100 years ago today my father was born.
The enormity of that statement hit me this week as I thought about the date. We think of centenaries as abstract things – this year World War 1 began, for instance – but when it becomes person, it takes on much greater resonance.
100 years ago today my father was born.
Not ‘this would have been my father’s birthday.’ He died at the start of 2001. By now his ashes are scattered hither and yon around the globe and his soul is wherever souls go. All that is history.
His life is history, but it’s also part of me. He was born in Leeds, just five months after his parents married. Not uncommon, and hardly a shame among the working classes in those days. His mother was the daughter of a pub landlord in Hunslet (the Royal Arms on South Accommodation Road), while his father, a boot repairer, lived a few minutes’ walk away in Cross Green.
My father grew up in Hunslet. Went to Cockburn, left at 14 as most people did. He loved music, he loved writing. By the beginning of World War II he was an engineer at A.V. Roe (or so I recollect from what he said). He joined up – the RAF – and end up in India and Burma, seconded as liaison between British and American troops.
But facts hardly tell anyone’s story. He was a very talented pianist who led jazz bands around Leeds in the 1930s. After the war a BBC dance orchestra offered him a job. He turned it down because he didn’t believe he was good enough.
He was a writer, with a story about Tibet published in the Yorkshire Evening Post sometime in the 1940s (I saw the clipping once, but God knows where it went). He wrote TV plays, two of which were aired in the late 1960s. There was talk of a scriptwriting job for Coronation Street, I believe, but he backed away from it.
From the little he told, his upbringing hadn’t always been easy. My grandfather wasn’t the most reliable person. For weeks on ends he wouldn’t give his sons any pocket money. Then, when he was flush, it would be a whole half-crown, a huge amount then. Around 1920-21 he won a mill in Ireland in a card game and moved his family to Dublin – right at the height of the Troubles. That didn’t last long. My father’s great solace was escaping to the Victoria in Sheepscar, which his mother’s parents now ran, and where he could sit up in the living quarters and play the piano for as long as he liked.
He was never one for stories about his life. He’d dangle threads, but never weave them into cloth. Once he said he’d done volunteer undercover work for Leeds Police in the 1950s. It seemed unlikely, but after he died, I asked my mother: it was true. She made him quit when I was born.
My father inherited some of his father’s impulses. When I was one, he spent £55, a fortune in 1955, on a Tudor watch without consulting my mother. Another time he traded in his Ford Popular for a Wolseley car, a beautiful thing with a walnut dashboard and leather seats. When I was seven he took me to Banks’ Music Shop in County Arcade to buy a mouth organ. We got that, but also a baby grand piano that sat in the front room for a few years.
For most of my teenage years we were at loggerheads. Many reasons, and much of the fault was mine, even if I didn’t see it then. My mother had to be peacekeeper, no easy task. But with a young man continually testing boundaries and an older man hesitant to give up control, it was sometimes a fragile truce.
It eased, thankfully. The last time I saw him in the flesh was two weeks before his final stroke. I was living overseas and came for a visit. He was argumentative as ever, a little deafer each year, scared of leaving the flat (which is another tale).
But that wasn’t the final time I saw him. Early 2001 I was in Seattle, where I lived. It was perhaps 8.45 in the morning. I came out of the bathroom and into my office in the basement. For a split second I saw him in the chair by my desk, wearing his cavalry twills, a jumper and shirt with a cravat. Then the vision was gone. He died later that day. My mother had visited him in the afternoon, though, and he surfaced from unconsciousness briefly to ask her ‘Where’s Chris?’ ‘He’s in Seattle, of course,’ she told him. As best as we can make out, that was right around the time I saw him for a moment.
Make of that what you will. If someone told me the story, I wouldn’t believe it. Well, now I would…
And so it was 100 years ago today that Raymond Ewart Nickson came into the world.