Last week – November 2, to be exact – my father would have been 104. He died in 2001, but as the years pass, I understand how much I owe him and how much, for better or worse, I’m like him.
He was born and raised in Leeds, lived here most of his life. Back in the 1930s he was a musician with his own jazz band, playing dances around town. After World War II, the family story goes, the BBC offered him a job with one of their bands. He turned it down, scared he wasn’t good enough.
He wrote. He had a short story published in the late ‘40s, based in part of an incident from the war, and he liked spending time with writers and reporters – in the early 1950s he’d occasionally drink with Keith Waterhouse and Barbara Taylor Bradford, then both young reporters in Leeds.
Sunday mornings were his time to write. A fire would be lit in the front room, and after we’d taken the dog to Roundhay Park so it could run for a while, he’d settle down and work in longhand on his novel in that front room, the air warm and inviting by the time he settled there.
I don’t remember what he wrote back then, but I saw some of his later work which drew from his childhood, from family, people he’d known growing up in Cross Green, a grandfather who was the landlord of the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road. A woman who started out as a pub servant and later own the place as well as a few bakeries. Anyone who’s read my Tom Harper Victorian series will probably recognise some elements in there. While Annabelle Harper is very much her own self, part of her will always be an homage to my father.
No-one wanted to publish his books. After his business as a manufacturer’s rep for knitwear went broke in the late 1960s, he began selling laundrettes for Frigidaire. After that ended, he took another job to keep food on the table, and a correspondence course in writing for television.
The first couple of plays he pitched didn’t go anywhere. But he did have two aired in the early 1970s: Audrey Had A Little Lamb and A Wish For Wally’s Mother. Back then there was a market for one-off TV dramas (and if anyone has video of either play, I’d love to see it).
He could have done more. He should have done more. I have a faint recollection that he was offered a job on Coronation Street, but he turned it down?
I have no idea, but in retrospect it fits the pattern of him turning down the BBC music job. But I’m not the right person to analyse my father.
He always encouraged my writing. He was proud of it, happy once I began making my living as a writer – which was music journalism and quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies. Both my parents were proud of what I did, but as my two focuses had always been music (as a very ordinary musician) and writing, I tended to see my father in myself.
Maybe I still do. There are things that happen when my first thought is ‘I wish my parents could see this,’ but I suppose I mostly mean my father. Not because I didn’t love my mother; I certainly did. But perhaps because there was an unspoken affinity between us, a similarity.
Bits of him come into my books. Dan Markham’s office on Albion Place in Dark Briggate Blues is the building where my father had his office. The after-hours drinking clubs, the shebeens, were places he’d go occasionally. It was written quite a few years after his death. But perhaps that’s the beauty of writing. Words can be like candles, lit to keep the spirit of someone there. Sometimes those are people who died with memorials, lost in time. Sometimes they can be someone close.
And once in a long while I wonder if I’d be doing this if I hadn’t had his example and his encouragement. I’ll never know the answer to that. It probably doesn’t even matter.
I am and I did. That’s all that counts.