Sunday, 15 June 2014

Heart & Soul: Why Dad will always be my hero

A vicar, the man ran the household like a mini Soviet co-operative.

MY father was a man’s man. A callow student at Oxford in Britain when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, his personality was forged in the crucible of war: in the north African desert as an artillery officer at the battle of El Alamein; in Yugoslavia as a liaison officer with communist partisans.

At the end of the war, while being debriefed by British military intelligence, my father found himself alone in an office and, perusing files, found one on himself. In it he was denounced as an unreliable, unpatriotic “fellow traveller”, to be viewed with extreme suspicion. He put the file in his bag, took it home and destroyed it. He was indeed a quasi-communist but, disillusioned by what he saw in Slovenia at the end of the war, he sought to consolidate commitment to social justice with a greater authority than flawed mankind and became an Anglican priest.

He didn’t marry until he was 35, the lovely 18-year-old daughter of the vicar he was curate to. She was so young. Three children were born. When I was eight or nine, we moved from the industrial grime of Crewe, its steel foundries and stockyards at the centre of British Railways, where Dad was industrial chaplain, to the Teign Valley in rural Devon. Mum began to find herself there: she tended a large kitchen garden; raised chickens, then geese, then pigs.

The Victorian rectory we lived in was the biggest house in the small village. It had a servants’ wing, which Dad rented out to newlyweds, a young farm labourer and his wife. The man was kind to me: he taught me to drive his tractor; we went rabbiting with ferrets; he took me to watch professional wrestling in Exeter. I once watched him, from one of our upstairs windows, chase his brother-in-law round and round a car, till he caught him and punched him unconscious. Another time our dog had an unwanted litter of puppies with a local mutt. I watched as the man stunned each blind, tiny puppy and dropped it into a bucket of water.

There were back rooms, below the rented flat. One afternoon I wandered through them, opened a door, and found our tenant sitting on a bench. Our mother was sitting on his lap. I couldn’t quite make sense of it.

Not long afterwards, our mother gathered my sisters and I in the kitchen. I was 12, they were 10 and 14. Mum had an announcement to make. She told us she was leaving.

We reacted to the shock in different ways, then and in the years after, but Dad, an early male single parent, pulled us together. He announced that the four of us were a little Soviet, a mini co-operative and that we’d would talk things over, share everyday chores, make decisions as we went along. Three kind parishioners came in every week to clean the house, wash clothes, cook a meal. Otherwise, we lived on beans on toast, or grated cheese stirred into instant potato, with tomato ketchup. Delicious grub! A special treat was a ready-made TV dinner in a foil tray with different compartments for beef in gravy, mashed potato, peas.

When the divorce was made absolute the judge wanted assurance that Dad could open a tin and my older sister could cook. He then awarded Dad custody of us children.

My father adored sport – he’d played rugby for Bath and was good at any game with a ball. Our childhood involved every ball game ever invented, plus a few more we made up. Dad never let us win at tennis or ping-pong or crazy golf; we had to earn our every victory. He was a tough, ferocious competitor – but only in sport. Away from the sports field, he was gentle. I remember the way he’d take a plaster off my skin incredibly slowly, so that it wouldn’t hurt. I remember going to bed upset about something, and falling asleep with him stroking my arm.

Our house was a social centre of the village. We – and other church volunteers – were always having strangers to stay: homeless people at Christmas, city children on holiday, overseas students with nowhere to go in the holidays. We made good friends from Turkey, the West Indies, India, Africa.

Dad craved solitude and contemplation, yet was extremely social. He loved gin and cigarettes and disputation. My abiding childhood memory of him is with guests, dinner table half cleared, arguing long past my bedtime about religion and politics – preferably with atheists and reactionaries.

For holidays he gathered motley groups of relatives and friends, and we headed for the sea. But most of the time we grew up in benign neglect. Much of my childhood was spent with friends lost in the old mines, rivers and streams, hidden fields and dark woods of the crooked coombes.

Our father was so busy. He had four parishes: he sped from service to meeting to pastoral visit in his sporty Triumph Vitesse. Every evening he had an engagement somewhere. Never content, he organised new sports and youth clubs; became a county councillor; took a course to teach literacy; gave late-night talks on television. He campaigned against poverty, unemployment, the arms race and for political prisoners. He introduced his prayer group to marijuana, tried to set up a commune, became a school teacher and a driving instructor in his spare time; he was always trying to connect with people who didn’t go to church and to challenge those who did.

Dad never tried to proselytise his own children, though. He gave us the freedom to find our own beliefs, make our own mistakes.

Our mother’s second marriage, meanwhile, to the farm labourer, was unravelling in violence and paranoia, but not before a baby was born.

Eventually Mum left for good, with her infant daughter. Her husband was convinced she had come back to us. He’d phone and say in a slurred voice that he was heading over to kill us all. He arrived in the dark, when Dad was out. I persuaded him to leave his shotgun in the porch, leaning against the wall. I spoke to him until Dad came home, then I crept upstairs to join my sisters. And Dad would counsel the man for whom his wife had left him. For my father, the cuckold, it was the ultimate Christian challenge: what meaning did forgiveness have, if he could not apply it now?

The man fell asleep in an armchair. In the morning he, and his gun, would be gone.

My sisters and I left home, in due course. Both my parents eventually found a loving spouse. My mother has become one of my best friends. My father and his wife, Nancy, a psychiatrist, died of cancer within four days of each other, in 1986.

My father remains my hero. He lived life intensely, worked for others, brought up my sisters and I. And he taught me that if a strong man can’t be gentle, then he’s not really strong at all. – Guardian News & Media

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