Keggie Carew | 'All this stuff was screaming at me'

Keggie Carew | 'All this stuff was screaming at me'

On 2nd March 2009, the Daily Telegraph ran an obituary of 89-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Carew, member of the Jedburghs special operations unit during the Second World War, and holder of both a Distinguished Service Order and a Croix de Guerre.

His exploits as a guerrilla soldier were extraordinary: in August 1944, aged 24, he was one of a three-man team, code-named “Basil”, dropped into France, south of Besançon, to launch attacks on the retreating Germans. Four months later, he was parachuted into the Burmese jungle; his mission to organise resistance, sabotage, ambush and gather intelligence on the Japanese. During these operations, he worked closely with the commander of the Burma Defence Army, General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sixty years later, his eldest daughter Keggie Carew, an artist, had more than enough material to write a thrilling memoir about her father’s wartime exploits. But, she tells me, “I was used to the guerrilla thing. The only way I could put my heart into a book about my Dad was if it was much more personal than that.”

We talk in the sitting room of her thatched house, which nestles in a bucolic valley near Salisbury. Later, she takes me into the shed where she writes. It is crammed with the letters, family diaries, cuttings, cards and numerous other sources she used to piece the narrative of Dadland together. On a ledge sits a box containing Tom’s Special Forces tie, his Burmese knife and an amazingly heavy field telescope. And, in a plastic wallet, the heart-rending notes in different-coloured biros, which he would write to himself to try and outwit his failing memory, to find a way through the jungle of the dementia which invaded in his 80s. “I have no memory of writing this. But it could not be written by anyone else, I must be going bonkers,” reads one. “All this stuff was screaming at me,” says his daughter. The seed for Dadland was sown when Carew accompanied her father to a 60th anniversary reunion of the Jedburghs. “Suddenly I was in this room with the most unbelievable octogenarian mavericks. I thought, ‘This is a pretty incredible story.’ And as Dad began to lose his memory, I was trying to retrieve that story.”

Carew set herself the challenge of capturing the wholeness of the “spectacular but really human” father who lurked, undercover, behind the obituary headlines. “I wanted people to love him but I didn’t want to tell any lies. Everybody was saying, ‘It sounds like two books, you can’t do it in one.’ I thought, bugger that, I want to do what I can’t do. That’s a typical artist’s reaction.” Iron trunks that came to light in the attic of her father’s house— where she was finally allowed to roam after the death of her stepmother—yielded a wealth of unseen family documents. Armed with these, along with research from the National Archives, she started writing and “sewing it together”, but for a long while despaired of making the material meld into any kind of whole.

Dadland roams compellingly backwards and forwards across the varied terrain of Tom Carew’s life. We track the fearless wartime Tom Carew in France and in Burma— and learn a good deal of enthralling military history in the process. We also encounter and come to know Tom Carew, the fun and fond father; Tom Carew the chaotic husband, whom peacetime career success eluded; Tom Carew the left-handed, stuttering, slightly disreputable maverick in a sarong; and most poignantly of all, Tom Carew, the vulnerable dementia sufferer who no longer recognises his own face. A complex but delightful man of many decades emerges. As is often the case, the delight is in the detail. “Dad was incredibly inventive and his way of thinking wasn’t like other people’s; it seemed to go round a few bends. He used to make trays with the handles on the long sides, so you could carry it through a door without scraping your knuckles. He couldn’t understand why somebody had invented it the other way around.”

But Dadland is more than a portrait of one man. It is also a book about a family, its best of times and its worst of times. There are unexpected walk-on parts for Patricia Highsmith, Prince Philip and Jeremy Clarkson, and there is plenty too about Tom Carew’s second wife Jane, Keggie’s mother, a society beauty from an aristocratic family who herself saw active service with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in the Second World War but for whom the frustrations and strains of family life led to the breakdown of both her marriage and her mental health.

While Keggie, born in Gibraltar during the happy early years of her parents’ marriage, remembers her mother’s breakdown and the battlegrounds of her parents’ disintegrating relationship all too well, she gained a clearer and “heartbreaking” understanding of the context of her childhood while writing the book. “As a child I had no idea what stress the family was under, and how difficult it was for someone like my Dad post-war. He had this incredible capability but there was no longer any call for guerrilla warfare, no call for his kind of inventiveness. And he wasn’t very good with money. My parents’ struggle really shocked me: how bad it was; how deep in the shit they were debt-wise.”

It’s now commonplace to say of memoirs containing misery that they are ultimately redemptive, but Dadland is the real McCoy in this respect. All the protagonists survived the strife and the sadness to find a kind of peace and contentment, including Keggie’s troubled late mother. “She was very bitter for a long time and it was very hard, but she came around at the end.” She remains close to her sister and two brothers, who have been “great” about the book, she adds.

Crucially, Dadland is also the story of Keggie herself, in which she describes what it was like to grow up in the “gravitational field of an unorthodox father” and then to break free from it and find an orbit of her own. “Dad saw a lot of himself in me, and we did get on incredibly well. But at the same time, living under that staggering amount of love . . . it’s a weight. His presence was so huge in every way: he had a big laugh and a big generosity. It was quite hard to imagine how one could exist without him. But also how one would find one’s own path and not be constantly influenced by him and his thoughts.” She writes in the book, tellingly: “I knew Dad was out of the ordinary and I wanted to be too.”

Ultimately and movingly, the closeness of father and daughter—strained for years by geographical distance and Keggie’s troubled relationship with her possessive stepmother—is restored during Tom’s twilight years, despite the challenges posed by his worsening dementia. “We got back to being very close again, and we did have some lovely times. There was nothing bad in my Dad.”

Dadland is a rich, stunning achievement: a feat of imagination and the sewing together of true stories. To say that writing it was a labour of love appears an understatement, both of the labour and the love. “There were so many threads to this book. It was like wrestling a beast or the maddest octopus you’ve ever seen. There were times when I was completely broken by it. But also I saw it. I saw it all beautifully down on the page”, says Carew. She admits to being both excited and terrified about publication. “I’ve been under the gravitational pull of this book for so long, so it’s really good to let it go and let it become whatever it becomes.”

This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 6th May 2016.