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.