Wednesday, 31 March 2010
My Father - his funeral tribute
He was known to some of you as Steve; to a very few, who knew him from his schooldays, as John; to two of us as Daddy; and to seven of us as Grandpa. Today I shall speak of him as my father – not only mine of course: my sister Jane, who inherited his red hair and who absolutely adored him, was the first of the two children born to him and Mary; but the term ‘Our father in heaven’ is already taken I believe, so I will speak of him as ‘my father’ for now.
From Marcel Proust’s book À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, come the now famous and oft-quoted words, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) He may have been putting his own twist on a line filched from François Villon’s “Òu sont les rouilles d’antan?” and therefore presumably would not have minded that my father filched it again and improved it impressively, taking it to new poetic heights with his “Mais òu sont les cure-dents d’antan?” which he would routinely murmur at the end of a meal in any restaurant – which might loosely be translated as “Why do they never provide toothpicks any more?”
His dotty sense of humour and delight in winding people up are surely two of the things he will be remembered for. I remember a Sunday lunchtime when I was about ten, all of us sitting nicely round our beautifully laid table to a delicious meal – my mother’s contribution to the occasion – listening to her explaining to us exactly what a sphincter is (I can’t remember why). My father listened politely along with me and my sister, and then concluded Mither’s explanation with his own words:
“I wish I were a little sphincter
I’d open and I’d shut
I’d tickle the oesophagus
And paralyse the gut.”
How could we possibly forget him?
Born here in Scarborough; descended, I am entirely certain, from Viking invaders – looking at our picture book of Norway as a child, I saw any number of men who looked just like my father – he was the only son of Clarice and Frank Stephenson, who were always immensely proud of him. My grandfather was organist and choirmaster here for many years, and my father sang in the choir and served as an altar-boy. Though he did not really pursue the gift for music he inherited from his father, it was there in his astonishing linguistic ability and his love of jazz, and he introduced us in childhood to world music, bringing home EPs from all over Europe. He also enjoyed playing the piano, and in recent years my sister acquired a piano so that he could have the pleasure of fooling about with a little jazz on a Sunday afternoon when he went round for tea.
Though he would get into conversation with random strangers all over the place, my father was essentially a private and solitary man. He loved his family, but could not bear extended company. When I was at university he sometimes travelled many miles to visit me, but would never stay longer than ten minutes.
But the friendships he made have lasted a lifetime: until the present time he kept in touch with friends from Scarborough High School where he was educated and from Oxford University where he read modern languages at University College: his death has meant cancelling his booking to attend the reunion dinner which he and Alan Green always looked forward to, and for which Harvey McGregor was flying back from Paris.
My father’s roots and formative years meant a great deal to him. My sister and I grew up in Bishops Stortford, and had tremendous fun on the occasions we were taken to Cambridge where my father would leave his watch in lieu of a deposit for boat hire, and take us and our mother punting on the Cam. Very strong and fit (he swam for the university in his Oxford days) he was excellent at punting – but as we went along the river we would be hailed by any number of well-meaning souls attempting to put him right: because he would insist on punting from the Oxford end of the boat.
He was certainly his own man. He started the export endeavours of EverReady batteries, and was sent to Scandinavia, French West Africa, Greece, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and probably other places I have forgotten. He drove his line managers wild by refusing to report back as he went. All they knew was, he had gone to the Congo; and he thought that was all they needed to know. My sister and I were more fortunate. As children in our home we had a large box full of the treasured postcards he never neglected to send home from his travels. Photographs of wild animals from Africa, enchanting replicas from Paris of street artists’ paintings of little girls – one red-haired, one blonde. His messages were funny and affectionate, decorated with his daft cartoons – I remember one of a giraffe wearing a diminutive scarf to comfort its sore throat. Imagining a giraffe with a sore throat is a very John Michael Stephenson line of thought.
And he brought home for us the wonders of the world – ivory carvings from Africa, an elephant’s molar, and sapphire blue butterflies as big as your hand; exquisitely dressed porcelain dolls from Japan, reindeer-skin slippers from Lapland – he was away from home more than he was there, but his family were never far from his thoughts.
