Archives mensuelles : mai 2014

A life well lived

At the time of today’s earlier post, Brideshead Revisited had me in a very different mood. As I now come to finish the book and Lord Marchmain is on his death bed, a new emotional note is struck and I’m surprised to find myself in tears thinking of my father’s death in March. It’s the third main time I’ve welled up in the past 12 months – the first was when the doctors initially discovered the cancer, and the second, when travelling to the airport with my brother in early March after saying goodbye, for what turned out to be the last time.

Colin Charles James died on the 19 March 2014 at the age of 64. In a very British way, he wasn’t one to talk much about his life and we found that there was a lot about which we weren’t sure when we compiled notes for his funeral service. He was born on 8 December 1949 in Salford. The family was working class, and the father, a sometime fisherman, had a drink problem and died when Dad was 18. He didn’t pass the eleven-plus to go to Grammar school, and was possibly kicked out of school before finishing with minimal or no qualifications. Aged 17 he started work for the government electricity board selling electrical appliances. He had a James Captain motorbike and lived on the top floor of the Eleanor Cudiford tall flats, on Silk Street. Then in 1972 – a year after the marriage of sister Margaret to a certain Brian M., he bought his first house at 5 Bishop Road in Salford, his first home, with three bedrooms, for the princely sum of six thousand pounds. All his subsequent money now went into house refurbishment – he installed floorboards and central heating.

He was a practical man to the very end, a skill I didn’t inherit. Just twelve months ago he was in Dubai for a week with mum helping to install me in my new flat. He sorted out the plumbing and electricity and installed the kitchen appliances. On the last full day together we wandered the streets of Deira looking for a shop selling the right door handles for our patio. After walking for hours in the sun we found the perfect shop right at the end of the day. Dad did a little jig when he found the exact handle we needed and almost hugged the bemused Indian shopkeeper. He always did many of his own repairs on the family house and car (thanks to the ever-present Haynes manual). His favourite tv show was CSI – and he enjoyed nothing more than trying to piece together the crime before it was fully revealed.

That day in Deira we’d stopped in an Indian restaurant for lunch – a simple meal that Dad enjoyed deeply, with one of his favourite Mango lassies. My parents almost never went out to restaurants – perhaps once every few years. I’m slightly shamefaced when I think of how much I eat out. We were brought up to not spend money excessively and to be frugal, and so to save rather than spend. I don’t think we ever really did anything extravagant. Perhaps this was partly a Protestant work ethic. He drove British cars, usually red (Herald, Chevet, Cavalier, Carlton, Omega, Vectra).

From the electricity board, he moved to working for Snowden Bridge for 3-4 years, working for his friend Colin Hammer, a strong Christian influence on his life. Both my parents became Christians as young adults. One story he once told was of him asking a Christian girl on a date, who set up a meeting at a local church. She failed to turn up, but Dad heard the sermon. The fullstop on Dad’s life was when Colin Hammer stopped by at the house in early March and the family and him prayed together around the bedside thanking God for a life well lived.

Dad’s conversion led to a change of tack, an apt metaphor for someone who would later take up sailing. Dad enrolled in a Higher National Certificate in religious studies at the Lebanon Bible college in Berwick-upon-Tweed in the mid-1970s, probably 1977, a year after a young Swiss girl, Dora had started studying there as well. They met in September 1977, starting to date in January-February, becoming engaged in March, and married in the summer, more precisely the 4th and 5th of August 1978. 15 months later I appeared, followed 18 months later by D., and then in 1985, C., completing the triumvirate.

In June 1984 he graduated with a Certificate of Religious Studies, although 1980 brought floods and forced Dad to move back to Salford because of damage to the house that he had to repair. A tradition of summer holidays in Switzerland began, with stays of up to three months as Mum took temporary nursing work to raise money and Dad looked after the house and farm work, including stacking the wood for the winter and manually turning the hay with a pitchfork, despite at times, severe sun burn.

The young family applied to work as missionaries in South America, though things didn’t work out. In fact he would never leave Europe until much later in life – in his final five years. At the age of 59 he flew with son D to South Africa, and then a month later, when he flew with the entire family to Ivory Coast in West Africa for his eldest son’s wedding.

