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  • Writer's pictureBrian Thacker

I'm not eating any of that foreign muck

It was 20 years ago this week that my dad and I headed off for our adventure that became the book I'm not eating any of that Foreign Muck. A few weeks into the trip dad turned 73 - and he's just about to turn 93. He's had a few health scares recently, but he's healthy and as sharp as ever - and he's still telling the same jokes.

It all began because I wanted to know more about my dad's life. I decided I would take him on a physical and emotional journey back through his early life. When I explained my idea to him he wasn’t exactly wildly enthusiastic: ‘I suppose I could come . . . but I’m not eating any of that foreign muck!’

I took Dad to the pub for lunch to get an abridged version of his life so I could plan our itinerary and I learnt more in that afternoon than I had in the preceding forty years. I learnt that his Mum died when he was seven and, because his Dad was stationed in India with the army, he was sent to a children’s home. I learnt that he joined the navy at fifteen and was stationed in different barracks at far-flung places all over Britain. And, although I had already known he had been stationed in Malta, I didn’t know he had also spent long periods in Gibraltar, Sri Lanka and Singapore. The little jaunt back home to Mother England I was planning suddenly turned into an around-the-world adventure. Here are just a few of my (many) favourite moments from our trip:

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka We stayed at the Hill Club Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. The hotel had dress code for dinner and every gentleman within the confines of the hotel was required to don a jacket and tie. At seven on the dot, a butler came into the bar to escort us to the ‘jacket’ room. Inside the large room was a single walnut wardrobe full of dusty jackets, some of which dated back at least sixty years. Dad grabbed a fetching grey velvet number with a purple silk tie that made him look like Hugh Hefner. I went for the checked jacket and orange paisley tie. I looked like a pimp. The butler wasn't happy, though. He looked me up and down and politely said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, jeans are not allowed." I went back to our room and exchanged my scruffy and faded jeans for a fetching pair of Dad’s drip-dry slacks. At exactly eight o’clock, the Maître d' announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served’. In the baronial dining room, liveried waiters glided past the stags’ heads, yellowed engravings and starched linen tablecloths escorting guests to their tables.

‘I’ve got cutlery coming out of my ears!’ Dad said when we sat down. The table was set for five courses. Although everything did look quite grand, there was a hint of faded splendour. The waiters’ clean white gloves had small holes in them and the crisp linen tablecloth had a few stains. The food was nice, if not a bit boarding school. We started with a seafood pancake, then asparagus soup and rump steak for main—‘I’ll have mine well, well, well done,’ Dad told the waiter. It wasn't surprising then when dad said that the steak was, 'like eating the sole of a shoe.'

Curry Mile, Manchester The Curry Mile in Manchester is one single road in the suburb of Rusholme that contains over fifty Indian restaurants. As we cruised down the road I rechristened it Vindaloo Vegas. There was a neon war going on and each restaurant was trying to outdo the others with dazzling displays of bilious colours and flashing lights.

As soon as we sat down at one of the restaurants (and dad's first ever Indian restaurant), an Indian waiter approached and said in a thick Mancunian accent, ‘Ay-oop, would you lark a beer t’start?’

‘Would you like a Kingfisher beer?’ I said to Dad. ‘It’s from India.’

‘As long as it’s not made with water from the Ganges.’

Even the Indian music playing in the background was too much for Dad.

‘You’d think they’d put some bloody decent music on,’ he grumbled. As plates of food, including chicken tikka masala, rogan josh, rice and naan bread, were being set on the table Dad screwed up his face and said, ‘It looks like the dog’s eaten something that’s upset it.’

There was only a few mouthfuls of food left on Dad’s plate as he wiped his mouth clean and announced, ‘That was the best Indian meal I’ve ever had.’ It wasn’t quite an Indian meal, though. He’d ordered omelette and chips.

Historic Dockyard, Chatham, England Dad worked on a submarine in the Royal Navy in the 1940s and 50s. We went in a submarine at the Historic Dockyard Chatham. Dad was swinging between the decks like a 16-year old sailor. The funniest thing was the menu in the galley. Pinned to the wall was a week’s menu dating back to the 1960s (the Ocelot was completed in 1962—the last warship built at Chatham). I stared at it with disbelief. It was basically Dad’s meal plan for the past seventy years. There was roast beef and yorkshire pudding, cod and chips, sausages and mash, baked beans on toast, steak and kidney pie, corned beef and, for dessert, bread and butter pudding and trifle. It didn’t phase Dad at all that he had based his entire culinary life on a Royal Navy weekly menu plan.

