2019 hasn’t been kind to me. In March I was taken out by appendicitis, in June I was involved in a minor traffic collision in Cornwall, and in October I developed shingles. I will write on those in due course. But these all paled in significance in mid October when my dad was struck down with sepsis, ultimately succumbing after a month in intensive care.
Yesterday was his funeral, and it fell to me to deliver his eulogy as my mum would have been unable to keep it together to do such a thing (she gave a few short closing remarks, which was about all she could do).
Below is the eulogy I gave, edited to add the couple of ad-libs that snuck in whilst I was delivering it.
Obviously most of you know Dad, so what can I say about him that most of you don’t already know? We all know him as a Dylan fan, trade unionist, and a smartarse, but hopefully I’ll be able to offer a bit of an alternate perspective.
Dad liked silly jokes and clearly believed the old ones were the best. It was impossible for him to encounter two paper plates at a barbecue without them forming the ears in a mandatory Mickey Mouse impression, a joke so old it’s probably where Walt Disney got the idea for the character in the first place. I think Alan used to do this one as well. I don’t think the phrase ‘stop me if you’ve heard this one’ was in his vocabulary.
Of course he loved music, all sorts of music. Although he clearly favoured folk I feel like we heard a bit of everything growing up: Springsteen, Dylan, Marley, Bragg, Paul Simon – the list goes on and on. He passed that love on to his sons too; as soon as we were old enough to be trusted with a beat up, hand-me-down player we had tapes featuring Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, the Pogues, the Everly Brothers and the likes. The theme to Sounds of the 60s on Radio 2 was also the theme tune of our Saturday mornings growing up, and one of our favourite tapes to listen to in the car when we were on family holidays was called Morris On. It’s undoubtedly where I got my eclectic musical tastes from – as soon as MP3s became a thing I was raiding his CD collection for tracks, although being a teenager and not wanting to be seen to be liking anything my parents liked I may have done a lot of it when he was out. Even my brother Jonny, who used to listen to drum and bass so loud it set off car alarms, has admitted to liking folk music.
This said, I’m sure a bit of him died inside when both his kids declared love for the Spice Girls in the mid 90s, nor was he particularly impressed by our Limp Bizkit phase. Or our brief Smurfs period.
He was obviously a big lover of Bob Dylan – it can’t be a coincidence that I’m called ‘Robert’ and one of my brother’s middle names is Dylan, although he did deny that’s where I got my name from, claiming I must’ve been born close to the death of some other famous musical Bob, maybe Bob Marley (although I looked it up and the dates don’t line up in the slightest). Mum is quick to point out however that my brother was born on Bob’s birthday which is why he has that middle name. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions as to the likelihood of a huge Dylan fan having a child born on the same day as him. Dad may have travelled all over Europe since he retired, but I’m not sure he ever visited anywhere he didn’t also have concert tickets for. You have to admire his tenacity, he followed Dylan on tour longer than Dylan’s own voice, which gave up and retired at least two or three decades ago. In fact I found a list Dad compiled of all of the Dylan concerts he went to. Starting from that concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966, which I’m sure he’d appreciate me mentioning at least a few times, the list stops in 2015 at 95 concerts, so I’m sure he tipped over the 100 mark in the following years. Aside from concerts at iconic London venues such as the Albert Hall, Hammersmith Odeon and the Brixton Academy, his following of Dylan took him all over the country, and to France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Ireland.
Aside from that concert in 1966, which I’m told still elicits jealousy from Dylan fans, his other memorable concert came in Dunkirk in 1992, although not so much for the concert but for what happened whilst they were out at lunch at a cafe, when Dylan himself came walking past. A short stalk later and they were sitting in the same café as Bob Dylan, but this wasn’t enough for Dad, who joined Bob at his table, said a few words (and as you’d expect got none in return), and got his ticket signed. So then Dad could add ‘met Bob Dylan in a café in Dunkirk’ to ‘Albert Hall in ’66’ on his fan resume, which puts him in very exclusive company.
Dad may have enjoyed travelling, but he never liked flying, hating all of the inevitable waiting around that came with catching a flight anywhere. He was much happier travelling to places that could be reached by the Eurostar. One of the few exceptions to this rule was his and Mum’s trip to America in the early 2000s, itself a second run after an unsuccessful first attempt at getting into the country a couple of years earlier that can probably best be described as the result of the US still not trusting hippies.
Growing up we rarely went abroad. Starting just after my brother was born we began taking our summer holidays in Swanage, Dorset, a tradition we kept up for well over a decade, staying in the same cottage for the same two weeks of the year until the cottage was sold – at which point we started staying two doors down. The last thing we did every holiday was pop into the estate agent to book it again for next year. Dad loved it there, something else he passed on to his sons, as we both still love to visit the area. It’s a place important enough to us a family that we will be scattering some of his ashes there and putting a plaque on the pier. I have very fond memories of getting up with Dad in the morning to walk into town to get the papers, something which sadly ended when they redeveloped part of the route, coinciding with him discovering the newsagent was prepared to deliver them for the two weeks we were there. It’s the first thing I think of whenever I see someone buying their morning paper in person.
It can’t have been easy raising two boys who would occasionally punch the lights out of each other, but as the cliché goes it was probably worse when we were quiet and getting along. One time we decided to play with my Ghostbusters tower in our bedroom, but instead of using the officially licensed slime that came with it, we used water, and shorted out the lights of the room below. Luckily after a few hours of drying out it all worked again and we escaped any real punishment, and didn’t have to put the whole house in a bag of rice or anything.
