Monday, 19 October 2009

Fathers and Sons: Harry and Tony Randall

At the end of my blog on Saturday I wrote that I felt a post should not exceed five or six hundred words. Within 48 hours I have broken that self-imposed rule by writing at over three times that length about my relationship with my father. I therefore post a warning at the outset that what follows will interest very few people. Please don't be put off coming to this blog again because of the introspective nature of today's posts.

AGR aged 20: HJR aged 59

Reading Edmund Gosse's account of his relationship with his father inevitably caused me to consider my own case. Happily I was not, as was Gosse, an only child: my sister Mary was eight and my brother John was seven when I was born in 1933. This had two consequences. Firstly, my siblings were so much older that there was never any nursery rivalry: I was indulged by my sister and ignored by my brother. Secondly, my father's attention was focused on my brother who he hoped would have the opportunities that he had never had.

My father was born in 1895. About his father nothing is now known, save that he early left the scene. My father said next to nothing to his wife or his children about him. He once made some reference to him as a "hail fellow well met" person, but this statement, made when and to whom I do not know, was not amplified nor indeed questioned. My father's long-lasting disapproval of pubs and "four ale bars" may have much to do with his Quaker upbringing: it may also suggest that his father took to drink and abandoned his austere wife. It remains extraordinary that there should be this gap in the family record.

There was apparently enough money to enable him to be sent away to a Quaker school in the Cotswolds, but not enough for him to continue at school after the age of sixteen. In a future post I may write more about how he became a clerk in the City, of his war experiences in the Friends' Ambulance Unit and the Royal Flying Corps and of his subsequent successes in business and in horticulture, but here I wish to record merely that he achieved a lot and he wanted, or rather expected, that his children, but especially his sons, but especially his elder son, would achieve at least as much.

In 1934 my father bought Sandilands, a spacious Edwardian house with a two and a half acre garden in Woking, highly convenient for his lifetime of commuting to the City. This was the family home until the last fledgling left the nest. In June 1940, after the disaster of Dunkirk, he sent me away to the perceived safety of The Downs School far from London by the Malvern Hills, at which John ("Johnnie") was Head Boy and in his last term before going on to another Quaker school, Leighton Park.

Amongst my father's few remaining papers is the draft of a letter to Johnnie which he wrote but never sent, telling him to take over as the Head of the Family should he be killed. In November that year, during the Blitz, a stick of four bombs did straddle the house, one falling just the other side of Brooklyn Road and another on our tennis court. Most of our windows were shattered but, as the glass had been taped, my parents and Aunt Betty (my father's only sibling, who was staying there at the time) were unhurt. Shortages of men and materials meant that the windows could not be repaired for several months.

While I was at The Downs, my father sent me weekly letters, dictated to his secretary and typed by her, often exhorting me to "be responsible" and to "work like a Trojan". I did not follow these injunctions, particularly the latter. The result was that the termly school report was frequently critical. I remember my father looking like thunder on these occasions. Curiously, I do not remember what he would then say to me: nil nisi serenas or "Let others tell of rain and showers / I only count the sunny hours", as that sundial motto and my memory has it.

My recollection is always of paternal encouragement in my boyhood activities. He was particularly happy when I took up, spontaneously I believe, his boyhood hobby of stamp collecting. I became an avid collector; I subscribed to Gibbons Stamp Monthly; I spent most of my pocket money on stamps at the Woking stamp shop. My father praised the neatness of my albums; I studied where the stamps came from and found out what stories they told; aged thirteen I wrote (but never alas completed) The History of the British Empire on Stamps; I saw this as the first step towards achieving my ambition of becoming Curator of the King's Stamps.

Curiously, he did nothing positive to instil in me his horticultural interest. Rather than set aside a small area as a children's garden, as Prince Albert and Queen Victoria did for their children at Osborne, he tended to view us as auxiliary help in the garden. I reacted against this, seeing no reason why I should tear myself away from my stamps or whatever and get my hands dirty when he already had a gardener to do the little jobs he asked me to do. Consequently I have never understood the delight which so many others find in tending a garden: to this day I cannot tell a pansy from a peony.

Whereas paternal encouragement encourages, paternal discouragement doesn't necessarily discourage. Aged perhaps eight I follow one of the Ministry of Food's recipes for Carrot Sweets, sugar of course being heavily rationed. I put some on a plate and trot down the garden and offer them to my father and his gardener. "Thank you, Tony: these look lovely!" "Thank you, Master Tony." I smile and go back to the house. I make the mistake of Lot's Wife and look back. I see them spitting out my lovingly-prepared sweetmeats. Despite this childhood setback I still cook: in fact, for the last three years, I have almost entirely taken over the cooking at home from Julia.

In the summer of 1944, when Johnnie had just left Leighton Park where he had been captain of the First XI, my father got two local lads, on leave from the RAF, to give a coaching session to his elder son who had been selected to play a few matches for the Surrey Colts. These young men had both played for the Surrey county side in the last peace-time summer, one excelling with the bat and the other with the ball. Johnnie took his place in the nets on the main Sandilands lawn and, I believe, dealt creditably with their deliveries. After this session my father indulgently let me have ten minutes with them, but asked them to bowl much more slowly. I can now reasonably claim that I am the only man still living who has faced Eric Bedser and his twin brother Alec (Wisden Cricketer of the Year three years later and spearhead of the England attack for a decade) bowling underarm.

