My Dad – a sketch
My Dad died in 1984, he was 75 years old and I was in my 38th year. I was away at the time on what has become known as a ‘retreat’ in Surrey so I was mentally and emotionally well-armed to receive the news. I left the retreat immediately and went to my old home in Kent to be with my mother who was now alone (my brother had just moved to and still lives in Australia); I spent the next four days with her driving around the island (of Sheppey) visiting old haunts and travelling further afield into the Weald and the Kentish coast. It was on the cusp of springtime and chilly as only Kent can be, prone as it is to the easterly winds off the North Sea and further afield.
We were never particularly close my Dad and me; I only remember him kissing me once when at age 10 my younger brother and I were palmed off onto our paternal grandmother for a week as Mum and Dad drove down to Devon to relive their honeymoon of 1939. He always sported a moustache and I remember it tickling as he kissed me goodbye with a whiff of Player’s cigarette smoke. We had an ok week; my grandmother was a ‘case’ and she loved to win at cards and we played many hands of ‘spite and malice’ as she rejoiced in trouncing her two young charges. She lived in Kingston upon Thames at the time, just round the corner from My Aunt Ivie and Uncle Bill, a fruit wholesaler in Covent Garden market, and owner of a natty bright red new MG TD sports car.
That week was memorable for a number of reasons, but was crowned by the return from their second honeymoon and with them my parents brought some fresh Devon Clotted Cream and a crusty white loaf. Earlier in the summer Dad had had a bumper crop of strawberries and when the neighbours were well supplied my mother made a load of strawberry jam (US = ‘jelly’) with the glut; when we got home it was tea-time and we had the crusty white loaf with lashings of butter, strawberry jam and the clotted cream. I have had many memorable meals in my life – especially when I worked for one of London’s premier architectural firms – but I still recall that meal as being the most memorable.
Dad was an avid gardener in the immediate post-war years and we dined on all kinds of produce from the kitchen garden (back-yard): runner beans, carrots, tomatoes, cabbages, lettuces, Brussels sprouts and, of course, strawberries. The front garden was just as important to Dad, with perennial hydrangeas, London pride, nasturtium and the annuals: salvias, alyssum and lobelia. From 1951 he won Sheppey Rural District Council’s ‘gardener of the year’ silver cup nine years running. His lawns were his pride and joy, which he mowed regularly and edged with long-handled clippers. As I grew older and stronger I enthusiastically joined in with the care of the gardens.
This gardening success was typical of him; everything he did was done meticulously. He was a perfectionist and he was fantastically well-endowed with practical skills. One year he built a garden shed from scratch. It was a little gem and was my second experience of prefabrication (the first being the US manufactured flat-roofed asbestos-cement ‘prefab’ that we lived in on The Broadway in Minster) and I marvelled as he brought the walls together and fitted the sloping roof in one day. He painted it glossy grass green and fitted it out as a workshop with a vice on the bench by the window and all his hand-tools neatly positioned on their own outlines on a plywood board on the back wall. Here he did his ‘wrought iron’ work and woodwork.
As cheap food became more plentiful and post-war rationing ended (yes, I remember rationing!) Dad extended the back garden lawn over the vegetable patch and after a year or two of bedding-in he extended the small putting-green he had established on the rear lawn to one which proved a lot more testing. He spent hours putting alone until nobody could beat him, and we tried, we really tried. Many years later when he joined the Sheerness Golf Club his putting was the strongest part of his ‘game’. (Drive for show and putt for dough!)
As a lad he had been a technophile (geek) and in the inter-war years this meant radios, and he built many. He worked at Sansom & Capps in Tooting mending radios and when the war came in 19939 he was enlisted into the RAF as a radar operator. He told the story of his arrival at an airfield in Suffolk in civvies where the train-load of recruits was lined up; the senior NCO drew them to attention and barked: ‘anybody here with knowledge of radios?’ Dad took a lone step forward. The others were given a 48-hour furlough but dad was immediately taken off and inducted into the radar programme, he spent the remainder of the war billeted on the Suffolk coast.
He claimed that the radar operators could tell when the Luftwaffe were using their homing beacons and once the British bombers were safely home the beam could be bent in order to ditch the German planes into the North Sea. (I’ve never checked the authenticity of this story and it strikes me now that perhaps I should.) As kids we loved to hear repeated recounting of his war stories over Saturday tea around the Swedish designed modern bentwood dining table in the corner of the living room. Like his falling over sleeping cows on moonless nights on the way to the radar outpost because torches (flashlights) were forbidden.
Our favourite story says so much about him. When first enlisted the men were housed in ‘bell’ tents in a Suffolk field and upon waking up on the first morning they were appalled to find the tent and all their belongings were infested with earwigs and other creepy-crawlies. Dad said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll sort it out’ and that day he dug a small trench all around the tent and filled it with creosote. He assured his tent-mates that there’d be no earwigs in the morning but to his dismay he was bitterly disappointed and ridiculed by the others as the infestation reoccurred. He put on his ‘thinking cap’ and wandering around the tent realised that the guy ropes gave access over his creosote moat, so the following day he dug little trenches around each of the tent-pegs, filled them with more creosote and, hey presto, no more earwig infestation.
