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Family Legends - My Granddad could have been a spy

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Karen Miller Karen Miller | 16:39 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Family Legends is a short story competition run by BBC Radio Scotland and the Scottish Book Trust which invites you to write a story about your family. If you'd like to contribute your story, then please visit our Family Legends page to find out more.

Inspired by the competition, BBC Radio Scotland presenter Nick Rougvie has shared this story about his grandparents with us:

Nick Rougvie

My grandmother was the tall, slim woman who burnt fruit cake with regularity. My Granddad: the man who would sit with the crossword in his lap and a twinkle in his eye.

The other end of Fife seemed like a journey of forever from our house near the banks of the Tay, the twisting roads apparently, complainingly, endless. Only when we had passed the loch, sped past the caravan park and reached the crest of a towering hill did the end seem in sight - a final, sharp, dangerous corner at the bottom of that mountain allowing their house to appear before us.

Gran, "Pat" to my father, and Granddad, "Bill", were full of warmth, humour, generosity and burnt cake. There were endless rounds of word games, brain-teasers, puzzles and cups of tea. There was swing-ball in the garden and a dog which wouldn't bite you. There was the gigantic open hearth, a magnificent space to set fire to things without being told off.

To my eight year old self they were just Gran and Granddad, different from the other Gran and Granddad, but the same genus nonetheless. But as I soon learned, they could have been anything but.....

In the autumn of 1962 my mother is told to pack her things. They are going to America. A five day journey beckoned on the majestic Queen Mary. Granddad, by all accounts, would glide around the ship with all the appearance, grace and manner of a matinee idol. My grandmother who was ten years younger than him played the role of glamorous young wife to perfection. (She would often remind people of her time spent modelling at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore). This was not the Gran and Granddad I knew! This was two people living a life I could not imagine, far less comprehend. This was globe-trotting. This was an international jet-set.

But it was my grandfather's life, his other life, which even to this day intrigues. Sent to Norfolk, Virginia, to work, he relocated just 12 months later to Washington DC. (My mother was at boarding school in The United States of America. My mum! At school in the good 'ol US of A! The woman who made me tomato soup for lunch! In America?!)

1963. Washington DC, the great nation's capital, in 1963. Even now it is a time that people talk excitedly about. The Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a time when the fear of World War 3 was not only real, but palpable. My grandparents and my mother called Bobby Kennedy and family their next-door neighbours. My mum, who boarded for a while in Virginia, went to school with some of the Kennedy girls. She still, to this day, has a box of McCarthy-esque propaganda handed out warning the children to look out for Communists.

"What did Granddad do before he retired Mum?"

"We don't know."


"We don't know."

"What do you mean, 'We don't know'"

"He was not allowed to tell us."

Imagine standing in a room you have known your whole life when you realise there is a door you have never ventured through. Questions raced through my mind. Why wasn't anyone, even it transpired, my grandmother, allowed to know how he earned his corn? What could he possibly have done for a living? Let us run through the possibilities considered by my 8 year old self.

Spy. Cold War Spy. Government Agent. License to Kill . A double-oh number. The inspiration for Roger Moore.

I could picture him wandering through the ranks of a dinner party, tuxedo fitting just so, his charming English accent clear above the hubbub. He was probably the man tasked with fighting for Her Majesty against the Red Menace. He probably took on KGB agents with nothing more than a swift karate move and a one liner.

My Granddad totally could have been a spy.

I still find it difficult to imagine my family living this life. I still don't know what Granddad did, the Official Secrets Act seeing to that. Their later talk of parties and diplomats points to an impossibly alien and glamorous life. Other than the stories told and theories discussed there is just one, maybe last link, to that life that sits in a shoe box in my house.

An invitation to a black tie, masked ball at the British Embassy in Washington DC dated February 1964.

The invitation

It is an invitation to a black tie, masked ball at the British Embassy in Washington DC dated February 1964. On the back is a name, signed by a young guitarist and singer my Gran took a shine to. I'm not sure Paul McCartney would ever remember my Granddad the spy, or my grandmother, the model, but it was, after all, his first time with his band-mates in America. My Granddad probably didn't have more than just one evening to hang out with The Beatles, he had a Cold War to win.



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