TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER BY HIS SON IAN HAMILTON
My father was old, prejudiced, conventional, obscurantic, religiously maniac, tee-total, respectable, clean of mouth and neat of person, and nearly everything else I’ve for ever held in despite. Yet when I look back I’m overwhelmed with affection. I can still see his half hurt, half sardonic expression should he read these words. There are more to come. Let’s start with religious mania.
Those who think hell is hot should take a time warp back to Paisley in the 1930s. Hell is boredom. Hell is the terrible, timeless torture of a small boy sitting in the family pew in St Andrew’s Church where my father was session clerk. The Church of Scotland was not quite to dad’s theological taste. He had been of the United Free Church, and he never got over the betrayal of 1929 when the two churches united.
The minister was the Rev T M A MacNab, called Tam by us vulgarians, but never in my father’s hearing. Together they ran that church as a satellite of Buchenwald. Both church and doctrine were grey, austere and cold. The only heating was the fires of hell. They were so real that in 1935 when I saw the trailer to William Wilder’s ‘Dante’s Inferno’ I threw a fit and had to be taken home in a taxi.
Maybe it wasn’t dad’s fault that I took it all so seriously. I know now that he and Tam had a pact with God. They looked after God’s business on the Sabbath, and left Him to His own mischief for the rest of the week. I enjoyed writing that sentence. It sums up Scottish Calvinism. I turned to atheism in protest, and I’ve stayed with it ever since. The Lord loveth a cheerful sinner.
All the victories didn’t go to the Presbyterians. Philip Larkin may be right about mums and dads, but children got their own back in adolescence. My adolescent instrument was a hideous ashtray in the shape of the Empire State building. It had been sent to my father by his young sister, who should have known better. One day I was innocently spinning it in the air and catching it when it escaped my hand, fell on a newly purchased sofa, fragmented itself, and irreparably gashed the sofa. My father, who was the first person to teach me that people are more important than things, took an uncharacteristically sore view. He stopped my pocket money for a month.
But the next day was Sunday. Those who go to church will know of the ceremony of passing the plate. When it was thrust under my nose by my own father I broke the awful silence of the holy place by saying loudly, ‘No thank you very much, dad’. The plate was withdrawn as though an adder had suddenly appeared in it. At the subsequent debriefing my mother and my big brother were incandescent with rage. I had brought shame on the family. But when I explained, very reasonably, that with no income I couldn’t finance a church, I saw a glint in my father’s eye. I think it was amusement but maybe it was respect. My pocket money was restored without comment by either side.
You could judge a dad by how many times he hit his children. (Note how the stern word ‘father’ keeps giving way to the affectionate word ‘dad’.) My dad hated punishment. He must have hit me often but I can only remember it happening once. It was over a triviality, and it was worth it. Except in his business, dad had no sales resistance. He was a sucker for anything new. He had bought two dozen patented collar studs, a curse of the 20th century now forgotten. I frequently lost my stud, and had to ask for a replacement. This day, as he took the stud from its attached card, he lectured me on thrift. He explained how he could make a stud last for five years. At this point the stud took charge and disintegrated in his hand. He looked at it in dismay, and, as one does, tried fruitlessly to fit the pieces together. My hour had come. ‘Aye weel, dad,’ I said. ‘Ye’ll no’ be wearing that one for five years.’ The blow fell swift and hard and my ear rang for hours. He never hit me except in anger. Compared to being prayed over, it was a benediction.
These stories are an attempt to get at a great mystery: the way of a man with his son and of a son with his father. To see ourselves as others see us would merely be a humiliation: to see ourselves as our sons see us would be too heartbreaking for words. I was immensely lucky. I admired my father. If there was anything mean about him I wouldn’t tell you, but there wasn’t. I shall try to describe what I know of his life so that you, and I, may see him.
He was born in 1889 into all the certainties of Victorian splendour. His parents and all around him were confident that their exalted and rightful place would last forever. Yet Kipling’s ‘Recessional’, written two years before my father’s birth, gave the first faint warning that hubris and Nemesis come almost hand in hand. The late Victorians never quite kept up with the pace of change. This was apparent in my father’s thinking. He was both a biblical fundamentalist and a Darwinian evolutionist. He believed equally in Noah’s Ark and the evolution of the species. Nowadays we would call such a position absurd. Yet we know that no father can discard the useless baggage of the ages. Listen to our sons patiently try to bring us ourselves up-to-date. Sons and fathers live in different countries.
