If my books ever get into print, I won’t be the first author in my family. I’ll be following in the footsteps of my self-made, complicated, but always interesting father who died three years ago today. He was 80 years old and had been suffering from pulmonary fibrosis for three years. The drugs he’d been taking had kept his symptoms largely at bay, but on January 3rd 2008 he took a turn for the worse. By the time it was clear he was dying, it was too late for me to get to Britain to see him one last time. On that last day, he called me to say goodbye though he could hardly draw enough breath to speak.
My father’s book Sunrise Europe was published in the UK in 1986. In it, he argued for the countries of Europe to pool their resources to create a Europe-wide electronics industry that could challenge those of Japan and the US. He made a cogent and well-argued case for what even he knew was a lost cause. (You can read more about his career as an IT pioneer in his obituary in The London Times.)
The most remarkable aspect of the publication of this book was that my father had left school in 1941 aged only 14 with not a qualification to his name. To help support his mother and much younger brother, he became a telephone engineer – shinning up the poles and tinkering with the wires in all kinds of weather. He found he was becoming interested in the principles behind his job, so he enrolled in night school classes. Because his studies were interrupted by his two years of national service in the British Army, he became eligible for the UK equivalent of the GI Bill, which paid for him to go to his local university, the University of Nottingham. (Where he became Captain of the Fencing Team – that’s him in the photo above – was elected a member of the student council, and met my mother.) Within six years, he’d earned a BSc in Electrical Engineering and a PHD in Physics and had been headhunted by Bell Labs in New Jersey, the most prestigious research facility in his field.
My dad came to love writing. He studied Churchill’s speeches for their rhetorical fluency and thought an elegant sentence used to express a worthwhile idea was an achievement second to none. He was delighted that my own inclinations lay in that direction and was always supportive and enthusiastic about everything I wrote and published.
In that last terrible phone conversation, I told him I’d be dedicating Children of Eden to him and my mother (from whom he had been divorced for 20 years but was still friendly). It’s yet another reason why I feel pressure to get the book written and in print. To quote from Martin Amis’s memoir Experience about the death of his own father:
“The intercessionary figure is now being effaced, and there is nobody between you and extinction. Death is nearer, reminding you that there is much to be done. There are children to be raised and books to be written. You have got work to do.”