Daughter wins Costa book prize for story of father with dementia
When her father was 86, Keggie Carew found a note in his pocket reading: “My name is Tom Carew, but I have forgotten yours.”
For any daughter, it would cement the creeping fear that a much-loved parent was succumbing to dementia.
For Carew, it was also the start of a ten-year journey to piece together his history before it was too late.
As her father’s memory failed him, the first-time author set about scouring personal archives, military museums and her father’s own sometimes muddled recollections to uncover a family history, committing the highs and lows to paper in a part detective story, part memoir.
She was last night announced as the winner of the Costa Biography Award, after embarking on a painstaking research project to tell the true story of the life of the man nicknamed Lawrence of Burma for his heroic exploits during the Second World War.
Her book, Dadland: A Journey Into Unchartered Territory, has been hailed “hilarious and heartbreaking” by judges, who selected it as one of five category winners of the Costas.
Other winners include Brian Conaghan, a former painter and decorator who was finally published after receiving 217 rejection letters, who won the Children’s Book Award for The Bombs That Brought Us Together.
Sebastian Barry took the best novel award for the second time with Days Without End, while Alice Oswald won the poetry prize with Falling Awake and Francis Spufford won the first novel award for his historical fiction Golden Hill.
All five are now in the running for the overall prize, to be announced later this month.
Carew, who previously worked as a visual artist, said she had experienced a “great sense of relief ” after learning she had been recognised by the prize, adding: “It’s a lovely feeling that the book has resonated with other people in such a strong way.”
She added her family history had been the “elephant in the room which stamped its foot” as she had considered what to write, resolving to start researching in earnest after noticing her father had written notes to himself in a bid to “outwit” his dementia.
Lt Col Carew would be “thrilled” at parts of the book, and would have ignored the more difficult details about his family life, she added, joking: “He was not at all modest. He was be utterly amazed that this has happened.”
His obituary in 2009, published in the Telegraph, described him as a “natural leader with great charm and a horror of the humdrum” who “liked to stir things up”.
He was known to have served in the Second World War as part of a Special Operations Executive unit called “The Jedburghs”, dropped into Burma with a 55-year-old guide book and a bag of opium for currency before recruiting a guerilla force to outfox the Japanese.
Described variously as the Lawrence of Burma and the “Mad Irishmen” for his efforts, he won the DSO and the Croix de Guerre before retiring from the army in 1958 for a varied and not always successful career in business.
Carew’s research began in earnest after she escorted her father to a Jedburgh reunion in 2006, noticing he was starting to lose his memory.
Asking him to tell her everything he could recall about his “madcap” life, she went on to piece the information together with extensive archives found in his attic, and newly-released official records in which he was mentioned.
“You start rubbing the lamp a bit and the genie pops out: things just kept falling in my lap,” she said. “The more I found out, the more amazing it was.”
Boxes in her father’s house contained newspaper clippings dating back to the war, diaries and buried letters detailing his life.
Further research took Carew to the National Archives, Imperial War true. But she always understood the basic human thirst for gossip, and existed in a whispering aura of heady, unverifiable possible scandal.
For the last year, and well into her tenth decade, Zsa Zsa’s family had reported that she had been largely unconscious, beset by repeated illness.
Her daughter, Francesca Hilton, died of a stroke in early 2015 at the age of 67, and Zsa Zsa was reportedly unaware of her death. Zsa Zsa was partially paralysed after a car accident in 2002, endured several of her own strokes, and had a leg amputated following an infection.
Earlier in 2016 she was hospitalised for breathing difficulties and was scheduled to undergo surgery on her lungs a few days after her 99th birthday.
Even before her most serious illnesses set in, in her later life she rarely gave interviews. When she did grant an interview to Vanity Fair in 2007 she gave curt answers from atop a mound of pillows on a four-poster divan, near a gilded grand piano.
“The minute I understand a man, he is no longer exciting and a challenge to me,” she once said. “And the last thing in the world I want is for a man to understand me and know what’s always going on inside my head.”
Her wit belied her airhead image. As her health faded, so did the glitz and glamour of a personality who defined an age. But for Zsa Zsa Gabor, dying wasn’t something to worry about. Love, glamour and entertainment were far more pressing: “Don’t ever buy imitation furs,” she once said. “Because that’s worse than death.” Museum and British Library, with she found videos and audio files starring her father, including one memorable film which saw him swaggering out of the Burmese jungle aged 24.
Trunks, cardboard boxes and desk drawers revealed a Christmas card from the head of the CIA, while the release of classified SOE files allowed the author to match Lt Col’s colourful anecdotes with real-life dates, places, code names and operational details on papers stamped Top Secret.
The book also tells of the Carews complicated family life, including the breakdown of her mother.
“I decided that if I was going to tell a story like this, I wasn’t going to censor anything,” said Carew. “It’s a very extraordinary story but it’s also very universal when it comes to family, dementia and relationships.”
Carew and her fellow category winners will received £5,000 each, with the overall winner of the Costa Prize will be announced in London on January 31.
It’s a lovely feeling that the book has resonated with other people in such a strong way.” Keggie Carew, author
who has died aged 99, found success in the golden age of Hollywood. The Hungarian-born “blond bombshell” was a pioneer modern celebrity — infamous for having been married nine times and calling everyone she met “dahling”.
Zsa Zsa Gabor,