I never challenged my father’s religious or scientific beliefs. My decency surprises me. I challenged everything else that he held dear. He took the greatness of the Empire for granted. Such writers as William Morris, Bernard Shaw and the Fabians made me doubt the Empire, and he smiled tolerantly at my doubts. And yet I wonder. His favourite poet was Kipling. He introduced me to ‘Recessional’ to whose doubts I have alrady referred. In retrospect I was lucky to have a father who read poetry at all. Many people who call themselves learned don’t have a poetry book in the house. Dad brought me up with books. First of all with Arthur Mee’s 10-volume ‘Children’s Encyclopedia’. Disraeli’s speeches were there for later. For a while I went about the house shouting ‘Learn to Aspire!’, Learn to Aspire! It was a privileged boyhood. Dad spent his substance on my education, my elder brother’s and his own.
I wonder what he would have been like had he gone to university. He might have become as bigoted as the Reverend Tam. Formal education narrows the mind. Family circumstances stopped him. His grandfather had been a man of substance. So had his father, of whom nobody spoke. I don’t know why. When my father was in his teens my grandfather was killed in a road accident. He left a tailoring business, a widow, and four children of whom my father was the eldest. He had no alternative but to take over and be his mother’s support and a father to his siblings. He hated tailoring, but I only learned that from my mother many years later. Doubtless the business made military uniforms. That, and the need to maintain his mother and his siblings, kept him from the trenches. He never talked about the war. He had lost too many friends.
With such a background he hoped for more for his sons than he had had for himself. My brother, my elder by four years, couldn’t take the pressure. He emigrated to Canada to escape the grimness of our Christian home. I stayed, and had the benefit of my father. I’ll try to gloss over the cruelties of adolescence, my cruelties, not his. He wanted me to dress impeccably. ‘I’d rather buy my own clothes in Burton’s than wear yours’, I once burst out. The glimpse in his eye has been remembered for 70 years, and been remembered with shame.
I may have failed him in dress, but I wonder if I failed him in the road I took. I read the obituary of the son of one of his friends. The son had ‘got on’. He was an elder of the Abbey, held the TD, was chairman of this and director of that, and may even have been knighted. I can’t remember. He had been blessed with every success my father would have wished for me, or would he? He knew that I sought a lonely road, and maybe he was proud. The harder I try, the less I understand.
As a tailor in what was then a small town he dared not offend his customers, yet he was a dissenter at heart. He never censured me for my views. At the age of 14 I mutinied at school. The Battle of Britain was being fought and the king and queen were on a tour of Clydeside. We schoolkids were marshalled to show our loyalty by lining the streets and cheering. I refused. They were English royals. Nothing to do with me. Nothing could have more embarrassed my father yet he never reproached me. John Harris Hamilton was a very gentle person. I was 14 when I started saying to him, ‘Everyone in Paisley knows me as Harris Hamilton’s son. Some day you’ll be known as Ian Hamilton’s father.’ When it happened no one could have been more generous.
I wish I could describe him more clearly for you. He owned a large tenement building in the centre of Paisley. The first two floors held his business. Two charities held a further floor at peppercorn rents. The top floor flat was let to a caretaker. To my secret glee he was a secret drinker, who ordered his life by ‘Old Moore’s Almanac’. On the ground floor my father measured and fitted his customers. The grinding sound of his sheers cutting the cloth is still with me. So is the smell of damp cloth from upstairs where a dozen or so tailors sat cross-legged on a dais, raised to keep them above draughts from the door. He was a careful employer. Sometimes I was complimented on my pleading as an advocate. I had one stock reply: ‘My father was a tailor. He was angry if a button came off a jacket before the whole thing was worn out. I try to maintain the same tradesmanlike standards.’ These words are a revelation to me. Down through the years he has been the standard to which I aspire.
I’m going to write a twiddly bit in his memory. He was a Scot. He had all the failings of our race. His grandfather, a tailor in the town of Hamilton, was also the local bookie. When the horses weren’t running he stood outside his shop and took bets on which raindrop would be the first down the window. My father therefore eschewed gambling. He had every contradiction in his make-up that I have made my own. He was on both sides at Culloden. He signed the Covenant and rode with Montrose. He was a preacher in the moss hags, and a trooper with Bonnie Dundee. His ministry at Dunbar advised us to leave the hill for the shore where God would give us victory over Cromwell. I fought with his platoon at Stirling Bridge and fell with him at Flodden.
My father lingers, silent, speechless, beseeching to be understood. I am distressed. I have recalled a man I loved who cannot speak for himself and I speak all wrong. I have made him seem like a religious bigot, yet he was not like that at all. I was with him when he died. If he still believed in God he didn’t call on Him in his last agonal moments as the man on the Cross did. I don’t think he had given up on God. I think he was just too proud to ask for help.
A son is the wrong person to ask about his father. The emotions are too strong. My eldest child, the only grandchild to have known him, adores his memory. Harken to the child.
This first appeared in a paper-back edition of the Scottish Review over twenty years ago. It was republished yesterday (8th January 2014) in the on-line edition of the Review.
I have no memory of writing it or of reading it until it was sent to me for yesterday’s republication. I was, and am, very proud of my father.