Autobio 2000

A Personal View of the Twentieth Century

by Robert Brow  Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 2000

Chapter 3

The Other Half

The other half of my genes originated from Scotland. Till the age of twenty-five I assumed that somewhere along the line an ancestor carelessly dropped the "n" from our family name. I am still bothered every year by civil servants, bank clerks, and the Readers' Digest, who think it is their duty to correct my name to "Brown."

I now know that my ancestors came from the area of Dumfriesshire, the county just over the border from England. I have a photograph of The Brow Well, which has been neatly restored. A sign near the road says: "Early in July 1796 the Scottish poet Robert Burns drank from this well hoping that sea bathing and perhaps drinking from the well might cure him, but he died in Dumfries 21 July."

The earliest ancestor we have discovered was George Brow, born in 1766, thirty years before Robbie Burns drank from the Brow well. Evidently the well belonged to the village or hamlet of Brow, which must still have been in existence. The village is deserted, and only a few ruined houses can be seen. But Richard Brow reported in 1998 that the site can still be found on old maps of the area, and that he had "even found an old etching of the actual village."

George Brow's second son was William Brow (born 5 April 1798). He was a handloom weaver and his wife, Janet Glendinning, gave him nine children before her death "of natural decay" in 1868. William made his 'mark' on her death certificate, which indicates that he never learned to read or write. He died four years later as a pauper. By then the village of Brow had been abandoned when thousands of lowlanders went away to work in England, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

William and Janet's fourth son, George Brow (1835-1879), was my great-grandfather. He lived in Carlisle, where he worked as a travelling draper. His business failed, and he and his wife Jane Fisher moved back to Sunderland in Scotland, where he died at the age of forty-four. My grandfather, David Fisher Brow (1864-1949), felt that he had been deprived of a university education by these disasters in his family. But he managed to study and get work as the first Director of Education for the County of Kent. He married Wilhelmina Jane Douglas Urquhart in Kirkdale, Liverpool, on 6 August 1890, and my father, David Barrington Brow (1891-1951), was born a year later in Dartford, Kent. His earliest memories would have been newspaper reports of the Boer War, and the death of Queen Victoria when he was ten.

My father was at Dartford Grammar School, and then trained as a civil engineer. His first job at the age of 21 was reconstructing a bridge in Rochester, Kent. The day Britain declared war my father joined up in the West Kent Yeomanry. He was sent from Egypt to the Dardanelles, and fought against the Turks throughout the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Surprise had been lost when the British navy bombarded the coast, and after two battleships were sunk the Navy refused to help the men pinned on the beaches. He never talked about the 214,000 who were killed and wounded around him, or of the failure of the whole operation.

Sapper Brow was sent to France. Eventually the army discovered that my father was a qualified Civil Engineer, and Sapper officers were desperately needed to replace those being killed in trench warfare. He was promoted directly from the ranks to Second Lieutenant in February 1917, and served in the Royal Engineers in France till the end of the war.

In the next twenty months of monstrous trench warfare he was twice mentioned in dispatches for dangerous assignments, and awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action. He never told me what these awards were for. He had to lock up forever the memory of the faces of men pleading for help as they died in the barbed wire. Soon after the war ended my father was posted to Brussels. British officers were welcomed as honoured guests in my grandparents' home. He met my mother, then aged 18. They fell in love, but her Belgian family would not permit the engagement. He was sent to India to be a Garrison Engineer on the North West Frontier. At the end of 1920, he resigned from the Army and became a civil engineer for the Karachi Municipality. When he was appointed Executive Engineer for the Karachi Port Trust he was finally able to go back to marry my mother in London on 23 September 1922. There was no adequate schooling in Karachi at the time, so I was sent to my mother's parents in Brussels at the age of five. After four years of French education my father felt it was time I was sent to boarding school in England. From the age of five till I was sixteen I only saw my father five times. He and my mother would come on leave to Belgium every other year for six weeks during the summer holidays. I might never have got to know him if the Second World War (1939-1945) hadn't changed the situation. When Brussels was occupied and the British Army was evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, my father decided it was time for me to come out and join my parents in India. The Battle of Britain had begun, and I saw the first German planes in the sky. I was stirred by Winston Churchill's speeches, and would have gladly stayed to fight on the beaches. But I was put on board the P. & O. Stratheden, which left Liverpool in a huge convoy. Merchant ships were already being sunk by German U-Boats all over the Atlantic. Our ship was packed with a thousand teenagers going out to join their parents in India. It must have been a wild trip for the Captain and crew.

