When we were nippers, the phrase ‘wait till your father gets home’ meant something. Dad’s size, giant to a young child, coupled with the fact that he worked nights so we didn’t see much of him during the week, gave him an imposing air that you respected without thinking about it. Mum only had to say those words to put an end to any misbehaviour on our part. To count the number of times Dad ever laid a hand on us in anger, though, even after hearing any report of some wrongdoing, some broken vase or refusal to go to bed, I wouldn’t need the fingers of a single hand. It was so rare that, if I ever did get a smacked backside, my main response was one of shame, because I’d know without question that I really had done something that deserved it. That’s how Dad was; a man of contradictions. When we lived in Edinburgh Road, for example, he was a subscriber to Militant magazine. By the time the folks left Bevendean, he was reading, to my horror, the Daily Mail!
Examples of these contradictions run like a thread all through his life. Unlike his father and grandfather before him, he didn’t join the Navy, though his great respect for his forebears having done so was clear. He told me once that the reason he didn’t follow them was because the Navy told him he’d be a good fit for some kind of engineering role, which didn’t appeal to him. He didn’t fancy sitting in a confined space in the bowels of some ship, surrounded by the noise and grease of his work. He then, of course, spent much of his working life doing exactly that type of thing on land rather than sea, quite literally getting his hands dirty to earn his living.
He didn’t want us to have to do the same sort of thing, urging me once to seek so-called ‘white collar’ work rather than any kind of job you had to wash off yourself at the end of each shift. Glenn, though, has inherited his mechanical talents, and Dad wasn’t afraid to tell both of us how proud he was of us as young men, not minding at all that Glenny had found work like that, despite the advice he’d given us to the contrary.
Dad was a man with a low embarrassment threshold. He did not like people to think he’d made some mistake, he fretted about how he looked whenever he stepped out of the house in anything other than his overalls; he placed, in short, a high value on his dignity. So, knowing that, and as another illustration of the contradictions I was talking about, let me tell those of you who never saw it about the White Admiral public house in Bevendean.
This now-demolished boozer was one for which the term ‘spit and sawdust’ could not have been invented, because it suggests a salubrity and class which was simply absent in the Admiral. Possibly blood and sawdust would suffice, though I suspect any sawdust would have been nicked had it been left sitting around unguarded. One Christmas the Admiral held a fancy dress competition. Dad, perhaps miffed by the fact that Mum used to win something in every single one of the pub’s many raffles, decided he was going to win it.
Now bear in mind that this is a man who once asked me if I thought he looked like a ‘retired copper’ before he left for a night out. Turning up in any fancy dress whatsoever would have provoked surprise, so when he came into what was laughably called the ‘family bar’, they might as well have called the competition off and put first prize straight in his hand. His chosen outfit was a deep, iridescent blue, off-the-shoulder ball gown, a long blond wig and a tiara. I was, like everybody else, so startled by this that it was only much later that I wondered where he got these items in sizes that would fit him. Of course he won.
He was a voracious reader, a love of words being one of the greatest gifts he bestowed me, and he had a sophisticated and varied sense of humour. The hardest I ever saw him laugh though was in response to a silly pun about the controversial French footwear designer Phillipe Floppe. He was helpless for about half an hour and for a short time I thought we were going to end up gathering to celebrate his life a lot sooner than we actually have because he went the colour of that ball gown.
In truth he was always pretty quick to laugh, a great quality in my view, and despite being quick to express his displeasure when he felt it, usually with some inanimate object he was threatening to cast through the nearest window, he was no less quick to express the great pleasure he took from so many things. As you’ll have seen from how he made his final journey today, he had a lifelong love of motorcycles, refusing to allow the last one he owned even to get wet – if it ‘looked a bit threatening’, the bike remained in the garage. Though he never joined the Navy, he did love the ocean cruises he took with Mum, her sister Chris and our greatly missed uncle Clive, and he took particular joy in the pleasure boat he and Mum bought to tour the Norfolk Broads.
He also found friendship and brotherhood in the Freemasons, the support from whom has gone above and beyond the call, and extended well beyond the point at which he was too ill to play any active role. My family owe Mr F in particular a debt of gratitude which we can never expect adequately to repay.
Some family secrets came tumbling out of their hiding places over the course of Dad’s illness. These have served to illustrate the point I’ve been making about his contradictory nature. For all of that, I could not have asked for a better father as a kid. The last thing I said to Dad, when I thought he was sufficiently awake to understand it, was to thank him for everything he’d done for me. While we were doing a bit of tidying up at the bungalow he got to enjoy so briefly last week, my partner Cristina came across a ring that Mum had, as she frequently does, ‘tucked away’ somewhere or, as I’d call it, lost.
‘The last thing he ever bought me’, Mum told us, quickly moved to tears. ‘He loved you’, Glenn said to her. He did. He loved all of us. And we loved him, and will miss him terribly.
Goodbye, Dad. And thanks.