Learning from Father

Things I learned from my Father

I chose my title with some care. This is not a sentimental recollection of happy days in the everlasting summer of childhood, with a loving and beloved father teaching me things like how to play cricket or football, how to use tools, how beautiful the flowers and animals are, what those strange markings in rocks mean, the best place to fish for trout, nor even how to do the kind of things that my schoolteachers appreciated.

I do not remember any occasion when my father actually taught, or even tried to teach, me anything whatever. Nevertheless I learned much from him.

Before I was born my parents lived in a country house without mains electricity. They had a petrol generator installed to charge a huge bank of lead acid batteries, which had to be topped up now and again with distilled water. Starting the engine was a nightmare for Dad. He would sometimes become so furious that he would kick it, but that did not get it running. He did manage get it going sometimes, enough at least to get some lights working at night.

The topping up was done clumsily. Fluid contaminated with acid spilled and trickled down onto the wooden shelving on which the batteries stood. One night the shelves collapsed with a mighty crash. Acid poured inches deep onto the floor and the generator itself was damaged. I remember none of this because I was only a baby. I heard the story from my mother.

When I was very young, I learned not to play with my toys on the floor. This was because if Dad was anywhere in the house, at some stage he was sure to enter the room and walk directly across my play area trampling on everything. He would find, or fail to find, what he was looking for, would turn and walk back the same way crushing anything that he missed on the first incursion.

This was not deliberate. He simply did not notice I was there, did not see or feel what was under his feet. If one of the things trodden on was me, causing him to stumble, it was my fault for being in the way, not his for failing to look. My mother sometimes had the same problem. He would come into the room where she was and not know she was there. If she commented he would blame his eyesight.

He wore spectacles but could see well enough when it suited him. He was a great reader even of fine print, a professional writer and typist. If he cared about what he was doing, he could see well enough. He was a very keen cricket player, outstanding in our district as an artful and accurate left arm spin bowler. He was a reliable fielder and could bat a bit too. He claimed once that he had been considered for the county team.

He never once attempted to show me how to bowl, bat or even how to catch, or kick, a ball.

If there was some new mechanical device available, he would buy one and, within hours or at most a few days, he would break it. He smoked and bought new types of cigarette lighters that never worked in his hands.

He bought elaborate and beautiful clocks that would run perfectly until he decided to correct them or set summer time, whereon they stopped, never to run again. He could not manage an ordinary tin opener so always bought the latest cunning variety of these simple tools. He could not make these work either

Nails and hammers, screwdrivers and screws, no, no, no!

If my father had ever tried to shave with a cutthroat razor, I doubt if I would ever have been born. He would have killed himself accidentally, doubtless blaming his eyesight, as he died.

Maybe he was saved by his Rolls Razor. When I was learning to shave myself I found this marvellous device in the bathroom cabinet, broken of course. It was a halfway stage between the old cutthroat and the modern safety razor. The blade had a little safety guard, so to cut oneself badly would have been difficult.

The blade itself was like a segment of the old hollow ground cut throat. For use in shaving it was clipped into a simple handle. The box it came in incorporated a sharpening machine.

This had two removable plates, one on each side. A flat piece of carborundum stone was set into one, the other had a leather strop. With one of the plates fixed and other removed, unclip the blade from the shaving handle, fit it into the stropping machine and move it briskly back and forth, clack clack clack, the blade flipping over each time to meet the stone, or the strop, at precisely the best angle to hone it. It was a clever device and for a time very popular with young men.

If one was clumsy, the sharpening stone could be broken, rendering it useless. That is how I found it. I was able to replace the shattered stone and  used the Rolls for a while. Clack, clack, clack, it went, every morning until my sister angrily objected.

I think my father’s life was saved by Gillette.

I must have been about six or seven years old when he bought a small car. It would have been an Austin 7. He had a driving licence, which in those times meant only that he had paid the required fee; there was no road test. A starting handle was supplied with the car as an accessory. This had to be inserted through a hole in the front to engage a simple dog clutch, and then a little sense of feeling was required to locate the compression and a single sharp turn of the handle would get the engine running.

It didn’t work for Dad. It didn’t work again, and again and again until he was exhausted and furious and still it didn’t work. He could not find the dog clutch at all to begin with. If he found it, the handle would slip out again as he put his hand on it. If he turned the engine, it did not fire. Again, and again and again. When at last it did go, it was probably because our exasperated neighbour, or an uncle who happened to be present, would get it running for him.

In high optimism then he would get into the driving seat, depress the clutch, force the gear lever to engage, and triumphantly lift his foot of the pedal. The car would jerk forward with a bang, the engine would stall, and he was back to searching for the dog clutch again, and again, and again and again.