I danced and talked, and looked out at the stars with a girl named Marcia. One day, three other fellows and I raced down early from breakfast, and locked all the gentlemen's and ladies' toilets on every deck from the inside -- you could crawl under the half door to get out. Then, for the next half hour, we watched everyone pacing up and down waiting to get in to the facilities.

The day I arrived in Karachi my father taught me to mix a Gimlet (gin and lime). I soon graduated to Scotch and soda, which I drank for the next six years whenever it was available. I never took to gin and tonic, which was meant to be good for the malaria you got even if you slept under a mosquito net. My parents lived in one of the big Port Trust bungalows across the maidan (a plain which is now built over) in Clifton. There were all sorts of servants to open the door, make the beds, cook and serve meals, do the garden, and there was a low-caste sweeper to clean out the toilets.

My father certainly made up for the many years we had been apart. He quickly taught me to drive their big Morris, and I was allowed to take it to the Boat Club, where I could swim with other teenagers. He also bought me a fourteen foot International Dinghy and taught me to sail. He was Commodore of the Yacht Club, and he and my mother also had a boat each so I was able to join the fleet for the Saturday afternoon races in Karachi harbour.

My father drank with the British officials at the Sindh Club. My mother played tennis at the Gymkhana Club. I rowed at the Boat Club. My father had Indian engineers working for him but no natives were allowed as members in any of the British clubs, and if anybody married one they were totally excluded forever.

To continue my education I was sent to Aitcheson College in Lahore. The school was run for the sons of Rajahs and Maharajahs of India, but my father and other British parents arranged for Miss Sweet to open a house for their sons who had joined them and were at a loose end. When she tried to make rules for the house we told her that was not the way it was done in our boarding schools in England.

Attending classes was far less important than learning to ride, which the princes needed for pig sticking and playing polo. We had to sit on the old army horses as they cantered around the Rissaldar Major (Indian cavalry sergeant-major). The horses knew the words of command, and when he shouted "left turn" the animals turned and we fell off the other side. Eventually you graduated to tent pegging, which involved galloping down with a lance parallel to the ground to pick off a small piece of wood stuck in the ground.

I already had my school certificate, so I was viewed as a senior student. I used to go drinking beer in the Shalimar Gardens with other seniors who had their own servants, and did as they pleased.

One weekend, my father came to see me and I met him at the hotel where he was staying with one of his girl friends. He showed no signs of embarrassment. I had seen him take other women home after the Boat Club dances, so I wasn't upset. But I knew it was only a matter of time and opportunity before my parents were divorced.

Robin Lochner and I were constant companions. He had fixed up a room near the school where he kept falcons on a perch. First we had a Merlin (a smaller falcon that mediaeval ladies used to hunt with). We threw it at little birds and large lizards. Then we got a beautiful big Peregrine falcon. Robin kept him hooded till he got used to eating meat from our heavy leather glove. Then the bird learned to jump from the perch to a lure for his food. As one of us circled the lure around on a rope the falcon would fly at it and land it on the ground. Then the day came when the Peregrine circled freely above us till a partridge flew up and he swooped to hit it in the neck. We would cut open the partridge's brain, and reward our hunter with a few morsels before the next flight.

Robin awed me with the story of an older woman who had initiated him into sex. I felt very ignorant, and bought myself a large gynecology book to pore over till I understood the theory of how it was meant to work.

