104 And Counting

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.

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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.

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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?

Why?

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.

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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.

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I am and I did. That’s all that counts.

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My Son

Yesterday my son flew home to Seattle at the end of his annual summer visit. It’s never the easiest day for either of us, but by now we’re used to it. After all, this is the eighth year in a row. But there was something a little different about this trip. It might well be his last for a few years.

In 2005 I moved back to the UK from America. My wife and I had divorced, and for many reasons I chose to leave the US. I’d weighed things out very carefully before coming to a decision. After all, my son was there, just 10 when I left. But he could spend every summer here with me, we could talk every day – I’d bought him a cell phone and there was MSN for chatting, onscreen and even with a webcam.

We were lucky. As a writer I’d been able to work from home since he was born. We’d had the chance to spend time together, to form a real bond and become close. That made a huge difference. I believe that I could move away and that bond would remain strong.

I remember picking him up at Heathrow Airport in 2006, having to sign for him like a package. He’d flown on his own, looked after by cabin crew and escorted through the airport. I’d never, ever been happier to see someone. We took the train into London, then the underground, and finally another train north. He was tired – it’s a nine-and-a-half hour flight – but still wide-eyes and marvelling at how large and just how green England was.

The parting that year was tearful, on both sides, the journey back to my flat bleak and empty. Next year was better, even with the adventure of the 2007 floods that left us stranded overnight in Derby. He’d grown, as he has every year since.

In just over a week from now he’ll turn 18. He’ll spend his birthday at his university orientation. But he’s already a man, thoughtful, responsible, intelligent and creative. His loves – manga, anime, mathematics – aren’t mine, but that’s as it should be. We share other things. We talk three times a week, but that will change soon enough, I’m sure. The options for communication – email, Facebook, phone, Skype, Facetime – have grown exponentially. We can be in touch anytime. I can be there for him if he needs me.

He’s the very best part of me. I’m proud of who he’s become, although much of the credit for that goes to his mother. And now he’s about to begin this new life as a college student. He seems to be ready to take it in his stride. Me? I’m full of trepidation, although I’m sure he’ll be fine. I’m as anxious as…a parent. I’m lucky. The bond is still strong between us. But he’ll be making new friends, and have new plans for his year. Already he’s talking about taking classes next summer. Things will be different now. I always knew they would, he’s growing up and growing away into his own life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I’ll always love him and be proud of him.