Suffolk and Essex: Caradoc King – Mum sent him to school with I Am A Liar sewn on his sweater
Some people enjoy secure and carefree childhoods. Others have it tougher – like Caradoc King. He tells Steven Russell about being jettisoned by his adoptive mother
IT’S a story that’s testament to the power of the human spirit to survive harsh treatment, emotional coldness and deceit. Today, Caradoc King heads London-based A P Watt, the world’s oldest literary agency. He reportedly sold the $3m film rights to The Horse Whisperer to Robert Redford and secured writer Philip Kerr an option with Dreamworks. But life wasn’t always so warm and heady.
Adopted as a baby, he grew up by the fields and muddy creeks south of Colchester, a stone’s throw from the causeway to Mersea Island. The era was frugal, but he had fun playing with his sisters in the country air. Trouble was, there was his adoptive mother, too.
Jill King displayed little genuine maternal warmth towards her son. In fact – troubled, difficult, paranoid and confused – she could be callous and imbalanced. She gave him the name of a Welsh chieftain who fought the Romans. She also:
• Pressed his hand onto the hot metal of a chimney, as punishment for using matches when he was four years old
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• Sent him to school with the words I Am A Liar embroidered on the front of his sweatshirt in big red letters
• Despatched him to boarding school near Bury St Edmunds at the age of six and a half
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• Many years later – when her son was a teenager – got the headmaster to break the news he was adopted
• Told him, while he was still at school, that he was of bad character and that the family didn’t want anything more to do with him. He was airbrushed from its life and mention of him at home was effectively banned.
It’s a wonder he didn’t go under. But luckily he was taken under the wing of an aunt, got into Oxford and built an adult life for himself.
His searingly-personal and frank story has now been published, with the title Problem Child – although, as a sister pointed out, Problem Mother would be more apt.
The material, says the 64-year-old, had been “marinating” for several years. He was prompted to write it by two things. First, it emerged the neighbour of a new client had been a childhood friend of Caradoc’s sister Jane. The friend remembers being told by Jill that the little boy was adopted: “but don’t tell him because he doesn’t know”.
This revelation was a shock to him. “How could my mother have told an eleven-year-old stranger a secret she had kept from me until I was in my teens?” This late discovery “deeply upset my memory and perception of childhood”.
Second, he also learned late on, the same picture of him as a baby appeared in photographic collections kept by both his birth mother and adoptive mum – “one a memento of an abandoned baby and the other welcoming that baby as a new member of the family”. Why one mother gave up her year-old child and the other banished that adopted son 16 years later is a puzzle his book sought to solve.
East Anglia is pivotal to the story. Jill and Eric, known as Da, were married in the early summer of 1939. Late in 1947 they moved from Devon, where Eric was a dentist, to the Strood House in Peldon, near Mersea Island. Da worked as a national health dentist on North Hill, Colchester.
They already had three girls – one in nappies – when they adopted Caradoc in May, 1948, and Jill was also pregnant with Priscilla. The author can’t be sure why he was adopted, but one theory is that Jill was keen to have a son.
Life was materially spartan, but rural Essex proved a rich playground.
His first severe punishment came at the age of four, when he pedalled his hand-me-down tricycle out onto the smooth road and incurred the wrath of his mother for straying into dangerous territory.
After her initial outburst, Jill became cold and silent, confining Caradoc to a chair to await the return of Eric, who was obliged to admonish his son with a bamboo cane normally used to discipline the dogs. “Although Jill’s official executioner, punishment was against his nature.”
The deed done, Caradoc was put in the bath and then his mother “forgave me at last and wrapped and towelled me with such unusual gentleness that I burst into tears and was carried to bed”.
It was a turning point. “That tricycle confrontation started a pattern in my relationship with Jill. The shift from cold anger to tenderness. Her fury and my obstinate refusal to give in.”
The next clash wasn’t far away. Guy Fawkes Night was a major event in the calendar, with a big bonfire built and set ablaze. The next day Caradoc was caught trying to relight the bonfire with forbidden matches.
After a stern lecture, Jill took his hand and lightly and quickly pressed it onto the scorching metal over the chimney of the nursery stove. “The pain was intense and I screamed. Jill rushed me to the kitchen to put my hand under running cold water. The other children watched, looking shocked.”
