My Father


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 of 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 many of my childhood / adolescent friends. 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.

13 thoughts on “My Father

  1. This is lovely. My dad is also an engineer (electrical) so much of this is familiar. Thank you for sharing this – and that’s a wonderful portrait. ❤

    • Thanks. Wasn’t easy to write…

      Meant to say something about the picture. I completely screwed up the exposure when i took it, and he pulled faced in all the subsequent ones. It took quite an effort to rescue in post-processing. Oh, and it helps that he was a handsome devil.

      • was very sorry to hear this. a very nicely written post though… my enduring memories of your dad are him correcting me when i said “an ample sufficiency” with “an elegant sufficiency!” (a mistake i’ve tried not to make ever since) and him deliberately driving through huge puddles to amuse us at night on winding, terrifying Norfolk roads…

        • Thank you.

          Yes, i should have mentioned the terrifying experience of learning to drive and being driving around with an amateur rally driver. By the time he was in his 70s one of lives great joys was seeing how long a line of cars he could make behind him on the road. Quite the change from seeing how many it was possible to overtake on a long straight…

          “It doesn’t really matter. Does it matter? I don’t think it really matters.”, Think we nearly drove him to distraction!

  2. I remember being in the darkroom with my dad too. 🙂 Good memories never fade, eh? Lovely post, Jon. Best wishes to you and your family.

    • Thanks Jim.

      Memory is a wonderful thing. I know its considered highly unreliable and malleable (how could it not be…) but it seems to work in just the right way at times like this.

  3. I don’t have to tell you how close this hits to home……….

    I count everyday that I am not writing a post far less eloquent and moving than yours as a fucking good day.
    My own mortality is something that I think I came to terms with during the blackness that was my 20’s, but that of my father still fills me with unfathomable dread.

    I am truly sorry for your loss my friend.
    I feel 100% sure that if your father was the man you described (I’m sorry we never met) he would have been so proud of the son he raised.

    My apologies if this seems trite or inarticulate, I am litterally having trouble finding the words not to mention the keys through all this salt water.

    • thank you.

      it’s hard to write this stuff without feeling that it must be clichéd. but the associations between the feelings and the language used to express them are strong. what would normally feel trite becomes simply honest.

      damn onions.

  4. A brave post cous. As an uncle your Father was very amusing and a welcoming, warm presence whenever we headed up to the Norfolk coast to visit. I hope the passing of time is helping you all. Much love.

    • The brave post (on attitudes to loss / grief) didn’t get written – this one is just honest… i think. Time passes, but the twitch below my left eye carries on relentlessly!

      Talk soon.

  5. I think that was a wonderful piece of reflection of our often strained and interesting relationships we have with our parents. As a parent now, I often wonder what my relationship will be like with my children as they grow and learn. Will I keep my opinions and thoughts to myself and let them make their own way, or will I intervene to try to “help”. Thank you for the reminder that all we really want from our parents is to be accepted and loved for who we are.

    • i’m not sure there are any “right” answers to be honest. what makes it all so difficult for everyone is that depending on the parent / child / environment the complete opposite of what i described above might be right. like most things i end up thinking about deeply, there is no black / white, right / wrong, just a deep palette of greys!

  6. Pingback: “Abandoned” | It'll All End In Tears

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