I’m going to cover a chronology of Dad’s life – his childhood, his career, his friendships, his hobbies and his retirement. So where do I start?
Dad was born in 1935 to Ernest and Doris in Nottingham. Here they are at their wedding and here’s Dad aged about two. I’m not sure what my Nana’s obsession was with lipstick but something funny was going on.
During the war he was evacuated to Nana’s home town, Grimsby – while his father served in the Signal Corps riding dispatch motor bikes. After the war, they settled back in Cinder Hill in Nottingham.
Here, he quickly became friends with his oldest buddy Mick Leverton who lived on the other side of the street. Between them they became obsessed with cricket playing endlessly in the street with a lamppost as the wicket. Grandad bought him a season ticket to Trent Bridge one year and Dad used to throw it over the wall so Mick could get in for free.
I’m sure Dad’s lifelong love of film started with Mick around this time too. They spent many Sunday’s at the Gaumont Cinema watching musicals in particular – always staying after the end to watch it for a second time, and sometimes for a third time!
Dad always loved films, often sending over messages about a film we should consider. Not horror films however – even though I remember him banging on about the Quatermass Xperiment or the Incredible Shrinking Man; both classic 1950’s horrors – for much of my life he wouldn’t consider watching a horror film.
His teenage years were the only the phase of Dad’s life where we can briefly cover him as keen sports participant. Dad, Mick, Brian Mayfield and Derek Speers were avid table tennis players at the Bulwell Church Institute several times a week, competed at a county level and Dad was Notts County Champion at one stage.
Many years later he would annihilate Andrew at the table and even later his grandson, Jed, who fancied himself with a bat never stood a chance. This is Dad aged 19 with the rich mop of hair he was famous for.
Dad left school at 14 and worked initially for the Ministry of Food having “a thoroughly miserable time” and then first dipped his toes in the newspaper industry at the Notts Echo which he described as a “lovely time” and where he met another life-long friend Don Briggs. Don remembers, as the young lackey in the office, being sent down to the bakers to satiate Dad’s desire for currant buns.
Once again, Dad found a way to sneak in some cricket – after checking in with the court house or police station for new stories he would race back to the office, log them in and disappear for a couple of hours to Trent Bridge. Then he’d rush back to the office to write them up and back down for the afternoon session. His technique of somehow convincing people he was doing a full day’s work while disappearing to sporting fixtures would later prove useful when at Westminster Press.
He went to college and was the only male student among a class of girls where he went allegedly to learn shorthand and typing. It was a brilliant move as it stood him in good stead for journalism and later in the army.
As a trainee journalist Dad was able to defer his National Service but when he did start he managed, after the standard drill training, to get posted to the War Office. This was him the day before his posting. After his National Service he signed on for 9 years in the regular army and made two new very good friends Roger Goad and John Townsend, sharing digs with them in Battersea.
This was around the time he met Mum – 61 years ago this Saturday, on Halloween night 1959 at a dance hall in south London. Mum and Dad were extremely good dancers, winning gold medals, the “best jivers on the dance floor” – her sister Maureen told me that she and Roger used to leave the dance floor in total humiliation when they were dancing!
Mum and Dad were married within 18 months and soon after Dad was posted to NATO Intelligence in Norway where Andrew & I were born.
Dad was an extremely proficient administrator and a very organised person – he learned shorthand so he could keep better notes, managed the correspondence between his boss Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer who was the UK’s top soldier at the War Office and prime minister Harold MacMillan, and in Norway he reported directly to the Commander-in-Chief for Allied Forces in Northern Europe. He still had the foresight to go to night school in Norway to learn his craft and the Army paid for him to gain professional qualifications.
In the late 1960’s, they moved back to Mitcham and Dad started working on civvy street, initially without much joy but then he spotted an advert for an administrative role at Westminster Press. He was interviewed by Cecil Dawson and hired as Assistant to the Assistant Company Secretary. He worked there for 26 years taking over as Company Secretary when “Dawson” retired in 1978. He absolutely loved him time at WP.
