During the second world war children were invited to the BBC to talk to their fathers fighting overseas. The programme was called ‘Hello Daddy.’ The photo is my brother Jeremy and me talking to Daddy, who was serving in Africa.
Morgan’s father in Cobwebwalking is based on my father, and, like him, is called Basil. Recently I was at the memorial meeting and listened to the lovely things Henry’s children said about him. My father, Basil, died nearly sixty years ago at the rather young age of fifty two. He was the thirteenth baronet, Sir Basil Mostyn, and came from an ancient royal Welsh family. Or, as someone once succintly put it, a family of robber barons. Daddy had been divorced from my mother several years earlier while we were living in Southern Rhodesia. I had fought to stay with Daddy, but in the end was forced unwillingly to return to England. Daddy married someone else but that marriage too failed and he spent his last years bankrupt, jobless and ill, back in his mother’s house. Recently my cousin Wanda took me to see his grave and seeing my horror at how dirty and neglected it had become, has had it cleaned and repaired.
I realised, at that memorial meeting that there was, perhaps, no one in the world except me who remembered Daddy with love. Perhaps no one except me who remembered him at all, and I felt a great sadness and wished I had been able to make a loving speech about him all those years ago, when he died. Then I thought, it’s not too late. It never is. I can talk about him now
When me and my brother Jeremy were little Daddy would get back from his office and rush into the nursery. He would romp wildly with us while our nanny reprimanded, ‘You over exciting them, sir. They will never go to sleep if you play such wild games with them.’ He would take me to the corner shop and buy squashed fly biscuits. ‘I promise you they are made of flies.’ I believed him. I believed him when he demonstrated eating a whole newspaper. He told me he could make the mowing machine start by magic. ‘You stand by it on the lawn and I’ll go inside the house and show you.’ And it really did start up, all on its own. When the war came Daddy built an air-raid shelter in my pony’s field then dashed to join up. He looked marvellous in his uniform, swagger stick under his arm. He vanished to fight with Monty in the desert. The pony fell into the air raid shelter and made a great hole in the roof. ‘So you can imagine how useless it would have been if a bomb had fallen on it,’ my mother said.
Daddy only came back on leave once, I think, in the whole of the seven years of the war. Jeremy and I were thrilled and impressed by his tales of desert battles, which included details like running out of water and being forced to pee in the lorry’s radiator. When the war ended he announced, much to my newly pregnant mother’s dismay, that we were to emigrate to Southern Rhodesia. There my parent’s marriage began to fall apart. My mother went back to England on two long holidays then vanished altogether, leaving me alone with Daddy. We went riding together, played liar dice till I fell asleep over the table, he took me to the pub with him, he taught me rude songs like ‘The ram of Derbyshire’ which we would sing together as I helped him with the work on the tobacco farm. He was more like a fun, irresponsible elder brother than a father. After I was forcibly brought back to England I kept in touch with him a bit, but I was enjoying boyfriends by then, and the life of a teenager, so that even when he returned to England some years later with his second wife, I didn’t see very much of him. Now, looking back, I wish I had made more of him then, but who was to know he would die so soon.
But out of that sadness, Daddy gave me something as he died. Almost the last thing he said was ‘I’ve made a mess of my life.’ I think it was because of his saying that that I have struggled so hard, and managed to get nine novels published, six of which are now reissued with Bloomsbury.