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Sunday, 13 November 2011

A Commemoration of my father at 100


Mum & Dad on their wedding day, 1953.
My real father, the man who gave me life, died less than 3 weeks before I was born and I know him only through the memories of others, as a good man. But my mother, who died a week after my 16th birthday, married Richard Allison when I was about 5 years old. On the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday, this short piece commemorates the very special man who raised me as his own son.

Richard Herbert Allison, to give him his full name, would have been 100 years old today. He died, aged 92, on July 13th 2004, following a fall.
An only child, at 18, he lost his own father to cancer. A man who could not live without a woman in his life, he married 4 times; my mother, May, being his 3rd wife. When he married May, he took on my older sister, Denise, and me. May took on his son, Barry, who is 6 weeks my senior. Later, they both brought the youngest member of the family, Stephen, into being. We were a real family, with no delineation caused by different parentage, and, as children, we all received equal love from both parents. In fact, I had what I consider an idyllic childhood, characterised by love, adventure and humour.
Richard worked at two jobs for most of his life. He was initially a dental technician, making false teeth, and later a travelling salesman, representing a national dental supply company and visiting customers all over Yorkshire. His second job was as a wedding photographer, often for his own business but sometimes as a stringer for other wedding photography businesses. He loved his photography, or, more accurately, he loved his cameras. Not a particularly creative man, he was an excellent technician and, in spite of a lifetime with poor eyesight, always ensured his pictures were pin sharp.
Spurn Point, East Riding of Yorkshire in twilight.Image via WikipediaIt was from Richard that I gained an interest in photography when he rewarded me with a folding camera for a good school report at the age of 11. My mother, a talented painter, gifted me with an eye for a picture, so I had both technical and creative influences for my photography.
Richard had an interesting war (1939-45); beginning as a medic with the army, stationed at Spurn Point and Bull Fort in the mouth of the Humber Estuary. He soon went on to become a fire fighter and rose to the rank of Captain, taking his regiment to France on D Day and then travelling to Belgium and Holland, earning a 'Mention in Despatches' on the way by rescuing one of his men from a booby-trapped and burning building.
He was well-read, with a particular liking for the novels of Ryder Haggard and other adventure tales. He taught himself French and Dutch and could still speak both even at the end of his life.
It was from Richard that I learned my love of astronomy. He could point out all the major and some of the minor constellations and recognised the planets as they wandered across our heavens. A nature lover, he could name any bird he saw, either at rest or on the wing. And he knew all the butterflies and most moths we ever came across. But he had no idea about wild plants and only a basic knowledge of trees.
Richard, me, Stephen, May, Barry, Denise. Beverley Westwoods, 1959
A walker, he enjoyed roaming the countryside and often took us on walks, pointing out the various birds and insects we encountered. He'd been a cyclist for many years and, through this, developed a great fear of wasps. On one occasion, when the M1 motorway had just opened, I was travelling with him when a wasp flew into the old Morris Minor he was driving. He stopped the car where it was and got out, refusing to return until the offending insect had been ejected. That there was virtually no traffic on the road made this more a humorous than an anxious episode. It was only later that I learned he'd been cycling through a piece of local common ground, speeding downhill across the Beverley Westwoods, when a wasp had lodged itself behind his glasses and stung his eye. He'd come off the bike at speed and ripped all the muscles in his back: hence his loathing of the striped peril.
On another occasion, we were driving in the local hills and he got out of the car and walked alongside it as it slowly motored up the hill by itself, his skill in judging its ability to travel with minimal power demonstrated. He took us all to the Lake District on one memorable day. A family of five plus a Welsh Corgi, we travelled 365 miles that day. At one point, we were climbing a very steep hill (1:3) and the car stopped. We had to get out and walk as he drove up by himself, the reduced load enabling the old car to make it to the summit. He was a good, if fast, driver who'd learned his skill in the army, driving a fire engine, which he always called an 'escape'; a vehicle with a 14 foot overhanging ladder which he drove around Birmingham during the blitz. Only once did he manage to swipe a set of traffic lights off their pole with the ladders as he swept around a corner in a hurry. And he spoke with amusement of the time he'd been given the chance to drive a tank and had managed to crush a 3 ton truck in the process. In Belgium, his adjutant had come across an abandoned US Jeep, which had apparently simply run out of fuel. He commandeered it and used it as a staff car for the rest of the war.
He possessed a phenomenal memory and could recite verse after verse from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, quote a nonsense piece of Victorian gobbledegook (In promulgating your esoteric cogitations and articulating your superficial sentimentalities and philosophical and physiological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity.  Let your extemporaneous decantings have intelligibility, sagacious facility, an elegant rapidity and ventriloquent verbosity.  Shun pestiferous profanity both obscure and apparent.
In other words, speak plainly, briefly, naturally and truthfully.  Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Do not swear or use big words.) and an alternative version of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (Scintillate, scintillate globule vivific, fain I ponder thy purpose specific – is all I can recall, but he could quote the whole thing).
In short, Richard Allison was a pretty remarkable man and I'm both proud and pleased that he chose to take me as his own son and raise me. He wasn't without fault and could be both dictatorial and severe at times. But he was a damned good father and I have every reason to thank him for taking that role seriously and for loving me, my siblings and my mother.

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