Last week, my dad Roger died at the age of 66. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2012 and had spent the last couple of years being cared for in a very kind and loving care home, but after a few weeks in hospital he managed to spend his final days in a bed in the middle of our family living room. On Wednesday evening I went to see him, and by Thursday morning he was gone. Since then, our whole family has been together and I feel very lucky – when I think of the possibilities of transatlantic flights or a lockdown hospital ward – that it ended this way.
I want to write something about his life, but I really don’t want to try and write some ‘definitive’ biography: firstly because there’s far too much to say, but also because there are so many different stories here. Like everyone, he was lots of different things to many people. So these are just my memories and impressions for right now. They shouldn’t take precedence over anyone else’s or all the many, many other memories which aren’t here.
My dad was born in the village of Coney Weston in Suffolk in 1954. He liked to point out that this was the year that wartime food rationing finally ended. His father was a bricklayer and a gentle father to Roger and his older brother Derek. My dad remembered one time when he was being naughty and his dad raised his hand to smack him in anger before catching himself, lowering it and walking away instead. Suffice to say, that gentleness was passed down. In the condolence cards which have been flooding our house since his death, some words keep coming back over and over again to describe my dad: witty, intelligent, kind. I would always include gentle in that list too.
I’m a city child, and although my dad came to love London as an adult there are important roots to him from the countryside which will always seem a little awesome and mysterious. He knew the names of trees and what the stars were called. Later, whenever we were staying in the countryside as a family, my dad would always take us on nighttime walks away from lights so we could see the stars which were usually hidden from us. They would have been his only light on the quiet, country roads which he walked alone at an age which would make most parents think twice today.
As a child in the 1960s, stars weren’t just for the sky but were all around too. An older generation had grown up on war stories but my dad wasn’t interested in toy soldiers: it was all about space rockets, Doctor Who and Daleks. I remember finding a book from this era on the solar system at my grandparents’ house which included speculative illustrations on the lush vegetation which ‘might exist’ on the surface of Venus. Venus, of course, turns out to be a hellscape – a parable of runaway greenhouse gases – and my dad never got his space stations or interstellar space travel either. But it fired his imagination. A few days ago we found a folder at home dedicated to the planet Volox which my dad put together with some school friends. It includes a giant map, shown below, along with several handwritten books including an English-Voloxian dictionary, a history spanning several millennia, an illustrated guide to the native animals and weekly Top Of The Pops music charts for Voloxian pop music. It’s really quite amazing.
These early years also set my dad as forever an internationalist at heart. I mean, honestly, if humanity is only a couple of years away from colonies on the moon and intergalactic trade treaties then should we really stay so attached to our nation states? My mum remembers a family holiday to Disney World in Florida, when I was about 5, which started with a very long queue at the airport to get through US Customs & Immigration. When we finally got to the end my dad – tired and fed-up – complained to the border officer that none of this would be necessary if we could only work things out and form one world government. It’s a wonder we were ever allowed into America after that.
At the end of primary school, my dad ‘passed’ the 11+ exam and went to the nearest grammar school in Bury St. Edmunds. Today, grammar schools are much-mythologised by people who lack a real understanding of the momentus social, cultural and economic forces which were at work at the time. It was an era, possibly unique in our history, of rapid middle-class expansion – I say this only because my dad would hate for his memory to be misinterpreted, and he really loved the very different schools which his own kids attended.
With all that said, this was obviously a watershed moment in my dad’s life which would forever put him on a different path to his older brother, his parents and many, many past generations of farmers and farm labourers which he would later trace when he got into genealogy and family history. (If you like the black and white photos in this post, you can thank my dad for scanning, captioning and dating them.) My dad frequently told me the story of his own parents, who left school at 14, sitting him down and telling him that while of course they would always love and support him – and he would always have a home there – at age 11 he had already reached the limit of their practical help for navigating the world of education. He went on to study French, Latin and Maths at A-Level before obtaining a degree in French at the University of Durham. His degree included a year abroad which he sometimes hinted at (a little mysteriously, in my opinion) as a pivotal and important year of development in his life.
