My father never liked small cars. He met my mother in 1947 and there is a photograph of the car he drove then, an open-topped crate with a hood and a canvas body. “Thursday’s Child”, one of his sisters dubbed it. Few people drove cars then. God only knows how he got his hands on one, or petrol to put in it. The war had ended only two years earlier and rationing would continue for another decade. He was 22 years old.
He’d had an interesting war. In Lancashire, his family, judging him too soft, had enlisted him in the Merchant Marine – the “wavy navy” after its sleeve stripes – before he was exactly old enough. Britain could not feed itself and the government was insuring ships and cargos; anything that could float was being put to sea. Old rust-buckets limped across the Atlantic with destroyers fretting alongside. The Royal Navy watched for submarines and did all the fighting, while the Merchant Navy did most of the sinking and drowning. My dad had a snapshot he’d taken with a smuggled Kodak Brownie of a submarine periscope. As a small boy I thought it extremely exciting, quite unable to imagine how frightening it had been to see.
He was torpedoed three times. Would never speak of it. One time was on the North Atlantic run. He enjoyed recuperating in Canada, where he was lionised by women and acquired a taste for Grape Nuts. A photograph shows him in New York City, in Times Square, smart in his midshipman’s uniform. He was sixteen years old.
The little he would tell me about his war service did not sound very tough. He remembered night watches, mugs of cocoa thick enough to stand a spoon in. Onions taken from the hold and baked against the engine room boilers. After the war he trained as a cook.
My parents married in 1951, had me in 1952 and opened their own seasonal hotel in Bournemouth in 1954. My father was the chef. I loved his kitchen, the hotel’s engine room, turning out three squares a day for families come for a holiday at the seaside. The big gas ranges, tall pots of porridge or soup, trays of chicken breasts or Bakewell Tart – food produced on an industrial scale. The kitchen had a tiny booth in it, a table with bench seats for four. He liked my sister and I coming there for meals, and I would sit there watching the work of the kitchen. Much later, when I had grown tall enough, I sometimes washed pots and dishes in the scullery, elbow deep in tepid, greasy water, happy to be part of the kitchen crew. I learned my first baking there, Victoria scones, my father showing me how to ‘rub in’ flour and butter.
He had sold “Thursday’s Child” in 1948 to buy a motorcycle to follow my mother to the South of France. When I was very young he drove a 1930s Rover, which had a windscreen that could be lowered like a Land Rover’s, a knob on the dashboard marked ‘Freewheel’, and trafficators – turn indicators that flicked out from the car’s high sides. I liked the family car and thought we were swell to have one. He eventually sold it for £30. I was consoled by its successor, a Wolseley 6/90 Series II.
The 6/90s, rare even in their time, appeared often as police cars in 1950s films: in fact, half of the tiny production was sold to the police. My father had bought his at auction and liked to point out the scar on its roof where the blue light had been removed. The police had also rebored the engine. Family cars of the time, such as the Morris Minor and Hillman Minx, topped out at 65 mph. The 6/90 had 110 on the dial, and when the M1 opened and stretched empty across Hertfordshire, years before speed limits, my father showed the needle could be jammed so hard he had to tap the glass to release it.
He deeply envied his peers who had enjoyed better starts in life than his barefoot childhood on the Morecambe seafront. It was a great satisfaction to him to be elected president of our resort hometown’s Hotel & Restaurant Association. I thought my parents magnificent as they left for official functions, my father in white tie and swallowtail coat. My mother says she never had a better dance partner.
He later won a seat on the town council and took great pride in the work. Despite its red-leather upholstery and sober black coat, he must have thought the 6/90 looked modest alongside Jaguars and Bentleys in the council car park, for he several times speculated his was the only car there that had been paid for.
The repetition of that suspicion betrayed both a sense of inferiority and an alertness to imposture — at least in others. When my parents sold their hotel and separated, I discovered that in him too. He was hired to manage a group of hotels, including most of the five-star hotels in the town, and was with justice proud of his position. I was by now at university in London and found myself deeply embarrassed by invitations to dine in posh hotel restaurants at his employer’s expense. I also felt embarrassed by his new girlfriend, whom I thought brassy. He was driving a beige Morris 1100 at this time. I’d had driving lessons for my seventeenth birthday but, away at school, no chance to practise. He offered me time on the Morris but I declined, finding it unpleasant to handle.
I was too pained by the hollowness of his shows of prosperity to consider the man foundering inside them. And I knew nothing of the money problems that appear to have dogged him. I pulled back into my new life in London, barely acknowledging to myself how I missed him.
So I wasn’t around in the months and hours leading up to his night drive to an isolated Dorset headland, where he ran a hosepipe from the car exhaust and passed out facing the sea, on the cliffs where we had so often walked as a family.
He never met my wife. So I wrote this.
We are all awash on a sea of blood
and the least we can do
is wave to each other
Steph, my love, here’s Dad
snapped at sixteen on Broadway
adrift in naval dress
thousands of miles from home
Ten blocks north another Limey
writes in a bar on 52nd Street
“We must love one another or die.”
We must love one another or die
and he nearly did die the night
he saw the periscope, minutes
before the ship sank, another
failure of love. We are all awash
on a sea of blood, all flags.
I am awash in his blood
He survived to sire me
another son of the ocean
where the organs bask like seals
and show me his Wavy Navy cap
and the Nessie periscope photo
“Sweet Thames, flow softly
while I sing my song”
Sweet Thames preserve us
from the cold Atlantic run
The inland sea, incarnadine, connects
the living and the dead
Shades jostle on its shores
He might have been safe
on a cliffed coast, secured by our love
but he wasn’t. The sea
is always with us, and he sank
Love roots in grief
for the drowned
who slipped out of sunlight
Shades crowd our hall
loiter in the bedroom
haunt memory, join
us to the million generations
Take hands in the dark
flesh, dust and breath
Enough of waving
Dad, here’s Steph, my love