My Dad died in June. He was 96 and right up to just his last few days was still talking about all sorts of random stuff. Here’s the eulogy I gave at his funeral:
Roald Dahl, a Cardiff boy, wasn’t supposed to have been the nicest of people, but in the preface to what I think is his best book, Danny, Champion of the World, he wrote something like this:
What a child wants – and deserves – is a parent who is sparky.
Well, my dad was literally a sparky. He was, for a few years, an electrician. But he was also sparky. He was sparky, kind, generous, and wonderfully, brilliantly eccentric. He was a great father. He was also my friend.
Just last week, in going through his things, I found a newspaper article, probably from The South Wales Argus, reporting his retirement as a magistrate. He was on the bench for 26 years. Here are a couple of paragraphs from that article.
‘Wishing Mr Strong well for his retirement, court clerk Jon Badman said ‘I can honestly say that in the 19 years I have been clerking here, whenever you have been chairman of the bench I have always looked forward to an entertaining day.’
Entertaining? He was a magistrate, not a juggler!
And then later, in the same article, there’s this…
‘Mr Strong, who joined Newport magistrates in 1971, wore a flamboyant Donald Duck tie to mark his final day.’
Dad had a range of ridiculous ties. My brother Roger is wearing that Donald Duck tie tiday, I’m wearing one featuring Homer Simpson and my son Jake wears the one decorated with those guardians of the law, the Mister Men.
Yes, Dad was eccentric. He often wore a deer stalker and, for a while, had a large badge of an eye pinned to the back of it. The eye was a lenticular image, one that appeared to move – so the eye winked as he walked the short distance from car or motorbike to his office. He’d also smoke an upside down pipe, and in his pocket carry a plastic moustache, which he loved to produce so he could utter his most loved pun ‘I moustache you a few questions.’
About ten years ago, after slipping on the garden path and falling on a metal joist he ripped his face open, knocked out half his teeth. But the next day, when I went to see him, horribly bruised and disfigured, he laughed as he told me how he had not only taken himself to hospital, then discharged himself, but got up early that morning and go out, as usual, to buy milk and paper, and enjoy the horrified look on the faces of passers-by. ‘I look like the elephant man!’ he chuckled.
Moving back through the years to my infancy, I remember how he taught me the word onomatopoeia, as that was the word he used when he wanted me to get out of the bath. Andrew – on a mat appear – now!
But for most people who knew him he was their optician. I remember the four floors of HJ Strong, on Upper Dock Street, which got successively more cluttered and ramshackle the further up you went. A bit like Dad’s psyche – superficially he was bastion of the community, but get to know him, climb up the dark upper storeys of his mind, and you discovered a wildly imaginative and slightly messy man.
Dad never cared about money or material things. He was a little bit chaotic, and his stories were often rambling and circuitous. In those last weeks in hospital he often engaged nurses and doctors with his exhausting stories. When he began to hold forth, fixing a nurse or orderly in a storytelling trance, I would quickly take my leave, fully expecting by my visit the next to day to find him still going and the staff comatose on the floor.
Over the course of his life Dad had many hobbies and interests: he loved making cine films, took hundreds of photos, he loved motorbikes, airguns, (a fascination that skipped a generation) and there was golf, of course, but there was also his interest in electronics – he built a remote controlled caddy which later evolved into gokart for the grandchildren. He designed what he called the cupot, half cup, half pot, which he sent to Dragons Den; he learnt the clarinet for a while, practised dowsing, and, inspired by the cranky theories of Erik Von Daniken, once built a pyramid in the attic at home in which apples would supposedly stay ripe and he proposed blunt razorblades could miraculously regain their sharpness.
In his last weeks he was as interested in everything as he always was. I made a note of the topics of some of our conversations: the fall of Rolf Harris, Frank Skinner, the German radar system, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a game called centrifugal bumblepuppy, JPR Williams, Morse code (while in hospital he insisted to one of the doctors that a bedside monitor was spelling out his initials) and how the nationalisation of the coalmines led to the demise of the coconut matting industry.
He was a kind, generous, warm-hearted and eccentric man, a brilliant father and, considering his generation, incredibly liberal. He loved the Goons and although he owned very few books, he had at least three by Spike Milligan. He was quirky, funny, loveable. I will miss his monthly calls to check his premium bond numbers, the regular visits to his flat to go through the same paperwork I went through the month before but which he’d manage to jumble up into a confused mess. I’ll miss scrabbling around on the floor of that flat to retrieve his glasses, remote controls and batteries. There were batteries everywhere. I think at the last count we’ve discovered about 120 in his flat.
I’ll miss his silly voices, his rambling stories. I won’t miss his ridiculous ties, they’re still with us. The banana tie, Homer Simpson, the Wallace and Gromit, the Mister Men, Donald Duck.