He loved modern design, as with the dining room table, and everything in our home was smartly designed; we had no heirlooms or antiques. I still have some bookcases he designed and built from old television sets. Upon discharge from the RAF in 1945 he moved to the Isle of Sheppey, to where he had shipped off my mother to live during the war. They were both Londoners, he from Putney and Mum from South Norwood, but fear of the Blitz persuaded them that Mum should join her mother and sister in Kent whilst he was safely ensconced in Suffolk. My brother and I were each born in Sheppey General Hospital (long since redeveloped for housing) in 1946 and 1947 respectively and we each lived our first eighteen years on the island.
Dad worked for the Sheppey Motor Company, the local Rootes’ cars agency – Hillman, Humber, Commer, Singer and Sunbeam – in their radio and TV repair department. He was the repair department and had his own Commer van in which to collect and deliver radios and TVs in those immediate post-war years when they were large items of furniture. I used to go up to his repair shop occasionally on my way back home from the Delamark Road Junior School that was located just round the corner from the Sheppey Motor Company garage and workshop. Unlike his little workshop at home this workshop was large with benches all-round the edges and a large central bench and every inch of surface was covered with dust, radios and TVs of all descriptions and states of repair; it was a total mess.
When I passed the ‘eleven plus’ examination in 1957 and was bound for Borden Grammar School in Sittingbourne, a twenty minute train ride away from Sheerness, I was presented with a brand-new red ‘Palm Beach Tourer’ bicycle. This bike was the ‘bees-knees’ for us boys – girls got the ‘Pink Witch’ equivalent if they were lucky – and it had four-speed Sturmey-Archer gears. A year later despite failing his ‘eleven-plus’ my brother got a new blue ‘Palm Beach Tourer’. Both of these bikes were supplied by Dad’s employer so he must’ve received a decent discount, but we loved those bikes and the freedom they afforded. These were the days when on a weekend or holiday we were expected to leave the home with a packed lunch and spend the whole day out on our bikes without any worry for our safety from perverts and other creeps; all of that came years later. The 1950s and early 60s were halcyon years from the point of view of child safety, apart from the self-inflicted scrapes and bruises from tree-climbing, cliff-climbing, sea fishing and fighting.
I guess wages were not generous in the middle 1950s and on our way to one holiday in Devon (again – we always went to Devon, where it often rained) Dad drove the Hillman Minx hired from his employer to a back-street in south-east inner London where he stopped, went to the car’s boot (trunk), extracted a bulging cardboard box and disappeared into a scruffy-looking shop. What seemed like a long time later re-emerged without the carton and with a smile and a nod to Mum he slid behind the wheel and we headed off south-west on our way to Devon. Years later I discovered that Dad had a fiddle going on at work: he would replace certain valuable radio and television valves with new ones when the old ones were perfectly ok. He collected these second-hand valves (diodes and triodes etc.) over the year and would sell them to unscrupulous outlets for cash to help pay for the holiday. When I was 10 years old I found out that a two-week stay in a Broughton boarding-house for the four of us cost £33. At the time neither Mum nor dad even earned £20 a week.
We were of course one of the first families locally to own a TV and Dad made a beautiful monaural radiogram from a retrieved and refurbished radio and a Collaro auto-changer record deck complete with record storage in which he kept his miniscule record collection. He would conduct Sibelius’ Karelia Suite in the living room mirror when he thought no one was looking.
[FYI: Mum worked as a secretary/book-keeper for the local branch of British Road Services, a now defunct road haulier. Come rain, hail, wind, snow or sun Mum and Dad each cycled to and from work every day and they were both quite slim and fit despite each smoking a pack of Player’s Navy Cut or Senior Service cigarettes every day.]
My Dad’s love of design had led him to do all sorts of drawings of houses and furniture in the inter-war years, all very imitative, but he had acquired two books that for me were seminal. There was a design magazine called ‘The Studio’ (which later gravitated more to fine art) and each year it produced a ‘year book’ of the best articles. He had the year books for 1936 and 1942 and as a pre-teen I pored over these books and their starkly modern designs for furniture, interior design and domestic architecture. It was here that I first laid eyes on American houses that were so different from anything that could be seen locally, until to my utterly pleased surprise I discovered two ‘International Style’ houses on the island. I was 12 years old when I decided to become an architect and these two books were decisive – along with a photo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Falling Water’, for the Kaufmann family in rural Pennsylvania, found in a local library book.
In order to become an architect in 1964 the RIBA had determined that the preferred route was via a university degree and when I expressed a desire to go to university my father objected on the grounds that at eighteen I should be going out to work in order to contribute to the family income. It was only due to pressure from my mother and headmaster that he reluctantly agreed and I became the first member of my family to attend university. (My children each attended university).
