Eulogy for my Dad

This is the eulogy that I read for my dad at his funeral on Tuesday 1 May at Haycombe Cemetery & Crematorium in Bath.

Philip George Powell
14 December 1923–28 March 2018

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

That’s the opening of This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin. You’ll see why it is relevant in a moment.

Much of what follows comes from an extended essay that Dad wrote in the 1970s about his life. It’s a good read and has a lot of family history in it and
you are all welcome to a copy if you are interested.

Dad was born in 1923 in Factory Road, Hinckley, son of William Percy Powell and Minnie Kirkham who were married during the First World War. He was brother to Barbara who was 3 years older, and later to Mary who was 2 years his junior.

Dad’s father, known as “Pop”, was a teacher by profession, working at the senior school in Hinckley and later helping to create the new technical college there.

He returned from the First World War as something of a local hero. Here’s what Dad had to say about it:

“Pop enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Core in 1914 as a stretcher bearer and was later commissioned during active duty in France. He was wounded three times and decorated twice. Everyone who knew him said what an inspiring officer he was, as well as an inspiring teacher, and certainly “his boys” never seemed to forget him, nor he them”.

Between his elder sister Barbara and Dad, his mother had another son, still-born but near to full-term, in 1922. Dad recalled that the combination of that experience, together with the changes in Pop, devastated his Mother — she never really recovered.

His mother died when Dad was around 13.

“Barbara attended the funeral” he noted, “Mary and I didn’t. That was the way Pop wanted it, no doubt to avoid any kind of emotional scene to which he wouldn’t have known how to react”.

I tell you all this only because Dad’s relationship with his parents seems to have had a lasting effect on him. He certainly used to talk about it a lot in later life, particularly about his mother.

I can’t tell you much about Dad’s schooling but he did recall his father taking both him and Mary to school by bike:

“Pop cycled to school every day”, he said. “I remember going with him either sitting on the crossbar or later standing on the ‘back step’, when Mary would have been at the front”.

His cycling continued into his teens and he recalls long bike rides with a single fixed gear, even once going with Mary to North Wales and back — not an easy feat I imagine.

For his 90th birthday, he bought himself an iPad — bear with me for a moment. It seemed like a good idea at the time though, with hindsight, letting a 90-year old loose on the internet had its moments.

We got him a Facebook account — which allowed him to keep up with the family. I recall his complaint that the age ranges offered by Facebook for his new profile didn’t go high enough.

“I don’t want to be lumped in with 70 year olds”, he said.

Anyway, I digress…

His password for online services was always based on the name ‘Mabel’ who turned out to have been a nanny who had helped look after him when he was
younger. He obviously felt a lot of fondness for her, even into later life.

“What I am sure of” he said, “is that Mabel was important to me. Attending to my wants as no one else did. I still remember the push-chair in which she took me out, swinging my legs in excitement”.

During the Second World War, Dad studied for a degree at Imperial College — a 3 year course in Electrical Engineering crammed into 2 to support the war effort. On graduation, he moved to the Radio Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, to work on remote controlled planes. He was a bit of a boffin I guess.

And at the end of the war he moved first to Wembley, to work on acoustics, then on to Wealdstone. He started work at Kodak in 1947.

Dad always loved the outdoors and, in particular, climbing and walking.
During his early years at Kodak he was part of the climbing club and regularly went to North Wales and the Lake District by various means including motorbike, car and coach — leaving after work on Friday and returning by Sunday night.

“It was during my climbing period that I met Jean”, he said. “She’d come from school to interview for a job at Kodak early in my first summer there”. So that was how they met… it took a work colleague to make them into a couple though — arranging a party after work just to get them together.

And so, by hook or by crook, Mum and Dad married and the four of us came along, living first in Harrow Weald, then in North Harrow and then Pinner.

His love of North Wales continued for many years and culminated with Mum and Dad buying a cottage in Snowdonia where we always spent our school holidays. I’m pretty sure that he was at his happiest when walking in the mountains there.

Dad loved music, particularly classical music when he was younger, but then the Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan and much later the Smiths, a wide variety of African music and various other artists. Quite an eclectic mix.

Dad went to a number of festivals and other gigs with Ian. His enthusiastic dancing to live music at the Bell pub in Bath is remembered to this day.

As many of you will know, Dad worked in the research department at Kodak, improving the quality of photographic prints. Remember that this was a time when you had to send film off by post in order to see your pictures.

He was lucky enough to collaborate with colleagues at the Kodak Head Office in Rochester, New York and went out there several times on business — once with Mum, Nicky and myself for about 6 months. My guess is that he loved his work and almost certainly got totally immersed in it mentally.

Dad was also a passionate and prolific artist throughout his life. He once told Nicky that he used art as a way of understanding himself.

