At last: a voyage round my father

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The Independent Culture
IT'S THE Da's 75th birthday. He wasn't always The Da. Originally, he was Daddy, but when I was 12 or so, I started to think that having a Daddy called "Daddy" was a bit, you know, childish, and it had to stop. The alternatives didn't really work either. "Dad" was too American and brutish. "Father" was absurd and rather unsettling. There was a boy at my preparatory school who called his Daddy "Father". We had a school trip to London. Everyone else let themselves go to seed for three days, but the boy who called his Daddy "Father" got neater and neater, appearing in the hotel dining-room for breakfast on the third day carrying a copy of the Financial Times. Dead meat, the poor bastard, with his neatly combed Nicholas Parsons hair, his pulled-up socks, his miniature dogtooth sports jacket so unnaturally prim and crease-free that it seemed to have been made from pressed cardboard. I blame his Daddy.

I couldn't think of any other working titles, either, so Daddy had to spend the next 30 years being called "Um" or "I say" or, in moments of stress, "Oh for God's sake". I once heard an American comedian tell how he spent his early years believing he was called Jesus Christ. "Jesus Christ, look at you now," his father would say; "Jesus Christ, what do you want?" It didn't do him any harm. I hope it didn't do Daddy any harm, either, but I don't know; I inflate with a sort of sweet delight when my daughter calls me "Daddy" and I think I'd be sad if she stopped.

Seventy-five years old. It's a ludicrous age for Daddy to be, even from my point of view. From where he stands, it must be absurd, ridiculous, a bad and pointless joke. Hell, even I know how old he is. He's 40; always has been, always will be. It's a good age for a father; it's how old fathers are supposed to be. He was 40 when I first started to give a damn about how old he was, and that's what he has remained. Daddy is now younger than I am.

Time catches up with us all, faster and faster as the years roll by. Everyone knows that; everyone is told that but we all find it out for ourselves, too, and are surprised at the realisation. But what they don't tell you is that it's a scattergun. Father Time doesn't wield a sickle; he clutches a filthy old blunderbuss, loaded not with neat and spherical birdshot but with common everyday detritus: wrinkles, memories, journeys, children, street furniture, popular songs.

When Daddy was born, Winston Churchill had just become Colonial Secretary and Hitler's Storm Troopers were beginning to terrorise his political opponents. Einstein won the Nobel Prize, Prokofiev finished The Love of Three Oranges, Thomas Hunt Morgan postulated the chromosomal theory of heredity, and a pack of drooling morons led by a dentist were stomping round the southern United States in pointy- headed sheets calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan. Alexander Graham Bell was still alive; so were Shackleton, Eiffel, Roentgen, Faure, Puccini, Chagall and Satie. It would be four years before Baird transmitted "recognisable human features by television", five before the first performance of Turandot, six before Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris.

There is comfort in these facts, and the unimaginably remote picture of Daddy's birth-year they paint. But then Time loads his blunderbuss; when he was 40, we were listening to "Moon River" and "Let's do the Twist"; West Side Story, Psycho and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning were on at the pictures, Yuri Gagarin was orbiting the Earth, Catch-22 was published and Gary Player won the Masters. These were modern times. They are times I can remember without straining. They are part of what seems to me my recent history, because I am still young, for heaven's sake, and all my history is recent; how could it be otherwise?

But they are part of Daddy's history, too, and he is younger than I am, but he is 75 years old today ... so what does that make me? The blunderbuss discharges in a cloud of evil smoke, and we are all on the slippery slope together. It's a horrible conundrum, and the more I peer nervously into the thing, the more confused and perplexing it seems. Past and present are conflated into one, and I think I can hear an ominous creaking as the wheel turns full circle.

We're lousy at affection in this country, playing our cards close to our chests until the game is over and it's all too late. Better that than American mawkishness, but when you spend an hour frozen at the typewriter trying to find a way of publicly telling your father that you love him without sounding feeble or un-British, then maybe it's time to loosen up a little.

Daddy need not (as I do) lie awake at night wondering whether he's failed as a father. He was good at it. He taught, by example, the lessons of gentleness and compassion. He was unfailingly dependable, a man of his word, always there when needed, irritating as hell, maybe, over petty annoyances but calm and solid as a rock when something terrible went wrong. Now, in middle age, I still buy a particular hand-cream because it was what he used and the smell is an unfailing comfort. He is and always has been free of vanity, happy in the same clothes; his entire wardrobe wouldn't even hold my collection of ridiculous shirts. He is the most startlingly self-possessed man I have ever met, completely unconcerned what others think of him. He drove me endlessly around the place in pursuit of my adolescent hobbies. He never complained once when I abandoned the family trade of doctoring to become a ne'er-do-well and media nancy-boy. He was always there.

Another hour has gone by. I'm looking for a snappy ending, a universal conclusion, but I can't think of one because that's not the point. The point is simple. Happy birthday, Daddy; I hope you live for ever. !

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