Dadland review: Riddle of a dad who made an ‘almighty cock of it’

Keggie Carew’s quest to solve the puzzle of her Dublin-born father’s event-filled life includes war and peace – and a fascinating mother

Sat, Jul 30, 2016, 01:35

   
 

Book Title:
Dadland: A Journey into Uncharted Territory

ISBN-13:
9781784740771

Author:
Keggie Carew

Publisher:
Chatt & Windus

Guideline Price:
€18.99

What is it about the lives of others? Narrated after the fact, they can seem so offhandedly heroic – even, and perhaps most strikingly, when they are veering off course.

Thomas Carew was born in Dublin in 1919. “An Irish stew in a Carew line of grain merchants, sailors and fishermen, up and down on their luck,” writes his daughter, Keggie Carew. The family fled to England when Tom was two years old, after the Big House where his father was a farm manager had been torched.

Educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, Carew joined the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, in 1943, as a Jedburgh. The SOE had been set up by Churchill to wage irregular warfare, and the Jedburghs were parachute teams comprised primarily of men from the SOE, the American Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA), and the Free French. Operating covertly, they led and aided resistance inside the occupied territories.

After France, Carew went to Burma, where the British were attempting to wrest back control of the country by helping the Burmese oust the Japanese. Carew, who sided instinctively with the colonised, believed strongly in an independent Burma. Long after the war, he described himself as “one of the first good terrorists”.

Dadland see-saws between the distant past and Carew’s last years – he died in 2009, deep into dementia. The author does an impressive job of sorting through mountains of records, recordings, official archives and family diaries and letters to create a coherent and sometimes compelling narrative of her father’s wars.

“They move at night, learn the sky; sleep in a shepherd’s shelter, a haystack, a convent, a barn, a tent in the trees made of parachute silk . . . They are eager, dirty, and alive. This was where it started. What Dad called being his own man. How would anything measure up to this?”

How, indeed. There were intelligence postings in Finland and Trieste (where he was pally with Patricia Highsmith), then four cushy years in Gibraltar training cadets. But a man who thrilled to guerilla warfare was bored in the peacetime military, and in 1958 Carew retired as a lieutenant-colonel, returning for good to “grey, jobless, post-war Britain”.

Father puzzle

This is a fascinating question, about the people we can or cannot become, and how circumstances thwart or liberate us, and the author explores it in nervy, elliptical, affecting prose.

By the time he retired from the military, Carew was on his second marriage, to Keggie’s mother, Jane (who, to my mind, steals the show here). In Fareham, underemployed and with four children to feed, the couple was plagued by money troubles. The pressure of debt, Jane’s anger at her increasing isolation, and the tension between herself and her live-in father-in-law were catalysts for her rage, which infected the household. There was much smashing of furniture among family members, sometimes over each other’s heads.

Jane eventually had a breakdown and ended up in nearby Knowle Mental Hospital: “Hers was an existence in limbo, barred windows, empty sky. Mum must surely have wondered how far from Trieste and Gibraltar could she impossibly have come, from their cottage on the Rock . . . and their aviary, and their corn-on-the-cob barbecues . . . From there, to this.”

Jane cuts an interesting figure. Born in Pakistan, descended from the illegitimate issue of William, Duke of Cumberland, she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry at 18, trained in codes and cyphers, and in 1943 was posted to India. Later there was the long, nightmarish home life and illness; at some point, her involvement in intelligence activities seems to have recommenced.

Upon Jane’s death, her children found among her things several clippings about Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan mujahideen commander who was killed by al-Qaeda in 2001 – evidence, Keggie concludes, of “the MI6 work she never discussed”.

At Knowle, Jane began slipping her medication under her tongue, weaning herself off; miraculously, she pulled herself together. But the marriage was over. In 1976, Carew married again, to a woman Keggie refers to throughout as “Stepmother” and with whom she had a terrible relationship.

Rebellious, and wishing to impress her once-adventurous father, Keggie eschewed university and wandered the US and South America for two years. (Her father insisted she take with her a letter from then-CIA director William Colby, a former fellow Jedburgh, which saved her bacon one night in Kentucky. ) Eventually she returned to England. Time passed. Her father finally, bizarrely, made a go of it with Percy Coutts, which taught people how to secure interviews and jobs. Keggie settled down, became an artist, married.

Then, one Christmas, a family gathering was held at Tom and Stepmother’s house, to which Jane was invited. The reader doesn’t know much about how Jane has spent the ensuing years, and it’s astonishing meeting her again. Thirty years of bitterness have evaporated. When Stepmother behaves ungraciously and Jane hardly blinks, Keggie marvels that after everything that has happened, and even through the cancer that is already raging through her, Jane conducts herself with dignity and grace.

“But these are her years, the very few that she has left and she is filling them with good things for us to remember her by.” Jane died in 2001 and Stepmother two years later, leaving Keggie, finally, with unhindered access to her father.

Carew’s was an unlikely life. A man who was most himself in the Burmese jungles, bearded and wearing a sarong, but who spent decades with a woman apparently appalled by the unwashed guerilla in him. A man who had trouble landing a job but founded a successful career consultancy business. The subject of a moving memoir-cum-biography, written by a daughter who came to know him as he was forgetting his own name.

Nothing here is easily resolved, and Dadland chafes against its own subject in rich ways. Maybe what matters is best summed up by Jane, to whom I’ll give the last word. Also found among her things after she’d died was a note she’d written, attached to a clipping about her former husband: “For old times’ sake otherwise even the good years will not count for anything.”

Molly McCloskey is the author of Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother. Her new novel, Straying, will be published by Penguin Ireland next year