My father died a few days ago. I had a phone call at 9 am one Sunday morning (the phone call I have been dreading for forty years since I moved so far away from home) to say that he had been taken to hospital and was seriously ill. Four hours later he was dead. And so the mad and hasty flight from hot and steamy Australia to my cold and snowy birthplace began.
A life is a big thing and I make an attempt here to sum up his ninety eventful years: Fred, soldier – Gunner Chamberlain 904741, Police Constable 700E, Freddie, Dad, Pops and Supergramps – the father I loved very much.
My Dad succeeded where so many other men fail – he was faithful, kind, loyal, generous, resourceful, ever cheerful and a very loving son, brother, husband, father to three, grandfather to six and great-grandfather to seven – the youngest bearing his name.
He was the youngest child of seven, and only son, born into a first generation East London family that had previously lived for generations in rural Cambridgeshire around Royston. His father Walter, however, was given opportunities not afforded previous generations and became a civil engineer with Mowlem’s construction company. My father spoke fondly of visiting his father’s workshop and office under Blackfriars Bridge – the construction of that bridge Walter had worked on as foreman engineer. (Walter died just before Mum and Dad got married but Gertie, his mother, lived to 90) He was deeply fond of his mother Gertrude, or ‘Ike’ as he called her (I don’t know why), who came to live with us for seven years during the 1950’s – she having lost her house in Hackney in a wartime bombing raid.
(Dad’s grandfather, Moses Chamberlain was, interestingly, at the forefront of the beginning of the industrial fertilizer industry in the 1850’s – he was a Coprolite Digger – an excavator of dinosaur bones and pooh. A long seam of these remains emerged across the countryside of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk with the processing centre in Royston – where the Chamberlain’s had lived for centuries. The result of this was that the Chamberlain family suddenly found their economic situation remarkably improved and moved to north London where Walter was able to get a better education and professional training. I find this a remarkable bit of family history. Is it in the genes? All I have done for my whole working life as a gardener is ‘talk shit’ as my beloved husband so endearingly put it– horse, chicken, cow – but dinosaur would have been much more fun)
At 16, in 1938, Fred joined the Territorial Army and then, after being called up in 1939, spent the war years, and his early adulthood, as a gunner in the 8th Army under Montgomery with the next six years in North Africa as a ‘Desert Rat’ then Palestine and finally Italy – which always held a special place in his heart – learning to speak the language, how to cook, ski, play the mouth organ, charm the signorinas and sing – something, which till his dying day never left him. (Interestingly he said that most of the songs in his Italian repertoire were taught to him by the famous tenor Beniamino Gigli. My father had been stationed in Italy for some time and one day he and his troops were given the job of driving Gigli, and his daughter, to safety from enemy territory and as Gigli didn’t want to sit up the back of the truck with the smoking troops he sat up the front with Fred, the driver, and taught him all he knew.) My father joined the army as a boy and left as a man. It’s somehow fitting that he died on Remembrance Day.
(Dad used to amuse his grandchildren with his stories from the war. One, in particular, was that it was so hot in the desert that ‘Monty’ used to send him to the North Pole to get ice for his gin and tonic – by the time he got back it had melted so he would make him turn around and go all the way back again to fetch some more).
Back in Britain, while he was on demob leave, in 1945, he met my mum, Barbara from Birmingham (then 18 years old), who was working behind the bar in her Mum and Dad’s pub, The Green Man, in Leytonstone, London and the rest, they say, is history – spending the next 65 years very happily married and bringing up their three children Stephen, Diane and Paul. They have been true soul-mates, dancing their way through all the trials and tribulations that life throws at you.
(During recent years Dad slowly left us for the twilight zone of dementia with my Mum lovingly caring for him at home, eventually even receded from her. He would, however have moments of lucidity. When I was there in July, Mum had a faded rose in a vase and she told me that Dad had unusually ventured out into the garden, picked the rose and given it to my Mum with a kiss and said “for you my love”).
