Tuesday, 7 October 2008

My father

I do not think I can do better, while attempting to gather my thoughts and resume my narrative here, than to post a piece I wrote in honour of my father. It has been in draft for a long time, as I could not decide where best to place it in my lifestory. But here I am, uncertain about how to go forward, and here he is as always, to give me the support I need.
[Here he is in a rare formal pose - rather like a 1940s filmstar to my eyes, but I think it more likely to be the suit he sold cars in.]

My father was a shy and retiring man. He had spent four years in a civilian prison camp at Ruhleben in Germany, during the first world war, which had had a lasting effect on his personality, leaving him an unadventurous and home-loving man. He had gone to a Gymnasium in Germany to improve his knowledge of the language, but was almost immediately interned, and so lost the years between 19 and 23 when he might have trained for some sort of occupation. Such was the nature of the prison community, however, (about which there is a great deal to be read on the web), that I believe he learned many practical skills which stood him in good stead in later life. [Here he is in the camp, on the left, with some of his companions.] After returning to England he worked for a while in the family glass manufacturing business, but then turned to selling cars, cars and motor-racing being something of a passion.

After his marriage to my mother in 1925 they moved to Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire, to run a garage and motor repair shop. When they had to give up the business, after an associate decamped with all their funds, we moved to Birmingham to live with my grandfather, and my father returned to selling cars for a time. But although he knew and loved cars, and was an excellent and careful driver and mechanic, he lacked the assertiveness necessary to be a successful salesman. He also found it difficult to tolerate the heavy beer-drinking sessions which seemed to go with the job; I remember how drained and dispirited he would look when he came home from work in the evenings.

Thankfully, within three years of moving to Birmingham we moved again, in 1939, just before war was declared, to a small village called Alfrick, near Worcester. There my parents took a 21-year lease on a house with a smallholding, consisting of large kitchen garden, fruit orchard, paddock and two fields. Here my father was happy once more, working the smallholding growing fruit and vegetables for the Worcester market, and learning the ways of the country.

My father’s love of working with his hands extended well beyond the smallholding, and was a blessing to us all. He could repair pretty well anything, and would also create all manner of useful and attractive objects as well – photo frames, small boxes and containers, props for plays - although I don’t believe that he had any power tools to assist him. This was particularly valuable during the war when materials were scarce, and the government was exhorting us to “make do and mend”.

I remember when he decided to make some toys that could be sold at a local charity fete. He contrived two or three doll’s beds out of old pieces of wood, and enlisted my help with making bedding for them. I kept one of them for myself, and it is still in the toy cupboard I have for my grandchildren. I remember too a beautiful lead he made for his dog from plaited leather. Paddy had died not long before my father, and I have always regretted that a rush of sentiment led me to put the lead in his coffin with him. I wish I had kept it.

My father had also taught himself to play the banjo and the piano by ear, (though only in the key of C), and used to entertain the family and others with music and songs. When my parents ran a youth club in the village, he would play endlessly for dancing, and deserved better than the grumbling there was because he only ever played in one key! Many was the night when I fell asleep with the comforting sound of his piano playing coming up from the room below. A few years ago, when my brother came to visit so that we could sort out some family papers, he brought with him a tape recording he had made of our father playing the piano and banjo, not long before he died in 1960. I had not known that it existed, and it was one of the most moving moments I can ever recall.

Dad was an athlete in his youth, winning cups for his gymnastics, rowing and diving. He was also a beautiful dancer. He and my mother, both of them tall, had been a prize-winning couple at dance competitions in their courting days. [Here they are receiving a £5 note for winning a foxtrot competition.] His long legs made him a challenging partner on the occasions when he danced with me, which was not often enough. Although they seldom danced again, other than socially, after they were married, I sensed that he felt that my mother was always his only true partner.

Dad was a kindly and tender-hearted man. He loved animals and could not bear to see them in pain, and would “put them out of their misery” rather than see them continue to suffer, although doing so only doubled his own suffering. Drowning surplus kittens was an agony for him, as was the wringing of chicken’s necks which became necessary during the war when we lived in the country. While in the German prison camp my father kept two fieldmice as pets. At the end of the war one of them, Joey, travelled home to England with him in a tobacco tin in his pocket. When Joey died he was stuffed and mounted in a glass case, and is sitting on top of one of my cupboards at the moment.

Most memorably, and despite his retiring nature, my father was the one with whom we children used to laugh, as our mother, preoccupied as she was with home-making concerns, was not an instigator of fun and nonsense in the easy way that our father was. In his quiet unassuming way he was something of a performer, and had a number of favourite routines with which to amuse us. At one of our houses the door between the stairs and the dining room was glass in the top half. If we were waiting at the table for him to join us, he would walk down the stairs, and then carry on ‘walking’, bending his knees more and more, so that it looked as though he was going on down into a cellar. He also used to imitate the sounds of putting a corkscrew into a cork, then of pulling the cork and pouring out wine from a bottle, all done with his mouth, finger and cheek. He had a very mobile face, and would make the most extraordinary grimaces by stretching the corners of his mouth in opposite directions – his ‘bungy face’ as he called it.

But the one trick my mother dreaded was ‘high treacle’. If we had a pudding which required the addition of golden syrup, he would sometimes stand up on his chair, or on one occasion on the sideboard, raise his arm, and drop the syrup off the spoon onto the pudding from a great height. I don’t think he ever missed, except on the one occasion my mother thought his aim was not good, jumped to her feet to move the plate at the last minute, and got the dollop of syrup in her hair!

My brother and I would make up silly nicknames with him, something that didn’t seem to happen with our mother. At one time, for a reason now forgotten, I started to call him “Pappy Roadman”, to which he responded by naming me “Dappy Streetgirl”. This appeared quite appropriate at the time, and equally innocent. [Here he is at my wedding.]

He also taught us various dubious rhymes, jokes and sayings.
One of my favourites was a comment on the cigarette's of his day and went something like this:

Colossal clumps of camel crap
Lay sizzling in the sun.
The camel laughed like bloody hell
To see what he had done.
“To think that all that stinking mess
Will very soon be State Express…
Player’s please!”

On my last visit to see my father, when we knew that he was dying of cancer, he apologised to me for being an inadequate father. This made me want to weep. It was true that, because of the lasting effects of his wartime internment, his was neither a go-getter nor a brilliant provider. But he was a moral and honourable man, gentle, considerate and loving, talented and full of fun in his quiet way, hardworking, careful and painstaking, and a loyal and willing support to my mother. Although the stronger side of my personality probably comes from my mother, I hope very much there are aspects of my father in me too.

[This is my most-loved picture of my father in his later years, as I remember him best, with his characteristic pipe and cap. The pipe with the bend in it was especially designed for people with false teeth, as it rested on the chin and took the weight off the dentures. The study is the work of a family friend Harriet Crowder, who also took the pictures of my wedding.]


G in Berlin said...

What a lovely post. And wonderful pictures, too.

muriel said...

Dear Judith,
I am writing a biography of Margaret Leighton and would be interested in your Old Vic first"experiment" as well as your remembrances of her as the stage-door!
Thank you!
Muriel Lhermé

Judith said...

Dear Muriel,
Thankyou for your interest in my blog, however I do not believe I can help you. I have no memories beyond the rather vague ones I have described in my post "Postwar - gap year", and no recollection at all of getting Margaret Leighton's autograph. I only know that I did because I have it still. So sorry, and good luck with your biography.