My dad always claimed to be five feet seven. In reality, he was only five feet five. But in my eyes, he was a giant. Distilling down the ingredients that defined my dad has been incredibly difficult for he was greater than the sum of his parts. The best bits of my character are all his doing and the worst bits are entirely my own. He never told me what to do, he showed me. He led by example. And so I followed in his footsteps, the footsteps of a giant.
His beginnings were humble, emigrating with his mum, dad and older siblings from Ireland to Preston in 1947. His was a working class Catholic family and they arrived with nothing, to seek a better life in England. My grandad was an old-fashioned Labour man and no doubt these socialist principles influenced dad’s later beliefs. He enjoyed school but finished at 15, without sitting his final exams. He was bright and had shown entrepreneurial flair throughout his childhood, wheeling and dealing from an early age and running the school tuck shop. He was hard-working too and growing up would regale us with tales of what he had to do before the school day started. This would include: getting coal for the fire, running a paper round and serving mass as an altar boy. All before the school bell even rang. This work ethic stayed with him until the day he died and he loved every second of his working life.
Leaving school prematurely meant incurring his father’s wrath. So rather than go home and ‘fess up, he found a job instead. He rattled doors in his local area and came across Bob Wellham who ran Globe and Simpson, an auto electrical parts distributor on Walker St. Bob asked him what religion he was, and on replying R.C, Bob – himself a strong Catholic – offered him a job on the spot working in the stores. He loved it. He adored buying and selling, had an excellent memory and an affinity with numbers, which made him perfect for the role. Growing up, I would marvel at my dad’s ability to reference any part code with the product and ironically, in later years, I fell into an equivalent position, just selling computer parts instead.
Aged 17, my dad and his friends would catch the train to Blackpool for a night on the town. And it was on this train that my mum and dad first caught sight of each other. He was wearing a 3 button shirt, dark trousers and black suede Chelsea boots, with a lustrous quiff of thick, jet-black hair. After disembarking the train and heading for the Tower they lost sight of each other and didn’t see each other again until catching the last train home later that evening. Keen not to miss the opportunity again, he asked her for a date at the pictures the following night. They went to The Ritz Cinema in Preston and he talked of his love of Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. Unimpressed, my mum enthused about Cliff Richard. It must have been love at first sight for him to forgive my mum’s taste in music. It became an annual joke in our family about who would swallow their pride and buy mum Cliff’s latest calendar at Christmas time. It was also a race to draw the first fake moustache on Cliff’s face, preferably around December – so we could enjoy the whole year knowing the vandalism was yet to be revealed!
They dated for a few years and on a summer holiday in Rhyll, got engaged and chose a ring in a local jewellers. After the initial flush of romance, my mum lost her nerve and feared her own mum and dad would think it too soon, so they kept their engagement a secret. Six months later, on New Year’s Eve, he had built up sufficient courage to ask my granddad his permission to marry his daughter. By this stage, my grandad was already very fond of dad and so happily gave his blessing and they were married the following year, in 1967.
During their 18 month engagement, my parents saved hard to find a deposit for their first home. My dad wheeled and dealed and they managed to afford a house in Harold Terrace, Lostock Hall. After marrying and honeymooning in Cork, they moved in to their new home with just two armchairs and a bed. They solicited gifts from friends and family and made their humble terrace into a family home. Within a year, their first son Gary was born and they were overjoyed. But sadly, before his 3rd birthday, Gary contracted Leukaemia and died. And so at the tender age of just 24, they had to endure the loss of their beloved child. Thankfully, they were able to rebuild their lives and were fortunate enough to go on and have three more children: Louise, Michelle and I.
My dad had steadily climbed the ladder at work and had become their youngest ever area manager. After 14 years learning his trade, he recognised the opportunity to start his own business and after a year of planning, he decided to take the leap. It was not without risk. My mum and dad had to sell their home, as did his business partner Bob Attewell as they pooled their resources to finance the start-up and rent some premises on the newly formed industrial estate at Walton Summit. Mum and dad then moved into rented accommodation on Daisy Meadow, Clayton Brook with their two young children in tow. My dad and Bob worked tirelessly and their new business, Leyland Auto, became a success. As the business grew, so too did his family and I was added to the clutch in 1979. The work/life balance was always a bone of contention for my mum but my dad’s time was only ever split between work and the family and he never made any time for himself. He did not covet material gain but sought the security and opportunity money could bring. The ability to help others in need and provide better life chances for his children were his driving forces. And for this he made huge personal sacrifices.
After living and breathing work for 35 years, when he finally sold the business retirement was not the most natural thing for dad. He took up golf, attended computer courses and finally did his Maths GCSE. He also learned a bit of Spanish, which he used whenever he was on holiday in France. Grandchildren soon arrived and he was a wonderful grandad to his 5 grandchildren: always playful, always affectionate and always fun. Just like he was as dad but with more smarties and chocolate buttons. The lure of work proved too strong though and he ended his life, just as his working life had begun back in the stores at Merlin Diesel. He loved his time there too, helping the business grow. The buzz of industry was in his blood and he was never going to put his feet up and relax. He was at his happiest dashing around and that’s exactly what he did until he fell ill.
