My father died sometime in the night of 7-8 January, about as peacefully as it’s possible to do it, and I still don’t quite know what to say.
Not because there’s nothing to say: everybody I hear from who knew him has something lovely to say, some delightful memory to share. Not because there’s nothing to talk about: there are 79 years to talk about, and I was around for slightly less than half of that.
It’s such a cliché to begin by saying that one doesn’t know where to start that I almost don’t want to admit it, but in this case it’s true. My own tactic to deal with that very real dilemma is to start with whatever first comes to mind, and to worry about reordering it later.
So, in that spirit, here are some things that I want to say about my Pa.
- He always was Pa, not Dad or anything else.
- We lived in more or less the same wordscape, sharing hymns and trashy Victorian songs and Shakespeare and quasi-mythological family anecdotes and using quotations as shorthand.
- I wouldn’t be writing something set in modern-day Ruritania now if he hadn’t read me The Prisoner of Zenda when I was nine or ten.
- I’m sure that many people who come across this post will be looking for Robert E. Jowitt the transport author and photographer, and that was indeed very much part of who he was. Both his writing and his photography were as eclectic and idiosyncratic as his reading matter. He liked digressions and very long sentences and quotations.
- If you’d told him that real men don’t read Jilly Cooper he’d have laughed at you.
- There is still a card on the fridge with a list of the OS maps that he was missing from his collection and which I might have wanted to give him for his birthday.
- He had a strong sense of whimsy and, I suppose, sentimentality.
- He was, above all, interested in people. He would quite often ask me about friends of mine who he’d met perhaps twice, five years ago. He could make friends with pretty much anybody. He annoyed transport photography purists by taking pictures with a nun obscuring the numberplate, or a tramp in front of a tram, a shopper or a copper in the way of a tree-lopper. He liked to show public transport in, well, public, putting it in the context of the public it was built to serve and the landscape across which it transported it.
- He claimed not to be terribly interested in buses, though he would take them in the absence of trams, trolleybuses, or steam locomotives. The one exception was Paris buses, the open-platformed 1930s Renaults. He photographed his first one in 1960 and brought it home in 1970. It’s still running.
- He gathered the most extraordinary group of people around the buses, a sort of found family before anybody called it that. Bus people, art people, music people, all sorts of people.
- He never did anything he didn’t want to do.
- He couldn’t sing but he didn’t let that stop him.
- He really was impossible to live with.
- He was interested in birds and ships and architecture and bel canto opera and all sorts of things.
- He was immensely proud of his children and of our achievements, though if he found something where there was room for improvement we’d hear about it.
- He was an entertaining raconteur. I can’t tell the stories half so well.
- The last time we saw each other face to face we talked about We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and teamed up in a family game of Settlers of Catan. The last time we spoke on the phone he thanked me for his Christmas present – the 2022 calendar from A Cambridge Diary – and told me that his favourite picture in it was the housemartins.
Is that everything? No, not at all. I could go on and on and on. But it is something. There’s a big gap in many people’s lives now.