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The Photograph

Family archaeology

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

2016: I am writing about a nineteen-year-old Indian man who, in 1930, is sitting in a deckchair on a ship travelling through the Suez Canal. Anxiety at what he will find at his destination in England is far from his mind as Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar thumbs through textbooks, feverishly transferring numbers to his notebook. He is the first person in history to apply the new-fangled theory of quantum mechanics to dying stars and what he has discovered shocks him: if a star is above a certain mass, no force in the universe can stop gravity crushing it down to a dimensionless dot. The word for what the star will become will not be coined for almost four decades, during which time physicists will try, but fail repeatedly, to prove the impossibility of a ‘black hole’.

1972: It is the Spring meeting of the Junior Astronomical Society and my dad and I are sitting on rickety wooden chairs in Alliance Hall in Victoria, London, as a man on crutches makes his way to a lectern and clears his throat. My twelve-year-old mind is well and truly blown as Paul Murdin describes a monstrous supergiant star that is whirling around…nothing. The nothing, known as Cygnus X-1, is the first black hole ever discovered.

There is a connection – bear with me – between my being a popular science writer, my dad and the Suez Canal, although I did not realise this until last week when a photograph turned up at my mum’s. She has dementia and is often confused and anxious. It causes her to churn through her belongings, puzzling over where they came from or what they mean. Consequently, her flat is like an archaeological site, where, every day, digging uncovers new items. The photograph that came to the surface last week is one I had never seen before.

A few dozen young men are in a large tent, sitting at tables or standing, many with beers in their hands. It must be hot because several are bare-chested. In the middle, leaning against the central tent pole – one hand gripping it, the other on his hip, and looking cool in an unbuttoned white shirt with sleeves rolled up – is my dad, aged nineteen. The back of the photograph says ‘Me, Egypt, 160 Wireless. Dai’s 21st.’ I have no idea who Dai was or why the photograph is focused on Dad. But I know that he spent some of his two years’ National Service with the Royal Signals near Ismailia in Egypt, listening in to Middle Eastern radio traffic.

Ever since my dad died in 1999, I have puzzled over questions I never thought to ask him, and I think the photograph may help. The first question is why did he buy me Dr H. C. King’s Book of Astronomy when I was eight, take me to Junior Astronomical Society meetings and buy me a telescope, which I poked out of the window of our upstairs flat in North London, squinting at the jittery images of the crescent of Venus and the rings of Saturn above the shimmering orange haze of the North Circular Road? Those things ignited a lifelong passion for the stars, which led me to be a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and, later, a science writer, writing about, among other things, future Nobel prizewinner Chandrasekhar traveling through the Suez Canal.

The photograph got me reading voraciously about the Canal Zone. Starting in 1951, with the rise of Egyptian nationalism, Britain sent large numbers of troops to protect the route to the colonies. Among them were National Servicemen, including my dad. He had trained at Beaumanor Hall, Bletchley Park’s listening station in Leicestershire, and his job was to take down the dah-dit-dit of Morse Code. Reading the ‘Canal Zoners’ website gave me an appreciation of his experience, and one thing in particular caught my attention. The night sky, wrote a conscript, was ‘a velvet pillow of the deepest and darkest blue. And far more stars than we ever saw at home gradually pierced it with pin-holes of diamond-bright light.’

My imagination ran away with me. I pictured my dad, after a blisteringly hot day, trapped in a radio hut with a single whining mosquito. After hours of listening to mind-numbing static, he removed his headphones, went outside to smoke and, when his eyes adjusted to the dark, was awe-struck. During the wartime blackouts of his childhood, London’s night skies were as dark as pre-industrial times, but they would not have compared with the ultra-clear desert night sky, crowded with an impossible number of stars, creating an unbroken shimmering veil across the heavens. Was this what piqued an interest in astronomy that my dad later communicated to me?

Another question I have wondered about since Dad’s death is: Why did he have such ridiculous faith in me? Once, I mentioned to him that a friend had won a book prize. Without hesitation, he said: ‘You should have won that prize, Marc.’
‘But, Dad, I didn’t enter a book.’
‘No, you’re better than him, Marc. They should have given that prize to you.’
‘But, Dad’, I protested. ‘I didn’t even write a book that year.’
‘Look, I’m telling you, Marc. They should have given you that prize not him.’
‘But, Dad…’
By now, I was shaking my head and laughing. Nothing could dissuade Dad from his conviction that I had been scandalously overlooked for a prize for which I had not even written an eligible book.

My dad believed I could do anything. When I went to Caltech to do a PhD, my dad knew I would win the Nobel Prize for Physics and run the NASA space program. When I abandoned research and returned to England to try to become a writer, he assumed I would win a Pulitzer Prize. Dad’s unshakeable belief in me was comical. Where did it come from? The photograph makes me think maybe it was from a knowledge, obtained while in the army, of what he could have done had he been born into different circumstances.

For Dad, I believe, National Service was a confidence booster. He discovered that those he was mixing with – the men in the photograph, including some who had been to university – were no more intelligent than him. They merely had more life chances. Growing up in a working-class family in the austere, post-war 1950s, he simply did not have those opportunities.

But his son and daughter might.

Twenty-two years after Dad’s death I still carry his faith in me. Not only has it given me the courage to take the unconventional path as a full-time writer, but it has enabled me to weather the rejection that is part and parcel of the writing profession.

The photograph of Dad was taken in 1954. I do not know if it was before or after 20 June, when his favourite sister, Irene, died of an asthma attack. Her grieving husband took his two-year-old son away to start a new life. No one knew where they had gone. When, in 1997, Dad came to stay with me, having just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he talked a lot of this long-lost cousin of mine, Geoff, and, two years later, when Dad died, it became important to me to find him.

I succeeded in 2007, reconnecting Geoff with his family after 53 years. I even got him a photograph of his mother – whose face he had never seen – which now has pride of place in his house.

Dad, as a National Serviceman, was not permitted to return to England for Irene’s funeral. That, and I think the lack of control Dad had as an expendable conscript, changed him profoundly. On his call-up, he had been a Post Office apprentice, maintaining teleprinters — perhaps the reason he was assigned to the Royal Signals. But, on his return home, he turned his back on a job-for-life and, forever after, did a multitude of jobs where no one controlled him and he was his own boss. ‘Life’s too short to work for other people,’ he would say to me. And maybe, by osmosis, I absorbed that too. Perhaps that is why, a quarter of a century ago, I left my job as a salaried magazine journalist and, ever since, have made my precarious living as a freelance writer.

I continue to pore over that photograph of my dad in that tent in Egypt and am thankful for the insight it has given me. The reason he knew what I was capable of, I believe, is because he knew what he was capable of, had he only been given the chance. National Service taught him that.

Now I wonder what my mum’s dementia-induced anxiety will bring to light next. In fact, I know. Since the appearance of the photograph I have found a letter to my dad, dated 13 June 1960, over which Margaret Thatcher has scrawled: ‘This is my first success as MP!’ Ah, but that’s a story for another time…

Marcus Chown is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. His books include The Ascent of Gravity, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You and Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil.

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