Bruce Whitehead listened to Cole
Moreton talk about his on-off-on relationship with his father.
Cole Moreton, writer, broadcaster and deputy
editor of the Independent on Sunday, launched into a stream of consciousness
about parents at Greenbelt - how to communicate properly with them,
who they really are and who you really are.
"I want to explore that so people can go
out and engage with their families - it's a very difficult process
this. But it does have great rewards... especially if you have a
book to sell..!," he began.
Moreton read from his book: "There is a
silence peculiar to families that are keeping secrets. It's most
like the silence you hear when you enter a room just after a raging
argument has finished, when the angry words have died away but the
air is still agitated in their wake, still warm from the heat of
them; a strange unsettling silence, that falls on a room after a
"For those of us born long after the event,
the peculiar quality of the silence may be the only clue that anything
ever happened. We will not be told.
"Not even if we begin to suspect that something
in the past changed the lives of the people we love, and made them
who they are and stopped them from being who they might have been;
perhaps even crippled them; perhaps determined the shape of our
"The events that are never discussed are
fed by the silence until they grow larger than they were, and begin
to suffocate the people who will not talk. And the silence is passed
down, from father and mother, to son and daughter, and on.
"And all that is left to indicate the disturbance
is the agitated air, like the cold draught that lingers when a door
has been opened and closed."
"By my early 20s an uneasy truce existed
between myself and my dad. We didn't talk very much about things that
were important. We debated into the ground but never about the things
that really mattered to us as equals and we couldn't be in the same
room for long until an argument would break out. Those friends who
lost their fathers say that this is how the story ends sometimes.
"I was lucky because my dad had a heart
attack. It didn't kill him and as I think of friends not as fortunate,
it gave us extra time to talk to each other and to break through
this accommodation and get to what we were all about.
"I said, no he can't go, I need him, there's
stuff I don't know, arguments we haven't had, it's too soon, I need
somebody above me. These are the things I never said.
"We were trying to find a new way of talking
about work and football and politics and family. Then he took out
an exercise book and said: "I've been writing things down about
the stuff I think about in the night, about my childhood, the things
I wanted to do, dreams really
"I saw dense hieroglyphic writing curving
from the ruled lines. None of it made any sense to me. But that
wasn't the point. 'I'm trying to get it out of my head,' he said;
'it helps, I want to tell you about it, now we've got a bit more
"Maybe I was afraid of what he might say
and not want to listen, but we let it slip and eased back into a
way of being that was less tense than before; more understanding,
more grateful but still conveniently distant. The moment passed.
"When you become a father you move one step
up the ladder and you lose your childish faith in your father as
a hero pretty early on. But with a son of your own, you recognise
the struggles you're going through.
Dad did get well and sorted his life out and
about 3 or 4 years ago we sat in the pub, and things changed again.
He wanted to talk to me and tell me some stuff. It's a relief he
said, but why now I wondered. He'd been diagnosed with a malignant
tumour. They know their time's nearly up. After telling nobody for
so long, they're saying I need to get this off my chest and away
from me before I go. While I still have time.
"Which is how we ended up on a park bench
in Camberwell. He'd agreed to take me back to the place where I
was born. If you have a child it's natural that you find comfort
with each other, you hold on dearly.
And it happened to a whole generation during
the Blitz that the mothers and children became incredibly bonded.
But the fathers were alienated. They were advised: don't talk about
what you've been through, people in cities had it just as bad. People
wanted to move on.
"So my dad told stuff he didn't want to
admit. There was something hidden here that was provoking the silence.
It was that grandad (Bert) had been away and told his kids he didn't
see any fighting or danger and didn't want to talk about it. Fobbed
Dad had estranged relationship of unspoken anger
but I didn't know why or why it mattered. Until I was helping Dad
out together a presentation he was making. We were talking casually
about school and his mum. He suddenly said to me, "my mother
suffered from the family curse."
"My grandfather returned from the war to
6 years worth of family debt. Grandmother had been telling the tallyman
that Bert would pay. So there was a mountain of debt. They were
"He didn't like it. One day he went away
again for 2 years and lived round the corner with grandma's sister,
cycling past on his bike. The kids would see him. That had crippled
my father's relationship with his dad.
When he did come home after 2 years, he'd joined
the Salvation Army - he was trying to do the right thing. But he
still didn't engage with problems and sort out the debt problem
and say to Nan what's the problem here? or take the kids out of
it. So my dad blamed his father who could have rescued them. Why
did grandad do that? Dad said: 'You'll have to ask him.' He wanted
somebody to. 'I just can't get through to him.'"
"He didn't want to talk about it. Did you
do anything in the war? Not really. Behind the lines in France,
Normandy landings - had an illustrious career. Hand to hand fighting.
Wanted to get it off his chest. I checked the history books and
compared and more memories came out. At last there was dialogue
between my father and grandfather, but all of it through me.
"Grandad had his black leather bound book
- a book of prayers. It had been to all the battles he fought in.
'We'd become a bit like savages in the end. More like an animal.'
Was it hard to kill someone? I asked. 'Not in the artillery. But
in the infantry you have to defend yourself. You become barbarians.
I wasn't enthusiastic. We were told to spray the houses with machine
gun fire before we entered them. We never did it.'"
"'I saw some terrible things. Flame throwers
would be pointed at a house with German kids and they'd all be burned
alive.' Did he? I couldn't bring myself to ask. I saw murders he
said. 'I like what Paul says: My sins are in the past.'"
Reading from the book again:
"'This is how dad was in the best of days,
walking up the hill behind his house with his grandchild telling
him stories making him giggle and loving him without restraint.
The reluctant adult knew from the coughing that I'd soon be alone.'
"My 8 year old son Jacob came into my room
and noticed the flamethrower photo. 'Was grandad a soldier.' Yes.
'Did he kill anyone?' I don't know. 'Were they bad people?' I wanted
to explain but was tired. Yes. 'OK,' he said.
"My son thinks we're all heroes. And I wish
we could keep it like this forever. You'll probably mess up fatherhood.
And it'll be found out and someday someone will stand and yell at
you and say 'why did you do that?'"
"If they don't yell or just brood, you've
had it. So if he must discover that I'm not a hero, please God let
him come to me and tell me why not and perhaps we'll have a chance.
"My father has a chance to correct
me. I'm grateful that we've come to understand each other. And I'm
hopeful that everything which needs to be forgiven is forgiven on
both sides. The family curse was never depression. It was silence
and now its broken and I hope you're as lucky."
My Father Was a Hero