Mar 2014

Of Fathers and Sons, and Staying Fit in Outlandish Places


Fathers and sons. Where ball games are concerned, usually the competition between them is sharp. Sadly, chance had it that I played my father just twice at squash. And I’ve been on court with two of my three sons about the same number of times. A small ration for a lifelong squash nut.

My father, Broughton Waddy, was fine man, a specialist in tropical medicine. He spent the majority of his working life in hot countries, far from what most of us would regard as comfort. Certainly far from squash courts. As a newly qualified doctor in 1937, with a sense of adventure, he went along to the British Colonial Office and said, “What have you got?” The response was the Gold Coast, now Ghana. For the friend who accompanied him, the young Dr Aubrey Hodges, after whom I was named, it was Nigeria.

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Captain B B Waddy of the Gold Coast Regiment , during WW2

My father was to spend the next twenty years of his life in the Gold Coast, up to the granting of independence, when the majority of colonialists were thrown out. He met my mother there, and that’s where they started their family. I can clearly remember my last visit as a child, accompanying my sister for a summer holiday. My father was then stationed in a town called Kintampo, in the middle of the country.

My father was Australian. He came from a terrific cricketing family, and to use one of his phrases, he ‘was no slouch’ at the game himself. In The Parks at Oxford he took the wicket of the great Jack Hobbs, whose name will mean a lot to anyone with even a scant knowledge of cricket history. His own father, as an eighteen year old in New South Wales, top scored against the English tourists of the time, who included the legendary W G Grace in their number. His uncle, E F Waddy, would have played more times than he did for Australia but for another all time great, Victor Trumper.

Ah cricket! The West African savannah is an unaccommodating place for someone passionate about the game. So my dad hugely relished his trips back to England each summer ‘on leave’: six weeks of cricket. Not wanting to waste the first couple of those weeks – fast bowling is as strenuous as any sports discipline – he had to get fit in advance. Citizens of Kintampo must have been bemused by the sight of the respected and vigorous Dr Waddy, running up at full speed to fling a five and a half ounce leather ball the prescribed twenty two yards at whoever he could dragoon into batting against him. It might be his gardener, whose name I don’t remember. It might be his unfortunate colleague Dr David Scott, who from the sound of it was totally dyspraxic and hardly able to defend himself. And it might be his accomplished cook, Mr Ali Moshi. I remember one December day Mr Moshi liberally dosing the Christmas turkey with brandy, as a prelude to decapitating it. After the deed had been cleanly executed, I watched in horror as Mr Moshi, quick on his feet but decisively outrun, chased the headless bird around the compound.

I manifest far too few of my father’s admirable genes, but as will become clear, I’ve inherited a degree of his obsession for sport. Far away from West Africa, my squash playing started at school. It was interrupted while I was at university by two major operations in the space of six months on my knee. After the second of these, stupidly while my knee was still the size of a grapefruit, I played my two games of squash with, or should I say against, my fifty seven year old dad, who had been an effective player in his younger days. It was not a success. I didn’t want to prolong the rallies with my still ailing knee, and he was mortally offended when due to his lack of speed I won points at will with my accurate drop shots.

Happily, we were able to indulge our ‘gentle’ family rivalry with no holding back when I joined my dad in Nigeria in the summer after I left university. He was overseeing the health of the hundreds of thousands of villagers about to be displaced by the
damming of the River Niger and the resulting vast lake. A social club had been built in Kainji, the centre for construction, for all the expats involved, Italians for the dam itself, Canadians for the hydroelectrics, and sundry other nationalities for the roads and the agriculture and the diseases. This club had two excellent laterite tennis courts, the same colour and speed as those at Roland Garros. We were perfectly matched, the two of us, my energy more than countered by my father’s superior skill. We’d go at it hammer and tongs for an hour or so most evenings. Slaking the ensuing thirst is one of my great memories.

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Social Club, Kainji, where the tennis was far from social

Ironically, with my father the fittest guy on the planet, he died aged just seventy of leukaemia, not long before my first son was born. It will remain my biggest regret that my boys never knew their grandfather. Goodness knows the fun they would have had with him, and the effect his wonderful sense of humour and his joie de vivre would have had on them. And on their cricket. Furthermore, grandchildren would have given him a new lease of life during what was a frustrated retirement. The world really was his oyster, not the narrow horizons of an English town.

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My father in his element, somewhere in tropical Africa, camera to hand

My bad knee stopped me playing squash soon after my father died, so my sons never saw me play. No matter. They were inspired into other sports. I did tell them, though, a lot about their grandfather, of how he made major discoveries in tropical medicine, notably establishing, in the face of scorn from desk bound experts back in the UK, how the debilitating disease river blindness was transmitted; how he played a big role in the eradication of smallpox; how he was able to save literally thousands of lives threatened by epidemics of meningitis by trekking - up to thirty miles a day - through the bush to dispense the then newly discovered miracle sulphonamides. I encouraged them to read his memoire of his time in the Gold Coast, ‘Life and Death in the African Bush’. This concludes with what he thought was a forlorn hope: that all the achievements of the colonial ‘Medical Field Units’ would not be frittered away.

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Preparing for a trek into the bush

Winding the clock forward twenty five years, I discovered that my muscles had become so atrophied that they no longer overstressed my bad knee. So I started playing squash again. And, what a thrill, the boys have now seen me play, and a couple of them have been on court with me.

In part due to the Ghana connection, my youngest son Josh spent 2010 in that country, but far from Kintampo, as a volunteer for an educational charity.
JwithRockman Josh with one of the kids he taught
Josh’s visit has led to a happy closing of family loops. He wanted to go back to Elmina, the town where he was based, to catch up with his Ghanaian friends. He had truly taken to life in Ghana in the same manner as his grandfather. I was keen to go back out there too, and it wasn’t difficult to persuade Josh’s brothers that it would be an exciting trip. My underlying wish was to give my sons a stronger connection with their grandfather.

Finally we settled on two weeks in November, at the end of 2013. This fitted with my boys’ various priorities and fell neatly between two of the regional English Masters squash tournaments. Nevertheless, two weeks off squash was going to seriously impair what these days passes for my fitness. So, full circle, bemused Ghanaian citizens, this time from Elmina, were able to watch an eccentric ‘bruni’ (white man) attempting to do shuttle runs on the soft sand of the magnificent beach to the West of the town.

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The beach near Elmina

Perhaps one or two of the observers came from families who had moved south, and were descended from the Kintampoans who sixty years earlier had flinched as my father thundered towards his pressganged practice cricket partners. Who knows.

The story has a good ending. We made a pilgrimage north to Kintampo, now less than a day’s drive from the coast where it had been a long, dusty slog over two in the 1950s, hoping to find my father’s house. We did indeed find the house, derelict but still standing.
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I was able to wander round inside, fifty eight years after I had last been there. We didn’t find the place, but somewhere outside in the compound, twenty two yards of the laterite dirt were probably still pitted by the repeated impact of an eighty-mile-an-hour cricket ball. Even better, we met up with an elderly man, Mr I W Frimpong, who as a lab technician had worked with my father for five years. Mr Frimpong remembered my sister and me from 1955, and we had a lovely chat.
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And best of all, we discovered the existence of the ‘Kintampo Health Research Centre’, for the education not of doctors but of rural health workers who would not be drawn to money making in Accra or Kumasi but would minister to the rural people whom my father loved so much.

And better even than the best, we found that one of the principal buildings at the Kintampo Health Research Centre is known as the ‘B B Waddy Block’. Bother cricket. Bother squash. That was very emotional.
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