James Delingpole

My amazing dad has found the secret of a happy life

It’s just taken me a while to notice

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

This week I wanted to tell you about my amazing dad.

He hasn’t died or anything. I just thought I’d get in there with my panegyric quick while he’s still got most of his marbles and before he’s lying in a coffin quite deaf to all the nice stuff I’m about to say about him.

So: my dad. What prompted this was a chance remark he made the other day about having left school at 15. Fifteen? ‘Well I wasn’t enjoying it,’ he explained. ‘And Dad said he couldn’t afford the fees. So it made much more sense for me to come and work for the family firm as a lathe operator. I loved it. It gave me independence and I was earning money.’

Now if you were to meet my Dad, you wouldn’t guess his education was so basic. He’s uber well-informed on all sorts of subjects from contemporary China to the Battle of the Bulge to ancient Greece, and at 79 he must be one of the most dedicated silver surfers out there: spending as much as 15 hours a day trawling the internet, mainly for stories about one of our shared obsessions, environmental lunacy. If you had to hazard what he did for a living, you’d probably guess retired professor, rather than Midlands nut-and-bolt manufacturer. And that, for me, is both my dad’s tragedy and his triumph.

For most of our shared life, I didn’t give much thought to this. You know how it is with dads: at about 13, you move on from your adoring, hero-worship phase into thinking he’s a total loser embarrassment prat and please God let you never become like him; then later comes the resigned acceptance stage when you take your dad for granted, expecting him to remember the kids’ birthdays and help out in emergencies and be there on the phone for you when your life is falling apart.

But what you rarely ever do till much later is look at your dad as a person in his own right. You assume, by the time he’s hit 40, that his useful work is done. He probably doesn’t still have a sex life — at least, euugh, you hope he doesn’t — and the best of his career is behind him. His job, from now on, is to put you through university and to make sure there’s enough left in the kitty to give his grandchildren a reasonable inheritance.

Then you hit middle age yourself and — with your own kids viewing you rather as you used to view your dad — you begin to reassess the situation: ‘Hang on. I’m not dead yet and I’ve probably got a good four decades ahead of me. How do I deal with this? Is it going to be OK?’ So you look to your dad’s life for guidance.

In my more callous, selfish youth this is the very last thing I would have done. All I could see in my dad was pitfalls to be avoided. I wished he could have been a better businessman because then I would have had a valuable company to inherit. Also, I would have preferred him to be a bit grander and more exciting. For example, during his time in the military, I would have liked him to have fought in Korea and maybe won an MC leading his platoon at the Imjin River. But in real life, he wasn’t even an officer: just an NCO in the RAF based in Hong Kong, where his job was to sit on top of a mountain eavesdropping on Chinese fighter pilots.

What I didn’t appreciate then, as I do now, is that you can only play with the cards you’ve been dealt. As an unqualified early school-leaver, my dad was never going to be an officer. Which is what makes what he did achieve — being selected by the RAF as a translator and sent on a crash course at Soas to learn Russian and Mandarin — so remarkable. Somehow, his intelligence must have shone through and afforded him the brief taste of academe that family circumstances had threatened to deny him.

If my dad could have his life all over again, I’m sure what he would have done is become an academic. Or failing that, he would have stayed in the RAF and become a senior intelligence officer, probably rounding off his career as a boffin in some secret MoD offshoot like maybe the old Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern. Definitely not be a Midlands nut-and-bolt manufacturer.

I know this because of what he has chosen to do now that his time is his own. When he’s not on the internet or going on long country walks (I’ve been watching him carefully for signs of decrepitude: none yet, which augurs well for my genetic inheritance…), he’s organising military-themed holiday tours with expert guest lectures or giving illustrated talks himself on divers subjects (the Elgin Marbles; China along the Silk Road; the Fall of Constantinople…) for packed, enthusiastic audiences at the U3A.

And he’s happy. Really happy. Probably happier, more optimistic, more fulfilled than he has been at any time of his life, despite the odd creaking knee and brief bout of skin cancer and the fact that he lives in a tiny bedsit not much bigger than the cages where we used to keep our family iguanas. It’s not like when he had money he ever much appreciated it: he was too busy being depressed and staving off suicide with lithium.

