Friday, 21 July 2017

An Irish Just William - my dad. By Anne Booth

My lovely dad died on the 30th June. He was 90, and was emphatically NOT a reader. Love of reading and writing had been beaten out of him as a school boy growing up in Ireland in the 1930s, and so he spend most of his childhood 'midging' from school, running across fields with his dogs or hiding in haystacks from the authorities, trying to avoid the humiliation of being caned and feeling a failure. He knew first hand about tickling trout and salmon, ploughing with horses and riding them bare back when the farmer wasn't looking, and rabbiting with his dogs at night - one memorable evening catching 90, which he sold to his neighbours - including, I seem to remember, the policeman - and giving the money to his mother to help with the family.

This is not a picture of my dad as a boy (I wish I had one)  - but one I found online which reminds me of him.
Runner-up! A Kelly, perhaps… from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
The race

Dad was very proud I was a writer but did not read any of my books, and never really understood why I loved and needed them so much. Books were not a source of pleasure to him, but of dread - and yet he loved stories. He could make a good tale out of a short walk down a road. He knew lots of exciting stories about Saints, and he watched consumer programmes about cheating plumbers and would always tell me cautionary tales about them. He loved the dramas of X Factor and Britain's Got Talent and Judge Rinder,  and in his 9 years living in my village, chatted to everyone at the bus stop and on the 89 and 17 bus. He couldn't always catch when people said to him, as he was hard of hearing and refused to wear his hearing aid, but he filled in the gaps with his own stories about them which he relayed to me - one retired business man became a retired jockey on the basis of his height and a comment about horses, and Dad refused to accept my alternative, less interesting version.

So when I hear about people not liking books, I understand. I even sometimes wonder if people who, like Dad, actually do the things I read about, maybe just don't need books the way I did and do. I read about Just William - my dad was an Irish version of him. I wish I had the practical, lived skills and knowledge my dad had. When he was 81, and only newly arrived in my Kent village, one of my neighbours lost her pet rabbit. It was spotted going from garden to garden, and nobody could catch it. To the distress of its owner, the rabbit, pursued by well meaning neighbours, eluded us all. Then I thought of asking my dad's advice. He put on his cap and came to the last garden where the rabbit had been sighted. He didn't run after him as we had been doing. He stood still, saw where the rabbit was, took a step forward and then suddenly, I still don't know how, the rabbit was safely back in the cat carrier or basket my relieved neighbour, had provided. I felt like bursting with pride. As a child growing up in the 1970s I read about and wanted to be, one of Enid Blyton's characters like Jimmy Brown from Mr Galliano's Circus  or Philip or Jack from 'The Island of Adventure' and other books - or Dickon from 'The Secret Garden' (funny how all my animal loving role models were boy characters), but my contacts with animals and birds were all in my head and day dreams - books helped me learn about nature - but Dad's knowledge was lived and practical.

My commitment to, and pride in, my career as a writer of books is partly based on the belief that stories in text can help increase empathy and the development of imagination - but I think the first thing is the story. Story might not necessarily be best communicated to everyone by the printed word - oral story telling and theatre and  visual and cinematic arts are also important. My school-avoiding dad loved films. He was caught and hit for standing on a wooden box looking in the window at a Mickey Mouse film put on in his village - he didn't have the penny to pay to go in and sit and watch it. When he was a teenager he used to walk miles to go and see a film at the cinema in the nearest town. I remember watching Westerns with him on TV - sometimes I had to go to bed before the ending, and he always used to come up and tell me, 'well, the goodies won, and the baddies lost,' and that succinct summary was enough to help me get to sleep.

My dad loved stories but he associated reading and books with failure and corporal punishment and the abuse of power. His lack of self confidence in reading and writing meant that he was very keen that me and my brothers should work hard at school, but at the same time he was very sceptical about book learning and information on pages. This even extended to maps - and I remember, as an adult, a very frustrating holiday in Ireland where my dad could not believe  that we could drive him across Ireland using a motorist's atlas, and insisted on regular stops to ask random people if we were going the right way. Maybe he would have been happier if we had had a SatNav with a voice.

I do wish my dad had been taught in a different way and had loved books though - because I do think that he would have gained more personal self confidence and agency when dealing with forms and authorities, but also had so much fun and enjoyment from them. I had one conversation with him when he was dying which convinced me of this and made me so happy we had, but sad about all the books Dad missed and might have loved.

My dad had a strong religious faith and firmly believed that there was a heaven. He knew he was dying and was looking forward to having the 'craic' in heaven with my mum and his friends and family. He said 'sure all the people I worked with are up there - and some of them were wild.' He was very brave in the days leading up to his death, and the day before he died there were lots of people coming in and out his house where he was in bed- the GP, nurses, hospice carers, our priests and different members of his family. He found it hard to speak, but he said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, 'there's a lot of excitement'. I said 'there's a character in a book,* Dad, who said that 'to die will be an awfully big adventure'. For the first time I saw in Dad's eyes, that light I have seen in children's eyes which comes on when they 'find themselves' in a book. He was really listening to me and really interested - because he had at last encountered a character from literature with whom he identified: Peter Pan.

So I am glad that J.M Barrie created 'Peter Pan', and I am glad there are writers and publishers who are using all their skills to beguile reluctant readers like my dad and introduce them to books. Not liking reading or not being able to spell is not the same thing as not liking stories or being able to tell them. I wish I could have met my dad as a little boy and told him not to be afraid of books. I wish I could have shown him the beautiful picture books we have now, and shared non-fiction and comics and exciting adventures with him. I know that one thing I would like to do to honour him now, apart from learning to garden like him, and maybe learning to ride (!) and to be more out in nature,  is to put him in a book myself -  in the hope that maybe a modern child's eyes will light up and recognise themselves in him when they meet him in print.

*I think that quote might be from the play, rather than the book - I can't put my hand on a copy right now.


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you, Anne, for sharing your lovely dad with us.

Susan Price said...

Lovely, lovely piece, Anne.

Elli said...

So sorry to hear Anne that your dad has passed away. He sounds like a wonderful man, and one who lived and breathed stories, even if he didn't read them. Take care of yourself now xx

Lynne Benton said...

What a beautiful tribute to your dad! Thank you, Anne.

Sue Purkiss said...

What a lovely post! In some ways, he sounds very like my dad. Thanks, Anne.

Penny Dolan said...

Beautiful and moving account of a lovely and remarkable father, Anne. Thanks, and look after yourself now, too.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Your dad sounds lovely. Lucky you to have had him as your dad!

sara gethin said...

What a lovely post, Anne.

Helen Larder said...

Thanks for this beautiful post, Anne xxxx

Sue Bursztynski said...

A lovely tribute, Anne! Your Dad sounds like mine, though mine discovered the Internet in his old age and read ALL my books. But he was a person who, like your Dad, helped people out and for whom life was an adventure.

Ann Turnbull said...

What a lovely, heart-warming post. Thank you, Anne.