My father was a storyteller. A raconteur of tall tales. I cannot now remember his voice
Given that last Sunday was Father’s Day, it will be no real surprise that my Reflection this week is on my father, John (Jack) Watson.
Jack was the youngest of eleven children. He was an ‘Edwardian’ born in 1908. His father, Harry, was born just north of Newcastle and worked in shipbuilding; Jack’s mother, Anne, was Scottish. Unfortunately, both Harry and Anne died some years before I came along. One of Jack’s earliest memories was his lighting the large bonfire in his part of Newcastle’s celebration of the ending of the Great War.
In his youth, Jack was a keen athlete. He played for Newcastle ’N’s, the Newcastle United Youth team, and competed with Benwell (an area of Newcastle) Harriers. Jack would often regale me with stories of his younger days. A footballer’s reward in the late 1920s was not that of today, so he chose a job that offered a steady income rather than gamble on life as a footballer. Jack became a Firefighter.
Jack married his first wife, Elizabeth (Bette) Ross, in the late 1930s. Tragically, their first child, Patricia, died after only a few weeks of life however two children then came along. My half-siblings, Andy, and Judith. Sadly, more tragedy was to follow. Bette suffered severely from post-natal depression, after Judith’s birth, taking her own life on one very dark night of her soul. It was 1950; Andy was six and Judith was two.
Jack could have given up the children to what in those days went for social services. He didn’t, and it’s a testament to him that he managed to look after two young children while working as a Firefighter. He didn’t always do it by the book, calling on friends and neighbours to help before finding a housekeeper who could sleep in when Jack had night duty.
Sadly, that housekeeper had a drinking problem, and Jack let her go once discovered. In the search for a replacement, a woman, Jenny, some 14 years younger than Jack, appeared on the scene. What started as a business relationship blossomed into romance, and the two married in 1955. I came along the following year by which time Jack was 48 years old.
I recall that for many years a portrait of Bette hung on the wall of Judith’s bedroom (Andy and I shared a bedroom until, at 18, he left home to join the Army). It was so that Andy and Judith didn’t forget their mother. I thought that was a caring gesture from my parents.
As a small boy, I enjoyed getting up early when Jack was on day shift to share a bacon sandwich breakfast with him before he left. And naturally, I followed his lead of not buttering the bread. It’s a habit I’ve kept to this day. Jack liked to cook. In fact, my mother said Jack taught her how to cook.
One of my treasured possessions is Jack’s diary of 1964. It was the year he retired from the Fire Service. Firefighters had to leave the Service at the age of fifty-five back then. In the diary are some appointments, but the most fascinating part is his ‘accounts’. For instance, his mortgage from the Urban District Council was circa £6 monthly. Such ‘Council mortgages’ are now a thing long past.
After retiring from the Fire service, Jack got a job as a Mortician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) in Sunderland. It wasn’t for the squeamish, but life as a firefighter isn’t for the squeamish either.
Jack had his first heart attack shortly before Christmas 1970; I was fourteen years old. He was sixty-two.
The news came late afternoon with a knock on the front door. I answered the door to a middle-aged man who asked for my mother. The man introduced himself to her as Head of Administration for the RVI. He then asked my mother to go to the hospital with him as my father had taken seriously ill. The man didn’t say with what. Confusingly for the man, my mother replied, “I’m not falling for that”.
The reason for such a strange comment was that the RVI Christmas Party was to take place that evening to which Jack wished to go, but Jenny did not. So, instead of believing he was ill, she suspected a ruse to get her to the party.
To the man’s disbelief, Jenny told him to stop messing about, asking him, “where Jack was hiding”. She even went as far as to brush past the man and look over the yard wall. Not finding Jack hiding there, she investigated the man’s car. I think the chap, now totally bewildered, feared my mother was in shock. I realised this wasn’t a joke and Jenny, who was coming to the same realisation. She was soon off to the hospital with the man. On her return, she shared how extremely ill Jack was and that his survival was touch and go.
It turned out Jack had a lucky escape. He’d lunched on Pot Pie (suet pudding) with some friends. Then back at the RVI, he stripped a large body by himself, which involved a lot of tugging and pulling. The effort caused a tiny tear in his heart. Jack put the discomfort in his chest to overindulgence in Pot Pie (I know that feeling). As the pain in his chest increased, he popped into Casualty as it was then (A&E these days) for an indigestion tablet. On describing his symptoms and looking at his pallor, a nurse guessed it was something more severe. She asked Jack to sit for a moment while she found the indigestion tablets. Instead, she went for a doctor who admitted him immediately. If Jack had gone home on the bus, the doctor reckoned he would have died before reaching that home.