The pride dads feel in their sons is rarely returned until it’s too late. So before it is, I’d like to say how proud I am of my dad. From his example I have learned maybe the most important lesson any father can teach his son: that life isn’t about the random strokes that fortune deals you, but about learning to make the best of what you’ve got.

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  • Kitty MLB

    What an interesing thread and thoughtful son you are dear James.With todays busy world and children living so very different
    lives to their parents that alot goes unsaid.
    I lost my father quite young but i remember my father who was an academic and obsessive mountain climber and obsessed with the
    unusual music of the 40s including a bunch of female singers..
    who sang wearing a uniform.He was eccentic and I remember him
    Popping me in a small boat abroad somewhere and sending me
    off so I’d know how Odysseus felt.Not sure that would be allowed now.

  • WFB56

    A great column James, thanks.

  • mikewaller

    Buried in the midst of a very nice piece is the evidence I and other believers in human-made global warming have been waiting for: GW denial is an inherited disease! [:-)]

    One other thing, the piece James wrote last week about the sheer poverty of most modern TV documentaries hit the nail right on the head, something far from unusual with his TV work. I therefore wonder if he could pursue a possibility that occurred to me some years ago. We are supposed to live in the age of interactive television. If we abandoned visible, usually attractive female, presenters – as in “Fiona Bruce in front of some royal palaces” – and reverted to “the voice of God” format, as used in the golden years of Horizon documentaries, would it not now be possible to offer viewers a range commentaries starting with the extremely simple and progressing to the “only Noble prize winners need bother”? The choice would be made via the handset.

    • Kitty MLB


  • Suzy61

    Very touching James. I hope your old Dad is just as proud of you.

    • Kitty MLB

      Yes It was touching, James is a thoughtful chap.

  • spazz

    James is so bloody talented. So wonderful to read this. Hope your Dad does well. Must be so proud of you. Well done, James!

    • Kitty MLB


  • greyhoundsaregreyt

    James, I love you. A really great appreciation of your father. And you’ve said what I’ve been thinking for a while, that it’s not what happens to you in life that matters, it’s what you do with it. God (whoever or whatever it/she/he is) does not believe in equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcome.

  • Jingleballix

    Good piece.

    My dad must be one of the only lance-corporals to complete his National Service on Friday, and commence studies at Cambridge the following Monday.

    A man who inspired a prominent poet – and yet built a motor car.

    It’s true – we don’t appreciate them highly enough………..mothers too.

  • 70sgirly

    He sounds like a great guy, you should be proud of him James.
    I would just love to see a reply from your dad in the comments.

    • little islander

      there was a letter in the Letters couple of weeks ago.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “he’s organising military-themed holiday tours with expert guest lectures or giving illustrated talks himself on divers subjects (the Elgin Marbles; China along the Silk Road; the Fall of Constantinople…) for packed, enthusiastic audiences”

    Try diverse, Jimmy.
    What a $uckwit. That error jumped right out of the page.

    • George Smiley

      “Divers” in an old-fashioned sense also means “several” in English. Go back to your English-language clown school in Japan, you idiot!

      • bufo75

        The “recommend” button does not seem to work here, so I’ll just commend a nice bit of “troll-bashing”.

        • Nick

          I’ll second that. We may see divers commentators in due course.

          • bufo75

            A Great Crested Grebe will go underwater for “divers” reasons and come up for “sun-dry” purposes !

          • Sundry (pronounced “sundri”), not “sun-dry” please, thank you!

          • bufo75

            Not everyone would have got the “joke” !

          • I think one is already quite enough as him being both the uninvited squatter and also the live-in joker!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        You can always rely on Jock the ignoramus to come out in support of error. Anything to disagree.
        -diver, one who dives
        -diver, various types of diving birds
        -US/Canadian: Loon
        That’s you in a nutshell, Jock

        • AUTISTIC LOON.

          This Autistic Japanese troll from their Japanese 2chan troll site would just never admit that he is ever wrong, would he?! What are you going to tell us as to what do you do for a living, next? That you travel to sell Japanese whisky and Japanese farmed salmon in Scotland?!

    • ugly_fish

      divers (ˈdaɪvəz)



      a. various; sundry; some

      b. (as pronoun; functioning as plural): divers of them.

