Friday, June 20, 2008
Daniel Harper Gerrard Findlay
My father would have been 100 years old today. I associate his birthday with strawberry tarts – he always preferred really good strawberry tarts to any other kind of cake, and in the days before unseasonal fruits, June was the time for them. When I was young, it seemed that the end of June was always hot and sunny – boiling sports days at Hughenden – before the rains arrived in time for the school holidays.
Not that Father would have complained. He didn’t really go in for complaining, come to think about it; he would damn something outright but never moan about it. He decided, after my struggles with Livy in S2 – did we really read Livy in S2? – that he was like Hannibal, of whom Livy said (I translate): “heat and cold were alike to him”. He underlined this stoicism with irritating remarks like “We didn’t call this hot in Sidi Barani’ – this if one of us was sufficiently ill-advised to moan about over-heating.
What did he do in Sidi Barani? To be honest, I really don’t know. When it became obvious that the Second World War was going to take some time, my father volunteered for the RAFVR before call-up reached his age-group (over 30) – because “I didn’t fancy myself in the HLI bunnet”. He came top in Cipher School and was sent to Cairo. There he seemed settled in a “nice little flat” with a pal – another English graduate – when the third flatmate, in a rush of enthusiasm, volunteered them all for service with the 8th Army in the Western Desert. This led to his being a bystander at the Battle of Alamein and meeting Churchill briefly while completely naked (Father, not Churchill) after a swim. Apparently his main dilemma was whether one saluted while naked.
But this military episode was hardly characteristic. Father had a 1st in English Language and Literature from Glasgow University. He was a brilliant and, in his day, famous teacher – when I began teaching, I kept meeting people who knew him, and who listened to see if I was at all like him, and it was the best praise to learn that I was. He seemed to me infallible, and if there was something he didn’t know, he’d find out: my Physics problems were a source of entertainment for him, rather as a Sudoku might be now. When at the age of 14 I seemed to be performing inadequately in Close Reading (we called it Interpretation then) he spent a wet holiday in Arran making up Interp tests from bits of the Glasgow Herald – and I did them, and starred in Interps from then on, right up to when I made them up myself for prelims.
When I was a teenager, I never suffered from teen angst about my parents. When my father for some professional reason visited the school I attended I was obscurely pleased when a friend reported sighting him, and I noticed how when all my (clever, interesting) friends came to the house they would engage in long and frequently serious conversation with him. Looking back, I realise that they didn’t have the luxury of this level of discussion at home, though at the time I didn’t really appreciate it. In current terms, my father was always cool, and could speak to anyone.
Not that he suffered fools gladly. Because I went to a selective school, my friends were academically able and on reflection quite mature in their interests – not socially, but intellectually. But I know that Father was perfectly capable of switching off while some acquaintance rattled mindlessly on, and remember my mother’s fury when this led him to utter some non sequitur in a pause. He called a next-door-neighbour the Ancient Mariner, and perfected a series of grunts to deter her while he planted out chrysanthemums on his side of the garden fence. Strangely, women loved him – regardless of or because of the ruthless honesty with which he addressed them. So did his senior pupils, and when he retired, some of them even visited the house with farewell presents for him.
I had always considered that my father’s detachment from the church was a revolt against his upbringing; his uncle the Revd Daniel Gerrard had been a notable Hebrew scholar and his cousin was a minister of the Kirk while he his youth had been made to attend church twice on Sundays as well as Sunday School. He used to describe himself as a buttress of the church rather than a pillar: he supported it from without as it was "good for other people." He, he went on to tell us, was a Certified Holy Pilgrim (another War experience) and had no need of church. When at the age of 27 I told him I was going to be confirmed, he enquired if I had thrown reason out of the window. But after my mother’s death, I found from his letters to her that as a young man he had held a very progressive view of God – one which I recognise as close to my own.
I wish he were alive now – not as an extremely old man, but my age, as I remember him best – to talk to him, to ask him questions, to share ideas, to introduce him to the people his grandsons became, to bring him his great-granddaughter. But he would have hated old age and infirmity, and the moment I heard of his death at the age of 69 I felt relief that he wouldn’t have to put up with either. So here’s to you, Dad, wherever you are – because, despite all you said, I believe that that indomitable soul is somewhere, and that somewhere is the better for it.