My dad Jim died today. He had advanced emphysema but was still driving two days ago. I found him on the floor of his bedroom so I ran and called 999 and was put on hold!!! No ambulances were available the automatic message said!! I was frantic and rang my mum and sister who live quite near. Then someone materialised on the phone and talked me through CPR. I was still pumping my dad’s chest when I saw him stop breathing. The woman told me to carry on and I was still doing it when the paramedics arrived. My sister was close behind and it was only a little while before one of the team came in and asked us for permission to stop CPR. I knew though that he’d already gone.
As one of my two sisters said, ‘Jim was a rebel all his life’. He still played Motorhead at full volume in his car, and he also loved punk. He was from a London Irish family and when I was a small child in South Wales (he married a Welsh girl) I would bring my friends in to listen to his cockney accent which he then exaggerated to make us laugh. He did hard manual labour in a tyre moulding factory and always said that one of his proudest moments was when my grandfather, a miner, told him that a workmate of my dad’s had said to him, ‘that son-in-law of yours works with the heart of a lion.’
My dad detested injustice of all kinds and I credit him with my becoming an activist. Though a quiet man, I saw and heard him express the deepest distress and anger about suffering in the world which, in turn, had a deep impact on me. Racism and every kind of bigotry was beyond the pale for him and, indeed, his entire Irish family. It was by example that I knew these things were wrong from my very earliest years and I am forever grateful to him for that gift. The overarching message we got as kids was that you never, ever oppress anyone weaker or misuse power or strength in any way. On the contrary, you use your strength to lift others up and protect them. And this concern extended to animals for whom my dad had a profound love which he also passed to me.
But he also had a great sense of humour and we would often both burst out laughing at the same absurdity we’d observed at the same moment. My dad, like me, loved Bill Hicks and George Carlin, two great comedians and truth-tellers on a mission to expose the lies and corruption of those in power, and he instilled in me a keen cynicism and vital suspicion of authority, once telling me, ‘never believe anything someone tells you just because they wear a uniform or hold a position of power’.
My dad left a school full of teachers keen to beat out of children any spark of individuality or dissent and on leaving them behind he walked straight into his local library where he devoured books on every subject in order to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The world for him was a fascinating place full of wonder and mysteries, as was the cosmos beyond. And so, as kids, we were surrounded by books on, and by, Einstein and Feynman, Steinbeck and Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy as well as tomes on politics, philosophy, engineering, travel…
My dad is still the only person I know to have read War and Peace in its entirety – for the sheer pleasure alone, not for any academic merit or intellectual kudos. Learning, for him, was a thrill, and if ever, as a child, I asked him even the simplest question, such as the meaning of a word, he would launch into a highly entertaining explanation, full of vivid images and humour to ignite my imagination, his legacy being that I passed on this way of communicating ideas, quite naturally, to my students when I taught in a college. I was quite aware, too, that as I endeavored to show them the importance of living with integrity and compassion, I was passing on the same gift my dad had given me. And it was, indeed, his voice echoing through me when I told them one day, ‘don’t believe anything someone in authority tells you, even me! until you have investigated it for yourself. But investigate it honestly and without self-delusion. Don’t be empty vessels for others to pour their prejudices into.’
My dad’s great hero was Muhammad Ali, admiring him as much for his brave and honourable stand against the Vietnam war, risking imprisonment at the very pinnacle of his sporting career, than for any genius in the boxing ring. Martin Luther King also loomed large in the landscape of my childhood, as did others who exemplified a life lived with humanity and spent fighting for justice. These were the people held up for me as worthy of respect.
My dad was a working class London Irish boy who rode in a motorcycle gang as a youth and never lost his rebel spirit. He couldn’t give us kids material things that other children at my school appeared to value. But we didn’t want them. Thanks to him we already saw that those things were not important. We knew what was – and those gifts he showered us with all his life.
We had our arguments my dad and I – you can’t raise a rebel and be surprised when they speak their mind! – but he admired strong women and he moulded three of them in me and my sisters. Thanks to him I am not easily intimidated by anyone – least of all those in authority, who gain my respect only by demonstrating their own integrity. Yet I suspect even my dad did not expect me to one day be seated opposite President Assad’s Minister of Reconciliation in Syria, asking questions as part of a small group of western journalists. But my father should have known – I was only there because of him.
You don’t have to have lived a life of public achievement to have changed the world. Your influence flows into those whose lives you touch and its stream courses through them into many other lives. Truly, if you lived with absolute integrity and passed onto your children the same values then you added to the light on this planet and there was less darkness because you were here. And the love you showed your fellow man and all sentient life goes on, like ripples on a great lake.
Every time I write something that others read and are moved or affected by, that is my dad’s voice emerging through my words. Every time I speak up when I see a wrong committed, that is my dad’s compassion acting through me. Every time I look up at the stars at night and gasp inwardly at the magnificence of the cosmos, that is my dad’s awe flowing through me. Every time I look at an animal and I see a soul like myself looking back, that is my dad’s love of all sentient life flowing from my heart. I am forever grateful that he gave me the priceless gift of seeing the world through his eyes.
Goodbye Jim. Safe journey. And give our dog Sky a lot of hugs until I get there.