Wow. I wasn’t expecting the huge response I had to my post, Tell them today, about losing my dad. Thank you so much to everyone who sent messages of condolence and support. The two weeks since Father passed away have been far tougher than I expected, but more than anything it’s the kindness of friends and colleagues that’s seeing me through.
Something else that’s helped has been to put my thoughts and memories in writing. The family friend who’s going to be giving the eulogy at next week’s funeral asked me to send him some of my observations and his life, and I’d like them to share with you.
A movie script it isn’t, but it’s still a remarkable story, and one that helps to explain me — my background, my values and why I turned out the way I did.
My father was born in Walsall at the height of the abdication crisis in 1936. He was named Frank after his grandfather, a Birmingham shopkeeper who was reported missing in action at the Battle of Arras, 100 years ago this year.
Frank grew up in a council house with his younger brother Pip, mother Betty, who was a school secretary, and father Wilf, who worked as a saddler and bus driver. After grammar school and National Service in Germany, he went to teacher training college where he met my mum.
One of the things I loved about my dad was how completely unimpressed he was by wealth or status. Throughout his life, in a very understated way, he quietly championed the marginalised and less well-off. Most of his teaching career was spent at The Park School, opened in 1973 by the then Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher, to serve what used to be called the “educationally sub-normal” children of Tamworth. (Goodness knows how such a cruel and insensitive phrase came to be officially adopted.)
I remember as a child seeing how his pupils, most of them from broken homes, clearly loved Frank almost as much as I did. He would often go back in the evenings to run a youth club to keep them off the streets; he took them walking, climbing, canoeing and camping — things they would never have had a chance to do otherwise. From his point view, there was nothing remotely sub-normal about those young people at all.
For 30 years after he left the school, former pupils of his would telephone or turn up on the doorstep unannounced, eager to tell my dad what they were up to. These were people far removed from the success stream of society; often they were single and lonely or struggling to hold down paid employment. But you could tell the difference that Frank had made in their lives. He’d helped them to discover their skills and interests and to believe in themselves. It struck me, in some cases, that he was probably the only friend they had.
My own schooling was very different. Concerned about the route that state education was going down in the 1970s and the fashion for so-called “child-centre learning”, my parents sent me to boarding school at the age of eight. Financially it was a struggle for them, and there were big sacrifices they had to make. I missed them terribly, and embarrassed though I probably was that he couldn’t afford a Rolls or a Bentley like the other dads, I still remember how my heart would leap for joy at the sight of Frank’s trusty old Hillman Avenger arriving through the gates to take me home for the school holidays.
Don’t get me wrong. He was proud of me, my brother and sister and took delight in our achievements. He was proud of my going to Oxford and working in television. But far more important for Frank was that I was a good human being, and a loving husband and father like he was.
It was probably down to a combination of his conscientiousness and his sensitive nature that my dad eventually found the pressures of teaching were beginning to affect his health. He retired from the classroom in his early 50s, but there were all sorts of things he wanted to do. He had always been immensely talented at building work — I often wonder why I, by contrast, turned out so hopelessly impractical — and he set up his own small renovation business. It was never about making a mountain of money though; he would work for friends for next to nothing. But what made me proudest of all was how, in the 1990s, he spent many weeks at a time working in former Communist eastern Europe.
Frank never made a big thing about his faith but quietly got on with leading a Christian life. He travelled to Budapest to build a Christian bookshop, to Romania to help in an orphanage and to Albania to deliver food and other supplies to people living in poverty. Touchingly, he was befriended at the nursing home where he spent his last few weeks by an Albanian nurse, with whom he exchanged Albanian phrases. “I look after your dad,” the nurse explained to me on one of my visits, “because he helped my country.”
I am very proud too of the way that Frank dealt with his final illness — stoical, never complaining, impeccably polite, cheerful even, to the very end. That was him. Life was about making the most of whatever situation we find ourselves in.
It’s hard to build a business, like I have, and there were times, I’ll admit, when I even felt like quitting. The early days were especially hard. But my dad was a constant voice of encouragement; he believed in me and what I was trying to do. I wish we had more to show for our efforts by the time he died, but he could see the progress we were making, and I like to think of him watching over me now as the business continues to grow.
I say that but, in truth, I really have no idea what happens to us when we die. Although I’m deeply suspicious of certainty in matters of faith, I have little time either for those who seek to denigrate religious belief at every opportunity. It was following, or at least trying to follow, the example of Jesus, the Servant King, who lived his life in service of others, that gave meaning to Frank’s life; it was what inspired him to make a positive difference.
Yes, I have my doubts, as he did too, but I’ve always felt that there’s something beyond the here and now. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I continue to believe that death is not the end.
I may, of course, be wrong. But if I am, at least I know the world is a slightly better place for the fact that my father lived. He was a truly lovely man. I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m going to miss him.