Monday, November 26, 2012

MY PLAN for PEACE

In the October presidential debates, very little was said by either the thoughtful, progressive candidate or the opportunist, reactionary candidate about the world. The great majority of the arguments they framed referred wholly to the internal politics of the United States. For sure, there were passing references to foreign affairs and to the various kinds of tumult and change in Libya, Syria and other lands; to demonstrate the width if not the depth of his homework, Mitt Romney even name-checked Mali. But these references were not in any important way statesmanlike. What they foregrounded was what is considered the ne plus ultra of political dialogue in the US: the American interest.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, America has proudly proclaimed itself the world’s only ‘superpower’. If this is a matter of pride in power, why are successive US administrations so insecure in their super status? Why do they behave as the schoolyard bully, cuffing the uppity kids, taking the collectables off the milquetoasts and insisting on going straight to the head of the line when the tuck shop opens? In a manner no different from that of the despised George W Bush, Barack Obama tells his ‘fellow Americans’ and indeed the rest of the world that he puts American interests above everything else.

Obama – street-fighting man?

Wouldn’t it be more useful, more democratic, more libertarian, more confident, more Christian to be the gentle giant, putting the interests of the whole planet above everything else? Isn’t it actually in the American interest for the whole planet to be peaceful and prosperous? Obama began his first term by sounding a relatively conciliatory note towards Iran, whose regime he and most other western leaders believe is bent on developing nuclear weapons. But Obama never followed up on this tone. Economic sanctions have caused and continue to cause great hardship among the populace of Iran. But if American diplomats have ever sat down with their Iranian equivalents to talk out some settlement of this mutual suspicion and hostility, no such talks have been made public.

Now the US grows daily more suspicious of China. Romney and the Republicans – and not only people on the right – urge Obama to “stand up to” the Chinese. What does it mean? It suits everyone not to spell it out. And it means they don’t have to invest long hours in subtle, intricate diplomacy. But I expect the Chinese would like to live in peace and prosperity just as much as the Americans would. What seems to me to be obvious (though it is never said by politicians) is that the advantage of one nation does not automatically exclude some advantage for another. There are alternatives to ruthless competition just as there are alternatives to mutually assured destruction.

Cameron – pugilist?

Not that every other nation is any different. In his fractious dealings with both his own MPs and his opposite numbers in the European governments, David Cameron speaks of very little other than “the British interest”. Across the EU, the Germans, Greeks, French, Italians and Spanish are locked in mutual distrust that one or all of the others will seek to smuggle past them a deal that is not in their own interest. In the early days of the Common Market, there was a notion that all nations would work together and for their mutual benefit, summed up in the term communautaire. It’s not a word many use now.

And if the leaders cannot confidently and openly talk to each other and to their electorates about economics, they certainly can’t communicate any better about warfare. In an age of instant communication of non-negotiable positions, diplomacy starts on the back foot and on no foot at all if any parties are saying that they “will not talk to” any other parties. Politicians fear that they will seem weak unless they express certainty about the results of their actions and intransigent resolution towards the ‘aggressor’ or the ‘terrorist’. So the ‘defeat’ of your enemy becomes a yardstick by which your actions are to be judged, as if the sentiments that nurtured your enemy will mysteriously melt away when a few hot-headed guerrillas have been pushed back on the ground.

A shrewd judge of affairs in the Middle East, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, likes to quote this saying: “the gentle art of saving face may yet destroy the human race”. Indeed, because politicians fear that subtlety and light and shade will read as weakness, hostages to fortune are offered in their declarations of intent. Which outbreak of hostilities over the last 50 years, one wonders, has concluded with a clear-cut situation, to which the self-styled good guys can point and say “look, everyone: the loss of life, the destruction of communities and the alienation of hitherto apolitical people was well worth it, completely justified by our handsome victory”?

Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan – elegant

Perhaps the least comprehensible aspect of the response that the world’s flashpoints produces from the secure, wealthy regimes of the north and west is the utter lack of imagination those regimes display towards relatively poor and deprived communities.

I have a modest proposal. We must give the United Nations actual power and that of course means power greater than that of any one member. The UN charter, still almost exactly as written in 1945, needs substantial revision. The permanent members of the Security Council must agree to surrender their veto, the prerogative of the bully over the powerless. No member can be allowed exemption.

