Tuesday 15 March 2016

Fifteen Statements on the Ides of March

It's the 15th March.

Today is the anniversary of the death of Julius Caesar. He was stabbed by his political enemies and several of his friends, because they believed that killing him would put things back the way they were before. This did not go quite according to plan.

For me, it has a significance that goes beyond the mundane tide of world history. Today would have been my Dad's 77th birthday. His name was Dave Ingham.

I've written about my dad a lot over the years. Today, though, here are fifteen things about him, for the 15th. Which are, by extension, about me.

1. My great-grandfather, where my family history really begins, was in the Navy, and apparently, or at least my family so insisted, was decorated at the Battle of Jutland.

Not, I must hasten to point out, the Cmdr James Ingham who you can see on the list I just linked as having earned a DSO and The Order of St Stanislas. That fella was a battleship commander who had and would continue to have a distinguished career in the Navy and then the Merchant Navy. He's no relation to me all. I checked.

No, the great-grandfather who fought at Jutland was just a gunner. He claimed to be the Commander Ingham who was decorated at Jutland, but no, he wasn't.

That great grandfather, according to one family legend, had a common-law wife beside his wife by law, whom he used to visit while his legal wife thought he was at sea. Not the smartest of bigamists, my great-grandfather maintained both relationships in Plymouth, and, inevitably ratted out by neighbours, great grandad was publicly shamed when his original wife confronted him and his other partner in a market. Physical violence ensued between the women and, so the story goes, the naval hero was literally dragged home, humiliated.

His son Fred Ingham, a man much like his father by all accounts, married Kathleen Penney. They would have eight children, among them Dad, the fifth. Both Kathleen and Fred died about six months before I was born.

2. My Dad's family was struck by a succession of tragedies, which over time have become enshrined as family legends, and as those most impenetrable of mysteries, family secrets. What happened to cause the sundering of eight children such that the younger four would not see their older siblings again for in some cases forty years and in others ever?

The one living relative I have who knows exactly what happened and why, an aunt, is never, ever going to speak of it. It is still the source of a terrible pain. She is in her 80s now. When she passes, the secret will go with her.

Likewise, the stupid, preventable, careless, self-inflicted death of Dad's brother Ted – the only one of the stolen siblings who had returned – in 1960, at the age of 25, cast a shadow over his family that still exists today.

My father's defining emotion was sadness. Even his smiles were melancholy.    
The building where Dad was housed as an evacuee, now the Royal Agricultural University.
3. Plymouth was hit hard during the Blitz. Dad, just about two years old, was evacuated to the countryside.

This was his one evacuee story: at the end of the war, still quite small and remembering nothing of his family, he would recall standing on a railway platform along with several other returned evacuees. He didn't know who would come for him. And one beautiful, smart, kind woman after another came and called the name of another child.

And finally, with him last to go as he told it, there came to the platform, Kathleen Ingham, a skinny, wobbly woman with bad teeth and scruffy clothes and the smell of cigarettes and poverty on her (and cigarettes and poverty is more or less a tautology in my mind; the smell of growing up poor in Plymouth is the smell of cigarettes and I can't divorce the two things). And she called his name. And he wouldn't believe that this was his mother. He fought and screamed. This was not his mother. And he he was dragged home and he was thrashed.

He was never forgiven for this, nor was he allowed to forget, neither by his parents nor by himself.

 4. He left school at 15, before finishing his O Levels, to join the army. Within a couple of months he was kicked out, too short-sighted to work as a soldier. In the 1960s, he won a bit of money on the football pools (remember those?) and used it to set himself up as an insurance salesman in London, when London was swinging. Those were good times for him. Exciting times. He drove a Jaguar. He met a Polish woman named Bozena, fell in love and married her. She was gone within a matter of months, absconding with another man and eventually winding up in France.

It wasn't long after this that his mother Kathleen took ill again. As the only one of his siblings who wasn't with a family he was expected to go back to Plymouth and support his mum and dad. He sold his Jag and most of his records, including all of his Beatles albums - Sergeant Pepper had just come out and he'd hated it - and he went back home.

He hardly even spoke about London and only ever once spoke about his first wife in my presence, simply to say that he had one. I think it was too painful for him. The only reason I know what her name was at all is that he kept his divorce decree, which I found in his papers after he was gone. It took Dad years to track Bozena down and serve her with the divorce papers, and by then he'd been with my mum for a long time.

They were married on 23rd December 1974 in a small registry office ceremony. I was born almost exactly nine months later.

He always gave every sign that he bitterly regretted the direction in which life had taken him. I grew to believe that this meant he regretted me. Later I would discover, too late, that this was in fact not the case.

