Greetings, late as ever. I appreciate that this is a late post. I knew things were going to get a bit hectic and sure enough they have. I had to set up McMini’s computer for school and it took approximately one thousand years. OK not quite one thousand but it felt like that, especially when I had bloody microsoft asking me to sign in and then saying ‘oops there seems to be a problem.’
After searching for what felt like fucking aeons, I realised that the problem was simply that McMini is under age and therefore I had to sign in as me to move windows from some crappy version, where you can’t download anything off the Microsoft app store, to normal windows that everyone else uses. As a result I have nothing to witty to blog this week and had to resort to Things I Have In Reserve, in this case, my Dad’s Eulogy.
It might seem like a strange thing to share, but it was written for laughs and it even got some! Next week, I have some absolutely chuffing amazing news for you! In the meantime … enjoy …
The difficulty talking about Dad is that I have so much material, so it’s tricky to know where to begin and when to stop. The fact his nick name, at the school, was ‘Johnny the Legend’ probably says it all.
I’ve made some notes.
Obviously, as his daughter, I’m biased and see him as a shining example of what it means to be human, and a Christian, and to do Christianity and humaning really well. There are certain words that crop up again and again in the letters and cards we received; Gentleman, kind, warm, radiant, humour/joie de vivre, fun, funny, witty, generous, non-judgemental, wise, humanity and a word he used about others but which also very much applied to Dad, himself, effervescent! Dad lived his whole life with an aura of intelligent enquiry and seemed, to me, to have a genuine interest in everything and everyone around him. He also had a sense of fun and mischief but coupled with a sense of social justice and a kindly disposition which meant the mischief was never cruel. He was genial and good humoured and would often tell stories against himself if he believed his antics were funny enough. Probably one of the most indicative things about Dad, and Mum, is the friends they made and the people they have around them. They seem to be pied pipers of lovely people.
Dad delighted in sharing the Latin and Greek roots of words, especially if they were slightly dodgy or a little bit lavatorial. I can still decline the latin verb from which we get the word, ‘constipation’. Despite being a committed Christian, Dad would sometimes take me aside after church and we would both giggle as he pointed out the double entendres which Victorian poets, in a more innocent age, had unwittingly put into that Sunday’s hymns. ‘Oh Lamb of God, I come,’ was a particular favourite, and the fact it was written by an ancestor on my Mum’s side just made it even funnier.
He loved to prick the bubble of the self-important and was proud of any signs of rebellion in my brother and I. He once hauled a colleague to the window of the master’s common room and, glowing with proprietorial, that’s-my-boy pride pointed out a scene in the quad below, where a member of staff who ran like the original Minister for Silly Walks was sprinting across the grass followed by my brother doing a near perfect impression of the man’s ridiculous run a few yards behind. Another time, I remember Dad carrying a copy of the unofficial school newspaper round one speech day and, when he met the right parent or colleague, he would whip it out of his inside jacket pocket, like some war time black-marketeer selling stockings, to show them a slightly scurrilous cartoon I’d drawn of the Bursar.
Life with Dad was never dull. He was always cheerful and sociable. He enjoyed entertaining friends and relations during the holidays and would wear his bedroom slippers ‘to make it more relaxing’ often prank phone calls would be made to other, absent, members of staff, or those who’d moved on to better things at other schools. Sometimes he would invite people round and forget so Mum would be surprised and delighted to see them arrive but have to pretend that she knew they were coming. She, and we, usually pulled this off, except for the time my uncle and aunt turned up and found the four of us sitting down to a grilled trout each.
Dad was, as he would have put it, ‘a good trencherman’. On holiday France Dad demonstrated that, were he ever to go on Mastermind, his special subject would be not classics but instead, Guide Michelin, Normandy edition. As we drove through some village he’d suddenly stop the car and announce that it was lunch time because the auberge had a red underlining. No-one I’ve ever met before or since could sniff out a good restaurant as surely as Dad.
