Today, 8 January, is my father’s birthday. Here is one of the oldest portraits of him. He stands on the pier of Brighton. His first trip abroad, long ago. He had just finished his professional training to become a teacher at a primary school. It was quite a leap. Not exceptional but substantial. His own father, my grandfather, could read but – as my mother told – felt not easy about writing. It was a reasonable start in life, which quickly became frustrated by a great crisis in the job market.
These were lean years. He told me that when he studied, he had just a few books and no book shelf. He put them in the corner of his room, covered with a piece of cloth for preserving them. My father simply loved books.
He slowly rose to become an assistant professor of English at a technical college. Again that was an achievement. At that time, very few people in the Netherlands spoke English. He made some extra money as a certified translator.
He never taught his children a word of English. He insisted that we spoke pure Dutch without the English expressions which were becoming fashionable. A continuous struggle, but he carried on. For this I am always thankful. It kept my Dutch language clear and precise. When I started to publish in English, he read my pieces. I got them back full of corrections, teacher fashion, in red pencil. He merely added: ”Not bad for a Dutch”. The highest praise. His own English – which he got from books – was flawless. English people could not believe he was a foreigner: “But you don’t have any accent!” A perfectionist in language.
He was a romantic at heart though. While he was in the prosaic environment of the technical college, he self-published two small volumes of poetry under the pen name James Mayfield. Mayfield is a village in south-east England which he loved. He regularly went to London, but it was Scotland which he enclosed in his heart. Many times, he went the farthest north-west he could get: the small island of Barra overlooking the wide Atlantic Ocean. He surprised the people there by singing in their own language, Scottish Celtic, or Gaelic as they call it. It brought him many a dram of whisky – to the consternation of my mother. Whisky Galore. I still have his copy of Compton Mackenzie’s book.
On this picture Pa was 20. The same age as I had when I first entered India. Here he carries a bag, his school bag. After his death I found the bag in his study (strictly off limits for us, and lined with English books in the most wonderful covers). He had kept it all these years. This moment when he stepped into the wide world. Now it stands in my living room. It reminds me of the distance he travelled. The world has grown.
But tonight will be just for him. I will raise my glass of whisky to his portrait and say cheers to his memory. As our private joke went, in Gaelic, remembering to roll the final R, lest we be taken for a Sasanach (Anglosaxon): “Slainte mvor”(Slaanj voR) .
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