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How his father's suicide haunted Rick Stein

By WMNlynbarton  |  Posted: September 02, 2013

Rick Stein

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Celebrity chef Rick Stein has told how he was tormented by the suicide of his father, who threw himself from the top of a Cornish beauty spot.

In an unflinching memoir, he tells of his father’s last words “I told you I’d do it” before hurling himself onto the rocks below.

Under a Mackerel Sky tells how Stein started his culinary career at Paddington Station before heading to Australia to “toughen up.”

The 66-year-old, whose Padstow based empire and TV career has made him a millionaire, also hilariously relates how he lost his virginity to a ‘tarty’ woman he picked up in a pub.

But his most moving passages are reserved for the terrible sudden suicide of his father.

In extracts published in the Daily Mail, he speaks of how the events of that awful day unfolded.

“On the day my father died, he’d been in an agitated state all morning. To calm him down, his sister Zoe persuaded him to go for a walk with her.

They left Redland, our holiday home on the Cornish coast, and walked up the small road towards the lighthouse on Trevose Head.

Three-quarters of the way up, they turned right to cut across to the cliff path.

Just beyond a herring-bone slate wall with a tamarisk growing out of it, where the track runs very close to the cliff edge, my father turned to Zoe.

‘I told you I’d do it,’ he said. Then he dived on to the rocks beneath.

I was just 17 at the time — too young to realise it would take years to work through the repercussions of his violent death.

My father Eric had a magnetic presence. He was about 6ft 4in, with dark hair and pale blue eyes — and very attractive to women.

My own memories of him, however, have been distorted by his bipolar disorder.

As I grew up, his bouts of mania followed by depressions became more frequent, and much of what he did bewildered me.

On the surface, our lives seemed idyllic. My four siblings and I grew up on a 150-acre farm in Oxfordshire, and spent every holiday at our other house on the Cornish coast.

My father spent most of the week at our flat in London, where he was the managing director of the Distillers Company — then involved in the marketing of Thalidomide, the drug prescribed for pregnant women suffering from morning sickness. As the world was soon to discover, it resulted in many children being born with deformities.

Did he kill himself because of the shame and horror attached to the scandal? I’ll never know. What I do know is that he retired — or was forced to retire — at the relatively young age of 58, and committed suicide shortly afterwards.

He’d found retirement difficult. After his death, I discovered a filing cabinet in which he’d carefully labelled everything in his own hand — a task that his secretary would have done for him in his heyday.

His life had become devoid of meaning, so he’d just sat in his room, obsessively making labels.

Even when very young, I’d always been a bit scared of my dad because he shouted a lot.

There weren’t many things I loved doing with him, except fishing off the rocks in Cornwall.

In his manic phases, he’d get tremendously enthusiastic. Once, he had a swimming pool built — unusual in the Fifties — but it was never finished because he soon lost interest. So, for years, we swam in water that went green because the filter had never been plumbed in.

Another time, he returned from a trip to Japan, laden with tons of gadgets — early transistor radios, cameras, tape recorders. I’d never seen anything like it, though I know now that crazy shopping is a common manifestation of the manic phase of bipolar behaviour.

As a child, I was embarrassed by my dad’s effusive episodes, but I suppose I got used to living with someone who was intermittently sad.

Stephen Fry, who is, himself, bipolar, has said that, in his depressive stages, he felt completely useless. I think that’s how my father felt.

And although I may be successful now, I understand that feeling only too well. The truth is that, for most of my life I, too, have had to fight against a creeping conviction that I may be completely useless.”

He speaks about how he heard of his father’s suicide as he was sweeping a road in London.

“In 1966, while I waited to start my traineeship at the Great Western Royal Hotel in Paddington station, I took a job as a London road sweeper. I was sweeping the road outside the Natural History Museum when my flatmate, Tim, drove up in his Land Rover.

‘I think you should get in,’ he said in a tight voice. Then he told me that my father had died.

I often think I have no memory for detail but I can remember every colour, every hue of that moment.

The greyness of the sky, the blue-green of the Land Rover, the darker green of its seats, the short brown raincoat I was wearing, my blue rugby scarf. I’d tied some parcel twine around my waist to keep out the wind.

Tim told me that my dad had been blown off a cliff. It had actually made the news on the radio that morning — but no name had been mentioned.

Quite soon afterwards, I discovered the truth. My mother then told me that she’d twice intervened to stop my dad killing himself — once she’d taken a kitchen knife from him, and once she’d caught him trying to climb out of a train window.

Today, I can feel sorry for the memory of myself at 17, having to deal with a father who leapt off a cliff at Trevose Head.

I don’t remember much about the funeral; I don’t even remember if there was a wake.

My mother was just broken -— but she also felt furious and let down.

I thought it was a little hard of her to be angry with someone who’d just killed himself. With hindsight, however, I realise how difficult it had been to live with my father.

Having mental illness in a family puts enormous strain on everyone.

In our case, this was mostly on my mother because she’d hidden the reality from us all as best she could.”

Stein admits he was a “little snob” about sex.

“I didn’t lose my virginity till I was 17 when, in desperation, I picked up a rather tarty girl in a pub and we accomplished the deed against a tree trunk.

Convinced I’d caught a venereal disease, I forced myself to go to a clinic in London, but got a clean bill of health.

The enormously complex issue of getting laid as a teenager caused me anxiety and terrible feelings of inadequacy.

At school, I befriended a girl called Maureen from Liverpool, who had a job helping in the kitchen and cleaning dormitories.

We indulged in quite a lot of removal of underwear — but I was petrified of getting her pregnant and having to marry a serving maid from Liverpool.

I was a horrid little snob, really.”

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  • First Impressions  |  September 02 2013, 10:36AM

    I quite like Rick Stein. He's a very nice chap and a great cook. However, I am not at ease with what has happened to Padstow and a recent visit to one of his restaurants in Falmouth left me unimpressed....too expensive and overrated playing on a name.

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