Peter Townsend by Mark Townsend

dad1It was getting late, the factory workers streaming home as the cold set in. “Are you Peter’s son?” asked a shopkeeper in the gathering gloom. I nodded and during the moments that followed it felt like the entire town rushed out to say hello.
Months earlier, during the summer of 1997, my dad had gone to Vizovice, a remote Czech town close to Slovakia that the fall of the iron curtain appeared to have forgotten. His brief was to transform Bata, a huge but dour Soviet shoe firm, into something hip.
Dad could speak four words in Czech, possibly less. But the night I arrived in Vizovice it was clear its population had been seduced by their new shoe designer, from the factory cleaners to the foremen. For anyone who knew Peter Townsend that came as no great surprise.
Dad loved people. Wherever he was, he’d stop and chat to whoever, a passing lollipop lady, a suited banker, it didn’t matter. Through his eyes, everyone was equal and everyone was a genuine source of wonder. It was a mindset that meant even the simplest errand could take ages. A 100m journey from Booths supermarket in Milnthorpe to the town square could last half-an-hour.
Life with my dad frequently became a case of squeezing as much humanity into each moment as possible. At university he made more friends on the day he dropped me off than most freshers found during the following three years. Mates who met him once would still ask after him years later. Watching dad taught you that the shyest people, sometimes the strangest, could often be the most interesting.
His achievements made me believe that anything was possible. He was born in March 1942 in Acton, west London, and after his parents split moved north with his mum to the tiny Cumbrian hamlet of Beetham.
A talented draughtsman, he dreamt of becoming an aircraft designer but his mum told him to stick to something proper. Aged 15 he became a tea-boy at the K-shoes factory in Kendal.
By the time I was born, dad was one of Europe’s premier shoe designers. Our childhood home on Kendal’s Heron Hill estate was peppered with visits from sharp-suited Italian designers, chain-smoking cigarettes as mum tried to make them try tea.
Dad become a big-hitter, specialising in stupendously elegant female shoes that he would ask my sister and I to name. Mary Quant, the figure behind the Mod style and credited for the 1960s miniskirt and hot pants, commissioned dad to design her a range of avant-garde heels.
Led by its genial young designer, Kendal’s K-Shoes became so sassy it opened an office overlooking Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.
Of course you’d never have known to look at him. Dad never changed, he never even stopped liking Boney M. After his death we found a dust smothered stockpile of newspaper cuttings and design trophies hidden in the loft.
Dad taught me the value of being open, of showing love. During our childhood he eulogised that his favourite place in the world was Kendal with his family. Since I can remember dad consistently expressed his love for me, an unconditional, frequently articulated support that inflated me with an unshakable confidence. He always kissed me on the cheek to say goodbye and often held my hand when we talked. Such uninhibited displays of affection, I suspect, stemmed from his own upbringing. He had a complicated relationship with his family, it seemed quite lonely, and this made him determined to ensure his own family was as connected as possible.
He was the dad envied by my friends, the cool dad, the dad who could make my mates laugh. He was the one they all looked forward to seeing in the pub.
Some of my friends cried when he died, others still cite him as their inspiration. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he believed completely in the potential of youth, constantly encouraging young designers to be bold and express themselves.
When word spread last October that Peter Robert Townsend was dead, school-friends I hadn’t seen for years came to pay their respects. If funerals serve as a crude measure of popularity, dad’s status as a man of the people was confirmed. It took us nearly two hours to thank everyone as they filed from the church in the Cumbrian village of Heversham. Many of the faces were those I had last seen as a boy visiting the factory floor of K-shoes.
These days, almost a year since he died, I can clearly see my dad in the people he left behind. My mum, who my dad adored unswervingly since they met in a Kendal coffee shop in 1964, and sister personify his approach to life, an effortless amalgam of open-mindedness and being down-to earth.
His two grandsons are testament to a man of great warmth. Ask Lloyd to name his best friend and he’ll answer “Grandad” without missing a beat. More than 330 days after his favourite companion passed away, the nine-year-old still wears dad’s tennis sweat bands in tribute. They are a little grubby, he sleeps in them after all, but Lloyd’s not quite ready to part company yet.
You’ve got to be a lot of fun to make a boy choose you as his most trusted buddy. But then dad was the only person who could talk his way into an aircraft’s cockpit – after 9/11.
Of course there are those he never got the chance to meet, my future children and my future wife, a woman of such fun and kindness there is no doubt both are cut from the same cloth.
During the period since he died, I’ve yet to collapse with grief and I think this is because dad taught me to be grateful, always. I feel genuinely fortunate to have known him. He smiles in every memory, occasionally hidden behind a plume of pipe smoke as he sketches the most exquisite stilletto’s late into the night, but always grinning.
Even on his deathbed I watch him trying to make the nurses smile. Even when his body was riddled with cancer, his eyes cloudy with morphine and the truth that he will never play tennis in the rain again becoming every clearer, dad wanted to bring people pleasure.
Even then he remembered that life is nothing unless it is fun. Enjoying life was fundamental to his success, professionally and personally. Fulfill your responsibilities, never shirk, but look hard enough and there is fun in everything.
I am my father’s son, there is not a bit of me that doesn’t feel influenced by his approach to life. I am yet to become the person he was, but one day I hope to get there. If you had known him, you too would feel gratitude.

Mark Townsend is home affairs editor of The Observer. Writes a lot about human suffering.  

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