Man of private honour

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The Independent Online
MY FATHER died on the first day of this year. He never won any prizes or awards; he had no title or letters after his name, not even the OBE given to quite humble civil servants like himself; and no obituary will note his passing. Yet he was a man of absolute probity, a figure of Victorian discipline and moral rigour. There are few like him left today, and none being bred for tomorrow.

I visited him for the last time just before Christmas. His face and body had shrunk, speech and movement were an effort, but he was still lucid and recognisably himself.

I asked him whether he was afraid of dying and he said no. He knew, without conceit, that he had led a good life, though he felt he had not been as religious as he might. Perhaps not, I said, if by religious he meant church-going; but he had been a God-fearing man. 'I hope so,' he said.

He had little interest in worldly goods. Having been brought up by a widowed mother in circumstances of genteel poverty (the most shaming kind), he remained frugal to the end. He shunned taxis, first-class stamps and telephone calls made before 6pm. He never bought anything for the sheer pleasure of ownership but only because its predecessor had come to the end of its useful life. He never had an overdraft.

I reminded him, that last time we met, of when he had been posted to an embassy so remote that one bishop served three capitals in three different countries. For four years, my father volunteered to act as lay preacher in the English church that served the local community.

I was a child then, and he had such authority in my eyes that I would not have been surprised to see him crown the Queen of England; but what he did was, I now realise, remarkable for so shy and retiring a man. On those Sundays when the bishop could not officiate, my father would climb into the pulpit before a congregation of several dozen people. He must have been shaking with nerves.

He was born in 1909, christened John Donald and grew up a typically lonely middle child. Not as flamboyantly talented as his elder brother, nor as winsomely feminine as his little sister, he had a difficult childhood. He learnt early - and too well - to conceal his emotions, repress spontaneity and mistrust the unconventional.

His own father died when he was 13. He had been a strict Victorian patriarch whose authority overwhelmed a shy and sensitive boy. Yet his son revered his memory and worshipped his mother, the equally forbidding 'Mater'. They did not give him a happy childhood, yet their precepts of duty, courtesy and unselfishness governed his character for life.

His boyhood must have had its lighter moments. Once, 60 years later, he and I were walking my baby daughter through a London park when a memory from infancy came winging back to him. Wet leaves had attached themselves to the pram wheels. My father suddenly stopped and said: 'Coronation wheels]' I asked what he meant, and bit by bit he traced the phrase back to 1911, soon after the birth of his little sister at the time of George V's coronation. As a toddler beside her pram, he had compared the dead leaves clinging to its tyres to the celebratory bunting in the streets.

This quiet, deferential boy grew up to be a gentle, even timid, man. Yet he served as a London fireman during the Blitz, which must have called for immense resourcefulness and courage. The only time he went shooting, he killed a hare; and he never forgot having taken that life.

The most surprising thing he ever did was to marry my mother, in every way his opposite: she so typically German, he the archetypal middle-class Englishman. They met in Hamburg in the mid-

Thirties and he was fascinated by her youthful energy, enthusiasm, high spirits and love of life. They married in 1936: another brave act, in that political climate. I do believe they remained faithful to one another all their lives. He made her feel utterly secure and protected for more than 50 years.

My father was awed by the great and, in the eyes of his boisterous, iconoclastic daughters, he was sometimes embarrassingly deferential and humble. Most of the possessions and furniture he and my mother had in their first home were still in use when he died. He ran the same car (a Triumph Herald) for 17 years and, having surrendered it under pressure when the rest of us worried about its safety, was indignant at being offered a mere pounds 300 for it. He recycled everything, from string to wrapping paper, and was appalled at the notion of hire purchase and credit cards. He never bought anything until he had saved enough to buy it outright.

Old-fashioned, anachronistic, a bit of a joke even, my father was a misfit in the late 20th century. But he was - I can now see - braver than I realised and rarer than he knew. He was a thoroughly good man; and when were such as he ever honoured with awards, and titles, and letters after their names?