Once, I believe it was only once; he got the damn thing running and was able to move off. When he came home, he was on foot. There had been no accident. The car stopped somewhere and would not start, or, to be accurate, he could not start it. He may simply have run out of fuel. We never saw the Austin again. In fury he had called in at the local garage on his walk home and told them to find the car, tow it away and sell it for him.

Dad used to review gramophone records for a local newspaper. The discs were not even vinyl in those days, but some sort of brittle plastic, perhaps Bakelite. New needles frequently had to be inserted in the pick up. To remove the old needle required a small screw to be loosened. This done, by Dad, the used needle would fall out into the machinery and the little screw would come out and be lost. A box or packet of new needles had to be opened. An avalanche of needles would tumble out and the next hour would be spent picking them up. Still the pickup needed to have one put in and tightened, not very easy even if one could see clearly.

The brittle discs were easily broken and scratched. Bad eyesight had much to answer for in our house.

It was a great day when, about 1938, the new radio-gramophone was delivered. This was a brilliant piece of engineering. You could listen to an entire symphony without leaving your armchair. The necessary eight or more discs were placed carefully one above the other on a tall central spindle that came up from the centre of the turntable. A neat little ratchet prevented them sliding down. (The needle problem remained.) Switch on, the first disc would be released to fall onto the turntable, the pickup arm would move across, descend, the needle entered the groove and the first disc would play. At the end of that disc the pickup rose, moved over, the next disc descended, and played, and so on till the last of the set had finished.

‘You children are not to touch this machine! Do you understand?’ said Dad. I, eight years old, was obedient, but I knew I was much less likely to damage the instrument than he was. It wasn’t long before the radiogram fell silent. What he did to it I never knew.

Things went on like this for years. As I grew older, I became more and more responsible for fixing anything in the house that went wrong. My mother could manage most things herself, but I learned from my father’s experiences, how to handle tools and machines that he simply could not manage. I mended fuses when he blew them, repaired window latches when he tore them off, found out how to make a door that jammed work properly, and so on.

It was with much alarm, when I had been taken off into the air force, that I learned Dad had bought another car. With a proper starter motor he was able to get it to run, which was bad news. He wrote with excitement that he would soon be driving to work every day, a distance of about twelve miles into the city of Sheffield with heavy vehicles and hundreds of commuting cars, buses and trams. I don’t think he ever actually did the journey. What he did do was to set out to teach my mother to drive. I could think of nothing worse. It was no surprise to learn, within a few days, that one of his lessons had ended when they ran the car off the road, up onto an embankment and turned over. Fortunately they were not injured but Mum swore she would never again go with him in a car if he was driving.

His love of expensive gadgets continued. He bought an expensive IBM electric ‘golf ball’ typewriter when these were newly on the market. On unpacking it he found to his rage that the lead provided was not long enough to reach the nearest power socket if the typewriter was on his desk. He did not think of getting an extension cord. Perhaps he did not know such things existed. He found that if he pulled a drawer of the desk open and balanced the typewriter on it, the cord, hanging in the air about two feet off the floor would just reach the socket. He had to screw his chair round awkwardly sideways to reach the keyboard.

Mother called him for lunch. He jumped up, walked quickly through the hanging cord, pulled the typewriter off the drawer onto the floor. It broke. Bad eyesight.

He was retired now, living on the Channel Coast of England. My little family and I were in Newcastle upon Tyne, about as far away as possible without leaving the country.

Mother wrote, in some dismay, that he had bought a brand new Triumph Herald car. It would do ninety miles an hour, he said, proudly. He knew this because the speedometer dial went up to that figure. A few days after getting the car, he received a note from the police, enclosing the registration label that he had fixed to the car’s windscreen on the first day. This, the note said, had been found blowing in the wind by the roadside and he must fix it properly to the car at once. He had put it in its flimsy little plastic holder on the outside of the windscreen.

She insisted that if he really intended to use the car he must take some driving lessons, which he had never done in his life. Reluctantly, he agreed.


He did take some lessons. The instructor came to see mother one day, seriously shaken, and asked her somehow to persuade Dad that he should never attempt to be a driver. On approaching crossroads, he said, Dad simply would not look to his left and right before crossing. No amount of telling and stamping on the dual control brakes impressed him. ‘If I am going somewhere, I must look where I am going,’ he said. ‘It isn’t possible to look sideways!’

One evening in our northern home, there was a phone call. Dad, in defiance of Mum and the instructor, had decided he would take the Herald out for some practice by himself. He had got the car started, accelerated up the sloping drive, hit the gate post, stalled and rolled backwards, scraping the car all down the left side against the fence and the garage door to crash backwards into the rear wall.

The almost new, but battered car was repairable. Would I please come and take it away?

I did so, had it repaired and used it happily for years..

That is how I learned from my father.



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