My father’s birthday
Today is 9th April, my father’s birthday. He’d have been 100 today, but he died more than 42 years ago, when he was only 57.
I think of him often as I sail around as I know how much he’d have loved some of these adventures. He never had my good fortune though. For a start he was born in 1916 when his father (my grandfather) was in the First World War trenches. When my grandfather received a telegram telling him of the new arrival, his fellow officers said it was a shame he’d not see the new baby son – casualties were so high at the time – though in fact my grandfather did survive – until he was 96.
And then, my father grew up through the 1920s and 30s with the traditions, conventions and constraints of the British middle classes at the time; hence he was almost bound to enter the army. That’s what men like him were expected to do. There weren’t the many choices open to my generation. Not that he disliked army life; he probably enjoyed much of it. After all, it gave him wonderful opportunities for cricket and hockey, both of which he played very well. It’s just that I think he was at heart a pacifist. He was fully involved with the British Legion after he retired from the army, so he believed in that; and I know he was always solicitous of his men’s well-being; and he kept many friends from his army days. In those days too, before, during and after the Second World War, you did travel the world, (I know for example that I was conceived in Pakistan, borne in Singapore, and lived I think in Germany, Egypt and London – all before I was five).
But army life can’t have suited him very well as, apart from his peace-loving nature, he was never keen on senseless obedience and unchallenged conformity and, after attending a War Office colonel’s tea party in the early 1950s, he impulsively announced he’d leave as soon as he could; “….otherwise” he told my mother, “we’ll become like them” (N.B. I like to think the modern army has done away with the ritual aloofness that he’d so disliked). He and my mother were, I’m sure, devoted to one another and had been married in 1945; she accepted without question his decision to leave the army.
Unqualified for civilian life, but using his knowledge and interest in sport, he tried work as a sales rep for Slazenger or Dunlop, before acknowledging he couldn’t sell anything. ‘Sales’ was clearly a dead-end for someone with his qualities of honest generosity and openness. Instead he became a driving examiner, commuting for many years on his little Lambretta motor scooter into Reading. It must have been soul-destroying work, but for five and half days a week, he persevered year after year with patient good humour.
At that time, we were all introduced to the idea of owning and sailing boats. An early heart attack meant my father was advised to give up cricket. He took up sailing, instead – I believe it was deemed less stressful. We had a little all-purpose dinghy, Henrietta II, that we used on the River Thames, or trailed down for holidays in Chichester Harbour or Lyme Regis. Just imagine: five of us, plus dog, tent and camping gear in a 13ft dinghy, with temperamental Seagull outboard and inefficient gunter rigged sail, for weekends in a tent on some sand dunes at East Head, Chichester (National Trust own it now and camping’s not allowed.)
Eventually my father stopped being a driving examiner; and we moved to the South Coast (after a brief and dismal year near Bedford); where he started a driving school. We had a mooring on the river at Lymington in Hampshire (home for our 17ft Silhouette, “Henrietta III”). Then, a few years later, I’m sure with a happier and more comfortable life than ever, he died. I was a 23 year old engineer in Africa at the time and never knew until long after the funeral was over.
I’ve always felt sorry that I knew him so little. Partly that’s because, as a typically self-absorbed teenager I was insensitive to the qualities and needs of parents, but also because he was by nature a quiet and modest man, and didn’t talk much of his childhood or early adulthood; he wouldn’t have wanted to bore you with his own thoughts and concerns. I think too he was essentially shy, unambitious, and reserved. He never wanted to make a fuss or boast about anything.
Whatever his abilities and limitations, when I think of my father now, I know two things for certain. I inherited his joy of sailing; and I’ve been a million times luckier than him in being able to indulge my passion. (He would never have dreamed that one day, one of his sons might have a yacht like the current ‘Henrietta’. I’d never have dreamed it either.)