Anyway, back to the mid-1980s and with the missionary project to one side and a young family on his hands, Dad started looking for work in Manchester. Despite being over the age limit of 30, the government official took pity on him when he said he had a family to feed, and he was allowed to start an HND retraining scheme, studying business. In June 1986 he finished training to be a Systems Analyst at Bolton College. Then followed about a year of applying for jobs – in total he sent off 525 job applications, going through the phone book and applying to everyone with a large enough work force, despite the enormous outlay in postage stamps. I vaguely remember this time, though the contrast with the relative wealth at the end of his life makes these memories seem very distant. At the end of that period he got two job offers in the space of a week, taking a risk to turn down one for a permanent job with Salford Council as a systems analyst. After 18 months he moved to Oldham Council, and then was recruited by the Abbey National building society, during a recruitment drive in the north. He joined them, working at their Milton Keynes headquarters from 4 January 1988.

The family moved down to temporary accommodation at a house in the village of Hartwell for an enjoyable six weeks in the countryside. The green space was a welcome change, but hay fever quickly became an issue for one of the city-raised children not used to sweeping cornfields and pollen. The two eldest built a wooden hut in the garden and opted to camp out for the night – leaving mum so worried she slept in the lounge.

Dad enjoyed working at Abbey National, which became Abbey and then was taken over by Spanish bank Santander. He enjoyed working with people, could bring people together and knew who to go to get things done. He always knew the value of being kind to everyone – and that usually got him perks, including in the canteen. Outside of work, he kept busy with DIY, installing guttering and a TV aerial on the house, fixing up properties and keeping the cars in running order with the help of the ever present Haynes manual. There was a scare around 5 years ago, when a DIY job ended with him falling off a ladder while doing repair work, passing out for two hours. After two years at 22 H.C. in Towcester, it was time for an upgrade – and we moved higher up the street at the end of 1990. After several years at the local Baptist church, Dad helped lead a small Christian fellowship of families, first at the family home, and then meeting at the nearby leisure centre. Dad was also treasurer of the Scout group for several years, and in his last few years volunteered at Sailability helping disabled people enjoy sailing.

At the end of 2006 he left Abbey, and set up his own test managing company. He got a contract with the DVLA in Swansea, where he worked during the week, profiting to learn salsa. He transited into retirement, finding the cold English winters more and more tiring and enjoying months at a time at our kind neighbours’ holiday home in southern Spain where he loved the people, continued with salsa, took up Spanish, and enjoyed walks on the beach with mum.

Dad was not a big reader, though the house was full of theology books. Sport was not a major part of his life, though he used to play squash or badminton weekly. In free time he would invariably be repairing something, pottering around the garden or sitting in his favourite arm chair. Us sons grew up in a rather more privileged setting and the opportunities available to us to explore the world were perhaps things he’d only dreamed of growing up in Salford. He would listen to the craziest career ideas without saying much except offering support. Both my parents very much believed in letting us find our own way. He was a kind man, willing to look after people and serve where he felt a connection. I know he was proud of us.

Some of my Dad’s favourite things i) white Magnum ice creams, ii) the warm Saltzbad in Switzerland, iii) grossmutter’s fladder (tarte), iv) C.S.I., v) lots of cheese on spaghetti, vi) hugging his children.

Bowel cancer was discovered during an operation in May 2013. His calm attitude on being told the news was a surprise to staff at the hospital including the surgeon, and he was able to speak of his Christian faith. He seemed to cope well with the first round of chemotherapy, but the cancer was in an advanced stage, and his health deteriorated rapidly in early 2014 after a wonderful Christmas with all his family including daughter-in-law T; all together at Christmas for the first and last time. Nevertheless he kept his humour in hospital, forming good relationships with the hospital tea lady, and joking the nurses were a little too chubby to be manoeuvring around his bed. He went to be with his Saviour on 19 March 2014, leaving behind a wife and his three children. Near the end he joked, “At least I will be able to get some peace and quiet when I pass away.”

