BY AMANDA CUMMINS
A long life, well-lived. Well, Daddy certainly had a long life. But the well-lived part started to unravel five years ago.
Who could have thought that with every setback he’d not quite bounce back, but certainly totter back. His was the most unshakeable spirit coupled with huge optimism, – a few weeks before he died, he asked me to buy some new chairs for the garden at [home]… “for when I’m stronger: I love sitting in the garden”. This from someone who had not been further than his suite in the sitting room for a year.
I know very little of my father’s childhood. Other than that he and his 3 brothers seemed to have a magical existence growing up in County Cork. Messing about in boats, shooting, fishing, playing tennis, golf and cricket. His school days were not exactly covered in academic glory, unlike his elder brother who Dad said was sickeningly clever!
Daddy was one of the last intake at Sandhurst during the war. He took it very seriously. But also, as part of a rather wild quartet of friends, he partied. A lot. Disappearing to London at every opportunity. A different time, then: who knew what lay ahead, so Carpe Diem…at the risk of incurring the wrath of the powers that be. Following Sandhurst, when my father was commissioned into the Irish Guards, he went to Bovington to learn how to drive a tank. Which meant that his driving licence allowed him to drive a tracked vehicle for the rest of his life. This might account for the inexplicable bashes to the little blue car which continued to be driven to the village until a year ago: just go forwards and ignore opposition.
My father never spoke about the War, and commanding tanks which travelled across France, into Belgium and then into Germany. And being involved in war trials. The only thing he ever said was that he spent a lot of time smoking and listening to Glenn Miller. As with so many of his generation, many things remained unsaid. But doing things in tanks, as he put it, laid the seeds for the deafness which became acute as his life progressed.
Fast forward a few years after the War, and this rather dashing young man was unleashed on London again. Where he met my mother. The engagement nearly didn’t happen, as Dad was initially thwarted by the imposing porter at my grandmother’s block of flats. The fact that the man who went on to be my father turned up late at night, in a dinner jacket and just faintly “tinctured”, announcing he’d come to propose to Miss Hastings, is neither here nor there. The porter – Burton – told Dad that it wasn’t the moment, and to go home, sleep, put on a suit, eat a hearty breakfast and reappear at a more agreeable hour. Duly chastened – Burton had been a RSM, and old habits die hard – pa removed himself. Burton went and banged on Granny’s front door and announced that “a young man came to see you and apparently wishes to marry Miss Eve. Most unsuitable, if you don’t mind me saying so. I’ve told him to return in the morning”. Granny thought it frightfully funny. Dad duly returned in the morning, rather nervous of encountering Burton again. All was well. He’d scrubbed up to the standards that passed Burton’s muster.
My parents married in 1956. Daddy had joined Rugby Cement, and was sent to Australia. My mother found it terribly daunting: newly married, wedding presents unwrapped in the hold. Going as far away from home as you could possibly go. On a ship. Totally out of Mum’s comfort zone. My father took to Australia – a Man’s Country – but my mother found it less easy. Nevertheless she embraced the strangeness of it all as best she could, and they formed some wonderful friendships.
They returned to the UK in 1958, this time flying which took about 4 days, stopping off at places many and various en route. Dad was slightly perturbed when a soldier at Karachi airport shoved a rifle into my cot. A pause in Warwickshire, and then off to the West Indies we went. To Trinidad. By ship: poor Mum, she really hated travelling by sea. I was a very little girl, and thought it the most exciting thing in the world, to be on a boat being tossed about in the most fearsome Atlantic storms which laid low passengers and crew alike. My father was in charge of this small child, who wanted to “see the sea, please, Daddy”. Mum remained in bed for most of the 3 week voyage.
The Trinidad days were wonderful. Both my parents loved their time there, and during our first few years I turned into a semi-feral child…no shoes, climbing trees, eating unripe mangoes (which made me sick), swimming like a fish and speaking with the broadest Trinidadian accent. We weren’t enveloped in the ex pat world, which is very insular. We were very much part of local Trinidad life. My parents were known for their hospitality throughout their time there, with amazing parties. Dad and Mum told me I was jolly lucky to have this experience. I realise, now, that I was incredibly lucky. We had two stints in Trinidad. Latterly, it was not easy for Dad because he became a pawn in the politics of a new Republic, and being MD of a nationalised company. The departure from Trinidad was a great sadness and I know left a bitter taste. But the friends my parents made in Trinidad, and other islands, were friends for life…including “family” resulting from Dad’s grandfather’s connection to Barbados and his marriage to not one but two Bajan young ladies, prior to marrying Dad’s grandmother, which meant a lot of cousins – not close relations, but in the West Indies if you’re related to one person you’re related to everybody. A bit like the Mafia, really.
Life in Warwickshire was not centred exclusively on the Warwickshire Hunt, but it was a part of what made up the whole in my parents’ lives: supporting and being actively involved in so many things. When Mum was Chairman of the Hunt Supporters Club, my father said he followed Denis Thatcher’s example: say nothing…and pour someone a drink. But, quietly and without fanfare, Dad did an awful lot, and he gave counsel when asked. The connection with Warwickshire remained as strong when they moved down west, when my parents became very much a part of life down there – but never relinquishing their ties to the piece of England we are in today.
Daddy had great charm, a sparkle, a laconic sense of humour, loved people, loved all sport – particularly racing – and keeping in touch with politics (“charlatans, the lot of them”). But he was not the easiest person in the world, which was not helped by his deafness. The words “bloody minded” spring to mind. However, I think stubbornness and determination was how he survived his increasing ill health, until the moment that willpower alone couldn’t vanquish the demons within.
During what I suppose one describes as my father’s decline there were some pretty awful times but, with the most fantastic support from his GPs and the district nurses, as well as his carers, the horrid times were made bearable. Nothing but gentleness, compassion and kindness. Dad remaining at home was the goal. We achieved it.
One final thing: Dad never lost his eye for a pretty girl. On his 90th birthday in January, there was a crisis which involved paramedics and an out-of-hours doctor going to his village. The doctor was blonde. Tall. Blue eyed. Very Scandinavian. Super attractive. Daddy flirted with her. I pretended to be mortified. My father grinned and his eyes sparkled: the dashing young man had returned.
At the end of the service, we went out to Glen Miller’s “In The Mood”, a recording played so loudly that the church’s foundations rocked and the roof swayed. A rather special moment.