I was not planning to write anything today [written sometime in 2008], but when I opened my online UK newspaper I discovered that it was Father’s Day. Eight people were telling the story of their relationships with their fathers, and their collective efforts inspired me to do the same. I am also prompted to do so by my memory of his funeral service at which a minister who barely knew him gave a eulogy that I thought was under-informed and uninspiring.
I remember thinking as I listened to the words, ‘That’s not the man I knew. I could do a lot better than him.’
I kept quiet because at British funerals it is still not that common for people who knew the deceased to stand up and pay tribute. However, I resolved that I would put down my own thoughts on his life, and today, almost eight years later, it seems to be the day to do it.
Michael Godman was born in Swanage, Dorset, England, in 1923. His father, Herbert, was a Methodist minister who had apparently started his career, before the First World War, as a wandering preacher in the wilds of Canada, travelling on horseback from one mining camp to another, conducting revivalist meetings. I can imagine him doing that and thoroughly enjoying it. When I knew him late on in his life, he was a life-loving extrovert with a singing voice that was still louder than anyone in his congregation. If he had a particular liking for any of the hymns that he had just been singing in church, he would refuse to stop at the end. Instead, he would pick out his favourite verses and sing them again in his booming voice. His listeners, one by one, would feel compelled to join in and share his bubbly enthusiasm for whatever verse had struck his fancy that day. I never met his wife, my grandmother, because she passed away in the mid-1950s. Herbert remarried in the 1960s, when he was well into his seventies, to a woman who was decades younger than he was.
I remember asking him, in all innocence, when I was about eleven, ‘Granddad, how did you manage to persuade that woman to marry you? You’re old, sick, and you’ve got no money.’
His face broke out into a mischievous grin, and he looked around to make sure that no one was watching him. When he was sure he was unobserved, he unzipped his fly, pulled down his pants and said, with a loud guffaw, ‘Well, it wasn’t for the sex! Look!’
He had a plastic tube where his penis had once been, with a little tap on the end. I was fascinated by it.
He offered me a little plastic cup and said, ‘Go on, try it out! It works.’
I was too embarrassed to take up the offer, but he could see that I really wanted a demonstration, so he showed me himself how it worked. I have to say that this is my abiding memory of him, but it epitomises his fun-loving, non-conformist nature.
Aside from his penis, he had quite a few other body parts missing. He only had one lung, for example, but that didn’t stop him rolling his own cigarettes and filling it with large quantities of smoke every day. He loved life and all the little pleasures that it offered him.
Methodist ministers are not assigned indefinitely to a particular church. Every three years they are sent to a new district. Accommodation is provided – often large, rambling houses that are a nightmare to maintain and heat – but these moves are often detrimental to the children’s education since they are being frequently uprooted and moved to different areas with new schools. The church helps out with this by contributing to the costs of a boarding-school education at a private school for minister’s children over the age of eleven. My father went to one of these schools in the 1930s. I can’t remember the name, but when he talked about it, it sounded cheap and grim. It was run in my father’s day by an old-style martinet who believed in caning his students for the slightest infractions. On one or two occasions in later years, when we were pleasantly ensconced by the side of swimming pools in Mediterranean locations, he would bring up the still-raw topic of his school pool:
‘It was open-air,’ he would say, ‘unheated, and we had to swim in it in all weathers, even when it was freezing cold. It was so filthy, there was a permanent scum on top of it. We all used to draw lots to see who would be the first person to dive in and break the scum.’
The Second World War broke out while he was still at school. In 1941, when he was eighteen and old enough to volunteer, he joined the army. After an initial training stint in which he presumably impressed his superiors with his toughness and durability, he ended up in the newly-formed Parachute Regiment. He served with it for the duration of the war, fighting in North Africa and later Italy. It was unremitting, front-line action. He told me once that he walked most of the distance from Cairo to Rome, fighting all the way. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but he definitely had the scars to back up his story. He had a bullet scar on his leg, shrapnel scars in a few other places, and an odd series of round scars on his torso.
When I asked him what these were from, he replied, in a matter-of-fact kind of way, ‘If your whole platoon is racing forward in battle and you come to a coil of barbed wire, you haven’t got time to stop and cut it. The first man there dives on top of it, and everyone behind him runs over his body and jumps off the other side. The last man over helps the first man to get disentangled from the wire. When it was my turn, the barbs stuck into my chest and left these scars.’
