John and Father
What I chose is called a mitre block. It's something that a carpenter or somebody who wants to make things out of wood uses to enable them to make a perfect saw cut at say 90, or 45 degrees. It's made of wood, the one that I've chosen. And it's rather nice in its own right actually, I think. So I like it as an object because I collect things made out of wood, but it's from my Dad. He didn't leave it to me but it belonged to him, and it's especially full of memories of him really. It says a lot about him as a person, I think.
When my father died, he died 11 years after my mother, in fact it's his birthday today, fortuitously. Very strange. He would have been 101, he was born in 1913. It's also my grandson Joseph's birthday, fortuitously. Anyway. Erm yes, when he died, which was 11 years after my mother died, he'd lived in a bungalow and it took us 18 skips worth of work to empty the bungalow of the things he'd collected, because he collected. He just saved stuff really. He was an ordinary man, so what he'd saved was really just the . . . life of an ordinary person. It consisted of everything: every tax return, everything from the second world war, everything, his swimming certificate from his secondary modern school, and among this stuff was a whole load of things connected with what he had done for his hobbies. He wasn't a carpenter, he was a wages clerk. He worked in a colliery and he did various other kinds of wage clerking in his life. But he was a man who was extremely creative and he made things. He made things out of wood and so this was one of the things he used to make things with. And it speaks to me of his straightness and honesty and simplicity actually. He was a very ordinary person. I found it again actually among the stuff that we brought back, which fills half the cellar now it's here. And our own kids will have to clear it out when I pop off. Erm, so yes I found it again, when I was clearing the cellar, and then now I sort of keep it on my window sill in my study. It looks a sort of treasure, of him. So a mitre block.
And I've chosen it, as I said, because it expresses something very er particular about my father. First of all I chose patient, but that's rather misleading actually. I would say painstaking, my father was. If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well, was one of the things he always said. And this is something that makes a, enables a carpenter to do things well, since you can cut a near perfect joint. It's pretty crude actually, if you look at it. I mean it's not a precision instrument. And you can get them made out of erm metal these days, with sort of you know sliding screws, and looks the sort of things that fastens people's legs together when they've had a particularly gruesome accident, but this is much simpler. So what it says to me about my father is that he was a painstaking person who tried to do things... always erm... correctly would be perhaps wrong, since it implies a kind of nitpicking...er, right, straight, true. He was a very true honest person, very honest. A person of great sort of straight dealing. So it is a straight dealing piece of material. My father couldn't make anything happen, which was to my mother's despair. He was totally incapable of animating himself to make anything happen in their life together. But he made things. He made all sorts of things. He made a puppet show, a puppet stage for me. I used to do glove puppetry: Sooty and Sweep from former times. And he made a rocket controlled set with lots of dials and knobs on it. Er, he made me a little model theatre. He'd see things in shop windows like Christmas decorations, then he'd go home and make them.
I used to think I was like my mother. Impatient, go-getting, and so on. And it wasn't until my father died that I realised I was actually rather like him. I used to dislike finding myself sitting like my father actually, watching the television. I would realise I'm sitting like I saw my father sit when I was a child, and I would move actually. And now I try as best as I can to manoeuvre myself back into the position.
I don't use it actually. I do make things and I have made things, which involve cutting mitre joints, but I fear before I had re-found this, that I used a metal one. I've stopped making things, and carpentry things, actually I'm sort of... there was a time when I used to make things for the house and do all the decorating and so on. Now I've got too, not idle, but too sort of willing to let more expert people do it. But I don't use it actually, I keep it as a kind of object to look at and erm, I touch it most days. I pick it up and sort of erm. It stands in front of a window, which has a wonderful view over the lake district, so I look out of the window and sort of touch the block and move it around, stand it up on end and so on. So I use it in that sense. Just as a memorial, memento and something which touches me.
And I said patient but that would be wrong actually because my father was a somewhat impatient person with other people who were not painstaking, including me from time to time actually. Though I did inherent that I hope from early on, that ability to try and do things properly. But erm, the other, second word I would choose to describe my father is sentimental. My father was a very emotional person but unable to harness his emotions to, actually sadly, to produce any effective change in his own life or other people's lives. He wasn't a compassionate person, he was rather impatient with other people's sort of poor conditions, not that he was well off of course or very well endowed in terms of property or anything himself, but with other people who didn't 'shape', as people would have said in Yorkshire, or 'frame'. That's another interesting word, he would have, "Ooh you can't frame for God's sake!" He would say, "Why don't you just frame yourself?" Interesting in't it, see? Frame. That's something to do with this object. And he was impatient with such people, but he couldn't harness his emotions. He was the sort of person who would cry listening to opera on the television or radio, not that he did that often, but if it happened to come on. And he would be very emotional about things that just er, struck him for some reason, somehow or other. So he would readily... his eyes would readily fill with tears. And he cried when my mother died, but I hardly ever saw him cry properly, fully, at other times. And he was frightened of his emotions actually, like many working class men. And er, didn't know what to do with them... except be sentimental. So that would be the second word really, he was a sentimental person.
