My Dad passed away on Boxing Day at 12.10 pm. He came within half an hour of dying exactly 91 years to the minute after he made his entrance on 26th December 1921 at 12.35 pm.
His death was a lot more peaceful than his arrival: he was a breach baby, and the midwife’s attentions as they attempted to get him out left him with a severe neck injury that wasn’t corrected until he was eleven years old. The birth experience didn’t do a lot for Grandma either. Shortly after Dad’s surgery in 1932, his elder sister Molly fell over in the back yard and injured her knee. These were the days before penicillin, and a month later her leg was amputated just below the groin.
Dad was a Catholic working class Salfordian who married an upmarket high Anglican from posh Cheetham Hill. Mum tried to convert, but couldn’t fathom that degree of illogical belief, so they were married in a Catholic Church without flowers or choir. After two weekend leaves from the RAF that produced my brother, Bernard went off to first East Africa, then India, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong before sailing back slowly to Britain in 1946. I appeared in February 1948, and so Pop began to ask some serious questions of his Priest in the area of family planning. Not entirely satisfied with the response, he erred in favour of the chemist forever afterwards. But three years before that, my old man had already more or less made his mind up to leave the Church.
He had been stationed in Burma, just down the road from an active whorehouse where all the girls were Catholic. Each morning, all the girls trotted down to the priest and confessed their multiple fornications, receiving absolution. My father – brought up to believe that at least half the game with Confession was to try and not repeat the sin again – felt this absolution of sin on an industrial scale was offside, and ventured this opinion to the Priest. He got a lot of woffle back, and for him I think it was the beginning of the end of his belief in the hegemony of Catholicism. He remained Christian in his ethics, but stopped going to Mass. He never went back.
My father had to leave school at twelve, because his sister’s disability meant a loss of domestic income stream in a household where incomes were in very short supply. Grandad had returned from the Great War to a land meant to be fit for heroes, but where his job as a fine cabinet maker had somehow disappeared. So he went on the trams as a conductor, and became an active Union shop steward. He was a key organiser in Manchester during the 1926 General Strike, for which his reward was being locked out and then unemployable in that industry forever. After that, he did odd jobs and made bits of furniture to make ends meet until the 1947 Pensions Act gave him just enough to live on. He hated Winston Churchill for the rest of his life.
Dad worked at first as a delivery boy for a famous patissier and bakers called Greenalgh’s, after which he applied for the position as junior clerk in a new cotton merchants, S Stewart and Co. Up against 56 other kids, he got the job because he could do algebra, and knew what quadratic equations were.
In 1938 while attending Night School, my father came across a book called My Struggle, by one A. Hitler. As he described it to me forty odd years later, “I read the first two chapters and realised he was a bit of an ‘eadcase”. Two months later he volunteered to become a pilot in the RAF, but was turned down on the grounds of poor depth perception and serious colour blindness.
After the war, Dad used the contacts he’d made with the Cheung family in Hong Kong to change S Stewart & Co’s business model from being the export of finished cloth to the import of cheap Asian cotton. He rose to become first a travelling salesman in the firm and then a partner. In 1962 it dawned on him that denim wasn’t a passing fad, and shortly afterwards he changed the company’s model again to being a retail rather than a wholesale/institutional supplier. He moved almost overnight from being workware to fashion – and, I suspect, thoroughly enjoyed it.
By this time, my father was virtually the only Catholic cloth merchant in Manchester, where the Jewish community still held sway. In later life, he joked that his favourite hymn was ‘Oiveh Maria’, and in fact many of his business friends called him Ben rather than Bernard. Throughout his life, he was a bottomless fund of religious jokes, every last one of which were inclusive rather than racist. Although many of his basic judgements would be seen as racist today, in truth Dad detested bigotry and treated people as he found them. Worried at first when I brought a Chinese girlfriend home in 1967, by the time my relationship with her ended he was genuinely saddened by the breakdown.
But Alfred Bernard Ward was very far from being a saint. In many ways, he tried to bolster his lack of social mobility by forcing it upon my brother and me. Something of a risk-taker in business, he was a highly conservative conformist socially: had his sons turned out to be accountants and bankers, he would’ve been delighted. As it was, when my brother showed promise as a cricketer (and much worse, I wanted to be a writer) Pop was hugely disapproving. Mollified when my brother Mike became an industrial chemist, the news that I’d got a job as an advertising copywriter evoked the response that I had “thrown away sixteen years of education to write bloody advert jingles for spivs”.
Despite his dark side however, Dad was a great provider who delighted in the achievements of his family. He wasn’t good at communicating this pride to his sons, but there is no point in judging Great Depression formed parents from the vantage point of 2012. As a kid, I idolised my father, and I never adjusted to the sight of him as an Alzheimer’s victim towards the end of his days. To me, his triumph over class and religious prejudice was and remains an inspiration to me – as does his intellect which, while untutored, was at its peak quite remarkable in its breadth. He could speak a fair amount of Hoinam Chinese, Hindustani, Swahili, and last but not least, RAF.
RAF slang peppered Dad’s conversation throughout my childhood. If anything fell to the floor, he would say “Pe-doing!” (bombs gone) and at other times use terms like bumph (bureaucracy) gen (information) belt along (travel at high speed) u/s (broken) and drink (the ocean). But he was no fan of glorifying the experience: on his way back home during 1946, he chucked all his medals overboard. He didn’t like the War; he just liked England, and all it had to offer. I thank God that he had little or no idea what the lunatics were doing to it after 1997.
At some time in the future, I will start to miss him – but not at the moment. I can’t feel much at all for the Zombie that my father became. But given time, he’ll start to reappear in my thoughts as he was some time around 1962: when he had Irish black hair without a trace of grey, and blue eyes hypnotic enough to make many a girlfriend say to me at the time, “By ‘eck, but your Dad’s a bit of alright innee?”