The veto means that the UN has no muscle to flex against the US or China or the other elite nations. Which of them will volunteer to forego a veto? It would need a visionary party leader or presidential candidate to carry the case with his own electorate, so as to take a mandate to the other Security Council members; a diplomat of rare persuasive power, who implicitly understands the global gain of a truly powerful UN, to convert even one of the holders of the veto. But someone needs to attempt it. What is political power for if not to change the world? Meanwhile, the remit of the UN’s International Court of Justice needs to be widened so as not to depend on the consent of those states that are party to a dispute, another tough sell.

The UN should assume the power to order the immediate cessation of hostilities between member states. Waging war must be against the UN’s bedrock principles. Any member visiting warfare on another should be suspended forthwith from UN membership. In practice this must mean that all other member states, including those sympathetic to the miscreant’s cause, suspend all trade and other dealings with the suspended member. A blanket economic freeze would soon encourage a government to halt hostilities.

The UN must then have sufficient manpower and materiel to put immediate boots on the ground in overwhelming numbers in any and every land where hostilities break out, in order to impose and hold the peace. How can this be achieved? Simply by requiring every member nation to supply troops, weapons and supplies of an equal value to that which it spends on what it is pleased to call defence. Thus the US defence budget – $711bn in 2011 – would have to be precisely matched by its contribution to the UN’s peace-keeping budget. I suggest that it would not be long before nations saw that they got what we might call satisfyingly less bang for their buck if they cut their own defence budgets.

Netanyahu – gesture of good will

The UN must then have the resources to assume control of negotiation of a settlement between the disputatious nations. Warfare must be a gambit that is made impracticable because it makes each of the warring nations an international pariah. If both sides are taken out of benefit of UN membership, the issue of ‘blame’ is largely futile. The UN negotiators can then begin with a level playing field.

The UN should also have the power to intervene in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs or where there is civil strife (as currently in Syria) between a government and the population that is attempting to dislodge it. The UN’s remit should be truly global and part of that global interest would be the philosophy that instability in any nation is the concern of all nations. At present, for example, Syria’s neighbours are being obliged to cope with a vast influx of refugees. Matters such as the suppression of a particular tribal or religious grouping within a nation state might be confronted on a case-by-case basis. But the UN could hold sway over issues other than warfare. It could wield its power, no longer fettered by national vetoes, to impose restrictions on the activities that contribute so catastrophically to the destruction of the environment.

The recent hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians could have been brought to a quicker end or indeed pre-empted altogether if Ban Ki-moon had had the authority to land UN troops along the Israel-Gaza border. Instead, Ban toured the region’s seats of government pleading for restraint. Binyamin Netanyahu, to whom restraint is a foreign country, is widely accused of bombing Gaza not to stop Palestinian rockets falling (largely harmlessly) on Israel but to ensure his own re-election next year. Such calculations are only possible because Israel believes it needs to please none but its own people. A truly powerful UN would utterly transform the Middle East.

Ban – you, yes you do the dirty work

Barack Obama has indulged Israel with far less enthusiasm than any of his recent predecessors as president, but even he buys into the old saw that everything Israeli governments do is for the security of their own people. Nor does Obama recognise the State of Palestine as many nations now do. Obama would exercise the US veto if recognition of Palestine came before the Security Council. Of the other permanent Security Council members, China and Russia have recognised Palestine, France has not and the UK has offered conditional recognition.

American presidents traditionally declare their “love of freedom” and their desire to spread democracy throughout the world, but they are frequently less enthusiastic about nations being free to make their own choices, especially through the ballot box. The electorate of Palestine may exercise its democratic right to elect Hamas but democratic regimes do not love democracy and freedom so keenly that they recognize the democratically elected regime. “Don’t do what I do, do what I say” is the prerogative of the bully.

And it is this reinforcement of the planet’s power structure by the way that the UN is constituted that needs most urgently to be addressed. The UN could be a true force for good, the most powerful and constructive enterprise that man has ever devised. To bring that about needs leaders of rare courage and stamina. Where are they?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

MORE THAN JUST a PET

Fargo our Great Dane died yesterday at the age of eleven years and exactly two months, a remarkable span for a giant breed. His likeness has been and will remain my on-line avatar. But the gap he leaves in our lives can never be filled. He was our first pet – we dutifully waited many years until we had the space and the routines to allow a dog to live with us happily.

