Dad was tall (6′ 3″), handsome and difficult to know.
I never heard him talk about himself–but then I probably never asked him.
He had a raffish mustache, grown just before the Second World War, which prompted mention of David Niven and Errol Flynn.
He laughed easily–which revealed his devastating smile.
We’d egg him on to tell his favorite joke–about a soldier on his way to Aden in the war who started his journey in the north of England on a troop train heading south.
The compartment was sealed and the journey was non-stop–there was no access to a toilet.
By the time he got to Portsmouth he was desperate.
Going up the ship’s gangplank he shouts to a sailor, “Where the nearest toilet, mate?”.
“Portside!” came the reply.
Then we’d all groan–and repeat the punch line with him:
“COR BLIMEY–DON’T WE STOP AT GIBRALTAR!”
(The soldier thought he’d said Port Said in Egypt.)
He was good at maths and loved music; he played the ukelele and piano.
He’d stand in the living room conducting classical pieces playing on the gramophone with huge commitment and knowledge–his version of the “air guitar”, I suppose.
The gramophone was his pride and joy–and was state-of-the-art then in the fifties; we had no TV.
Anthony Gerald Ellis was born 4th November 1915.
He would have been a 100 this year.
“Tony” was adopted by my grandmother, who’d been widowed in 1912 at age 40.
He grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London with his sister, Mary–also adopted, but not a blood relative.
They fell into the butter dish!
My grandmother came from a middle-class Birmingham family. Her brother was head of the Civil Service. She married into a family of wealthy Leicester coal merchants.
They lived modestly, but photos from Mary and Tony’s youth show them thriving.
He went to private schools and always gave me the impression of being bright (he completed the Guardian cryptic crossword every day)–but there was a diffidence about him that made me think he’d never fulfilled his dreams.
Perhaps that diffidence had its origins in his adoption–not knowing where he came from, never feeling completely comfortable in his skin.
Perhaps he’d wanted to be a doctor or a musician–but the war got in the way.
He married my mother, Molly, in April 1938.
I was born in 1942. The the commitment to a growing family meant he had to stick to his day job as an administrator with British Railways.
He was a good and present “dad” who loved to be on the touchline at school football matches and in the audience at first nights.
He gave me an appreciation of music, an understanding of right and wrong and the obligation of doing things to the best of one’s ability.
He was firm, but not stern and never stuffy.
In 1944 he’d spent a year in America training to be a fighter pilot in Arizona.
He came back with an enduring love of the United States and its people and culture. He received Arizona Highways magazine for years. He enjoyed American country music and Broadway musicals. Roy Acuff and Jimmy Rogers often featured on the gramophone along with South Pacific and My Fair Lady.
He was outward-looking and open-minded–and by example encouraged these qualities in his three sons (two of whom married Americans; my late brother Peter settling in Los Angeles).
He took advantage of concessionary rail tickets to take the family to Europe on holiday and instill in us a love (rather than a fear) of “a world elsewhere”.
In his mid-sixties, he lost an eye to cancer and wore his eye patch with characteristic élan! Sadly the disease moved to his liver and he died in November 1983 at age 68.
He’s buried in the churchyard at Brill–the Buckinghamshire village where he and my mother spent their final years.
Thinking of you, Dad–who never knew your own father–on this Father’s Day.