Father, dear father
This week I drove down to Ascot to see my parents. My father shuffles more than walks nowadays; his deafness, once a ‘strategic tool’ according to my mother, now frustrates him; his irritation index is high and irritation arrives quicker than it once did. I have a number of feelings when I see him these days and I discussed them with my brother when we had some time together. It seems a good time to collect these thoughts, not least because of the Anthony Hopkins film “The Father” tenderly making us consider our relationships.
In the afternoon, I was talking to my mother and dad interrupted a couple of times. It reminded me of a child wanting attention when ‘the adults’ are talking. My mother was showing me a book, about life in West Ham, which she has had for the best part of fifty years. He recognised it, and decided he would like to read it, after she said she had given it to me. I could only think of children being possessive over the toys.
In the beautiful ‘Seven Ages’ speech that Shakespeare’s Jaques gives, he notes the transformation to “second childishness”. It is one of my favourites, but unfortunately, I don’t know it well enough to quote at will. I looked it up. Apposite. I thought about how my father is transitioning through the sixth age.
“The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloons, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side: his youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide for his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness…”
He is front of my mind because at 85, we know that we may not have many more West Ham seasons and England cricket collapses to discuss. When I think of him, those sporting connections come first to mind, but I have started to think about the impact he has had on my life; the interests to which he introduced me and the people, too. No loving son wishes their father’s passing, but equally no loving relative wants to wish a longer life on someone that they love, when they suspect that person is both unhappy, and perhaps fearful of further deterioration in their physical health. And so, I find myself thinking about eulogies.
I have a great schoolfriend, who lived a little further up the road to me. This summer she returned to her house that I used to visit, where her parents still lived, because her father was dying. She lost him a few weeks ago. Like my father, he was in his mid-80s. Two years ago, one of my greatest friends returned to the UK from Australia, because her father was dying. Before she returned home, I was attending her mother’s funeral. She had followed her husband in a matter of weeks. This past week, another of my oldest friends has returned to the UK, also from Australia, because her father has had a fall, and is increasingly unwell. All of us know we have been fortunate to have a relationship with our fathers that has lasted so long, and that in each case, our fathers knew our children well.
I know from my work with Cruse, the grief counselling charity, that the important thing is for the bereaved to speak about the person that they have loved and have recently lost. This week, my brother and I shared our thoughts about our father, our respective relationships with him and also our observations about his health. A physical decline is apparent, but it is the mental health that is difficult to work through. He may be depressed, never mind angry and frustrated, but much of it is going unsaid. I thought of Cat Stevens’s song ‘Father and Son’ and these opening words
It’s not time to make a change
Just relax, take it easy
You’re still young, that’s your fault
There’s so much you have to know
Find a girl, settle down
If you want you can marry
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy
I was once like you are now
And I know that it’s not easy
To be calm when you’ve found
Something going on
But take your time, think a lot
Think of everything you’ve got
For you will still be here tomorrow
But your dreams may not
And that line “I am old, but I’m happy”, and I just hope that is true for him, but I wonder, and I suspect not. I can tell him that I am finally getting better at taking my own time, that these days I do “think a lot”, and I will cling on to my dreams. He has always talked about death as the moment “when the great umpire in the sky raises his finger”, and I think he will not be unhappy to be given out.
This, though, is not for him, but for me. I wanted to think about our relationship. Becoming immersed in psychoanalytic thinking has predictably meant I have reconsidered our relationship. I think it is possible that there is something Oedipal about the life I have pursued. It did not strike me until very recently, but I have probably unconsciously competed with him. I think about my three children to his two, sending them to private schools, compared with the comprehensive education Neil and I had, delighting in the material wealth my career provided, and going into the same industry and needing to achieve bigger roles, my memberships to MCC and the Stock Exchange before his, these might all have been unconscious drives to ‘replace’ him within the family hierarchy.
Whatever the truth of that, I wanted to think about the many positive things he has given me. My children are all adults now; my youngest has just received her degree award from Manchester, and I think I am also thinking about how effectively I have parented, compared with my old man. More unconscious competition.
