My dad's better than your dad

One of the weird things about growing up without a dad is that you don't really have a concrete idea of who he was. At least not from your own perspective.  What you get is cobbled together mostly from what other people who loved him and want to remember the good things have told you. Your own memories are few and seen through a gauze of childish idolatry, so you don't really have a clear idea of what he was actually like as a man.

Here are the two images I think are most typical of my dad.

In one, he's sitting on a bed with his legs straight out on front of him. His trousers are pulled up his shins and you can see sock suspenders holding up his black socks. On his head is a 'KISS ME QUICK' bowler hat and on his face is the cheesiest grin you're ever likely to see.  He's on holiday at Butlin's, probably Skegness. He's pratting about.

In another, my brothers are fighting. I have three of them, all older than me.  At this point, they would have been about 10, 12 and 19.  When I say they were fighting, I mean Chinese burns, dead arms, Chinese haircuts, tickling - not, you know, fighting. The oldest one is throwing the littler ones onto the sofa, there's a godawful racket, things are getting knocked over, my mum's shouting, nobody's listening.

Then, without warning, my dad leaps into the room and shouts, 'HAH!' swinging a clumsy karate chop at the air. 'Come on! I'll take you all on.' He's wearing a judo gi that's too small for him. He just bought it that day for my 12 year old brother and nobody even knew it existed.

The fight ends. All three brothers fall in a heap laughing as my dad poorly performs the moves and howls the howls he's seen in Bruce Lee films. From that incident, I learned shouting and getting annoyed isn't always the best way to get you what you want.

But here's the thing.  Neither of those images are my memories. The first one is a black & white photo taken in the late sixties, five years before I was born. When the second happened I would have only been about three. I can see it clearly in my head, right down to the threadbare green sofa and godawful orange and yellow sunburst wallpaper behind it, but it's not a first hand memory. I've just built it up from years of hearing it told over and over.

Three big memories that are my own are these.  There are others, but these stick the most.

He used to finish work early on a Wednesday. He ran a greengrocer's in the suburbs and either he shut up shop early or one of his brothers took over, I don't know which.  Every Wednesday, he'd drive to my school and pick me up in his shitty little van. I think it was a Ford Escort van or something, one of the ones from the seventies. It was yellow at the back, and the front end was red. He was between proper vans, the blue ford transit before it and the green minibus that came after that you could see the words LONDON FIRE BRIGADE painted over on the side.

My mum would be sitting in the front with my new niece in her lap. In the back, which had no seats so you had to sit on the floor would be my sister (older than my oldest brother). My dad stopped off for cakes on the way every time, so I'd be sitting in the back of the van destroying a jam doughnut or an iced finger or a Chelsea bun while being shaken home on the hard top of the wheel arch. Every Wednesday. It was ace.

When I was around the same age (all my memories of dad are from around the same age - any younger and I'd be too young to remember, any older and he'd be gone - I have a window of about three years), I did something that really pissed my mum off. I'd probably thrown a ball in the house and it hit something that made a noise.  That would rile her up even more than narrowly missing something fragile. I could bounce stuff off the telly or make an ornament wobble or skin a mirror by half an inch all day, but the minute something clattered onto a tea tray I was in big trouble.

Whatever happened, I was sent to bed with no tea.  This is the only time that ever happened, so I must've done something really bad and already been smacked and everything.  I didn't think my mum was that serious, so I went downstairs a couple of times to test the water. I got sent back up.

Then I started to get really hungry. I went down to ask for something to eat and got nothing. My mum wasn't budging.

So I went back upstairs. I was lying on the bed feeling sorry for myself, not playing action man, not reading any comics, just feeling sorry for myself and being hungry. After a while, the door opened and my dad sneaked in. He sat on the edge of the bed and I sat up.  "Here," he said, and gave me a banana.

"What's that for?" I thought he was going to tell me a joke or something, since I wasn't allowed to eat.

"You're hungry and mum's still upset." I just looked at him. He said, "eat it, then." So I chomped it down. When I finished, he said, "Give me the skin," so I did.  Then, he took a handful of custard creams from his pocket and gave them to me.  "Here. Don't tell your mum."  And he left.

The third one was the first time I drew anything any good. I'd been okay at drawing, but it was mainly Superman or Batman by that point, and I hadn't worked out how to draw capes so they had clumsy triangles sprouting up from behind their head. This time, I'd got out my Tom & Jerry colouring book and carefully copied a picture of the two of them having a snowfight.  It was excellent. I remember it as not looking childish at all, but it probably did.

