear picture of what I wanted in my head: a book of voices, a kaleidoscope of fragments that replaced chronology - the way memory and thoughts circle in our heads - of the past and the present, that would zoom in and out, through the machinations of history and family, to build an intimate portrait, yet make some sense of the complex whole. I was greedy. I wanted everything.
I could feel the pressure in the growing piles of material stacked around my desk - I had Dad’s two metal trunks full of letters, Granddad’s diaries, Indian newspaper articles from 1945 calling Dad ‘Lawrence of Burma’ and the ‘Mad Irishman’; there were wills and divorce settlements, citations, certificates, cables; Granddad’s gun license issued by the RIC in 1918. In tandem with the high adventure, old enemies, sleights and grievances jostled for a hearing. And I began to feel wretched. I was surprised my shed had not combusted with all the stuff in it. But I had opened the lid and I couldn't go back. There were times (many) when I thought it would get the better of me. The family stuff was emotionally complicated and very close, with quicksand not only in Dad’s life, but consequently in mine too. The only way for this story to resonate in a universal way, was to meet it head on. It was Life after all. And like any, it came with good helpings of jealousy, possession, grief, laughter (a lot of laughter), love, and sometimes anger too. Why censor any of these emotions? Teenagers can be angry and selfish. Stepmothers can be possessive and jealous. Mothers can go mad. Dads can have big egos. Write it how it was or don't write it at all. But to write it, to refract, distil it and shape it, meant facing it day after day after day. I needed to find Graham Greene’s ‘splinter of ice’ in my heart.
It was hard won. Reading Dad’s joyous letters home to his parents with interjections from Mum. Discovering photographs from happier times. Some truths were difficult to pear down to their essence, and exciting discoveries were sad not share with my subject, my father, who by the time of writing was suffering from dementia. And so I decided all that was going to go in too. I was raiding a life, all of it. And anything that came within its orbit. All this had to be stitched in alongside Dad’s irresistible charm and insouciant courage as a member of an elite special unit to raise guerrilla resistance in the Second World War - which meant I had to become the historian, to understand the background and context of Dad’s role. And there were pedestals to be knocked over too.
When it got too much, I would dive into good memories. Mum reading us the Just So Stories in her jungly voice. Treading Dad’s home made wine with our bare feet. Emotions are fluid. Thank god. In real time and in memory. They are vivid and then they pass. Knowledge is strength. But I won’t pretend it was all cathartic. There was a lot of pain, a bit of subterfuge (stealing/ignoring regulations), and some home truths I had to accept. I recognised that the state of Exile had rubbed off on me. The feeling of being an outsider, and the instinct of not so cleverly setting myself a part.
Yes. Dadland was like plaiting the limbs of a wild octopus.
All Images (c) Keggie Carew