The little boy was then six weeks away from his fifth birthday.
His adopted mother worked hard at motherhood, he says; but while fulfilled by her children, she was “resentful of the martyrdom” demanded by family life.
Jill “scared me from the beginning. There was something deliberately severe about her: the double plaits pinned round her head, her plain unmade-up face, her tweedy unfeminine clothes, her proud aura of rural simplicity.
“Occasionally her warmth, wit and sharp intelligence would shine through, a balm of happiness, but this could be swiftly eclipsed by her sharp tongue, her quick Celtic temper, her troubled mix of strength and insecurity”.
Caradoc started school in Colchester – a long trip for a five-year-old, involving an eight-mile bus ride to town and then another bus to Lexden Road.
Jill twice beat him with the dog-stick during the summer: once for taking a square of chocolate from a tin and then for lying. Telling fibs was a habit he was picking up at school: “one way of trying to get out of trouble and escape into fantasy”.
It precipitated another eruption. He can’t remember exactly what triggered it, but Jill sent him to school with the words I Am A Liar embroidered on the front of his sweatshirt in big red letters. It was utterly humiliating – and for once Da took his side.
Later, Jill told Caradoc he had “some problems” and that they’d decided to send him to board at Nowton Court school, in the countryside outside Bury St Edmunds. Among the things he took were two toy elephants.
Aged six and a half, he was the youngest boy ever to attend Nowton. But he quickly came to love it and regard it as home.
Early in 1956 Jill gave birth to a son, Quentin. Another turning point. The three months she spent in hospital in London with medical complications saw the rekindling of a friendship with a Catholic priest, then at Westminster Cathedral. He would become “an honorary member of the King family”.
Jill embraced Catholicism the following year – largely, it seemed, in thanks for the safe delivery of a healthy baby.
It was, acknowledged one of her daughters later, “the start of the rot”.
Come the last day of the Christmas holidays and Caradoc is told he’s got only two more terms at Nowton. The official explanation is that the family can’t afford to board three children; he will have to go back to day school.
From the autumn of 1958, at the age of 11, he would go to St Joseph’s College at Ipswich, for a proper Catholic education. Six days a week he caught the 7.15am bus to Colchester from outside Strood House, got another one to the rail station, and then took the train to Ipswich – followed by a bus to the school. On weekdays he’d get home at 6.30pm.
“The two years I spent there marked the beginning of a very difficult period, and my abrupt shift through puberty into adolescence,” he confesses in the book. “I started behaving badly. I also realised for the first time that my parents could get things wrong and began to resent them.”
Reasonably good at English and history, he was clever “but with a disorganised mind . . . My problems with science led to increasing misbehaviour and a reputation as a troublemaker”.
He began to steal, filching Da’s money from the chest of drawers to buy the sweets, magazines and cigarettes he needed to keep pace with his schoolmates. Jill’s purse in a living-room bureau also became a target.
“Years later an analyst explained that my thieving was an unconscious plea for love, driven by a need for attention.”
He got involved in a schoolmate’s raffle-ticket scam. Cinema-going also became a vice, as he bunked off games to go to Ipswich Odeon and watch films such as South Pacific and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Not long after, “a mixture of ritual fever, guilt and loneliness” led him to religion.
Taken by the spectacle of his first Christmas Midnight Mass at the parish church in Colchester, its “sense of exultation and belonging”, he volunteered as an altar boy – and then, against expectation, joined the chosen few whose names would be put forward for the De La Salle Junior Novitiate attached to St Peter’s School, Bournemouth.
He went, and stayed a year and a term – “a lonely, oddball novice”.
The school already had doubts about his vocation, as did Caradoc himself. An illegal December afternoon at the cinema with a friend, watching The Guns of Navarone, proved the tipping point – especially when a policeman caught them on the way back to school, riding two-on-a-bike and with a non-working light.
With O-levels to come the following June, he was fortunate to land a place at a Benedictine school near Hereford. There were the inevitable floutings of the rules, but generally things went well and he achieved academically.
His mother came to the speech day, and went home swiftly afterwards. The next afternoon the headmaster summoned the teenager to his study. Jill had asked him to tell Caradoc he was adopted. The stunned schoolboy experienced a tumult of emotions, mainly anger mixed with relief.
Jill later apologised for not having had the courage to tell him herself.
