My father, Sefton Sandford, died last November 11, which somehow appropriately was Veterans Day. He was 87. Any child’s judgment is apt to be subjective on these occasions, but I remain stubbornly of the opinion that he was a great man, and certainly one who answered Wordsworth’s question, “Who is the happy warrior? Who is he / That every man in arms should wish to be?” Having joined the Royal Navy as a 13-year-old cadet with no great advantage in life, he left it 40 years later as a much-decorated admiral. To review his career as a whole is to enter a world it is difficult nowadays to imagine. It is a world where patriotism, selfless dedication to a cause, devotion to duty, and service to one’s fellows had not been tainted by irony or satire. These were the basic qualities my father embodied, and which he lived long enough to see fall out of fashion. As it happens, I share in some small measure the consensus view that Britain was at one time all too deferential a society. The country where I was a schoolboy 50 years ago may have been more secure and self-confident than it is now, but it was also a land of surly shopkeepers and grubby trains, and ill-kept little towns of the kind in which I grew up, whose names were synonyms for dullness and decorum—Guildford, Basingstoke, Worthing, Tunbridge Wells, Bedford, Portsmouth, Aldershot, and the rest. I make an honorable exception of those who served their country in that transitional era following World War II when, as Dean Acheson reminded us, the United Kingdom had “lost an empire and not yet found a role.” No doubt the officer class of the time contained as many time-servers or outright rogues as any other trade. But holding up such people as the incarnation of bovine patriotism, as so many historians do today, seems to me unfair, not least since the image of a man like my father is a caricature, all fox-hunting and pink gins, rather than the reality of a supremely intelligent, resourceful, and energetic commander who quietly adapted to the demoralizing round of swingeing defense cuts that fell at least annually from 1945 onward. The picture all too many Britons have of our top brass through the years often feels like a scene out of Oh! What a Lovely War—powerful polemic, but unconvincing history. Admiral Sandford, I can attest, was not quite like that.
Of course, the difficulty of writing about a loved one is to avoid the kind of long rehearsal of anecdotes that may perhaps be left to the memorial service. The basic facts can be quickly stated. Sefton Sandford was born in 1925. He had what would now be called a dysfunctional (of which I make a distinction from unhappy) childhood. He was sent to a boarding school when he was eight and joined the Navy immediately afterward, at an age when a child today might still be in the grip of a Justin Bieber or even a Dora the Explorer. Commissioned as a sublieutenant in an era when British naval officers were still taught to speak received pronunciation (they had a special gadget to put in their mouths to correct their vowel sounds), he was both completely unsnobbish and graced with ruggedly handsome features, often compared with the young Sean Connery, which alas proved nonhereditary. “He looked as if he would enjoy a martini, but also that he might conceivably hew coal,” a close friend and contemporary at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, told me. My father gave his life to the Service, and had no known indulgences or vices, although it was true he enjoyed a game of cricket—he once shyly remarked to me that he had played for the Navy at the famous Lord’s ground in London and “done all right.” (Years later I looked the scorecard up, and found that he had been the star of the match in question.) In 1950, he married a young woman originally from Tacoma, Washington: Mary Ann Prins, my mother. She died in 1972. The rest of my father’s career was by and large a series of successes and promotions; he ended it as a decorated flag officer living in vice-regal splendor in Gibraltar, where he moved around in a chauffeur-driven car through palm-fringed streets crowded with saluting soldiers and sailors. He was completely unimpressed by all the surviving vestiges of Britain’s colonial glories. He liked nothing better than to stand for hours on the bridge of a ship in a raging Atlantic gale, issuing orders in the almost unvaryingly calm voice I remember, and sustaining himself with a biscuit and a mug of tea. This essential self-denial and imperturbability wasn’t a trivial or peripheral trait. It was the key ingredient of an approach to life that carried my father from an orphaned childhood to the very highest ranks of his profession. Simply put, there were no airs about him. Once when I was drinking in a slightly dubious sailors’ pub in England, a crew-cut individual, with a tattoo of an anchor on one arm and a female torso on the other, approached me and asked in an ominously aggressive tone if I was “Sandford’s son.” I admitted that I was. “Let me buy you a drink,” he immediately said. “He’s the best f–king skipper in the Navy.”
