My Dad. Scientist, engineer, aquanaut, racing driver, yachtsman, adventurer, philanthropist. Ambitious, driven, restless, passionate, romantic, generous.
I mean ‘hero’ in the sense of Odysseus battling gods and monsters across the sea in his quest to return to Penelope and Telemachus. When I was young, he was this amazing figure who was as handy in a laboratory as he was under the bonnet of a car, and as useful under the sea as he was helming a boat over it. He encouraged me to participate in things most girls were too busy swooning over boy bands or collecting Cindy accessories to consider — I dived, sailed, snorkelled, beachbombed on uninhabited islands. I learned to track, to fish, to build fires.
He taught me to be independent: to have faith in my ability to learn new skills and look after myself. To be sensible and pragmatic in unfamiliar and scary situations. To think critically and not panic when things don’t go to plan. I wasn’t pressed into pretty pink dresses or told I was going to be a princess; my parents gave me wetsuits, snorkelling gear, ski lessons, a sailing dinghy. He gave me the support and encouragement I needed to step outside my comfort zones and rely on my own strength to get me through. It is possibly the most valuable lesson a father can give his daughter: to stand up for herself and know she can be strong and has the intelligence to work out solutions to her problems herself.
He raised and cultivated a family of do-ers, but do-ers who were also thinkers. My brother and I had an amazing childhood, and my Mum has never been the kind to sit in a kitchen discussing cakes and knitting while the men smoke cigars and talk about cars. Like all true heroes, he expected those who stood and worked with him to be loyal, courageous, practical and clever, and helped them achieve it.
Above all else, beneath all else, running through all else like butter gluing pastry layers in a mille feuille, I’ve always wanted to make my family proud, and never to disappoint them. This has been the compass in my cockpit, helping me navigate life. I have looked up to my Dad with the kind of hero worship young girls reserve for celebrities and women leave behind as they age.
Despite of, or perhaps because of, his foibles, imperfections and frailties, I never left it behind.
I owe him more than I can possibly recount, and he will always set the standard to which I hold myself.
My Dad died in a motor-racing accident at the Jim Clark Revival at Hockenheim, on 11th April, and while the phrase “he died doing what he loved” is of little comfort to those who have to carry on without him, in this case it is very true.
I am extraordinarily grateful to the people from the motor-racing community, both British and international, who came forward to support my Mum and my brother during that difficult time. A more generous, kind, thoughtful bunch of people I’m not sure you could meet. Their help and contributions, big and small, made a very difficult time that little bit less so. The friends and family who have given us their support and a steady shoulder are hugely appreciated by all of us.
I’m also grateful to all those who came to the funeral. It made me incredibly proud of my Dad, to see so many come to pay their respects. My thanks to those who gave so generously in support of the RNLI in his memory — it meant a lot.
I’ve written several poems in my efforts to navigate this experience, but none of them does justice to the man, nor is a tenth as good as the piece my Mum wrote. The following poem was left in the book of condolences. It’s by Adam Lindsay Gordon and expresses something I will set next to my compass in memory of my hero.
Though the pitcher that goes to the sparkling rill
Too oft gets broken at last,
There are scores of others its place to fill
When its earth to the earth is cast;
Keep that pitcher at home, let it never roam,
But lie like a useless clod,
Yet sooner or later the hour will come
When its chips are thrown to the sod.
Is it wise, then, say, in the waning day,
When the vessel is crack’d and old,
To cherish the battered potter’s clay,
As though it were virgin gold?
Take care of yourself, dull, boorish elf,
Though prudent and safe you seem,
Your pitcher will break on the musty shelf,
And mine by the dazzling stream.
Dr Al Fleming
21 June 1944 – 11 April 2014
(Photograph courtesy of John Allan, used with permission.)