Which is why, I suppose, they took it in turns. It didn’t seem to be the kind of job that most people would volunteer for.
In the 1980s, decades after the war had ended, he started to get pains in his lower stomach area and went to his doctor to see what the problem might be. It turned out to be a piece of shrapnel that been lodged in his upper groin area for about forty years.
My father accumulated a whole range of prejudices on a wide variety of topics. I say ‘prejudices’, but that is not really the right word. A ‘prejudice’ is an opinion formed without factual or experiential basis. In my father’s case, one major or traumatic incident would be enough for him to form an unshakeable and life-long prejudice.
When the allies invaded Italy from Sicily, the paratroopers were flown over the Straits of Messina, which are about fifteen miles across, and dropped on the other side to secure a beachhead. My father’s regiment was transported by an American plane whose pilot and navigator were so incompetent, the whole regiment ended up being dropped, at night, 200 miles out to sea. Since they were all carrying over 60 lbs of gear, they all sank like stones, and only those who could get their packs off underwater and swim twenty or thirty feet to the surface survived. And once they were there, they had to tread water for eight hours until a rescue vessel picked them up the following morning.
This one incident produced in my father a life-long scathing contempt for the American military, and in particular for its navigational skills. I remember watching incidents from the Vietnam war with him on TV in the late 1960s. His assessment of what was going on there, and what was likely to happen in future, was derived entirely from his experiences of this one unfortunate incident when a navigation error killed a large number of his friends and comrades.
Incidentally, if you ever see an old newsreel of the allies invading Italy by storming up a beach, one of the figures wading ashore will be my father. It was staged well after the event (the cameras on the shore are, of course, a giveaway). Having failed to arrive in Italy by air on account of a navigation error, he eventually arrived there courtesy of a fake propaganda movie.
He was equally contemptuous of ‘The Guards’, the elite and somewhat aristocratic regiments of the British army. After a long and fierce battle in which several of his own regiment were wounded or killed, he walked back to his base camp to find a contingent of Guards, who were supposed to be helping out in the battle, cleaning and polishing their equipment. Their presence in the battle would, he said, have considerably reduced their own casualties, but for some reason, they never left their base. From that moment on, he called them ‘the rearguards’, and whenever they appeared in ceremonial parades on TV, he would loudly pour scorn on them, saying that they were never interested in doing any real fighting because they were always too busy polishing their equipment.
Year by year the prejudices accumulated, and once they were there, no new facts could assail them. In the 1980s, for example, he used to drive from England to Spain fairly regularly. His progress would often be impeded by striking French farmers who would hold up passing motorists by dumping their produce on the highway. After several such interruptions, my father started a one-man boycott of all French agricultural products. He refused for the rest of his life to eat anything that was grown in France, and if French wine, cheese or fruit appeared on any table he was eating at, they would most likely trigger a lecture from him on the evil ways of French farmers.
Sometime during the war, I think it must have been before he was transferred to the parachute regiment, he did an army course in driving and engine maintenance. He became a skilled mechanic and passed an exam that allowed him to drive any vehicle, including large trucks and even tanks, on public roads. Decades later, in the 1970s I think, I remember him fighting the vehicle licensing authority to retain his right to drive a tank on a public highway. He was then in his mid-50s and hadn’t been in the army for about thirty years, so it was highly unlikely that he would find a tank to drive, but it was a matter of principle for him.
He told me, ‘I am licensed to drive a tank, with no time limit indicated. I don’t see why they should take that right away just because I haven’t got a tank to drive.’
Amazingly, he won his bureaucratic battle and kept his tank license till the day he died.
His mechanical knowledge came in useful when he pulled off a prank in Italy. A general had decreed that soldiers were not permitted to attend a brothel in a nearby town. The decision was not popular with the troops. I have no idea whether my father was a client or not, but he somehow contrived to steal the general’s jeep and drive it to the brothel, where he disabled the engine so that it could not be driven away. It was parked there, in full public view, with the general’s insignia prominently displayed, for the whole of the next day until a member of the general’s staff managed to fix the engine and drive it away.
There was another escapade that I only found about at his funeral when one of members of his regiment turned up and passed it on to my brother-in-law.
As the Allies made their way up Italy, it became a job of the parachute regiment to drop troops behind the retreating enemy lines and blow up facilities that might help the Axis forces. Once that job was done, the paratroopers had to walk or fight their way home, through the enemy lines, and wait for their next assignment. They were not really explosives experts, but they made up for their deficiencies in that department by packing huge amounts of dynamite against the designated objects, detonating them, and hoping for the best. Given their lack of expertise, they were usually equipped with enough explosive to try again if their first attempt failed.
