My father wrote a kind of autobiography in the years before he died. I have it now beside me in a big brown paper envelope, 150 pages of lined foolscap covered with the careful handwriting – light on the upstroke and heavy on the down – which he learned on a slate in a Scottish schoolroom eighty years ago. He called these pages ‘a mixture of platitudes and personal nostalgia’.
My father’s life spanned eight decades of the twentieth century, but he met nobody who mattered very much and lived far removed from the centre of great events. He was born in the year the Boer War ended, in a mill town in the Scottish lowlands. A Co-operative Society hearse took him to a crematorium in the same town six months before Britain fought what was probably the last of its imperial wars, in the Falklands. He was too young for the Somme and too old to be called up for El Alamein. He never saw the inside of Auschwitz and knew nobody who did. He neglects to tell us his role (if any) in the General Strike. He worked for most of his life as a steam mechanic (though he always used the word ‘fitter’); a good one, so I have been told by the people who worked beside him.
He started work as a fourteen-year-old apprentice in a linen mill on five shillings a week and progressed through other textile factories in Scotland and Lancashire, into the engine room of a cargo steamer, down a coal pit, through a lead works and a hosepipe factory. He loved applying for jobs – would study the advertisements, remove the cap from his fountain pen, rest the lined foolscap on a chessboard he had made for himself, and write steadily in an armchair near the – and only fate in the shape of unwelcoming managements prevented his moving to work in jute mills on the Hoogli or among a colony of French progressive thinkers in the South Pacific.