He also enjoyed wine, although, in that respect he was quite a long suffering father, luckily he had a very forgiving nature. I remember I inadvertently drank one of his best bottles while he was away on holiday. ‘What? You drank my Gevrey?’ he cried, his expression a mix of horror and disbelief at my iniquity in drinking his wine and pride that I’d made such a quality choice. Luckily pride won out although I did replace the bottle as soon as I could. I also remember spilling mayonnaise all over him at a restaurant in Durham when we were having a meal to celebrate Giles’ graduation. There was complete silence and, again, Dad’s face was a mixture – of anger and humour, this time. For a few seconds we watched the two emotions battle for control. God bless Lil, who guffawed before she could stop herself, Dad’s habitual good humour reasserted itself immediately and all was well.
I’ve already alluded to Dad’s selective memory. Any timely attendance at social events was due to Mum’s insistence that he put them on the kitchen calendar … also, most friends were wise enough to ensure she knew about them. The odd one or two slipped through the net though. I remember in my last year at school, Dad had just left the house and was commuting in daily from home. One evening, I found him, Mum and two friends wandering disconsolately through the cloisters in their dinner suits having arrived at the common room guest night a week early. This was a particularly spectacular achievement since Dad was chairman of the common room at the time and, therefore, the person responsible for organising it.
A familiar refrain in our house when I was growing up was the phrase, ‘have you seen my biro?’ Dad had two Papermate biros: there was a red one, which with Dad’s characteristic fuzzy logic, contained black ink, and a turquoise one which contained red ink. The hunt was on for one or other of them (and his keys) most of the time. Finally, he lost the red one, apparently forever, so I bought him a new one for his birthday, a top of the range black and gold Papermate. Yes, from now on the ‘black’ biro was going to BE black. I was incredibly proud when he hung onto it for years, although it turned out it was several biros. He couldn’t bear to upset me by admitting he’d lost my gift, so he kept buying replacements. It was only after he tried to buy replacement number five and he discovered Papermate had discontinued that model that he was forced to come clean. It was typical of Dad’s kindness. He was a soft old thing. He used to hug the cat goodbye before work in the mornings. She always smelled of aftershave at the start of the day.
For all Dad’s legendary forgetfulness, though, the headmaster’s secretary once told Mum that he was the one housemaster she could always rely on for an instant answer to any question asked about any of his charges. There was no filing system, no having to look things up. He always remembered the things that mattered.
One more instance of fuzzy logic. One summer night we left our pet rabbit in his outside run which had shade but very little shelter. Mum was the first to realise when she was awoken by a rumble of thunder.
‘Darling! There’s a storm coming and the rabbit’s still out!’ she cried and Dad went out to rescue him.
Mum heard the door go just as it began to chuck it down with rain. She ran to the window to see Dad rush into the orchard, completely starkers, barring a pair of wellies, grab the rabbit and take him, through the pouring rain to his more permanent home in the garage.
‘I didn’t want to get my pyjamas wet,’ he explained when Mum asked what on earth he was doing.
Dad was a committed Christian with a deep and enduring faith. Interestingly, his efforts to be Christ-like in every aspect of his behaviour could make him come up as a bit of a maverick – which suggests he may have been doing it properly.
Dad had a very firm idea of right and wrong and, as it was governed by his faith, it didn’t necessarily involve proceeding as convention, or the rules, dictated. Luckily most of the people he encountered appreciated this, even if his tendency to take the same approach at work, coupled with a propensity to forget housemaster’s meetings frustrated some of his bosses. Neither tendency let up after he retired.
One evening he and Mum got talking to a homeless man in the churchyard and brought him home to spend the night. Mum, rang me and explained that if I hadn’t heard from them by half nine the following morning I must call the police as they would probably have been murdered. She put the phone down with the parting shot, ‘Don’t tell your brother darling, he’ll go into orbit.’ Mum and Dad were a team and as you can tell from this story, it was definitely a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.
