Magazine article The Spectator

What Keeps My Father Going Is the Thought That One Day He Will Be Vindicated

Magazine article The Spectator

What Keeps My Father Going Is the Thought That One Day He Will Be Vindicated

Article excerpt

In the Montblanc/Spectator Art of Writing Award last year, readers were invited to submit a short essay on the subject of immortality. Here is the winning entry.

Myfather is old. He does not believe in God. He was 90 in December, an event celebrated with a family lunch at a hotel of his choosing. It was a very happy day, for both he and my mother are physically and mentally fit, but I was aware that he resists death. He will not go gentle into that good night, not because he is frightened of dying, but because he is afraid of the loss of his ideas.

For half a century my father has pursued ideas about the evolution of modern man. He believes that our species is the result of isolation on an island in the Indian Ocean. The sea, he maintains, has been left out of evolutionary theory. He has never found a publisher for any of his extensively researched writings, and they have long been the subject of affectionate family mockery.

One of his theories concerns a bipedal mammal which survived the cataclysm of 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were apparently dealt a lethal blow by an asteroid landing in the Gulf of Mexico. This mammal lived chiefly on reptile eggs, and thereby bequeathed to us our particular facility with ball games, our otherwise primitive hands becoming perfect for throwing and catching.

This is typical of my father's ideas. At first they provoke a little gentle ridicule, then dismissal. Some time later, however, they often prove to be not quite so eccentric after all. His theory of the bipedal egg-throwers is a good example. Until very recently it was thought that mammals of that period were the size of shrews. Then, many years after my father first proposed his theory, a number of fossilised mammals from the same period were found in China. One of these was as big as a small pony and appears to have been capable of walking on its hind legs.

What keeps my father going, prevents him from becoming bitter, is the hope that one day, after he has passed away, someone else will vindicate his ideas. He takes comfort from all the other great thinkers, explorers, archaeologists and scientists who were vindicated after their deaths. Like Don Marcelino Santiago Tomas Sanz de Sautuola and his friend Don Juan Vilanova of Madrid University.

Don Marcelino was a wealthy Spanish aristocrat and an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist. So when fossilised animal bones were found in a cave on his estate, he decided to do a methodical excavation. One morning, as he prepared to depart for a day's work in the cave, his small daughter Maria pleaded with him to let her come too. He told her she would be bored, but she persisted, and was allowed to accompany him. Of course, she did get bored.

As he knelt on the cold earth floor of a great dark cavern, meticulously scraping in the light of an acetylene lamp, she took another lamp and wandered round the chamber. Soon after, she gave a cry:

'Papa, papa! Mira, toros pintados!' 'What do you mean? Painted bulls? Where?' 'Papa, look up!' she commanded him.

He had hit his head on the low parts of the roof several times, but he had never looked up. Now he saw that just above his head the whole ceiling, perhaps 60ft long and 30ft wide, was covered in what at first seemed like a vast painted relief of great animals, glowing in reds, browns and blacks. He was looking at a work of art painted 15,000 years earlier.

The following year, in 1880, after a scholarly investigation, Don Marcelino and Don Juan Vilanova published An Account of Certain Prehistoric Discoveries in the Province of Santander. …

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