And I inherit this sentimentality, which is ... it needs to be thought about actually, I think it can undermine what one wants to do or be. But it was a kind of gift really, and I've tried to use it, my emotions more.
We have two sons, Rosemary and I, Dominic and Peter, who are now 39 and 36. And when Dominic was 8, my father had a big moustache and Dominic used to like kissing my father cos he's, it was very bristly. It was a really full, sort of not quite handle bar but getting on that way, and Dominic used to like this. And then when Dominic was 8 he rushed to say goodbye to my father and my father said, "Hmm Dominic, I think you're a bit too old to kiss me now." So then they shook hands and Dominic was completely kind of baffled by this. But my father was not able to share his emotions in an open way. He was frightened of what he felt I think. And maybe that's something to do with, well you can put your emotions into something straight can't you with this. You can turn it into something creative. All your energy you can master and control and tack together and make something neat, and my father was very good at that. But the sort of swilling around of what was inside, he couldn't do anything with that, which was a great shame actually. Because he could of er... it's easy enough to say what other people could do in't it? He couldn't of course, but erm he might have used these emotions in a different way. And then the third word I would choose would be honest and true, which is connected with this object. My father was totally incapable of telling lies, I think. Except on the level of emotion. He could lie to himself about what he felt, but he paid the price for that actually. You could see in his life that the fact that he hadn't been true in that way, he bore the cost of that, something which I've tried to work at actually, cos it's I think ... well somewhat inhibiting to be like that. But as far as other things are concerned, my father was totally incapable of lying. And he was straight and true and honest.
I do have a faith perspective because, this wasn't a piece of deceit on my part, but I'm an Anglican priest, as well as being a scientist. I'm what's called a non-stipendiary priest. I've been a priest for 40, nearly 40 years. I became a priest at the same time as I started working as a botanist. It was a late discovery actually that I should do this, which is its own story. My parents were not religious people at all, well they were not practising religious people. My mother's parents, my mother's mother was a Salvationist, er Salvation Army person, though she'd been born a Roman Catholic. And my father was ostensibly a Methodist, but neither of them went to church. And I think they were very puzzled, and my father was very upset, by my decision to be a priest. It was redeemed slightly by the fact that I earned my living as a, you know, in a decent way, by being a scientist. So I'm what's called, the French would call it a prêtre ouvrier, a worker priest. I earn my living as a scientist but I'm a priest at the same time. And so I do have a faith perspective and erm. .. it has, I think, well yes, influenced the grieving process. Boy it doesn't quite er, it doesn't quite touch the needs that are felt in grieving does it, to sort of put it like that? If people ask me what the resurrection's about in Christian faith, I have no ability to talk about the afterlife in any simple way, actually. And I never hold out to people the prospect that life in the future, after they're dead, will be better than it is now, as if it's some reward. I think it's cheap actually, to do that, and I don't believe it in that way.
But I think one goes on being remembered after one is dead, by, what I would call, God. And I hope very much that I will be remembered, and I think it's very important to remember. And the word's interesting isn't it? Re - Member: to put somebody together again. I mean it's quite an interesting picture of what other more literal forms of resurrection are about, that is you are somehow pieced together in a way which is continuing.. . a continuation of what there is now. So I say to people, when they're facing death erm, or when they're grieving, "It's not the end of the story." And clearly with my father it's not the end of the story in the sense that I am going on talking about him now, and re-membering him in a way which is er rather like the way he did, by cutting pieces and sticking them together and making something. And so I think that my faith perspective helps me think that my father is being remembered at this time for his virtues, after his life, not only by me, but I would say by God actually. That's my kind of view about what the after life is about. And therefore memory is hugely important.
And so I think re-telling the story of my father, day-by-day, by touching this. I do it to myself and to my children actually. I was telling Peter, my youngest son, I was going to do this today, and I said, "What do you think I've chosen?" And he ran through a whole load of things actually: a part of the aircraft that crashed, which made me think that he knows quite a lot about my Dad. "A tomato!?", he said. "No!", I said. Because we were once sitting having a picnic and my father was a very simple person, it was after my mother died, my father was there and the two boys and Rosemary and me. My father was eating this picnic, which Rosemary put up in a Rosemary sort of way, and he said, "I'm 71!" My father said, "And do you know this is the first time I've bitten into a tomato." Cos my mother had always sliced them up of course and put them with egg and sort of cress and lettuce in a bowl. So the children always remember that. So they thought I might choose a tomato. Er, so I can't quite think how we got to the tomato there, but it's all part of remembering my Dad.
