Dom Joly: A voyage around my (very English) father

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The Independent Online

At the moment, I'm down in the South of France visiting my dad. This morning, we played the first round of golf that we've ever played with each other. Fortunately, I didn't totally embarrass myself. He's 83 years old and he still beat me, but he's not the type to rub it in.

He and I have pretty much been estranged for most of the time since my teens. It really helps our relationship to have something like golf in common. He is quintessentially English. It's always been easier for us to talk randomly about a subject like golf or cricket than have to tackle anything in depth. In the old days, our cricket conversations used to last for a few minutes and then we'd sit silent in mutual misunderstanding until a waiter or a phone call would save us.

I've been trying to analyse that whole concept of "Englishness" recently. I've been travelling the world trying to work out why we drink so differently from other countries for a TV series I'm making. It's the contrast between two very different types of Englishness that is interesting. The first is convinced of our superiority over all other nations, and sees a trip abroad as an opportunity to get smashed, then assert our supposed superiority over Johnny Foreigner by having a bit of a riot and claiming some remote corner of a Belgian bar as a piece of Blighty. The second type, to which my dad certainly belongs, is secretly equally convinced of the essential superiority of the English over all other nations, but feels this superiority is reward enough and that it would be churlish to point it out to anyone.

Last night, he pulled out some old family papers from his study and gave me an extraordinary document to read. It was a report written at the request of the Foreign Office in 1919 by my great-grandfather. He and his 20-year-old son, my grandfather, were English residents in Beirut at the beginning of the First World War. As such, they were taken prisoner by the Turks along with some French and Russians. They were transferred first to Damascus and then up into Turkey. For four years, they endured some appalling conditions - disease, extreme cold, hunger - and were witnesses to the large-scale massacre of Armenians by the Turks.

My great-grandfather's report is dry in tone and almost unbearably stiff-upper-lipped about the horrors they endured and witnessed. The most extraordinary moment in this most "English" of reports comes near the end, a year before they were released. My great-grandfather writes: "An argument ensued and I was knocked down by some Turkish soldiers. My son, who intervened, was stabbed."

My grandfather had apparently rushed in to help his father and had a knife plunged into his back for his troubles. This wound was to affect him throughout his entire life and my great-grandfather was very badly beaten up, and yet the whole incident is dismissed in a single sentence. Nowadays, this kind of experience would have been ammunition enough to warrant an entire novel, a subsequent drama series and a lengthy career in politics.

My father, who fought in the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, has his own extraordinary tales that he rarely shares with anyone. It makes me very proud and not a little humbled by what they all went through, and it becomes clearer to me now how my adolescent gesturing and cod-rebellions must have looked to those who had known real hardship.

I suppose it's one of the real positives of getting older; having the opportunity to become aware of your own inadequacies and to appreciate what those who went before you achieved and endured. I'm even luckier to have had the opportunity of learning some of this from my own father.

All this aside, I'm still going to try and thrash him at golf tomorrow. But, whoever wins, we'll give each other a firm handshake and say: "Well played." No need to go overboard. It's the English way.

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