It strikes me from time to time that while I have loads of photographs of my mum before she met my dad, there are none of him. I have no images of him as a child, or as a young man (apart from one in a group photo of the Salvation Army Band, in which he played cornet or trumpet as required).
I know loads of stories about my mum and her brother and her sisters, about their childhood. I know them because she told me. None at all about my dad, because he didn’t, and neither did his mum, the only grandparent alive after I was barely six months old.
I know one story about my dad as a young man. It’s hardly a story. Just something one of his fellow bird watchers said in a passing comment…one that I never followed up. “He liked a bet, your dad.” It has no context, this remark, and he certainly showed no interest in the horses or the football pools in all the time I knew him.
So it’s fair to say, there’s always been that sense of a mystery about him, something he kept to himself, in the place where he kept the dreams and ambitions he never talked about. So this is a memory of that part of him I wish I could have asked him about.
It wasn’t that he thought of a previous life,
but rather of a might-have-been one,
the one he was due. You saw it
in the the set of the shoulder, his eyes,
and most of all you saw it in his clothes.
He could never resist a nice suit length.
Three piece, double vent, hand-stitched.
He liked a worsted, a fine herringbone.
He dressed like a gent, trimmed his ‘tache
accordingly. I really think he thought
himself a changeling.
Gypsies or elves,
were involved, and careless nursemaids.
The heir to something better. That was him.
Though gentlemen don’t test the worsted
in a pattern book the way he did, don’t
take their suit-lengths to little shops
in small dark streets off City Square,
to dapper men with bandleader’s hair.
Maybe that was what lay behind the rebel in him, that showed itself in small ways, and in unexpected contexts. Like the Yorkshire Naturalists. The birdwatchers in the mould of the Kinder protestors. Here they are, the revolutionaries at one of their Christmas do’s in a cafe in Otley. My dad’s the piratical one with the pipe.
Drawn to Mam Tor, to Kinder Downfall,
Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;
they came by steam train, on the bus,
away from mill and pit and forge,
an England dark with smoke;
passing crumbled slums, grand
neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged
parks, until the cities petered out
on the edges of high moors, big skies;
they came to the quiet of neat fields,
of drystone walls.
They walked miles,
wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,
flapping turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.
They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;
they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,
would pull aside wired gates,
push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,
would not be kept from bluebell woods.
At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,
those trespassers, who rambled viking fells,
ghylls and cloughs, sour gritstone moors
and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.
They knew the land they walked should not be owned,
wished it was theirs; coveted the cottages
of the small stone villages, their tidy gardens.
Those men like my father, the woollen spinner,
namer of birds; presser of wild flowers.