The early 1970’s is when Dad’s life really kicked off as far as I’m concerned – Andrew and I remember so much since of this and it all started with our move to Beckenham in 1969. Here we are in Mayfair Close and in the same year, 51 years ago, we started coming to Beckenham Methodist church. Andrew & I used to go to Sunday School in the hall behind us, as well as to Cub Scouts.
It’s also here that Dad’s lifelong passion with a card game called Bridge began. Alan Gill with Val next door (in the house on the right) persuaded them to learn and he was hooked (they both were). Ever since then they played twice a week at Beckenham Bridge Club (he was later both President and Chairman of the club). They played in numerous bridge tournaments in far off places like Brighton, Sandwich and the Algarve.
Pat McBain played with him for nearly 50 years and remembers playing both against him and then in his team; and remembers him as a “thoughtful and talented player”. I understand that, although Mum was a decent player, Dad was always the stronger of the two. Some of his bridge friends tell me if they came up against him at the club they knew they were in for a tough time.
Andrew & I would be banished to our rooms for the league matches when a visiting four would take over the house and then we’d listen to the arguments, after they left, about colossal mistakes made during bidding – standard fare with bridge couples.
We lived in Mayfair Close for 6 years and when I was maybe 10, Dad thought it would be a good idea when I asked to reverse their estate car out of the drive! What could possibly go wrong? Now, this was a street entirely full of young families and as he screamed from the passenger seat for me to hit the brakes, I simply pressed harder on the accelerator. The next day he was out building a new fence on the property opposite. I can only imagine the scolding he got from Mum afterwards.
As we were growing up, Dad was an avid Notts Forest fan (as was his father). He was great admirer of Brian Clough – their manager. I remember him laughing his socks off at the famous interview when Clough was asked if thought he was the best manager in the business. No, was the reply, but I’m definitely in the Top One.
Strangely though, it was years later when we discovered that he was actually a Notts County football fan as a boy. Two years ago, Andrew and I took Dad and Mick to see them play Cheltenham – it was a terrible game, as I recall, but we enjoyed the corporate hospitality and we also enjoyed seeing their 75-year friendship first hand.
Dad had lost contact with John Townsend after moving to Norway (he wasn’t likely to lose touch with his best man Roger since they married sisters!) but without the Internet – who can believe? – there was no hope. One day in 1972 he literally bumped into him on Fleet Street and the next thing he too was working at Westminster Press – he worked with Dad for many years.
The only upside of phoning round his oldest friends and colleagues to break the terribly sad news of Dad’s passing, is hearing them describe him. Hew Stevenson, who ran Westminster Press recalls him as “terrifically well organised” with “something of the military about him”. Hew remembers that at board meetings Dad would have meticulously organised all the briefing papers and held them together with bulldog clips – he still calls them “Blacknell Bulldogs”.
He also told me he was only aware of Dad getting rattled once – when visiting the Deptford office he was advised to park his car off-street in a yard guarded by an exceptionally fierce dobermann. After returning from his meeting, the dog apparently pinned him up against the wall before Dad supposedly got the better of it.
I can remember when Dad was promoted to Company Secretary and he finally got a set of keys to the Executive Bathroom! I had visions of his workplace being like those in “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” and when I visited Newspaper House it wasn’t that far off!
I have vivid memories of him taking me to various Westminster Press newspaper offices to see what they did – a sort of old style work experience. Once this was followed by a spectacular lunch at Giovanni’s in Uxbridge with the GM there, Ken Lingane – I was probably 12 or 13. Dad organised a couple of days with the staff photographer, Len Foxwell, teaching me how to develop and print black & white photographs.
I don’t remember any hardship when we were growing up but Mum and Dad certainly made many financial sacrifices for our family. In particular, they made a 10 year commitment to sending us both to private school. When I think about it, holidays were somewhat on a budget – in particular staying in the mobile home they bought in Sussex but eventually (it seemed) we made it to the big time and started venturing to France on holiday.
I was only one of us who spoke any French and when we ran into difficulties finding our way through France, Dad would pull up alongside some local chap, wind his window down and I would then ask directions in my best soon to be Grade-C O-Level French. Our new friend would, of course, be naturally be drawn into eye contact with Dad who would politely smile and nod. With the nodding, our new French friend would gain confidence and speed up. Dad’s nodding would speed up too – faster and faster and faster. Soon, we’d depart saying “merci” and Dad would then expect directions. I would scream that I didn’t have a clue – why on earth had he been nodding in understanding! It happened on many occasions.