One of Dad’s maxims was,
‘Never let anyone see you’re shocked by anything, most of the time, it’s what they want.’
Dad was pretty good at not being shocked especially by some of my more punk friends not to mention us, his own kids. I remember his reaction after I attended my first party. Unfortunately I mistook the fruit punch for a non alcoholic beverage. By the time I realised my mistake I’d downed gallons of the stuff and I was terribly ill. The next day, I felt truly awful and spent the time very quietly in my bedroom. When supper time arrived, I came downstairs and Dad said,
‘I thought we could have a treat tonight, I’ve made some wine cup.’
I have no idea how he did it but Dad had managed to replicate the exact same punch that I’d drunk to such horrific excess the night before. I sunk two glasses with a heaving stomach and a thin pretence of enjoyment. It was a much more salutary lesson than any lecture on the evils of drink. Fizzy logic, perhaps, in that case, but no less effective.
Dad was also great at understanding the way other people thought. A naughty friend of mine told how, when about to be cautioned by the police for some argy-bargy at the Goldstone, Dad stopped him just before he went in and said,
‘Now listen, Duncan, there’s one thing you have to remember and it’s very important.’
‘Yes Mr Bell?’
‘Yes, whatever you do, DON’T laugh! It’s yes sir, no sir, thank you sir and out again. No backchat, and NO arguing the toss. Right?’
My friend confessed that, the moment he was confronted with the police officer cautioning him, he was indeed, seized with an urge to guffaw or make sarcastic comment, but he managed to contain himself because of what Dad had said.
Dad wasn’t afraid to be human if, by venting occasionally over something small, he could be better at something bigger and more important. I remember him mowing the orchard at home. The lowest branches of the trees were all about four feet off the ground. As Dad mowed he was watching the grass in front of him so he bashed his head on pretty much every single tree. Each bump was greeted with an ever lengthier flow of invective, mostly comprising the word, ‘bugger!’ It lead to a new family measurement scale of vexation, ‘how manyb’uggers was that, Dad?’ we’d ask after a particularly vexatious escapade doing something or other.
Dad told me that he’d wanted to be a teacher for as long as he could remember. To be honest, if you grew up around him while he was going about his job it was fairly obvious. He was extremely dedicated, but even when he had retired, even when he had Alzheimer’s, children still flocked to him to chat.
His pet advice on housemastering was, ‘It’s not about catching the boys it’s about knowing when NOT to catch them.’ I only found that out recently, which is probably why it was many years before I realised that, when he came home to regale us with something funny he’d caught the boys doing, they didn’t actually KNOW. The famous Johnny Bell warning cough made sure of this, unless they were seriously up to no good, in which case Dad would omit the cough and attempt to catch them. He allowed some slack but had a zero tolerance policy for bullying. I remember him agonising when he had to send boys to the headmaster for drinking, smoking, going awol or the like, but if they’d been bullying people he never had a qualm about having them expelled, which was entirely in keeping with his sense of right and wrong and social justice.
One of the greatest gifts Dad taught me was that, if you want to be happy in life, it’s essential to be able to laugh at yourself. He had a way of being self depreciating and using humour to keep things light without losing the message. His humour also helped him keep things in proportion, in a way that not everyone can. Perhaps that accounted for some of his courage when facing the grimness of Alzheimer’s. Wherever he is now there will be light and laughter.
In the classroom, too, Dad liked to allow space among the learning to enjoy a bit of levity. His pupils soon realised that you could have a far more interesting Greek lesson if you got Dad onto some off the wall topic after about five minutes. He got decent enough results, so it seems to have worked. Even after he’d retired, Dad’s one-to-one students knew to ask about his most recent holiday if they wanted a break. At school, the lateral and inventive nature of Dad’s red herrings was so famed that they were featured in an article in the school magazine, which amused Dad greatly. I have a photocopy of that article which I’ve included, below.