Wednesday, 1 August 2018

A Voyage Round My Father

ca. 1938

Today would have been my father's 100th birthday, which is an extraordinary thought. "Would have", because he died in July 2007, not long before his 90th. He would certainly have made it to 90, and maybe even 100, had he not concealed the symptoms of the disease that killed him. Or rather, had he not succumbed to an infection in hospital shortly after the emergency operation that attempted to save his life. Typically, this foolishly brave, stupidly self-effacing man had concealed his symptoms for too long because my mother was dementing, and he felt honour-bound to see her through her final years. Only when she had finally been admitted to the care home where she almost immediately died did he seek treatment, but it was far too late. As I say, typical. What can you do?

This was also typical, of course, of so many decent men of that entire generation, born into the long shadow of the Great War, and destined to follow their own fathers – like them, in most cases, cheerfully grumpy, insolently obedient, and reluctantly brave – into a conflict not of their making. Deference and obedience were part of the fabric of society, then, and it took a braver, more free-thinking sort of man to question or refuse so-called "service". It was almost literally unthinkable. But the problem with military service, especially as a private or NCO, and particularly under wartime conditions, is that it raises inchoate attitudes of compliance and conformity into reflexes, and re-badges them as virtues. Do what you're told, and we'll all be OK. Do what you're told well, and you'll be rewarded with praise and promotions. Don't, and you'll cop it.

These questionable reflexes carried over into civilian life and the workplace. Before the war, my father had been an apprentice at a local engineering firm, Geo. W. King, which was run by the King family along patrician lines. The head of the firm was known as "Mr. George", and his son as "Young Mr. George". They seemed to know most of the large workforce by name, and it was a successful and innovative enterprise, mainly building conveyor belts and other mechanical handling devices for car factories and warehouses. After returning from six years in uniform Dad was taken back on, worked hard, did what he was asked, and rose from the factory floor to the drafting office, eventually achieving middle management status as a "production controller". Equipped with a little schoolboy French, he was even dispatched to France around 1960 to help oversee the installation of conveyors in the Simca factory. Deference and loyalty combined with natural ability seemed to be paying off. At patrician King's, effort went into building that loyalty. As it happens, I was born in the upstairs flat of a house just off the Great North Road in Stevenage belonging to King's. My godparents, also employed at King's, lived in the downstairs flat. The King's apprentices "charity beat balls" were famous (in 1964, the Rolling Stones, no less, performed for them in the Stevenage Locarno). Families were not ignored, either; every year there was a children's Christmas outing to some show in London [1]. Every five years, a new "long service" lapel badge was awarded to employees. By the 1970s, Dad had worked there for over 25 years, and was still in his early 50s.

Things began to go wrong around then, however. As the post-War decades progressed, younger men in possession of engineering degrees were leapfrogging their seniors in the promotion stakes. Dad found this a bitter pill, I think: the educational opportunities denied to his generation, but secured by them for future generations, were being taken for granted by relative beginners, and putting the older hands at a disadvantage. Also, the work environment was changing from the patrician to the managerial as control of the firm slipped away from the King family. Worse, the British car industry was in terminal decline, with knock-on effects all down the supply chain. Then, catastrophically, in 1973 Geo. W. King was taken over by Tube Investments, who saw no future in the mechanical handling side of the enterprise. 700 employees were made redundant, including my father. To add insult to injury, TI stole the King's pension fund, simply because it was a handy pot of money, and the law at that time said they could. None of those long-serving, redundant employees would see a penny of their pension. So much for those lapel badges.

This, combined with various domestic troubles and setbacks (including, I'm sad to say, a rebellious son who gave unnecessary cause for worry to his parents) would have embittered any man whose whole philosophy of life had been crumpled up and flung in his face. Loyalty? Long service? Experience? Fuck off! Welcome to Brave New Britain! Dad had always been a wary, ironic man (see the post Father's Day), but he now became increasingly inward and withdrawn, despite finding new work with ex-colleagues who valued what he had to offer. The father I had known as a small child – beaming and bearing gifts when he returned from a week working in Paris, or proudly showing us round the King's stand at an Earls Court exhibition en route to a family outing in Leicester Square; a family man simply, happily content in his life and his prospects – that man had already retired, hurt, before he had even turned 60 in 1978.

