Another month, more or less, and it’ll be 12 years since my father died. I was living overseas then, and I’d seen him a couple of months earlier, before he had his final stroke and eventually succumbed to renal failure. When my mother called with the news I wasn’t surprised: earlier that day, when I came into my office, for the merest fraction of a second I saw him sitting in my chair, looking the way I’d remembered him, and I knew he was saying his farewell to me.
We can never really know or understand our parents, but the gulf between my generation and his was great than most. He was almost 40 when I was born in 1954. He’d been through the Depression and served in World War II. Some of the things he’d seen are still beyond my ken.
He was an intelligent, well-read man for all that he grew up in working-class Hunslet in Leeds and left Cockburn High School at 14, the way so many did. His own father, whom I only remember from regular visits there on a Saturday, was an irascible, somewhat feckless man, one who won a cotton mill in Dublin in a card game and moved his English family over to live there. In 1920. A man who’d go for weeks without giving his sons pocket money then lavish half a crown on each of them when he was flush. A man who seemingly made and lost money regularly but who could be surprisingly generous. When my mother was pregnant with me he had a new car and insisted my father swap it for his own wreck lest I be born on the seat during a trip.
My father was, by all accounts, a remarkably talented pianist. He had his own jazz group in Leeds in the 1930s. As a boy he relished the summers because they meant staying with a relative who ran the Victoria in Sheepscar – sadly no longer extant – with its huge garden and a piano where he could play as much as he wanted. During the war he even backed up Nat King Cole – no dud on the ivories himself – a couple of times. And once the hostilities were over he was offered a job with one of the BBC orchestras. He turned them down because he didn’t believe he was good enough.
As soon as he was able to, he grew a moustache to make himself look older and kept it all his life (adding a beard much later), even though he went bald at 26. I remember seeing a photo of him with hair and literally doing a double take; except for the ‘tache it was like seeing myself. Some men turn into their fathers, I didn’t even have to.
He was a cinema manager, a salesman with his own business that eventually went bust over a £60 tax bill and also a writer. In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, two of his plays made it onto TV. He could have made a career from it. But he didn’t; once more, he didn’t seem to think he was good enough. But he encouraged my writing, my music, and was so proud when he held my first non-fiction book (sadly, he never lived to see the publication of my novels).
He was a dapper man, always well turned out, in a suit when younger, of cavalry twills and a cravat, taking pride in his appearance as that generation did. He never approved when I grew my hair or dressed in an old greatcoat, jeans and tee shirt. But he was willing to listen to the music I enjoyed and not dismiss it; if it was good musically, he liked it.
When I was seven he took me to the music shop that was then in Thornton’s Arcade in Leeds. The plan was to buy me a mouth organ. I did come out with that. But we also seemed to have bought a baby grand piano that sat in the front room for the next few years. But then, a year or two earlier he’d come home the owner of an expensive Wolseley car without telling my mother, and the year after I was born spent £55 on a watch – a ridiculous figure in those days.
I recall him once telling me he’d worked undercover, as a volunteer, with the Vice Squad, going into illegal drinking establishments, the shebeens as they were, and also buying marijuana back in the 1950s. It was a tale I took with a dose of salt, but it stuck with me. After he’d died I asked my mother about it. ‘No, it’s true,’ she said. ‘He really did. After you were born I made him stop, it was just too dangerous.’
But what I remember most, what’s probably had the deepest effect on me, happened when I was 14. He’d been a good salesman, one of the top at his company, but he was let go as he was considered too old at 54. Until he could sell his first play he took a job he hated (he never complained, but his silences and expression spoke volumes) to keep bread on the table. My admiration for him still knows no bounds for that. He did what he had to do.
Yes, he could be cantankerous, never willing to admit he was wrong even when facts contradicted him, and yes, we butted heads loudly and often when I was a teenager, but he helped shape me. And, I think, he still does. Except the cantankerous part, of course.