My Father was born into a show business family in Sheffield on 10 January 1903. Eldest of four, three boys and a girl. His grandfather and grandmother were professional guitarists. His father was a boxer and his uncle was a well-known entertainer who during the 1930’s appeared in films. His younger cousins formed a highly successful troupe of tap dancers on stilts.
He joined the army and worked his way through the ranks to be a Captain in the Pioneer Corps - an odd regiment which employed two thousand Germans. He was decorated for bravery in WW2. After the war, he continued pursuing a career in show business and travelled the world. Occasionally, he understudied a famous singer of that time called Richard Tauber. When Tauber was ill, my father would step in with an assumed Polish/Jewish name to impress the audience in case they wanted their money back.
By the time I was 10, every member of the family, including my four sisters, lived under separate roofs and we never came together again. I was sent to a military school in Dover and trained as a boy soldier to become a bandsman. One day, he came to visit me on a motorbike and took me for a spin. Initially, I had no idea who he was and he was quite amused that I didn’t recognise him. During that afternoon he said that whenever I felt anxious I should take several deep breaths. I think I would have preferred a crash helmet. He also recited a strange rhyme for me to puzzle out. I have never forgotten it; to be honest, I never understood it.
A strayer was hungry, ate turkey
and dropped greece into the mediterranean sea.
The old lady said, if you don’t rush her, she won’t serve yer,
and they all went for a ride in a merry car.
Though the countries in the rhyme are obvious, sixty years later, I am none the wiser about the identity of ‘the old lady’.
He also gave me a London address by which I could contact him. It was, of course, a forwarding address, but I actually thought that he lived in a room above a bank at 6 Pall Mall and descended the stairs each day to collect his mail. Later, I toyed with the idea of cycling from Dover to London and waiting outside the building in case I might see him. I had previously cycled as far as the outskirts of London so the journey was feasible but would have been completely pointless.
Two or three years later, I went with an uncle to see him perform on stage at a working men’s club in Yorkshire. He sang several songs from different Italian operas and was well-received by the audience of miners and their families. I noticed that a he downed quite a lot of beer from quart-sized glasses. As it was a very cold day, I wore my school khaki uniform. Later, he wrote to my mother to say that he was ashamed at seeing me looking so shabby; he must have thought I was wearing army surplus clothing, and sent her some money to buy me some new clothes.
He didn’t appear to get on well with his brother or sister-in-law. He explained that he had once visited them and secretly tape recorded one of their regular and violent arguments. Later he had played it back to them at full volume. They were not amused but I was deeply impressed.
My mother and sisters rarely spoke about him. When she did, she would refer to him as ‘the star that never shone’. It was some years before I realised that this was not intended as a compliment. I think he resented the fact that she would not let him dip into their meagre savings to make a demo record - such an simple and inexpensive task today. He felt that it had thwarted his chance to achieve stardom
Some years later, I was working as a navigator on an Israeli owned cargo ship. One evening, while we were at anchor off the Ivory Coast, a canoe brought out two items of mail from the ship’s agent. By a coincidence they were both for me - one from mother and one from father. I had written to him earlier using that forwarding address as I had no idea where he lived. He complimented me on my handwriting and told me that he worked in a government department checking dental records so he was able to follow the progress of his five children through their fillings and extractions. Referring to his failed marriage, he stated that a ship could only have one captain and that he never got a look in. He assured me that I didn’t owe him a thing. But I owed him my life, and often wondered why his career in show business had meant so much more to him than his family
In 1965, he collapsed and died whilst on his way to an archery contest. Several members of his family came down from Sheffield for the funeral but went to get a drink and missed the funeral. After the funeral, the undertaker insisted on giving us a guided tour of Eastbourne which seemed a bizarre thing to do, but I found the seafront quite interesting and wondered if he had ever performed in an end of pier show.
A bow and a quiver full of arrows, were his only worldly possessions. There was barely enough money to cover the funeral. I found a leather wallet which his colleagues had presented to him when he had retired through ill health. Inside, there was a letter. The writer described the gift as ‘a humble token of our esteem in which you may keep the wherewithal for a long and happy retirement’. The letter told me nothing about the man; its words were as empty as the wallet.
On Father’s Day, as on every day, he remains a shadowy figure in goggles standing by a large motorbike. ‘Hang on for your life, lad. Let’s go for a spin!’ and away we race once more in a huge cloud of dust.