22 Things I Know About My Father
These are my memories, my truths. The reality might be different. My sister would say so; my mother would say so. But I can only tell my version of Dad’s story, filtered through the gauze of childhood, distorted by the lies we tell ourselves to make sense of life’s complications, lies that then become truths. I have not knowingly misled you: this is my Dad, not my mother’s husband, not my sister’s father, not my uncle’s brother or my grandmother’s son.
1. Dad was quiet. If I were writing a memoir, I’d be obliged to paint him as a typical product of a working-class northern family, stoical in the face of adversity, sharing words only when they mattered, prone to hiding his emotions but with a vividly beating heart beneath. That, however, would be untrue. Though he was indeed a product of a working-class northern family, he was just quiet and shy, rather than stoical. He was so shy that I grew up under the misapprehension that you stopped having friends when you became an adult.
2. He was called Godfrey. I have no idea why he was given this name. It has always mystified me.
3. Sometimes people from his work would come to our house for dinner. On those occasions, Dad’s smile and laugh would become false and forced and ingratiating. Sometimes, I realise I am doing exactly the same with senior people at my own workplace and I despise myself.
4. Dad wanted to be a poet. He had some work published in the early 60s and years later I found some of his notebooks; he was pretty good. That he didn’t become a poet is down to his own sense of duty and responsibility. He got married and decided he needed a proper job if he were to support a family, and so he spent the rest of his life working in what was first called industrial relations, then personnel management, then human resources. Just after university, when I was having a minor crisis about what I wanted to do with my life, I asked him if he’d been happy. “There have been amusing moments,” he told me. That’s when I realised quite how much he’d given up, willingly, for us.
5. He was clever. Mum told us that during his university finals, he’d had such contempt for the questions in one paper that rather than writing the required essays, he wrote poems critiquing the questions. He still got a 2:1.
6. Because he never became a poet, he took a very dim view of other Cumbrians of his generation who became successful through writing. He despised Hunter Davies, and though he had a little more time for Melvyn Bragg, I bet he wished that could have been his life.
7. When I was about 15 or 16, I had a sudden growth spurt, and ended up six inches taller than Dad. For years, he had called me “Squirt”. I started to call him “Titch”, which he didn’t like.
8. He loved jazz. He saw Miles Davis in the 50s. In fact, he was quite the beatnik. In the early 90s, over Christmas dinner, Mum expressed her pleasure that my sister and I were no longer at each other’s throats all the time, and had even been out socially. “Yes, but when we did, Michael turned up stoned,” my sister said, to my horror. “Well, it’s not like your dad never got stoned,” said my mum, to our astonishment. It turned out he’d been a toker in the early 60s, but Mum made him stop after a party they were at was raided by police. “In those days, you could go to prison for it,” Mum said. “And I wasn’t going to marry someone who might end up in prison.” Dad smoked weed before the Beatles, before Dylan. That never ceases to amaze me. Looking back, there were perhaps clues he’d had a hinterland. On holiday in the US in 1980, I bought a cheap pair of mirror shades of which I was inordinately proud, though I looked ridiculous in them. The first time I put them on, Dad said to me: “Gimme a fix, man.” I asked what he was talking about. “You look like a pusher,” he replied. “What’s a pusher?” I asked. I was 11.
9. When we first saw Elvis Costello on Top of the Pops in 1978 we were shocked. He looked just like Dad did in pictures from the early 60s.
10. Dad never let me beat him at anything. Nothing. Even kicking a ball in the park, he would make sure I was the one who was always in goal if we played three-and-in. For my 11th birthday, my parents bought me one of those six-foot tabletop snooker tables that were very popular back then. I never beat him on it. I discovered later that he’d misspent part of his teens hanging around snooker halls, which accounted for his unerring ability to sink long pots.
11. Because he was so quiet, I have no memories of long, involved conversations with him about life, the universe and everything. I have very few memories of conversations with him at all. There was one in summer 1983, about whether or not Bryan Robson was England’s only world-class player. There was another, in summer 1991, about the role of antiheroes in Woody Allen films, which ended when Mum burst into tears. She said she felt Dad and I were intellectually bullying her. We were both baffled and dismayed. Aside from that, nothing. He never imparted the secrets of life to me.