Burma Reunion 1947

Which was particularly sad, as he had in many ways been an unusual man and an untypically engaged father, rather ahead of his time. For a start, he always seemed to know everything I might want to know. Whether it was the various types of cowboy pistols, or the names of indian tribes and their chiefs, or the names and habits of exotic animals, or how to fix a broken bicycle, or make a trolley out of pram wheels and planks, or how to draw a boxer, or how to mix brown paint out of blue, red, and yellow paint, or the best way to build a bonfire ... He always knew. He often made me playthings – a sailor's hat from a cornflakes box, a hideaway from wooden pallets in the back garden, an improvised guitar from a rolled up newspaper – and taught me, quite consciously, how imagination was so much better than expensive (and unaffordable) toys. I was never ignored, I could always get his full attention. True, he would sometimes offer to wallop me, give me a good hiding, skin me alive, knock my block off, put salt on my tail, and various other hair-raising threats, and I'm sure I must have had the odd smack, but I can't actually remember any; the threat was usually enough. To this day, the very idea of levering open a tin of paint with the end of a sharpened chisel gives me an almost religious thrill of horror.

The wider world outside work and family seemed to hold little interest for him, although at one point around 1965 he did stand for the local council as a Liberal Party candidate (he lost), persuaded to do so by an old acquaintance from his pre-war days in Letchworth – my mother always pointedly referred to her as an old girlfriend [2] – who was a Big Noise in the party. He loved my difficult, conflicted mother with an exemplary, selfless devotion. Again, I think their relationship was ahead of its time, a model for any aspirational, working-class couple. He understood and supported her need to have a job – she was at work from the time I started at primary school – and never ignored, embarrassed, or belittled her the way other fathers seemed to do. Their pet name for each other was "mate"; I have no idea why, but I've never heard any other couple use the word in that affectionate way, ever. In their prime, they were a formidable pair, cut out for bigger things that never quite happened. Frankly, I think it turned out that they had placed too big a stake on loyalty and deference; they had both been let down by a system that asked for their trust, and then betrayed that trust. As old age set in, and my mother's decades of ill-health became the Big Issue, the two of them moved to Norfolk to live in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. They had always been inseparable – unhealthily so, really – and now rarely ventured out except to shop, spending every evening at home in front of the TV. They seemed to have no friends, and no interests. I felt oppressed by what they had become, and my visits were a trial of endurance that never lasted more than a couple of days.

After my mother died in 2007, and before his own final illness became acute, Dad had a year of relative freedom, which I did my best to encourage. Things he hadn't done for years "because of Mum" came back into his life. He could go for walks (Mum couldn't walk, and couldn't bear to be left alone), so I bought him boots. He could listen to music (Mum didn't enjoy jazz, his passion), so I bought him CDs. He could read (Mum always felt ignored when sitting in the same room as a reader), so I bought him books and an illuminated magnifier to aid his failing eyesight. Our weekly chats on the phone – a repetitive filial chore (perhaps penance) I had come to dread over the decades – became enjoyable; he was free to talk about things he hadn't talked about for most of his life, and most weeks I would be jotting down a new shopping list as I listened.

Then the inevitable call came: he had been rushed into hospital for an emergency operation. I drove the four hours up to Norwich to visit him afterwards, and he seemed to have shrunk alarmingly into a tiny, frail, exhausted old man in a post-op gown. We talked for a bit, nothing of any great consequence, and then I had to leave for the drive back. On the way out, I realised I had left a bag by his bed, so headed back. The curtains had been half drawn around his bed, so he couldn't see me, but I could see him: he was laughing and joking with the three young nurses who had arrived to give him a bed-bath. I grabbed my bag and left the old guy to it. He was two weeks away from his 90th birthday; how would we best celebrate that now?, I wondered. The very next day, though, I heard he hadn't made it through the night. But I was grateful to have had this last intimate glimpse of him being (and enjoying being) the man himself, and not being my father, or a dutiful husband.

1985: not much older then than I am now...

1. I'll never forget those coach-rides into central London, eventually going along the Chelsea Embankment before turning up into the West End. At one Christmas show, I remember looking across at a striped awning opposite the theatre we were being ushered into, which appeared to bear the name STRIPE-ERAMA. Only in later years did I realise it must have been STRIPERAMA, a strip-club on Soho's Greek Street.
2. The name "Elma Dangerfield" always used to come up, but this cannot be right.


amolitor said...

This is a really wonderful essay. Thank you.

Mike C. said...

Thanks -- unfortunately, I've now lost my old university web-pages, so can't at the moment direct anyone to Dad's vivid wartime memoirs of life as a despatch rider, covering Dunkirk, the Western Desert, India, and Burma, but I'll put that right soon.


Dave Leeke said...

Excellent post, Mike. Thank you for sharing it. It is a very thought-provoking piece. I have my own issues both with my father - who, as you know, also worked at Kings - and with my own attempt at being a father. Still, as they say, "Try, fail, try again: fail better." Whoever 'they' are. Probably misquoted.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Dave. In this case, "they" is Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (from the hilariously named "Worstward Ho!").