Today is my dad’s 81st birthday. Not so unusual these days (what is 80 now anyway, the new 40?) except in this case my dad is a raging alcoholic who has spent the best part of the last 35 years of his life in prison. No small miracle, then, that he gets to celebrate this day.
My dear dad, he could have done so much with his life. Once upon a time, we were a happy little family, he, my mum and my brother. Well, my mum may not have been so happy, especially when Dad started drinking more heavily and more often as the years went by . It all got too much and when I was 10 years old, she left him.
After that, Dad’s drinking took over, which led him down a path of whiskey-addled crime – i.e. holding up banks pretending he had a weapon (he never did) to make sure that he could return to the only home he had left – prison.
My dad has been inside more prisons that I’ve had hot dinners – and at least he gets plenty of those inside unlike when he was homeless, prowling (or staggering along more like) the streets, unkempt, talking to himself and lost in a haze of alcoholic oblivion, seen by many but ignored by all.
My brother and I once joked with him that he should write a book and call it ‘The Good Prison Guide’. He could rate it according to the food, the accommodation, how comfortable the bed is, the surroundings etc. Well, you have to keep your sense of humour don’t you?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Dad’s birthday this year falls one day after the 50th anniversary of The Great Train Robbery. August 8, 1963. My dad is the same age as most of the men who took part in that robbery, his ‘peers’ if you like. I think he would have secretly liked to have been one of them truth be told. Dad never did conform to the ‘rules’.
Back in the 90s, Dad was doing a stint at Ford Open Prison in West Sussex and I visited him there. We sat and chatted over a cup of tea, as you do, and I always remember him suddenly lowering his voice (he is softly spoken at the best of times, so I had to really lean in to hear) as he told me to look just over his shoulder at the table behind us. He told me that one of the men sitting there was one of the Great Train Robbers. I don’t know who it was but Dad was proud to be in the same room as him, telling me what a good and decent man he was.
Something Dad told me during our telephone conversation last Sunday shed light on an aspect of his character. It’s always so interesting what you can glean from a conversation if you really listen.
He was looking forward to watching the cricket that night and he went on to tell me that he had once played for a Surrey cricket team. He had a bit of a reputation for being a good bowler, as he tells the story, but he was getting frustrated that they wouldn’t let him bowl. So one day he asked if could bowl but he was told that he would have to wait.
Well, Dad couldn’t wait so he told to them to stuff it and he walked away. I detected a tinge of regret in his voice as he told me this, mixed in with a little bit of the old ‘que sera sera’
Life never could hold my dad, or he couldn’t hold life, which ever way you look at it.
Remember those wooden cricket sets for children? When we were growing up I can remember Dad taking us outside and trying to teach us how to play. Come to think of it, he always bowled, that really was his forte. I remember him showing me the shiny, red ball and how to hold it and trying to teach me to do the same but I don’t think I was very good.
It is with a sigh that I write this post. I think of my dad, the man he was and could have been.
In the 50s he won salesman of the year while working for Austin Reed in London and won a trip on the Queen Mary to New York. Dad was a boxer once and was thrilled, while on his trip to New York, to have met (in a bar, of course!) and chatted to Sugar Ray Robinson.
Dad always looked so dapper in his Trilby hats and overcoats, the silver cigarette case placed neatly inside the breast pocket – think Don Draper in Mad Men. He also met Elizabeth Taylor once and I always remember him telling me that she ‘looked great from the waist up’! He also met – shhhh, don’t tell – Joan Collins at a party and ‘had a little smooch’ with her. Bet she will be thrilled to hear that!
Funny how my dad seemed to live on the fringe of this almost celebrity kind of lifestyle, how he was the epitome of the 60s culture. I also find it all strangely ironic, thinking back to the Great Train Robbery of 1963 that my dad is in a lot better condition now than poor old .
So here we are, back to today, my dad’s 81st birthday. My dilemma is always the same, every Father’s Day and his birthday – what kind of card can I send him? Have you ever tried looking for a card to send your dad who just happens to be an alcoholic prisoner? It’s not easy, I can assure you.
For instance, this is what you usually find on a typical ‘Dad’ card:
- A bottle of wine and a wine glass
- A shiny sports car
- A set of golf clubs
- A drunk man holding a pint of beer, frothing over the glass
- A garden shed
- A football
- A fishing rod
- A boat or yacht
- A fat, smiling man, wearing slippers, lounging on a recliner
Then, even if the illustration on the front is fairly innocuous, there is the message inside to contend with:
- It’s your birthday Dad, relax and put your feet up!
- Happy Birthday Dad! Have a pint on me
- Enjoy the party Dad, it’s your special day!
- Thanks for being a great Dad, for always being there for me, have a great day!
You can see my dilemma. For starters, all alcohol related cards are obviously out of the question. So far as sports cars, well, he had a few in his time. I remember a beautiful red Jaguar, with leather seats, and a British Racing Green MG Sports Car. I remember once we (his new wife, brother and me, and our massive German Shepherd called Bilbo Baggins) all crammed into it for a day trip to Chessington Zoo but he later went on to crash it, like all the rest.
He has never golfed, and although he used to love to fish, has sailed a few times, played football and may even have been spotted pottering about in a garden shed once or twice, reminders of these are just too redundant now.
Perhaps I should start my own range of ‘Jailbird Dad’ cards. It could have a picture on the front of a man in his prison gear sewing up mail bags or working in the laundry room and you could pop a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Monopoly card inside just for the laughs. Ahh, I jest, of course.
What kind of card then, dear old Dad, should I send you? Well, I hope you like the one I decided on. It is quite simple really. On the front is a cartoon of a big, cuddly and yes, smiling, bear holding out a pot of honey in its big hairy paw.
The message inside simply reads, ‘ Happy Birthday Daddy, I love you’.
Now what could be more perfect than that?
- Frail Ronnie Biggs, 84, marks anniversary of Great Train Robbery at memorial service for mastermind Bruce Reynolds (dailymail.co.uk)
- In pictures: 50th anniversary of the Great Train robbery (dailyrecord.co.uk)
- VIDEO: Great Train Robbery 50 years on (bbc.co.uk)