      [C13: from Old French, from Latin dīversus turned in different directions; see divert]

      Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

      • You are wasting your time on an Autistic crazy little loon, a so-called and a self-styled “Japan Alps Brit” who only uses (the on-line version of) Merriam-Webster!

    • Joyce Hackney

      I read ‘divers’ as the right word. It’s a synonym for ‘several’.Diverse means something else.

  • bufo75

    James’ piece, by a son lauding his father, contrasts strongly with that in the Mail yesterday, where Tom Utley feels constrained to castigate his 4 “slovenly” sons and then blames himself.
    Tom is right in that young men need to realise how much appearance affects a potential employers’ judgement, but he’s certainly not the only parent who feels that he’s made life too comfortable for his offspring.

    • Lina R

      So many parents do practically everything for their children, that it keeps the children infantile even in adulthood and stops them thinking for themselves or standing on their own two feet.

      • bufo75

        So often it’s just boys who have the problem, fear of rejection runs deeper in males.
        How to handle the job interview should be taught to all school leavers.

        • Joyce Hackney

          How to handle a job interview – and how to get that far by writing a coherent letter of applicaton in the first place – was certainly taught when I was leaving school in 1963. The last I heard it still is, but possibly the practice is not as widespread as it once was. Something like 25% of young people stayed on at school an extra year until they were sixteen to take ‘O’ levels and most of us then expected to go straight into the workplace. Some of those who’d already left at fifteen had not just taken whatever ‘dead end’ job they could get,and we’d been sternly warned against, but had gone into apprenticeships or onto a college of further education to take different qualifications.
          We needed to know how to make a good enough impression to be taken on by an employer who was going to have to put up with us for years while we trained in whatever career we were after; the teaching to us school-leavers focussed more on how to get the job we wanted than on how to apply to university in two or three years’ time. Now that schoolchildren all have to stay until they’re eighteen regardless, perhaps that will change.
          About 20% of sixteen-year-olds,if that, went into the sixth form to do ‘A’ levels and a fairly small number of those continued their formal education after that.
          A handful of people went to university or other form of full-time higher education at that time and perhaps a similar number graduated through their civilian job or in the armed forces. There were millions of non-graduates in the workforce, many of whom were in occupations that had not demanded any paper qualifications to enter. Older, still – working adults had left school at thirteen or fourteen,as did my parents, and the recently-retired had been twelve or younger. This did not mean the intelligent ones among them necessarily felt held back or starved of intellectual stimulation. On the contrary : those who’d chosen not to,or had been unable to take a degree course had not all ceased to use their brains upon leaving the classroom. I recall just as many discussions in my teens and early twenties about politics, social issues,books,religion and current affairs with friends and colleagues as ever took place when a few years later, after taking A-levels by correspondence courses and day-release classes, I became a full-time student and then a teacher.
          My father had left school for an apprenticeship (paid for by parents in those days ) the term before his fourteenth birthday and never regretted it. During the war,as a result of his experience teaching his own apprentices,he was given the task of instructing wounded young officers in craft work during their rehabiltation. Not long out of school,the young officers were addressing my father, an NCO,as ‘Sir’ out of habit. The army couldn’t put up with that and so took him away from the valuable work he was doing and packed him off to officer-training where he liked the food but hated the theory.He never forgave the army for making him go back to what he thought he’d escaped from what was half his life ago.
          He was less than half the age I am now and it is only in my own retirement that I’m appreciating how young my parents were when they,like the rest of the population, were
          rebuilding their lives in the latter half of the nineteen forties. I can hardly believe they managed so much.

          • bufo75

            All good points !

  • HamtunscireKippa

    Very good stuff. It made me think of my father who is a similar age, raised in the 40’s as one of 8 by his single mother after his dad walked out. He left school at 15, joined the Navy, travelled the world, then in his 40’s started a business and sold a company with a turnover in the millions. He wasnt supposed to get anywhere in life, but he didnt listen. I am proud of my dad too. He still cannot operate a mobile phone though…

  • TincanMars

    Beautiful words

  • Liz

    A caring son might be staging an intervention over a father who lives in a bedsit and spends 15 hours a day on internet conspiracy theories.

  • Peter Sim

    good read.