Jack remained in the hospital for some weeks (treatment of heart attacks was quite different back then, with patients advised to have lots of bed rest). There’s a line by Emily Dickinson, “Old age comes on suddenly, not gradually as is thought”. That had happened to my father. Overnight, the robust, healthy, young-looking sixty-something man had disappeared. In his place was a drawn, grey-skinned, and aged man lacking confidence. The latter was even more evident when he came home.
His doctor encouraged Jack to go for walks. He did so. But at a painfully slow pace compared to his confident stride of the past. My mother cautioned me not to cause him upset as she, too, feared that agitation might instigate another heart attack. Unlike many teenage boys, I tried, therefore, in Jack’s eyes at least, to be a model of good behaviour. He returned to work some 6 months after his heart attack.
A couple of years later he won the Heggie Award. It recognises individuals who achieved the highest mark in the Diploma of Anatomical Pathology Technology. Named after Dr James Hegie who championed the need for fully trained people to assist pathologists during post-mortem and in caring for the bereaved. It led to Jack’s 15 minutes of fame through radio interviews etc. I was sixteen and felt immensely proud of his achievement so late in his life. It taught me that no matter your age you should never stop learning.
At around 8:30 in the morning of 23 November 1977, I took a call at work (by this time, I was married and living and working in London) to tell me of Jack’s passing. Jenny discovered his body, although the call came from the next-door neighbour, ‘Uncle’ Frank. As I heard the familiar voice telling me, “I have some sad news”, I knew at once what that news was to be.
Jack died sometime the previous night after falling asleep in ‘his’ armchair. Standing on a side table nearby was an empty glass. His last nightcap of whiskey and soda. He didn’t make it to bed as death stole him from sleep. Peacefully, the doctor reported.
The rest of that 23 November is something of a blur. First, I called my wife to tell her of the news. She was devastated, being so fond of Jack. I then sought a leave of absence from work and headed to Kings Cross to journey north in the late afternoon of an ever-darkening day.
‘Uncle’ Frank picked me up from the railway station. Jenny was at his house with his wife. I checked Jenny was OK and then went next door to the small, terraced house from which Jack had left for the last time about an hour earlier. I entered silence and darkness. Then, turning on the light in the kitchen, my eye fell upon a letter on the table. The envelope, placed there by my mother, bore my name, written in Jack’s hand.
Sitting down at the table and without removing my heavy coat or discarding my scarf, I opened the envelope and began to read the words within.
It’s a short, simple letter. Very much Jack. In places, it’s very business-like. For instance, it contains a recommendation of a good undertaker (given my father’s line of work, he would know). He asks me to look after my mother. He wishes me well. There are no declarations of love or outpourings of affection. It ends with a “God Bless” and “Your Dad” above his signature.
Yet, on that gloomy November evening, I began weeping as soon as I read the opening sentence. This was now a letter from the past. From a man, I was never going to see or hear again. There would be no more stories. No more listening to his laughter. No more letters. A presence now absent.
We weep at the loss of a loved one, for ourselves just as much as for them. On reflection, my tears came from losing the chance as an adult to get to know my father. I’d spent less than a month in his company in the three years since I’d left home. Little of that time was just him and me.
Despite that his influence upon me is great. Many of his traits have passed to me. The quick temper, lack of patience, some pomposity, and not listening to others as much as I might. But balancing these are integrity, generosity, and morality. He taught me,
Life isn’t a rehearsal. You must show up and give your best performance. You can do nothing about the hand of cards that life deals you with. But it’s down to you to play that hand the best you can.
People are like snowflakes. No two are identical, and no matter how hard you try, you can never walk in their shoes. The smile you see may mask intense pain. Try to accept people as they are and avoid being judgemental. Remember, you don’t know their story.
Enjoy relationships and work at them. Compromise is key but you mustn’t wake up someday at the end of someone else’s life. As I wrote above, life is not a rehearsal.
Embrace a change of circumstance, or it will crush you. But remember, when it comes to people, you can only change yourself. Not someone else. The best you might do is influence another person but don’t fool yourself that you can change them. They are the only ones who can do that for themselves.
As well as these life lessons, I have inherited Jack’s penchant for storytelling and his twinkling sense of humour. He influenced deeply my appreciation of Theatre, Cinema, Art, and Literature. And how can I not mention our mutual support of Newcastle United. The most intimate moments I spent with him were watching the Magpies. Memories of those times wrap themselves around me whenever I now travel to St James Park.
Jack experienced much in his life. The end of the Great War, fighting fires in the Second World War (including in the London Blitz — the Fire station on the Euston Road in which he was based is still working). He knew love, the joy of children and deep grief. He felt the pressures of being a single parent. He swapped one career for another and saw success in both. He suffered the fear of life-threatening disease but overcame that fear. He was an ordinary man. He was my father.