Lost and found

Two books, 'Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland', 'Floral Patterns of India', and a white ceramic coaster with a gold letter K, on a padded envelope with 'KAFJ BIRTHDAY 26 JUL 21' written on it in red ballpoint pen

Every time I spoke to Pa over the last few months of his life, he said to me, ‘I still haven’t found your birthday present’. Found, that is, in the room that he used as half study, half bedroom, half model railway layout, and indeed, good luck finding anything in there. He’d given me a hideous charity shop coaster as a sort of joke present on the day itself, but my actual present was lost.

I assumed we’d never find it. Or, rather, I assumed we’d find it and we wouldn’t know. That it would be loose among his own things, indistinguishable from them.

But there it was: a padded envelope, with my initials and the date of my birthday. I cried a bit. Inside: a book of birds, and a book of stickers. Yes. Something I’d like, but something that might have been his own.

We found all sorts of things. There was another envelope, a much older one. Inside was a scarf. The writing on the envelope told us that the scarf was made by my great-grandmother for my grandfather, and it was in remarkably good condition one hundred and twenty years later. Other things were not so well documented. In the same box as the scarf we found several lovely early twentieth century Christmas cards, with no clue as to who sent them, or to whom. Somebody must have kept them for some reason, but I shouldn’t think we’ll ever know now.

We fill our homes with things – because we like them, because somebody important gave them to us, because we don’t get round to getting rid of them. We know what the reasons are; the people who come after us probably won’t, unless we tell them. I can see myself hanging onto that padded envelope; if so, I can see my children, if I have any, chucking it. And we will both be right.

Every item in a house is there for a reason. Some of those reasons are not particularly good ones.

‘Every word on that page is there for a reason,’ my A-level English teacher told me. It was quite possibly the most significant thing I learned at school. Every word represents a choice. Saying it this way, not any of the other ways one might have said it. Keeping it there when you come to reread. Deciding that it needed to be said in the first place.

Pa was an expansive, digressive, eclectic writer. He wrote about all sorts of things, though the nominal subject was usually mass transit. Most of his readers were quite happy to come along for the ride. And I think that his reason for most of the words, like most of the items, was, quite simply, that he liked them.

Here’s something that’s in my house for a reason, a birthday present I most definitely knew about. This was what Pa made me for my fifth birthday. It says so on the back.

A large wooden dolls' house in a cluttered room

Robert E. Jowitt, 1942-2022

A man in a green cap and jacket leans o the radiator of a 1930s bus with a protruding nose and boxy cab

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.

Edited to add: the funeral will take place on Wednesday, 2 February – please see the funeral director’s site for details of how to watch online.