At some point over the weekend, either today or tomorrow, it would have been my Father’s seventieth birthday, had he not died suddenly in 2001. It is quite hard to write this but, as Dr. Johnson said in quite another context, I would it had been impossible.
I say either today or tomorrow because his birth certificate said that he was born on the 20th of February (or possibly the 21st), but my Grandmother always insisted that it was actually the other day – so that was the day she celebrated it. The confusion may have arisen because my Grandmother, though an intelligent woman, was barely literate (to the extent that she struggled to get past the headlines in the Sun). My Father, on the other hand, read English at Oxford, taught English (and cricket) for a living, published one book and would have written more if he had lived longer. I suspect that if the probabilistic eugenicists I was complaining about the other day had managed to get their hands on my Grandmother neither my Father nor I would have existed, which is perhaps one reason I feel little enthusiasm for their arguments.
Thinking of something to post that he would have enjoyed is almost as difficult as it used to be to find a suitable present for his birthday. He regarded birthdays with undisguised horror, seeing them as one step nearer the grave and – though quite generous about giving other people money – saw any expenditure on himself as wanton extravagance. About the only things he didn’t think a waste of money were books – so every year I’d give him a book token.
I think he must have known, and suspect he would have enjoyed the following poem – Old Man at a Cricket Match by Norman Nicholson. It seems to me to suggest something of his own attitude to life.
(for those who don’t follow cricket the idea is that the only way for the old man’s team to avoid losing is for it to rain and the match to be abandoned as a draw) –
OLD MAN AT A CRICKET MATCH
‘It’s mending worse,’ he said,
Turning west his head,
Strands of anxiety ravelled like old rope,
Skitter of rain on the scorer’s shed
His only hope.
Seven down for forty-five,
Catches like stings from a hive,
And every man on the boundary appealing –
An evening when it’s bad to be alive,
And the swifts squealing.
Yet without boo or curse
He waits leg-break or hearse,
Obedient in each to lease and letter –
Life and the weather mending worse,
Or worsening better.