In this particular story my dad’s crew managed to blow up their target first time, possibly to their own surprise. They took their extra explosives to the nearest Italian town, which they knew had been abandoned by its inhabitants since it was only a few kilometers from the front line. They headed for the town bar, helped themselves to a few free drinks and then, under the influence of the alcohol, decided to rob the town bank with the rest of the dynamite. They blew the safe door and found millions of lira inside. They stuffed the money into sacks, headed off to the countryside and buried the sacks in a secret place. They knew they couldn’t carry them back to their own line. Their alcohol-fuelled plan was to come back after the war to reclaim their booty.
With the treasure buried, they went back to the bar to celebrate their new status as lira millionaires. Everyone got drunk and passed out in the bar. The next morning, when they all woke up, no one could remember where the money had been hidden. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had since the wartime liras had no value once the war was over. I am not surprised that my dad didn’t mention this episode at the family dinner table. It was hardly the kind of example to inspire his children to grow up into honest and worthy citizens. I have to say, somewhat guiltily, that my opinion of him went up, rather then down, when I heard this story at his funeral.
When the war ended in Europe, all the members of my father’s regiment put money in a fund (technically known as a ‘tontine’) with the stipulation that the last living survivor would collect all the money. When he passed away in 2000 there were about six other people still in with a chance of winning.
My father’s war didn’t end in 1945. His superiors, having spotted his intelligence, gave him a desk job facilitating the demobilisation of all the other soldiers who were going home. Apparently, he did that job so well, he ended up being an administrator in Palestine, which at that time was under a British mandate. His principal function there, he told me once, was to help British politicians get away with lying in parliament. The British had troops in Palestine, but were trying to conceal the extent of their commitment there by pretending that there were far fewer than there actually were. If an opposition Conservative member of parliament tabled a question about how many British troops were in Palestine, notice of this would come through to my father, who would then arrange for most of the British troops to get in their trucks and drive to neighbouring Jordan for a few hours.
While they were there, the Labour minister would stand up and declare, quite truthfully, ‘As I speak, I can tell you that we only have 200 [or however many would be politically acceptable] soldiers in Palestine’.
As soon as he sat down my father would arrange to bring all the other soldiers back from Jordan to Palestine. Not surprisingly, this job gave him a deep and abiding contempt for all politicians, particularly Labour ones – another prejudice that lasted for the rest of his life.
When my father finally returned to civilian life, he decided to pursue a career in gardening. He did a diploma course at Kew gardens and then tried his hand as a smallholder, growing vegetables. It didn’t work, and that particular project had to be abandoned.
His professional horticulture training gave him a deep knowledge of plants and trees. When I was a small boy, I remember being taken on walks around my neighbourhood with my father pointing out all the trees and naming them one by one. ‘This is willow, this is ash, this is sycamore,’ and so on. The knowledge stuck and more than forty years later, as I walked the same neighbourhood after my father’s funeral, I saw the same trees and walked past them all hearing my father’s voice saying ‘This is willow, this is ash, this is sycamore’.
When I was about ten my class teacher gave everyone in my class a rolled-up sheet of card and asked us all to collect tree leaves, tape them to the card, and then write the names of each leaf underneath.
‘This is a job for dad,’ I thought. He knew every tree for miles around.
He took me on a leaf-collecting tour and we came back with a prodigiously impressive haul. He spelled out the names of all the ones I didn’t know as I taped them to the card. When I took my card to class, I found out that I had about four times as many varieties as anyone else, and even the teachers hadn’t heard the names of some of the trees I had collected specimens from. My card was put on display in the school corridor as an educational aid to everyone else for the rest of the school year.
In the late 1940s my grandfather, Herbert Godman, was posted to Stoke-on-Trent for a three-year stretch as a Methodist minister. While he was there my father met Elsie, his future wife and my mother. She too came from a family with strong Methodist connections. Both her father and her grandfather were lay officials in the church. They were married in April 1950.
My mother had trained as a physiotherapist, specialising in physically-handicapped children. She took a job at a residential school where such children were boarders, and my father took a job there managing the school’s extensive gardens. The school, known as Horton Lodge, was about twelve miles from Stoke-on-Trent in rolling farmland that bordered on nearby moors. The grounds of the school were gorgeous and I imagine my father had to put in a lot of work keeping them in good condition. However, a crisis at the school precipitated a change of career.
