Monday, 7 May 2012

Letter from Littlemore, No. 25 - My Father

Letter from Littlemore, No. 25 Dear Friends, After some months of holding my breath as my family and his other friends slowly entered a world in which it was becoming ever clearer that my father would soon enter another, the time has come to write again. I hope it isn't cheating to attach what I said about him at his funeral. One of the very hardest pieces I have ever had to write, despite, if I am honest, many mental (but not written - that would have made it all too final) drafts beforehand. The night before, it was 2,500 words, so on the morning, I started from scratch at 6.30, and whittled it down to these few. There is so very much more I want to say about him, and to record before precision lapses, and recollection muddles, but that can wait to another time, and another medium. I find myself experiencing the truth of the thing I have said so many times to grieving families - that when someone dies the landscape of our own lives changes forever. What was once there on the path all about us, is now something we have to turn our necks to see again, no longer in the dependable here-and-now, nor the hopeful future, but in the eternal past. But present all the same, like all our histories. Dad was a most unusual man. Someone - one the teachers at his grammar school, I think - called him "an enigma". He liked that. Well, he was our enigma. And we were very proud of him, and loved him more than sometimes he knew, or realised he deserved. With thanks for so many kind thoughts expressed, and prayers offered, And love Richard Littlemore, Oxford, May 2012 A Few Words for the Funeral Service of my Father GORDON HAGGIS 2nd January 1943 – 8th April 2012 S. Margaret’s Church, Angmering, West Sussex 27th of April, 2012 This day was always going to happen. Given that Dad had long life on both sides of his family, and a healthy life of his own, without vices, it would not have been unreasonable to imagine it might have been in twenty or even thirty years’ time. But we reckoned without the lurking asbestos dust, and the cruel savagery with which it can strike a strong man down in such a short time. We have watched, helpless, as in a few short months, we have been brought with so little preparation to this sad day. Dad would never knowingly have put his life at risk, he cared for us too much, but unknowingly, that is what he did all those years ago, working to care for his family, which was his most precious treasure. But that is not what Dad would wish us to remember. So, though it is not easy to do, I am going to turn my thoughts not to the last few months, but to the sixty-eight good years that went before. Obviously, I am bound to speak as his only son, just as Sarah was his only daughter. And he was our only father. But he was also a husband, first and foremost, a grandfather, a brother, a nephew, an uncle, a cousin, and a loyal friend. In what I have to say, I hope you will recognise something of your own experience of Dad. So what kind of man was my father? He was a family man. He was born into a huge family, with a battalion of aunts and uncles on both sides. His father’s family was, well, let’s call them colourful; his mother’s, the Italian side, was close-knit, and steady. Thankfully, he took after the Italian side. He and his brother and sister, for all their dissimilarities, are just about the closest siblings I have ever known. Home was the centre of his life. For years he used to refer to his parents’ house as “home”, until he realised he had made a new one of his own, with Mum, and with us. I’ve always thought of Dad as a man of science. He liked things that moved, he liked engines, and machinery, was fascinated by how things worked, and how things were made. Metals are essential to almost all of that, so as he left school to join the family scrap metal business – re-cycling and green, way ahead of its time - he taught himself metallurgy. He learnt how to identify metals and alloys by chemical and spark testing, which was fascinating to watch - especially the spark testing, because that was like a miniature bonfire night. For children, the yard was a magical place to be. Sometimes he could take his science a little too far. When he was a small boy, he was fascinated by the material the steering wheel on his uncle’s car was made of. So he decided to test it, to see if it would burn. It did. So did the whole car. With characteristic quick thinking, he ran and hid in the bath, because until then, no one had used it. By the time they found him, they were too relieved to be angry. I imagine Grandad had to settle up for the car. He had a fine mind, and applied it to solving problems, and keeping accounts. When the VAT man came to call to examine the books, he put them on the table in the corner of the kitchen, and went off up the nursery with a quietly confident smile. When the man was done he said “there’s a discrepancy”. “Oh dear”, said Dad, “How much?” “Fifteen pence”. He put his hand into his pocket and produced the fifteen pence saying, “but I’ll need a receipt, for tax purposes”. Later I asked him, knowing how meticulous he was, how there could have been a discrepancy. “Because I put it there - I didn’t want to waste his morning’s work, and if he hadn’t found something, he might have come back”. Then he started chuckling. “And anyway, he got it wrong, it was thirteen pence.” He was just as precise with words as with numbers, and although there’s less profit in them, there’s more fun. He had a great feel for the proper meanings and use of words, and how using them wrongly or strangely could be funny. His sense of humour - the Goon Show, Stanley Unwin, anything written by Ronnie Barker, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, amongst many others - was rooted in verbal comedy. And he relished comedies of manners too. As a child I remember him watching an episode of Fawlty Towers - I’m not sure, but my money’s on the episode called “The Germans” - when he laughed so much he actually fell off the sofa. There is no one here today who hasn’t laughed with Dad. There were two watershed moments in his life, times when things changed, never to be the same again. The first was in September 1962, nearly half a century ago, when he met the girl who two years later was to become his wife, and the mother of his children. He was dark, and handsome, (yes, I missed out “tall”, but a son must surely be allowed to trump his father in at least one small regard) and smart, and funny, and well-mannered, and softly-spoken, but with a steely determination to succeed (and, though he kept this privately between them, a decidedly romantic side, which is why at the end of the service we are going to play “Moon River” because they used to dance to it). He was a catch. And she caught him. But he thought just the same about her, and they never looked back, nor sideways, but made their lives together ever after, and brought their children into a secure and loving home. Looking at their wedding picture now, when I am older than both their ages combined, a part of me wonders “who let these children out?” I think their parents thought that. But the doubters were wrong, and Mum and Dad were right - this wasn’t dressing up, this was the real thing, and so it has remained, and will remain, always. The second watershed was in 1981 when we moved to Merry England Nursery. We four dyed-in-the-wool Londoners were unlikely rural incomers, but it has been the backdrop for our lives, and latterly for Jaz and for Tara, for over thirty years. He didn’t turn out to be great with flowers - they are, after all, a bit different from metal, you can’t whack a flower with a spanner - but he loved the space, the greenery, the quiet, the wildlife. There was a huge garden in which he could play with his spaniels, Gunner, and then Bertie, and become again like a small boy with a puppy. His last work on the nursery was to adapt the stable doors, so that the swallows could get to their nests, but the magpies couldn’t. That’s the sort of man he was. There was no profit it in, save the pleasure of knowing he had done a favour to small creatures who needed his help. So, if you are visiting Merry England in the summer when the swallows are there, remember that they, and we, owe a debt of gratitude to my father, who my mother has always called “a good man”, and if any of us is inspired to go out and care for swallows of our own, then he would find that the most fitting memorial of all. Richard Haggis Angmering April 2012

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