Monday, 26 November 2012

Our Dad, 1943 - 2012

Earlier this year we packed up the car and our three kids and set off on the 250 or so miles from our house to Grandad Turner’s flat by the sea. It was a long, long drive, occasionally punctuated by the usual carsickness and bickering - but they arrived at his door happy, because they got to go upstairs in a lift. And once in his flat they could go out on the roof terrace and see the sea and scare themselves by looking over the side. They lined up all his remote controls on the table and counted them - 22. He had an iPad he let them play on, even a Wii. A robot vacuum cleaner that bounced ineffectually between chairs and walls, bleeping. 22 remote controls! Yeah, Grandad Turner was actually quite cool for an old guy. Of course we never imagined it would be the last time.

When I thought about it I realised nothing much had changed since my brother and I were kids, when the 253 to Stamford Hill, Friday night and back Sunday afternoon, was a decade long ritual. Dad had moved out of our own house when we were little, so I have just the vaguest memory of him coming home from work, and asking if he had any sweets in his coat pockets for us. Is it just in my memory that he always did? Of course we didn’t realise the significance: when we were told he was moving into a flat, our response was, ‘will he take his George Formby records’?


But if you think that coming from a ‘broken home’ - Dad used to jokingly use that term - made for an emotionally impoverished or second rate childhood, stop right there, and think again. To us it just meant that at weekends - any kid’s best days of the week in any case - we had him to ourselves. And those weekends, well, what weekends they were, and what fun we had. Make no mistake, our times at Dad’s were magnificent times.

Dinner was always ham and chips, or egg and chips, or chips and chips, and what’s more, he had a soda stream. There was space invaders on the Atari, football in the park with Dad in goal, weekend long snooker competitions that would end up 63 frames to 39. The spare bed was for tag team wrestling matches. Half a room was taken up by a train set, the network adorned with mountains, trees and tunnels, and of course we set up one head on crash after another.

I like to think Dad put this appalling safety record down to the greedy bosses’ negligence, rather than driver error. Because of course Dad was a socialist and union man. And sure, there were marches to go on, and yes, once he told me he wasn’t too keen on me reading the Beano, as its publisher was notoriously anti-union. But, if I’m being honest, there was a notable lack of austerity around. Like, he had the first push button phone of anyone we knew, the kind you only saw on American cop shows. He had a top-loading video recorder with control levers instead of buttons and a digital watch that I boasted to my school friends about.

And having two homes also meant two lots of holidays, and the ones with Dad were usually the more downmarket kind, which we loved. First the Isle of Wight, hiring a tandem with Dad on the front singing Daisy Daisy give me your answer do, as we trundled down the country lanes. Then the Costa Blanca, all fizzy drinks and blow up dinghies. Later, chicken and chips in Greek tavernas, Dad clicking the waiters, singing Never on Sunday and making us get up to dance.


As the years passed, we would watch every episode of Cheers together on friday nights - Coach was our favourite, then Woody - and more often than not, the next day take three buses out to shabby forgotten suburbs to watch his beloved Boston United lose to the local non-league side. And big matches too, as I joined him in supporting his other team - away games, cup finals, and then standing together as we watched the horror unfold in front of us at Hillsborough. I used to think it was the team I loved, but now I see it was just our way of staying close.

I don’t recall many bad moods or cross words, those weekends. Dad got by with patience and humour and kindness, and now I’m a dad myself I know that isn’t always easy to do. And yes, authority too - not the strict or shouty sort, but the mostly unspoken kind, where the mildest reproach can feel like a stinging rebuke. But the angriest I remember seeing him was when, stupidly, we thought it would be funny to whisper a racist word.

