Rest in peace.
For the last decade or so i’ve been using writing and publishing online as a means to organise my thoughts, to provide structure to what often feels like a whirlwind of ideas and emotions. I suppose this is going to be another one of those posts. It has taken me several weeks to start writing, and i’m still not really sure what i want to say. It mostly feels too personal to share…
Over the last twenty or so years, roughly corresponding to the time that i left england, my relationship with my father became much closer. During my pretty standard angry / confused / rebellious teenage years things were a little fraught… My memories of him that time are a mixture of him sleeping off his work schedule (commuting to London from the Norfollk coast, and a lot of travel…) and a general feeling that i wasn’t meeting some vaguely known set of expectations. Never bluntly expressed, but perceived to be there under the layer stress, and periodically, anger. No doubt that was all to do with wanting me to make the best of things, but i guess it never comes across that way to a teenager.
He was a big, imposing man, both physically and intellectually, leaving a impression on any of my friends that he met during this period. His humour was pretty coarse, his wit often caustic. Being direct, telling people what they didn’t want or expect to hear, was always softened with charm, and i dare say, sheer physical presence.
By the time i’d made it to California, and was making a fist of starting a career, the tension went away and we started to build a relationship on a different, more equal basis.
At heart he was an engineer (originally aeronautical, at hawker-sidley, i think) but eventually on trains (APT-E at BR, bi-modal (truck / train) systems, and eventually railway networks). It was an engineer that he approached most things. We spent a lot of time talking about photography, with him more interested than me in the raw technology. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the gear was as interesting as the photographs, he was just fascinated by the changes and what could be done with them. A lot of his bird photographs are really good. One day i’ll go through it all and get it online. In much earlier times i’d been his darkroom assistant, (whether i was actually helping is debatable) and have happy memories of those times developing and printing together.
Similarly with computers, we’d had computers around the house almost since it became practical (early BBC Microcomputer, in 1981, etc) but it was mostly left to me to do the tinkering / programming after all the pieces had been brought together and shown to function. Like photography it wasn’t that he couldn’t code, just that having new toys was more interesting. He told me once that as a kid he’d taken a lot of things around the house to pieces to find out how they worked. Unable to get them back together he’d taken to burying them in the garden… creative destruction?
Towards the end of his career, when he was living in Holland during the week, he started to mellow. Maybe it was just that the pressure was gone, the house was paid for, the kids had been put through university and were working. We never really spoke about it… but he travelled more for pleasure than business, and was easier to be around. In his 60s, after retiring, he had cancer, and the experience of beating that, seemed to mellow him even further. My wife, with whom he’d always got on, took to him as a gentle giant, and i’d often find them sitting around chatting about nothing in particular.
During a turbulent time in my mid-30s, which saw me quitting a good job and wandering around aimlessly for a year not really knowing what to do with my life, he did the only thing that would have helped – listened. My clearest memory from that period is him telling me, “some people seem to go through their entire lives without a single directed thought”. I can’t really say that helped with the existential gloom through which i was stumbling, but it did give me a perspective from which it was possible to embrace the turmoil.
Over the last five years, we’d generally talk one or more times a week. He was still trying to find the perfect camera / lens combination for birding, and even though his hands weren’t as steady, was out there in the hides most days that the light was good. We’d talk more about which lens or doubler he should buy than the photographs, but it was always entertaining, and gave us an excuse to talk about other things where perhaps i wouldn’t have otherwise made the effort.
All those chats and calls on IM / Skype / Video reduced the importance of me not being around much – i’ve almost spent more than half my life outside england. Had we not had those tools, it would probably be a source of great regret that i’d not had more opportunities to talk with him.
And now he’s gone. All those things will have to remain unsaid. A great treasure house of memories and experience groans closed.