One winter, while it was raining heavily, the head teacher came out to talk to my father.
‘All the teachers are down with flu this week. Can you come inside and look after the children for a few days until someone gets well enough to teach them again.’
My father told me that after a couple of days of telling the children stories and playing with them, the thought occurred to him: ‘This is more fun than working outside in the middle of winter. Maybe I should switch to teaching.’
He stayed in the classroom and tried out teaching for a while. Finding it more to his liking than gardening, he stayed in the classroom and worked as an unqualified teacher for a few years. In those days it was possible to work as a teacher with no qualifications at all, which seems somewhat odd, but he continued like this until 1958 when he decided it was time to get a proper teaching qualification. He went to college and obtained a one-year teaching diploma. He was a very smart man who nowadays would undoubtedly have gone to a good university, but in that era universities were expensive, and very few people went to them. Britain didn’t have the equivalent of the US GI Bill that sent returning servicemen to college. Many returning British soldiers who had joined the army straight from school ended up in undemanding jobs that didn’t tax their brains too much because a university education was simply not an option for them.
My father joined the college rugby team and found that, even at the age of thirty-five, he could still compete with all the kids who were coming to the college from school. He always prided himself on his strength and toughness. In later years he played competitive badminton until he was about fifty-five.
In 1953, the year I was born, my parents moved out of Horton Lodge and into a house they had bought. It was a ramshackle building with an acre of land that was just on the edge of the city. They paid about 2,000 pounds for it. The property had a pigsty with pigs, a hen house with hens, a duck pond with ducks, bee hives with bees, apple and pear trees, and a few nice rows of gooseberry bushes. My father liked the idea of messing about as a smallholder in his spare time, but there was an ulterior reason for taking on all this extra work. In 1950s England many foods were still rationed. If you had your own supply, you could supplement the rations or trade your food production with shopkeepers. I have dim memories of pigs and chickens in the garden, but the whole farming operation came to an end when I was about four. It was too much work to keep up, and by then food was no longer rationed. Bit by bit the smallholding mutated into a suburban garden, but for years and years the hen houses and the pigsties were great places for me and my friends to play in.
My mother continued to work at Horton Lodge until she retired, but my father gave up his work there in the mid-1950s and took jobs in other schools. When I was about three or four my father would tie me to the back of his motor bike and take me to the nursery class in his own school. My father taught in three local schools but was probably happiest at the third, Hillside, a school about a mile from where we lived. He worked there from the late 60s until the early 80s when he took early retirement.
The fashions and trends of modern education failed to make any impression whatsoever on my father. He thought that primary school children (in the UK that’s ages 5-11) should be taught basic literacy and numeracy. He made it his personal mission to see that no one left his school without being able to read, write, spell and do basic arithmetic. This might sound eminently reasonable to some, but he was bucking the trends of a system that was progressively allowing children to learn by themselves in their own time. He contrived to take over the oldest class (ten to eleven year olds) and gave them a grueling one-year crash course in the basics of the three R’s. This approach didn’t make him very popular with either the pupils or the other staff, but I know that at least some of his pupils thought it had been worth it.
I was talking to him once when a group of boys who looked about seventeen came up to him and said, ‘Mr Godman, we hated it in your class, but you were the only person who ever taught us anything. Now we wish that we had had more teachers like you.’
His nickname at school was Napoleon, which should give some idea of his methods. His reputation as a hard taskmaster in class and a strict disciplinarian stood him in good stead in another incident that took place in our neighbourhood. He was driving home from his school late one evening when he saw a group of late-teenage boys attacking a woman inside a launderette. He knew he had to go in and offer assistance, but at the same time he knew that he would probably end up getting attacked as well.
There is a famous story of Abraham Lincoln stopping to help a pig to get out of a ditch it was stuck in. He ruined his clothes but afterwards said, ‘I didn’t do it to help the pig. I did it because I knew I couldn’t live with my conscience if I walked by and ignored it.’
It was in the same spirit that my father walked into the launderette that night. He knew the woman who ran the place; he expected to be attacked himself, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with the thought of driving by and ignoring the whole incident.
He walked in, and for a couple of seconds everyone froze. Then one of the boys, looking very embarrassed, blurted out, ‘Sorry Mr Godman, we won’t do it again,’ and the whole gang fled. He told me later that they must have been former pupils of his, but he never found out who they were.
