My Dad, Wallace Mudd, died exactly a year ago to the day. I have spent the days in between coming to terms with the loss of a man who seemed both incredibly vulnerable and indestructible at the same time. He was housebound and miserable for the last two years of his life, physically a wreck of a man, but mentally as sharp as a tack.
He grew up between the wars. He told me he had seen the Hindenburg fly over Bradford when he was about nine years old. His own father died that same year and he was raised by his mother – an austere, unforgiving woman by all accounts. (I wouldn’t know. I have only one memory of her. I am very small. We are sat watching Casey Jones – a television programme about an engine driver in the Old West – and we are singing the theme tune loudly together. I suppose even austere, unforgiving women can let their hair down once in a while?)
In many ways, my Dad was typical of other Northern working-class men of his generation. He worked hard. He hated to spend money. He valued knowledge. He expressed himself either through rage or through silence. He also taught me some pretty strong principles by which I have been able to live my life. I can still look myself in the eye at the end of every day.
I didn’t want today’s anniversary to pass without marking it in some way.
What follows is a remix of the speech I gave at my Dad’s funeral. It was a modest affair – Dad had few friends, and there was no vicar because he despised religious figures as ‘hypocrites.’ It might help you to know that three pieces of music were played: the second movement from Mahler’s Third Symphony (beautiful and miserable – Dad would have approved); Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours; and, lastly, Fool On The Hill by The Beatles.
My Dad was a man of strong opinions. He was also full of contradictions.
He hated Frank Sinatra, for instance – told me he was unpleasant and over-rated. Late one night, however, he also proceeded to berate me for my preferring Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (my Mum’s favourite Sinatra album) to the infinitely less upbeat Wee Small Hours (his only concession to Sinatra’s genius).
He told me, in the most minute detail, why the Wee Small Hours was infinitely better than an album considered by many to be among Sinatra’s very best! Not only was In The Wee Small Hours its superior, he told me, but the song, which gives the album its title, showed Sinatra truly understood the loneliness and bitterness of lying awake into the early hours of the morning.
‘Mind you,’ he added. ‘He can’t hold a bloody tune and, if it wasn’t for Nelson Riddle we never would have heard of Frank Sinatra.’
My dad was an insomniac and rarely slept until 4.00 or 5.00 am, so I guess he knew what he was talking about. In latter years, I used think about him sat there, up at all hours, and the thoughts he must be thinking.
I could never sneak back into the house as a teenager. My dad would be lying in wait, sat in his fraying club chair and he’d pounce on any chance of a conversation. I remember a lot of these conversations – they were usually one sided: my dad doing most of talking. He called it ‘putting the world to rights.’ I called it arguing. But I learnt an awful lot from him, the importance of which I’m only just beginning to realise.
My dad had a phenomenal memory. He could recall names and dates and places like nobody I have ever known. Playing my part as a truculent youth, I would roll my eyes whenever he’d talk about people he’d worked with decades and decades before. No one cares, Dad, I’d tell him. But my Dad cared and it’s only these past few years that I’ve come to realise that I do care – all these wonderful, moving stories might have been lost otherwise.
I get my sense of nostalgia from my dad. For him it was the Second World War, and the days during it, that meant so much to him; the writer, J B Priestley, once said, that the British people were never more at their best than when their backs were to the wall, and I think my dad truly believed that too. We’d talk about war films and obscure facts about the European war – never much about the war in the Far East – and I tried to introduce him to Band of Brothers. Unfortunately, he couldn’t tell any of the characters apart and he soon gave up trying. I’ve been watching some of dad’s war programmes, trying to keep the connection alive.
Going through dad’s effects, I found a lovely picture of dad’s brother, my Uncle Norman, in his RAF uniform with the dedication – To My Dear Brother. I have never seen that photo. I found many others – including a once only gathering of the Mudd-Wade clans in May 1965 – which had stayed private and hidden away all these years.
It is now on display. My Mum recently was moved to comment. ‘Do you know what’s funny about that picture? Your Dad looks happy.’
And I guess if anything sums up my dad it’s that. He was a private man who kept things hidden inside. Most people don’t know that he was a keen amateur dramatist, that he taught himself to sail, that he loved MG sports cars. When he was a young man he looked a bit like a youthful Alfred Hitchcock (not a good look by the way) and his party piece was to do the Hitchcock silhouette gag. He was a proud man and he was a fighter – which is how I get to keep a wonderful memory of a day spent with him in his hospital room, chatting and joking, and doing crosswords together.
I think it was my father in law Nigel who once joked that the curse of the son is to become more and more like the father, and I remember being horrified at the idea. Even today, I find myself apologising for the miserable expression my face assumes when it is in repose and I blame it on my Dad who always wore a slightly miffed look.
Writing this I realise he and I share a lot in common – I play miserable music on a Sunday night, I obsess over the stupidest things and I wasn’t known as ‘War-Boy’ by my Sunday night quiz team for nothing. I can think of a lot worse people to take after than my dad, even given all of his contradictions.
I’ll leave you with this final story. Dad and I once argued over who was the best Beatle. I said it was Ringo, and Dad said it was Lennon before he turned weird. ‘I’ll tell you one thing though,’ he cautioned. ‘I don’t like that McCartney – he’s too smarmy and untrustworthy.’
My Dad’s favourite Beatles’ song was The Fool on the Hill. It was written by Paul McCartney.