And all the time, every week, the same familiar, repeated jokes. “I’m hungry” would inevitably meet with the retort “oh hello, I’m Austria” and just as surely “I’m thirsty” would elicit “hello, I’m Friday”. Watching golf on a lazy Saturday afternoon - because back then any sport would do - the commentator would whisper, “and this is for his par”, and sure as you like Dad would call back: “what about his poor old ma?” And sometimes it was not so much jokes as downright lies told for his own amusement, like when I asked why Americans spelled words like ‘colour’ without a u, and he told me that during the great depression the government removed unnecessary letters from words to save on ink.


I loved it as well when his friends came round, the rooms turned smokey, the wine flowed freely and the talk turned to politics and the villains of the day. Of course we nagged him about the smoking. “Yes, yes, I know”, he’d say. “Every cigarette means five minutes off your life”, we’d come back. “Ooh”, he’d say, brightening, “Can I choose which five?”

Of course we didn’t care much about his work in those days - what child does? The only thing that impressed me was that as a young reporter he’d once reported on reserve team matches. Oh, and one other time, when on a cross channel ferry and he told the captain he was the editor of the shipping union paper to get us on the bridge and a go at steering. Later, he held my hand as I threw up over the side of the boat.

But as I got older I became proud of his career, one which burned so brightly so early. And years ago, when saw I him described in a book as ‘assiduous and indefatigable’ they became my favourite words. Now I can read his articles on the Tribune archive online - front page feature articles, smart, authoritative, principled, and all written before he was even 30. At 30 I was still trying to figure out what to do when I grew up. And of course he was still there if I needed, on the end of the phone, never critical, always ready to offer good advice, or a timely cheque.


Well, maybe we grew up, but to us Dad never changed, not really. To us he stayed reassuringly the same, even if as the years pass you begin to see the person, not just the father, vulnerable, with flaws and hopes and fears just like yours - sometimes very like yours, too much. But still there was the dry wit, never dulled. And if he was outwardly cynical we all knew it barely hid a sentimental streak a mile wide. His affinity for the underdog and sense of fairness never wavered, either; as if to prove it he kept taking on mediocre football teams around the world until, by the end, it seemed he had one on the go in most countries. More than ever, he bought gadgets, just out and still too expensive.

And the final act in my life: the way he took to the role of Grandad with grace, and pride. He just as generous with them as he was with us way back when, and they loved him back. Of course he couldn’t do what he used to when we were young - no more games in the park - but nothing could stop him making them laugh. But if I can allow myself one regret it’s that my kids didn’t see him enough, and that they won’t know him as they get older, and learn to get his jokes.


You don’t really know about loss until you lose someone, and nothing prepares you for the jolt of losing your father. Suddenly you realise that he’s always been with you, however hundreds of miles away he actually is, that you’ve been subconsciously consulting him, seeking approval for your actions. So it’s hard to come to terms with the strangeness, the disbelief, the downright not-rightness of thinking that you’ll never talk to someone again. And although on the face of it you seem to be progressing through the normal stages - shock, turning to profound sadness - you still don’t really believe it, not really, that it’s not some sort of elaborate prank and he won’t call tomorrow afternoon and demand to know why you haven’t been in touch.  

When he was in hospital, still just weeks ago, I asked if I should come down. He said ‘Good god no, I’m not dying!’. So I said sorry to him - finally - for the time, on holiday one year in France, or was it Spain, he was in a table tennis competition and we thought it would be funny to support the other guy. He hadn’t forgotten.  

So if I’ve already said sorry, and it’s too unreal to say goodbye just yet, maybe I should just say thanks. Because, not everyone is lucky enough to get a good dad. So thanks for the millions of jokes, and for showing me how to be a father. For the dislike of hierarchy and ceremony and authority, except of course the authority of dads. For the love of music, especially the more obscure sort. For how to do a cryptic crossword and the difference between less and fewer. For the Turner good looks, and for showing us that every single person is as precisely as good as every single other person. For teaching me young that all red wine is good red wine. Thanks for the football teams but you can probably have them back now, because they’re no good to me now. For the wrestling and for the soda stream. Thanks. Thanks for being our dad.

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