It’s strange how you see the simplest, most ordinary things, in quite a different light after you’ve lost someone.
It’s just over a year since my father died, and small things have triggered bigger memories. I was searching in my mother’s old button tin, and came across this little packet – so typical of him. Neatly and methodically labelled in his distinctive handwriting – and dated! That’s a retired civil servant for you!And there’s his tattered and very worn shopping bag which I lovingly repaired. (More on that in this Clearing the Decks blogpost)There are more powerful prompts of family memory. I took all the family photo albums when my parents moved to a retirement home, planning to scan them so all their four children could have copies. But what with one thing and another they got shelved, and it wasn’t until after my father had died that I thought of this project. It was then that I realised one of the albums documented his very early years of life. Oh silly, silly me.
The album is neatly inscribed at the back – it was a gift to my grandfather, Vin, from his parents. A 1924 Christmas present – a very nice leather album (though deteriorating and shedding leather dust now).Perhaps my grandparents put it to the side to use when they had a family? Who knows now. Whatever, the first photo in it is the arrival of their first baby, my father, on 9th March 1926, – taken in their garden, I think, in Melbourne. Oh, I recognise that look of a new mum, clutching a bundle of blanketed baby, and just thrilled to bits!As with most new families, there is thorough and detailed documentation of the early photos. All the grandparents are photographed, lots of dates and details neatly added in white ink (my grandmother’s writing). There’s proud Dad Vin, and there are Christening photos too.The “firsts” are all covered. First trip to the family holiday villa at Cowes on Phillip Island (October 1926) – proud smiling grandfather and happy baby.Christmas day, and baby’s first dip (again at Cowes).There are more firsts – first swimming lesson – and my grandparents go off on a camping holiday trip in their Dodge to Gippsland. If you look carefully at my grandmother, you can see there’s another baby on the way.So there is! – next page, there’s little baby Billy. And yet another first: Dick’s first balloon.The photographs give every sign of a blissfully happy little family.But as every parent knows, it’s much harder work with two, and there’s far less spare time. Still lots of pics in the album, but less detailed writing. Here they are visiting family in Sydney, October- November 1929.Then the inscriptions completely stop. Just what I did with my old photo albums – after all you know everybody in the photos anyhow. And what’s more there’s a distinctly wonky slant to the photos now – perhaps my grandmother’s getting help with the sticking from one of her little boys?
Still lovely happy photos of a very happy family. All the things we think of as part of a happy childhood – swings, trains, sandpits, games in wheelbarrows, seaside, cuddles from Daddy …The firsts continue, though they are unmarked – but surely this is my father, oh so proud, dressed up in his new school uniform, for his first day at school?There are several more pages like this, and then the last page with just the one photo on it. I think it’s my father at a school sport’s day, possibly? It’s a desperately sad photo, because there’s my father, on the cusp of being a lad, and his whole life changed in a blink of an eye. The photography stops there; the last pages unused.
My grandfather, Vin, died on 8th October, 1933. He’d served in Palestine as a medical orderly in the First World War, and contracted amoebic dysentery. Apparently, he was never a well man, and I believe he died of a pulmonary embolism, at his home, the Gnoll, 60 Canterbury Road, Melbourne.
Fascinatingly, what happened next to my father is hinted at in the earlier pages of this same photograph album. My grandfather Vin and step-grandfather Roger were business colleagues, and here they are with my father (the little boy) and my great-grandfather. I don’t know where this place is or when this photo was taken.But what I do know is that my grandmother Dora married Roger four years later (in 1937) and settled in the UK with his Leicester family. So that was the end of my father’s Australian childhood.
My father went on to have a busy and happy life. He became a British diplomat so much of his working life was spent abroad – he had postings in Tokyo, Belgrade and Tehran. He also worked for the civil service in London, as a specialist in the oil industry, and later running courses for young EU civil servants. In retirement he was a Samaritan, a political agent, a cathedral steward (both at Wells and Exeter cathedrals), a student (of languages, theology), a grandfather. Throughout his life he was interested in and enjoyed classical music and the arts. He was most knowledgeable about the places he travelled to. He was a gardener and a walker. He loved his dogs. He was generous to all with his time, energies and monies. A Christian gentle-man.
In 1952 he married my mother.They had four children – and lots of grandchildren!He was a kind man, liberal, immensely hard-working. He drove himself very hard, and expected the same of us, his children – and perhaps because of this tensions arose at home. Unsurprisingly, the academic and intellectual was highly prized in our childhood, often to the exclusion of much else.
As he grew older (I have written about his illness at the end of his life here), his Australian youth came more to the fore. When I was with him for his 80th birthday, he wept for his father who had died aged only 36. And one of the many things I beat myself up about is the fact that I never returned this album to my father when he requested it at the end of his life. It wasn’t deliberate – I just never got round to it.
He was particularly proud of his time at Magdalen College, Oxford. He gained a scholarship to go there to study Classics, and was rewarded for all his hard work and application with a double first degree.
This poem by C S Lewis is about Addison’s Walk, a particularly beautiful and surprisingly rural part of Magdalen College. None knew Magdalen better than Lewis since he was a fellow and tutor there for many years. The poem was one of my father’s favourites, and he wrote it out in his own hand to send around the family.I think perhaps for my father last year the summer did come true: “We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.”
* GDD stands for Grandad Dick – which is what my children called their grandfather.