When the hot weather came Miss Sweet had to take the British students up to Mussoorie, 7,000 feet up in the hills to the north. Robin and I found a trap door into the attic, where we had our secure den. We invited other boys to drink country liquor, which could easily have killed us. Robin was killed four years later in Burma. By the end of my first year at Aitcheson College the Principal, Mr. Barry, told my father it would be better to withdraw me from the school, which was a nice way to expel me.

When I got back to Karachi my father was determined to knock some sense into me. Across the harbour on the island of Manora there was the Port Trust workshop. He made me ride across every day on one of the launches to learn fitting and turning on the lathes and milling machines. I wonder what the Indian toolmaker thought of having to teach the seventeen year old son of the Chief Engineer.

In January my father made me begin a motor mechanic's course in the transport depot near the Port Trust offices. The training proved to be useful throughout the war, and has saved me from big garage bills ever since.  I also learned to appreciate my father's work. He was scrupulously honest in his business dealings. He was responsible for very large contracts as the Port of Karachi geared up for the increased war traffic. Sometimes an unmarked envelope full of thousand-Rupee bills would appear on our hall table. "What are you going to do with it?" I would ask. He explained that he knew which contractor was trying to bribe him. But he would turn the money into the British police, and make sure all those who bid knew what had happened.

The police, incidentally, were very effective. There was very little crime in Karachi. I was told they had a list of the ten worst criminals in the city, and if there was a murder the fellow at the top of the list got hanged. The police always got their man, and nobody wanted to get on the list.

By the spring of 1942, it was evident that the Japanese armies were threatening India's eastern border, and that the German armies could take over the Middle East. I would soon be called up into the army. So my father made me learn touch-typing in his office, and it still pays off now as I write on my computer fifty-six years later. Armed with that, he got me into a job as a clerk in a field engineering unit.

On Saturdays there was rowing and yacht racing in the afternoon. On Sundays I would sail up to Sandspit where my parents had a beach cabin. I also had a dugout canoe rigged with a sail. One day I sailed past Pepita, who had all the young men chasing her. She was alone sunning on the dock, and I asked her if she would like a ride in the canoe. She jumped in, and I took her out into the mangrove bushes. When I kissed her she turned up her nose in disgust and told me to take her back.

My father was a club friend of General Hind, who called me in to an interview: "Oh, you are the son of David Brow? You were in the OTC at Stowe ? Do you play any games?" I listed cricket, soccer, rugby, tennis, rowing and yacht racing. Five minutes later he signed the papers for me to go for the officers training course that would begin two months later.

The men were remarkably kind to the new boy with the upper class accent. One of them offered to take me to the Saturday night army brothel parade. I managed to explain instead that I had to go back to see my two kid sisters at home.

The day before I left for Bangalore my father's last bit of advice was, "Whatever you do, never get involved with an Indian or Anglo-Indian woman. Also avoid married women -- you might get shot. Widows are much better." As the train left Karachi I was with a young widow who asked me to escort her the long journey overnight to Lahore. It was a two berth first-class compartment, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to try out my father's advice. We cuddled a bit, but then she announced it was her period and sent me back to my bunk. As the train chugged across the Gobi desert I watched her sleeping, and wondered why I was so clumsy with women.

I saw my father three times when I went on leave. After the divorce in 1947 he went back to Karachi as a consultant. I met Sybil in London on the way through to join him, and they got married in Karachi. From there he wrote to say he was now attending church. I answered that I didn't think he was truly born again yet. But soon it was evident that he had come into a deep faith, and I wrote to say "Welcome to our eternal family." He developed a serious heart condition in addition to his recurring asthma and I visited him in the London Clinic. By then my mother was living in New York, and he and Sybil decided to end their days in Bermuda. In the summer of 1951, I heard he was dying but I didn't arrive till after the funeral.

A treasured memento was a pocket New Testament and Psalms which I had given him. I was astonished to see how he had marked it. Inside the front cover he had written, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of them all" (Psalm 34:19). I stupidly lent it to someone who never returned it. Perhaps he or she will read this and send it back.

Chapter 4...