My father was a hero
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Date: 03 August, 2004

Cole Moreton


Above, Cole Moreton. Click on the book cover below to purchase and raise money for Christian Aid projects.

'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.'


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.

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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 row.

"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 own lives.

"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 time.'


"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 them off.

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 evicted twice.

"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."

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