Later, when he started his own business manufacturing carpet, he still divided his time between Hertfordshire and the north country. He never liked to perch on any twig for too long.
At home, though he was not famous for co-operation, his principal joint project with our mother was the garden, in any given one of the seemingly endless succession of homes we lived in.
He laid steps where the ground was steep, dug the pond and the flower beds, made fences to keep the dog in, managed the woodland, mowed the immense lawns with great patience, and put endless effort into all that was required to make our large houses and even larger gardens beautiful.
The wedding photos of his marriage to my mother show a couple that could put film stars in the shade. In those days his eyes were so blue you would notice them across the street and his hair as red as a flame. He always gave her yellow roses for their anniversary, because she loved them.
Essentially a gentle and patient person who loved his family and had a horror of hurting anyone, but who needed simplicity and homeliness and needed to be free, our domestic life was not always easy for him.
On Sundays we went to the village church; where he served on the sidesmen’s rota, and in which context the group of friends with whom he met every Thursday at the pub got to know each other. The Church held for him a real nostalgic value: but I do not know what his beliefs were. He was acutely intelligent, serving as what was described as an ‘interpreter’ in Germany for his national service with the Air Force, and could see through most blags and smoke screens. The power games of religion would not have taken him in; but I think he was not atheist, he loved beauty and, passionately Conservative in his politics, tradition mattered to him.
He had flair, he had persistence, and he loved the countryside. These characteristics came together in his project for re-afforestation of the Nile valley in Africa, which he pursued as far as he could, with the help and advice of his good friend Jack Leaf.
He was very interested in language and the structure of language. He remarked to me one day that once you know enough languages well enough to speak them, you become aware of the patterns of language and it is then easy to learn a new one. The thesis he wrote in his university days, about the sound shifts as language changes and develops, is now standard linguistic text-book stuff – but of course it wasn’t then, or there would have been no reason to make it the subject of a thesis: so his work and thinking has been part of our development of understanding about the structure of language.
He enjoyed his cars immensely, kept them immaculate and pestered the life out of the mechanics at the garage, nursing the old engines along till they were past hope.
He loved red wine, and no Cheddar cheese was safe with him.
He was individual, eccentric and completely unmanageable: the only man in Much Hadham who had to be excused from sorting his rubbish for recycling.
I shall remember him scrutinizing restaurant menus with care and ordering whatever they did not have. I shall remember him dressed in chinos, and open-necked shirts in colours of the sea and the sky. I shall remember him buying seed to feed the birds – and inadvertently, the rats – that came to his garden. I shall remember him talking wistfully of his dreams of living in a little house in Whitby Bay, or maybe a fishing hut in Norway – somewhere simple and honest and away from the crowd. I shall remember him saying dandelion when everyone else says dandelion. I shall remember him feeding Josh, the beloved border terrier, forbidden scraps from the table.
But most of all, I shall remember him for his kindness. I recall a day when his grandsons were very little – Joe a toddler and Luke a baby. Standing near the great beech tree at Grooms Cottage, I watched Jane and Tim roll in to the gravel drive in their Renault 4, and vanish into the house, Jane carrying Luke, Joe toddling along behind. Then from the walled garden my father strolled into view, taking Joseph by the hand, walking along with him, talking to him quietly and kindly. And that was so like him.
His health remained good into old age, and he disliked medical intervention anyway. When one of his teeth fell out he super-glued it to its neighbour, and that did him very well for several years.
He died as he had lived, as many people do. Without announcement, without the fuss and interference he dreaded. The day before he’d had a happy day out with my mother, failed to meet her as agreed because he got delayed buying a scarf from a market stall to give a child he had seen crying with the cold, but rejoined her at home for tea and cake in the usual way. He was looking forward to visiting my sister the next weekend. He had enjoyed a chat with Alan on the phone. He had got ready for bed in the lovely warm pyjamas Jane gave him at Christmas – he always appreciated his gifts. And he died very suddenly, with no fear, illness or drama.
When we found him, lying on his bed with his head resting on his arm, I looked at his face. In many of the dead one sees an expression of great peace. Looking at his face, the abiding impression was one of kindness. It remained in his features, because it had been the habit of his life.