Seeing Dad

Thursday 6th February 2014.

At 9.20am Mum phones me to say that Dad died in his sleep, at about 8 this morning, very suddenly. He was 77 years old.

(This isn’t going to be a very cohesive diary entry. ‘What’s new?’ says the reader.)

In mid-January the pulmonary fibrosis had eaten his body away – as opposed to him - to the point where he needed live-in, round-the-clock nurses. There was no other option for Dad but to finally move out of the home in Bildeston, Suffolk where he had lived since the late 1960s, the house I grew up in. Thankfully the care home that took him in, Laxfield House, was one the family knew well and liked. It had looked after my Grandad 10 years earlier. Dad had his own room, which he could personalise. He had a Marvel Comics calendar, and a huge TV with a DVD player with which to watch his voluminous collection of films – never daytime TV. That helped.

(What Virginia Woolf said about a room of one’s own applies to everyone full stop, male or female, whether they’re writers or not.)

He was there for exactly two weeks. On Wednesday night Dad was visited by Mum and Auntie Anne, Dad’s sister. He wasn’t in any pain, just utterly exhausted, and he was as talkative as he could manage. Mum says the last thing he said before they left was ‘I have to go to bed now… ‘. This made them laugh. He’d been bedbound for months and had meant to say ‘sleep’, of course. But like many last or last-ish words, the phrase now acquires a strange, significant poignancy.

After Mum phoned, I had a good cry. Then a good think. Then another good cry. Then I felt a bit better and went into town and got on with the work for my current essay, as best I could. The text I’m writing about is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, about the death of a father. So that didn’t help. But then virtually all literature is about death in one way or another.

It’s already a miserable day in London. Rain hammers down, and there’s a tube strike. I walk through Islington, close to the cinema where Dad and I went the last time he visited the city. We saw the second Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Junior – right up Dad’s street. Unabashed blockbuster entertainment, with a sense of comic book escapism. But he’d also seek out and champion lesser known imaginative films, like Mr Nobody with Jared Leto. I’ve still not seen it yet (sorry, Dad).

* * *

In 1971, in a hospital waiting room in Ipswich, waiting for me to be born, Dad reads Philip K Dick’s The Unteleported Man.

* * *

Dad wasn’t a Londoner by birth, but he moved here when he was at art school. It was London where he met my mother. When they dated – ‘courted’ I think is more accurate for the time – Mum and Dad used to meet by the stone lions at the back of the British Museum.

In the 60s, he worked in Newman’s art bookshop in Charing Cross Road and bought his clothes from the trendy boutique ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. I think he had a cape.

Members of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band came in to the shop on a regular basis. He knew John Gorman off The Scaffold and Tiswas. He knew Paddy O’Hagan off Pipkins, and saw him play the Meat Loaf part in the very first stage production of The Rocky Horror Show.

* * *

‘I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.’   – from Moby-Dick, Dad’s favourite novel.

I’ll miss his silliness. His jokes, his whistling, and his too-loud laugh. I’ll miss the way I could hear him laughing aloud to himself in his studio in the attic, because he’d just remembered something funny in his head.  It could have been a bit from a Laurel and Hardy film, or it could have been something a school friend said to him in 1950. Whatever the funny thing was, it wasn’t there, but it didn’t need to be there. Dad still saw it.

Dad wanted the main song at his funeral to be ‘The Monster Mash’ by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett. I’m hoping that will happen. His favourite song ever was ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People. I’m hoping that can be played at his funeral too. There’s no way I can type that without smiling, and Dad knew it. Knows it. The tenses are hard to get used to, this soon.

He made beautiful playthings out of wood for me and Tom when we were small: puppet theatres, soldier forts, painted rocket ships you could pretend to be inside. He made comic strip adventures featuring his own superhero character, Captain Bi-Plane, who lived in a world of airships and gears and gloves and goggles, some decades before people called such things steampunk. People who have seen the strip recently call it steampunk, of course.

He also had a thing about dodos. In 2010, at my request, he drew a dodo dressed as Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.

doctor dodo

A long time ago, when I was about five, Dad made three children’s books about dodos, with Mum writing the words. He put me into one of them, The Dodo Is a Solitary Bird (Tadworth: World’s Work, 1977).


I posed for his drawings and became the character of ‘The Boy’. 


This copy of the book has been annotated by Dad, using post-it notes. I’ll miss his handwriting too.

I was thinking of putting a ‘real’ photo of Dad here, but today I’m upset at the unfairness of his body collapsing, while his mind was still sharp.

Another quote from Moby-Dick:

Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.

And besides, I worry that if I showed you a photo of Dad, you wouldn’t see the Dad I’m thinking about today (I’ll confess I’ve been reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida today, on the meaning on photographs, and how he refuses to show the reader the one photo of his mother in which he can truly ‘see’ her).

I’d much rather show you Dad through his artwork. In the top Dodo Tree House on this page from The Dodo Is A Solitary Bird is the studio of the artist Draw A. Dodo. It’s a version of Dad’s real studio in the attic of the house I grew up in. The child-me character, ‘The Boy’ is poking his head through a trap door.


Dad’s Post-It annotation reads:

This refers to the infant Dickon’s tendency to push up the loft trap-door and enter when I was trying to meet a deadline! (Note Hitchcock-type self portrait on wall)

And there’s Dad. A tiny drawn self-portrait, on the wall of a dodo’s studio, tucked away in the world of a children’s book. A little mirror, in a larger mirror of the studio he worked in. Where he’ll always be drawing, and always laughing too loud at something only he could see.