I’m not going to try and trace the next steps where my dad moved to London, fell in love with my mum, bought a flat in Willesden, got married and had three children. But I told his childhood story because it always explained so much to me about how and why my dad was the person he was. He wasn’t showy – in some ways, he was a little shy, and he got really nervous before parties – but his curiosity about the world always won out over fear. He really genuinely loved the idea of his own children going out and having their own adventures, which would be different to his own, and then bringing back their own stories to the dinner table to share. This was part of what made him so popular with so many people – he was great to talk to, because he was more interested in hearing from other people’s lives than trying to impress them. And, overall, even without the space rockets, I think he was continually surprised and delighted by the many good things in his life and the world around him. One of his most famous catchphrases was “Life is good, isn’t it?” – usually after a pint of beer in a pub or on holiday, and always delivered in a tone of happy realisation, as if one shouldn’t necessarily expect life to be good but – by good fortune – it was.
He was also a fount of knowledge about so many things, and a total thumb in the face to people who try and impose an Arts vs. Science divide onto our lives. He loved classical music and linguistics and Proust and Nature magazine. He also loved Star Trek – particularly The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine which we always watched together – but he was a bit cold on the Original Series, and that was partly because he didn’t like the dichotomy of Spock vs. McCoy as ‘logic vs. emotion’. Unlike me I don’t think my dad read much of Scottish philosopher David Hume (his favourite was Jeremy Bentham) but I always think of my dad when I read Hume’s most famous line:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
My dad respected reason, and thought reason made the world a better place. But he also taught me something which is totally foundational to the way I think about the world, which is that human beings are an animal species – clever primates – and ultimately what’s important to people is important because it’s important to people and you don’t need to go looking for a better reason than that.
A tangent about reason and parenting: I distinctly remember being quite young and doing something stupid (like breaking a glass) and my dad was upset because I couldn’t give any good answer to his question: why? To say “I dunno, I just did” was aggravating – it was “irrational”, to use his exact word – because it made no sense, and my dad definitely did not believe that you should patronise children by treating them as inherently unreasonable beings.
He was way ahead of his time in his freelance working arrangements, going into the offices of his biggest client two days a week but working from home for the rest of the week. (This also made him an early adopter of dial-up internet – one of my earliest internet memories is watching images from the surface of Mars load very very slowly from top to bottom in Compuserve.) This routine meant we had ‘mummy days’ and ‘daddy days’ when our respective parents picked us up from school, and sometimes dad worked late into the night to make it all work. If in the middle of all this we were being brats, and he lost his temper, he then felt bad in the same way he would regret getting angry with another adult. I remember he would come up to my room later in the evening, apologise and explain that he had lost his temper because he was tired, even when I’m very sure it would have been my own misbehaviour at fault.
As a result I grew up thinking it was totally normal for parents to apologise to their children, just like I thought it was absolutely unimaginable (and still do) for a parent to sneak through an older child’s personal things or open their post. This was my dad’s liberal, individualist streak and he never wavered from it. Amusingly, he also thought grounding children was nonsense on the basis that it was silly to trap yourself indoors with someone who was being unpleasant. Once, when Tash and I had been bickering for days, he sent us outside to walk round the block and resolve our differences before coming back again. It worked much better.
As I feared, I have too many memories to cram into one short post. Dad did the weekly shop with us after school, and he used to pacify/reward us by buying us each a jam doughnut from Sainsbury’s for the ride home. He made really great scrambled eggs. He was exuberantly cheerful whenever he came home drunk and red-faced from drinks with friends or colleagues. He once accidentally covered the three of us with the contents of an exploding ketchup bottle. And when I was young he used to make up stories about two rabbits, Rag and Tag, who lived in a warren and a state of semi-permanent war against the weasels. I recorded some of these stories on a cassette tape and I still have them today. At some point, my dad loses track of whether the magician rabbit, Narla, was male or female. The following is a word-for-word transcript of how he recovers:
“…and Narla waved his magic wand… her magic wand… sometimes Narla is a male and sometimes a female, because he changes from one sex to another. I think he might have been a male in this story. But he goes from being a male rabbit to a female rabbit, because he’s both. And the rocks tumbled down…”
The whole thing is casual, and unplanned, and clearly the result of making up a story on the spot. But he just goes with it, because why not? The world is big and full of life of every kind, and life is good. An important corollary is that life is also finite. Of course I wish my dad had lived longer. So would he. But not at the expense of living a lesser life, because he really was happy with the one he had. And he certainly never wanted to live forever. He told me, from a very young age, that asking about life-after-death was like asking about your existence before you were born. If you’re comfortable with your own absence in the past then there’s no need to be afraid about not existing in the future.
