My late father would have been celebrating his 112 birthday today were he alive, which is a good excuse for me to relate a few stories about him.
When I was a youngster there were no end of people who would take me aside and tell me what a good man my father was. His work colleagues, neighbours, seemingly anyone who knew him, deemed it necessary to point out to me I had a good dad. We moved house when he retired and within months our new neighbours were taking me aside telling me what a good chap he was. I must say I took it for granted. I thought every kid's father must have a similar fan-club!
Then, when I was 17 he died suddenly. It fell to me to sort out his affairs as mother, lovely though she was, could hardly write a cheque. As I went though his papers I came across a big wodge of letters going back thirty years or so. Each was a 'thank you' letter. Most started 'Dear brother Gould, thank you for help with xxx'. It turned out he had been the 'shop steward' for his trade union. Dad was a school caretaker and looked after the interests not only for the people working in his school but many all over the Kingston area. Only then did it dawn on me why so many folk had been keen to point out why father was such a good fellow. He'd spent all his working life defending the interests of common people. I didn't even know. He never talked about it. He was a working class hero, and as John Lennon aptly said, that was something to be.
Dad came from inauspicious beginnings. Born one of eight siblings in 1908, his father, who was an itinerant agricultural labour, failed to return one winter. His mother supported the family by taking in washing, but the strain became too great, so dad and his little brother George were sent away to the Farm School in Bisley, a charitable institution run on military lines. Father learned lots of interesting skills there, including, shooting, bee-keeping, cobbling, the rudiments of music and, in the absence of much food other than gruel, the ability to forage in the country. He told me pigeons, rabbits and hedgehogs were common treats that he and his friends would kill and eat after school.
He did well in his exams and returned to Surbiton, where after a few casual jobs including a stint as a telegram delivery boy, he secured a job with the Water Board in Kingston. As part of his apprenticeship he had to attend college in north London, a journey he did everyday by bicycle, which would have been a 25 mile round -trip - not bad for the boneshakers of the day. The timeline becomes a little foggy at this point but somewhere along the line in the 1920's to 1930's he became an assistant to a plumber, travelling the country installing coal-fire central heating systems, which were cutting edge at the time, so most of the installations were in grand mansion houses and castles. Clients included George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Brake company and Lord Nuffield, he of the Morris Motor company. Dad said Nuffield was an insomniac whose mind was always racing far too much for sleep. His fascination for engineering was such that Nuffield spent much time with them, wishing to learn everything possible about the boilers, pipes and radiators they were installing.
I believe dad went independent as a plumber and had his own business in the mid to late 1930s as I used to have business cards and brochures with his name on. I wish I still had them as the Art-Deco influenced artwork of the bathroom suites were a sight to behold. I think the war put an end to that as he enlisted into the Royal Air Force in 1939 and trained as an engineer, spending much time patching up warplanes returning from combat. He was invalided out in 1942 and joined the Home Guard, where ironically he patrolled the water-board in Kingston with a pick-axe handle, the place where he had started his career in engineering. Incidentally, he wasn't a fan of TV or fiction but he loved the show Dad's Army as it mirrored his own time defending London against the invading Hun.
After the war, prompted by his first wife, he took a job as a caretaker of Hollyfield School. His wife was lured by the cottage adjacent to the school, though sadly she died not long after they moved in. A decade later he married my mother and remained in the janitorial position until his retirement in 1973.
So many things come to mind when I think of my father. His capacity to learn things amazed me. He could communicate in sign language. Most people only learn this to communicate with an afflicted relative. Dad learned it while recuperating in hospital during the war. The matrons were very strict about noise on the ward, so he and a fellow patient taught themselves to sign each other so as to communicate silently. He learned music at school but only clarinet and cornet. Yet he could also play piano quite well. I don't know how he learned this, as he never owned a piano. He just seemed to 'pick it up' whenever he had access to one. I'd also seen him play other instruments like the mouth-organ and the accordion. He was one of those people who seemed to be able to coax a tune out of any instrument he picked up.
On one occasion he found a large wasp nest, the size of a cello in one of the school's outbuildings. It was full of wasps and hummed in a scary manner as though the whole thing was alive. Instead of calling in pest controllers, and without much in the way of protective equipment he removed it himself by, as I recall, making a smoke gun from an old paint can and some oily rags. He repaired watches for a hobby. He was always learning new things and instilled in me the idea of being a life-long learner, long before the phrase became commonplace.
He taught me so many crazy but practical things, like to store paint cans upside down once opened so as any skin forms on the bottom. When climbing a ladder the rungs are strongest at the edges, so avoid treading in the middle of the rungs as that's where they're most likely to snap. He taught me to read before I went to school and as a toddler, bounced me on his knee while reciting chemical formulae. He taught me how to avoid 'catch-pennies' and never to trust politicians. He showed me how to change a tap washer without turning off the mains water. He showed me an exciting way to check for leaks with a cigarette lighter when installing a gas fire. He was old skool! He rode a Harley Davidson before it was cool. I once saw him use divining rods to locate a blockage in a drain. To me, everything about him was remarkable and I was convinced my dad had super-powers. I loved him dearly then as I do now. Happy birthday dad!