12. Dad voted Labour until he had to conduct negotiations with the printworkers’ union, Sogat, which so disillusioned him he switched to the SDP-Liberal alliance, or whatever they were called that week.
13. Both Mum and Dad came from working-class backgrounds, and both were of the generation whose life was transformed by the Butler Education Act, and the opportunities offered to bright working-class kids by the postwar settlement. Both were proud to have made their way into the middle class. They had worked for it, and they were not ashamed. I think of this when I see people who’ve spent years in education, who live in nice houses they own, and who earn lots of money, proclaiming that they are working class. My best friend is a QC at the commercial bar, whose earnings are genuinely beyond my comprehension. He says he’s working class. I tell him he’s ridiculous. I increasingly think that kind of reverse snobbery is an insult to the people of my parents’ generation, who didn’t see anything romantic in worrying about whether they’d be able to afford next week’s rent.
14. Dad loved food. Mum couldn’t – and still can’t – cook. That meant our family holidays were largely spent in search of good food. If we went to France, we would eat in very good restaurants, where Dad would get more and more irritated by me scraping all semblance of sauce to the edge of my plate. But then, he probably shouldn’t have expected a nine-year-old to enjoy Michelin-starred food, should he?
15. When he was made redundant from his job in 1984, he carefully removed from the office, volume by volume, an entire first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
16. Dad fell ill with cancer in 1991. It didn’t really occur to me anything bad would happen to him. I had – and retain – an unwavering and probably irrational faith in doctors (in fact, in recent years I’ve come to realise the security of my childhood – my certainty that the people who set my rules did so in my best interests – has left me with an unhealthy trust in all authority figures. I’d be a terrible revolutionary, but – worryingly – I suspect I’d have been a brilliant concentration camp guard). My belief that he would be cured was misplaced. He died in January 1992, when I was 22 years old. In his last months, I would sometimes come home from work to find him furtively listening to my albums, as if to try to work out who his son was before it was too late.
17. Dad might have survived the cancer, but he was told that because it was around his spinal column, he would likely be left paralysed from the neck down by radiotherapy. He wasn’t interested in survival on those terms – he was only 52, and another 20 or 30 years of lying in bed didn’t seem very appealing. As it was, he spent a couple of months completely paralysed by the cancer itself. In those last months, I had to shave him. I hated doing it. I was convinced I would inadvertently slash his cheeks to threads, and so I applied almost no pressure. He was left with a tufty face.
18. The night he died, it was obvious he was slipping away. But Mum didn’t want him to realise we were sure he was not going to survive the night, so she demanded anything that might already have been planned go ahead. Which meant my then girlfriend came to stay the night. The single most disorienting thing that ever happened to me was being summoned by Mum at one in the morning and told to send my girlfriend home, because Dad had lost consciousness. He died minutes later.
19. Since his death, the moments I have missed him most acutely have usually involved football. When I was a kid, we used to go to games in London three or four times a season with lunch at the Little Chef in Old Windsor on the way up to town. He liked watching Spurs, with Hoddle, Ardiles and Villa in midfield. “All they do is run around in circles,” he’d say. “But they do it beautifully.” That stopped when I was 13 or so, and music replaced football as my passion. But after he died, the first time his absence hit me hard was after I’d been to Wembley to see England play France: I was desperate to call him to see what he’d made of Jean-Pierre Papin’s performance, and then I realised I couldn’t. Now, I wish he was still alive, so he could come to QPR with me and my son. The thought of the three of us together in the West Paddock makes my eyes prick.
20. I wish Dad could see that I did end up making my living from words. That, I think, would have made him proud. Even if he almost certainly would have been a little disparaging about them being words about pop groups.
21. More than anything, I wish he could have met my children. And I wonder what they might have made of him. I never knew either of my own grandfathers, and all they are to me is a series of stories and legends. But their stories included being bombed out in the second world war, and serving on the escort ships of the Arctic convoys. It’s harder to make legends out of negotiations over working conditions. Especially if the hero of the story is negotiating for the bosses, rather than the unions.
22. When saying goodbye to me, Dad used to employ a colonialist joke from his own childhood, to which I had to reply in kind. “Abyssinia,” he would tell me. “Ceylon,” I would reply. Ceylon, Dad.