‘A Fine Figure of a Man’ - Dad


I notice as I write down the memories of my life that I tend to constantly refer to my mother and far less to my father. This is because my mum was the emotional driving force and centre of the family, whereas my dad tended to hover, unsure, on the edge of our life.

Thomas Walters was born in 1909. The family lived in Ickneild Port Road in the Ladywood area, a poor inner-city suburb of Birmingham that was widely regarded as a slum. He was the second youngest of five children, comprising three older sisters, Rachel, Amy and Betty, and a younger brother, Reg. His father was killed in the First World War, during the battle of the Somme in 1916. He often told us how he was sent to the headmaster’s office and how, aged seven years, he stood there in the presence of this terrifying and often cruel man, holding the hand of his five-year-old brother, to be told, bluntly and without an ounce of compassion, ‘You’d better get off home to your mother, your dad’s been killed.’

I think it is significant that he himself didn’t have a father for much of his growing up, for he seemed ill at ease with some of the requisites of fatherhood. Dealing with my brothers, who were lively, combative, intelligent boys, he seemed to shrink back and it was my mother who was always at the forefront when it came to family discussion, or discipline and its consequences. If a fight or argument were to take place, he would disappear. There was one incident between my brother Kevin and myself, when he was about eighteen and I was thirteen, where I hurled an ashtray at him. I missed Kevin and hit my father on the knuckle. Dad, instead of intervening, simply said, ‘Oh, I’m getting out of here.’ And he left the room. He seemed to have little connection with his sons and, although he was proud, I believe he felt reduced to some extent by their academic achievements. However, it was his sense of humour that was the basis of his survival. When my brother Tommy won a scholarship to Cambridge to study for a PhD, and announced it to my parents, my father was sitting reading the Smethwick Telephone, our local rag, and without looking up he said, ‘I can’t see any adverts for philosophers in the Situations Vacant.’

He was a slightly built, wiry man with thick, dark curly hair, swept back and tamed by a daily dose of brilliantine. Both of my parents being small, dark eyed and dark haired, they were often, so my mother said, mistaken for brother and sister. Dad always, especially towards the end of his life, looked older than his years, his face hollow-cheeked, weathered and deeply riven with lines. Even when he was smiling, there was a permanent expression of worry etched deep into his face; across his forehead and between his brows were lines of anxiety and bewilderment.

I was his favourite and was in no doubt whatsoever of his love for me. My love for him, however, felt more like pain; it hurt and was suffused with pity. As a child, I fretted about him and for him. I feared somewhere that he wasn’t up to the task of life. This, I think, was in part because of his physical appearance. His smoking habit, having started in childhood, kept him very thin. When questioned by us as to why he never went into the sea whilst on holiday, he said, ‘Last time I went swimming, everyone thought it was a pair of braces floating in the water.’ In the later years of his life I would say that he was emaciated; his pulse didn’t need to be felt, it could be taken simply by looking at his outstretched arm and counting the twitches in the radial artery that ran the length of it.

But it was also due in part to the way my mother related to him. She constantly referred to him as ‘your poor father’ while commenting favourably about other, bigger men: ‘Oh, he’s a fine figure of a man.’ She spoke in reverential terms about men in professional positions, with the usual little gasp that would precede statements like ‘He’s a bank manager!’ or ‘He’s a doctor!’ Her breathy, wavery voice, lowered in register, indicated on these occasions the deep respect she felt for such a man in such a position. I don’t think these things were said with any malice towards my father. I think they were born more out of insensitivity, together with frustration about her own position in life and her own lack of self-esteem; but they fuelled the fear and pity that I felt for him and my brothers took much pleasure in whipping up these feelings with merciless teasing.

One incident has stayed with me. I was about five and there had been a snowstorm with high winds that had brought our garden fence crashing down. I watched, helpless and sobbing, at the kitchen window as it began to grow dark and my dad struggled alone, in the driving snow, with the six-foot-high fence as the wind lifted it and tossed it this way and that, its force sending him staggering under the weight of the big wooden panels. He looked small, David against the Goliath of the elements, and there was no one to help, all three of us having been told that it was dangerous and to stay indoors. I felt wretched watching this pitiful little scene, while my brothers, amused by and seizing on my misery, cranked it up several notches: ‘Oh poor Dad, look, he can’t lift the fence. Ahhh, poor Dad.’ I was conscious of the fact that he was a lot older than other people’s dads, forty-one when I was born, and this was a source of embarrassment; I felt guilty that I didn’t want friends to see him drop me off in the car anywhere and that I changed the subject when the age of people’s parents was being discussed.

He met my mum whilst drinking in the Leebridge Tavern on Dudley Road in the Ladywood area of Birmingham, where she was working as a barmaid, the job she landed when she first came to England. He set her on a pedestal instantly and proceeded to adore her, I suspect feeling that he had been lucky to catch this attractive, intelligent, driven woman who was a cut above those around him. No one could make my mother laugh as my father could. There was many a time that I would walk into the kitchen and find her doubled up, face bright red, unable to get her breath, to the point where I thought she might even be sick, because of some story or some joke that Dad had relayed to her. He would be laughing too but his laughter was more to do with the pleasure of watching hers. They courted for six months and then married in 1941. My father was never called up into the army, he said because, after his initial interview, they moved house to number 69 and they never contacted him again. Instead he worked at Lucas Electrics, making munitions.