I suspect that the vast majority of pet dogs (much more so than relatively self-sufficient cats) pass lives of unrelieved misery – bored, neglected and lonely. The central fact to understand about dogs is that they are pack animals. As soon as they join a household, they accept that they are in a pack, even if the pack consists of no more than a lap dog and an elderly housebound human. But dogs need to be in packs and so, if they are abandoned for hours on end by the rest of the pack, they become distressed, anxious, fearful, neurotic, destructive. How many dogs are made yet more miserable by being punished for expressing that misery?

Photograph: Barbra Flinder

Well, we gave Fargo a very happy life and he repaid us in full. We both work from home so were always around and, when he was two, we introduced a second dog into the pack, one too small to make any but a token challenge to Fargo’s status. The pair rubbed along pretty well and it meant that we could go out – though never for longer than three hours – and know they were company for each other.

Fargo was born in Wootton Bassett in the week of the 9/11 attacks. His kennels had military connections: the kennel name of his sire was Toscade Desert Storm, but happily his own name was the more benign Toscade Tigerfeet. Between first meeting him and then bringing him home, we decided to name him after a movie over which we both enthused. When we collected him, the breeder’s mother was there and she asked what we would call the dog. We told her. “Oh yes?” she asked. “Is that like Welsh Fargo?”

Though the runt of a litter of eleven, he grew into a ten-stone dog whose head loomed above mine when I (just below six feet) stood upright and he had his front paws on my shoulders. If I had £10 from everyone who jovially compared him with a horse, I should be very comfortably off.

When one keeps pets, one can easily become sentimental about them. My partner David and I dearly loved our two dogs, though not in anything like the way or to the degree that we love each other. I doubt that the dogs have loved us in any way or to any degree at all. That they are living on velvet they take for granted while having no sense of an alternative life.

They do not bite the hands that feed. They respond to physical contact but it is idle to imagine that licking or nuzzling is an earnest of anything so human as affection. In our moments when the mystic threatens to intrude, we like to pretend that there is something more profound than routine pet-keeping in the bonding between us and them. But the temptation to characterize a Great Dane as soulful, wise and a bit spiritual is strong. It’s also nonsense, of course. He was just an animal. But an unusually even-tempered one.

Photograph: Barbra Flinder

Dogs are perfectly capable of learning things, even relatively complex and sophisticated things. Fargo knew that the appearance of any kind of luggage meant that the pack was about to be deprived of a human member and he got depressed by this. I have watched him go up to a small travelling case, sniff it and then sit back on his haunches and emit a resounding sigh. One spring, we were leaving in a flurry of delay and panic to rush to Heathrow for a flight at some appalling hour on a Sunday morning and foolishly allowed Fargo to see the bags coming downstairs. He promptly threw back his head and howled. It pierced the heart of course. And it was impossible to inform him that the house-sitters (whom he adored) would be there by day-light.

Fed all his life on the BARF diet (bones and raw food – always uncooked bones, of course), Fargo maintained fitness and relative energy into old age, never remotely likely to suffer dysplasia and other joint and bone conditions common in big dogs. In his last months, though, arthritis set in and his legs began to fail him until he could barely stand. At this point, he made clear his desire for release by refusing food. What a boon it is that we are able to give our pets what they want and, thanks to the sensitive vet whom Fargo trusted from puppyhood, to do it so simply and with so little anxiety.

All his long life, it was his gentle and friendly disposition that endeared Fargo to everyone. When we first took him to obedience classes, a group of the women owners referred to him darkly as “the beast”. But they soon learned otherwise so that, when there were exercises that required us to swap dogs, there was always a clamour for Fargo’s leash.

He could tap into his lupine origins, however. On holiday in Cornwall, I was walking him off the lead through a sloping wood when he suddenly stiffened as he gazed ahead. There was a cow grazing on the track. It looked up, saw Fargo and, discretion being the better part of valour, carefully turned and started to head down through the trees. Fargo wasn’t having that. Of course, his running towards it made the cow run. And I already knew that I had no control over events. There were other cows further off. The cow that Fargo was pursuing turned and ran back. When it regained the track, it turned and galloped towards me. Fargo was now snapping at its heels, then going for its throat, tumbling under its hooves and, undaunted, pressing on.