Butlins Holiday Camp, Minehead, England When we were kids growing up in England, we would go to a Butlins Holiday Camp for our annual summer holiday. There are now only three Butlins left—at its peak in the sixties there were around a hundred registered holiday camps in the UK, including ten Butlins. The three remaining Butlins camps are Minehead, Bognor Regis and Skegness. We went to the Butlins in Minehead in Devon, and I got to see my dad a little drunk for the first time ever. It was our last night (of three) at Butlins and went to the mock-Tudor pub to watch England play France in the Euros. Dad immediately befriended a couple of lads (as he does) and we were soon in a shout with Bob from Bristol and Pete from Leeds. The only problem was that they drank like fish. By the time the match started, Dad and I had three full pints of beer sitting in front of us. England scored the first goal and the room erupted with a deafening roar. Bob celebrated by buying us another two pints of lager each. With only two minutes to go, and the Barmy Army singing winning chants, France scored two goals. When the whistle blew there was dead silence.

It was amazing. If England had won, the pub would have turned into an instant party. Within five minutes of the match finishing, it was virtually empty. Dad, who was quite merry at this point, said, ‘Bloody England, I’m going to bed.’ After a couple of hours or so—I was in that beer-induced time warp—an old fellow dressed in an England top and wrapped in streamers waltzed in with two tall blonde girls wearing incredibly short skirts draped around him. It was Dad. He’d attempted to go back to our unit, but couldn’t get anywhere near it because an all-in brawl was taking place right outside the door. (By the way, what is it about the English that when they lose a game of football they have to beat the hell out of each other?) While he was waiting for the fight to finish he met two young couples from Manchester and they invited him back to their apartment for a few drinks. One of the girl’s boyfriends had swapped shirts with Dad, so he was now wearing Dad’s fetching stripey number from Target.

Dad was grinning like the Cheshire cat and it wasn’t just because he had two leggy girls all over him. He was a bit drunk. I’d never in my life seen my father drunk.

‘We came here in nineteen-forty-shix,’ Dad told the girls as we staggered out of the nightclub. Dad was like a little kid. And I mean really like a little kid. He squeezed into a Postman Pat kiddie ride and put some money in. The rest of us jumped on the roof of Pat’s van and we all sang along: ‘Postman Pat, Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his black and white cat!’ When Dad jumped on the life-sized horsie ride and started belting out the theme from Rawhide, I suggested it might be time for bed.

Gozo, Malta On the island of Gozo in Malta I'd organsied a surprise for dad. Two Piaggio mopeds were sitting on the back of a trailer waiting for us out the front of our hotel when we arrived. I’d organised the bikes to be delivered to the hotel at eleven o’clock that morning from a place in the seaside resort of Marsalforn. There was only one small hurdle still to be overcome if my well- organised side-trip was going to be a success—I still had to persuade Dad to actually get onto a moped.

When I’d told him back in Australia that I was planning to hire mopeds in Malta, he’d told Mum, ‘There’s no bloody way he’s getting me on one of those.’ That’s why I decided to use the last resort of a desperate (and unscrupulous) son: a guilt trip.

‘You have to come for a ride with me,’ I pleaded as we pulled up in front of the lodge. ‘I’ve already paid for the bikes and they weren’t cheap!’

‘If you’re trying to kill me, I’ve got bad news’, Dad said. ‘There’s no money left for you.’

‘I haven’t ridden a motorbike in over fifty years!’ Dad said nervously as he got on his moped. He wobbled tentatively around the square for ten minutes then said, ‘I’ll only come for a bit and only if we go really slow.’ Five minutes later we were out on the open road and I sped up a little, hoping I wasn’t going too fast for Dad. A minute after that, Dad shot past me at high speed with both his legs in the air whooping loudly with delight.

By the end of the trip, not only did we have an amazing time, but I felt incredibly lucky and privileged to have been able to do it with my father. On top of that, we now shared a special bond. I have heard many people whose fathers have passed away say that they wished they’d got to know their Dad better. I think I not only got to know my Dad better, I got to know myself better, too. Maybe it's time for I'm Not eating of that Foreign Muck Two.

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