Eager to understand his father's bipolar disorder, the TV chef explores a history of family hardship
Growing up, chef Rick Stein often had a troubled relationship with his father, Eric. “I think that my dad was really quite tough with me at times,” says Rick, who thinks this may have been because his father saw much of himself in his son. Many renegotiate the relationship with a parent later in life, but sadly Rick never got this chance because Eric committed suicide shortly after retiring to Cornwall. Rick was just 18.
It’s a tragedy that’s left him wanting to understand more about his father’s bipolar disorder. Were there circumstances in Eric’s life that shaped the condition? Rick thinks one factor might have been prejudice that Eric endured as a child growing up in World War One.
After the liner Lusitania was sunk by a U-boat in May 1915, there was an outbreak of anti-German violence in the UK. Even in leafy, affluent Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, where Eric was raised, the Stein surname was treated with suspicion. According to Rick’s brother, John, Eric had traumatic childhood memories of his family being insulted as “filthy bosh”.
Another factor might have been thwarted ambition. When he was 18, Eric won a place at Oxford to study medicine. Instead, he had to work in the family business, a distilling and chemical company. But whatever caused the depression, it was tough on Eric’s wife, Dorrie, as Rick learns when he travels to the former family home in Oxfordshire to meet housekeeper Joyce Watson. Joyce recalls how Dorrie hid tablets and knives, so worried was she by Eric’s erratic behaviour.
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Rick wants to know more about his mother’s life. Unusually for the era, Dorrie was a divorcee when she married Eric in 1937. Her first marriage took place shortly after she left Cambridge University in 1932, to Alan Stewart. According to Rick’s half-brother and Alan’s son, Jeremy (who Rick describes as “magnanimous” for his understanding of his mother’s decision, despite the disruption it caused to his own young life), it was “an attraction of opposites”.
Why did Dorrie get hitched so young? An unhappy home life probably played a part. Her father, Frederick Jackson, was a self-made businessman who married a missionary’s daughter, Mary Parkes. The two had a troubled marriage. Frederick had a “hideous” mistress. Mary, says one of Rick’s cousins, Hugh, “was quite fond of a drink”.
Mary’s father would certainly have disapproved of such tippling. Henry Parkes was a Wesleyan who, in 1862, travelled to China to spread the word. Rick follows in his footsteps, flying to Hong Kong. Meeting the Reverend Professor Lo, president of the Hong Kong Methodist Church, Rick learns that Henry spent close to two decades in Asia.
Henry was based in Canton. Unlike most foreigners, who had their own enclave, Henry lived among the Chinese. As a westerner, he would have encountered suspicion. Disease was rife and Henry buried two young children in China. Tragically, he was petitioning to come home when the deaths occurred.
For all the troubles he’s found, Rick refuses to be downhearted. “I feel quite optimistic about the way people deal with difficult situations,” he says. Reflecting on his own strained relationship with his father, he adds: “I felt I had to make something of myself, I had to succeed.”