We’re often told today by such moral thinkers as Oprah Winfrey that we collectively suffer from a self-esteem issue, and I have to say I agree. As a rule, we have altogether too much of it. My father wasn’t entirely free of ego, nor of humanizing contradictions, but in general he saw unstinting service to a cause and to others as a reward in itself. As recent events again sadly prove, these days even many of our top brass appear to find significance through a combination of self-aggrandizement and ineffectuality. Our new and “improved” political masters seem to be no more than marginally better-dressed social workers, much or most of the electorate having rejected actual thought in favor of wistful egalitarian dreaming. And please, don’t get me started on the oxymoron of “pop culture.” As I write, the BBC News website pauses in its self-loathing attacks on its apparently once-rampant culture of pedophilia to inform us without irony that the return to the stage of the geriatric Rolling Stones is a matter of “monumental significance in the cultural landscape.” To what is this prominence due? The old codgers “scamper around thrusting their scrawny midriffs at us, bawling out their lewd songs on the joys of drugs, girls and cars, and not giving a damn,” the Corporation coos. These are the enduring role models of a generation that should know better. We can leave a discussion of the more modern gods of the popular press and the flakier end of the internet to another day, but it might be fair to say that a becoming self-effacement is not immediately obvious among their virtues, any more than it is in the case of the Stones.
By contrast, a proper degree of diffidence was no bar to a quiet-spoken Navy officer, in only his mid-30’s, being posted as a senior British liaison to the Joint Chiefs in Washington, D.C. It was in the depths of the Cold War, and I have a distinct childhood memory of my father coming home after what must have been long hours locked in tense meetings about Berlin or Cuba, loosening his tie—the height of his informality—and saying mildly, “What about a spot of cricket?” He was the consummate military professional. The word unflappable was coined to describe the British prime minister of the day, Harold Macmillan, but might equally have applied to my father. Sometimes he would appear in the evening looking pitifully tired, and my mother would ask, “What did you do today?” and he would say, “Nothing much.” Then later that night you would see President Kennedy speaking on television about how the Soviets had moved the world to the abyss of destruction by their actions in Cuba, followed by a public-service announcement advising us how to “duck and cover” in the event of an atomic explosion. When called upon back in England to sit in interminable discussions about defense cuts and staffing levels, my father did so uncomplainingly, with the same pervasive air of professionalism, tinged with mild regret, in which he conducted even the most unpleasant business. When required to spend nine months at a time aboard an ancient and notably unglamorous ice-patrol boat in the inhospitable waters of the Antarctic, he did so with a salute and a faint smile. The commissions were all as one to him.
Among the most illustrative and moving tributes that appeared on my father’s death was an email from a naval rating named Peter Latham who served on that same ship. It reads,
Your father was, without fear of contradiction, a true gentleman and the best leader of men by far I was privileged to serve under. I would also take leave to confirm that he will be remembered in the time honoured tradition by raising a “tot” to him in remembrance. We shall not see his like again.
The very phrasing evokes a lost world where deference was the natural reward of those who could face danger or responsibility calmly. When home on leave from that commission, my father was instrumental in gently persuading his old chief Field Marshal Montgomery to review the annual—and, frankly, ramshackle—parade at my junior boarding school. I touched on the scene in my profile of that exasperating and distinguished soldier in these pages (“The Soldier’s Soldier,” Biography, October 2012). What I failed to add was that my father followed this particular act by himself coming down the next year to address the assembled school body. I was 11 years old, and I cringed with embarrassment as the old man climbed up on the podium in full dress uniform, gently cleared his throat, and announced that he would say just a few short words on the theme of service. It later transpired that he had left his formal text in the pocket of another jacket. He proceeded to rouse the audience with a perfectly paced display of extemporary speechmaking, full of ironical quips and yet austerely dignified in its central message. “You gave the most magnificent oration, replete with crisp and memorable phrases, wonderfully clear, and yet delivered almost as though it were off the cuff,” the unknowing headmaster wrote to him in his letter of thanks. “I hear it was a tour de force,” Monty himself later remarked.
