In February Dad had to go into hospital and he spent some weeks there. Because Mum could not be left at home on her own, my brother and I came to be with them both; one of us at the hospital, the other at home. I’d sit with Dad for about five hours each day. We sat together chatting or in comfortable silence. He would be sitting on the chair next to his bed, the smartest dressed man on the ward as the hospital staff would often comment, and when he became tired he would lean gently forward and close his eyes. Anyone would think he was asleep but for the slight smile I’d see on his lips. What he was doing was listening. Listening to the snatches of conversations between staff and patients, staff with staff, patients with other patients, and patients and their visitors. Not only that, but he’d be listening to every phone ringing, every alarm bleeping, every machine buzzing. The life of the hospital was all there behind his closed eyes.
This was so typical of Dad, a man who was endlessly interested in everything going on around him: in his family, in the communities he belonged to, and in the political and social life of this country and the wider world.
Some years ago, we were having Christmas Day lunch in a restaurant. My partner took a photo on his mobile phone of us all and sent it to a couple of our friends in America whom Mum and Dad had met previously in person when they had visited the UK for a holiday. Minutes later the Americans sent back a photo of themselves. Dad just couldn’t get over the wonder of this, of how technology joins up two sides of the world in an instant. When he had a stent inserted into an artery, he watched his whole operation live on a monitor in the hospital operating theatre. Life has changed so rapidly for us all in the past couple of decades, but Dad always kept himself informed and up-to-date on science and technology even though life changed beyond imagining in his lifetime.
As much as he was fascinated by what mankind has achieved, he never forgot the unsung individuals who created what we have and see around us. One of Mum and Dad’s favourite television programmes was Inspector Montalbano, filmed in Sicily, in towns nestling in mountains dominated by monumental 17th and 18th century buildings. Dad didn’t just marvel at their beauty but wondered about the men who had built the towns, the conditions they had worked in and the tools they had used. Looking at a mobile phone he would wonder about the components it is made of; who had made the individual parts and who had put them all together. His mind was fascinated by all levels of invention and creation.
Dad was an engineer, and I am not. Superficially our interests were very different. I read novels and play the piano and did a degree in Drama, but both Mum and Dad opened the world up to me during my childhood. I play the piano because they bought me a piano, I read novels because they gave me access to Harrogate Library, I work in the theatre because they took me to the Harrogate Theatre. We had holidays in London and I saw many plays and musicals in the West End. We saw Richard Briers in a play, and Mum and Dad took me to the stage door afterwards to see him. He came out long after the rest of the cast, apologising profusely for us having to wait for him, much to Dad’s amusement, We also saw what is now an iconic production of Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre when I was 18. We sat at the side of the Olivier auditorium right behind the band, and Dad was delighted by the bass player who appeared to nod off between musical numbers and then jump to attention the second he had to play. When we were on holiday near Stratford-upon-Avon and they took me to see a Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I remember Dad rocking with uncontrollable laughter. I now realise is was a young Richard Griffiths who made him laugh so much. They took me on holidays all over England, Wales and Scotland visiting castles and large houses, wildlife areas and anything of interest.
Amother way Dad believed in broadening life’s experiences was by changing jobs regularly. He broke away from a potential life down the mines, and later gained a degree in Maths from the Open University. After getting my own degree, they waved goodbye to me as I took up just a month’s job at the Victoria Palace theatre in London operating a followspot, Now, thinking back, I can’t imagine the pulling and pushing emotions they must have felt. I’ve lived in London ever since. When I gave up a later career in teaching and took up a part time job in a West End theatre last year (history repeating itself) I thought he would be disappointed in me. But he wasn’t at all. He could see how tough teaching is and wanted me to leave it. Mum’s hearing declined and I started to write a weekly letter to them both. Dad loved my letters and said they should be published. He has them all filed neatly in a box. He was fascinated by my descriptions of the repeated but ever changing nightly performances, of life backstage and the actors and theatre staff I work with. He became interested in the business of theatre, how it’s run, where the money comes from that sets a production going, and how it then makes money. And he also cared about the people working in it, asking me regularly if the shows had good audiences. He understood both how precarious and how exciting it is..
Dad always said he was lucky in his career, by which he defined his life. He said so often he was in the right place at the right time. In his last month he began telling his life story in terms of his working life. It was his way of telling my brother and me to nurture contacts and connections, to think about the people around us, to keep an eye out for opportunities and take them when they come. I don’t think Dad was lucky. I think he was valued and cared for by the people he met in life. He was given opportunities because he proved himself, he worked hard and diligently, he was kind and respectful. He was always learning, always questioning. He was a true life force: reflective, full of wisdom and advice, and simply one of the funniest people I have known, Dad questioned everything, swam against the tide and was always true to himself.