YOU can see Scafell Pike – the highest mountain in England – from the forecourt garden of the terraced house in which I spent my early childhood. From the back garden of the bungalow the family moved to when I was eleven, which is on the other side of the village, stretches a panorama of Lakeland fells, from Black Combe in the west to the edge of Helvellyn in the east. Few finer views exist . . .
I’m standing in the garden now, trying to fasten a saltire to a flag staff. I’ve never attempted this before, and I know that if my father’s watching he’ll be laughing and shouting the names of obscure maritime knots he taught me about forty years ago. But he can’t because he’s just died and that’s why I’m wrestling with the flag.
I suppose it’s the sort of thing you do when your father dies. After the initial shock, you pick yourself up and put on a brave face. Only it’s not a brave face – it’s a futile gesture that’s supposed to demonstrate that normality will resume and life will continue as before. But deep down – in fact not so deep down – you’re aware the world has changed, tectonic plates have buckled, and things will never be the same.
People fall into two categories: those who have lost their father and know what this is about, and those who haven’t but are aware it’s going to happen sooner or later. I suppose there’s a third category: those who have never known their father – but that’s complicating things and I’m not in the mood for complications.
I’m still struggling with the saltire when my brother arrives. Together we get it sorted and hoist it to half mast. It flaps like hell in the evening breeze, with the Lakeland fells – their high ground shrouded in mist – and cold northern skies forming a fitting backdrop. Thank God no one has found a CD with Flower of Scotland on or Danny Boy because that would be too much.
Emotions are strange things. I’ve been angry all day. Seething. Fathers aren’t supposed to desert their families. Fathers are the figurehead, the foundation, the provider, the defender. And it doesn’t matter that I’m 55 and my brother’s 53. He had no business slipping away in the early hours like a border reiver. And I’m angry at myself for being 100 miles away on the other side of the country at the time, and angry at my complete inability to have any influence over events. I can’t even fasten a sodding flag to a flag pole, for Christ’s sake.
And after the anger – which doesn’t quite dissipate and returns in bouts – come periods of quiet reflection, when you appreciate just what an adventurous, colourful and fulfilling life your father led. It was a life that took him into farm service in the hills above Sanquhar, to the Far East and war in Korea, and camping holidays in the Highlands and islands in the days when travel up the west coast was punctuated by a series of ferry crossings. He was a fell walker, fly fisherman, motorcyclist, home-movie enthusiast, gardener and – most memorably – an obstinate and argumentative Scotsman who after sixty years in exile retained his accent and national identity right to the end. If you’ve got nothing else to do, let me tell you a little bit about him.
My father once sailed through the heart of a tropical cyclone in an aircraft carrier. The reason for this, apparently, was that while the smaller and faster escort ships could get out of the way and did, aircraft carriers are slow and numb so there was no escape. Of the 1,300 men on board HMS Theseus during that storm, only four weren’t seasick and turned up in the galley for their dinner. My father was one of them.
My father was an aircraft handler, or “chockhead” as they are known. A chockhead’s job is to wrap his body around the chock under the wheel of an aeroplane while it’s revving up ready for take-off from a carrier flight deck. On a certain command, they roll out of the way, pulling the chock with them and allowing the plane to hurtle off with its deadly payload. There’s an element of timing to this.
My father was also involved in rescue and firefighting operations. We have a picture of him pulling an airman from a crashed plane. I suppose that makes him a hero. It does in my eyes, anyway.
He was also proud, as older men are when talking to those younger than themselves, of being escorted back to his ship by Maltese police after a drunken incident down The Gut in Valletta, of being put on a charge of “dumb insolence” for not paying sufficient respect to an officer, and being rushed to hospitals in Lossiemouth and Valletta for emergency surgery on duodenal ulcers, brought about by too much drink. I suppose that makes him a sort of hero too. Quite how he was awarded a Good Conduct medal is a mystery.
Previous to his eight years in the Royal Navy, my father was in farm service up the Crawick, a river valley that climbs above Sanquhar into the Lowther Hills. Traditionally, he should have gone down the Gateside pit – but with his own father being killed in a roof-fall at the age of 33, he was steered in another direction.
He didn’t tell me the details of his farm service until quite recently. We were wandering around my allotment and I was showing him my kale plants – an Italian variety called cavalo nero. Scottish farmers grow kale as winter cattle feed. He wasn’t impressed with my Rick Stein recipe for cooking cavalo nero in oil with sliced garlic. “Kale? It’s fur the beasts.”
My father walked from Sanquhar one Sunday and arrived at the farm late that night to report for work. The family were eating their supper. Because he had not contributed to the farm’s production, he was not invited to join them and was shown to his room instead. The room was the void between the slate roof and the rest of the house. There was nothing in the void except another young lad in a bed shivering beneath some old coats. No heating, no bed clothes, no supper. That was farm service in the late 1940s, in a Britain supposedly fit for heroes. And that was why, after a raw winter snecking neeps and cutting kale for the beasts, he joined the Royal Navy.
My father was a trier. He tried to ride his motorbike and sidecar over Hardknott Pass from the Eskdale side with my brother, me and mother in the sidecar. When the front wheel of the bike (which I think was an Ariel Red Hunter) lifted off the ground and we all screamed, he turned round and retreated. Likewise, when he drove our primrose yellow Anglia Estate to within sight of the summit of Bealach na Ba on the rocky road to Applecross and the trailer ripped the back end off the car, he was forced to retreat again for a big welding job in Lochcarron. But at least he tried.
But there were times to savour and remember. A two-day drive from Furness to Thurso, split by the hiss of a paraffin lamp and dancing moths in a tent near Perth; a Ford Consul – his first car – being slung aboard the St Ola with ropes and derricks in the days before roll-on ferries; a horrendous crossing to Stromness during which everyone on the ship was seasick except my father; fishing for trout from a boat on a black loch in the Orkneys; the remains of the German fleet in Scapa Flow and my father pointing out fascinating features and telling us about the tragedy of HMS Royal Oak; and the following summer, the entire family bedding down in the Anglia Estate after waiting three hours for a late-night crossing on the Strome ferry; walking in the hills above Loch Reraig and looking for golden eagles; catching a salmon in the Nith; buying fresh rolls from the bakery in Sanquhar and the smell of bacon, eggs and haggis frying in a pan in my gran’s kitchen. Scotland as it was and will never be again. I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing.
In 1976 I introduced him to fellwalking. He’d been staring at the hills from the back garden for long enough, and I’d been climbing mountains for just over a year. So off we went up Coniston Old Man on a fine summer’s day – and he was hooked. Along with my mother, he went on to climb most of the Lakeland peaks and walk the Cumbria Way from Carlisle to Ulverston.
Our best day on the hills, the one with the fondest memories, was Skiddaw. We ascended the traditional tourist route up the southern slopes from Keswick, then dropped down the back to Skiddaw House to spend a pleasant hour sitting in the paddock in the afternoon sun, gazing out across the emptiness to Great Calva and the northern fells.
Twenty years later, I sat in the same place with my own son. That’s probably why the memory has come to mean so much. I suppose I should sit there with my granddaughter – but she’s only two so I’ll give her a couple of years to get into boots.
So that was my father, Danny McFadzean. A life condensed into 1,600 words and a few pictures. The end of a voyage. The memories will live on.