Eventually we’d make it to the campsite in the south of France. Now, most children on holiday would be off in the swimming pool and generally playing havoc with all the other children – and we did too. It just looks like a Book Club.
After 26 years at Westminster Press (and latterly also taking on the same role in the Financial Times Group) it was time for Dad to retire. Actually, it was Mum who planned to retire first and as the date grew nearer Dad realised that he’d had enough of working exactly 37½ hours a week so he accelerated it to his 60th birthday. Mum’s firm sent them both on a “how to retire” course and the principle take away was to make sure you had your own hobbies. So Dad signed up at the local adult education centre and learnt to cook and to bake cakes.
Much was achieved in their 20+ years of retirement. They bought a timeshare in the Algarve and spent 6 weeks there each winter, they travelled fairly extensively, definitely got the cruise ship bug. When Dad put together a list of all the countries he’d ever been too, our kids were amazed.
I have two abiding memories of Dad since he retired in 1995.
First was how often they helped us look after our children. Every year we disappeared for a long weekend to France with friends and frequently on various work holiday trips. Often they would come over just to babysit for one night. Many, many times – and they thought nothing of it. We knew it was time to reign in the asks, though, when Dad left us one time and turned right out into the oncoming lane of the A31 dual carriageway!
The second is Dad’s total devotion to Mum. They’d been together for 60 years and during all this time Andrew & I knew nothing other than a very stable and strong family. 60 years is difficult to comprehend. I mean, my wife & I have been together for 34 years and I know, for sure, that Helen will tell you that’s a very long time.
But there’s no escaping the fact that the last few years were tough. Mum was diagnosed with dementia in 2012 and to start with it was mostly dealing with repeated questions and misplaced keys. Things got pretty tense though when the remote control went missing (remember I told you how much he loved film and watching the cricket?). But then the ugly side of this awful disease takes hold – the difficult behaviour, the confusion, the unannounced walks in the middle of the night and more. I’m not going to pretend he didn’t complain – several times he rang me up announcing it was time but then 24 hours later, after one good night’s sleep, he’d put it behind him. The truth was he couldn’t bear to let her go.
Just to mention this is my favourite family portrait of all time – taken on Dad’s 80th birthday. He liked nothing better than to meet his friends, but in particular his family, at what became his favourite restaurant – Chapter One in Farnborough.
I guess there is a third memory, of course, and that’s been looking after Dad these last 5 months. When he collapsed and was admitted to hospital there wasn’t a second thought. There was absolutely no way on this planet I was ever going to leave him alone – for a single night. People have said Dad was very lucky to have two sons who’ve looked after him. But the truth is, that it was easy. Very easy. The hard bit has been borne by our wives, Helen and Alex, who stood by us and managed our busy families and households while we stayed in Beckenham and watched the cricket with Dad.
There’s been a huge bonus too – we’ve each spent more time with our father this summer than since we left home in our early 20’s. I worked it out. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We got to talk through his childhood, his friendships, his career, his memories. I got to ask him what his biggest achievements in life were – clearly I was fishing, hoping he’d say it was bringing up his two sons – but he didn’t mention Andrew!
These last months wouldn’t have been possible without his carers who came in twice a day. When people tell you the carers were amazing, you believe them – but you don’t really understand just how amazing. The nurses at St. Christopher’s Hospice and, in the last week, the Marie Curie overnight nurses were properly fantastic.
And so to my brother, Andrew. I think we had one argument all this time and that was when we were fixing Dad’s rotary clothes line which – after months of hanging out the washing almost every day on this ridiculous tilted contraption – we fixed on the afternoon the day before Dad passed away. We couldn’t have looked after our father without each other and it’s brought us even closer. Andrew – I’ll be forever grateful.
And so, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t say that Dad was the best father in the world – but he was definitely in the top one.
b. 18 August 1935, d. 7 October 2020, aged 85