At Christmas, 1962, there was conflict with her over fashionable clothes – chisel-toe shoes, and trousers he’d had tapered. Angry, Jill threw them onto a smouldering bonfire.
“I felt humiliated. Jill’s cold anger was too strong for defiance. I glared at her in silence, then turned away and walked sullenly back to the house.”
He returned to school a week early – ostensibly because Quentin had measles but really because of the mutual hostility at home.
At the end of the following summer Da went with him to Colchester bus station, giving him �2 and a kiss on the cheek. Though he didn’t know it, Caradoc would never see him again.
That October he received a letter from Jill, saying that “After long and painful thought we have decided that we can no longer accept you as a member of the King family”. He was “a degenerate boy from a bad family”.
Aunt Molly – Jill’s sister – had offered him a home for a while, but he was no longer welcome at Strood House “and we wish to have no further contact with you”.
He never again properly met his adoptive parents and was estranged for years from his adoptive sisters and brother.
His kind headmaster, supportive throughout, arranged for him to take the Oxford entrance exam and Caradoc won a place to read English literature, although it took a while to secure the necessary entry qualifications – the young man also taking teaching jobs elsewhere to support himself.
The book ends with details of how he traced and met his aged birth mother – just the once – and had a reunion with some of his sisters after a 30-year gap. There was news, too, of half-sisters and half-brothers.
For Caradoc, the stories he heard – the things he discovered – helped make sense of that turbulent childhood. He realised the difficulties were less to do with him than the problems of a paranoid and troubled woman who happened to be his adoptive mother.
He tells eaman he was also very glad to have met his birth mother, Joan – “to find I came from a background that confirmed what I felt about myself. She was a little bit wild in some ways – had two illegitimate children and two long marriages; for her time and period, you could say quite a girl. But she was clearly – and I went to her funeral – somebody who people really loved. That’s a good feeling to have”.
Amazingly, he says he was fortunate to have had both of them as mothers.
“It might sound a bit glib, but I did say I was lucky. In a deep reflective way, I think I was. I think ‘lucky’ with Jill King was more luck of survival and, yes – and this is where, to me, an east coast childhood was very important – I was very happy growing up on the marshlands of Essex, in a big family, busy and bustling. I had tough times, but it left me with a fondness for Essex and that landscape, which I think is important: a sense of rootedness was valuable to me.”
How does he think his upbringing shaped him?
“It’s a big question! I would say the most important benefit I got was actually just good luck – meeting schoolmasters and, indeed, family friends: people who befriended me and were adult role models, in support in the absence of parents.
“Going through adolescence, I really could have gone seriously adrift – there were periods when I was certainly suffering from depression, I think. When my mother swept up into the Catholic church and I went from Nowton Court to St Joseph’s, travelling from Peldon to Ipswich every day, six days a week, it was a tough time. And then this rather strange process of being a junior novitiate. That was odd.
“But then I got lucky. After a couple of misadventures I went to Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire, where there was an extraordinarily inspirational headmaster who was very supportive.”
The identity of his birth father remains a mystery. If the ageing Joan remembered who he was, she wasn’t saying. It doesn’t eat away at her son, though.
Caradoc has grown-up children, Charlie and Flora, from his long marriage to former wife Rosie Thomas, the novelist, from whom he split in the late 1990s. He also has a daughter, eight-year-old India, with wife Ingrid. Can he tell if his experiences have influenced his approach to parenthood?
“I think the resolve to bring up one’s children happily was very strongly rooted and they had a better time, probably, than we’d had. I would never punish my children in the way I was punished, and harshness or confrontation was not what it was about. I was just a nice dad!”
• Problem Child is published by Simon & Schuster at �16.99
• Caradoc King’s initial name was Nicholas Barton
• He was born in December, 1946
• Today, he lives in an apartment near Hampstead Heath
• But he’s a frequent visitor to East Anglia
• His adoptive grandparents had a house in Southwold, the Old Mill on the Common, and he enjoyed visiting as a boy
• For a long time he had distant relatives in places such as Aldeburgh and Thorpeness
• He recalls time spent in Shingle Street, too – painting a shed with cousin Tim while listening to the 1966 football World Cup on the radio
• Caradoc was a senior editor with Penguin for five years
• He joined the agency A P Watt in 1976 and became its chairman and joint managing director in 1992