His great pleasure in life was a pint with his cronies at the Dog Inn on the Hagley Road or the King’s Head, also on the Hagley Road, about three-quarters of a mile further down towards town. Which one he chose to go to depended on whom he was meeting. The Dog Inn was a place for a quiet drink with other regulars and friends, whereas the King’s Head was where Dad went to ‘see a man about a dog’, which presumably meant he was meeting a business associate. My mother continually complained about this, ‘Oh, your father’s down the pub again,’ and related to us in front of him how she had seen people ruin their lives by drinking their money away in the Leebridge Tavern, while claiming that her own father ‘never went into a shebeen in his life’. Eventually Dad developed some kind of intolerance to beer, resulting in urgent trips to the lavatory after consuming just half a pint, but after barium meals, enemas and every other medical test under the sun, nothing was found to be wrong with him.

His other love was horse racing. Before the First World War his father had been an illegal bookmaker. Some years there would be what he laughingly called a works outing to Ascot, where he and a couple of workmates would go to the racecourse for the day. He studied form and was often to be found in front of the television, in a smoke-filled sitting room, fag in mouth, with a couple of blue form books open on his lap, watching the racing on a weekday afternoon when my mother thought he was at work. He had several large wins, which paid for cars and holidays and suchlike, but I think there was never much money in his account; in fact when he died it was pretty much in the red.

When the war was over he started his decorating business. Although he was wholly uneducated, leaving school at fourteen, he had an eye for colour and form, and a strong visual sense. This could be seen in the way he dressed, as he was dapper and knew how to put clothes together, and in the few oil paintings he did, two of which were hung in a local art gallery, in an exhibition of local people’s work. He started late in life, in his fifties, and generally liked to paint portraits, having less success with still lifes, his only attempt, I remember, being a rather stiff, lifeless painting of a vase of daffodils. His paintings of people, on the other hand, had an energy and an honesty. He did a telling self-portrait; a portrait of me at about twenty-one, which I found embarrassing at the time, because it touched on my adolescent awkwardness; and a beautiful, oddly touching painting of three children, a black girl, an Indian girl and little ginger-haired girl, eyes fixed on the painter as if they were staring down the lens of a camera.

In his decorating business he employed one man full time. This was Leonard. My father was fond of Leonard, but he was often the victim of Dad’s sense of humour, once being asked whether he would drop in at the ironmonger’s on the way to work to pick up a box of bubbles for the spirit level. This he dutifully did, still not getting the joke when he arrived for work and reported that they had run out. He was a small, sickly, rather slow individual, with a tiny ball of cotton wool always shoved into each ear, his eyes forever watering, and his nose runny and red. He was constantly afflicted with ear, nose and throat infections and never had enough money to support his ever-increasing family. My father used to say that, every time he went down to see what was ‘up’ with Leonard after yet another period off work, he could swear there was another ‘nipper’ that he hadn’t seen before. My dad had several talks with him about perhaps cutting back on the procreation, pointing out that the number of children they had produced - I think six at this particular point - did have a bearing on the amount of debt they had accumulated. One time Dad said that Leonard had tried to conceal the latest addition to the family behind the door and that he, Dad, had nearly crushed the child on entering the living room.

My father’s work life seemed to take a huge toll on him and he appeared battered by it. His hands, always cut and misshapen with bruises, were yet another catalyst for my pity. As a child I would hold them, moved and pained by their appearance, and Dad would just laugh, basking in and amused by my concern for him. He became increasingly tired as the years went by, unable to get up in the mornings. During the school holidays, my mother used to ring up every morning from her office in her tea break, having by then graduated from packing chocolates at Cadbury’s to being a clerical assistant at the General Post Office, to see whether he had gone to work. At night he would fall asleep in the chair after tea, head back, mouth open, snoring.

He broke his ankle whilst painting a ceiling, aged around fifty, falling off a wooden plank that was suspended between two ladders and catching his foot on a metal bucket as he fell. He had a spell in hospital where pins were inserted, but it took a long time to heal and afterwards he always walked with a limp. This, plus a heart attack when he was fifty-two, blamed largely on the forty Park Drive ciggies a day that he was by then smoking, aged him terribly and he looked a good twenty years older. One day he walked into the local GP’s surgery, thinking he was suffering from indigestion. The doctor listened to his heart and wouldn’t even allow him to take off his own overcoat, sending him straight to hospital. The heart specialist who attended him said it was imperative that he give up smoking. My father refused point blank, stating that smoking was ‘the only pleasure I’ve got left’. The heart attack simply confirmed what I feared as a child, that my ‘poor father’ hadn’t the strength to withstand the blows that life seemed to be dealing him, and it sent my mother’s anxiety about money and poverty up to new levels.

A couple of months before his death I was sitting with him in front of the kitchen fire drinking a cup of tea, having come home from college for the weekend, when he said, ‘I don’t think I’ve got a lot longer left, Bab, but I want you to know that it’s all right because I’ve had a good life and I’m tired now.’ He died, aged sixty-two, in 1971, of another heart attack, this time a massive one that killed him more or less instantly. He was lying in bed with my mother, chatting. She asked him a question and he didn’t answer, just hiccoughed and died. It had been a beautiful July day; he had been up on the roof, mending it; but, more importantly, he had won on the horses.

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