There’s sometimes an odd sense of bullying about the label of “modest,” one that refuses to deal with dissent. Modest leadership—there’s something paradoxical about the idea—is, we suppose, innocent of any personal ambition. But this virtue of disinterest implies an audience that is itself the opposite of apathetic; an audience that can look at the act of humility and praise it for having a kind of moral depth. Barack Obama is “really just like us,” one heard in the recent election, if perhaps with less conviction than was the case four years earlier. The combination of a modest man of affairs and an appreciative public is so compelling that it now defines the basic template of our political campaigns. Few voters have the nerve, in the face of the simulated niceness or lack of pretension of President Obama, to argue with it—to risk being regarded as mean-spirited by saying, “I don’t care for the man; I think he’s acting; I think he’s a manipulative poseur.”
My father never ran for political office, although once or twice urged to do so, but the fundamental modesty that constitutes the basic fabric of his life, and which I witnessed over the course of 50 years, was very real. In 1968, he took up the senior military post at the British embassy in Moscow. At the nadir of the Cold War, we lived in a sumptuous czarist apartment furnished in a combination of Versailles and Las Vegas, with such a soft red carpet that your footsteps weren’t heard on it, immensely musty velvet curtains, and, set on a plinth in the hallway, an immovable plaster bust of Lenin that we used as a hatstand. Apparently my father’s job entailed inviting a series of Soviet military brass to our home on a nightly basis, plying them with vodka and caviar, and then waiting for them to say something indiscreet. One of my fondest childhood memories is of handing around trays of food and drink to a succession of bullet-headed and uniformed men with impressively luxuriant eyebrows and ribbons from their shoulders to their navels, but often no experience of what my father called “direct combat service.” We were then in the protracted 50th-anniversary commemoration of Lenin’s coup d’état, and, judging from the snatches of conversation I overheard, the Revolution still demanded not only total acceptance but the nausea of endless affirmation. One of the other accessories in our government-owned flat was what we knew colloquially as Fred, or the extensive bugging device whose maintenance brought a regular stream of faintly sinister callers to our door purporting to be state-licensed electricians sent to carry out “routine electrical inspection.” My father always offered the KGB men a convivial vodka when they had finished their business, and these occasions, too, were often prolonged. Having himself drunk nothing but water, which he passed off to his guests as gin, he would then spend some time in his study, diligently recording any remarks of interest to London that may have been let slip.
I think it fair to say that my father was socially conservative in the sense of cherishing the core values of the vanished Britain of his youth, but he belonged to no party and identified with no cause. He did no marching—not even to a different drummer, like Thoreau. Instead, the acutely tuned internal gyroscope he seemed to keep with him at all times served more than once as both a moral center and a career enhancer. As many as six known attempts were made to entice him into the arms of an amenable, usually female, KGB officer. A great friend of his, the French naval attaché, found his posting to Moscow abruptly terminated following the arrival of a packet of photographs, regrettably opened by his wife. A colleague in the British embassy was found one night floating face down in the Moskva River, in circumstances not immediately explained. Toward the end of my father’s tenure, the Soviet government expelled 108 accredited British and U.S. diplomats for having acted in a way “incompatible with their status as guests,” as the communiqué put it. Only one senior British military officer survived the cull. On his eventual return to London, my father was called in and effusively thanked by the prime minister, Edward Heath (whom he thought insufferably pompous), promoted, and given use of notably grander accommodations than we were accustomed to at home. The large rooms were, I remember, rather austerely furnished. The essential modesty of my father’s lifestyle was evidenced by the simplicity of his study, limited to a desk, some small prints of Turner seascapes, a dozen or so books on cricket, and a barometer.