Like the majority of boys, my father was my first hero. I recall watching him shave (he preferred electric) in the mornings and willing the years to pass so that I had to shave like him. From the moment that my parents moved to Essex, before I was two, I understood that he commuted and came home relatively late, and somehow, I thought that meant he had an important job, compared with those whose fathers worked locally. When he was forty, my brother and I were allowed to attend his birthday party. I recall one of the women partying there, telling me that if I grew up to be the “charming man” that my father was, that I could be proud of the man I would have become. On the few occasions that I have been descrbed as ‘charming’, it has been particularly pleasing to me.
He had his own heroes. One was his uncle Denis, who was a war time test pilot, and represented all of the traditional virtue to which my father aspired. His own hopes for joining the RAF were curtailed by a failed medical. His sporting heroes must have been many, but I can recall only Denis Compton being talked of with true reverence. Compton, oddly, was rather non-conformist, a bit of swash and buckle, and my father was a respecter of tradition and of convention, so there was an inconsistency in his admiration for the Compton style, but perhaps that was the point. For my generation, it would be the same as a boyhood lover of convention and tradition preferring Ian Botham to any other sporting god.
I wanted to be him, and so I asked my mother what had made her fall in love with him (yes, I know that has Oedipal undertones!) She told me that it was his voice, and so I used to listen carefully to his turns of phrase, his diction, how he enunciated, and I thought about the tone and timbre of his voice. One thing he did give me was a love of sport. An early adulthood car accident had robbed him of the sight of one eye and limited his own sporting potential and successes. He poured his enthusiasm into his sons.
That manifested itself in him investing his time in our developing talents. Appalled by the quality and lack of refereeing for junior football matches, he passed the exam and became a referee so that he could step in whenever there was the risk of the game not being ‘properly’ reffed. He became the ‘manager’ of my brother’s junior team, Danbury Boys FC, and for me he came to every athletics meeting, when I was briefly a promising sprinter, so he could bang the starting blocks into the track. He found me a coach (one of our neighbours) and then bought me a much smarter set of blocks, and some smart spikes. Sadly, I was a late developer physically and about the age of 14 all my peers grew taller and stronger than me and I was no longer winning races.
As my brother’s cricketing prowess became obvious to everyone, dad drove around the country to see as many of his representative games as he could. When Neil had made it as a professional and moved to Somerset, and played his winters in Cape Town, dad switched to attending my non-league football games. Even at the low level I played, I was more of a journeyman than a star. I played with a former Scotland international, two sons of one of England’s greatest internationals, and a large handful of players with football league experience. Consequently, there was no guarantee that I would make the XI on matchday and I spent more than my fair share of time on the bench, but still he would travel far and wide across East Anglia, east London and the south midlands, knowing I might not start.
His oldest and best friend was my godfather, and he invited him to watch me play once. Fortunately, I had a good game and scored a hat-trick in a FA Vase match for Maldon against Thetford. I felt very connected to dad then, but even more so when I left Witham Town for Finchley. I knew he had grown up in Finchley, which had once been a big amateur club, but it never occurred to me that he would have an association with it. We got a little tearful when I made my debut at Summers Lane, and he told me about watching games there with his much-loved and missed father.
Dad has never really been one for emoting, although as he has aged, he can get quite choked, often when his grandchildren are around him. The only time I saw him cry as we grew up was when he learned of his father’s death whilst we were on holiday in Jersey. I think I decided then that I should only cry if it was as important as the death of a loved one. I have got better at handling my own emotions since then, but dad and I have never been very good at sharing the really personal stuff, and so, as he passes through the sixth age, I wonder how well I know him. I know that I want my own children to know me better than I feel I know him.
What I do know is he taught me values and integrity. He was a whistle blower in a unit trust pricing scandal at a time when his career was prospering in fund management. Not very long afterwards the country was reeling from recession, Britain was “the sick man of Europe”, and the FT30 index made new lows. He was made redundant. Obviously, I was not there at the time but it seems probable that it was spiteful and targeted. To my parents’ huge credit, I do not recall noticing it (I was 10) and neither Neil nor I missed out on any love, school uniforms, sports kit or Christmas presents. I am sure it affected him deeply, though, and once he returned to the City, as a broker, it may have affected the way he was with others.
