Harry was my Dad. His name wasn’t Harry; it was George. His middle name was Harry; everyone called him Harry. I never knew why, if his name was George, everyone called him Harry. His father’s name was Harry, but no one called his father George.
The Bailey Brothers in It’s A Wonderful Life were George and Harry Bailey. My Dad wasn’t like either of them: no Buildings & Loan to dip into (too working class); no war hero (too young; and he was excused National Service because of a perforated ear drum). He was more like Uncle Billy Bailey – sweet and well-meaning, but a bit dopey.
Actually, he wasn’t even sweet: he was too acerbic for that. When he felt guests had stayed too long, he told them so. Always in a joke, so he’d laugh them out the door, with my mother saying in an hysterical aside to us kids, ‘They think he’s joking but he means it’, frantic that no one should be offended. As far as I know, they never were.
My Dad liked to laugh and eat chocolates. He used to steal from the sweet drawer Mum kept for the grandchildren and more than once she would say, ‘Let’s see what Grandma’s got for you here’ and find herself with an empty drawer and a skriking toddler. In the end, she had to give him his own drawer.
My Dad loved the Wild West: movies, books, history, country and western music. Because of my Dad’s love of C&W, I was probably the first child in the UK to know what a lady mule skinner is.
He had a double album of The Grand Ole Opry with a piece of the original curtain attached. I expected to inherit it and I was furious when he came back to the UK and left his C&W albums in South Africa.
It’s because of my Dad and his love for all things western that I know, if I am ever caught in a desert in a thunderstorm, to lie down flat on the ground. Otherwise I will be the tallest point and the lightning will be gunning for me. I read that in a Louis L’Amour novel, loaned to me by my Dad.
When we emigrated to South Africa in 1982, we had no money (one of the reasons for emigrating in the first place). Dad was working for Sasol, a huge corporation that turned coal into petrol. To help our miniscule grocery budget, my father the usually honest would come off shift with a toilet roll taken from the men’s loos. One day, he heard from a colleague that the company was cracking down on staff pilfering – stationery, equipment, and so on – and he went home in a panic and he and Mum spent an entire night ripping up a hundred half-used toilet rolls and flushing them down the toilet. What really made me laugh was that it was unmarked paper; and I doubt the company could have come in to the house asking to see it, anyway. The price of a guilty conscience, I guess: a huge water bill.
He used to keep us kids up on school nights, playing cards. Avoiding Mum, usually. They were unhappily married for over thirty years. One Christmas Eve, before letting them in the house I had to warn them to behave i.e. not have an almighty ding-dong and ruin Christmas for everyone as usual. For the first twenty years of my life with the Hub, the minute we had a row I was leaving him, because I’m not ending up like my Mum and Dad!
I have told this story before but it’s worth repeating: I remember one particular row that went on for months. Every Sunday we had a traditional roast dinner and my Dad – who loved his food and particularly his roast dinners, so he might have just been spoiling for a fight – complained that he was sick of roasts every Sunday and why couldn’t we have something else? Mum never said a word but took his plate away and scraped it into the bin, and cooked him bacon and egg there and then. Next Sunday we had a roast dinner, as usual…except for Dad, who was served bacon and egg without a word from Mum. And the next; and the next; and the next Sunday after that…for six solid months, until Dad finally caved first and asked in his best little boy voice if he could please have a roast like the rest of us this Sunday? Without a word from Mum, he got one.
Dad never complained about his meals again.
My Dad was narky and didn’t suffer fools gladly; intelligent and daft by turns; childish often; adored his three children, always. He wasn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter: I loved him; he was my Dad.