Updated: Nov 30, 2020
People often ask me who my mentors and role models have been. I have had informal mentors along the way, but my parents have been my role models and have had the biggest influence on my life . My mum came to the UK with her sister in the early 1960s to train as a nurse - she dedicated her working career to helping others as a nurse, midwife and as a health visitor. She started her own business after retiring and employed my father (he didn't like 'Dad') as her gig economy delivery driver.
My father was a bright working class lad from Cheetham Hill in Manchester who won one of the first scholarships to Cambridge where he attended Trinity Hall to read languages. He spoke Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese fluently. He dabbled in Mandarin and Dutch too. He met my mum at a dance in Stoke-on-Trent where he worked in international exports for a large ceramics company. We moved to Lancashire when I was nine years old and he continued working in a similar role based just outside Manchester, and he continued travelling. I remember visiting his office, which was close to the factory, and being amazed by his Telex machine. In semi-retirement, he worked as an adviser for the DTI (a UK govt agency) to support and lend his experience to UK exporters.
He served in naval intelligence and received call up papers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our childhood holidays were not spent in Spain. They included one to Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Yalta just before the end of the Cold War. I still remember vividly when two helpful men in drab suits offered to take a family picture for us by the broken Tsar Bell in the grounds of the Kremlin. They then asked if they could take one of us as we were 'such a beautiful family'. My dad then proceeded to make a point of asking them if he could have a picture taken with them and they, awkwardly, agreed (we still have the photo). It was all a bit odd. When I said, ‘they were nice’, my father laughed and replied, “you’ve just met the KGB” and painted a picture of us all smiling in a faded photo pinned to some dusty file stored deep in the Lubyanka. I used to joke that he never left ‘the service’. Over the years, he sometimes met former navy colleagues in far-flung places using cover stories that he didn’t believe as his knowledge meant that he noticed gaping holes in them. He said that, despite their corporate business cards, they had not left.
He travelled to over 120 countries and some over 40 times. I had the good fortune to be able to send my parents on a 110 day cruise around the World during which he spent most of his time speaking Russian to members of staff. When he returned from his trips he would always bring presents, but they came with an explanation and some cultural context - a baseball bat and baseball hats (I still wear them all the time to this day), a kid-sized Stetson cowboy hat, a keffiyeh (Arabic head dress). Ownership of the keffiyeh and a white tunic meant that my brother and I were always cast in star roles in nativity plays.
He devoured books at a rate I still can't comprehend and was a fountain of knowledge that was far more reliable, and up to date, than Wikipedia. He literally knew something about everything. Well, apart from sports and popular culture.
He fell head over heels in love with a headstrong young nurse from Barbados at a time when society did not accept their relationship, or was pretending it did. They were stared at in the street and people even explained to them that although they could have a relationship, they shouldn’t have kids as they ‘wouldn’t fit in’. There are few people my age with mixed English/Caribbean heritage and a white father. He didn’t care. Their love endured and was still evident during a socially distanced walk in the park last weekend. I am so glad that I made that trip to spend just an hour or so talking and walking the dog with them.
My dad passed away unexpectedly, but peacefully late on Friday, 27th November 2020. We think he dozed off on the sofa watching a foreign language documentary. I genuinely think that he wouldn't have wanted to go any other way. My father was insightful, kind, dry, sometimes grumpy, very funny, quietly competitive, the mortal enemy of anyone who upset my mother in any way, and he was an awesome cook. He didn’t suffer fools or the narrow-minded lightly; traits that live on in me.
I regularly attended church growing up and my mum was the local church warden. I could talk to my father about religion and it is safe to say that his belief in organised religion cooled over the last two decades. I am an atheist but believe that we all create ripples through time generated by what we do and the people we meet and influence. Although some create ripples (good and bad) that are more noticeable, they are all there. This is why small acts of kindness, or good, or lives just lived well, or whatever you want to call them, have an exponential impact on the future.
My dad has passed on the responsibility to positively impact the lives of others to his two sons and his young granddaughters.
I write this during November 2020, a time when spending time with your elderly parents has not been easy. I would strongly suggest that you go and call somebody important to you, such as a parent you haven’t been able to spend time with, and tell them that you love them. Ask them to share something about their life that is new to you. Ask them for advice.
I will miss and love my amazing father forever, and I will ensure that the ripples he set in motion are amplified.