55 years and 325 days

The 31st October 1986 was an unusually mild autumn day in London. That afternoon, my father Brian took a stroll up Chiswick High Road, returning a little later with some shopping and a bunch of yellow flowers for my mother. He was 55 years and 325 days old. I had moved down to London about a couple of months earlier, having just finished my PhD in Edinburgh and taken up a post-doctoral position at what at the time was known as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK). It was the weekend and I had returned briefly to Edinburgh to collect some belongings and was staying at my girlfriend’s parents house and about to have dinner when the phone rang. My mother told me to sit down, and then calmly informed me that my father had died suddenly, perhaps 30 minutes earlier, just as they themselves were sitting down to dinner at home in Chiswick.

My memory of that short phone call is vivid, of being stunned by the disbelief that precedes grief, and then the long overnight train journey down to London, arriving in drizzle at King’s Cross the next morning. The yellow flowers were in a vase on the dining room table. We never really found out what happened. The post mortem showed nothing particularly unusual, traces of pneumonia, but he was quite a fit man and to this day my sister and I puzzle over why he died. I’m writing this now, because his life was never noted previously, indeed it was in many ways an unremarkable life. He was a quiet man, though at times exceedingly funny, and piercingly clever. He took his A levels back in the days when students learned their percentages, scoring 100% in maths and physics, and 99% in chemistry. The chemistry mark bugged him, apparently he lost that 1% for describing chlorine as a ‘suffocating’ rather than a ‘choking’ gas, or was it the other way round. Despite this minor descriptive blunder he won a scholarship to UCL to study Chemistry, where as an undergraduate he met my mother, another UCL Chemist. It is purely coincidental but pleasing to me in some indeterminate way that I have spent most of my own career at UCL.

After graduating my parents both lost interest in Chemistry and, in something of a vocational U-turn became art dealers, specialising in Victorian watercolours. My father had an analytical and highly discerning eye that helped the business flourish. And he became an accomplished framer, which when done properly is far more of an art than you would ever imagine from the high street shops that offer this as a formulaic service. He had a sophisticated cutting apparatus that he would use to fashion immaculate morticed corners, but his real talent lay in the mounts to which he would carefully apply heavily diluted washes, the muted tones selected to capture elements of whatever picture they were destined to surround. I have several examples of my fathers geometrically precise artwork on the walls around me now, in the family for several decades, and finally handed to my sister and me after my mother died a couple of years ago. As a kid I remember us doing lots of father-son things – he taught me how to play chess, fly fish, ride a bike, but best of all were the years when we would go to St. James Park to watch Newcastle, these were the pre-Toon days of Bobby Moncur, Pop Robson and Wyn Davies, and we would stand on the open terraces swaying with the crowd, me tiptoeing on a small wooden box he made that I decorated with black and white stripes.

When he died I was still a callow 29 year old, and although at the time I had some objective sense that 55 was relatively young, he seemed, as fathers probably always do to their sons, as if he would always be a much older man. Certainly back in 1986 I could not have imagined myself at such an age yet in a week I too will reach the milestone of 55 years and 325 days. The distortion of time has made us contemporaries, it has changed my perspective and brought us into some sort of alignment. Of course 55 years now seems absurdly young – I still play the guitar, I cycle 12 miles to work and back every day, but I am acutely aware that in just a few days I will have outlived my father. For the first time, I will be an older man than him.


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