My recent posts have all focussed on my Dad, in honour of his centenary last April. I’ll be moving on to other family members with my next post, but as today is Father’s Day, it seems fitting to end this series of posts about Dad on this day – even though it was never celebrated in our family. My parents, being Communists, rejected things like Mother’s, Father’s or Valentine’s Day as the tawdry inventions of capitalism, created by marketeers to make us buy things we didn’t need. Mum always said she was much happier to receive spontaneous home-made gifts or expressions of affection from us, rather than purchases of commercial products prompted by the calendar (birthdays and Christmas being special exceptions). This healthy cynicism towards the claims of advertisers is something I am very glad to have inherited from my parents.
Another essential life skill which I owe to my Dad is the ability to mend a puncture. It was my Mum who taught me to ride a bike; I can still remember wobbling gingerly across Barnes Common on the Raleigh Rodeo outgrown by my brother, telling her that she could let go of the saddle now, only to be told that she already had, some minutes ago. I was – and still am, over 40 years later – a cyclist.
It was Dad, however, who taught me the rudiments of bike repair and maintenance. I was never much good with tools, gears, brakes, etc, but his lessons on how to fix a puncture have stood me in good stead for most of my life. I never thought of this as unusual until a friend, who has recently acquired her first adult bike aged nearly 50, asked me in wonder “How did you learn all this stuff?” – and I remembered.
I’ve written elsewhere about Dad’s youthful cycling adventures and my parent’s freewheeling French honeymoon. Although neither of them owned bikes by the time I was born – Mum had swapped hers for the family piano, and Dad was driving his Lambretta scooter to work – Dad seemed to know all there was to know about building, repairing and maintaining a bicycle. He taught me patiently how to remove the wheel and tyres, how to find the hole by holding the inner tube under water until you saw the stream of bubbles (or, if you were stranded on a country road with no source of water, hold it up to your eye until you felt the tiny jet of leaking air). What the little piece of chalk in your puncture repair kit was for: using the knobbly bit on the outside of the tin, you grate it over your newly glued patch, to soak up any excess glue and stop it sticking to the outer tyre. And that final, vital detail – how to replace the tyre without pinching the inner tube and causing a new puncture.
This photograph of Dad, me, and my golden Motobecane bicycle, Ermyntrude, was taken in our back garden in June 1992; I am 30. Typically for summertime then, I am barefoot: my head is protected by that ridiculous helmet (which I stopped wearing soon after, and I’ve never worn one since), my naked feet exposed to all the hazards of the roads and elements. My parents disapproved strongly of my barefoot hippie habits, but until I was in my 40s I could never bear to have anything on my feet in summer, and used to enjoy the grip of my bare toes on the pedals. I don’t think my Dad ever stopped worrying about me. He died, suddenly, just 2 months after this photo was taken.
Dad’s patient demonstration to his little daughter on how to fix a puncture is possibly one of the most valuable lessons I have carried throughout my life, and has stood me in good stead on many an occasion.
So thank you, Dad, and happy Father’s Day!