My father did actually care for the well being of these kids. For him it was a case of tough love. The children mostly came from poor, working-class backgrounds; they had usually spent a couple of years running wild and learning little in the lower classes of the school; and he knew that at the age of fifteen most of them would be leaving school and hunting for unskilled jobs. He just wanted to make sure that they could deal with this world by being functionally numerate and literate.
To compensate for this strict regime in class, he also put in a lot of hours on extra-curricular activities, taking the children on trips that he organised, and he was usually involved in one or more of the school’s sport’s teams. He ran the school football (soccer) team for a while, but he found his most rewarding sporting niche in developing cross-country running teams. When I was young I found cross-country running to be something of a punishment. It wasn’t something I would ever volunteer for. In Hillside, though, everyone, particularly the girls, wanted to be on his team. I never understood how he could motivate these children to tolerate the arduous training programme he put them through, but I do know that every year, almost every girl in every class would beg to be on his running team. Perhaps they did it because they knew they were signing up to be on a winning team; there were not many opportunities for girls that age and in that community to shine publicly and demonstrate that they were the best. Being on my dad’s team was one such option.
The key to their success was ‘the hill’. The school, aptly named ‘Hillside’, was situated at the bottom of a U-shaped glacial valley. U-shaped valleys get their name from their very steep sides and their rounded bottoms. My dad had his girls run up the hill behind the school again and again and again and again. It paid enormous dividends in the races, particularly on the hilly courses. I once went to see his girls strut their stuff on a hilly course a few miles from our home. It was two laps of a course, and each lap ended with a steep uphill climb. It was pouring with rain that day, and the wind was blowing the rain into the girls’ faces as they ascended the hill to the finish line. At that time I was a bit of an athlete myself: I had played rugby for eight years, had rowed for my college, and a couple of years before I had been county shot putt champion. However, I doubted whether I would have been able to beat his nine and ten year-old-girls up that hill, particularly second time around. They were awesome. I watched one race – I think it was for the eight-year-olds. About twenty different schools had sent six runners each, with the teams’ best four individual positions determining the final result. At the bottom of the hill second time around there was a group of about twenty runners still in contention, including most of my dad’s team. The Hillside crew leaned into the wind and rain and effortlessly skimmed over the mud on the final ascent. The girls behind got slower and slower and ended up looking like they were wading through treacle. My dad’s top four crested the hill in a line with triumphant, almost ecstatic, grins on their faces. It was another clean sweep for the team. This was not a one-off. Apparently, much to the consternation of the opposing teams and coaches, they did this week in, week out, in every local event they entered. They invariably won the city championships, and almost always won the county events. One or two girls would usually go on to run in the national age-group events. I think he had a national age-group champion in his second year.
An educational decision my father made when I was nine had a major impact on my own academic career. In those days (this was the early 1960s) children in the final year of their primary education took an exam, known as the ‘eleven plus’, whose result determined which secondary school they would attend. About 10% went on to what were called ‘grammar schools’, while the rest went to ‘secondary moderns’. Both were state run. The grammar schools were more academic and children there would normally be expected to go on to university or some equivalent vocational training.
Sometimes bright children took the eleven plus a year early in order to skip a year. I was one of them. I passed the exam and was given a place at a grammar school about six miles from my home. My father, though, made me do the final year of primary school again in order to take the exam a year later and get a higher score. He knew there was a better school that I had a good chance of getting into. It was called ‘Newcastle High School’ and it was located in the town of Newcastle-under-Lyme on the other side of my city. Stoke-on-Trent, my city, had a population of about 300,000 and each year Newcastle High School would take twelve boys (it was a single sex school) from the city, if their eleven plus results were good enough. The following year I took the exam again and did well enough to become one of those twelve. I received an outstanding education there which culminated in my winning a place at Oxford University. Thanks dad, that was a great decision.
When I was about eight or nine, I came home from school and asked my dad, ‘Are we Catholics or Protestants?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘We are having history lessons at school,’ I replied. ‘Sometimes the Protestants seem to be winning the wars, and sometimes the Catholics. I just wanted to know which side we were on.’
The lessons had been about Tudor and Stuart England, where the religion of the country seemed to change every time a new monarch ascended to the throne. I had no idea what a Protestant or a Catholic might be, but I assumed we had to be one or the other.
Dad asked me, ‘Do you know what Protestants and Catholics believe in?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘they never mentioned that at school. We only learned about the fights they got into.’
