This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald 28th March 2018.
Like many a Yorkshireman of a certain generation, Dad was a home bird, loved where he came from, and where he lived close to the North York Moors. He never sought to holiday in foreign parts, and for most of my childhood remained content to spend a week in the Lake District with the family once a year.
So you can imagine the enormous excitement when we learned that he was to go to a conference as a guest of the Mystery Writers Of America for eight days in the heaving metropolis that was New York. I was nearly 11 at the time and simply could not imagine what it was going to be like. When I looked in the atlas, it seemed so, so far away!
In his column from 1st April 1978, he had just returned from that trip. You can tell he was unused to big cities, and found it odd that Greenwich Village, the historic heart of New York, was called such a thing. I could almost hear the astonishment in his voice when I read: “The village was not like a village at all. It was like a large town…and there was no feature which could be linked with a typical English village.”
The food bewildered him too, especially the so-called ‘English muffin’ he’d ordered for breakfast, no doubt expecting a toasted bun with egg on top, but ending up instead with a cake with raisins sprinkled on it. I’ve no idea how he coped.
He was highly impressed by his visit to the World Trade Centre. Knowing that what he describes would be obliterated in such a horrifying way 23 years later makes it a very moving read. “The splendour of this building defies description, and although it is fashioned from concrete and glass, it enjoys a beauty which is remarkable by any standards…We ascended one of the twin towers of this building, using high-speed elevators, and found ourselves on top of 110 storeys…I could have remained there for a long, long, time, looking down upon some of the most famous and beautiful parts of the world. Central Park was a tiny green patch; the Statue of Liberty was like a Dinky toy, the cars were like insects creeping in procession along the street. And there was nothing living up there besides human beings.”
I talked about this trip when I visited my mum recently and she remembered it well, recounting a rather embarrassing story. Dad had taken some gifts, including a British police helmet and truncheon, which were items of some curiosity and amusement for his American counterparts who were more used to officers in peaked caps armed with guns. The helpful hotel receptionist offered to keep them in the safe until time to present them, and with stories of a vice-laden and crime-filled city at the forefront of his mind, Dad agreed. But when he went to retrieve them a few days later, you guessed it, they had vanished from the safe, never to be seen again. Unfortunately, it was one mystery the gathered writers were unable to solve!
I really missed my dad while he was on that trip, as he’d never been away from us for that long, and I spent ages creating a ‘Welcome Home’ banner to greet him on his return. Mum and I met him off the plane at Heathrow, having taken the train down the day before. We stayed with my aunt and uncle in that otherworldly place known as Cheam in Surrey where Dad had left our car, an old Mark II Jaguar, when he’d driven down the week before. With little awareness of life outside of our small North Yorkshire village, Cheam was as alien to me as New York was to Dad. And it’s funny that often it’s the small things you remember most. I can’t remember the moment I finally saw Dad at the airport, nor my 5’1” mum driving home all the way up the A1 in that great big old tank of a Jag, nor the look on Dad’s face when he got home and saw my banner. But I do remember the surge of joy I felt when my uncle had brought me a cup of tea upstairs in the morning. In my world, only grown-ups were allowed tea in bed, so I felt very mature as I sipped my cuppa, and decided that Cheam must be a very sophisticated place indeed.