My father’s last command was of the garrison of some 20,000 British troops of all services on Gibraltar. We lived in Gatsby-like splendor in a sprawling hillside mansion, with the admiral’s white ensign fluttering atop in the Mediterranean sea breeze when my father was in residence, and the Union Jack when he wasn’t. The home’s formal reception rooms, of which there were many, were decorated with antique brocade chairs, and its floors inlaid with richly colored Moorish tiles. White silk curtains flowed from the French windows, which offered a commanding view of hills almost obscenely bright with bougainvillea. I still dream of the vista on a regular basis. My father was quietly miserable there. He much preferred being on the bridge of some cramped and oily warship plowing through the South Atlantic breakers than he did being waited upon “like I’m Prince Charles,” he once told me, in a rare moment of complaint. These reservations aside, he fulfilled his commission with marked success. During the 1930’s and 40’s, Gibraltar was known to be a hotbed of espionage, much favored by Axis agents and enlivened by a series of francs-tireur Nazi sympathizers bent on sabotaging the substantial reserves of Allied men and materiel flowing into North Africa. By the time we arrived 30 years later, the Rock retained much of its old air of intrigue, though the focus had shifted to a bitter and long-unresolved sovereignty dispute with Spain. Rarely a week then passed without a car bomb exploding in a busy street, or some other outrage directed at the “occupying” garrison. My father once told me that there were only two effective ways of bringing about an end to the violence and defending the integrity of the British colony, “and they both begin with d. One is discussions, and the other is destroyers.” He left Gibraltar considerably closer to a diplomatic solution—ultimately reached at in 1985—than when he arrived there. On our return, a very senior political figure in Britain remarked to me that “It is people like your father whose service and quiet resolution are part of this country’s hidden strength.”
Reading through what I have written, I’m conscious I may have given the impression that my father was persistently mild-mannered or indulgent even when under the severest provocation. Such was not the case. Like many other military parents before and after him, he could express misgivings about his layabout son (and frequently did), and I retain a distinct memory of the word CHRISTOPHER! echoing out as if across a parade ground, turning that name into the longest three-syllable rebuke possible, at my latest teenaged infraction. Once in Gibraltar I took it on myself to steer the Crown’s official motor cruiser, at some speed, across the invisible but not insignificant national border and into Spanish territorial waters, largely because I was 19 and it pleased me to do so. I should mention that the vessel in question was ostentatiously rigged out with the Union Jack and a variety of other patriotic insignia, and that my father had previously been enjoying a glass of chilled wine on the aft-deck. Readers need only think of, say, the flag officer of U.S. forces in South Korea and his family merrily hang-gliding into the North to get a bit of the overall flavor of the scene. My father’s reaction was swift, severe, and decisive, and one I can still painfully recall in the dead of night some 35 years later. Looking back, I was possibly lucky to escape being physically ejected into the bay, where a German tourist had had his leg removed by a shark not long before.
In the event Hollywood ever chose to produce a film on the life of Sefton Sandford—which I concede is unlikely, though they have often done worse—it would ideally be one of those character-based features that depict a flawed man who rises to heroism. In real life, my father did so by the flagrantly unfashionable means of genuine modesty and selfless commitment to an ideal he saw as greater than himself. He was a man who was well aware of the foibles of the world, and yet still lived by an unassailable code of honor. Time and again, I heard him speak in a tone of mild regret at the narcissistic buffoonery of our modern crop of leaders, both military and civilian—“One always has the feeling a chorus line of girls is about to appear and start dancing around behind him,” he once remarked of a prime minister of painfully recent memory. Glancing on another occasion at some recently ejected head of the armed forces preening away in a television interview designed to sell his memoirs, my father said in the same quiet monotone, “I don’t think this will ever take the place of entertainment, do you?” Having been born in an era when Britain still boasted an empire, which she defended with gunships and cavalry charges, he survived to see a time of lost certainties and ever-more ruinous defense cuts, announced by smirking young politicians clad for the occasion as though not so much supervising as attending a teenager’s birthday rave. Looking objectively at my father’s achievements, I can only regret the bounded horizons of my own little life, and the fact that it was his curse to live to see those peculiarly British values he embodied so debased by the Me Generation.
Instead of the quiet self-dependency and resolution shown by my father and his kind, today we are counseled to protect ourselves from all forms of harassment, risk, adventure, unfairness, and unhappiness—from life, more or less—and particularly from electing to live untroubled by the inanities of Facebook and all the other ludicrously vain ephemera of our age. Although I saw him fading in body, if emphatically not in mind, childishly I somehow still thought my father was indestructible. Now he is gone; but his gloriously unfashionable, ennobling spirit surely gives his life a grandeur fully worthy of his ancestors who fought at Trafalgar, or won the Victoria Cross for an act of gallantry early one spring morning in the Great War.