‘If you don’t know what a Protestant or a Catholic is,’ said my dad, ‘then you are neither. When you get older, you can find out what Protestants and Catholics believe in. You can then choose which one you want to be. And if you don’t like the two choices on offer, you can choose to be neither and either be something else or nothing at all. These are things you have to choose and decide for yourself when you know all the facts.’
My father was a lay official in the Methodist church, a Protestant sect; his father had been a minister in the same church; all of my mother’s relatives were church-going Methodists; an uncle on my mother’s side was a Methodist minister, and both of his sons ended up in the same profession. Yet here he was, telling me that I was not a Protestant, and never would be until I decided for myself which religious beliefs, if any, I wanted to subscribe to. A few more dads like him in Northern Ireland might have spared that country from generations of religious and sectarian conflict.
In retrospect, I have come to regard this as a key encounter in my relationship with my father. In later years, when I dropped out of university and went to India, his friends and relatives would ask him what he thought.
His invariable reply was, ‘I taught my children to think for themselves and not accept other people’s opinions. So, when they started to do that, I had no right to object or complain.’
He never understood what I was doing in India, or why I chose to spend my life here, but he did regard it as a triumph for his educational system that I had thought things through for myself, rejected my parents’ lifestyle and beliefs, and then put my convictions into action. While I never did anything that caused him to boast about my achievements (‘My son, the doctor,’ and so on), he did seem to be proud of the fact that I had gone my own way and not unthinkingly accepted the received doctrine of his society and his church.
To develop this theme a little more, there is one more family story that I have to tell. When I was sixteen and my elder sister Geraldine was seventeen, she got pregnant. In that era, and with my family’s religions background, the only approved option was marriage. My father made all the arrangements, and even bought a house for Geraldine and her future husband to live in. It was a cheap place in a street that was about to be condemned. My father knew that if the local council demolished the house, it would be obliged to provide government accommodation for the couple. It was really a back-door way of getting my sister to jump the waiting list on the government housing programme.
On the day of the wedding, when all the arrangements were in place, my father drove Geraldine to the church.
He stopped the car at one point and told her, ‘I have made all the arrangements for this wedding. I have bought you a house and set up everything for your married life because it was my duty to do this. However, I understand that this may not be what you want yourself. If you want to pull out of it right now, before it is too late, I can take you to the train station and you can go away for a while, to anywhere you want, till the fuss dies down. You don’t have to face the people here. I will go in and explain what has happened.’
If this was a soap opera, this would be the closing moments of an episode. The music would come, the credits would roll, and everyone would be left wondering what Geraldine would decide.
In the real world Geraldine thought, ‘Why didn’t he give me this option last week? Why does he have to tell me this while we are standing virtually outside the church door?’
With everyone inside the church, waiting for her to walk down the aisle, she was too embarrassed to call the whole thing off. She went ahead with it, even though she felt that she had been pressurised into the marriage.
This was a classic illustration of how my dad’s mind worked. He had a strong sense of duty and obligation. He had what nowadays is called a ‘moral compass’. In his own mind he knew what was right, and he acted accordingly. But, at the same time, he knew that, where others were involved, they had a right to think things through for themselves, come to their own conclusions, and then act in what they thought were their own best interests. He might not agree with their choices, but he would always defend their right to make their own decisions.
If I could take the liberty of framing him in a Hindu context, I would call him a ‘man of dharma’. He knew what his duties were towards his family, the children he taught, and the community he lived in, and he fulfilled those duties to the best of his ability. He would, for example, always become involved in the Parent Teacher’s Association of whatever schools my two sisters and I were attending, and more often than not he would end up being a secretary or a treasurer of them. He was the sort of person who publicly exuded a quiet well-spoken authority that people trusted. After a few minutes of speaking in a room full of strangers, someone would usually decide that this man should be on the committee of whatever event he was attending. He was a lay official in the church he attended, Sunday school teacher in another; he was the teacher’s union rep at his school, and on the one occasion he was summoned for jury duty, the other people there took one look at him and appointed him foreman.
He could be publicly outspoken and unyielding on matters of what he considered to be ‘principle’. When our city council tried to save money by issuing instructions that all schools should save money by cutting down on winter heating bills, the thermostats were turned down and some cold lessons ensued. My father checked the rule book and found that a minimum temperature was prescribed for all schools in the city. He put thermometers in all the classrooms. When he discovered that the temperature was below the minimum prescribed throughout the school, he called a teacher’s meeting and persuaded them to close the school down and not reopen it until the local council agreed to stick to the temperatures stipulated in the rule book. The council backed down and all the city’s schools were ordered to keep their temperatures above the required minimum.