And that is the bare bones of my father’s life but it gives little insight to who he was and how he was. So let me tell you about my dad.
He was affectionate and loving. He understood the value of a kiss and an embrace and was always demonstrative with his love. I have never ever not greeted my dad, as man or boy without a kiss and a hug. And the same at every bedtime I have spent at home for the past 36 years. He made it unambiguously clear that he loved you without condition and the security and self-worth this gave me as a child was immeasurable. Such love is the foundation on which you build your life as an adult, so thank you dad.
He was kind and generous, some would say foolishly so. He always rooted for the underdog and was prepared to lend a hand to anyone in need. And he did this on many, many occasions. People often thought my dad’s generosity was taken advantage of but they were wrong. He knew full well the risks. But always felt they were worth it. The risk of being let down or not being paid back was far outweighed by the chance of helping someone to better their circumstances or avert disaster.
He gave and never expected it back. And whatever the end result he would forgive easily and never bore a grudge. He understood the transformative power of having someone believe in you. His faith in others and trust that they would not let him down, inspired people to believe in themselves and changed lives. Everyone deserved a chance in my dad’s eyes and more often than not a second chance too. He gave quietly and without fanfare and many of the good deeds he did throughout his life are only coming to the surface now as those he has helped over the years have come forward to say thank you for acts of kindness we knew nothing of. We have received the most beautiful letters of gratitude and it has been a huge comfort to my family and I.
My dad was charismatic and could light up a room. He made a lasting impression on people. When he died the nurses wept and the paperboy cried. The doctor’s receptionist sent a card and even the lady at the dry cleaners sent flowers. He was charming and he was a gentleman and he’ll be missed by everyone who knew him.
My dad loved to play the fool and mock authority. He hated rules for rule’s sake and had a subversive streak running through him. He was rarely serious at home and was forever being silly, telling jokes and seeking out fun. Once, when in hospital following a blood infection many years ago, we peered at his notes as he slept in bed. Upon them we found written in a familiar scrawl, ‘Fine specimen of a man’. He couldn’t help himself even when ill!
He loved Christmas and Bonfire night and anything that celebrated the pure unbridled joy of being alive. I often think he loved children so much because he saw the world through the eyes of a child. He would snigger at the ridiculousness and pomposity of grown ups. He never lost his sense of wonder at the beauty of the world around him. Nor did he lose his faith in humanity. He remained an optimist no matter what life threw at him.
He was not flawless in every regard, however. He was absolutely useless at anything remotely practical. The only household duty to which he was entrusted was changing light bulbs and even then he struggled with the fiddly halogen ones. But all of my dad’s limitations were easily overcome by the goodwill of those around him, eager to repay a favour and help him out. He was also not the slightest bit artistic and his abilities in that department were limited to drawing a caricature of Elvis, which bizarrely resurfaced at the advent of his illness. He was found scribbling pictures of Elvis on the menu in a restaurant as the gravity of his illness hit home. It was heart-breaking and endearing in equal measure.
He was a father figure to many but it was I and my sisters alone who were blessed with the good fortune of calling him call him Dad. My whole life growing up my chest would puff out, as people would speak glowingly of my dad. I was then and am now immensely proud of him. He was quite simply my hero, my role model, my heart and soul. I will miss him with every fibre of my being but I will see that is legacy continues.
Dad, it has been a privilege to walk the last few steps of your life with you. For you to finally need me and have the opportunity to pay a fraction back in your hour of need has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have held your hand and given you comfort as I lost you piece by piece. My heart ached as I lost a little more of you each day but in the coming weeks we will rebuild you with the countless wonderful memories you have given us.
My father goes to his grave with no regrets and no enemies. As John Lennon once put it, a ‘working class hero’. He lived a life far beyond his dreams as a 10-year old boy. He loved and was loved. My own child will enter the world in just a couple of month’s time and despite never meeting you, they will always know you. For you are in me. When we go hunting for chestnuts in Autumn time, it’s grandad who will shake the tree. And when we ignite fireworks on Bonfire night, it’s grandad who will light up the sky.
I will miss you singing in the morning. Normally to your own lyrics.
I will miss your overly-theatrical sneezes.
I will miss the smell of diesel when you came home from work as a child.
I will miss the bristles on your chin as you kissed me goodnight.
I will miss your impossibly long answerphone messages.
I will miss your silly dancing in the kitchen.
I will miss you calling me at work and staring every conversation with, ‘Sorry to trouble you,’ as if you ever did.
I will miss bonfire night as you charged round the garden, perilously lighting fireworks and returning to half-spinning Catherine wheels.
I will miss the way you’d hitch your trousers up, over your tummy.
I will miss the smell of your aftershave.
I will miss you picking the vegetables out of your food.
But mostly, I will miss you calling me son.
It’s time to say goodbye now as you re-join you father, mother, sisters and brothers. And of course, the son you lost all those years ago. No amount of words can do you justice and I’m sorry if I’ve fallen woefully short. It’s been an honour to call you dad.
So for one last time, goodnight dad, and Gary: Daddy’s coming home.