Dad was a war hero, having fought with the Coldstream Guards in some of the most horrific combat of World War Two, including the North African and Monte Cassino campaigns. He was also what was known, in 1940s Britain, as a dandy; a snappy dresser with a keen eye for the ladies. All the girls in his home town of Nuneaton would say hello to dad. It was perhaps not surprising that he married three times, and also had at least one extramarital liaison which produced my half-sister, Valerie (whom I didn’t know anything about until she ‘found me’ me via the Internet in 2013). Sadly, war service took its toll on dad’s health; he suffered with chronic asthma and emphysema which brought about his premature death when I was just 16, in 1977. He was, is, and always will be, my hero.
You were ill for most of my life, we had very little money, but you gave the greatest gift of all, the gift that brought you through the Second World war: discipline. Towards the end, however bad you felt, you would always struggle out of bed, have a wash and shave, get dressed – in a collar and tie – and go for your ‘constitutional’ around the block. Sometimes you would fall and I remember the skin on the back of your hands, reduced to little more than tissue paper by the ravages of endless steroid regimes, tearing away to leave bare flesh and tendons. What I also recall was that you wanted me to enjoy my childhood and have the freedom to go and ride my bike, play and explore, in the evenings and at weekends, often over-riding mum’s more controlling approach to such activities.
Although gifts were rare, they were all the more special and memorable because of that. Four stand out: first, the static steam engine. I would save up my pennies to buy a pack of fire-lighters and then be captivated by its power and energy for hours. Next, the die-cast Dinky Ford Zodiac: it was an amazing model – silver with opening doors, bonnet and boot. I remember it being in the window of W H Smith’s, in Brighton’s Churchill Square, and it cost one guinea (that’s 21 shillings, or £1.05p in today’s money) which was a considerable spend for a toy in those days. Third, you bought me a copy of the 1975 hit single Sky High, by a band called Jigsaw. You bought it in Fine Records in George Street, Hove and I distinctly remember you giving it to me in a brown paper bag. Finally, it was you who gave me my first pair of football boots; their inaugural outing was in Preston Park in Brighton and I was so proud of them – and so fearful of damaging the studs – that I insisted on taking them off just to cross the narrow roadway that ran round the park perimeter.
Football was a big part of our lives. The first game you took me to was on Saturday, August 1, 1970. A friendly between Brighton and Hove Albion and local rivals Southampton, at the Goldstone Ground, Hove. On that morning, as you sometimes did, you took me to work with you at the Fishersgate dry cleaning factory. I sat and drew pictures and wrote little stories on Achille Serre letterheads for a couple of hours, then we made our way back home – firstly on foot, crossing the railway using the old iron footbridge, then by catching the bus the rest of the way. As we made our journey, I can remember feeling rather fearful of attending the match: hooliganism was rife in those days and I was worried. I spoke to you about it and you promised to look after me.
I remember the teams coming on to the pitch and taking their positions for kick-off. We were standing in the east terrace, quite close to Terry Paine, Southampton’s right-winger and number 10. I remember staring at him as he waited for the whistle, in awe of his obvious strength and power. As the game unfolded, I remember a terrible injury to Brighton’s goalkeeper, Geoff Sidebottom, who had to be stretchered off to be replaced by Brian Powney. I also recall – and it’s funny what I do remember about that day – that at half-time a young lad was walking round the pitch perimeter, balancing a huge tray with a big strap round his neck, selling Kia-Ora orange drinks. As clear as day, I can still hear you shouting: “Oy! Laddy!” and hopping down the terraces to buy me one. I even recall, when we caught the bus home from the game, it rolling back down a slight incline at one point, as the driver failed to co-ordinate the clutch and accelerator pedals: “Sign of a bad driver, that”, you observed.
I’ve checked the calendar to find that August 1, 2020 will be a Saturday – so exactly 50 years since that first friendly at the Goldstone. I know you would be saddened to know that the Ground is now a retail park, so I will not be able to find the very spot where we stood to mark the anniversary. Your factory in Fishersgate is also long gone. But the bridge we crossed all those years ago remains and, as long as I do too, I shall go there on that date and sit and reflect awhile.
Finally, as someone who loves to know where I – and the people I love – were at specific dates and times, I clearly recall us watching the simultaneous inaugural commercial flights of Concorde on January 21, 1976. It was a day of awe, wonder and pride and we sat glued to the TV set. What I didn’t know at that time is that, at that very moment, you were just 411 days from your death.
Thank you for being my dad.
I love you and miss you, still.