Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Motherhood is something that fathers never understand. No matter how old your children become, you never cease to be a mother. You rejoice in their successes and grieve for their hardships. Let anyone hurt her fledgelings and mother swan will hiss and spit at them, even when the fledgelings have fledgelings of their own.

Fatherhood is something different. I have been thinking of my own father. He was a serious man, tall and large. He was intimidating, even though he never struck me or even shouted at me. I remember once when I carelessly dirtied the shirt that I would have to wear to school the next day. I was terribly upset and afraid; so much so that I took myself off to bed before he came home from work. When he came home, rather than scold me, he came upstairs and persuaded me that I should come down for supper. He was kindness personified. Somehow, though his relationship was primarily with my mother not with the children. He related to us, through her. Later he was to develop a close relationship to my younger brother and to his grandchildren, but to me he always kept his distance. He was rather austere.

He was a man of the Right with strong political views, though one of his closest friends was a Jamaican. He was frustrated by his lack of an education. He had TB as a teenager and was sent to a residential school for two years at a Sanatorium. I don't think it was much of a teaching emporium. He was apprenticed to a tailor and was a skilled tailor's cutter. He was unfit for military service and spent the war making soldiers uniforms for a man who later became the father of the Speaker of the House of Commons. My parents spent the early part of the war living in a wooden 'Gypsy' caravan at an army camp in the midlands.

Later on he worked for the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Officer's Mess in a pretty menial way. He took on tailoring alterations for the chain stores to supplement his income. He worked every evening long into the night.

He was very keen for me to get a proper education and taught me to read before I was three. He sent me to a private primary school on the proceeds of his tailoring. By the time I left aged 8 I had completed the curriculum for eleven year olds.

He used to play cricket with me. After his spell in the Sanatorium he had a part time job on the Worcestershire Club and Ground, helping to prepare the County pitches. He even turned out occasionally for Worcestershire 2nd XI. He used to tell me of how he once nearly took a hat-trick, putting down a caught and bowled. He said that he was distantly related to certain Test Cricketers. I never knew how much to believe his stories. I think he was a fabulist. He was never very good at sport. He had large hands and could put a fearsome amount of spin on a ball, but whenever I saw him play, either cricket or football, he wasn't very good. I guess he was well into his thirties or even forties then and he may well have been much better when he was younger.

He used to take me fishing with him. He liked being alone by the bank of river or canal. He certainly knew how to fish. There are photographs of him with large pike and tench. My younger brothers have taken up the sport, but I admit I found it boring.

My father was a great organizer. He was obviously a lot more intelligent than the average working man that he associated with. He would become Secretary of this or Treasurer of that, Chairman of the other. He would make things happen. A community Hall got built; away matches were organized; a trip to the seaside arranged; but he was not a sticker. He would inevitably fall out with somebody and take his ball home.

I think, as I grew older and moved in educated circles, I was a bit ashamed of him. He didn't have that cultured edge that I was impressed by. I regret how much I stayed away.

I must be one of the few people in the world who has never smoked a single cigarette. My father died of the weed at 59 years old. He smelled of old tobacco. My mother gave me his old suits to wear, but the smell never left them. He had to paint his living room twice a year to disguise the brown coloration of the walls and ceiling. He used to smoke roll-ups for cheapness, lighting one with the butt-end of another. He would even extract the tobacco from the butts to make a new cigarette.

He never got cancer; at autopsy there wasn't a cancerous cell in his body. He developed a very high hemoglobin so that his blood was like treacle. Of course, I diagnosed the problem - smoker's polycythemia or Gaisbock's syndrome. I persuaded him to stop for a couple of months, but he couldn't hack it. He gradually increased his smoking again, titrating it against his angina. While he could still walk from house to car and from car to office without chest pain, he reckoned he was safe.

I wasn't surprised about the clot in his leg just after Christmas 1978. I arranged for his admission to hospital for anticoagulation. I was thinking more about having become a father for the third time myself and perhaps I should have monitored the physician who was looking after him more closely. New-years day 1979 I had a phone call that he was dead. The stupid physician had refused to anticoagulate him on the grounds that he had microscopic red blood cells in his urine. He should have known that nearly all heavy smokers have that. Of course, he died from a massive blood clot that migrated from his leg to his lungs; a pulmonary embolus.

I am still angry about it. He used to haunt my dreams for months afterwards. He would appear in his fishing clothes, getting scruffier and more unkempt as time passed. He kept asking me why?

I wonder what sort of father I have been. I am very proud of all my children but am I close to them? Or as close as I should be?

When my first daughter was born we had been married for about 15 months. At first, I thought of her as an intrusion into our lives. Because we were both working and a junior doctor's life allowed little time off - no more did a junior librarian's - it seemed that we had little time to be alone together.

I wrote this poem at the time to express what I felt.


In the luminous blue of a child’s eyes

that shine at the sight of her mother

my breath is caught in sharp surprise

as one is at one with the other.

My breath returns as the sharpness dies,

and with sheer delight I discover,

in the luminous blue of my daughter’s eyes

that I am at one with my lover.


George said...

so touching

Anonymous said...

This has stirred up memories of my own father. There are many similarities: he also, died suddenly in the early hours of New Year's day 1979. I remember the cold - minus 15 celsius - extremely cold for Ireland.
He was a chain smoking, quiet, leftish, working-class man, who had survived TB and Dunkirk. He was also highly intelligent, but denied a good education. I think your father would have seemed privileged to him. It's all relative. Anyway, you made me think of him today.

justme said...

You made me think of my grandfather today. He was a chain-smoker also and died of stroke. I remember trying to talk to him about the Lord just before he died, and all he would say was, "God could never forgive me for all I've done." He would tell me over and over that I had no idea the terrible things he had done, but I kept assuring him that God could and would forgive him if he but placed his trust in His Son's death and resurrection on his behalf. To this day I don't know if he ever did that or if I'll see him when I finally enter heaven. I very much hope so. He was such a wonderful and kind grandfather.