One of my fondest family memories took place at Christmas in 1996 or ’97. My brother and I had been pooling our money and saving as much as we could to buy ourselves a Nintendo 64, and our calculations showed that if we got our usual amount of Christmas money we’d be able to afford one. We made no secret of our plans and had made it clear to our parents we weren’t too interested in presents and would much prefer cold hard cash that year. Despite this, there were still plenty of things to unwrap under the tree. But as we started unwrapping them, we started finding very unexpected things: an N64 controller here, a copy of GoldenEye 007 there. Ever slow to catch on we expressed concern that it was all well and good buying us accessories, but if we didn’t also get some cash we wouldn’t be able to afford the console to use them.
Eventually it was somewhat bluntly hinted that there might be another present to tie all these accessories together, hidden somewhere else in the house. So we went looking, but after a little while we were getting nowhere fast. We’d already searched our parents’ room as that seemed the mostly likely hiding spot, then whilst we were both looking in our bedroom in case he’d managed to hide it there, he came running out of his bedroom with an evil laugh and ran downstairs. A small chase ensued, and before long we were unwrapping a Nintendo 64 of our very own.
It was one of the few times that Dad really properly surprised us with an amazing gift at Christmas, and it stands out in my memory because it wasn’t long afterwards that all the males of the family settled into waiting to be told exactly what to buy on the major gift-giving occasions. That said, we were finally, some 20 years later, able to give back to him when me and my brother both got together to buy him his first iPhone for Christmas, something he seemed genuinely touched by.
He loved general knowledge, and could often be found watching quiz programmes on the television, such as 15 to 1, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and the Chase, and could even on occasion give a reasonably accurate answer when watching University Challenge. He also loved a crossword, one of the things he’s not passed on to either of his sons partly because I simply can’t get my head around them. There seemed to be few subjects he didn’t have some sort of insight on, something probably helped or perhaps inspired by working in an academic institution.
When he was younger, he was partial to a spot of DIY – I probably learnt most of my curse words from him doing some DIY in the other room, although this was also apparently hereditary, as his twin Alan had the same issue – my cousin Jim apparently used to think the use of a hammer was always to be followed by the phrase “fuck it”. Still, there was plenty of furniture in our house he built himself, and indeed most of it is still standing today, although once my brother became an actual carpenter Dad was perfectly happy to sit back and let a professional handle it – at a discount of course. Dad built bunk beds that lasted from when my brother was just about big enough for a bed of his own until I moved out 15 years later, with only one small collapse in between, which admittedly might have been helped by me sitting up a bit too violently and suddenly finding myself on the bunk below.
Dad enjoyed sports as well. As he clearly had the physique of an amateur snooker player you may not be surprised to hear he enjoyed a bit of cue action, and indeed won a few trophies in his time. He also followed the sport and like most was a fan of Ronnie O’Sullivan.
He also followed football, and was one of those people who would run out of the room rather than have the results spoiled before he could watch Match of the Day. He supported Liverpool, so it’s very sad that he hasn’t been able to see the dominant season they’re having, and we’ll probably have a fresh little spell of heartache next spring if they win the Premiership.
Of course ostensibly Dad was a photographer, although as you’ve already heard from Andy, he obviously spent a lot of his working life doing union work, standing up for the little man and on occasion protecting workers from their own selves. I’m sure, especially towards the end of his career, in a given year he probably took more photographs on family holidays than at work.
He passed that love of photography on to me. From a young age I had my own camera to take on holiday; later he bought me my first proper digital camera for Christmas, and photography remains my main hobby.
Considering he clearly enjoyed taking photographs, he was quite unlike the photographers you usually encounter these days. He never shared his photos, and only printed a very small selection to be framed at home – and that was a relatively recent development, only happening after he retired. So of course he never joined Instagram either, it just wasn’t his style.
In fact, today his personal photographs may have actually been shared more than ever, because the front cover and inside page of the order of service most of you are holding feature photographs of his – although I feel I should point out that I blurred them for legibility, they weren’t that out of focus when he took them.
He started out in photography at school, attending after-school classes almost in spite of the fact his school offered two career paths: being an electrician or going to work at Ford (which of course two of his brothers did). After a short spell at UCL (something he never mentioned to me so must have, understandably, been a source of great shame) he joined the Geography Department at King’s College in 1976, the second of several Howards to draw salary at that noble institution, after his twin brother, and preceding a second generation as both his and Alan’s eldest sons ended up working there as well. In his 34 years of service there he obviously crossed paths with many people. One of the sympathy cards we received over the last month came from the Head of Geography, who first encountered Dad as a PhD student at King’s, who described him as “always the most friendly and caring colleague”, and I doubt there were many who would contradict that, save for perhaps a few of the people who met him on the other side of a negotiating table.
Living a couple of hours drive apart, in many ways Pete and Alan were very lucky to be able to work together, and see each other most days, even if just for a generously-long lunch break in the social club. Losing his brother obviously hit him hard. I think the only time I’ve seen my dad cry was at Alan’s funeral, and once he’d completed their work on long-standing projects like Pay and Modernisation he took the first opportunity to retire early, and make sure he had a retirement to enjoy, which he was able to do for almost 10 years. He got to travel, he got to see many concerts all over, and he got to sit on his arse, all of which are key components of a proper retirement, especially when my mum joined him in retirement less than a year later and they were able to do all the aforementioned travelling and concert-attending together. Opinions differ on when mum and dad actually started dating but one thing that is certain is that they were together for over 50 years, which as I’m sure you can all appreciate is a long time to put up with anyone. Of course their first date was a concert, Pink Floyd on this occasion.
I am going to leave you with some music, so that you can spend four minutes and thirty-nine seconds in quiet contemplation reflecting on your own memories of Dad. The song is called Persuasion, which was his favourite track by Richard Thompson, and one that was sung at the last concert my parents went to, earlier this year at the Royal Albert Hall, where Dad saw Bob Dylan in 1966, in case I haven’t mentioned that yet.