“Mean, moody and magnificent” was a phrase often used to describe my Dad Tony. He met my Mum on the bus to Kingston art school. She was 16, straight out of a stuffy girls school and from the posh end of town. He grew up in a two up, two down with no bathroom in the same village and had recently finished his national service. Dashingly handsome and enigmatic, he swept her off her feet.
They married in 1962 by which time Dad was a lecturer in Fine Art at Kingston College Of Art and they moved to the suburbs from London. Our home was bohemian compared to my friends – hessian on the walls and Dad’s large abstracts along with a sculpture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the nude (modeled by my Dad and commissioned by the couple).
Dad was the life and soul of the party, funny, charming – but complicated. Despite his obvious talent, he shied away from exhibiting his work claiming it “prostituted his art.” He was a loving dad but often absent.
Cine-film from that era paints an accurate picture of family holidays with my Mum’s parents – Dad standing on a distant sand dune gazing out to sea, the rest of us having a picnic. My Mum’s parents were supportive of his work – a huge portrait of Mum painted by Dad hung in their house which my grandfather bought when it was exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. To his own parents he was an enigma – he hadn’t followed a conventional career path, he’d married above his station and they struggled to understand him.
(Amanda’s mother painted by her father)
I was 12 when my parents separated – It hadn’t been a happy home for some time so for me it was a relief. Dad hadn’t wanted the break up, but it did mean he could leave the art school and its regular income and start what turned out to be a successful career in films.
After years of thrifty living my Dad was finally making good money – and enjoyed spending it. There were meals out in fancy restaurants, generous presents – he bought me my first car. But visits were infrequent. I meanwhile was in my late teens and starting to understand – and sympathise – with the sort of character my Dad was. Someone for whom life was challenging and conflicting, and that sometimes it was easier to retreat to the pub then ring his daughter.
Then changes in the film industry meant that work dried up. Never one to prepare for hard times things spiraled downhill quickly. He lost his flat and moved back in with his elderly Mother. The requests for financial help started. The odd £30 now and then became more frequent. Then the ballifs and the police turned up at my door looking for him. Things reached crisis point with a very troubling phone call where I thought he was going to commit suicide. He didn’t – but I felt for my own sake I had to stop contact. At least for a while anyway.
Time passed. One year turned into two. There was a letter, but no apology which was what I’d hoped for. I should have responded but I didn’t. And when I did try to find him, attempts to do so resulted in dead ends.
Five years later, around midnight, I answered the door to a policeman and woman. “Is it about my Dad? “Yes”. He’d died the previous night, peacefully in his sleep. After years of thinking he must be homeless, I found out that he did at least have a roof over his head. He was in a hostel. He was popular amongst the residents, helping the older ladies with their gardening. The woman that ran it was lovely, it felt like she really understood him. His room was full of photos of me. “I tried to get him to contact you many times, but he was a very proud man and obviously didn’t want you to know his circumstances.”
We gave him one hell of send off. A service full of his favourite songs, an epitaph to which my Mum and I contributed. All his old friends came. It was a celebration of all the good things about him. And I was reunited with my Uncle – his brother – and cousins who I hadn’t seen in years.
I wish things hadn’t turned out as they did. I wish I’d got in touch sooner. But I also know he was trying to protect me, didn’t want to be a burden and thought about me always. These days I’ve got memories of him in every room of my house. The head he sculpted of me aged 3, that portrait of my Mum and other art works. I’m reminded of him every day and in the best way possible.
Amanda Freeman runs Freeman PR – an independent music PR company – and lives in London. She celebrates 30 years in the music industry this year. Amongst her favourite things are darts, Disco and next door’s cat.