It’s the first day of Autumn. The day fluctuates each year. It’s not defined by an equinox. It’s marked by the first day that the heating goes on at home. It’s the day that I can smell baked dust in the air.
This year it’s October 6th. The date has even deeper resonances this year because it’s my dad’s birthday. He died earlier this year from motor neurone disease. He would have been 79 today.
I signed up ages ago to do ye olde Ice Bucket Challenge. I’ve been slowly raising money on JustGiving and I’m at about 75% of my target. Here’s a link to my Just Giving Page.
The idea of dumping a bucket of ice feels a bit tired now, given that everybody has done it, but as the days get colder, perhaps it also has a bit more bite.
I went to my dad’s funeral in Australia earlier this year and gave the eulogy. Here it is. I hope you’ll read it and I hope you might help me to reach my target.
Thanks for reading.
Dad was born in Newport, Gwent, South Wales on October 6th, 1935, within a few days, I discovered this week, of Julie Andrews and Luciano Pavarotti. Newport, as the name suggests, is a port town. I have a theory about the children of ports. They are born to be travellers.
Travel was one of the great passions of my dad’s life. He had what he always called the outward urge and I sailed with him and my mum from Southampton to Melbourne on a one way ticket in 1965. He settled in Australia – well, ‘settled’ with my dad is a slightly loose term. He was emotionally settled here but his legs had other ideas. In the seventies he took us on some trips around the world which I have yet to better. They formed me and Matt in ways that certainly I am still unraveling. But that was just the beginning of his travelling exploits.
The great Australian explorers: Burke and Wills; Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth; and their more recent counterpart, Thompson. Dad toured the world over many happy years, creating mini spikes in GDP wherever he landed. The global financial meltdown wasn’t the fault of the bankers. It’s because Dad wasn’t travelling quite as much. Some of those early noble explorers went in search of the source of mighty rivers. Dad went in search of the source of the perfect cashmere jumper.
Songs were the second big passion of his life. From my exile in the UK I’ve read all about Australia and its ancient origins, and about the songlines. When I think of dad, I hear a songline that spans the world from Newport to Canberra. Along it we find Stan Kenton, Blossom Dearie, Michel Legrand, Kurt Elling. Their songs captured his view of the world. If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing. I fell out of her eyes, I fell out of her heart. I hear you singing in the wires. Me here at last on the ground, you in mid air. A big fixture of our Saturday mornings in Higgins was dad putting his LPs on the turntable and dancing appalling badly to them with his famous banana legs.
The love of life was the third big passion of dad’s life. He gave it and he got it. He was a lighthouse of a man. Dad didn’t really have any training in how to be a dad but to me and Matt he excelled in it. He’d always take time to set our compasses and was never harsh. When Matt cut the neighbour’s son’s fringe at a 45 degree angle with the garden shears or set fire to the shed; when I melted a couple of irreplacable LPs by leaving them in the sun on the back seat of his Falcon 500. He’d make his point and then laugh.
He was exuberant. If you wanted to find the funny side in the bleakest places, dad would always dig it out like a dog finding a deeply buried bone. When we’d nearly filled our second-hand above ground pool with several tonnes of water only to discover that the liner was a crucial two inches out and had to empty the whole bloody thing and then made the same mistake again and then punctured it; when his experimental DIY skills ruined the kitchen, he’d just laugh.
Dad’s exuberance took occasional wrong turns. I remember when were on holiday in Massachusetts for the first time in 1975. Dad, always the natty dresser, was swept away by the in-your-face fashion sense of the Americans. My Uncle Gene, a native New Yorker, had a blue blazer and a pair of bright red tartan trousers that caught dad’s eye. As Howard Crozier may recall Dad bought a pair, brought them back to Australia and promptly wore them into work on his return. Bear in mind this is Canberra in 1975. It wasn’t the bohemian capital of the world. To date, it remains the only documented case of someone I know wearing something to work and being laughed home to change.
Stories are the final passion. Few here won’t have heard from dad that a stallholder at Fishwick fruit market greets him with the words “Ah George Clooney, good morning Mr Clooney.” You might have heard those stories half a dozen times. I remember worrying as a kid that dad might have early Alzheimer’s disease, because his storytelling brain seemed set in a rut. Over time I concluded that in each of these stories he’s quietly teaching us something through rote learning. The central message, I think, is keep going, be kind to people and don’t take life too seriously.
Life has a limited number of acts. In dad’s case, several. His childhood, a door he never swung fully open to me; his time at University in Cardiff and stoking the furnace at the steelworks; meeting mum, having me, emigrating, life in Melbourne, having Matt, moving to Canberra; then Heli, a chapter that I’ve sadly had to share at a distance.
I wrote to him just before he died to tell him about an incident on the field opposite our house back in the seventies. He’d go there at night under the Milky Way and skip in his atrocious tracksuits. I can still hear the whip of the rope in the night air. One night when I was sixteen I was in a state and I wandered across. I’d fallen in love with a girl for the first time and it had gone terribly wrong. She was like a comet, and it was only after she’d gone that I had the flash of realisation of what I should have done, drew a breath and got started on trying to put things right.
I was shuffling around while he skipped and there was a break in the rhythm of the rope which I knew was because he’d picked up that something was wrong.
All he had to say, which he did, is “what’s wrong old fella” and I broke down. So he grabs me, hugs me, and here’s the thing – I hear my dad sort of crumble himself.
And it’s in this unremarkable vital reassuring moment with him that every single thing that has ever happened to me, joys and misfortunes, victories and errors, makes complete and utter and magnificent sense. Dad taught me that life is a complex and imperfect thing and it’s those songs, those murmurings of his loving and connected heart, that form the net that keeps us all from falling – and always, always will.
Sometimes life is a venn diagram, not a set of clear boundaries, but if there’s something I’ve learned from my dad it’s to see the bigger story – not deny the wounds that life serves up – but see life for what it is. Dad saw it as a joyous thing, to be shared and celebrated with gusto.
There’s a line in Middlemarch, finally, that with a bit of tweaking sums him up: the effect of his being on those around him was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is in no small part due to that complex, baffling, magnificent, beguiling, joyful buccaneer of a man, my dad, Lyndon Charles Raymond Thompson.
Here’s a link to my Just Giving Page. Please give a few quid if you can. I would be grateful.