One more incident springs to mind. Sometime during the 1960s he publicly resigned his membership of the Methodist Church during a church meeting. The Methodist Church was affiliated to an organisation called the World Council of Churches, and some of its money went to support that group. My father discovered that The World Council of Churches was giving out money to what it termed ‘freedom fighters’ in Africa. These were organisations such as the African National Congress which was fighting the apartheid government in South Africa. My father had no objection to sending aid to Africa; he just objected to the funds being used to finance acts of violence. His political views were always decidedly right wing. When he found out that a tiny fraction of his church membership fee was ending up with such groups, he stood up at a church meeting and said that he wasn’t going to belong to any organisation whose funds were used to aid what he called ‘terrorists’. I have no idea how this particular issue was resolved, but I admired him for taking a principled stand that seemed to upset everyone in his church.
In the early 1980s the British government discovered that it had trained far too many teachers, an administrative blunder that resulted in there being no jobs for many of the young teachers leaving college. The government’s solution was to offer older teachers a cash bonus and a full pension to retire early. My father jumped at the opportunity, partly because he was tired of dealing with city officials who were trying to interfere in the running of schools, and partly because he wanted to move to a warmer climate that would be kinder to his chronic rheumatism. He and my mother both retired and went to live on the south coast of Spain.
In his retirement my father used his considerable intellect and his organisational skills to become an amateur lawyer for all the British expatriates who needed help with buying houses, making wills, getting permission to build, and so on. He learned the intricacies of Spanish law, as it affected foreign residents, and he also mastered the labyrinthine ways and politics of the local town hall where all deals and contracts were scrutinised and approved. Not being a qualified lawyer, he wasn’t allowed to charge for his services, but he did allow his clients to take him out for dinner once, and once only, at the conclusion of every successful deal. Since he had usually saved them hundreds or thousands of pounds, they were more than happy to wine and dine him at the most expensive restaurants on the Costa del Sol. If he had family staying with him, they would be included in the deal as well. I visited my parents there in 1983. In an average week we were probably taken out three or four times. By that time all the big restaurants knew my dad, and his party always received special, preferential treatment.
In 1990 my mother passed away unexpectedly after a long illness that did not at any time appear to be life-threatening. They had been married for about forty years. About a year later, much to everyone’s surprise, my father announced that he was planning to marry a woman called Pat, whom I remembered as one of our neighbours when I was growing up. My father, aware that his family might think this a bit too soon after Elsie’s death, wrote to me and asked my opinion.
I wrote back: ‘You are old enough to decide for yourself what you want to do with the rest of your life. You don’t need my permission or approval to get married again.’
Dad and Pat married and lived together, mostly on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, until he passed away in 2000.
In 1991 the two of them came to visit me in Tiruvannamalai, the first time that my father had ever been to see me here. I showed him around the ashram, took him to places such as Skandashram and the Arunachaleswara Temple, and tried to describe what I was doing here. My father was a smart man. If he had taken the trouble, he could have listened, asked some intelligent questions, and discovered for himself what I was doing with my life. However, I soon discovered that he had no interest in briefing himself on what his son was doing. He never asked any questions, never showed any interest in the things I had done here, and whenever he initiated a conversation, he would talk about events going on in England: what the neighbours and relatives were doing, how the local football teams were faring, and so on. Information about Tiruvannamalai and Ramana just seemed to slide off him like water off a duck’s back. I decided eventually that he had come to India to see me, his son, and not to get information about what I was doing. He had brought an English bubble with him, and he wanted us all to live in that bubble while he was here. It was a little bit sad and depressing. All children want their parents to make some effort to understand what they are doing, even if they don’t necessarily approve, but my father, on his first and only visit to my world, didn’t even want to try.
Towards the end of his visit I took him on pradakshina. He managed the whole fourteen kilometer circuit. This was an impressive feat because it was a hot day; my father was almost seventy years old, and he had had a complete hip replacement a few months before.
At the end of the walk I prostrated to the mountain and said, ‘He is not my responsibility any more. He’s Yours.’
I never tried to talk to him again about Ramana or anything else that was important to me. In all our future conversations and meetings we stuck to his agenda and interests.