In 1984, as a fully qualified architect, I finally realised a long-held desire to visit ‘Falling Water’ and when there I purchased a number of large postcards and sent two of them bearing iconic views of the house to my parents. By this time my Mum and Dad had moved to a small one-bedroom retirement apartment, the prefabs having long-been demolished, and Dad in his seventies had gravitated to oil painting as a hobby. He was as meticulous as always and had copied these two post-card views as oil paintings for Christmas presents, but he died before he could finish one of the paintings and they hang in our living room today, a constant reminder of his manifold gifts. But I digress.
In due course economics intervened and the Sheppey Motor Co. closed in 1957; Dad then entered a time of change, which he hated. He worked in a couple of factories and even spent a short time self-employed, which, owing to his perfectionism, proved spectacularly uneconomic. In 1962 I was working one summer vacation from school for Stan Northover in one of his amusement arcades in Leysdown-on-Sea on the bingo stand when I learnt that Stan wanted a device to help him even the odds of winning. There were 50 seating positions on the bingo and the ‘caller’ had a list which contained a winning line for each card. The trouble was that the caller might forget which card he was intending to win and he would get confused so Dad made a box about a foot square and 2 inched deep with 50 subdivisions each with a little switch and battery-driven light, so the caller always knew which card was to win because of the lit line. They only committed this fraud in quiet times of day to make sure everybody who played regularly would win and each card only cost 6 old pence (2½ new pence) so we’re not talking major fraud here.
Mum and Dad liked a drink. They had a number of locals and by the time I was seventeen I was included in their excursions. Their daytime preference was the True Briton in a Sheerness back-street, where Dad built the downstairs bar, but there was also The Nore at Halfway and for evenings out the Harty Ferry Inn in a particularly isolated part of the island was their undoubted favourite. The True Brit became my ‘local’ and on Saturday lunchtimes I would join them at the Nore after completing my paper-money collecting round for a pint of Shepherd Neame’s best bitter.
When we went to the Harty Ferry Inn I would join them in their preferred tipple of gin and tonic and after getting too drunk on a couple of occasions I vowed never to drink G&Ts again for fear of alcoholism. I kept to beer or wine and latterly have taken to a nightly whisky and water; I don’t think I’ve ever been an alcoholic – but what’s the measure?; I don’t even have a drink at lunchtime unless we’re down at cousin Brian’s in Dorset when he or Sheila have their regular midday ‘noggin’ or ‘snifter’.
My Dad’s only friends seemed to be those regulars he encountered in pubs or ‘mine hosts’, and despite his manifold practical gifts he was inept at looking after himself. So when my mother went into hospital in the mid-1970s with an operable restricted small intestine she arranged for my Aunt Deborah (originally Christened Doris, which she unilaterally changed when she became the landlady of the Newnham Arms in central London’s Rathbone Street because Doris was just the ‘wrong’ sort of name) to stay with my Dad to look after him. As a result of this sojourn Deborah never spoke to my father ever again and it was only after his death ten years later that my mother told me that Dad had threatened to kill himself had she have died, so it’s just as well that he went first.
My ‘better’ half, Maureen, has reminded me that he was very restrictive of my mother; not quite abusive, he was insanely jealous of her manifold social skills which he felt he utterly lacked. I found this surprising because he had a well-developed sense of humour and could tell a good story, but it is true that he had zero life outside of work, pub and home. Even when they joined the local golf club as ‘seniors’ he never, to my knowledge, ever went there without being accompanied by my mother; she, of course, loved the conviviality of the nineteenth hole. As much as his passing was a trauma to my mother after 45 years of marriage, she blossomed afterwards and got involved in all sorts of activities that she denied herself whilst he was around.
There’s much more that I could add, but this is a blog post and can only be a brief sketch. The one thing I promised myself once I had left home was that I wouldn’t be like him and my wife tells me I was successful in that. I love cooking, and – strangely – ironing (I find it oddly peaceful); I do my own laundry and owing to my wife’s physical disability I have to do most things around the house. Like many men I need reminding of important dates and on bin-day she tells me at least twice to put the wheelie bins out for collection.
My relationship with my children benefitted from me having a rather old-fashioned father and we are ‘kissing’ close. When my brother and I were very young mother would keep us kids away from dad until he had had a chance to ‘settle-in’ from his work day. For me, I loved to spend time with my children at any time of the day and as younger children they spent most of the weekend with me at the playground in the local park or the swimming pool. Daughter Claire quit her eight-year marriage last year owing to a lack of attention from her likable but workaholic husband; son Simon and wife Nicky have a nearly two-year old son, Max, and another on the way, due in April.
Dads are important and I learnt much from mine either directly or in the breach and I feel sorry for the many children today who find themselves in single-family, ‘dad-less’ households.
But it takes all sorts, and none of us has to be defined by our upbringing. We can choose to be what we want to be, but we can’t choose our Dads.
If you have been, thank you for reading.