One year later: more thoughts about my father

One year ago today, which happened to be Easter Day, my father Clive Brown died aged 82 in the early hours of the morning. I have written about this in three previous blogs – “48 Hours: my father and I“, “48 Hours: postscript” and “That Was The Year That Was“. But, if you will indulge me, I have a few more thoughts to offer on this poignant anniversary.

It is a truism to say that time passes more quickly as one gets older but the past year seems to have raced along. Perhaps it is to do with being “over the hill”, a phrase meaning past one’s best which is not heard so much these days (maybe because I am older people whisper the words out of my earshot). Anyway, if I am “over the hill” and careering out of control down the other side that might explain time rushing by.

In a previous blog – “It wouldn’t be a show without Punch” – I recorded some of my late mother’s expressions but I would also like to recall a few of my father’s favourite sayings.

mumanddad 001
One of my favourite photographs of my parents, Mary & Clive Brown

Two of his regulars were “muck or nettles” and “all hair and teeth”. The first means “all or nothing”, though I have no idea why, and the second indicates a particularly lively situation, for example, a frantic and barely-under-control football match.

He also liked to refer to a situation being “a right schmozzle”, meaning chaotic. I understand schmozzle is of Hebrew or Yiddish origin and I once surprised an Israeli work colleague when, without thinking, I used the word. I don’t know where my father got it from, perhaps it was common parlance when he was young or perhaps he picked it up during his National Service in the Army.

When I was a small child my father sang in a male voice choir and he continued to enjoy choral music throughout his life. But his favourite genre was West End, Broadway and film musicals. He loved going to see musicals and I chose the Prologue, or Carousel Waltz, from Carousel, performed by the John Wilson Orchestra, as the music at the end of his funeral service. He also loved watching this orchestra when they appeared on TV from the BBC Proms.

I used to reflect how a few years’ difference in date of birth could have made a big difference to my slightly old-fashioned, though fairly enlightened, father. He was born in August 1933. Less than 18 months later, in January 1935, along came Elvis Presley and just five years or so after that John Lennon was born. They helped pioneer a form of music which largely passed my father by.

But, of course, it is not just when we are born which governs what we like or dislike. The society and family around us, our own peculiar tastes, are probably more important. Being born a few years later would not have made my father a rocker.

He was a big consumer of TV programmes, particularly live football (especially Arsenal) and political programmes.

In terms of reading, it was mostly biographies and autobiographies (of historical, political, newspaper and sporting characters) and railway books – but definitely not fiction. Fiction was something of a blindspot for my father, he could not see the point of reading made-up stories when there were so many real stories to read.

I would like to close with some passages from one of the letters I received after my father died last year. You may know that his last job before retirement was Editor of the Spalding Guardian and of the Lincolnshire Free Press, two local newspapers in Spalding, South Holland (south Lincolnshire) which were effectively operated as a twice-weekly.

The letter I have in mind came from someone who was a journalist in the same company, but not at the same newspaper. She made some fascinating observations in her thoughtful and heartfelt letter.

Not everything she wrote struck me as true but we all have different experiences of people – for example, she felt he was reluctant to allow others “access to his treasure of experience and talent.” I would have thought differently, but I did not work for or with him.

But among her observations which ring true about his approach to journalism and work…

“Clive’s often inscrutable responses were a breath of fresh air when set against sometimes fawning contributions from individuals desperate to succeed in the cut-throat world of print publishing.”

“He did not suffer fools and hilariously described one [company] director, for whom he had no time whatsoever, as ‘Being at the back of the queue when couth was handed out’.”

“He consummately detested all things ‘corporate’…”

“He largely loathed”… “experimental promotional ideas”.

“His talent as a shrewd and eloquent newsman always shone brightly.”

“Unquestionably his own man, he commanded the Spalding Guardian by the shrewd application of qualities that made newspapers successful at the time: honesty, integrity and accuracy delivered with a genuine attempt at social responsibility and true reader value.”

Graham Brown

48 Hours: my father and I

Clive Brown and Graham in Belgium
We were younger then. My father and I, in the early 2000s, on the Waterloo Memorial in Belgium (image: Graham Brown/Frank Bonte)

This is a true story and not a very cheerful one, you might think, though it does have its moments of redemption.

On Good Friday this year I left Orkney for a month, my longest absence since moving here six years ago. I did not want to leave Orkney behind, or Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin), or our dog, Roscoe. In fact, saying goodbye to Roscoe was in some ways the most emotional and difficult part – perhaps because it is impossible to explain absence to a faithful hound.

But I was on important family business. My father, Clive, aged 82, in Lincolnshire, had undergone a planned but serious hospital operation three days earlier and we had agreed that I would care for him for four weeks when he was released home. After that he was due to go to his sister’s for a further fortnight although, pre-operation, he clearly thought he would be sufficiently recovered for that to be unnecessary.

I flew from Kirkwall, via Edinburgh, to East Midlands Airport. At Edinburgh Airport I got some lunch and listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme I had downloaded about the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country. This was a favourite of my late mother and I found myself, sat in Costa, getting tearful. I don’t think anyone noticed in the airport hubbub.

At East Midlands Airport I was met by a taxi driver for the 60-mile journey to my father’s house in Pinchbeck, just outside Spalding. He was an engaging and chatty travel companion.