I started on the stock market floor in 1982 and he was keen to introduce me to all his many contacts. He encouraged me to be polite and liked to hint that any one of these people may be useful to me. It was after all, a time when who you knew still seemed more important than what you knew. Has it changed? I found it difficult. I thought many of these people were insincere and took advantage of his goodwill. My attitude was much less trusting, which may have harmed my career, but might have been a re-run of his early scepticism, a scepticism that had led to him spotting the malfeasance.
He is an ardent royalist. He is also proud of being English. I stress English. He is suspicious of the Scots (especially Andy Murray and his mother, or any Scotsman who gets a job in football commentary like Andy Gray or Ally McCoist!), and more so of the Irish, irrespective of which side of the border. He seems less contemptuous of the Welsh, (perhaps because of the glory of Gareth Edwards and the rugby greats of my childhood and of Tony Lewis moving from the cricket field to the urbane presenter of sports programmes on Radio 4).
I have thought of it much more of his English identity in the post-Brexit years. None of my generation can truly understand what it must have been like to have been a boy as the war unfolded. He was approaching his fifth birthday as the Blitz destroyed London and nine when the war finally ended. Getting beyond the idea that Germans and Italians were the enemy must take some recalibrating mentally. How the Cold War affected his generation too, is something we have never properly discussed. But the idea that people not English-born are somehow hostile and a not-to-be trusted threat, is something I have not had to consider in the way he did. Our politics have separated, where once we were very much aligned, but I know I think too little about how his views were formed.
What he did do, was introduce me to politics itself, for which I am grateful. He told me about being a Young Conservative and inspired by the pleasure of his descriptions, I did the same. A different time and a different organisation, but it helped me to take a stance that required me to critically analyse what was happening in the world around me. He was angry about the decline in Britain’s status in the ‘70’s, he loathed the unions and was convinced by Thatcher from the outset. The Tories left me, or me them, after the Major sleaze era, but I still appreciate that my introduction to politics, which was a one-eyed Conservative view, introduced me to a lifelong interest. I now get to share it, and debate at length with my children, and I think it has been a great gift.
Another introduction he made to me was jazz music. Watching the wonderful “High Society” together one afternoon, he lit up as Satchmo and Bing got going. “Listen to this” he instructed, as Bing moved into the second verse, and I can hear it now, and whatever jazz I hear, I think of this moment and of him.
“Take some skins,
Take a bass
Take a box,
One that rocks,
Take a blue horn New Orleans-born.
Take a stick
With a lick,
Take a bone,
Take a spot,
Cool and hot,
Now you has jazz jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz.”
He loves Basie, but Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck are the artists I recall hearing the most. There are many gifts a father can give a child, but a passion for things outside the family, or the workplace, are amongst the greatest. He has given me sport and music. Apart from theatre, there are few things that mean as much to me outside my own children. He loves newspapers, even today. We share this passion. Good journalism is such a wonderful thing. He would read papers and the occasional magazine, but we had few books at home. I wanted to impress him, and asked him what he would recommend that I should read. He selected “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. They did not appeal to me as much as I expected, but I read them feverishly because I wanted to talk to him about them.
As a father myself, I can think about what I want from my relationship with my children. What would I want them to say of me? I think I would hope they would say they knew that I loved them and that I gave them good advice. As I see my father shrinking physically, becoming someone different from the man I once wanted to be, I do think that he loves me and that he has given me good advice. I used to pester him with wanting to know what he wanted me to do or to be, because I wanted to impress him. Profoundly, he said, “be happy”. I took years to understand that message. Perhaps, I have only just understood it. Years of aspiring for sporting accomplishments, professional success, material wealth, but really none of that was going to change what he thinks of me; but seeing me low upsets him and seeing me contented, helps his contentment. And that is exactly how it is for me with my three.
We have, perhaps, a few more seasons watching the Hammers and a few more summers with visits to Lord’s, so I may get time to tell him what he has done for me and to tap into his ninth decade wisdom, but this has poured out of me because I have a sense that time is shortening, and that for all the love we share, too much between us is unsaid. As a pair, we become inarticulate when we need to express emotion, despite both loving words. Men like me, are so fortunate to still have parents alive and not trapped by dementia. And today, it felt like a good day to write it down.