There was to be no arguing. The bathroom was to be redecorated, and redecorated fast. There was some shiny black and silver patterned wallpaper that had gone up just a couple of years earlier, but it had been a mistake, and it had to go. It was at the top of a short but important list of jobs, from tending some newly planted grass seeds to buying a new peanut dispenser for the bird table in the garden, but none of them rivalled the bathroom walls for urgency. Neither I nor any family member could be trusted with that vital task, so the painters and decorators came in on the Tuesday and that very night something inside him went pop and the haemorrhaging began.
It had been obvious for a while that my dad was ill, but nobody was quite sure what. When he collapsed one night in early May, the first thought was that he’d had a stroke. The scans revealed multiple brain tumours. Further tests confirmed that they were secondary to the subcutaneous skin cancer, as were too many other tumours and melanomae in his lungs, pancreas and stomach lining to even count. When the oncologist confirmed they could offer nothing more than palliative care we knew we’d be talking not in terms of years or months, but weeks or days.
At 9.50am on Friday June 6th, Eric Fogg – my dad – died quietly and peacefully. He was 83. My sister was with him and my mother too. She’d been there at his side since he’d lost consciousness three days earlier, but in truth she’d been at his side in one sense or another for 57 years. I’d divided the previous month between Manchester and Perth, three generations of one family 250 miles apart but never closer. In the time we had together we continued to do what we had always done – chatting about books, films, history, politics. (The two parties he detested more than any were the Tories and the SNP. Suffice to say, May was not a good month in any respect.) I told him how I’d driven past the construction of the third Forth bridge at Queensferry. He told me how in 1945 he’d watched most of the World War II Royal Navy fleet sail in from the North Sea, under the original Forth Bridge, to be broken up for scrap steel in Rosyth.
He wasn’t one for nostalgia, but there was no mistaking that he was a war child. Germany invaded Poland two weeks after his 8th birthday. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a week before his 14th. During the Blitz, he stood in the back room of his own home and watched as a Luftwaffe bomber appeared out of the clouds and strafed his house with machine gun fire before dad even had time to duck. Throughout the war, he and his family provided home and shelter to an orphaned Jewish refugee child from the Kindertransport evacuation. They remained lifelong friends and now two of his granddaughters (my nieces) are firm friends with Howard’s grandson. He tells us that until his dying day, his grandfather would insist that the Fogg family had saved his life.
I suspect it was these experiences that forged his personality. He retained the frugal, make-do-and-mend mentality shared by so many of his generation – the children of the ration book. Even today, when I’m back at the family home, I take care to switch off the light when I leave a room, knowing how much it pained him to see a single watt of electricity go to waste. More significantly, I think his childhood fired an unwavering sense of justice. While war raged around him, he had studied hard, earning himself a place in grammar school then a scholarship to a prestigious independent school, then on to Cambridge University. Not bad for the lad of a Scouse railway clerk. After training as a history teacher he worked for a few years in a private schools but came to hate the snobbery and elitism of kids and staff alike. When the comprehensive schools were introduced in the late 60s, he grabbed the first opportunity to move sector. He remained a passionate believer in and defender of the principles and practice of comprehensive education through a 45-year teaching career.
Like most public sector workers at the time, he seemed to spend a large chunk of my childhood on strike. He had unwavering commitment to trades unions as the only means for working people to ensure fair pay and conditions. I remember one evening in the mid-70s, when I’d have been 7 or 8 perhaps, I decided to play at going on strike after dinner. Not only would I not wash the dishes as instructed, but I would blockade the sink until we could negotiate a rise in my pocket money. I got a crayon, some paper, scrawled “OFFICIAL PICKET” and “FAIR POCKET MONEY” and then stood there, defiantly.
After about ten minutes of this, my mum decided (undoubtedly correctly) things had gone on long enough and I was way past the stage of being cute and funny. In desperation she looked at dad and exclaimed “Eric – do something!”
Dad met her stare, shrugged, and said: “Well I’m not crossing a picket line.”
I never thought of him as being especially left wing (he was very much centre-liberal-left in most respects) but his burning sense of justice and egalitarianism kept bursting through, almost despite himself. One of the few times I ever saw him angry was when, as a child, I asked him to explain what apartheid meant. He loved his cricket and rugby, and never forgave or forgot those players who broke the sporting boycotts at the time. In 1982 he broke his leg in a bizarre Swingball accident and took the chance to host a sponsored stookie-signing for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion that year.
All of this, however, is secondary. Dad’s character, his generosity, his kindness came out not in grand politics but in every mundane moment of his daily life. He had a devotion to his dogs, who kept him marching up and down hills until well into his eighties, and he somehow found time to run the Scottish Golden Retriever rescue and rehoming service for a couple of decades. Although it was a tight call, that devotion was matched by his commitment to his children (and latterly grandchildren) but within all that it was his wife, our mum, for whom he truly lived. That is why the wallpaper had to be done. The thought of leaving just one task unperformed, one obligation unfulfilled, one promise to her unkept, would have been unbearable for him.
I am so grateful to my dad for everything he taught me, every droplet of wisdom, every snippet of good advice, for passing on his sense of social justice and humanity but, above all, for showing me how to love.
And to be fair, that wallpaper really was terrible.