I grabbed at Fargo’s collar as the pair thundered past but couldn’t hold him. The cow swerved uphill and then I saw that there were several more ahead, charging up through the trees. I gave chase but within moments all the animals were out of sight. The going was rough. I came across trampled barbed wire, then a cleft in the ground, about four feet deep, at the bottom of which was spattered blood. This was a nightmare. At last the trees abruptly ended and there was a huge grass field, breasting a steep hill. No cattle or dogs were in sight.


As I toiled up the hill, I suddenly saw horns rising on the horizon and then a cow, then several, then a large herd came ambling towards me. Soon they surrounded me, sniffing amiably. I asked if they had seen a Great Dane but they gave no answer.

Scanning the wooded area back below me, I spotted Fargo slinking through the trees. I yelled and whistled but he moved out of sight. I tramped back towards where I had seen him, then descended the long wooded slope. By the time I got back to the track, the light was going. I arranged two large branches in a cross shape on the track to indicate where I thought the herd and the dog had left it. Then I headed back to our rented cottage, calling Fargo’s name. As I got close to the cottage, I heard David’s voice: “he’s here”.

David had responded to a whining at the door and found the dog, muddy and covered in cuts and scratches. He had feared that something terrible had befallen me and was just setting out to find me when he heard my call. Fargo was none the worse for wear and no doubt feeling thrilled by his long chase. What he couldn’t know was that any farmer who had spotted him charging his herd would have been fully entitled to shoot him dead.

But most of the time, Fargo was as dignified and sedate as an old colonel relaxing at his club. With the breed’s characteristic habit of leaning gently into the legs of those they accept and his own particular curiosity to discover what everyone might have been eating by examining their mouths at close quarters, Fargo won over every human who met him, not least those hitherto indifferent to or even fearful of big dogs.

That he found the happy knack of looming without seeming in any way threatening may have been the secret of his unexpected charm. Whatever it was, he never failed to disarm. He was truly a poster-boy, both for the breed in particular and for dogdom in general. Our hearts ache.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I HAD it from MY FATHER

Today is the centenary of my father’s birth. And next January it will be fifteen years since his death. These anniversaries are of little moment to anyone but his two living close relatives: me (his only child) and his younger sister Maisie.

Still and all, his working life in many ways embodies the movement of western capitalism through the twentieth century and so I think his story is of wider interest. The more personal memories and anecdotes resonate only insofar as such stuff has parallels for any family and for other parent-child relationships.

Like anyone, Stan Gilbert began life with a mixture of advantages and disadvantages. His family circumstances were comfortable. His father was a prosperous businessman and the first in the town to own a car, for the driving of which he hired a chauffeur. There were other servants too. The tale was often told of the kitchen maid so innocent that, when she accompanied the family on an excursion to the seaside, she was astounded to discover that the sea was not – as she believed from the evidence of a landscape painting that hung in the house – “in a field”.

But Dad – as I learned for the first time from Auntie Maisie at the weekend – was “a seven-month baby”, born very small and yet to grow finger- or toenails. He needed weeks of constant nursing and – this I have known all my life – he was a martyr to asthma for the greater part of his childhood. As a result he missed a lot of school. I have always believed that my grandmother doted on Dad and perhaps rather smothered him. Auntie Maisie says that it was in particular their maternal grandmother, Granny Wicks, for whom the first grandchild could do no wrong.

At any rate, Dad lacked the basics of primary schooling and when his father proposed to despatch him to the local public school, even as a day pupil, the boy’s fear of the challenge of it all and his mother’s tearful entreaties saw off the threat. Instead, my father ended his education at fourteen and went into the business to learn it from the bottom up.

Between Dad and Maisie – apart from two girls who did not survive – was another son, Douglas (whimsically named after the motorcycle that brought news of the birth to his father at work). Doug was an altogether more confident and assertive character than Stan and his happy enrolment at the public school only underlined the differences. After school, he spurned the family business and trained to be an auctioneer.