I'd done this while kneeling up at one of the armchairs in our front room, with my colouring book and paper on the seat in front of me.  It was only when I was finished that I realised my dad was sitting in the one that faced it. He usually sat on the floor in front of the fire, resting his back on the sofa. He'd been sitting in the chair just to watch me.

When I finished he whipped it up and took it around the house to show my mum and everyone else. "Look at what he did. No, it wasn't me. He did it by himself! No, he didn't trace it! I was watching him!" Man, thinking of it now still makes me beam.

In the end, while he was in hospital, I bombarded him with new pictures. Tom & Jerry gave way to Spider-Man, Iron-Man and the Vision, carefully copied from my Marvel Super Heroes and Spider-Man Annuals. They all said 'Get well soon' on them.  You can probably guess how that went.

My dad was awesome, right?  We're in agreement on that for sure. But you and I don't have a complete picture.

I have some idea that there was something more. One family story is about him punching the crap out of this man who'd hit my oldest brother, but it turned out my brother had sworn at the man first, so he was in big trouble. (This is told as a story with a twist, like the poor man was in the right all along. I can't get my head around that, how in those days not only did people routinely hit their kids, but allowed other adults to hit them too).  In another, he pulled a teacher who'd been picking on the same brother across his desk by his tie and, nose to nose, growled to leave him alone. I find it hard to imagine my whip-thin, Brylcreemed, funny dad doing that, but he did.  There are other stories that hint at shady dealings, and in a local history book about our area of West London that a guy who works at the same school as my brother had, criminal brothers with our family name are mentioned. One of them would've probably been my dad.

A couple of years ago, I was at a wedding, and I ended up sitting next to this old guy who grew up a street away from my mother.  I told him my dad's surname and he said, "Which one? There were brothers." I told him, and he held up his fists and said, "Cor. He weren't half good with them!"

If I'm honest, only a tiny part of me is troubled by that. I can't help the bigger part thinking it's beyond awesome that not only was my dad nice and funny as hell, but he was badass like all little boys think their dads are too. I suppose when it comes to my dad, I'll never grow up.

It's typical of the way my stupid brain works that I first realised this in a ridiculous dream.  I was at a table in a bar next to a tropical beach with TC and Rick out of Magnum and my dad, and we were all wearing Hawaiian shirts and leis, drinking out of coconuts and having a great time, just sitting around and joking. I woke up realising that's something my dad and I will never have. Not a tropical coconut drinks party with the supporting cast of Magnum P.I. - that might still happen for me at least - just the chance to sit around having a laugh together.  I was upset for days after that dream at the same time as being cheered up by having a laugh with TC and Rick and my dad in Hawaii.

I'll never know what he would think of me. I know he'd have been as proud as he was of my drawing when I did some things, like my slots at the Comedy Store, and I know he'd have been disappointed with me for others, like stopping doing stand-up at all. But I can never be sure. Would he even like me if he met me tomorrow? Would he be as impressed with me as I always was with him? I'll never know.

There is one consolation I have when I think about how he never saw me grow up. When I contemplate what my dad and I never found out about each other, I think of that day he watched me draw Tom & Jerry.

At least he saw me be good at something.


Frankie said...

That is a completely beautiful piece of writing and I totally get what you're saying. I was a kid when my Dad died too. The Hero I know in my heart, just not in real life. You know? Fantastic writing, thank you x

em said...


Justin said...

The best bit of writing I've read in ages. As Em said, lovely.

Richard Tod said...

Great! I did not have the time to read it but I could not stop. I think Dad would be chuffed.

Liam said...

Very thought-provoking. I'm going to make my dad a cup of tea right now and remember how lucky I am he's still around.

Anthony said...

Yes this is great stuff, again similar experience and this really resonates. you've articulated the story very well!

BobE said...

My father died when I was just 12 and I realised after reading this wonderful piece of writing that many of my memories were part fact and part made-up. I remember(?) lying sleeping on my fathers back as he lay sleeping on the sofa on Sunday afternoons. This must have been a made-up story since I would have been too young to remember it, but it is nevertheless very real. As Anthony says, it resonates powerfully.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

A belated thank you to everyone who commented on this. I wasn't sure whether to post it because of how different it is from the stuff I normally do, but I'm glad I did and I'm glad you liked it.