Starman – across the final frontier with Kenneth John Brown (1930–2015)

My father, Ken Brown, died at the weekend, and while I’ve previously offered sage advice that you need to keep your blog focused – no dancing cat videos on a travel blog – I think I’m allowed this one tangential journey to celebrate the life of an extraordinary man.

He was, in any case, far more of an adventurer and traveller than I’ll ever be.

While the 18-year-old me InterRailed around Europe on a well-trod backpackers’ circuit, my 18-year-old dad had cycled to France and back – camping out under the stars in a Europe recently torn apart by war.

Spain, Ghana and 47 other countries

He drove mum to Barcelona in 1958 for their honeymoon – when Barcelona was a dodgy port city with attitude and not a designer lifestyle destination – and two years later got a teaching job in Ghana, West Africa. They came home with me – I was born, not acquired – and dad continued to travel, as he established himself as a teacher and, later, as an overseas technical education specialist.

In all, he worked in 47 different countries, from Sierra Leone to the Seychelles. That’s worked in – not just visited – and it’s still more than the total number of countries I’ve seen as a professional travel writer. He mourned the desecration of places like Iraq – a country that he’d visited in less quarrelsome times and had been received with great hospitality.

And yes, as I surely never would, he’d eaten the proffered sheep’s eyes and chickens’ gizzards at various diplomatic dinners. Bit tough and slippery, apparently, the old sheep’s eye.

Dad was miffed he never got to work in 50 countries, though as he also visited at least another 30, across Europe, North and South America, Asia and the Pacific, he didn’t do so badly. Together with mum, he travelled overland from India to Nepal, flew around Mount Everest, gazed upon Machu Picchu, walked on the Great Wall of China, crossed the prairies of Canada, and saw the sun set over Uluru as they drank champagnge from the back of a jeep.

His travel stories were many and varied, and we loved them all. “Johannesburg?”, he’d say, “The hotel told me it was too dangerous to take a walk outside, but I thought that was ridiculous so I went for a stroll. Got pushed over and robbed within 50 yards”. That was one of his favourites.

Dad was an internationalist in every sense of the word

Dad was an internationalist in every sense of the word. He saw people, where others see countries and borders, and he exposed our family to a life shared with other cultures.

For example, I have a Ghanaian birth certificate – signed by one Basil Raymond Robinson Rainbow, who must surely have had to emigrate to Ghana simply to escape the endless ribbing about his name. My sister Joanna got grass skirts from Fiji; the first babysitters we ever had were dad’s Cypriot students; and the first wedding meal we ever went to was an Indian banquet at a house in Huddersfield.

We travelled together in later years, dad and I, to Spain and Portugal. I’ll come along to help with the driving, he said, and 2,000 miles later he still hadn’t so much as sat in the driver’s seat. He navigated, which involved me saying “as long as we don’t have to drive through the centre of Barcelona, I’ll be fine” and him saying, “OK, turn left here”, which entirely predictably led to driving right through the centre of Barcelona in rush hour. “Hm”, said dad, “perhaps it was right”.

We would find a hotel, retire to our rooms and come down in time for dinner, dressed in almost identical ‘Man About Europe’ travelling outfits. Mum bought dad’s clothes for him in Marks & Spencer. I have no excuse. We’d then study the menus and, without consultation or agreement, order exactly the same thing – cured meat and salad, steak, crema catalana, red wine, brandy and coffee. The waiters must have been killing themselves with laughter.

But I surely don’t have to point out by now that being exactly like my dad is the greatest aspiration I have left.

Resourceful, determined, kind, inspiring and brave

Resourceful, clever, determined, kind, welcoming, accepting, encouraging, inspiring and – above all, in these last difficult days – brave. I’m not enough of any of those things, but dad gathered all those qualities up into a human-sized bundle and shared them around the world for almost 85 years. Lucky old world.

I put my faith in people and not gods, and think that this remarkable life on this remarkable planet in this remarkable cosmos is all we have. To use the words of Charles Darwin, there is grandeur in this view of life – and I rejoice that we are made of the very stuff of stars, which has evolved into endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, including the carbon atoms – the stardust – that made up my beautiful, wonderful dad.

My dad, the Starman

So, Starman – as your atoms disperse, it’s off back into space again across the final frontier. It’s a hard journey to make on your own, but we’ll all be there with you, one day, after our own remarkable travels.

Just remember dad, it’s left at Alpha Centauri.

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31 Comments
    • Jules…..Not only was your Dad all of these, he was also a friend and colleage to many of us at Holly Bank (Teacher training college, later Huddersfield Polytechnic) He inspired the International Office and encouraged many of us to travel, working! not holidays, as you say.