The family view was that Dad always bore “an inferiority complex” especially in relation to his brother. There may have been something in this but, as a young man, Doug went through an extended ordeal that fundamentally altered his extrovert demeanour. Having joined the RAF and trained as a pilot well before Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany, Doug was shot down in the first month of hostilities and was held prisoner for the entire duration. It was a six-year incarceration that he would never talk about subsequently, at least not to his keenly curious nephew.

Dad had a much less harrowing war. As a boot manufacturer, he was in a reserve occupation, so he was not called up early as Doug had been. What’s more, he was that much older: 26 when war broke out. Later he was inducted into the army, drove a truck (though in truth he was ever a dreadful driver) and took part in the Normandy landings. He rose to the rank of Sergeant-Instructor and, on the same day, received his demob papers and a transfer to the Far East. Given the choice, he gratefully came home.

That Dad was ill-educated was one of the wedges that came between him and me. I have always described him as a man who never read a book and it is almost the literal truth: I was certainly never given any grounds for believing that he read any of my own books. While he was at work six days a week through my childhood, my maternal grandfather (who lived with us) inevitably became a surrogate father, not least because I adored him and because his own passion for books and for history fed my own.

By the time I was born, Dad was running the boot and shoe factory that he had inherited from his own father (who died during my mother’s pregnancy). He would bring home the local accent that was the universal argot of his place of work. My mother, who had a degree of social aspiration and whose background was professional rather than industrial, hated it.

Packed off to the public school that my Dad had feared, I disdained this slovenly talk too. My Dad didn’t have the imagination to see that decreeing that I should get the education that he now regretted having missed (“it gives you confidence, boy”) would make me a different kind of person from him, just as being determined that I would be the first (and, as it’s turned out, the last) of the Gilberts to go to university would drive us further apart.

On this day 55 or so years ago, I gave Dad a slim paperback as a birthday gift. I still have it in the reference section of my study, yet unread. It is called Better English. It was only when I saw the crushed, rueful expression cross his face that I understood how the gesture I had made was cruel rather than helpful. Learning ways to bridge the gulf between us was a slow process.

My father had other traits that alienated me. He nurtured a parsimonious outlook that was of a piece with a staidness, a stick-in-the-mud-ness that no doubt spoke to his timid and anxious childhood. He never wanted the bother of doing anything so that it always fell to my mother to initiate an excursion, a family holiday or any kind of social activity. While she set about the heavy lifting, he grumbled on the sidelines – going shopping with him (which my mother had to do for anything other than household staples because he held the purse-strings) was a grim business. He hated paying out money and mourned the cash when it was gone.

I remember vividly the shaming experience of watching him carefully dole out the housekeeping money into my mother’s hand – licking his thumb and checking that there were never two notes inadvertently counted as one – with absolutely no sense of the humiliation that this ritual forced on his wife, something that I could certainly sense from a very young age.

Stan absolutely embodied the old line about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. His idea of a gift at birthdays and Christmas was a few notes folded and pushed into a brown envelope with my or Mum’s name scrawled on the front. He never gave to charity and denounced “scroungers” and “do-gooders”. Yet after the death of his uncle Wallace, he stormed around the house, furious that there was nothing for him in the will. In vain did my mother point out that the two men had never been close: indeed, I find it hard to recall an occasion when I ever met my great-uncle.

In revolt against my father’s anal attitude to money, I have always been notably careless with the stuff. I never know the price of anything, nor do I retain any notion of what anything cost me. I do not claim that my philosophy is in some way “healthier” than my father’s, but I have no doubt as to its origin.

In other ways, I have inherited variations of my father’s behaviour, usually to my great regret. In some eyes, Dad might well be accounted what his own generation would have called a “weak” character. He frequently used my grandfather’s age against him, particularly mocking his increasing deafness – “eh? eh?” he would bawl back in parody of Grandad’s plaintive but frequent response when addressed. He would scoff when the old man forgot to take his cap off in the house. These things seemed to me to be unkind, but I found myself cultivating my own strain of scorn to use against perceived weakness. I hope I have shed that.

Lacking dialectical skills, Dad would often resort to unforgivable tactics in family arguments, telling spectacular lies, making absurd claims and deploying naked emotional blackmail. He was adept at bringing my mother to tears of bitter frustration. Now and again, deep in some domestic tiff, I hear in my own lines of attack a weak but weird echo of my father’s outlandish gambits. I like to think that I immediately withdraw when that occurs.