Of course... I don't like to think... I don't like to think of having lost my father really ... because what's left, in a way, is erm, tells me more about him than he could have told me himself. He couldn't have er, he'd have found it excruciating to be sitting here crying about his own father. He absolutely couldn't have done that. I think it's really important that somehow my, the DNA of my parents makes it possible to do that. But I do think er, I had a dream about my father, which is very pertinent to this actually; I don't often dream about my Dad at all. And we were going somewhere and he was taking me somewhere, and he got ahead of me in a sort of crowd and I couldn't see him. And I became quite distressed that I couldn't follow where he'd gone. And it wasn't a nightmare at all but it was deeply upsetting, this er, this dream. And so yes, of course I've lost my father and he's been dead now, he died in 1988, so that's how many years? 25 years. But he seems a fresh er, freshly present every day. Not only from the things that I have left from him, but of course inside me. Since as I said, I am more like him than I thought, and I'm more like him then I thought I wanted to be. But I love dearly the fact that I'm like him now, because I've grown to erm... well you turn into... Dominic said, "Ya turn into ya dad don't ya really?" ... "Oh yeah, yeah Dominic, yeah. Hm-hmm." I can see it in him.
I have a photo of myself holding my, with my father holding my hand walking on the promenade at Bridlington, which is where we always went for our holidays. In those days, coal was everything in South Yorkshire and all the pits closed in the same week. And everybody went to the same place, we always went to Bridlington. The whole town went to Bridlington, so you met people from the next street, in the next street in Bridlington. Yes, and there he is on the promenade, holding my hand. And I must have been about 8 and . . . I didn't hold his hand again until my mother died... because he couldn't have, he couldn't have coped with that, the touching. Like you know, wanting to shake hands with my son. And so I suppose that is one of the most difficult memories I have of him. That he was not reachable in that sort of physical way. And I found it very important actually with our children to er, to try not to be like that. We're a bit of a touchy feely family really, without being over the top about it. But I think it's very important not to regard your body as untouchable in that way. And that wasn't my father's fault of course. He was a man born in 1913, so there's no way anybody, a working class wages clerk of that period, I would have thought, is very easily going to go around touching everybody else. That's not what people did in those. days. But gosh, I really regret that.
I touched him when he was dead, of course. Well I say of course. And we all saw him when he had died. I think that's also very important actually, not to be frightened of the dead. It's easy to say that if you've not really seen many dead people in very difficult situations, which even though I'm a priest, actually I haven't seen many dead people because I'm not a parish priest. But I haven't taken many funerals, but I did see my father dead and I didn't take his funeral, that would have been absolutely impossible actually. Being so close to people, you can't do it I think, and have the distance. But anyway, I did see him dead and I touched him when he was dead and it was lovely. He didn't die in great distress actually. But one thing I've just realised, I did touch him again before he died. He had pneumonia and he was in some pain, and I was rubbing his hand like this in the bed, in Wakefield, and he said to me, "Do you know John, that doesn't do ha'porth o' good" Thanks a lot, that's fantastic Dad, that's great. I'll remember you, for that. Anyway, I might not have done a ha’porth of good really but...
I did think actually that he wasn't very influential on me and then after he, a long time after he died, I was sorting my own things through, cos I save stuff too. And I discovered various things, in an autograph book for example and among collections of papers, that he had taken me to hear a string quartet in Barnsley, with a man called Max Jaffa and somebody Byfield, Jack Byfield. And my father, I mean there's no way my father would ever voluntarily, for himself, have gone to a concert. But we went there and their autographs are in my book. And then he took me to a public lecture by Patrick Moore, who I was very struck on cos he was on the television you know, and has only just died, during even in my childhood days, The Sky At Night. And I had a telescope, my parents bought me a telescope, and I looked at the sky. And so I've got his autograph too. And he took me to a sculpture, an exhibition of working men's art, which was opened by the sculptress Mitzi Cunliffe, who was quite well known in her day I discovered afterwards. And I've got the card that let you into the exhibition. And again, there's no way my father would have gone to an exhibition of paintings, so I don't know why he did this. Maybe it was a kind of, you know, father and son education. He just wanted to take me to these things. And there's a whole string of these things. He took me to a performance of Henry the IV part 1... I mean he was absolutely, completely uninterested in Shakespeare or drama of any kind, he would go to sleep after five minutes after they started on the television. But we sat through this in the school, it was a school performance in Wombwell, and you know I can just imagine him sitting next to me, for some reason wanting me to have these experiences, I suppose. I mean that's extraordinary.
I became interested in er, well I made contact with a local astronomer who ran a little club for children interested in the stars. And at the same time as I joined this club, that man became uninterested in astronomy and devoted himself to natural history. And so I too was drawn along into this, and my father and I would go along to these meetings at the natural history society on Saturday afternoons, looking at, walking round local woodlands and so on. And I used to take his Second World War little sort of, not ammunition bag, but little sort of bag, which I've still got actually, on these things. So we used to do those things together. So in his own clumsy, it sounds unfair to call it clumsy actually but, in his own erm, uncontrived, working class way, he sort of, you know held my hand in these experiences, and sort of encouraged them and made things connected with them. He made me a little laboratory sort of kit. You know in which I could put my specimens. He made me a moth breeding cage, cos I sent away for caterpillars and eggs and so on, and put them in this cage.
And so in this kind of unselfconscious, invisible way, not wanting any credit, he sort of, I realise somehow enabled all this to happen.