Dad with a small P.
I can hear my Dad’s breath panting on a hot summers day as he pushes me on his bike down to the allotment where he spent most weekends helping people with their vegetables and roses. It was a two mile hike from our prefab to Tunnel Avenue in Greenwich. That wonderful memory is now a B&Q. I can smell the River Thames as it was, its deep earthy mysterious smell, mixing in the sky above with a gas works fog of smelting coal. With my bag of sweets I played in the shed and waited in a creosote chamber of seeds and oddly shaped tools. I was his shadow and followed him everywhere.
Going to work with him at the Gas Works where he was a wages clerk was a treat. There he was in all his glory in his smoky office. Everyone smiled as they passed his window. Everyone loved my Dad and his stupid jokes. I looked up to this big world where men laughed and joked among themselves, a world where little boys like me were seen and not heard, sat on desk tops with pencils drawing ships and aeroplanes. Dad had been in the war and at school I bragged about his part in Hitler’s downfall. The truth is we never spoke about the war. He kept the horror of it all from me, the blowing up of close friends, the nightmares of sleepless nights out in the open. There was nothing much to say. The pictures I have seen of those days are of a young man goofing around smiling with his mates, sucking on beer bottles and generally having a very nice time. It looked much like being on tour with Squeeze in the 70’s.
On holidays, which my Dad hated, I was always trying to be a good boy and give him his space. The trick was to whinge a little and beg for an ice cream, and then reward him with silence and good behaviour. It always seemed to work. On a trip to Ireland in 1963, our steam train stopped at Crewe. Dad got off to get some teas and sandwiches, but the train pulled out before Dad could get back on. I cried into my mother’s arms as the steam from the engine trailed past the window of our carriage. Mother reassured me that he would catch up with us later. He never did catch us up, he just went home, fed up with holidays in the same old place year in and year out. I have been in therapy every since. Fourteen years and the same old journey. The 177 bus from outside the hospital in Greenwich to Euston, on the train to Heysham, stop at Crewe, on the ferry to Belfast over night, and then on another train to Colerain the next day. Two weeks squashed into my Auntie Sally’s house, then home again. Great days. Beaches and rock climbing, watching the sea crash on the rocks at the Giants Causeway, on the coaches to the South for cheap lighters and cigarettes. Music in the bars, music on the record player. But one day it stopped, my Dad put his foot down, gently, and we went to the Isle Of Wight just for a change. Black Gang Chime, tea on the beach, a gong in the breakfast room of the cosy clifftop B&B. It was not the same and my Dad knew it. Holidays stopped and Dad stayed at home, me and Mum went on our own for a few years. Then I discovered girls so I stopped going too.
Leicester City played my football team Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in London on Saturday 26 April 1969. Dad got two tickets and he took me to see the game. Colin Bell was my hero, I was so excited. The journey through London on the bus and the tube swallowed me up, holding tightly to my Dad’s hand. I was 15, but I still held his hand. The power of being around so many people, mostly men, made me scared and anxious. I was not so much excited but petrified. We stood in the stands as the crowd as one swayed from side to side, men in scarves, boys in scarfs. It seemed powerful. Dad showed no emotion and stood by my side while I tried hard to see the game on tip toes. The winning goal was scored by Neil Young – the other Neil Young – and the place erupted. My Dad stood silent and motionless. I was beside him trying hard not to explode. I was the firework that fizzled out without a pop. Manchester City won the cup and we crept home on the tube and bus. It was a damp squib of a day, but the journey and the vibrations of so many people in one place stayed with me for a very long time. It was tribal if nothing else. It’s just my Dad wasn’t into crowds and expressions of manhood.
Back home in my bedroom I looked at the poster of Colin Bell on my wall, next to the one of The Who maximum R&B, and I beamed with pride as I took it down. It was replaced by a poster of a girl scratching her arse while holding a tennis racket. On my copy of The Small Faces Autumn Stone I can still see the words Man City written in biro on the front of the sleeve – mixed up days indeed. I didn’t go to another football match again until I was in my 30s, this time with Glenn Tilbrook, my lifelong songwriting chum. We went to see Tottenham play Leeds, the two of us were invited onto the pitch to pull the lucky numbers at half time, we were booed off back to our seats. Our small South London celebrity could not penetrate the massive masculine terraces of Tottenham. I’ve never been a huge football supporter. I have been known to support local team Lewes FC, but only for the half time tea and cake.
My Dad kept a peaceful air about the family home, he was the gentle man with the all complexity of a teddy bear. One afternoon outside our prefab Dad was confronted by the man from over the road, who drove a large orange United Dairy’s lorry. It blocked out the light from our small living room so Mum complained. He came round and rattled the front door, Dad stood his ground as words were exchanged. Mum shook with fear as a knife was produced. I sobbed into a damp tea towel. Dad melted away into a corner of the hallway, the man left shouting abuse. The lorry remained an issue that was never resolved, Dad cycled quietly to work on his bike avoiding the other side of our street if at all possible. He was passive with a small P.
When I look back to my teens I see a Dad who could not grasp the goings on in a teenagers mind, a world of endless parties, music and the constant shrugging of shoulders. It was only then when I saw a slight temper and a few veins rise on his neck. One day I had a piano delivered in my bedroom and he hit the roof. But while away with friends on holiday a few months later it was removed without a word being said. On reflection I can now understand why. I was never going to be Keith Emerson. I was clearly just a plonker. It was hard for my parents to understand how I had come from messing around in the garden with boxes of toys to being their son on the telly in the corner of the front room, but I had and I was just as confused as they were. He told me I would end up a drug addict, skint and without a future if I joined a band. He was right, but I had great time slipping down the snakes and climbing the occasional ladders.
His passivity served him well. My mother wore the trousers and ruled the roost. I too have found the small P in passivity and that side of his tender gentle being is with me every day of my life. It serves me well I like to think. He shied away from holidays, from regaling us in stories from the war, from big crowds and men that drove Orange lorries. He crumbled when I came home stoned, he retreated to his arm chair and some tropical fish. I think I would have done the same. He was a gentle soul and and very loving father. I’m happy to have him within my everyday. Once the record player span underneath the lampshade, the Mantovani trickled through the amplifier, smoking Bachelors, drinking from the bottles on the shelf, that was Dad’s life, a simple one.
Chris Difford is from South London. As a co-founding member of Squeeze, Difford has made a lasting contribution to English music with hits such as Cool For Cats, Up The Junction, Labelled With Love, Hourglass and Tempted. His love of playing still drives him to carry on writing.
Chris Difford will be appearing with Ted Kessler for a special live My Old Man at Glastonbury in The Crow’s Nest on Friday June 24, at 13:00.