In so many situations, my mother and I found ourselves allied against him and, though he and I both mellowed over the years, it was probably not until after my mother’s death in 1988 that I began to appreciate him more. But let me give him – or at least his genes – some credit for something that has filled my life with pleasure. Though neither of my parents was much given to listening to it (which their son does daily), they both related strongly to music.

My grandfather – the one who lived with us until his death at 87 when I was 14 – was a village schoolmaster and, for 40 years, ran a children’s choir. On a famous occasion, his meagre group reached the regional finals of a school choral competition and, trooping onto the stage in the wake of choirs that were dozens strong, were laughingly given no chance. In true Hollywood style, Grandpa’s choir won the trophy. That was long before I was born, but I vividly recall an occasion when, for my six or seven year-old benefit, this little old man stood in the corner of the dining room and sang for me with huge gusto some deathless Victorian ballad. I was moved to my core and wept buckets.

Also for 40 years, my Dad’s father was master of the silver band that did regular stints on the town’s bandstands. My parents met in the local amateur operatic society: she was in the dancing chorus, he took some roles. Though no actor, he had a decent light tenor voice and seemed not to suffer from his customary nerves when all he had to do was sing. You may imagine how often the story was told of how Dad came on for his solo at a concert party evening and my toddler voice piped up from the stalls: “It’s Daddy!”

Before my time, Dad scored a great success as Detlef, the fellow who leads the rousing ‘Drinking Song’, in Romberg’s The Student Prince. But he soon abandoned his amateur stage career. When the operatic society started to work through the canon of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Dad was invited to take the role of Mr Snow in Carousel. I was thrilled – ‘When the Children Are Asleep’ is a beautiful number and very grateful to the voice – but Dad declined, pleading pressure of work. Mum and I were utterly crestfallen.

Years later, Dad was persuaded to join the chorus for a neighbouring town’s revival of The Student Prince. Though he no longer led the chorus (and certainly didn’t pass for a student), he did an epic drunken reel across the stage in the middle of ‘The Drinking Song’ and I wondered if perhaps he was an actor after all. I was proud as Punch of him.

His other musical accomplishment was as a natural ballroom dancer, as smooth as silk on the floor and feather-light on his toes. All the ladies wanted to be his partner. I can picture the last time I saw him and Mum dancing – at a wedding, I think – and my eyes prickled then as they fill now. Perhaps that is why the movies of Fred Astaire still give me such joy.

As so often, it was adversity that brought the family more closely together and so I come to my Dad’s exemplary role in the unfolding of capitalism. Though my grandfather was wealthy, my great-grandfather was not, or at least not at the outset of his career. The chief activity of the town was the boot and shoe industry and, in my great-grandfather's day, it was very much a cottage industry. He and his wife set up a modest contribution to the shoe-making process in their own home. It was probably a clicking room: such kitchen-table operations were not unheard of when I was a boy.

But don't ask me what "clicking" was. The shoe trade, like any other, was bursting with a rich, arcane language all its own. As kids we used to enjoy the occasional sign outside shoe factories: "Skyvers wanted".

Footwear is a trade that does well out of war: army boots are in steady demand when there’s a call-up. Consequently, the Boer War, the Crimean War and the First World War successively saw boot manufacturing thrive. By the time that my grandfather and his brothers inherited my great-grandfather's business, it was highly successful.

At some point (I have never known when), the Gilbert family interest was bought out by a man named AJ Bignell. Certainly, although I always knew my father to be the managing director of the firm, I only knew the firm to be known as Bignell’s. Whether Dad was intended as MD I don’t know. But AJ Bignell’s only son died in the war-time bombing of the Café de Paris in London that famously also accounted for the cabaret performer Snake-hips Johnson: the event is lightly fictionalised in one of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time novels.

By my father’s account, Bignell stepped away from the business after his loss and became a recluse. Otherwise, Bignell’s did as well out of World War II as from the previous conflicts. And Dad steered it safely through most of the 1950s. But at some point, in what was seen as a move of some stealth, a controlling share in the company was acquired by a city speculator called Harry Jasper. Jasper & Co specialised in surreptitiously hoovering up modest but profitable concerns of all kinds. The change of ownership might never even have come to light had not a huge financial scandal broken when Jasper’s associate, Friedrich Grünwald, suddenly absconded to Israel with £3millions’ worth of the company assets.