And enjoy the adventure.
I’ve barely blinked since my ‘snow day‘ post a month ago and now, suddenly, it’s a warm and sunny spring day. Warm and sunny enough, in fact, to saunter down the Waterlink Way and have lunch by the banks of the little man-made stream which runs through the middle of Ladywell Fields.
Of all the cool things we’ve found in this area so far, the Waterlink Way (and specifically our section, the uninspiringly-named River Pool Linear Park) has been the biggest and most delightful surprise. During our one and only viewing of the flat we did ask the estate agent about this promising-looking patch of green on Google Maps but she was unenthusiastic and pointed us in the other direction instead. But since moving here, we’ve slowly realised that it’s basically the perfect path: Cator Park in one direction, Ladywell Fields in the other on a route which ultimately runs all the way to Greenwich. During the day it’s filled with families while at night it’s a peaceful and soothing post-work walk, well lit enough to see where you’re going but not so much to obscure all the stars. And what better than to walk between a river and a railway, with all cars and roads banished from sight and sound? Basically, it’s a little like walking-through-the-wardrobe and expect to be dragged here if you come visit.
Meanwhile, the biggest advance in our indoor living (and let’s be honest, 99% of living is indoor living right now) was the arrival of our dining table. This was a big deal since we haven’t actually had a dining table we could eat at since the last flat’s table was pressed into service as an office desk back in March, so sit-down dinners with a table and chairs are very exciting and we celebrated by ordering a massive Indian feast, drinking bourbon and finishing the last of the Christmas crackers. (Look, we can’t have been the only ones with the ‘leftover crackers’ problem this year.)
The table also expands out so we can host people (one day) and/or play Carcassonne for the first time in a very long while. We’ve also played two games of Watergate which arrived in a bumper post-Christmas gift package from Katie along with a crossword and some other bits and pieces. Watergate is a two-player board game where one player plays as Nixon and the other plays as the newspaper ‘Editor’ trying to take him down. It should perhaps be promising that Tricky Dicky was defeated in both of our games, although Randi did point out sadly that the equivalent Trump board game would be a multi-day affair where you tried every conceivable path to impeach the President and nothing ever worked. We’ll stick with this one.
Finally, it was great to catch up with Jan from Groupon days a few weeks ago… and when I say Groupon days, I mean Groupon UK days, which is (a) a very long time ago, and (b) still my most promising source of material for ever writing a sitcom. (Some days I think it’s gone but then everything comes flooding back.) We also hopped over to Penge to wish Sam a happy birthday from her doorstep. To be honest we hung around for long enough that any normal person would have invited us in already, but Sam is clearly rude.
Fair warning: this post is just an excuse to post a bunch of cheerful snow photos from this morning. Randi and I had just finished wishing my cousin Alix a very happy almost-birthday on her surprise Zoom birthday brunch call (sadly brunches are all bring-your-own these days) when we decided that Beckenham Place Park would be the perfect place to go while it was still snowing before it all melted away again. And we were right!
I know, I know: if you’re in Chicago you’re probably rolling your eyes at this brief flurry of snow, but we’re still in lockdown so you have to take what you can get.
Otherwise we’ve been hanging out indoors (obviously), taking a break from work along with the rest of the world to watch Biden’s inauguration and trolling Matt and Laura with an aggressive posting schedule of catching-up-with-your-lives greeting cards. We also really enjoyed ActionAid’s Stand Up With Women comedy night (hosted by national treasure Jo Brand) on Thursday evening, eased amiably into the right spirit by Randi’s ginger beer bourbon drinks.
