Happy Hundredth Birthday Dad-It was the journey not the arrival that mattered.
Today is your birthday. You would have been a hundred had you not died raging against the dying of the light five years ago. For me, who still lives- that's a long time passing. For most, you are a vague memory now, forgotten by publishers, journalists, trade unions and naturally-perhaps even thankfully- politicians.
People, the one's caught in the vice of austerity, and hard times, this perpetual cost of living crisis, that know society's candle is burning down to the quick, they remember you.
Even if I wanted to, I can't forget you. You sit impatiently in the chair of my consciousness and urge me to survive the calamities of my health and finances. You were of good cheer through most of your life because, despite the harshness of your beginnings, you were able to love and be loved in return.
Your temporal mark on what your life was about surrounds me in what was our apartment. Pictures of mum from the various vacations you took together in Hawaii, Venezuela and Jamaica sit in ornate frames above the television cabinet. Your beloved oriental carpets adorn the floor. The antique samovar, that you rescued from the catacombs of Toronto’s Eaton’s department store when you were employed there in the 1960s sits on the table near where I write and maintain your social media profile. My brother Pete’s paintings, from his early years as an artist, still hang on these walls, including his rendition of Velazquez’s The Water Seller of Seville, which he did for a class at the Ontario College of Art. He hated that painting and tried to throw it out after he grew dissatisfied with his inability to make a replica of the work. But you saved it because you marvelled at Peter’s determination to become an artist. “It takes courage to create.”
In your brilliant blaze across British political society in your last years; it frustrated many influential people that you couldn’t be marketed as sentimental treacle for a bygone age, where people still had patriotism for their country. You dispelled that nonsense in the essay you wrote in 2014 for Remembrance Sunday. In that piece, you proudly and defiantly stated you refused to wear a poppy to whitewash Britain’s wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a superb essay, but it also meant you were unmarketable to a nation addicted to nostalgia for a non-existent past redolent in tunes of glory.
There is only a whispered breath between life and death. You knew it, mum knew it, and so did Peter. Now, I know it because cancer stole from me the certainty of a long and healthy life. These long covid days gave me the time to understand that since boyhood, I am enveloped with a sense of loss and the grim knowledge that we are brief to this world.
There are far greater things to mourn than my diminished life expectancy. Society, at this moment, is a busted flush. I do not know how it will be fixed. I fear we will walk through the fires again your generation experienced in the 1930s and 1940s. This time, however, our chances of being triumphant; against the greed of the few and authoritarianism don't appear as hopeful.
The longer you lived, the more your early past seemed to repeat itself. “Intolerance, narcissism, and greed will be written at the entrance to the tomb of the early decades of the 21st century.” You were becoming increasingly impatient with politicians and the news media's indifference to poverty, racism, economics and inequality. “The suffering of the ordinary is just a collection of buzz words to get well-off people elected to parliament.” You were pissed off and started to feel that nothing we had done since Peter died had altered anything for either good or bad.
But every thing done at the end of your life with me, had a purpose. It redeemed us from our grief. It returned us to a state of joy and laughter despite the deadly seriousness of your Last Stand. I will drink tonight to your memory and give thanks that out of all of the cosmos and wheels of fate and fortune, you were my dad.
Today, I will think of you in my memory; in the place you were happiest Hamburg 1947. Then your life was just about to begin. In my mind, I see it all because I know the story as if my own. It is summer. You are in a canoe with your lover, who will become your wife and, much later on- my mother. Her hand trails in the water of the Alster. You are shirtless, ploughing an oar in the cool water with gentle rhythms while quoting from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
On the shore is your picnic lunch liberated from the officer's mess, and a bottle of wine chills in a bucket of ice. The future awaits you. But you are not afraid. You will plunge into it and swim its beautiful rough currents until the tide drags you under at 95 to join the dead of your life in history. Love you, old man.
As always, thanks you for reading. Your subscriptions keep the legacy of Harry Leslie Smith alive and me housed. Take Care, John
just lovely mate.
Thanks, John, for this forward and backward-looking commentary on what and how the past has meaning for us in our present. Happy birthday, Harry.