Towards Better Democracy

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The First Time I Knew My Father

A Prose Poem 

The first time I knew my father was at seventeen.
We had lived continuously together in warfare since I was nine.
A battered, bitter battle till twelve, and a loud empty truce thereafter,
Mostly absent from the house.

The career officer at school was close to retirement,
As was most of the career information he possessed.
Airplane makers.
Those he knew were of the last war, names like
Handley Page, and Avro’s at Manchester.
Symbols of heroism. Pegasus and Hector.
Most went into demise in the post-war British industrial decline.

Armed with these few addresses, I wrote:



“Dear Sir,
I would like to serve as an apprentice in your company.
I have completed high school.
Enclosed is a drawing of an aircraft.” 

A company wrote back,


“Present yourself for interview on March 23rd inst.
Alight from the 44 Ribble bus at the Lytham Arms.
Looking forward to meeting you. Yours truly,”

The first time I knew my father was when I went to announce the interview,
To request permission to be absent from the trenches of the bitter home front.
The body went erect and soft,
The face, habitually a Greek mask when facing me, turns human,
The lips, lush, framed by the philosopher’s grey beard, said,


“Why did you never tell me?” 

“I didn’t think you were interested,” I said, feeling a man.

I had made this decision on my own.
In me the coward vanished, the whipped cur banished.

In a previous era I might have left home and run to sea.
For apprentice, read midshipman. An officer’s boy to a friendly captain.
Instead, I was going off to industry, to a new peace, to a war-pane maker.


“Didn’t you think I might have plans for you?” 

“You never told me of them.”

“I thought you might become a scholar, work in a library.”

From he who had never worked since I was seven,
This first recognition of the man who was my father
Looked at me in pride and kindness.
A kindness I had never seen.
Permission was granted. Independence was established.

But it was more a soldier leaving the King’s service.
A faithful retainer deserting.
King Lear left to moan and wail on the rocks alone.
Deserted by his court jester.
Because He could not bear to hear the truth,
His jester had been over-kicked.

The first time I knew my father was a brief moment.
There was no second time.


Filed under: Memoir, ,


Nancy Munro, my aunt, was a funny woman. I don’t mean laughable. My father laughed at her but we did not. We found her strange. Possibly even slightly spooky. Though we never said so to each other.

I understand that she, in former times, was a ballet dancer, though I know that not for sure.

So there we were, my brothers and I, with my grandmother, my aunt and my father, all in the same house. At least until my father shipped his mother off to a nursing home. He drove his sister out of the house too, with his constant scorn of her.

All this time, my father never had a job. Made no attempt to find one, to my recollection. When there were no women left in the house, he would make vague excuses to us of how it wouldn’t be seemly for him, a single man, to have a woman in the house, as a caretaker for us.

A puzzle really. Why did not my aunt look after us and he get a job? I don’t know. She didn’t appear to like children much. Her most memorable activity in my memory was to buy us Sunday clothes and ship us off to church. Not that she went, At least, if she did, she did not go to the church she insisted we go to. Oh, and she would give us sixpence each. This was probably for the church plate, and not for sweeties, which is where it did go.

After she left the house, my father would send me to her workplace, to cadge money from her. She seemed kindly enough. She worked in the Blood Transfusion Unit of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. What she did there, I am not sure. She wasn’t a nurse, for I would remember her uniform. She probably kept the paperwork of the blood-bank. She would  show me the centrifuge, and explain to me how it worked. She would show me the blood phials and explain the blood types. She would show me the dried blood which looked like very fine sand. She would tell me about hemoglobin and all that.

Later, I don’t know why, I would visit her, sometimes in the company of my brothers, and sometimes not, at her home in Joppa on the Southeast side of the city. As far as I recall, she shared a house with some other women, similar in age and marital status to herself. Which is to say spinsters.

She had a man who would visit her while we were all still at Merchiston Avenue. He seemed to me, looking back, an impresario type. Coat, hat, scarf. Maybe she really had been a ballet dancer. She was thin, spindly. He didn’t last long, poor soul. Father drove him off. At least that is my impression.

I don’t suppose I should describe the fights between her and my father. But the urge is irresistible. It is comic, looking back after all these years, as it was to the three of us at the time. The fights were over my father helping himself to her cigarettes. My father was an inveterate pipe-smoker, so why he took her cigarettes eludes me. That combined with the fact that cigarettes made him cough dreadfully.

My father was a deplorable mocker. I say deplorable, because, nowadays, such behaviour would not be tolerated. He would reel with hearty laughter as he would regale us with his constant story of how she would, on discovering he had taken, oh, I don’t know, a cigarette or two, scream at him, “You fief, you fief.” And he would laugh heartily at the pleasure of the recollection.

When she died, I do recall we went to the funeral. Where we got the clothes from Heaven’s knows. I don’t recall my father coming with us. But, then he may have done.

Filed under: Memoir, , ,

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