From the days when he was the diminutive but unchallenged gang leader at his school, almost to his last breath, Dad was a fighter. He claimed he was the only one of his siblings who never received corporal punishment from their father, the reason being that Granddad, a boxing coach in his spare time, found Dad so infuriating that he was afraid that he would forget himself and do the boy a serious injury.
He went through life like an Arthurian knight – dressed in the armour of his determination, bearing the shield of complete honesty and the razor-sharp sword of his wit. Mounted on any of an extensive stable of hobby-horses, he would ride full-tilt at his adversary.
Dad always said what he thought without any consideration for the consequences – to him, the truth was paramount, and if his superiors at work didn’t like it, they could lump it. The majority of them liked and respected him for it, once they got over the initial shock; and those that didn’t, as he said, weren’t worth wasting time on. His care and consideration for those under him - whether staff, patients or students - was, however, legendary. I still remember my acute embarrassment as a young man, when I befriended two of his student nurses, and visited them at the hospital. As we walked through the green and cream painted corridors, a murmur ran ahead of us of “Mr Gutteridge’s son!” and the double doors all swung open as we approached. I felt like the undeserving son of a well-loved and respected ancient Roman emperor.
One example of Dad’s fighting spirit, and the dynamic energy that he could apply once roused, was when a Conservative Minister for Health made the mistake of ignoring correspondence from Dad, regarding an idea he’d had for improving the teaching of nurses. Dad was never a political animal, but he set about reviving the moribund Liberal Party in his constituency, and eventually succeeded in turning Eastbourne from one of the safest Tory seats in the country into a marginal. Of course, a few years later, under a Labour Health Minister, Dad’s idea – a fast-track scheme for post-graduate student nurses – was adopted, and that’s all Dad wanted. He wasn’t interested in reward or recognition.
Like many men of his generation, Dad learnt to drive quite late in life – in his thirties. Our first car was a 1939 Hillman Minx – BCL 421, which had various idiosyncrasies; but the most entertaining, for me, was the way its indicators worked – or failed to. They consisted of orange illuminated arms, which lived in slots on the door pillars. When the indicator switch was operated, the relevant arm would make a feeble attempt to flip out of its slot, but would invariably stick about a quarter of the way out. It was the duty of the back seat passenger to give the door pillar a hefty thump, to encourage the indicator arm to come all the way out. These indicators were known within the family as “jiggers”, and as there was no self-cancelling mechanism, whoever noticed that Dad had forgotten to switch one off would shout, “Your jigger’s out!” This always amused Mum and Dad, though I was too young to grasp the double-entendre.
Dad was susceptible to a certain amount of road rage, though it took a harmless, unconventional and highly imaginative course. A prime example was the day that he and Mum went out for a drive: my memory tells me it was to Tunbridge Wells, but that may just be wishful thinking. When they came home, Mum was bursting to tell the story of what happened when a bald-headed, be-whiskered old gentleman in a large, expensive car had cut Dad up. At the next traffic lights, they pulled up alongside each other. As it was a hot day, both cars had their windows down, and Dad shouted across at the old gent, “you tiggy-whiskered old Bath bun!” then, as the lights changed, drove off leaving the man shocked and bemused, with a queue of honking cars behind him.
DIY was not Dad’s strong point. He could paint the most detailed and intricate watercolours, but in framing them he could easily smash half a dozen sheets of glass. This heavy-handedness, combined with the attitude, “never use a panel pin when a six-inch nail will do”, was a legacy from his school days. He used to speak of the tyrannical woodwork master, who, if he found fault with a boy’s work, would hit him over the head with it until either the work or the skull was smashed, chanting as he did so, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”. Dad said he could still hear the man’s words ringing in his ears as he used a hammer, well into old age.
When we moved to Hailsham, Dad bought a “flat-pack” corrugated iron garage and set to work erecting it single-handed (it would be a brave person indeed who offered to help him). Being Dad, he started at the front of the garage and erected the framework and fitted the sheets of corrugated iron as he went, tightening each nut and bolt as he fitted it with super-human strength. Of course, by the time he got to the other end of the garage, the bolt holes didn’t line up properly and there was no room for adjustment. I vividly remember him, perched precariously on the half-constructed roof, and hammering recalcitrant bolts into place, chanting as he did so, “Hell’s bells and buckets of blood!” – much to the consternation of our new neighbours.
Music was always a large part of home life. An astonishing sight-reader – he once played through a whole volume of Beethoven piano sonatas at full speed in one sitting to try out an old piano I’d bought – as retirement approached, he taught himself to play the flute. He joined a couple of bands, but when he retired and moved to Hassocks, he couldn’t find a band or orchestra to play with. Undaunted, he advertised in the local paper for musicians wanting to start an orchestra, and before long the Burgess Hill Sinfonietta was born. It was typical of him that, having achieved his aim, Dad withdrew into the background, happy in his position as third flute and piccolo.
After Dad retired, he and Mum enjoyed playing Scrabble. To the casual observer, their game may have appeared somewhat acrimonious. Dad kept up a constant barrage of complaint – he’d got a useless selection of letters; Mum had left him nowhere to put anything, etc. Meanwhile, Mum would be reading her book or doing her tapestry whilst awaiting her turn. Eventually Dad would say, “Oh, well, I suppose that will have to do!” and, with much melodrama, he’d put down a word with a perfectly respectable score. Mum, without looking up, would throw her seven letters down on the board, saying, “Just put those down on the triple word score for me.” Dad would erupt like a volcano, railing against fate, accusing Mum of casting spells on the Scrabble tiles. Mum would pretend to go on reading, but gradually she would begin to shake with silent laughter, until Dad would join in and they’d laugh together, as they so often did. And this is the best part – they’d soon got bored with competing against each other. What they were after was beating their previous highest combined score!
© Chris Gutteridge 2002