Three words for my father, dad, the old man, that ********* arse, silly bugger…
They do say that eventually you realise your parents have feet of clay. With mum it took decades to appreciate she might need an upgrade to stay superhuman.
With dad, I don’t think there was a time when I didn’t appreciate his limitations. From the curtailed curses if ever he picked up a screwdriver, through the panicked ‘Barbara…’ when left in charge of cooking/children/car and to the bemused ‘do I like garlic?’ asked of mum when offered something his mother might not have included in her limited range of beige ingredients.
Perhaps his true nemeses were his many cars, bought with manly enthusiasm and owned with a quisling despair. To see relief in its most undiluted form, you only had to stand by the driver’s window and watch him turn the key in the ignition and for the engine to start.
His best friend for many years, Les was the opposite, competent and confident in all things mechanical. When one 1970s disaster, an Austin Allegro developed a malignant cancer of the carburetor, Les came up with a cunning fix which required some sort of daily jiggling under the bonnet (you can see I have inherited the hopeless gene). ‘That works,’ Les proudly announced, before looking at Dad, standing a respectful one metre to one side and saying, ‘can you find Barbs and I’ll explain what’s needed?’
Dad had many other skills and propagating plants and veg were one such. He would arrive home from work exhausted, take off his suit jacket, change his shoes, take the coffee mum had made him and head for his greenhouses to decompress amongst his leek plants, tomatoes and primulas. After a short unsuccessful battle with his mother in law he was persuaded to sell spare plants and then grown veg, and such was his reputation people placed orders in the winter to ensure a supply. This pleased him mightily.
He was equally at home spending happy hours breeding butterflies and moths, latterly to help restock dwindling colonies in his beloved New Forest. In the 1970s the Forest had its share of hippy wannabes, magic mushroom aficionados and other otherworldly weirdie-beardies. Finding dad, his head deep inside a sallow tree, turning over leaves to see what was underneath, put him in amongst those legions and several visitors would give him a wide berth.
Odd that, because he was easily the most gregarious person I know. The British pub was designed for him and he’d happily go into any such establishment – of which, back then there were many – buy a pint of the local hop water and chat, both listening and regaling as the situation demanded. Oh how I would love to have inherited that ease with people. At one stage when my mother had launched a hostile takeover of the local WI, my father was prevailed upon to give a talk on the glorious nature of the New Forest or some such. He was an entertaining speaker, witty and informative and was universally well received. When mum, glad handing the silent power brokers in the Collective who ran the Hordle Women’s Institute asked one leading light what she thought, she paused and offered, ‘Your husband has a drink problem?’
Mum was stunned, ‘No, what makes you say that?’ (Other than you’re a mealy-mouthed bitch-harpie).
‘Every direction, every location was cross referenced to a local pub whose beers he appeared to know intimately.’
Mum hadn’t noticed. We’d all got used to dad’s directions, if stopped by some lost grockle (tourist). ‘Lymington? Sure. Head along here and second left past the Wheel – nice drop of Ringwood Ale – before veering right at the Monkey Puzzle – they keep a decent Wadsworths 6X, as long as the barrel has settled. Now you can either go straight on at the Crown – Courage pub, wouldn’t bother – or better take the narrow side road. Bit of extra but you pass the Ship and they manage to get hold of Harveys IPA which is worth the detour…’
Mum hadn’t noticed how this spilled over into his talk.
And humour? He wasn’t a stand up, destroyed jokes with aplomb, often offering the punchline half way through. But he was at his happiest, beer in hand with people taking the mickey out of his many inadequacies. Whether it was describing his experiences taking his latest car to the garage – ‘….he lifts the bonnet and stares before fiddling with some tube or wire. Then he makes these pained noises which are billing codes – every moan, 5 pounds, a sigh, 7.50, grinding his teeth, a tenner, with the possibility of an extra two if I want it in the same colour….’ – or shopping for a suit – ‘… sir has unusually long arms, doesn’t sir and has anyone mentioned how sir dresses – very continental…’ – Dad had some tale that would play on his own feebleness.
Perhaps his humour was best expressed through his poetry which he worked hard to produce, rarely pleased him and was loved by all for whom he wrote. This he offered me for one of my 40 something birthdays, as something to look forward to..
The Wrinkles Lament
When we gaze in the mirror while shaving
We mustn’t get too uptight,
Though the sight makes us weep
Beauty’s only skin deep,
Ad we’re bound to look better tonight.
Sparse locks on an over-wide forehead
Where once clustered nonchalant curls,
If dissuaded from roaming
By judicious combing
Just might deceive short-sighted girls.
We’ve always had finely drawn features
But the nostrils in that Roman beak
Which in wild youth would flare
Are now full of hair,
And constantly saltily leak.
Our eyes, which held loves sweet secrets,
Were mysterious, soft – dark as night,
Now they’re bloodshot and runny
And one’s a bit funny,
Looking left when the other looks right.
These firm chiselled mouths show good breeding
But today they can spoil our adventures
For though you feel sporty
It’s hard to be naughty
If you find you’ve forgotten your dentures.
Girlish breath in the ear was exciting
In our youth, we recall with nostalgia,
But now, poor old mugs,
If you blow down our lugs,
We’ll get an attack of neuralgia.
But it’s wrong to become introspective
That mirror can ruin our fun,
Let’s stop shaving today
Chuck our razors away
Grow beards – and think we’re twenty-one!
Naturally I miss the silly old sod, especially our shared walks and days together at the cricket and rugby. As I grew up, irritated and amused in equal measure by this self described contrarian curmudgeon I didn’t realise I was absorbing so many critical life lessons – don’t take yourself too seriously, treat everyone with respect and listen to what they say, family is all important, cars suck, value nature, don’t expect England to win anything and you avoid disappointment… these were subliminally bequeathed; in terms of specific advice, when I set off for my first job in the City of London he offered, ‘Brown shoes at the weekend, speak when spoken to and confess your farts…’ Solid advice.
Dad is currently next to his beloved Barbs, slowly fertilising a solid English oak tree. He may lack form these days but he is, to me, still a man of substance.