      I have visited countries, including Ghana, which without Ken’s help I would never have done. He always asked if you had bumped into so and so, or been to the ..this or that.. did you eat salad! and did you survive, and a thousand and one prods of interest. Knowing he was speaking from broad experience there was no fooling him either!… All the Ex Holly Bank staff remember Ken with great fondness and take pleasure that we knew him and had him as a friend.

      Tom Anderson

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  1. What a beautiful homage to a man of the ‘old school’ under-stated, modest, helpful, kind. I’m not sure our over-privileged generation could ever make do and mend in the way that our parents generation did. This is writing from the heart.

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  2. I have tears in my eyes, Jules, and I offer you my deepest condolences. A man like your Dad is touched by and touches many people, someone who lives that Team Humanity spirit that I talk about and believe in so much. Sounds like he was a unique and special bird. Fitting that he was a teacher. Open minded and curious, and so generous to want to share it all. How lucky you are to have had him so close to you and to have shared passions and adventures. Tell his story over and over, Jules. It’s a very good lesson, especially in these times.

    My own Dad is 83. A musician who has known one thing in his life. Music. I am happy that in 57 years I have arrived at a place where I can understand, admire, respect, enjoy and even find him endearing. It will be hard when he is no longer. I already know that. You have you story about the left turn. My story is my first flat tire. My Dad happened by as it was near where we lived. He said “Oh, you got a flat? Ok. See you at home.” And he left. Angry and frustrated as I was, he taught me to be capable and independent. I hope I have imparted something on our three boys. Life is a continuum.

    Take your time to grieve and celebrate, Jules. All of it will be replaced by a glowing warm spot in your heart. With tender sympathy. Karen

    >

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    • Thanks Karen, I appreciate it. My dad would have fixed the tyre. Actually, first he would have sapped and processed the rubber, then made the tyre. And then sent a stern letter to the tyre manufacturers.

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  3. Oh Jules, you had me laughing and crying at the same time. I’m so sorry for your loss, so glad you had such a wonderful man for a dad and that you got to spend so much quality time with him in later years. His starry particles would love this tribute to him.

    P.S. This is exactly what a travel blog should be about. There are all kinds of journeys. This may be the best one this blog — really, many blogs — has taken me on: brilliant heartfelt writing in a character study that takes the reader around the world.

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    • Edie, thanks so much. The stars will be being organised as we speak – when, as a species, one day we reach the distant galaxies, we will undoubtedly find that they have been put in alphabtetical order and have a little name badge each.

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  4. Dear Jules, I was so sorry to hear about your loss! What a wonderful obituary, I didn’t know that your dad had travelled that much, and now I know why you’ve got that travel bug as well. I’m sure you’ll keep Ken in loving memory. With sympathy, Günter

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  5. Jules – I don’t know you at all yet feel strangely connected to you now and that is purely down to your gifted writing! I can’t possibly imagine the void your Dad has left behind! I’m sure he was incredibly proud of you though – that much definitely shines through. Your Aunt – Mary Harding shared this with me – as I was close friends with Matthew and the boys in Jebba, Nigeria so this story really struck a personal chord for me! As much as your story was painfully sad – it was also fabulously uplifting to read! I dearly wish I had known Ken Brown!

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  6. What an amazing and truly heartfelt tribute to your dad, so sorry for your loss but know he would truly love your final blog dedication to him. Having lost both parents in the last few years know it’s a fairly impactful time on many levels, but what a wonderful tribute to your fear dad. Pam Kemp ( nee Zubak) former classmate of yours,1978, Almondbury Comprehensive School xx

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  7. From Jo’s letters over many years, I feel like I knew him. As a parent now, we all aspire to being lovingly remembered and hopefully admired by our children. He nailed it!! A very touching tribute to a wonderful father, who I’m sure is smiling down on you and Jo.

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  8. Jules, so sorry for your loss. It’s been some time since I saw your dad, but your extremely eloquent and touching obituary made it feel like only yesterday. Wonderful words, and I’m sure your dad was just as proud of you as you were of him. My very sincere thoughts are with you, your mum and Joanne.

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  9. Jules,

    As you know we had not met Ken. That indeed was our loss. Since his illness, as we enquired about him, we got the impression of a very independent and vibrant personality. Your obituary filled in all the gaps in our knowing of him. How fortunate you were to have had such a wonderful, intelligent and great all round human being for a Dad. You and your sister Joanne were indeed blessed.

    We bet the stars are now rejoicing at his return. Love to you and all your family.

    Brian and Catherine

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