5. He never read to me. But he gave me books and when I got older he would sit for hours at the dining room table listening to me read to him. He gave me my first Dungeons and Dragons set, acquired second hand from the parents of Dave Palk down the road. Dave down the road and his brothers couldn't make head nor tail of it, so it was mine.

6. Dad loved fantasy and science fiction. He particularly loved Star Trek and Doctor Who (but not Colin Baker). He was the first person who told me Farscape was brilliant. And the BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas. His favourite show was always Doomwatch. He used to talk about how great it was years later, the episode where Robert Powell's character dies in the explosion. And he loved magic. And reading about the supernatural. Len Deighton. Dickens.

His taste in fiction and TV was, although often conservative, often pretty great. In music... not so great. He really liked that sort of 1960s country music that was really treacly and sentimental, the "Nashville Sound" stuff. I spent my childhood listening to Brenda Lee, Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman (the latter of course, as you may know, is our last best hope against a Martian invasion). In his last few years he started really liking Enya. I have his copy of Shepherd Moons now, and his Christmas albums, and the one really weird album by the Harry Simeone Chorale, the one with the whitebread country choir singing the songs of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash.

Dad's favourite song in his final years was "In Marble Halls". When I hear that song now it makes me very sad. Slim Whitman's version of "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" always made him very sad, for very similar reasons.

7. He worked in a radio workshop for most of my childhood. Then he spent years out of work. Then he drove a cab. Then he worked in an electronics factory, until the literal day he died.

8. My dad – my mum more, but definitely my dad – taught me, rightly or wrongly, that affection is a middle-class luxury. At no time after the age of eleven do I ever recall him having a single word of encouragement for me. He stood up for me all right, was a champion letter writer and complainer, but to my face, it was all, "Well, you're not the sort to ever learn how to drive, are you?" I swear, when I first revealed I had a girlfriend, all he had to say was "Thank God you're not gay."

But he also taught me that kindness was everything. He was remembered by those outside the family as a man of sacrificial kindness, even to the extent that sometimes he was exploited by those he helped. But he remained kind up until he died. A man who would do anything for anyone, was what he was described as.

If he hadn't sacrificed his chances of happiness for the sake of his family, I wouldn't exist now.

9. I didn't fight with him, not really. But as I got older, I did that thing that you do when you're a young man who did immeasurably better than your parents ever did. I talked down to him.

Hell, sometimes I wish I knew now as much as I did when I was nineteen.

Dad was just a constant stream of negativity, doubt and disparagement. Nothing I did would ever satisfy him. The only feeling I ever got from him was that I was as much a crushing disappointment to him as everything else in his life.

10. The last time I saw him face to face, Christmas 2000, I got on with him just fine. I felt I'd reached some sort of equilibrium with him. He'd been ill. He was in a good job. He was OK. We drank together, and talked, and I felt we had something in common for the first time in years. We parted on the best terms we had in years.

11. He died on 8th February 2001, at about 6pm. His heart, harried by years of cigarettes, poor diet, anxiety, disappointment and stress, and possessed of a congenital pulmonary defect he knew nothing about, simply gave out on him. He made it home from work and died in the kitchen in my mother's arms a few minutes later. He was a month short of his 62nd birthday. I was in my kitchen in Swansea when I heard, a half hour later. Mum's next door neighbour, to whom I had never spoken before nor would again, called to tell me the news.

12. His funeral was packed out. Hundreds of people. People I'd never heard of. Standing room only. Strangers who after the service approached me like they'd known me for years, asking me how my PhD was going, asking how Wales was, congratulating me on my recent wedding. He'd been proud of me, they said. He'd talked about me with everyone who would listen. How proud he was, the hopes he had. Over and over again that day. People curious to meet Dave Ingham's golden son.

He never, ever said it to my face.

13. I have a box of Dad's writing and a lot of his books. His short stories. His attempts at novels. I've been tracking down the occult magazines that he read every month for years, which I used to sneak reads of, many of which my mum threw away after he died. I've managed to track down copies of nearly all of them.

14. He wanted to be a writer. He sat at that table writing occult scriptures, novels, and short stories full of class injustices and brutal twists for years. Eventually he'd get published, his flash fictions (as you'd call them now) appearing in a local charity magazine for much of the 1990s. To him it felt, I think, like a consolation prize.

15. I wrote Chariot for him. He wouldn't have liked it. But it's as much about growing up with him in my world as anything else. It's about the things he taught me about the inequity of class, and the way in which life screws you over and wrecks your hopes. It's about grief and loss. It's about longing for the chance to make a better world. As my father always did.

There isn't a day passes where the loss of him doesn't ache in my chest, where I don't think of him, where I don't want to succeed in the ways that he did not. As he wanted.

Happy birthday, Dad.