Now let us praise famous men
My father turned 90 yesterday. Even in an age where many more people are living so much longer it remains a very significant milestone. It felt a good time to reflect on what I most admire in him.
My father came from a very different world to the one I and my children have grown up in. Born on 2nd July 1926 in Clydach Vale in the Rhondda Valley, it was the middle of the bitter Miners’ Strike. My grandfather who had caused some sort of trouble during the strike lost his job and was unemployed until the early 1940s. As a result, like many in that community in the 1930s, my father grew up in significant material poverty. His father found solace for his disappointment in life in the pub.
Despite this my father is immensely fond of his upbringing. The Rhondda was a strong community, with an enormous sense of shared identity, based on working class solidarity, Welsh culture and Nonconformist religion. Despite individual material poverty there was a network of social support and communal facilities (including libraries and healthcare funded by the Miners’ Federation). The mountain just above where my father lived provided a wonderful playground.
My father was able enough to get to Grammar School and would have easily been bright enough to go to University. Those opportunities were not open to a working class boy at that time and it remains one of his regrets that he did not have that opportunity but one of his joys that his sons and now grandchildren have had it.
After the War, and a tour of National Service in Palestine, he did get the opportunity to go to teacher training college and spent his working life as a primary school teacher, and later head teacher, moving to Birmingham where he met my mother and where he still lives. As I discovered as a child Birmingham is, or at least was, full of Welsh teachers.
I have learnt lots of things from my father over the years but here there are the things I most admire about him and which I hope I have picked up some shadow of.
The first is his sense of community and of the equality of individuals within that community. Everybody in a community matters. Nobody is too important not to bother with other members of their community. Nobody is not important enough to be bothered with.
The second is a strong commitment to help those who are disadvantaged in society. My father’s motivation to become a teacher was an encounter with a fellow soldier when he was on National Service who was unable to read. Much of his teaching career was spent in quite deprived schools in Birmingham and in working with children who often had little motivation and encouragement to learn.
However the biggest impact on my father’s life (and indeed on my own) was the disability of my elder brother. My parents had a very difficult time when my brother was young and they were discovering the extent of his difficulties and his support (and that of my mother) for Peter has been a constant source of inspiration to me. Through my brother my father became involved in the world of disabled sport and after his retirement my father spent many years running a disabled sports club.
My father is a man of great integrity, of strong values and beliefs who is prepared when necessary to stand up for what he thinks is right. I do not always agree with him on everything but it has hard not to respect his opinions. He has always been an enemy of petty authority, most notably in a clash early in his teaching career with a martinet of a head teacher. It did not look, at the time, as if it would be a great step forward in career but it did make an impression on another young teacher at the school – my mother!
I have also admired my father’s sense of interest and enquiry. While not an intellectual or with the benefits of university education as I have had he remains fiercely interested in what is happening in the world outside. It is one of the reasons why he remains sharp and with all his faculties at the age of 90.
Finally he has been a very generous father, with his time and money. He always supported the opportunities I wanted to take as a child, even if they were not those which matched his own interests. He did so when I am sure he and my mother had to make sacrifices to do so. He has also supported my children and my brother’s children and it was lovely to see yesterday, at his birthday lunch, the deep love his grandchildren have for him.
So I have been very lucky to have such a good and inspiring father. I am very conscious of the difference such an influence can play in one’s life and the fact that many, for whatever reason, are not so lucky. So in the words of the writer of the book of Ecclesiasticus :
“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.”