Also, last weekend Simon organised a truly wonderful Friday night group call to play Jackbox games, draw terrible drawings and interrogate Ellie on her mysterious life. It was a lot of fun, at least once we actually got Zoom working, and we ended up nostalgically looking at photos of us all from New Year 2013. It scarcely seems credible that so many people once occupied the same living room of a Mile End flat with so little regard for 2 metre distancing or the rule of six, or that we were once young enough to go to parties with – as Oliver put it – “more people than chairs”. One day!
Welcome to 2021, where you find us back in a national lockdown and watching news footage which veers between incredibly grim scenes from hospitals and the inspiring, hope-inducing scenes of the vaccine rollout. And, once we’re done with that, the new series of Would I Lie To You?, David Attenborough’s somewhat loosely-themed A Perfect Planet and (of course) the Doctor Who special Revolution of the Daleks on New Year’s Day which reminded me how much I’d missed Captain Jack. More, please!
This week Randi and I went back to work from our shiny new desks in our shiny new
guest bedroom home office, completed our bedroom furniture construction (no more sleeping on a mattress on the floor) and finally felt the tide starting to turn in our battle to recycle cardboard boxes faster than they can pile up on our kitchen floor. On New Year’s Day we also managed a walk with my mum – who came bearing Christmas gifts – around Beckenham Place Park and, later that weekend, arranged an outdoor prisoner (OK, present) exchange with Tash and Cormac at a mutually-agreed location somewhere between our two camps.
At most other times, though, you could have found me perched on the kitchen counter opposite our amazing Hanukkah present from Randi’s parents: our very own railway departure board!
Yes, to everyone who has asked, it really does display actual live data for any railway / Tube / bus stop you desire, which means I can safely indulge my deep desire to travel by train again from the comfort and safety of my own cardboard-filled kitchen. Chris at work suggested I work on setting up tannoy announcements next…
Well well well – we actually bought a flat. It was touch and go to get this all done by Christmas, but after a very quick sequence last week of paying our deposit, exchanging contracts and completing we were finally able to walk over to the estate agents on Friday afternoon, pick up the keys and make it inside.
Then, after seeing if our slice of Forest Hill was anything like we remembered after our first and only viewing back in August, we walked back home to re-energise ourselves with our last London Pizza and finished packing before the movers arrived on Saturday morning to take it all away. Owning a home = complete. Phew!
There are a few things I wanted to wrap up about living in Tulse Hill before moving on – my final memories of life as seen from our so-so rented sofa – like the delicious salted caramel brownies Randi concocted, the soothing light of the Hanukkah candles and the amazing Christmas Special Quiz which Katie, Kim and Chris ran which reunited our powerful and/or delightful New Kinglanders team. (Special shout out to Papa King who called in from what looked like a boozy wine-fuelled lunch.)
I also wanted to note our final regular visits to Maxy Supermarket (for all of the essentials which kept us going this year) and Lark (for all of our non-essential essentials whenever we needed to buy impromptu baby gifts or housewarming presents). You are both awesome. We also made good use of our last chance at outdoor dining this year before the latest lockdown, with a totally unplanned but delicious Friday-night dinner in Dulwich Village after a very long week at work for us both, and then a quick trip to The Rosendale pub last week for bangers and mash and a pint.
Obviously the last few days have been a flurry of activity, but unlike the homebuying process itself it’s much more fun since we’re just starting with (almost) zero furniture and working our way up. We were very lucky to squeeze in a trip to Curry’s before Tier 4 was announced to pick things out, and after Christmas was cancelled (what a sentence to write) we also acquired an emergency Christmas tree for the otherwise-empty living room.
Since then we’ve been busy cleaning, unpacking, figuring out the boiler, giving virtual tours, meeting the neighbours, putting together desks and chairs for the office and so on but I also found time to enjoy my very belated inaugural mulled wine of the season (loving Forest Hill’s high street already!) and order burritos from our favourite Mexican restaurant in Peckham, Cravings La Carreta, which delivers to us now! It won’t be the last time.