Writing, luck, and memories of a wonderful dad - by Rosalie Warren
When I told my dad, years ago, that I’d submitted a novel to a publisher, he gave me a wry smile and said, ‘Well, I hope you have better luck than I ever did.’
I did have some luck – certainly better than my dad did with his writing. He was always rather secretive about it when I was young. I can understand that much better now, though at the time I’d have loved to see what he’d written. The only things he ever showed me were some jokes sent to Reader’s Digest – if I remember rightly, for their feature ‘Humour in Uniform’. I never quite got the jokes, probably because I’d never been in the armed forces myself. Sadly, I don’t think they ever accepted any of Dad’s stories, though to his credit he went on trying for many years.
I’m sure he wrote other things too. His favourite author of fiction was P. G. Wodehouse. I have all PGW’s books now, arrayed on my bookshelf, including a number of relatively hard-to-find early works that I managed to track down for Dad in his later life. I love PGW too, and there’s something special about reading Dad’s beloved editions, all smelling delightfully musty, and just a little yellowed in the page.
Dad also loved science, though he never had much of an education, having left school at about twelve. Like his two brothers and his sister, my Aunt Hilda, who is still going strong at 91, he passed his 11+ scholarship to go to grammar school but was unable to take up the place as his family could not afford the uniform and needed him to start earning some money. One of his earliest jobs was as a telegraph boy in Pontefract Post Office – and that’s where, a few years later, he met my mum (but that’s a story for another day).
I’m sure Dad, the young George Henry Warren, was always curious about the world around him, but most of his formal education took place via the RAF. He joined up in July 1943 – 75 years ago this month – just before his twentieth birthday. Before long he was a Rear Gunner, squeezed into the back of a Lancaster, dropping bombs on Germany in WW2. He did his quota of missions and came back safe (one third of his Lancaster comrades were lost – perhaps that’s where he used up his quota of luck). I can just imagine the relief of his mother, Beatrice (who died only a few years later), at that point. So what does George do then but sign up for a whole lot more of those deadly flights? Brave man, but poor Beatrice. If someone gave me a time machine the first thing I’d do would be to travel back and tell her that her youngest son survived until the age of 88, that her other two sons, Bert and Denis, had long lives too and that her daughter Hilda is still going strong in 2018. (Well, strong in mind, if not in body.) If only she could have known...
Dad stayed in the RAF for 22 years. He trained to be a radio operator and instructor and, when he finally rejoined civilian life in 1965, was able to extend that training to become a TV engineer. (I still remember him ‘doing his course’ when I was about ten. We lived on very little money that year, but I still wasn’t allowed the free school meals I was entitled to, because they were regarded as ‘charity’. My parents were too proud. I know… )
The dining room filled up every evening with my dad’s books, notes and incomprehensible diagrams. Also with smoke from the countless cigarettes he smoked while studying. (How did he afford them? Heaven knows. Cheaper in those days, I suppose.)
OK, so the smoking didn’t set me a great example (I’m pleased to say, however, that I’ve never smoked), but the hours of study certainly did, and I owe anything I’ve ever achieved to my dad’s example of hard graft. Studying till midnight every evening, then up before six next morning to catch the bus to Leeds.
Even after retirement, many years later, Dad maintained his interest in science, technology and the natural world. While in hospital for a heart op, he impressed the staff with his pile of reading matter, including a book about nuclear reactions in the sun. (While many of his fellow patients were probably reading The Sun, ha ha. Much as I respected Dad, we never agreed about politics, however, and he maintained his allegiance to the Daily Express to the end of his life.)
Dad would have been 95 last week, on July 25th. According to Aunt Hilda, he was born on a blazing hot day in Bristol, where his mother had gone to stay with her family. They moved back up to Pontefract, West Yorkshire, when he was three months old.
My dad wasn’t always easy to get on with. I don’t think he had a great relationship with his own father, who died when George was 16. Times were hard when he was young. His family were doing quite well until his father, a cabinet maker, caught TB. He had to stop work and the family had no money coming in (no sickness benefits back then, and medical help had to be paid for).
Dad could be moody and difficult. So could I, especially in my teenage years. Dad and I never really learned to talk to each other until, very sadly, we lost my mum in 2005. That brought us closer, and we discovered we had an awful lot in common, including favourite authors, favourite music, a similar sense of humour, a tendency to get emotional when discussing politics…
|Dad and I, Corner Cafe, Scarborough, c.1961|
He was a wonderful grandad to my children and they remember him very fondly. My granddaughter Daisy is now four, and we had a long conversation the other evening where she asked me lots of questions about my mummy and daddy, and I showed her pictures of them. She was delighted to learn that Dad’s middle name was Henry – which happens to be the name of the boy she has decided to marry.
Does life hold any deeper pleasures than telling your little granddaughter about your own childhood, your parents and your nana? Not many, certainly.
|Daisy and I in Scarborough, 2018|
Daisy also asked me whether I would die one day. Oh, these questions… I told her yes, but I hoped not until I was a very old lady. She looked at me uncertainly and said, ‘Nana, are you a very old lady now?’ I assured her that I wasn’t and had no intention of becoming one for a very long time. She seemed satisfied.
I hope I live long enough to have a little more luck with publishing. But if not, I still see myself as amazingly fortunate – never to have known war, to have always lived in safety and comfort, to have had the parents I did and to have the family and friends I do now.
And to have that example of the smoke-filled dining room, electric fire going full blast (I know, I know – but there was no alternative), and Dad poring over his notes.
Back to work, girl!
Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren
The question re- death and children's curiosity about it is a complex one. It must be the first major philosophical challenge small children have to face. I remember my then two year old son coming across a dead pigeon in a park in Gothenburg, and how disturbed/fascinated he was, and yes: can this happen to people? Yet I can remember no such incident from my own childhood. My first remembered encounter with death came very many years later.
When my son was about four, he met a friend's mother who had a birthday coming up. My son asked her how old she was going to be and she answered "70." With a very grave face, my young son turned to her and said "you'll be going to heaven soon, then." Thankfully that lady is still with us!