In a charity shop I find my dad, and embrace my inner Caractacus Potts


The name is Potts, Caractacus Potts – or it might be. You will understand the reason for my James Bond-like delivery if you know that the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was based on the children’s book by Bond author Ian Fleming and produced by Bond supremo Cubby Broccoli. Unsurprisingly, it is packed with gadgets, not least a flying car, and it features evil Baron Bomburst played by Bond baddie, actor Gert Fröbe, Goldfinger himself.

CCBB has always been a favourite of team Golightly. It was for me as a child – the premiere was in December 1968, just 10 days before my dad died – and I grew up watching it and still love my Corgi toy car with its folding wings.

Decades later, when Millie and Matt were small, I would sing them the lullaby Hushabye Mountain, just as Dick Van Dyke, inventor, father and widower Caractacus Potts, does to his kids, Jeremy and Jemima. So it is with delight that I push back the desk in my study where a cot once stood and find the song’s typed lyrics still taped to the wall where I fixed them long ago as a crib sheet. Below Hushabye are the words for You Too, but with handwritten corrections: Could be, we three four get along so famously / ’cause you two have me us, and I we have you two, too.”

I remember making the changes to include Helen, at a time when we were a fantastic four, untouched by thought of disease or death. Finding this would once have reduced me to tears, but now makes me smile, grateful for what we had together. Counselling works – thanks, Heidi.

Looking at Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I suddenly see male hands and a male voice reading it to me. I know it’s my father

“Dad, what’s that?” Matt comes up behind me and looks at the sheet. “I remember you singing these. You wouldn’t shut up, but it was better than Me Ol’ Bamboo.” Matt never forgets anything, but he must have been tiny when I, with snooker cue twirling, did a dad-dance rendition of Van Dyke’s finest song.

“Dad, you so are Caractacus Potts,” Matt enthuses. “You do daft stuff, are always in the garage working on your old car and keep blowing things up. You’re him!”

It’s true that I spend late evenings, and sometimes the early hours, fixing the old car I have had since I was 16 and, in truth, my new passion for stained glass has seen some spectacular explosions of glass cooled too quickly from the kiln.

I like the link Matt is making. I have always loved Caractacus’s optimism and sense of fun – a talented dreamer and in no way a victim of his wife dying and being left as part of a threesome. Nice one, Matt. I can see why the film is so special to me now, but why would it have always been so?

Happy accident or fickle frigging fate, an answer comes only a few days later.

I am in a charity shop when I spy a white book with an illustrated cover of a racing car and an enthusiastic driver. I’m unaware of ever having seen it before, but, at the sight of the illustration, I squeal with joy, much to the surprise of the beige-clad oldie beside me. It is a 1960s edition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with beautiful illustrations by John Burningham. I have no memory of my dad, other than him driving off in his own Chitty, a huge throbbing 1960s Jensen supercar; yet, looking at this book, I suddenly see male hands and a male voice reading it to me. I know it’s him.

It is an extraordinarily clear memory, and the emotional rush has me hyperventilating such that the lady in the shop asks me: “Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” It’s not spectral but special, and happiness holds me as I pay the 99p asking price, plus £20 – it’s a Cancer Research shop.

I love that this has happened. My oldest bereavement reaching from the past to help me face the future as I embrace, explosions included, the Caractacus in me; driven by loss, but not defined by it. Like him, I am so thankful to have “someone to care for, to be there for” in the kids to pull me through; we really do get along famously.

So I am looking forward to my own versions of Toot Sweets, Toymakers, and Truly Scrumptious, but not truly terrifying Child Catcher, please.

Adam Golightly is a pseudonym