One of the subjects I raised was the distance between the home I had chosen, in Orkney, and my father’s home, more than 600 miles away. This is something over which I have carried some guilt ever since we moved.

“You cannot live your life for other people,” he said.

I arrived at my father’s house and found his brilliant neighbours, who were going to be out for the evening, had left me a home-made curry to heat up.

The next day I went to Morrisons supermarket in the morning, stocking up for my father’s release from hospital, trying to choose food and ingredients I thought would be good for him and would suit his medical condition.

Back home I had a quick lunch and then I was off to the Pilgrim Hospital in Boston to visit my father.

His ward was on the fifth floor. He was in a room of four beds, each containing an elderly gentleman. I knew he had undergone a major operation but I was not prepared for how tired and pained, how old, he looked. He greeted me and asked how my journey from Orkney had been.

But there was not much more conversation as he dozed, and he was not up to reading the newspapers and magazines I had brought him. He did not sleep much either because, I think, he was not comfortable with his level of pain or with his position in the bed.

The nurses – brilliant, ever cheerful and patient – visited a number of times to try to make him more comfortable and to complete their checks.

My father had been speaking, before the operation, of going home on the Monday after my arrival. It was clear to me he would not be well enough. I asked the opinion of one of the nurses, who agreed with me, but she said he might be well enough by the end of the week.

As he dozed through my six-hour visit I read a little and was able to take in the surroundings. The windows had a commanding view across the flat Lincolnshire countryside. The crows came and went in the trees. The pigeons chased each other.

And the smell. What is that hospital smell? A mixture of disinfectant, warm bodies, I don’t know. But when I think of that afernoon I can still smell it.

Towards the end of my visit my father asked me to find his watch in his bag and put it on for him. This was a mistake. With little else to do, he checked the time every two or three minutes.

Eventually I said I should go home for dinner. “Yes, you don’t want to stay here,” he said, or something to that effect.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I left and moved to shake his hand. He clasped my hand unexpectedly strongly.

Walking out of the hospital I could not find a working car park pay-terminal, and while searching got caught in a sudden downpour that soaked through my clothes. While sheltering back inside the hospital entrance I met some helpful folk who pointed me in the right direction.

On my drive back to my father’s house I stopped in the village of Surfleet to get fish and chips, at the wonderfully named Cod Squad. There was a conversation with the friendly guys behind the counter about my Scottish bank notes, which I produced to pay, and why I was visiting. They wished me and my father all the best.

I knew that when I got home I would be into a round of telephone calls and conversations about my father’s condition so I decided to eat my supper in the car in the lay-by to get a few minutes to myself.

That night I was not early to bed but I did not worry because I did not have to be up early in the morning, hospital visiting did not start until lunchtime.

I slept soundly until… suddenly, I was awake, my mobile phone was ringing. It was 1.15am. There was a nurse from the hospital at the other end. Could I come to the hospital now?

“Why, what has happened?” “You just need to come now.” I was told to go through Accident & Emergency to get into the locked hospital.

By the time I was out of bed, visited the bathroom, dressed, and got the car out of the garage, it was close to 1.30am.

The journey to the hospital was relatively quick, about 25 minutes, there not being much traffic. On the way I did not, for some reason, want music so for distraction I listened to a talk station, Talk Radio. They were discussing that night’s big boxing match and how one of the boxers had been rushed to hospital. Hmm…

I left the radio on but wondered to myself, as I drove, why I had been called, presumably it must be something serious? I got through A&E, where they seemed to be expecting me, and made by way through the hospital.

In the lift I noticed the clock said 3am. How can that be? Oh yes, I thought, we are moving onto British Summer Time tonight, the clocks are going forward.

As I walked into the ward I caught sight of one of the staff make a small head and eye gesture to a nurse to indicate my arrival. The nurse showed me into a side room and a doctor was called in. I was starting to realise what was happening.

He told me so carefully and sympathetically what had happened to my father that I remember saying to him, to be sure: “So, he’s dead then.”

Yes, he was. I will not go into my father’s personal medical details but there had been developments, complications, during the night. He died at about 1.30am, about the time I was setting off for the drive to the hospital.

The doctor, who was the surgeon who carried out the operation, was visibly shaken himself at this turn of events.

Did I want to see my father?, the nurse asked. Yes, I said. I was thinking to myself, here I am, aged 58, and I have not seen a dead body, until now.

My father was still on the ward, in his bed, surrounded by a curtain. Despite having seen him hours before, when he was clearly seriously ill, I was struck now how small, how diminished Dad looked. I touched his hand, I think I told him I loved him – not something we ever said in life.

I collected his belongings from the nurse, including his watch, and was shown out of the hospital.

On the drive back many thoughts went through my mind. One was the realisation that my father had died on Easter Sunday, which seemed ironic; another was that the car I was driving, my father’s, probably no longer had valid car insurance with his passing.

I rang my wife when I got home and then wondered when would be an appropriate time to ring my father’s three siblings. I needed to tell them soon, but was there any point in waking them? My calculations were complicated by the clocks changing.

Eventually, through the early hours, I spoke to everyone and then, at about 7am, went to tell my father’s neighbours, who were very close to him. There was shock, some tears and cups of tea.

The end of my 48 Hours.

Graham Brown