Johnnie's relationship with our father at times was difficult, perhaps because of unfulfilled expectations. His cricketing peaked about this time; his easy charm and striking good looks led him to pursue an active social life; his academic achievements at the two universities he attended were not commensurate with his abilities. Undoubtedly he attracted much of the flak which otherwise might have come my way: being a younger son has many advantages.

In the summer term of 1947, my last year at The Downs, I went through the humiliation of being de-prefected for the offence of letting the dormitory for the discipline of which I was responsible continue reading by daylight after official lights-out. My father was a governor of the school and had at some stage I suspect crossed the headmaster: this was (and is) my explanation as to why he had always behaved malevolently towards me. He officiously wrote to my father about my offence. My father took the attitude that my motives were praiseworthy, but that if I was going to transgress silly rules, I shouldn't get caught. My admiration for my father soared. We had recently acted an abridged Hamlet. My father, I swore, was like Hamlet's father: "A combination, and a form indeed, / where every god did seem to set his seal, / To give the world assurance of a man."

That autumn I went on to Leighton Park where Johnnie's prowess was still remembered: he had been gymnastics champion and in the First XV as well as being Captain of Cricket. I was a weed and a bit of a book-worm. When I turned seventeen I was still less than five foot six, my voice still hadn't broken and I could scarcely break fifteen seconds for the hundred yards. There was therefore no place for me in any rugger team and I only just scraped into the third eleven in my final year.

Fortunately, I was at the right school, because the Quaker ethos that underpinned it meant that different talents were valued (more or less) equally. I continued with the printing that I had started at prep school, took up bookbinding, won the recitation prize (doing Lepanto and a bit of the Rubaiyat) and did sufficiently well academically to be encouraged to stay on for an extra term after the Upper Sixth to take the Oxford scholarship exams in history. This, it was explained, would mean that I would probably be offered a place in the event of my not winning anything, but also that it would shorten my impending two years' National Service by four months.

The letters of congratulation I received from the masters who had taught me when Trinity College did indeed award me an open scholarship (albeit a minor one) were particularly gratifying because of the note of surprise they all contained. Their surprise was nothing compared to mine. My father, on the other hand, did not express surprise, nor did he particularly congratulate me. My hypothesis, nearly three score years later, is that he was subconsciously deeply envious. He had a first-class brain, but had never had the opportunity of training it at a university. He had always worked hard, and had good grounds for thinking that I had not. So, although he was proud of having been able to give me the opportunities he had never had, there must I believe have been some resentment at the somewhat lackadaisical way in which I appeared to be grasping those opportunities.

He continued indirectly to provide me with opportunities in the air force, which I had naturally elected to join on being called up immediately after leaving school. Because of the Korean War, national servicemen could volunteer for training as aircrew. At the RAF aircrew selection unit at Hornchurch in January 1954 I was asked the standard question, "Why do you want to fly?", to which I replied "Because my brother was in the London University Air Squadron and my father flew in the Royal Flying Corps". The junior service was justifiably wishing to build up the cross-generational loyalty which had long existed in the army and navy, so this statement went down very well. We had to go assessment for suitability for all five grades of aircrew: pilot, navigator, signaller, air engineer and gunner. I was very happy to pass for pilot training: I was slightly unhappy, but not entirely surprised, to be placed in the bottom 5 percentile for suitability as an air engineer.

Stories about my father's flying days and mine have no place in this account of our relationship, save this one. In June 1953 my parents drive down to visit me at RAF Tarrant Rushton, the airfield in Dorset where I was doing my jet conversion course: because of his RFC background, as well as his natural authority of manner, he had no difficulty in getting permission for this visit from the station commander. I took my father to inspect the aircraft in which I was doing my solo flying, the De Havilland Vampire Mark V. I invited him to climb into the cockpit; it was a tiny aircraft; it was a tight fit. Standing beside him I ran over the function of the various instruments. He gazed at them in something approaching bewilderment. In his day, even such basic instruments as the gyroscopic Artificial Horizon and Direction Indicator were unknown: then, you almost literally did fly by the seat of your pants.

It was at that moment, I believe, that I grew up. I wore my pilot's wings on my battledress; I held Her Majesty's commission. His place now, I saw, was wearing his eagle feather bonnet with the elders; I was now one of the tribe's young braves; the tomahawk was now in my hands.

I do not think that I am being fanciful in stating that this incident marked a sea-change in our relationship. Only once more was he to proffer stern paternal advice. When I was in my late twenties and out of a job I elected to go ski-ing. He wrote and told me that this was folly. I took no notice. Had I done so, I would not have met the girl who has been my wife for now forty four years.

Only at this stage of my life, and only as a result of embarking on this course and reading a prescribed book on a father-son relationship, have I paused to try to convey what, in a nutshell, was my father's overall influence on me. Perhaps his example taught me that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Only while I was writing this final paragraph did I look up and read the Browning poem from which this comes. His Andrea del Sarto contains another line which perhaps shows how this example has mutated throughout my career: "Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do". I first continued with the next words, "and fail in doing", but Julia on reading the draft objected strongly. She failed to see the poetic beauty of this, and prosaically insists that parts of my business career were successful. Whilst this is true, over this course I hope to convince her, and others, that there is more value in analysing disasters rather than cataloguing triumphs, at the same time seeking to show how I tried "to treat those two imposters just the same".

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