Alan Cumming

By Matt Elton, 13 September 2010 - 3:35pm

The Hollywood star uncovers the tragic story of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Darling

Alan Cumming

The Hollywood star traces the short life and tragic death of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Darling

Growing up, Alan Cumming was close to his mother, Mary, and his late grandmother, Margaret, both “strong women”. And yet, says Alan, it’s not just those who raise you who have an influence, it’s those who are absent. “You base who you are on your immediate lineage,” he says, “so if there are gaps in that and mysteries in that, there are mysteries in you.”

He’s thinking of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Darling, a career soldier who, it’s said, died in a “shooting accident”. He was just 35. But what exactly happened? The actor’s first stop is Dundee, where he visits his mother. “I feel a bit like Miss Marple, hunting down clues,” Alan says. And there are clues aplenty about Thomas’s life to be found in Dundee. Born in 1916, Thomas was orphaned at two and raised by an aunt. In 1937, he married Margaret Noble.

His mother last saw Thomas when she was eight, but she has mementoes of her father, including service records that describe him as “honest, sober and trustworthy”. Mary also says that he died in Malaya while “cleaning a gun”. Alan’s not convinced by this explanation.

To build up a better picture of his grandfather, Alan researches Thomas’s military career. As a motorbike dispatch rider, Thomas won the Military Medal in May 1940 for his bravery during the chaotic retreat from France. A member of the Cameron Highlanders, he used his bike to carry not just messages, but Bren guns and ammunition as the Camerons attempted to fend off an attack from a tank division led by Rommel.

Covering open ground on his bike, he came “under mortar and machine gun fire”. Alan’s impressed: “He’s coming through billowing smoke on a motorbike, he’s Steve McQueen.” Yet there’s another side to this heroism. Most of the men Thomas served with in France didn’t make it home, but were killed or captured.

If that weren’t traumatic enough, Thomas was then sent to India, close to the border with Burma. In March 1944, he was wounded at the Battle of Kohima, a famously brutal encounter with the Japanese. There are hints in the records – especially the telling absence of certain documents, possibly destroyed to hide evidence of mental illness – that he may have suffered from combat fatigue. For Alan, Thomas has changed from a “bravery machine” to a “more rounded human being”.

This transformation becomes complete when Alan meets David Murray, a veteran officer who served with Tam (not Thomas) Darling. “He was big, he was strong and he looked tough,” says Murray of a man he genuinely respected.

But for all his outward toughness, Tam’s life ended tragically. In 1949, after a spell on civvy street, Tam joined police force in Malaya. His application reveals that he was separated from Margaret. To learn the truth about Tam’s final months, Alan heads for Kuala Lumper.

At the end of the colonial era, Malaya (now Malaysia) was a country where British forces were fighting communist guerillas. The population was taken into guarded camps called ‘New Villages’ and, as a police lieutenant, Tam was in charge of one of these communities, essentially a military role.

Yet the most shocking revelation still awaits Alan: records reveal that Tam didn’t die cleaning his gun, he died playing Russian roulette. At least Alan doesn’t just find tragedy. Tam was well liked and, in the village of Chaah, there’s a Darling Walk in the local park, named in his honour.

As for why Alan’s mother didn’t know the true circumstances of his death, it’s because a letter home portrayed it as an accident. Tam’s death, thinks Alan, is not so shocking when you think about that his grandfather experienced “a life with the volume cranked way up”. And perhaps there’s a kind of closure in knowing what really happened: “The truth can hurt, but not knowing can hurt more.”

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