My dad, David Frank Smith, died on January 24th 2014, at the age of 89, so today is the anniversary of his deathday. Since the death of his wife Audrey in 2010, he had become increasingly frail and after a series of falls and a spell in hospital, he lived for the last two years of his life in a care home. What follows is the speech I gave at his funeral. I reproduce it here for two reasons: i) that I miss him and and am thinking about him often; and ii) his life seems to me typical of the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people born in the years after the First World War and who had to fight in the Second World War; and who then lived through the Cold War, and the huge cultural, political and technological upheavals of the second half of the 20th century. These were lives of quiet stoicism and indeed, heroism, that seem to me to have been wholly admirable but are never mentioned in the obituary columns devoted to the great, the good and the notorious. So for my dad and for all the others like him, here is an appreciation.
Dad was born on 1st March 1924, St David’s Day, and no doubt for this reason he was called David. I remember his parents, my grandparents, Henry and Mary (always known as Harry and Ivy) very well. They lived at 44 Haselbury Road in Edmonton, North London, and we would often go round to see them there at weekends. This was the house in which Dad grew up, and which was also close to where his grandparents, aunts and cousins lived. He was an only child, though his parents had had two other children, one of whom, a boy called Colin, died just after birth; and the other, a girl called Olive, died at the age of three during a botched operation for tonsillitis carried out at the hands of a drunken police surgeon (there was hardly any affordable medical help available for the working classes before the post-war creation of the National Health Service). When my grandmother was told what had happened by a theatre nurse six months after Olive’s death, she had a nervous breakdown and Granddad, who had a promising career in the Royal Navy as a signaller to an admiral, had to leave the sea and come home to look after his wife. My brother Greg thinks that Dad always had a sense that his mother somehow almost resented him for surviving when she had lost a daughter and that this may have driven him on to achieve and prove himself a worthy son.
Dad went to Silver Street School for Boys and he did well enough academically to be selected to go to a grammar school. But his parents either couldn’t afford it or didn’t consider it appropriate for him, and instead at the age of 14 he was apprenticed for seven years to a printer. When war broke out in 1939, Dad lied about his age so as to be able to join the Navy and fight for his country. Apparently, when he got home and told his mother that he had enlisted, she was furious with him – presumably after the loss of two other children, she didn’t want to lose her only son – but then he overheard her talking to the next door neighbour and boasting that “they don’t have to come and drag out any of ours to do their duty.”
During the war, Dad served first of all on surface vessels and then volunteered for training in the submarine service. Although he never spoke much about the war, I do remember him saying that on their first time out after training, the submarine he was in was depth-charged by a German destroyer. However, he survived that and I know that he visited places such as Egypt, Ceylon and Singapore during his service. I think it was in Singapore that he took prisoner a Japanese soldier who, pleading for his life, took what seemed to be a wooden stick from his sock and offered it to Dad. The wooden stick turned out to be a seppuku or hara-kiri (ritual suicide) knife. Greg now has that knife.
After the war, Dad completed his apprenticeship and began his career as a printer, first of all with various printing companies and then in Fleet Street, where he worked on several national dailies. It was in 1947 that at a party he met Audrey, an attractive young woman with a luxuriant mop of naturally curly brown hair. They married in 1948 and their first home was a flat in Arcadian Gardens, Wood Green. They were living there when I was born in 1951. I have no memory of that home, but I do remember our next home, which was at 102 Eastfield Road, Waltham Cross, as I was particularly fond of the apple tree and the golden gage tree in the garden, both of which I used to climb even though I was no more than 3 or 4 at the time. Greg was also born during the time at Eastfield Road. What I didn’t know until much later, and this was something that my wife Sophia was told by Audrey, was that there had been another child in between the births of me and my brother, but that this child had been born prematurely and died after only a few hours of life. Neither Mum nor Dad ever spoke of this when Greg and I were growing up.
When I was 4 and Greg was still a babe in arms, we moved to 87 New Park Avenue, Palmers Green, and this was the home that I remember best of all, because I lived there until I was 20 years old. It was the age of the TV handyman Barry Bucknell and Do It Yourself and Dad, who enjoyed woodwork, was always busy with DIY projects such as a shed and garage and various items of furniture. He was also busy with his career in Fleet Street and eventually he became the head printer of the Daily Mail. This was of course long before computer typesetting, in the days of hot metal and Linotype machines and fearsome print unions, who would bring their members out on strike at what seemed like the slightest pretext. Dad had to deal with all of this and as far as I can tell, he did it brilliantly.
Later on, after he had been lured to the Daily Express, he fell foul of Jocelyn Stevens, the notorious publisher of the paper, who sacked Dad as he sacked so many others. Dad took him to an industrial tribunal and won his case for unfair dismissal. After this, Dad had a change of career and went to work as a training consultant for the Paper Industry Training Board in Potters Bar. He and Audrey moved from Palmers Green to Potters Bar where the training board was located.
When Dad was 55, he retired and they moved to their last home at Havenstreet on the Isle of Wight. How he managed his finances so as to be able to retire at such a young age, I don’t know, but as someone who is still working in his sixties and can’t quite see myself being able to afford to retire, I’ve always thought this to be an amazing achievement!
They were all set for a long and happy retirement and for many years this is just what they had. But then Audrey had a stroke and everything changed. The stroke led to depression and then gradually she became afflicted by dementia, a long-drawn out and agonising process for all of us, but particularly for David, who had to witness the changing personality of his beloved wife. This was like a bereavement but one which lasted many years. Throughout it all, he remained loyal, strong and loving. I admire his loyalty and courage more than I can say.
During this time, Dad had very few outlets to make life more bearable. He was, however, a keen photographer and he had a good friend, Mick, with whom he would go out on photographic expeditions and they would also go sailing on Mick’s small boat. These were life-saving outlets for him at a time of deep and prolonged stress.
Throughout his life, Dad was a searcher for truth. In his younger days, he had been a freemason. Later on, he became interested in Sufism under the influence of the mystic Idries Shah, and later still he took a serious interest in Kabbalah. I think that ultimately he was disappointed in or felt rejected by all of these paths and became disillusioned with the search for spirituality and may even have become an atheist, or at least an agnostic.
As someone who believes absolutely that we are spiritual beings who are currently having human experiences, my greatest wish for Dad is that he is now experiencing the reality of spirit, surrounded by the love of his relatives and friends and in full knowledge of the love of Christ.
Dad loved boats and the sea and one of the last things he said to Greg, in a moment that seemed more visionary than literal, was: “I want to go back to sea.” I would like to finish by reading a short poem by Walt Whitman, which I hope Dad would have appreciated:
Joy! Shipmate – joy!
(Pleas’d to my Soul at death I cry;)
Our life is closed – our life begins;
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last – she leaps!
She swiftly courses from the shore;
Joy! Shipmate – joy!