During their time in Cheltenham, where Mum and Dad had moved after we’d all left home, Dad produced much of his art work in a studio somewhere in the Forest of Dean. He shared the studio with Mollie, who I’m glad to say is here today.

Following his separation from Mum, Dad moved to Bristol. His house was covered in his work — some of it quite risqué — paintings, sculptures, nude and otherwise, half-paintings/half-sculptures, etchings — he tried most things. Tradespeople and paramedics who came into the house would always look around and say “Wow, what a collection”. And when you told them it was all done by Dad, they’d say “Oh… amazing”. Slightly unsure what else to say.

Dad took part in a number of sports, often involving us children. I’ve already mentioned climbing and walking but he also loved sailing, orienteering and running. And he was a rower while at university, rowing for the
2nd eight university team.

He ran the second London Marathon in 1982 (at a time when running wasn’t all that trendy). And, for a time, he was first in his age group in orienteering, nationally.

By his 70s, he was still running significant challenges, like the Ten Tors race across Dartmoor.

But then his heart started to let him down. Almost overnight he became unable to do more than a few miles walking. And, over time, even less than that.

Dad always had a love of books and film — his particular preference being for foreign language films. For many years, he would go weekly to the ‘silver
screen’ showing at lunchtime at the Little Theatre in Bath with Ian. One of his biggest frustrations with growing old was that he lost the ability to concentrate enough to watch films or read books.

He also loved his bright shirts — Ian and I are each wearing one today — people, especially doctors and nurses, would always comment on his shirts!

As he got older he started to go a bit deaf and needed a hearing aid. Fed up with the quality of the standard NHS aids, at one point he bought quite an expensive set. These were probably great for hearing other people speaking but Dad wasn’t interested in that — he only needed them to improve his music listening.

Unfortunately, they were useless.

He got rather despondent with the fact that he had spent so much money on them. We called up the salesman to ask for Dad’s money back. The salesman said he wanted to come round to tweak the settings. He was confident he could make them work properly.

After some initial tests, Dad took him into the living room and the salesman asked him to put on some music at normal volume. Dad put on some classical record or other.

I’ve never heard music so loud. Dad had cranked the volume right up. We could hardly hear ourselves think!

Dad, said, “Just listen to that feedback I’m getting”.

The salesman and I looked at each other. I said to Dad that he didn’t always listen to music so loud but he took no notice. The salesman made the mistake of asking him to try it at a lower volume but Dad wasn’t having any of it.

“Have you ever been in a concert hall!?”, he shouted.

The salesman left with his tail between his legs. Dad got his money back.

Looking back, I guess his death came fairly quickly in the end (though it didn’t feel like that at the time). Following a couple of night-time falls at home he was taken into hospital on the 27th March. When I went in to visit him the day after — the day he died as it turned out — he said, “How long have I been here — a week?”.

No Dad, just a little over 24 hours.

“Well, I really like having so many students about”, he said, “and the university food is great”.

At this stage he was on nil-by-mouth. I checked with the doctor. There were no students.

He was confused but happy.

Dad’s last interaction with technology, and with art I suppose, was a painting by his great grandson Josh, sent to his mobile phone by Rose. Barely able to stay awake at this point, he acknowledged the picture on the tiny screen but
apologised for not having the effort to respond himself. By that stage, the phone keys were beyond him.

Rose had a special place in his life and meant an awful lot to him.

Dad’s favourite book, certainly in later life, was The English Patient. There’s a brief passage in the Order of Service which talks about the communal nature of life, and death.

Dad was quite a complex person. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I ever fully understood him.

Communal? Yes, to an extent. But also hugely private and personal in a way that sometimes felt frustrating, even to him I suspect. In later life in particular, many of the characters he ‘climbed into like trees’ (to quote the passage above) came from books and films rather than from real life.

But despite his introversion, he was never a cynical person. Almost never angry, particularly not with others and he rarely had a bad word to say about anything other than himself.

I don’t think Dad ever got over the early death of his mother — that was certainly his own opinion anyway. As a result, he considered himself never to have properly grown up. He found solace in his sisters (particularly in Mary), in Mabel, in Mum, and in us children to a certain extent.

In death, I am convinced he partly returned to a happier time during his youth. I certainly hope that is how he felt. Was he happy? I don’t know. But he at least seemed at peace with himself when he died and maybe that’s all any of us can ask.

Whatever… I just want to remember the person who gave us all our love of the outdoors and who took ‘dad dancing’ to new levels.

Like most people of my generation, and many of you here I guess, I have very fond memories of watching the Morecambe and Wise show on TV, particularly the Christmas specials. It was one of the few programmes that we would all watch together as a family, Dad included.

And so, to Dad, I would finally say this… You played all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.

Goodbye Dad.