Political Stand with John Nicolson: Remember my late father


Categories: News

MY Father was born a century ago this month. I can’t even begin to think of him as 100.

He was younger than I am now when he died, aged only 55. I was 15. It changed our family life forever.

He’s been gone so long that I struggle to remember his voice. The photos I have of him are faded.

Younger readers, whose every move is recorded from birth, may find it hard to imagine a time when photos were an event, with reels left at the chemist for processing. Most families didn’t record film footage.

The only audio of him I have is a record from a booth in Glasgow Central Station. I vaguely remember sitting on a stool as my father persuaded me to sing ‘baa baa black sheep.’ I can hear him whispering encouragement.

Dad was very funny. The happiest memory I have of him before he became sick is listening in the kitchen as he told my Mum a story about his family. She laughed until tears were running down her cheeks and her sides ached. ‘John! John! Please stop!’ she said, before fleeing onto the landing and down the stairs with my father following.

Every night, from my earliest childhood, he’d sit on the edge of my bed and tell me a story. I never wanted them to end. We lived in a tenement with no central heating. Sometimes, in winter, I could see his breath in the cold bedroom air. He’d read me Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ with different voices for all the characters, Charles Dickens who, he told me, was “sentimental” before I knew what that meant, Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and George Orwell. But my favourite was Philippa Pearce’s ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ – the story of a wee boy who dreamt every night that he was playing with a young girl who’d lived in his house half a century earlier.

Eventually, Tom realises the girl has grown old and become the grumpy neighbour living downstairs. As a result, I deluged affection on the carnaptious old lady we had living beneath us up our close.

I realised Dad was sick playing golf with him on our last summer holiday. He wasn’t a great golfer, but he loved to play the local public course using, eccentrically, ancient wooden shafted clubs. That day he could hardly breathe. When we got back home my Mum made him go to the hospital where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Six long, bleak months later he died, one snowy February morning.

Our family didn’t handle grief well. Dad never talked to me about his illness. Mum didn’t tell me his prognosis and, pre-internet, I’d to work it out as best I could. When he was gone, it took me years to talk about the hidden family trauma triggered by his death.

But, decades on I still think about him most days.

I remember a shy and witty man who taught me to love books and question authority. And who told me I could be whoever I wanted to be.