The story raged for weeks on the finance pages of the newspapers and eventually Harry Jasper went to jail. Some of his companies were sold off but most, including Bignell’s, were closed down. In any case, the native boot and shoe industry was (to coin a phrase) on its uppers by this time, undermined by cheap Italian imports and soon to be destroyed by the switch from traditional leather shoes to trainers and other synthetic products. To Dad fell the melancholy task of making all his employees redundant, clearing and closing up the factory for the last time and, for one week only, drawing the dole. He was 50.

The second week after the closure of Bignell’s, with some crucial assistance from generous friends and from drawing on 35 years’ worth of trade contacts, Dad opened a little shop: Stan Gilbert (Footwear) Ltd.

It was hard going. Footwear being the county trade, everyone for miles around had a family member who could get hold of free or at least cut-price shoes. My mother and I (then a teenager) worked long hours to help without pay or indeed thanks (Dad didn’t do gratitude). But by degrees and shrewd use of his contacts, Dad made it pay and survive for twenty years. It helped a lot that, though a narrow, unimaginative and prosaic man, he was transformed into a poet with a well-made shoe in his hands. The first pair that I owned as a child was wholly fashioned by him, by hand, from scratch. I still have the lasts on which he made them.

You couldn’t contemplate starting such an enterprise now. Retail has no spare capacity for the little man and customers no longer comprehend a shop that does one thing and does it well. It wouldn’t occur to many to go to a shoe shop (where there would be a choice) for (say) shoelaces when you can no doubt pick up a standard pair at the supermarket.

Like most of us, Dad was utterly a creature of his time. A mass of prejudices (especially against the Welsh and the Jews), he was utterly uncomprehending of what women might want. I think he had been something of a hound in his youth. Once at a social gathering, he and my mother spoke to a couple whom they seemed to know a little and, watching carefully, I gradually saw that there was history between Dad and the blowsy woman in the couple. Dad said enough afterwards to allow me to surmise that he and she had had a premarital fling long ago.

One Christmas, back in the days when I and my partner each still went to stay with our respective parents for the season, I opened a thoughtful gift from a woman friend. It was Charles Silverstein and Edmund White’s book The Joy of Gay Sex. Happily, I was “out” to my parents by then and so was able to carry off the moment. Later, I came across my Dad curiously leafing through the book. He reacted squeamishly to a line illustration that turned out to be of an act of fellatio. “Did no one ever do that to you?” I asked carefully. Dad pondered. “Yes” he said. “A woman in Italy during the war. But I couldn’t do it”. This calm confession of faithlessness – my parents married in 1940 – quite astonished me.

My mother’s death knocked my father for a loop. His plan had always been to leave her comfortably off. Being widowed had never entered his mind. He cared for her gallantly during her fading months, learning a few cookery skills from scratch. When he was alone he was miserable and, to no one’s surprise, married again within eighteen months. His new wife was a foolish and trivial woman but she made him ridiculously happy.

In January 1998, Dad was hurrying Peggy across a main road with a typical show of impatience. They were hit by a car. It was a risky place to cross but the car was certainly speeding. My father died instantly. Peggy was in hospital for a few weeks but recovered. In an absurd piece of poetry, the driver turned out to be the music master from my old school. Had my Dad actually enrolled there, the man’s distant predecessor might well have cultivated Dad’s musical bent and led him along a different path. Who knows? At any rate, for causing a fatality by speeding, he was fined £120.

Near the end of his life, his solicitor asked Dad what he was worth and he essayed a figure that would certainly have permitted the holiday that he refused to sanction during their eight years of marriage. In fact he left five times as much as he thought, founded on the shrewd investments of his father. This inheritance allowed Peggy to live without worry until Alzheimer’s kicked in two or three years ago and allowed my partner and I to buy the property we adore in the west country. In his fear of ever suffering financial embarrassment, Dad amassed a small but idle fortune. It seems hard on his two wives that they should have had to observe constant thrift. Lucky for me, though.