In 1947 Fred joined the City of London Police Force and spent the next 30 years as a respected police officer with skill as a squad car driver, expert marksman and cribbage player – and, of course enough colourful stories to fill many volumes. His career coincided, in many ways with that of the young Queen Elizabeth, being on duty for the funeral of her father and her Coronation in 1953 – in fact, he shared her birthday 21 April. He also served as Police Guard for many Royal Banquets for visiting heads of state at the Guildhall and was on duty at the state funeral for Winston Churchill. He was also one of the first Police Officers on the scene at many of the IRA bombings in London during the 1970’s where some of his fellow officers were injured. He was involved in many notorious trials, giving evidence, and for many years the Old Bailey seemed to be his second home. He was commended twice for bravery.
His travels during the war years had given Fred a serious case of wanderlust and from the late 1950’s he took his young family for the summer holidays on memorable camping trips to Europe where the first stop was always the local wine co-operative. Holidays and travel were an imperative part of the Chamberlain families’ lives with many adventurous trips and albums of happy memories. (Sitting around camping sites in Spain with dad playing “Lilly Marlene” on the mouth-organ, after he had cooked up his famous bolognese made from canned corned beef, glass in hand and mischievous smile – the family camped next to us were German!)
Me (about 5) my brother Stephen and Mum and Dad on one of our motorbike and sidecar adventures.
The wanderlust continued. As soon as Fred retired from the police force he and Barbara took off in their camper van on what was to be a round the world trip that would last for over four years. They travelled overland through Western Europe and then through the Middle East from Iran to Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass, Pakistan and for an extended stay in India (where the family received startling photos of them semi-naked on the beaches of Goa!) This amazing journey then took them on to Malaysia, Singapore and finally shipping the van to Australia to visit me and my young family in Sydney, having migrated there in 1975 – with Australia quickly becoming their second home visiting many times, with the last trip just five years ago.
After 2 years there, New Zealand, Fiji and the Americans beckoned where they spent another happy year working, travelling, visiting family (two of Dad’s nieces were GI brides) and making more lifelong friends.
For the last 24 years Fred and Barbara have lived in Wrabness, north Essex – taking the life of their rural village to their hearts. Fred has always been a gardener – first with an allotment in Brockley, London and this life-long love continued with their garden in Wrabness with my mum by his side growing vegetables, fruit and wonderful flower displays – and enough produce to have a roadside stall. Fred always kept busy with art classes, a stint as Public Footpath Warden and the village hall committee, dancing club, playing bowls (collecting a shelf of trophies) and many rounds of fundraising, working bees and fun nights in various fancy dress outfits taking the dance floor with Barbara. It was only ill health in the past few years that eventually slowed him down and it was only when his breath was finally gone that he stopped singing.
I thought, when I was growing up, that all men were like my father – couldn’t they all sing and speak Italian, cook, shop, lovingly care for babies and children, have the amazing ability to turn the other cheek and be ever cheerful and constantly cracking jokes?. One of my brother’s friends recently told me that he decided to join the Police Force because he said my Dad was always laughing and so cheerful and thought that it couldn’t be such a bad job if Dad was such a happy man. I just think he was blessed to have been born that way.
Even though distance has kept us apart for a long time he is always with me – his voice in my ear when I’m not doing a job well enough – he was a perfectionist after all. I don’t think anyone, ever again, will call me a daft ha’p’orth or tell me that they fancy some ‘cough and sneeze’ (cheese)?
He taught me how to be a human being – I would be happy to be half the person he was – and I am so very glad that he was my father).
Organizing your father’s funeral is a very surreal business. I comforted myself by spending time in his shed. Don’t tell Australian customs, but I smuggled in his hand-made dibbling stick (a plant-hole-making tool) – at least 40 years old (wooden items with soil on them are a definite no-no if you are planning to come here). It’s comfortingly on my desk while I write this. At his funeral, his police colleagues formed a guard of honour in the biting cold with the City of London flag draped over his coffin. At the end of the ceremony he had wanted Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll meet again’ and everyone, fittingly, linked arms and sang along. ‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day………………..’