Mum was at his side and his sister and brother-in-law, now Thailand-based, were in the house. A death that is sudden and early can leave a deep scar. In this case, we were blessed with time. We were all together at Christmas and took pictures and videos together. We didn’t have the certain view you can only have looking back that these were our last times together, but there was a definite sadness in the air. In early March he seemed to know his time was coming to an end and he called us all back. We saw him in hospital, very weak, and he moved back home at the end of our stay. On that last day the house was full of medical visitors that felt intrusive and over the top though everyone meant well. He was also very tired with the journey home. As I had to leave, I snuck into the darkened lounge where he was resting and squeezed his hand and told him I loved him. He replied with the same sentiment. Of course looking back now, I would have liked to have said more but I think everything was understood.

Morning reading (in Bangui)

Enjoyed reading this (very long) sentence today from Brideshead Revisited:

« I heard the Mottrams’ names in conversation; I saw their faces now and again peeping from the Tatler, as I turned the pages impatiently waiting for someone to come, but they and I had fallen apart, as one could in England and only there, into separate worlds, little spinning planets of personal relationship; there is probably a perfect metaphor for the process to be found in physics, from the way in which, I dimly apprehend, particles of energy group and regroup themselves in separate magnetic systems; a metaphor ready to hand for the man who can speak of these things with assurance; not for me, who can only say that England abounded in these small companies of intimate friends, so that, as in this case of Julia and myself, we could live in the same street in London, see at times, a few miles distant, the rural horizon, could have a liking one for the other, a mild curiosity about the other’s fortunes, a regret, even, that we should be separated, and the knowledge that either of us had only to pick up the telephone and speak by the other’s pillow, enjoy the intimacies of the levee, coming in, as it were, with the morning orange juice and the sun, yet be restrained from doing so by the centripetal force of our own worlds, and the cold, interstellar space between them. »

Musings in Ibn Battuta mall

On Saturday evening, I dropped a hire car off at Ibn Battuta mall, and was surprised by a strong feeling of nostalgia. In my first few months in Dubai, when I arrived ahead of my family, I rented a studio in Discovery Gardens, and several times a week walked the length of Ibn Battuta mall (that is from Andalusia to China) on the way home. On Saturday I was reminded of my feelings in those times, feelings that have since been lost. I was excited by the adventure of a new job, a new city and new possibilities. My bank account was fuller than it’s ever been, and the next few years looked great and comfortable. In some ways, I was also hypnotized by the glamour of Dubai – I would have a nice car, new clothes, a lovely apartment and settle down to a period of stability, treating my family to a whole array of new experiences. Sometimes I can be very shallow.

That all feels like another era, though it was at most 1.5 years ago. My time in Dubai has genuinely been enjoyable, I’ve lived in two wonderful homes, and I had a few adventures. But things didn’t quite worked out as expected. It took six months for my wife and girls to arrive, and several months of stress after that for them to get their residential papers. The summer was spent chasing education opportunities/uncertainty, which finally left both girls studying elsewhere (and on different continents to ourselves and each other). Barely had my wife arrived and the house filled with furniture, when it became apparent that my entire division would be shut down, and we’d have to move on. Dubai rents took up a large amount of my income, as did air travel. And on the personal side, I’ve been disappointed that dreams of writing music and fiction, having children and improving photography and video work have come to little. Arabic has been largely a failure despite costing numerous hours. Much is personified by my little used iMac.

Still, it’s been a good period. We’ve settled into church quicker than expected and the last six months has seen some wonderful opportunities to serve there. We’ve made good friends, some of the best in years, and my wife’s English has gone from zero to decent. The girls have made progress in their studies, I’ve been able to pay back a good chunk of my mortgage, and running the marathon was a high. At work, it’s been both enjoyable, and my writing/editing skills have improved considerably (despite what regular readers of this blog may think).

The next job posting will be an adventure (they always are). But hopefully we can settle down in some form as well – more personal productivity on my side, more stability and less travel on the family side. And a baby wouldn’t be a bad idea either.